Anu Malik still has it!?!?!?!?

Before Anjali started DJing with me in 2000, I had only been exposed to vintage Bollywood; I didn’t know the contemporary scene at all.  I was only buying and listening to vinyl at the time, and Bollywood hadn’t put a record out in a decade by that point.  Anjali bought me a Hum Dil De Chupke Sanam cassette, and  I just couldn’t get into at first.  She also got me a Chori Chori Chupke Chupke cassette, which I liked a lot more.  Then I discovered the Fiza soundtrack, which had quite a few songs that I really liked. Then I got into the Asoka soundtrack.  All three of those soundtracks have one thing in common: music director Anu Malik.  That made Anu Malik my first favorite music director of contemporary Bollywood soundtracks.

While I did meet at least one Indian who was a big fan of Anu Malik, most of the Indians I talked to denigrated him, and saved all their praise for A.R. Rahman, whose aesthetic I just didn’t like as much.  (Truthfully, I have enjoyed A.R. Rahman’s newest soundtracks much more than the bulk of his work.  I definitely feel like he is creating the best work of his career these days.)  Anu Malik was seen as a “copycat;” A.R. Rahman as the first music visionary since R.D. Burman.  Whatever, Anu Malik was the one who saw much more play in my DJ sets.

Those three soundtracks all came out in 2000/2001, and despite buying dozens of more recent Anu Malik soundtracks, some with some songs I really like, I think that those years were his best.  Other than the Ugly Aur Pagli soundtrack, I have found most of his latest offerings to be atrocious.   I was firmly convinced that he was over the hill, and done for good.

Then came Kambakkht Ishq. (The soundtrack.  Not the song itself.)  Wow.  I didn’t know he still had it in him.  Even though RDB were invited by the producers to contribute a track (much to Anu Malik’s annoyance, from what I’ve read), I think Anu Malik came through with the best songs.  “Lakh Lakh” is great, and “Bebo” is a wonderful throwback to ’80s-style Bollywood disco.  Anjali claims to hate “Bebo,” but I know she will be won over eventually.  She has more resistance to Bollywood cheese these days than I do.  At least at first.

I don’t know what the future will bring for Anu Malik, but I know I will still be paying attention.  And after the last couple years, that really surprises me.


Mumbai (2009)

Our next and final destination in India was “Mumbai.” Every Indian I talked to called it Bombay, and in conversation with them I felt like I would be considered benighted if I said Mumbai. Traditionally the name of the city is Mumbai in Marathi and Gujarati, Bombay in English and Bambai in Hindi, Persian, and Urdu. Since I was speaking English with every Indian I met, we all talked of Bombay. (Like how in Chennai all the English-speaking Indians I talked to called it Madras.) When the far-right Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena party came into power the name of the city was officially changed to Mumbai in 1996 in honor of a Hindu goddess. I will refer to the city by its official name throughout this report, although I rarely called it that while I was there.

Originally Anjali and I were going to take a twenty-six hour train from Chennai to Mumbai. After realizing that plane tickets were less than $100 US, it made more sense to spend one of our final days in India exploring Chennai some more, and not sitting on a train, which we had done plenty of already. In India you can fly from one end of the country to the other in two hours, but a train will take 36 hours or more. Riding the rails is a quintessential Indian experience, but if you have the money, you can certainly cover much more of the country, in far less time, if you opt to fly. And let me tell you, on the cheapest Indian budget airline, they will take far better care of you, and offer you far more in a few hours, than you will get in days on a Western airline. In less than two hours we got offered water four times, a croissant, tea or coffee, a dosa. a couscous-like dish, dal and coconut chutney.   Even the terminal staff take care of you.  From the moment we arrived at the terminal, friendly airport staff circled us, eager to help us navigate the airport and its procedures.  No one seemed to be looking for a tip, and the luggage carts are free.

Stepping off the plane and on to the jetway I was hit by a blast of hot, humid air welcoming me to Mumbai. The new Mumbai domestic airport impressed Anjali with how new, shiny, and immaculate it was, almost making her forget that we were in India. Harsh reality intruded when we exited the airport and were besieged by shark-like taxi drivers eager to grossly overcharge us for the ride to our hotel. I stayed with our mound of luggage while Anjali went in search of a prepaid taxi stand that we learned didn’t exist. What an oversight! Why create a fancy new airport and then leave tourists at the mercy of conniving taxi wallahs? We decided our only hope was to try to find an honest face in the crowd, and Anjali settled on an elderly grandfather, who after learning our destination promptly turned us over to the sketchiest looking con artist on the lot, a low-rent Bollywood villain sipping chai through an enormous bushy mustache. His boys wrestled the luggage cart from me and wheeled it over to the driver’s car. We kept insisting “meter” to which he all too happily agreed, “meter!”

Too happily.

What was wrong here?

Once all our luggage was in his car, his boys hung around long enough, fencing in the car, that we eventually paid them off for the grueling task of pushing a luggage cart a few dozen feet. The driver than explained that he needed to take us to his other AC car. “We don’t care about AC,” we explained, to which he responded that the meter in the car we were in didn’t work, the fuse was broken, and we would need to switch to his other car, whose meter worked. We smelled a rat, and sensing this, he kept insisting that he was “president and CEO” of his company, and he wanted to give us his card, as he didn’t just want our business for the trip to our hotel, but for the entire time we were in Mumbai.

He drove us to a nearby parking lot, and moved all our luggage to his other car. He didn’t strike me as someone that was very fond of physical labor, but he eagerly hefted our bags from car to car. I made sure to take photos of both license plates, figuring that we were in for a mother of a scam. The digital meter in his new car was under the steering column, and not on top of the dash. A few minutes from the airport it was showing a fare far higher than it should have, as if we had already traveled half the distance to our hotel, which was still twenty-some kilometers away. Our driver was very chatty, and it soon came out that he was from Jabalpur, Anjali’s family home, and he started referring to Anjali as “Sister,” so happy it made him that her roots were in his home town.

Anjali’s mother has a saying, “Never trust anyone from Jabalpur,” which this miscreant proved in spades. The fare was spiraling up at such a comic rate that I placed a call to our hotel, loudly asking what the fare should be from the domestic airport. Our driver piped in that the car was “AC,” and was only too eager to find out what they had said after I hung up. I told him, and he quickly started pressing buttons on the meter. Anjali and the driver made eye contact through the rear view mirror while he did this, and he quickly moved his leg over the meter, so that she couldn’t read it for the rest of our trip. She did see that before he started pressing it the meter said that we had already gone 81 km, about four times the actual distance of our entire journey, which we had only just begun. He explained that the rate may be more due to traffic, which is bullshit, because fares are determined by kilometer, not time.

I simmered in the backseat, and he must have begun feeling the heat, for after a while he asked me, “Sir, why are you so unhappy in India? If you are not happy; then I am not happy. Tell me why you are not happy.” I locked eyes with him in the rearview mirror and said, “There are too many chors (thieves) in India.” At this he began protesting loudly and became very defensive. I shouted that I knew what was going on with the rigged meter and that he was cheating us. He insisted we go to the police station before the hotel to clear this up, as “the customer is god,” and once again he could not be happy if I was not happy. I told him how eager I was to go to the police station, and that I had good photos to show them. After calling his bluff he changed tactics with me and began first by talking about how it is America that is full of chors. I agreed to that, and that there were chors everywhere. He loudly yelled that India had all the chors, not America, but I think he was yelling the opposite of what he was trying to communicate. He began complaining about how corrupt the police in Mumbai are, and how all they want is money. He segued into talking about 26/11 (This is how Indians refer to the attacks on Mumbai, as Indians put days before months when they write a date, and the attacks began on November 26th.), and how the reason it dragged on for sixty hours was because of the corruption of the police. After our yelling match he attempted to suggest that everything was OK between us, and he kept wanting to shake my hand from the front seat, but I namasted him instead, which he returned. I told him I wouldn’t shake his hands until we were at the hotel and all our luggage was out of the car. He made no more mention of going to the police station, and ignored me for the rest of the trip, only addressing Anjali, and always as “Sister,” saying we could ignore the meter, and “pay as you wish.”

Anjali didn’t want any more tension for the long traffic-gridlocked ride to our hotel, and wanted me to drop it, but I was all too eager to make this guy squirm the whole way to the hotel. I was clearly channeling a lot of my anger over all our auto wallah rip-offs in Chennai, but I was primarily angry at him for all the hapless tourists he had ripped off in his forty years as a cab driver in Mumbai. He probably imagined all foreigners are rich and I imagined most of them could probably survive the thousands of rupees he would steal from them, but I also imagined people that might have been robbed by him that really couldn’t afford to lose the money at that time. My sense of injustice was thoroughly tweaked, but for Anjali’s sake I stopped yelling and simply smoldered. When we got to the Sea Green South Hotel, I photographed the meter while our driver was dealing with the luggage. It read 150 rupees more than the highest fare the hotel front desk person said we should pay, even after he had reset the meter from its original astronomical progression.

I exited the car to face the driver who was waiting to be paid. I took a photo of him and said that I wanted a photo of “the one honest man in Bombay.”

I handed over the fare the hotel said I should pay and told him not to rip off any more tourists. He looked confused. “Don’t steal,” I said. “Don’t steal from foreigners or god will curse you! God will destroy you!” I could tell from his adornment and his language that he considered himself a devout Hindu, and I wanted to use language he could understand. Maybe if I invoked the threat of divine retribution he would change his ways. He followed me into the hotel making a scene and demanding his additional 150 rupees. –So much for “pay as you wish.”–  While he attempted to win the front desk staff over with his tale of being ripped off by tourists, I showed the staff the photos I had taken on our digital camera. They told him he had gotten plenty and ordered him out. He kept insisting that “God is good,” and continued to make a scene as he exited. Such was my rage that I kept yelling “God will curse you! God will destroy you!” until he was out of earshot. The whole experience reminded me of the sign painted on the back of a truck as related by Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: “101 out of 100 are dishonest. Still my India is the best.”

Anjali quipped, “Getting away with what you can, that’s India.” She was very sympathetic to the man, and none too happy that I sat in our hotel room and had very uncharacteristic thoughts of revenge and a desire for the driver’s utter destruction. Anjali said he was an “uncle” and deserved at least a little respect. She figured he didn’t even see himself as a thief, just someone who was trying to get away with what he could.

We stayed at the Sea Green South Hotel, which was our second choice after the identical adjoining Sea Green Hotel where we stayed at on our prior trip informed us that they were full. We had a romantic attachment from our last stay there, and Anjali’s mother’s family stayed there when her mother was a child. There are fabulously expensive hotels along Marine Drive, overlooking the ocean, but this is the only affordable option we know of, and it is close to the action, right where we want to be, in walking distance of much of central Mumbai. The Sea Green hotels are Art Deco constructions of the 1940’s, built to house British army officers.

We rested in our hotel in our first floor sea-facing room, and after a nap my anger had subsided substantially. I really wanted to report the taxi chor, but I knew it would mean spending all day in bureaucratic hell in a police station and nothing ever coming of it anyway. It took me days before I could let go of the idea, and accept that there were many other ways I would far rather spend my limited time in Mumbai. Sorry if you are the next tourist scammed by this guy.

When we first arrived in Mumbai on our last trip, we stayed with our friend Rajvi and her family, and as she had been living in London recently, we weren’t even sure if we would see her on this trip. We first met in Portland when Rajvi attended Lewis & Clark. She was one of the earliest supporters of Anjali and my professional DJ career, attending all our weekly shows at the Kalga Cafe, and then our larger dance parties at Lola’s Room and the Fez Ballroom. We hadn’t seen her since our last visit to Mumbai five years ago. She called us in our hotel room, and it was great to hear her voice after so much time. We made plans for the next day and then Anjali and I caught a taxi for far too much money down Marine Drive to Cream Centre, a forty-year-old vegetarian restaurant that serves hygienic snack food to the middle class including some very funky fusions and what they claim are the “world’s best nachos.” We remembered Cream Centre fondly from our last trip, but we stuck to Bombay, Delhi, and Panjabi snack food, and didn’t take a chance on their nachos or other unusual fusion dishes. We ordered various combinations of their chana served with different starches and sauces while we watched the sun set on the ocean across from us. Their masala chai comes in a teapot filled with a voluminous amount of tea and spices, including fresh mint. After our meal we crossed Marine Drive and walked for a while on Chowpatty Beach, where men were available for hire to push your child around in a plastic truck, which in America would have been motorized, but the only functioning electronics in these vehicles were radios blasting current Bollywood hits. I couldn’t believe that we were completely ignored and unmolested the whole time we were on the beach. I had remembered being swarmed with beggars when we visited Chowpatty Beach five years ago. After sunset we walked the long promenade along the sea to our hotel, which has been thoroughly “cleaned up,” meaning there are no more stands selling pani puri and bhel puri to people strolling.

As much as I could have easily spent months in Delhi, and as much as I loved Hyderabad, arriving in Mumbai -even with the hassles- I was quickly reminded that it is my favorite city in India.  You can avoid a lot of frustration by staying out of traffic,  sticking to the core of the city, and walking. I love walking around Mumbai:  beautiful hot sunny days, the skies cleared up by ocean breeze, endless vistas of Indian Gothic architecture, long gated parks, actual crosswalks with traffic control lights, and a sea of humanity. Most people ignore you, like in New York, or any other large metropolis used to a regular flow of tourists, and a heavy influx of immigrants.

We arrived in Mumbai on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The night (It happened 10:30pm Indian time.) of Barack Obama’s inauguration was the only time we were in India that we wanted to find a group of Americans with whom to spend our time. We figured the ex-pat’s enclave of Leopold’s that was attacked on 26/11 would be insanely crowded, if not impossible to get into, so we searched for other options on a long walk through Mumbai, while I also searched frantically, and unsuccessfully, for a copy of Timeout Mumbai to find out what our entertainment options were while we were in the city. Two months after the attacks, the city seemed back to normal, except that now there are soldiers with sub machine guns posted behind mounds of sandbags on corners throughout the central city, and Anjali noticed new billboards with terrorism warnings and admonitions to be a part of the effort, keep your eyes open, and report anything suspicious.  My cheeks passed machine gun muzzles inches away, while the soldiers holding them were terrorized, according to anonymous informants, by the mosquitos  and rats that made the damp sand bags home.  In our long and indirect perambulation we  finally found the Gateway of India, now with all new associations. The nearby Taj Mahal Hotel is under intense security, and Anjali and I walked past their guards, the new security wall surrounding the building, went through their metal detectors, and got searched, in order to look for a copy of Timeout Mumbai in their bookstore, and to inquire about any inauguration parties that might be occurring there. They knew of nothing, but they suggested the nearby Tendulkar’s -the celebrity cricket player’s namesake restaurant.

The televisions in Tendulkar’s were tuned to cricket, but they said they could set one up for us to watch the inauguration, but I didn’t want to force a room full of Indians to watch an inauguration they apparently cared little about, nor did I want to pay the astronomical amount of money it would probably cost to spend hours at Tendulkar’s, so we tried Jeffrey’s, near our hotel, which our friend Rajvi recommended. At Jeffrey’s the TVs were tuned to the inauguration and not cricket, but the TVs were on mute with a Wham soundtrack playing over the sound system. As a last-ditch attempt to get some dinner before we headed to our hotel to watch the inauguration, I bought several pastries from their dessert counter, which I ate from a box in front of the TV while we watched the historic broadcast. Anjali saw me as unconsciously saluting the inauguration with my American indulgence.  The chocolate coating of the pastries had the right texture, but no flavor, and the pastries tasted largely of whipped cream and chewy bread.

The next day the Indian newspaper analyses of the inaugural address were entirely focused on what intimations there were of Barack Obama’s intentions for India and to what extent he was going to crackdown on Pakistan. India is eager for Obama to play hardball with Pakistan.  Barack Obama has a lot to prove to equal Bush in the eyes of Indian commentators, as Bush was responsible for the legislation which allowed civilian nuclear technology sharing with India. A commentator noted that in Obama’s foreign policy statement, India, the world’s second most populous country, the world’s largest democracy, and one of America’s allies, isn’t mentioned at all.  I guess that currently our new administration is not thinking about how our relationship with India will play a role in the future of international politics.

Our second day in Mumbai we woke up and went to Shiv Sagar , another hygienic middle class place to order Bombay snack food, South Indian dishes, Chinese food, North Indian food, etc.  We got their (vegetarian) Bombay Burger and Tandoori Burger along with a nice and oniony Rava Masala Dosa. We went to Chor Bazaar, alleys of antique shops in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood dotted with mosques, where we had bought a lot of Bollywood records and ephemera on our last trip. We went back to the dusty shops we remembered from last time, and a couple more in the area of Mutton Street.

Our first time in Chor Bazaar we had spent many hours digging through man-sized stacks of rat-chewed, urine-reeking, mold-spotted albums, but this time we were only willing to look through ones in better condition, as we have so many Bollywood records at this point, we hardly feel a need to buy the most battered ones in existence. Even the better condition records in Chor Bazaar are quite filthy, and after many hours of getting our fingers dirty we ditched our records at the hotel, cleaned off the grime, and took a taxi to the suburb of Bandra to meet up with our friend Rajvi and her friends Shruti and Shanti.

Everyone was in high spirits as Rajvi drove us to the rooftop lounge of the Del Italia restaurant that goes by the name of Il Terrazzo in the Juhu suburb of Mumbai. We were there to see Bollywood singer Anoushka Manchanda sing her own material with a backing band of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums as part of a series called Daddy’s WindSong Wednesdays. Except for a song inspired by the Mumbai terror attacks, all the songs were in English, usually about bad relationships. Anoushka referred to herself and the audience as “middle class” and said the recent terrorist attacks have convinced her, a non-voter, that the middle class, who traditionally don’t vote, need to start.  She talked about when she was broke (living at home!) when she only made $40,000 rupees a month as a VJ.  She had to live on ramen by the end of the month.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to square this with the fact that nearly half the population of India lives on less than 100 rupees a day.

Anoushka swore in both Hindi and English from the stage, and talked openly about sleeping around and drinking too much, very shocking to me after months in what is mostly a very conservative culture. And she came with her parents!  She was quite entertaining as a personality, even though I got tired of her musical set well before it was over. She did do a fun parody-medley of some ’70s Bollywood songs about how the host of Daddy’s strongarmed her into performing her music live. Afterwards the girls wanted to take us to their favorite dive bar Janata, but the bar was closed, only selling liquor through a boy that stood out front of the shuttered edifice.  After placing a to-go order of wine and deliciously oily chili chicken and chili paneer passed around the car and eaten with fingers, we headed to Chowpatty Beach for a late-night stroll. On the way there Shanti was so overcome when the current Indian favorite slow jam “Guzarish” from the Hindi Ghajini soundtrack came on the radio that the sun roof was rolled back so she could stand on her seat and dance in the evening breeze. The nighttime stroll never happened, as security was there to keep us from walking on the beach. After much clowning around on the promenade under the lights of the Queen’s Necklace we called it a night.

The third day Rajvi met up with us to take us back to Swati Snacks, where we had first eaten five years ago. They serve all sorts of Gujarati vegetarian specialties that aren’t available anywhere else in Mumbai. Most of the dishes on the menu I’ve never heard of, or have any idea what they are. As a Gujarati, we leave it up to Rajvi to do the ordering. My favorite dish was called makai khichu: a grain and rice dish with a mashed potato-like texture, with corn kernels stirred in, and a hot chutney on the side. Rajvi had such memories of my joyful eating that she brought a camera just to record my reactions as I ate.

We then learned what a pain parking in Mumbai is, as we searched for chai or paan, but eventually we made it to the Oxford Bookstore for tea. I was horrified to learn that the bookstore had pulled all books by Pakistani authors off the shelves after being threatened by the Shiv Sena. The police even advised they take the books off the shelves after hearing of the threat.  So much for freedom of the press. After browsing, Rajvi took us to the Bandra suburb, where she dropped us at a record stall we had been tipped to by one of the record dealers in Chor Bazaar. They were very friendly and affordable, and we filled up my backpack with records.

We had learned that our friend DJ Rekha from New York was in Mumbai as part of a DJ tour of India that had been arranged by the United States Consulate General, Mumbai. We caught an auto from the record stall to the area of Bandra on the sea called “Bandstand” near the Taj Land’s End. The place was under high security due to a big political meeting occurring at the Taj including human scum Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, so we had to get searched on our way to the outdoor amphitheater where Rekha was performing. We followed the sound of the bass, and made it to the amphitheater. The venue and the time of Rekha’s performance had both been changed at the last minute, due to the big political get-together, so there were very few people in attendance at the performance, part of the Mumbai Festival. There were some Indian break dancers on stage, and Anjali joined them with her own bhangra moves, which the crowd cheered. Anjali danced for so long on stage, with such abandon, that a group of Indian uncles approached her afterwards to congratulate her on her dancing and insist that she must be Panjabi, despite her assertions to the contrary. Rekha played bhangra and hip-hop, including songs by Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige. Representing Mumbai she played Bollywood nugget “Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan,” and representing Brooklyn, she played a Biggie song, and Santogold’s “Shove It,” which may have been its Mumbai debut.  That’s just a guess.  Nobody we talked to in India had ever heard of Santoglod.

The show was shut down early so that the speeches of Muslim-slaughterer Narendra Modi and others weren’t interrupted. In 2007 the United States revoked Modi’s visa:

on the accusation that he was responsible for violations of religious freedom as per the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. He was again denied a visa to the United States in August of 2008 for his human and religious rights violations. The Coalition against Genocide (CAG) said that they have urged the state Department to put a lifetime ban on issuing a US visa to Narendra Modi. [wiki]

While we were in Chennai we watched a press conference on the news where a bunch of billionaire heavy hitters from India’s business community declared their desire to see Modi become Prime Minister, as he is seen as being such a friend to development in his state of Gujarat.

We got a ride with Rekha and her assistant/cousin Preksha in a consulate SUV to the super-rich tower apartment they were being hosted in, with amazing views of the city like I had never seen before.  I had been to a lot of swanky places in India, but this felt the most luxurious. Rekha suggested we go to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, which is an establishment Anjali and I have never patronized, but it seemed wacky enough to be entertaining in a lowbrow kind of way. We arrived at the Hard Rock Cafe to see a long line of guys waiting to get in. “Stags” as single guys are known in India, are not welcome at most clubs. Since I was with three women, we waltzed right in ahead of the long line. Unfortunately I still had a very full and very heavy backpack filled with Bollywood records, so when we discovered that it would be a long wait for a table, I had to stand in the bar area straddling the backpack awkwardly, while people jostled all around me. Our wait was epic as we were serenaded by a DJ playing songs such as Bryan Adams (India’s favorite) “Run to You,” Def Leppard “Animal,” U2 “With Or Without You,” Metallica “Unforgiven,” and Bon Jovi “Livin’ On A Prayer” while wannabe Indian rockers holding beers bobbed their heads and sang along all around us.  While the vibe was incredibly American mainstream, I had to remember that this was an alternative lifestyle in a country overrun by Bollywood music.

When we were finally seated we learned that there was special entertainment for the evening, Indian rocker Gary Lawyer, whose name meant nothing to any of us. We learned later from our friend Rajvi that Gary was the  original Indian rocker of her childhood in the ’80s. To us he just seemed like an embarrassing, washed-up guy with a gray mullet. He started by singing songs from his “new album” to digital backing tracks, including a song dedicated to saving the tigers, which was accompanied by a video broadcast on screens throughout the club showing scenes of tiger slaughter. His lyrics were trite and all in English, and he sang them with great earnestness. When he said he was promoting his fifth album we were shocked, as we couldn’t believe he even had one release to his name.  Eventually a band joined him onstage for old rock’n’roll covers, including “Break on Through to the Other Side” (Apparently Gary Lawyer was once considered India’s Jim Morrison.), “Mustang Sally” and “New York, New York” which we jokingly insisted must have been in Rekha’s honor, so we suggested she join him on stage, to no avail.  I later learned he began his career in the nightclubs of New York in the early ’80s, so his covering that song makes sense, despite how befuddling it was at the time.  He seemed to clear many people from the club, but there were people standing in rapture who were vocal and into it as well, miraculously applauding after each song.  When he performed an oldies medley with many songs made famous by Elvis Presley I noticed two middle-aged men engaged in a passionate twist contest on the floor.

The food was atrocious, and everyone except me left the majority of the food on their plate. I ordered pasta which I figured they couldn’t mess up too bad, but Rekha’s chicken was pink on the inside, and she couldn’t even eat her burger, which she said was salty and all wrong. I’m sorry, but if the Hard Rock Cafe can’t even get a burger right there is something seriously wrong going on in the kitchen. The service was comical in both its absence, and its repeated bunglings. We left just as Gary Lawyer was introducing Louis Banks, “the greatest musician in India” so who knows what we missed out on. Of course Louis called Gary Lawyer “the greatest singer in India,” so that didn’t bode well for the music they were to perform together.

That night we were supposed to go to a hip club called the Blue Frog where the owner Dhruv was celebrating his CD release. Based on who I knew was going to be there, the party probably would have been attended by everyone who is anyone in the Mumbai electronic music and DJ community, and no doubt would have been an unsurpassable networking opportunity.  After hours of hideous mediocrity at the Hard Rock Cafe I had no interest in doing anything other than going to bed. This was typical of how we spent our time in India, managing to avoid anything that could have helped our DJ career in any way. At least most of the time we were eating really good food.

Friday we were looking forward to seeing Slumdog Millionaire on its opening day in India. We had been reading so much about it in the Indian press, and weren’t even sure if it was going to release before we had left the country. The movie had garnered a fair amount of controversy as some people felt that the movie was “poverty porn,” and that it emphasized the poorest elements of India, because that is the only way the West is capable of viewing India. Some commentators argued that a Western director came in to show a picture of poverty that gives people a one-sided view of India. There were opinion pieces upset that Danny Boyle didn’t do a movie about Indian billionaires and skyscrapers and shiny new malls. Certain segments of the Indian upper classes are sick of the traditional Western image of India as a place of overwhelming poverty, and they want their realitly of affluence to be reflected in the world media. There were protests organized against the film, with people demonstrating in front of some theaters on opening day. The word “slumdog” is not known in India, and many slum dwellers took the title literally, and assumed the film was calling them dogs. There were Hindu activists who didn’t like the portrayal of the Lord Rama in the film, who felt that the use of the god’s image in the scenes of the Hindus killing the Muslims was highly inappropriate. There are ongoing protests and lawsuits against the film in India to this day.

We were fortunate that our friend Jacques was in Mumbai visiting from Singapore. We arranged to see an afternoon matinee of Slumdog Millionaire with him at the historic Art Deco 1930’s Regal Cinema in downtown Mumbai on opening day. Before meeting up with Jacques, Anjali and I ate at the very solid Delhi Darbar down the street from the Regal for a feast of North Indian food. I hadn’t had North Indian food in a while, as I wanted a break from the heavy oily sauces and rich and thick breads, but I waited just long enough to thoroughly enjoy this meal, heavy sauces, and thick breads alike. A half hour after our screening was supposed to start, and an hour and a half after we last talked to Jacques, there was still no sign of him. Such is the abysmal nature of Mumbai traffic. We bought another set of tickets for the next Slumdog Millionaire showing and walked down the street to do some shopping for handicrafts af Cottage Industries, hoping Jacques would call us on his cell when he finally got done with his epic taxi ride. We didn’t hear from him, but on our walk back by the theater Anjali checked the lobby to see that Jacques had arrived and was waiting for us.  We walked around a bit in the hot sun before the start of our showing.

Slumdog Millionaire was released in India in two versions, the original English one, and a version dubbed in Hindi called Slumdog Crorepati. The Hindi version has apparently done much better in India as it is too unrealistic for an Indian audience to accept that slum dwellers speak in perfect English to each other. Even I had trouble with those scenes. The theater was only partially full for the mid afternoon showing, and up in the balcony where we bought our (assigned) seats, the reaction was very muted, and I even thought I heard people shushing talkative moviegoers, which is a very un-Indian way to see a movie. People didn’t even applaud at the end. I thought the movie was entertaining, but I thought it didn’t maintain the tension all the way through, and the big emotional surge at the end never really happened for me. MIA got screwed on the Indian version of the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, as both versions of her “Paper Planes” track were dropped from the Indian release. No one that we talked to in India had heard of MIA, even middle class kids with eclectic music collections, and the soundtrack would have been a great introduction to India for MIA. Instead India will learn of MIA through just the highly processed verse of hers included on the “O Saaya” track. In all of India we only found MIA in one CD shop, the hip Rhythm House in Mumbai, which only had her second album.

Upon exiting the theater the three of us took pictures of each other in front of the Slumdog Millionaire poster framed outside the theater. It took me a while to notice that there were a lot of other people taking photos as well, all of Anjali. Apparently many news photographers were sent to take pictures of people exiting Slumdog Millionaire, and the way they were all circled around Anjali and taking photo after photo I wondered if they thought she was a Bollywood actress or something. After the movie we returned to Cream Centre with Jacques, and then we were off to his room at the Four Seasons in Worli to freshen up before seeing DJ Rekha perform at a nightclub in the suburb of Juhu.

Before dinner I got a worrying text from DHL that the last box we had shipped to Portland from Pondicherry was to be “returned to shipper,” and seeing as how incompetent the staff at the Pondicherry DHL were, I was afraid that a bunch of our South Indian music purchases were on their way back to India. After dinner and our arrival at Jacques’ fabulous room on the twenty-first floor I spent an anxiety-ridden evening on the phone with DHL staff in India and the US trying to determine why our shipment had made it to Portland, and then was returned to the East Coast, and seemingly on its way back to India. I needed this music for our return gig at the Fez Ballroom, and was panicked by this turn of events. Jacques was very helpful, and his room was the most luxurious site I could imagine to spend frustrated hours on the phone with call center staff in two continents. By the time I learned that the box was sent back to the East Coast for closer customs inspection, and that I didn’t have to worry about it being returned to India, many hours had passed, and we soon realized that with how early clubs are required to close by law in Mumbai, we would never make it to the Juhu club to see much of Rekha’s set before she had to stop. Anjali and I had looked forward to seeing Rekha and dancing with Rajvi, Jacques and friends, but such was not to be. I knew that once again in addition to missing out on a fun night of dancing and music, we also missed another prime opportunity to network with DJs, producers and promoters in the Mumbai electronic music scene. We managed to make it two months in India without going to a single nightclub to see a single DJ.

It was our fifth day in Mumbai before we got down to the serious business of shopping for contemporary music, as opposed to dusty old records. Vinyl record manufacture largely ceased in India in the late ’80s, so any music from the last twenty years is only available on CD or cassette. We started by going to Rhythm House, which is so densely packed with music and DVDs that I found myself constantly in someone’s (usually many ones’) path as I tried to hunker down in a section and methodically go through the contents. Hindi CDs run less than $4, but if you want a western CD it will cost you around $10 new. I am unaware of any place in India that sells used CDs. We then tried to find the Mumbai outlet of the Planet M chain, which we learned had recently “shifted” (just like the one in Chennai which we never found), and after some walking we found its now much smaller and underwhelming new location.

On the way there we found a record dealer selling records on the street. He had lots of great soundtracks, by some of my favorite music directors, but he wanted 150 rupees a piece for them, even though they were in bad shape, had their edges taped up, and he had gone so far as to write the price in pen on the sleeves. I complained that he was selling 30 rupee records for 150, and became indignant, claiming he didn’t sell 30 rupee records. He took us into an alleyway to show us even more records that he had stashed back there, but they were all in the same poor condition, and no matter how great I’m sure the music was, I wasn’t willing to pay his prices, and we didn’t like his attitude. We left after some looking, but without buying a single record. In the cab ride back to the hotel I suggested we try to contact some of the record sellers whose info I had gotten from DJ Rajah in San Francisco. Anjali groused that their records were probably as bad or worse as the ones we had just looked at, and I chided her for her negativity, since DJ Rajah had been so enthusiastic about the dealers he recommended. I called one of them to make an appointment for the next morning to see his wares. After picking up Indian suits Anjali had tailored, we then spent a large chunk of the evening at DHL shipping our final two boxes of loot back to the States. We finished the evening by going to Gaylord’s restaurant for a classic North Indian dinner.

Our final day in Mumbai we met up with the record seller recommended by DJ Rajah who turned out to be the same guy we had bumped into randomly the day before. We had the same frustrating interaction, except after many requests for records in better condition he brought out a not-too-bad stack. I bargained HARD with him to even get him down to 150 rupees each, as he wanted 250 rupees each for the ones in nicer condition. This was more than five times what I have ever bought records for in Mumbai. He really didn’t want to budge, but after pulling out the money I was willing to give him, and holding it out in front of him, he finally, grudgingly relented. Then he suggested we come back to his house where he had better records. What?? Now he wants to bring out the good records? We had no fun dealing with the man, and weren’t eager to spend any more time with him, so I made one final trip to stock up on Bollywood remixes at Rhythm House while Anjali made her final trip to Fab India to stock up on churidar.

Our friend Rajvi called us after we had returned to our hotel and told us she was coming to meet us. Knowing my love for food, she took us to Diva Maharashtracha in the Mahim area of Mumbai. It is one of three restaurants, along with Culture Curry and Goa Portuguesa, that line a block, and are all run by the couple of chef Deepa Awchat, and Dr. Suhas Awchat MD. They have a very cute and kitschy aesthetic to marketing themselves and their restaurants, and we actually met Dr. Awchat while we were eating. Diva Maharashtracha serves Maharashtrian home specialties that Rajvi says can’t be found at any other restaurant in Mumbai. Rajvi ordered dumplings of colcasia leaves, banana flower dumplings, a smoky, peanuty stuffed eggplant dish called Bharleli Wangi, a Vaal (field beans) dish with coconut and chilies, and Masale Bhat with Katachi Amti, which tasted like a super-flavorful biryani. I thought the food was fabulous, including very unusual savory and spicy Maharashtrian specialty non-alcoholic drinks, but I knew something wasn’t right when two staff came by late in our meal to ask if everything was “OK” and “not too spicy.”

Nooooooooooooooo!!!!! Don’t tell me they made it bland for my whitey ass. Nooooooo!!! We were being treated by our Indian host who ordered, yet still my white skin cursed me. I asked Rajvi if the food tasted blander than she was used to, and after thinking about it, she said that it was indeed blander than they usually serve it. I noticed that she hadn’t asked for it spicy, and I assumed that would be OK, but she, knowing that we like it spicy, didn’t ask for it any special way, not realizing that the staff would make note of my white skin and have the kitchen bland the food out for me. Arrrrrgggghhhhh. Fortunately there were a variety of very unusual and spicy chili-ridden chutneys, so I was able to inject some heat into the meal one way or another. I asked for menus for the two other restaurants, and I slavered over them for quite a while, fantasizing about the meals I would have to eat the next time we were in Mumbai. The Culture Curry menu, with its range of specialties from Southern Indian states looked especially tantalizing to me.

After gorging, Rajvi kindly drove us to the “Bandstand” area of Bandra, on the water, where we got tea at a place with large filthy windows overlooking the rocky beach. Rajvi explained that when she and her brother were children they would crawl along the rocks and see villagers conducting black magic ceremonies on the beach. Now there is only a restaurant with instant chai and coffee vending machines. After chai, Rajvi drove us by the house of Bollywood titan Sharukh Khan, and she noted the unsightly four story tower awkwardly grafted to the back of his house.  Apparently it is illegal and against code, and one floor houses film director Karan Johar and host of Koffee with Karan. The inside word is that Sharukh is bisexual and Karan holds on tightly as they ride Sharukh’s motorcycle around the neighborhood.

Rajvi kindly drove us around the suburbs of Mumbai to help us fulfill our final shopping urges before we had to take our leave of India.   Anjali hoped to find quality paan and Indian sweets to bring home, but was foiled on both fronts.  I managed to find some long kurtas at City Plaza in Santa Cruz, but not the short ones I looked all over India for without success.  After shopping as late as we could, Anjali and I caught a cab back into the city to our hotel. We arranged for the cab to wait for us, packed up all our luggage, and off we went to the airport. After I called to say goodbye to our Sikh friend Lucky from the Golden Temple, Anjali called her Grandmother with the remaining minutes on our Indian cellphone and they exchanged tearful goodbyes.

The taxi driver dropped at the wrong airport gate, and the front of the terminal was mobbed with families saying hello and goodbye. Somehow, despite the mob scene, people instinctively moved out of my way as I made a long trek to the correct gate with all our baggage heaped high on a luggage cart. After checking in we were able to say goodbye to our friend Jacques, who we met in the terminal shortly before his flight departed. We used our last rupees to eat in an abysmal airport restaurant mockingly titled Indian Paradise. More like Indian Cafeteria. It was unbelievably expensive for the tiny portions of flavorless imitation Indian food scooped on to styrofoam plates.

Standing in line at our gate, I was attacked by the mosquitos living inside the airport. As I attempted to kill the ones feasting on my neck, I thought about the irony of catching malaria moments before boarding the plane. Apparently all the stagnant water in the area around the domestic and international airports in Mumbai means that malaria statistics for the airport are quite high.  Slather on mosquito repellent before entering or leaving Mumbai!

Anjali was so sad at the thought of leaving. She was not ready to go back to Portland.  I, however, had had enough of lugging my bags around, and not having the childhood connection that Anjali does, I was ready to return to Portland, for now, at least until our next trip.

After I was selected for a random search, we soon boarded our flight.  Not to Portland, just yet, but instead to three days in Amsterdam . . .


I am going to attempt to relate the rest of our trip in Chennai, Mumbai and Amsterdam before too much time passes, and memories fade and wither, or distort into things beautiful or horrible, that never occurred.

Here is the installment about our visit to Chennai.


The bus journey from Pondicherry to Chennai was stressful and discomfiting. When we boarded the bus at the Pondicherry bus stand it was largely empty. Because of the size and bulk of our luggage, we asked if we could have it stored in the luggage rack on top of the bus, but were told that was not an option, even though the rack was entirely empty. The overhead storage rack inside the bus was too slim to fit our suitcase and backpack, so we set them in the two seats in front of us. The ticket man on the bus wasn’t happy with this situation. We offered to pay for four tickets, since we were using four seats, and he accepted this, but he still warned us that this was a “public problem.” We had needed four seats on the bus ride to Pondi, and were never asked to pay any extra, so I was curious to see what the nature of this “public problem” was going to be on the return trip.

A few stops after we left Pondicherry the bus filled up until people were standing in the aisle, staring intently at the seats taken up by our luggage. Concerned (and seated) passengers in the back of the bus began complaining in Tamil to the ticket man about our luggage, seeing as it was keeping their fellow countrymen and women from being able to sit. He replied in Tamil that we had paid for all four seats, and that quieted the seated passengers, but those standing seemed no more happy about their fate. I felt awful. We needed to get to Chennai, we had a lot of luggage, they wouldn’t let us store it above or below, and I didn’t even have room for my knees in the narrow space between seats, much less large luggage. Storing the luggage in the seats was the only option, but seeing the weary gazes of the standing passengers, how could I feel good about this situation? Because I had money to buy a seat for an inanimate object, did that mean that a suitcase was worth more than a person? I avoided the eyes of the many standing passengers for four hours, sensing them piercing into me despite my avoidance of their reproachful gaze. Eventually one standing man couldn’t take it any more, and he manuevered himself underneath the fifty-pound suitcase which he balanced on his lap, sharing the seat with our bloated American baggage.

When we got to Chennai and exited the bus we were immediately faced with the task of talking the autowallahs down hundreds of rupees from the fare they wanted to take us to our hotel. It was our own fault, as we realized eventually there was a prepaid taxi stand at the bus station, but it somehow seemed like more work, so after Anjali started walking to the prepaid stand as a bluff, we managed to get the auto wallahs to agree to a fare below their previous last and final offer, and we were off to the guest house. I realized we were still getting ripped off, or they wouldn’t have been so eager to take us. As we careened through back roads (practically alleys) in an attempt to avoid traffic, Anjali noticed and complained about how the area of the city we were passing through *smelled like shit.” As I stewed over being ripped off by auto wallahs, I wondered if I was experiencing major-Indian-city burnout. The passing scenery looked so familiar I imagined I could be in Delhi. Would I be able to differentiate Chennai from all the other Indian cities we had visited, I wondered.

After arriving at the Paradise Guest House I questioned the front desk person as to what sort of fare we should have paid, and learned that we had only paid the maximum acceptable fare. Not too bad for first-timers. After getting settled in our room, our first order of business was to eat at the Hotel Saravana Bhavan (Restaurants in Tamil Nadu are called Hotels for some reason.) chain, which we proceeded to do several more times in the few days we were in Chennai. I especially liked their rava masala dosas and the mint chutney with a real chili kick. Their special ladoo and mixed fruit ladoos were unbelievable. Their special ladoo is like eating a mouthful of fragrant cardamom. We also ate at one of the Vasanta Bhavan locations and my mysore masa dosa was filled with the biggest log of ghee-dripping potato curry I’ve ever seen, slathered in fresh diced onions and served with a fiery coconut chutney.

Our hotel room bathroom had openings to the outside and there were similar openings between our room and the hallway. There was no mosquito net provided as we had used in our thatched-roof hut in Virupapuraggada, so we slathered ourselves in mosquito repellent, lit mosquito coils, and prayed we wouldn’t get bit by a malarial mosquito. I woke up in the middle of the night with the burning sensation that I had been bitten. I felt soundless things bite me on several places of my body, until I was covered with clusters of stinging welts. I couldn’t sleep in my miserable condition and four separate times I had to relight the mosquito coil after discovering that it had gone out. I was awakened early by loud noise in the hallway, and the next morning Anjali was kept awake by the strong smell of tobacco in the hallway and the noise of the smokers. We upgraded to an AC room despite never even turning on the AC just to have a sealed room where we knew that once we killed everything living in it we wouldn’t face more critters in the night.

My major goal in Chennai was to find a source for Kollywood (Tamil) soundtracks (as if the fifty or so I bought in Pondicherry weren’t enough). Not having any leads, one morning I hired an autowallah to take us to any place with a large selection of CDs. He took us to a line of street stalls selling bootlegged CDs and DVDs (Say no to bootlegs!). Slumdog Millionaire hadn’t even opened in India yet, but they had plenty of bootleg copies of the DVD. Jet Li and Jackie Chan bootlegs were very popular, with many movies compressed onto a single disc. Eventually we discovered Spencer Plaza, just down the road from our guest house. Spencer Plaza has over 1,000,000 square feet of stores, many no wider than a man is tall, crowded along labyrinthine alleys, as if the mall was attempting to recreate the feel of an ancient bazaar. There were endless Kashmiri emporiums, where at the whiff of an American they would begin asking, “Shawls, Madam, shawls?” This was so predictable and repetitive, occurring over and over every mall alley we walked down, that it seemed as if Americans must buy nothing but shawls when they come to India. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “It’s 90 fucking degrees out there, it’s humid as hell, my shirt is soaked in sweat, why the fuck would I want to buy a shawl?”

What baffled everyone is that I wanted to buy Kollywood soundtracks, which I did, nearly a hundred. The two stores I found with significant CD selections had movie soundtracks from the last few months, and then lots from the sixties and seventies, but nothing in between. I asked an employee why that was, and he said, “Lull period.” My favorite discovery so far is the percussion orgy “Hey Rama Rama” from the Villu soundtrack, but what we heard played everywhere was the hard rocking first track from the Vaaranam Aayiram soundtrack. Metal and hard rock are incredibly popular all over India, and film soundtracks are borrowing from these idioms more and more.

In Chennai we spent time in Higginbotham’s bookstore, which one of the employees claimed was the oldest bookstore in Asia, dating to the mid-1800s. She was quite bitter about the ignorant management, as they wanted literature shelved either by publisher or author’s first name, and she was a lone fighter in the battle insisting that the books must be shelved under author’s last name. She had worked at a Barnes and Noble in midtown New York, attended one of their book selling schools, and idolized the company and its owner Leonard Riggio. Whenever we attempted to talk to her about Powell’s Books she steered the conversation back to Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble was book selling heaven from her vantage point as a scorned and unappreciated worker at Higginbotham’s. She really wanted our feedback on the store and shared her lesser-known favorites from the Indian literature section. Her sister-in-law is the cookbook writer Viji Varadarajan, and she proudly showed off her series of cookbooks. I decided to buy them all, as they were on specialty cuisines of South India that I doubt I could find much information on back in the States.

I got the most amazing beard trim while we were in Chennai. I normally do my own problematic trimming with an electric razor, but I got the first professional scissor beard trim of my life in a barbershop off Road No. 1 in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad -for less than fifty cents- and once I had experienced that luxury, I wanted another. Getting a trim became more urgent since the crappy clipper I took to India was so nonfunctional I actually tossed it in the trash. We visited the cushy, upscale Park Sheraton Hotel, and took the elevator up to their luxury salon where a fastidious young boy gave me a very thorough trim and a back-of-the-neck cleanup for five dollars. In America I can’t imagine going into an upscale hotel and visiting their salon, but in India I knew that even an expensive salon bill from a luxury salon wasn’t going to break the bank.

In India you can spend as little or much as you want for a good or service. The same bottle of mineral water is thirty cents on the street, fifty cents in some restaurants, one dollar fifty in others, or at the high-end Dakshin South Indian restaurant which is also in the Park Sheraton Hotel, almost four dollars. The exact same bottle and brand of water. Anjali and I lived on fresh lime sodas in India, and you can pay as little as twenty cents or as much as two dollars, all depending on your surroundings.

Definitely eat at Dakshin in the Park Sheraton while you are in Chennai, which is well worth paying for the food and the surroundings. The menu is divided up by Southern Indian states, with a tantalizing selection of specialies on offer from each. I had some of the best okra of my life, and the best fish curry I had in India, both from the page of Andhra specialties. There was a trio of South Indian classical musicians playing along with the meal while we dined and our waiter Pravin is now one of our favorites in India. Just don’t fill up on the complimentary fried cispies before your meal arrives and watch out for that water bill!

Chennai is on the Bay of Bengal, and Marina beach, which was a few blocks from our hotel, is 12km long, the second longest city beach in the world after Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California. The beach is wider than most beaches are long, and it felt like we walked forever before we reached the filthy water. The widest stretch of the beach is 473 meters. The beach is filled with garbage decorating every inch of the sand. While we were in Chennai a group of students had a clean up of nearby Elliots Beach to protect the nesting ground of rare sea turtles. (We ourselves passed a giant dead sea turtle stranded on Marina Beach.) According to the Chennai Express, “The amount of waste collected by the group was roughly 100 kgs across a stretch of 30 ms of the beach.” That gives you some idea of how much garbage litters these beaches. However, the beach is not just covered in garbage, but also lots and lots of food stalls, many selling incredibly tasty-looking spice-encrusted fried fish, that we unfortunately didn’t try.

Our first night in Chennai Anjali was eager to see the beach, but as we walked towards it from our hotel we had to fight against a tide of thousands moving away from the beach. We made it to the promenade, and saw a band taking down after a concert they had just performed on a bandstand. As we tried to move closer to the beach we were ordered away by a line of policemen and women wielding nightsticks who were telling everyone to go home. It was a Pongal celebration, but not allowed to go too late, apparently. Our next visit several days later we reached the beach for a leisurely sunset stroll, where Anjali got cheap henna applied to her hands by a sweet old man that proceeded to rub off on everything she touched.

One evening we spent time with relatives of the Portland area Bharatanatyam dancer and instructor Sivagami Vanka, the founder of the Kalabharathi School of Dance in Portland. Our documentarian friend Alissa put us in touch with our gracious hosts over email, and we were honored to be welcomed into the home of Sivagami Vanka’s very gracious parents, “The Doctors,” for that is what they both are, retired as they may be. Shivagami Vanka’s sister Geetha was kind of enough to give us a tour of the nearby Kapaleeshwarar temple, dedicated to a form of Shiva and a form of his consort Parvati called Karpagambal. The forty-meter high gopuram of the temple is lit up with a giant neon sign affixed to its front at night. This is something I learned from seeing many churches, mosques and temples at night: Indian places of worship fully embrace neon.

Having Geetha tour us around the temple was a special treat, as she was able to explain a lot about the form and function of a Hindu temple that we would never know from just wandering around and admiring the construction. She had us perambulate a certain temple structure in such a way so as not to catch the attention of Shani (Saturn) an ornery god. On our way from the temple we were fortunate enough to run into a procession on its way to the temple. This was a smaller version of the therotsavam procession that occurs during the Spring Panguni Peruvizha festival, where idols of Kapaleashwarar and Karpagambal are paraded around on a giant chariot. We didn’t see the giant chariot, just the storage warehouse built to hold it which is the size of a grain silo.

Geetha and her husband were kind enough to feed us a meal of home-cooked dosas served with curds, gunpowder sauce (yes!) mixed with sesame oil, and the flavorful buttermilk concoction called Mor Kuzhambu. The family adhered to the traditional Indian practice of serving the man first, and allowing the women to eat only after he is full. This meant that I quickly finished my serving as I felt bad about making Anjali wait to eat while I savored the feast. For the dessert we were served homemade Payasam, South Indian rice pudding made with coconut milk.

A friend of Anjali’s had asked her to buy her some gold bangles, so one evening we caught an auto to a multi-leveled beacon of white and gold shining in the night and recommended by an Aunty railway officer over the places Anjali researched online, which apparently offered inferior goods of questionable quality. When you have the option, always take the knowledgeable and trustworthy local’s advice over anything online or in a book. We were ushered around the store by a couple of the many male attendants in matching suits and women in matching saris there to assist all customers. After looking at several sets of bangles and doing cellphone calculator conversion math I soon realized that the cheapest, thinnest, lightest whisper of a band of gold was going to be almost two hundred and fifty US dollars for a single bangle, which was more than the friend’s entire budget. The attendants were very friendly, asking us if we needed assistance in hailing a cab or an auto as we beat a hasty exit.

One thing that stood out in Chennai and really defined our experience, was how ripped off we were by the auto wallahs, who would charge us a 500% markup to take us somewhere. Yes, getting ripped off by auto wallahs is a fact of life for tourists in India, and we got ripped off in every city we visited, but Chennai really stood out for how much we got ripped off every time we needed to catch a ride somewhere. By the end of our three days in Chennai, we had enough of a lay of the land that we actually walked all the places for which we had been previously grossly overcharged for brief auto rides. The guide books warn what a hassle the auto wallahs in Chennai are, and warn of auto wallahs doubling the fare after you are already in the rickshaw, which only happed to us once. We had the hardest time getting a reasonable fare to a nearby destination, and when we finally found an auto wallah to agree to our price, he doubles it as we are driving off. I terrify him by leaning out the side of the rickshaw and attempting to jump, which causes him to quickly brake, at which point I do jump out. Despite the guy being a con artist thief, I still give him 10 rupees for the one block ride since Susan, our host in Delhi, had described a situation where she refused to pay a driver and he followed her around a neighborhood, yelling, cursing, attempting to turn the whole neighborhood against her and make her life hell, so I figured 10 rupees wasn’t much to pay if it meant that this guy would leave us alone after we exited, which he did.

However, as ripped off as we were, nothing prepared us for our taxi ride from the Mumbai domestic airport to our Hotel on Marine Drive. . .


Andaz returns 1/31/09

Thank you to everyone who came down to celebrate our return to the Fez Ballroom on Saturday night.  We had our largest attendance ever, with 556 people paid by the end of the night.  The Fez capacity is only 349, so my apologies to those of you who had to wait a while in the cold before you could get in. We actually reached capacity by 10:45pm.  I got a report that throughout the night hundreds of people gave up after waiting in line beyond what their patience would tolerate.  I’m sorry we could not accomodate all of you.  I want people warm and dancing, not cold and waiting, but our capacity is limited to what the fire marshal will allow.  Anjali and I have not taken a break from our monthly Andaz parties in five years, so thanks for welcoming us back after we took December off.  It means a lot to us that you show us so much suppport, and it inspires us to find more hot, hot music with which to burn your feet.

Thank you, everyone.


A little bit of France in India

Hello all,
   Anjali and I decided to blow straight through Chennai, which we
figure we will return to, and on to Pondicherry.  The city was
officially renamed Puducherry, but even the official tourism guides
say “Pondicherry” in their bus tours.  Pondicherry is the largest city
in what was formerly the French colony also named Pondicherry.  It is
on the coast in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  A little bit
French, and a lot Indian.  Getting here took 24 hours of travel:  we
walked down a cliff from our Virupapuragadda cottage to the boat
launch to Hampi,  we were ferried across the water, we dragged luggage up a hundred steps to the streets above the river, we walked to an
autorickshaw, we took the auto to the Hospet railway station, we
waited a few hours for our train to Guntakal, at Guntakal we
transferred to an overnight train to Chennai, once there we caught a
city bus, to another city bus, which took us to the long distance bus
station, where we caught a bus to the Pondicherry bus station, where
we caught an autorickshaw to the Ram Guest House.  If this wasn’t
exhausting enough, we realized immediately that the only room
available with no windows to the outside was entirely unsuitable, so
we spent the rest of the day walking around Pondicherry in the blazing
heat looking for a place to stay for the rest of our visit.
   People say they love traveling, but I have decided that as much
as I love seeing new and different places, I don’t particularly love
to travel.  I don’t love being cramped and aching in tight quarters on
long journeys.  I don’t like not being able to stand up and move
around.  Traveling by train in India is not easy, as no one ever tells
you what stop you are at, and if you have a window seat, and it is not
night, and you are on the right side of the train, you might see a
station sign, but only sometimes is there English next to the dominant
Indian language of whatever area you are passing through.  You can set
your watch by when you think you are going to arrive, but trains are
notoriously delayed, and you may or may not arrive any time close to
when you are scheduled.  You may see a conductor once in eighteen
hours, and the staff on board may or may not know any English.  If
your destination is the final destination of the train, then you will
be OK, but if it is a stop along the way, you must be vigilant.  The
train may only stop for a few minutes, and you need to be at the door
waiting to exit with your luggage, because there will certainly be
many people trying to force their way on, and you may very well end up
trapped between them and the exit as you watch the train pull away
from the station.   Sound familiar?
   The “beach” in Pondicherry is a manufactured one: a little strip
of clay-like sand that gives way to a slope of huge imported black
boulders that stand against the surging waves.  The water near the
rocks is brown, but the sea looks beautiful shades of blue and green
in the distance.  People come to stroll.  No one comes to swim.  The
French Quarter in Pondicherry consists of the nearly empty streets
near the beachfront.  Noticeably clean, these streets exude a quiet,
quaint, relaxed feel, unlike anywhere else in India.    The houses are
painted in tranquil pastels, and the walls are overrun by flowering
bougainvilleas.  The rest of the city is as chaotic, noisy, dirty, and
overstimulating as any Indian metropolis.  Street after street is
given over to streetside sales vendors, and endless bazaars.  The
French Quarter accomadation has been all booked-up our entire visit,
so we have been staying in the Indian side, at the funky Ganga Guest
House, decorated with framed vintage Tamil film posters.
One day we went on an all-day bus tour sponsored by the Puducherry
Tourism Department.  A bus tour is something that neither of us have
never done.  In the afternoon the tour took us to the intentional
community of Auroville some 9km away.  Auroville was founded by “The
Mother,” a “spiritual companion” to Sri Aurobindo, the Indian mystic.
The Mother decreed, “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men
and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive
harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The
purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”  The tour gave us no
background, except to sit us down for a short video presentation at
the Auroville information center which explained the central
importance of the Matrimandir to Auroville.  According to The Mother,
“The Matrimandir wants to be the symbol of the Universal Mother
according to Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, and “The Matrimandir wants to
be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for
perfection. Union with the Divine, manifesting in a progressive human
unity.”  We were told we were only going to be allowed to see the
outside of this structure, and not the world’s largest crystal in the
chamber inside, where Aurovillians come to “concentrate.”  A short
walk through very beautiful forests, we came to the Matrimandir.  The
Mother had decreed of the Matrimandir that, “It must be a thing of
great beauty, of such beauty that when people come they will say ‘Ah,
this is it.’
   To me the Matrimandir looked like a giant smooshed golden golf
ball in a red brick portable golf hole in the middle of green lawns
bordered by swathes of red clay.  It also looks like a spaceship from
some ’60s sci-fi movie.  If I did my Indian math correctly (Indians
use lakhs and crores instead of our hundred thousands and millions.)
the Matrimandir has cost 100 million dollars so far, and is still
being constructed.  Allegedly, all of the funds for the Matrimandir’s
construction have come from donations.  For a structure that is still
being constructed, it already looks dated.  I wanted to stay and look,
but because I was impressed by its bizareness, not its beauty.  The
Golden Temple of the Sikhs kicks its ass in that regard.
   Anjali really wanted to shop at the Auroville boutiques, since
the Aurovillians make their own clothes, candles, incense, soaps,
jewelry, paper, spirulina, cashew toffee, jams, you name it.  We were
forbidden by our tour guide to shop, since he said we didn’t have
enough time, but Anjali thought that enough of our group was dawdling,
that she could sneak in some shopping.  I was anxious and kept
insisting we get back to the bus, and sure enough, when we got back to
the parking lot we discovered that the bus had left without us.  Our
tour ticket explicitly stated that if you got left behind, there was
not going to be any refund.  There were a bunch of auto rickshaws in
the parking lot earlier in the day, so we figured we could hire one to
take us back to Pondicherry.  We went back to spend more time with the
informational displays that we were rushed through before,  and to
spend some more time shopping through the boutiques, where Glen Frey
and Prince being piped in supposedly puts you in a concentrative mood.
   As the sun was getting close to setting we went out to catch an
auto rickshaw only to discover that they were all gone.  We were told
that Pondicherry was only 9km away, so I figured we could walk along
the road for a few hours, although Anjali was none too happy about
walking along a desolate road in the woods at night.
   After a while we started hearing explosions in the distance in
the direction we were walking.  As we continued walking towards the
explosions Anjali was convinced she was hearing a gun, but I was
pretty sure it was firecrackers.  Sure enough it was firecrackers.
Very loud firecrackers.  Mortar loud.  A group of firework-tossing
villagers were leading a procession of drummers and a flower-covered
float.  The men would alternate throwing fireworks that shot into the
air and exploded, and ones that were tossed into the road that
exploded on the ground with an incredible BOOM and a blinding flash of
light.  Anjali figured standing near a group of small half-naked
village children on the side of the road to watch the procession go by
would be as safe a place as any.  The Tamil Nadu harvest festival of
Pongal was being celebrated while we were in Pondicherry, so I figured
this procession must be tied into the festival.  The men with the
fireworks passed us only to toss one behind in our direction, that
exploded with such force and made such a loud sound that Anjali (who
cranks stage monitors to the maximum) thought it gave her hearing
damage.  As the drummers and the float were coming close I began
snapping photos, excited to catch such a procession, when Anjali
called out, “It’s a body!” upon seeing the flower-bedecked form in the
center of the float.  Horrified, I quickly put away the camera.  I had
no idea that I was making like a spectator at a parade when it was a
floral hearse that was going by.  I was hoping the locals would decide
not to stone me, though they seemed to take little notice as they
marched by.
   After the procession passed we continued on our long walk back to
Pondicherry in the deeping darkness.  Fortunately after several
kilometers we came to a major road, where we stood with some locals to
catch a bus to Pondi.  We didn’t have to wait more than a half hour
before we were rescued by a standing-room-only B.O.-outgassing bus
blasting a moody Tamil soundtrack that lent quite an aura to the
packed and sweaty ride back to town.  It was quite a long ride, and
I’m very glad we caught a bus, and didn’t have to walk the whole way.
   Anjali and I usually have really bad timing, and are always
arriving somewhere just after, or leaving somewhere just before, major
events, concerts, celebrations, etc.  It was actually amazing that we
were in Pondicherry for the Pongal celebrations.  The doorsteps or
streets in front of houses and businesses were done up with kolam
white sandpaint designs, or colorful rangoli scenes.  No one ever
offered us any pongal, the rice dish that is the center of the
celebrations, but we felt the generally festive mood, and learned
first hand that many in Tamil Nadu head to the coast to celebrate the
festival.  One day we did the same, and hired a taxi to a boat launch,
where you can take a boat to a strip of sand between the ocean, and a
large backwater, called Paradise Beach.  It wasn’t quite paradise, as
the Indian beachgoers have covered the beach with litter, even glass.  In addition, people coming and going to paradise apparently lose any sense of civility, as they crowd onto narrow docks waiting to load onto boats that are full of people that need room on the dock in order to disembark, and wrestling, shoving, shouting and pushing matches occur in view of small children.  This wasn’t a football match, this was middle class families spending an afternoon at the beach.
However, Paradise Beach is a nice beach, and I swam in the Bay of Bengal for the first
time.  As a general rule, Indians never learn how to swim, but people
did enjoy standing in the shallows and having the waves wash over
them.  Since I swam out into the waves I was under close scrutiny by
the lifeguard in case I should go out too far.
   The weather in Pondicherry while we were there was hot, hot, hot,
and going to the beach seemed like a great idea.  There was a freak
rainstorm the morning we left for the beach, but I assumed it would still be
a blazing hot day.  Instead it was overcast, and it actually rained on us
while we were at Paradise Beach.  Most people fled for the return
boat, but Anjali and I stuck it out under one of the thatched huts near
the beach.  When we got back to Pondicherry later that evening we were ready for dinner,
but the first place we went to said they were closed, an hour before
the listed time.  Pongal is celebrated over many days, so we assumed
they were closing early for the holiday.  We went to another place
down the street and the guard at the entrance said they were “full,”
even though we could see many empty tables in the rooftop dining area.
We finally found a place that would serve us, but they wouldn’t let
us sit in the empty downstairs, and made us go up to their rooftop
area.  Anjali soon realized she was the only woman there, and I
noticed the menu said “bar and restaurant.”  The men around us were
all drinking and eating meat, and they chortled when we ordered our
fresh lime sodas.  The waiter emphasized that the paneer tikka we
ordered was “veg,” as if we were making some mistake. We had a very
tense meal, surrounded by increasingly rowdy drinkers, and the
waitstaff seemed happy to get us out of there.  When we went
downstairs the security guard pulled up the rolled-down metal door to
let us out, as if we were leaving a speakeasy.  The streets were
strangely empty and shut down for the hour, and we had an eerie walk
home, not sure what all of this had to do with the Pongal
Next:  On to Chennai, and then Mumbai.
Take care all,

Culture Shock to the Extreme

Hello all,

Yesterday Anjali and I experienced the most intense culture shock of our trip.  We arrived in the village of Hampi in Karnataka yesterday morning, which was the heart of the sixteenth century Vijayanagar empire which dominated Southern India.  Now it is a town surrounded by ruins set amidst an evocative boulder-strewn landscape of rice paddies, banana plantations, and coconut palms.  It is also deluged by whiteys.  We have only seen a handful of whiteys here and there on our trip, and here we are SURROUNDED by them.  Australians, Europeans, Israelis, and good-old Americans.  We sat stunned in the popular Mango Tree restaurant on the banks of the Tungabhadra river watching dozens of goras eating all around us.  This is a little part of India they have taken over and staked out for their own.  As incredible as the giant rock pile-ups are, and amazing as it is to see ancient temples and ruins everywhere you luck, I am looking forward to getting out of here.  The Mango Tree had a sign that said “While you are in India, please try some Indian food.”  “Oh my God,” I realized, this means there are probably travelers who try to avoid eating Indian food.  The Mango Tree menu didn’t help, since it was loaded with Western options.  All the restaurants here advertise Italian food, German food, European pastries and desserts, and Israeli food, as Hampi is connected to Goa, and that is a favored Israeli vacation spot.  We have even seen signs in Hebrew, and the keys on the keyboard that I am currently using have Hebrew letters taped on next to the English letters.  Nutella is a restaurant staple here, and listed on menus in every possible combination with other foods.

The saddest thing is that the foreign tourists show no respect for Indians or Indian culture.  The men all wear T-shirts and shorts, and the women all dress in tight spaghetti-strap tops and short-shorts.  They go around holding hands or wrapped in each other’s arms, which is a real slap in the face to Indian social norms.   Every guidebook to India explains how to dress respectfully and conservatively, so these people are either totally ignorant, or intentionally trampling over cultural norms.  Fortunately there were lots of Indian tourists and school groups at the temples and ruins, so we didn’t feel completely disconnected from the rest of our trip.

Before Hampi we were in Hyderabad, AKA Cyberabad, India’s most hi-tech city (there is a township in Hyderabad called HITEC City -Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City, but we didn’t make time to visit), and surprisingly it was a real challenge finding internet cafes (or net centers, as they are called there) in the area of town where we were staying.  Before that Anjali and I made it to Pachmarhi, Madya Pradesh’s major hill station, for the New Year’s Eve period.  Actually, I almost didn’t.  The closest railway station was in a town called Pipariya, and when the doors of the train opened, so many people tried to cram their way on, that I got stuck on the train, crushed in by people, with a suitcase (Anjali refuses to travel with a backpack) and my own ginormous backpack that were very hard to manuever, and I lost sight of Anjali, who had managed to force her way off the train.  People were far more interested in cramming their way on to the train than letting an overburdened white boy off, and by the time I heard Anjali yelling for me I realized the train was moving.  I yelled “I can’t get off!” at which point an Indian man grabbed the emergency brake and stopped the train.  Anjali had jumped back on the train when it started moving, and after I yelled, people made some effort to let me get off the train, but I still had to toss the luggage off in order to disembark.

When we planned our New Year’s for the hill station of Pachmarhi we thought it would be a quiet little getaway, little knowing that it is THE place to be for Indian tourists during this period, especially ones from Maharashtra.  Prices in the region increase up to tenfold during this time (our hotel fortunately only doubled their rates), and the town is packed with celebrating Indians.  In fact, once we arrived we learned that our hotel would throw the major parties in town, one on the 30th in the lawn behind the hotel, and one on the 31st in the open courtyard of a nearby school.  Our room was “deluxe” which always means the crappiest room available.  “Deluxe” is the bottom of the barrel, compared to tags such as “imperial” or “grand”  Since meals were included, it is a good thing the place had a fine kitchen.  In fact, since all the tourists in town are Indian, the food is cooked for Indians, not whiteys, so it was spicy!  Yum.  One night I ordered Kohlapuri dal, wondering what kind of dal that was, only to discover that Kohlapuri meant that the top of the dal was covered in mounds of chilies, chili flakes, and hot chili oil.  Which is fine, I love spicy food, but I have never seen a dish arrive at my place setting like that outside of only the most chili-crazy Thai joints.  The Misty Meadows Resort served the most amazing, creamy lassis which Anjali and I ordered every meal.  The tops were covered in nuts and berries, and I was skeptical of these unusual additions at first, but was soon won over by the scrumptious delightfulness of these ambrosial concoctions.

Pachmarhi is a plateau located inside a double caldera.  The now extinct volcano had two great explosions, so Pachmarhi is ringed by two sets of mountain peaks.  The area is filled with scenic woods and beautiful waterfalls.  Our first full day (or the first full day we didn’t spend sleeping recovering from our overnight train journey) we hired a jeep (gypsy is what they are called here) to see some of the local sights.  Our non-English-speaking driver took us to a ticket station where we were told it would be 1710 (!) rupees to get a pass to see the sights,  which seemed astronomically expensive in context.  I walked away in shock, only to have a generalissimo-type figure in aviator shades with a military cap and camo fatigues follow me from behind the counter to explain that if we left the jeep outside the woods, and did more hiking, the fee would only be 710 rupees to see the waterfalls with a guide.  I told him we didn’t want a guide, and that we wanted a cheaper option.  He explained there was no cheaper option, and we were required to have a guide. None of the three guidebooks we brought said a guide was necessary, in fact they suggested walking or biking to some of the closer spots, so I thought we were being lied to, but he seemed official, so I relented.

The area of Pachmarhi is largely controlled by the Indian army, who make up most of the population, and it seemed like the military had their fingers in the tourist industry as well.  After agreeing to pay the fee, the generalissimo jumped in the jeep and said he would be our guide. This really freaked me out, especially after he quickly announced that for a little extra, he would take us on special routes through the woods where the Indian tourists didn’t go, and we could see “untouched natural beauty.”  I wasn’t picturing untouched natural beauty, I was picturing us raped, robbed and murdered out in the forest by generalisimo and his army buddies.  He took us to some ancient Buddhist caves in the area, told us no more than what I already knew from our travel books, told us a maximum time we had in the area, and then waited at the bottom of the cliff while we did the strenous climbing ourselves.  I was fuming.  I felt lied to.  I felt ripped off.  The whole reason we rented our own jeep was so we could be on our own schedule, and now I was being told the “maximum” amount of time I could spend in an area. Bullshit!  But this guy seemed military, and we were in a military town, so what power did I have in this situation?  Our Indian cellphone didn’t even get service up at the hill station.  While I explored the caves with Anjali I kept having imaginary confrontations with the generalissimo in my head.  When we returned to the base of the cliff, I asked the man his name, and he replied, “Thakur,” pointing to it embroiderd on his chest.  Oh, right.  I asked his job title and employer and learned that he was the senior-most Madhya Pradesh Forest Guide, having served as a guide in the area for twenty-eight years.  He explained that all tourists, foreign and Indian, needed a guide to visit the waterfalls in order to ensure the protection of rare plants.  After a lengthy questioning period I accepted the guy’s legitimacy, and realized his fatigues were not military camo, but a more playful pine leaf design used by the forest service.

Once he started taking us through the woods and sharing his geological and botanical knowledge with us I realized that we had really lucked out in scoring such a knowledgeable and sensitive guide.  He railed constantly about the Indian tourists who visit the area and how they don’t appreciate nature and throw garbage everywhere and talk the whole time.  He said there were only about 200 foreign tourists in Pachmarhi a year, and I realized why he wanted to be our guide, and share some really special places with us.  He took us off the general trail and showed us the world’s largest mango tree (to me, anyway), silver ferns, the curry plant, neem plant, carniverous pitcher plants and the Mahua tree, whose leaves are fermented to make a potent tribal liquor.  He explained that the tribals in the area make no handicrafts -which explained why we saw nothing but mass-produced plastic crap in the market the night before- but they harvest a health miracle mineral called shilajeet, harvest amazing honey, and brew up wicked Mahua.  He showed us a giant rocky overhang covered in prehistoric rock art of hunters and beasts.  The guide books claim the rock art in the area was painted 10,000 years ago, but Mr. Thakur claimed the art was 35,000 years old.  Mr. Thakur explained that he has discovered 300 prehistoric art sites in Pachmarhi that only he knows about, as he fears if he tells the forest service that the sites will become popular with Indian tourists and they will deface the art and cover it with graffitti.  Sure enough, I could see that a few people had already done just that on the site he was sharing with us.

We shared a beautiful walk through highland forest, only spying the occasional tribal children who use the trails in the area.  Mr. Thakur warned us what we would see once we rejoined the main trail and sure enough it was covered with garbage, Indian tourists talking loudly, and even playing Bollywood music on boomboxes.  He took us to a small falls called Apsara Vihar (Fairy Pool), which was covered in garbage, overrun by dozens and dozens of people eating snacks at the nearby snack bar in the woods, and I was really underwhelmed compared to the spectacular falls we have in the Columbia gorge.  It was only when the trek continued to Rajat Pratap (Silver Fall) that I was awed by the scenery.  The fall drops hundreds of feet into a massive ravine covered in forest.  The panorama was immense, providing a view of both sets of mountain rings, and several enormous forest valleys which are apparently lined with fourteen waterfalls during the wet season.  Later he took us to Bee Falls, a very popular spot where hundreds of Indians congregate to bathe in the towering cascade, and eat chai and snacks at the neighboring stalls deep in a gorge.  Anjali didn’t join the masses at the lower falls, but instead bathed in the secret middle falls, that Mr. Thakur led us to as a peaceful alternative to the chaos below.  Anjali lived out her wet sari fantasy swimming around the hidden pool.  At the end of our day together I learned through Mr. Thakur that our jeep driver’s wife brews up wicked Mahua, and even though it was “unlegal,” he could hook us up with a bottle.  Although I am not much of a drinker, I jumped at the chance to sample the local forbidden brew, and when the driver’s wife ended up being out, we drove to a neighboring compound where we got some of what I was told was good stuff, brewed 25 km away out in the tribal sticks.  I sampled it later that night and it smelled and tasted like funky rotten flowers, but it sure felt good.

Our hotel parties on the 30th and 31st featured a Bollywood cover band from Bhopal featuring bongos and lots of pre-recorded electronic parts, and really bad computer DJs who would only play 30 seconds of a song, abruptly and traumatically crash into the next one, and then within a few songs bring back the original song for another 30 seconds.  Horrible.  The party on the 30th occurred in the freezing lawn behind the hotel where we hovered around a bonfire and waited for a dinner that wasn’t served until after 10:30pm.  Indians eat late.  On New Year’s Eve the party occurred in the courtyard of a nearby school.  At both events I was the only whitey, and while it was fun to see Indians partying in their element, the atrocious DJing drove me away both times.  It was all current Bollywood hits with a few bhangra songs thrown in, mostly of the cheezy pop variety, except for Panjabi MC’s “Dhol Jageero Da,” which made appearences both nights.  The one completely surprising moment was when the DJ threw in a bit of a track by Panamanian reggaeton producer El Chombo on New Year’s Eve.  That really threw me.  In remote central India . . . Wow.  At the New Year’s Eve party there was a prohibited corner, where they served chicken and alcohol for additional money beyond the 600 rupee cover charge.  All the veg food lining the courtyard was free, and mostly average, except for a really good moong dal desert.  The chaat counter was hopping, but I was wary of being served dicey water in the chutneys, so I abstained.
After Pachmarhi we transferred some trains to Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, where Anjali and I had never been.  In fact, neither of us had ever been South of Pune, and we were impressed by how much friendlier people seemed than in the North.  Hyderabad is a Muslim city in a Hindu state.  Which means that while Telugu is the state language, many people in Hyderabad speak Urdu, so Anjali and I could still get by with some Hindi, since Hindi and Urdu are very similar in their spoken forms.  I was eager to buy Telugu soundtrack CDs, since their percussion-riot aesthetics are the most exciting thing I have heard in years.  I bought about 150 of them, which wasn’t hard, since they run less than a buck each.  We spent the evenings watching South Indian movie dance and fight scenes on cable at our hotel.  Despite the popularity of the Telugu movies in theaters and on TV, it was still Bollywood music that dominated the soundscape in Hyderabad.  Even in the music stores it was mostly music in Hindi that got played.  We stayed at the Hotel Taj Mahal, which is not related to the Taj chain of Mumbai, although that chain does have several super-expensive branches in Hyderabad.  Our hotel had an amazing and hopping South Indian restaurant, that since the only whitey they ever served while I was there was me, meant that I got real Indian food.  The best was their unlimited South Indian thali.  The thali was slightly different every day, and would include dal, sambar, rasam, pappadum, pooris, curds, raita (with chilies and ginger in it!), salty fried chilies, a vegetarian version of something like fried pork skins, a wet curry, two dry vegetable curries, a savory fried rice, dessert, and all the white rice you could eat.  If you emptied any of the little bowls, the waiters would quickly bring new ones, sometimes even if you begged them not to, until maybe you had three bowls of curry, rasam, sambar, dal, etc.  They wouldn’t stop until you couldn’t move.   All super-tasty, and all you could eat for less than two bucks.
While the food at the hotel was probably too spicy for most Americans, I wanted something even hotter.  For years Indians in America have been telling me that the cooking of Andhra Pradesh is the spiciest in the Subcontinent.  I was really looking forward to testing myself on this cuisine.  After questioning several locals I got the impression that it is the meat dishes that are primarily the spicy ones, and since I don’t eat meat I was very disappointed.  We finally got a recommendation to try a restaurant called Rayalaseema Ruchulu with Andhra specialties, which took some time, and the efforts of two autorickshaw wallahs to finally find.  We tried Gutti Vankaya, a peanuty-sauce eggplant dish, a mixed vegetable curry in an unusual dark brown sauce, a dish called Ulavacharu, which was essentially a dark brown broth, with a tamarind taste.  Very savory.  You eat it by pouring it over a bunch of white rice.  For desert we tried Bakshalu (Bobbatlu) a butter-dripping flat bread stuffed with a sweet moong dal paste.  Even though I asked for it spicy, the dishes weren’t that hot, yet all had very unique flavors, unlike anything else I have had in India.
One thing that was very noticeable in Hyderabad was how intense security was.  To go into a mall you had to go through a metal detector, get patted down, and have your bags searched.  Same if you wanted to go to the park bordering the giant Hussain Sagar lake in the center of town, or a grocery store (They have grocery stores in Hyderabad!), or a bakery.  The Karachi bakery had three guards and a metal detector.  Anjali learned that behind covered women’s security screening areas they even pat full frontal.  There have been terrorist bombings in Hyderabad in the past, and they obviously take the threat of future terrorist activity very seriously.  There is an old Muslim part of town, and also super ritzy modern areas with incredibly fancy malls and shopping districts that seemed much more posh than anything I had experienced in America.  Since Hyderabad has surpassed Bangalore as the hi-tech capitol of India, there are lots of people there with money to burn.

While I said we are in Hampi, we are actually spending the evenings in the more mellow guest house enclave of Virupapuragadda a couple-minute boat ride across the river from the Hampi Bazaar.  I got blessed by the temple elephant Lakshmi at the Virupaksha temple in the center of the Bazaar today.  Lakshmi gets a bath in the river every morning, which we witnessed upon our early arrival in town.  When you visit the temple you may either offer Lakshmi a banana (or big handful of bananas) which she will quickly grab in her trunk and then devour, or place a  coin or a bill on the end of her snout, which she will give to her handler, and then bring her trunk back around to bop you on the head as her way of blessing you.  I did it and it felt great. Our days have been spent exploring some of the more than 500 ruins that dot the landscape around Hampi.  Tomorrow we transfer a couple trains to eventually find ourselves in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

I hope everyone is well,


Report from the center of India

Hello all,

Anjali and I have been spending our last couple days in the dead center of India: Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.  This is where Anjali’s maternal grandmother and uncles live, and a place that doesn’t receive many foreign visitors, unless they are on their way to the Kanha National Park wilderness preserve to see the tigers. We arrived on a sunny Christmas Eve, and before long were sharing a meal with her grandmother and her uncle Ajit at the historic family home.  Later in the evening we met up with Anjali’s uncle Suresh and his wife, daughter, and her boyfriend for some late evening socializing.  June Aunty served us amazing homemade non-alcholic ginger wine while we sat and chatted.  Exquisite.  Liquid ginger goodness.

Christmas day in Jabalpur was an absolutely unique experience.  Anjali’s Indian family converted to Christianity several generations back, so we went with her uncle to Christmas service and an early morning christening of one of distant infant relative at the Church of North India Diocese of Jabalpur.  In order to make the christening we were up with the dawn, which took some effort, since we hadn’t recovered from the poor quality sleep we got on the overnight train ride to Jabalpur the night before.  The father of the baptised infant is currently working in Dubai, and he came back with his family to christen the baby in his family home of Jabalpur.  He insisted we come to the christening reception that evening at the high-end Narmada Jacksons Hotel.  Well, if you insist.  He was a very sweet man.

We then met the priest, who proceeded swiftly to insist that Anjali’s mother needed to be sending money to the church every year in order to stay on the church rolls, and then he quickly excused himself.  Having been raised Christian, but having only attended three services in the last 18 years (all Christmas or Christmas Eve services, naturally), my brief meeting with the priest quickly reminded me of the standard priority of Christian churches, no matter what continent in which they operate.

The services were conducted in English, broadcast over a series of popping loudspeakers in a large and well-kept, high-ceilinged nave facing a wall of stained glass windows beyond the altar.  I appeared to be the only whitey in attendance, although there were some light-skinned Anglo-Indians at the service.  I recognized about half of the Christmas hymns, and the church organ provided a sense of childhood familiarity.  Having not attended a Christian service in a long time, I realized that it involves a lot of standing up and sitting down, and standing up and sitting down.  This happened hesitantly and in pockets, taking the whole congregation a while to figure out what they should be doing at any one moment.  The sermon involved a lot of references to terrorism and the Mumbai attacks, but I couldn’t make out a lot of what was said over the crackling, distorted loudspeakers.  There was a plaque in the church dedicated to Anjali’s grandfather Shamrao Hivale, and I took several pictures of her underneath it.  We ate freshly-fried bhajiyas and jaleebis that were being whipped up in vats of oil behind a food tent next to the church, while we were introduced to a sucession of Anjali’s distant relations.  Best after-church snacks ever, and good chai too.  We then picked up Anjali’s grandmother and visited Anjali’s grandfather’s grave, where she and her uncle placed flowers and lit candles.

We then went over to Suresh’s home for a Christmas meal of desi khanna, including Cherida’s “Himachal-style” fried bhindi and a bunch of homemade Christmas snacks including “grape wine,” “guava cheesse,” Christmas cake, and Christmas fudge. Later we went with Ajit and Ai (Anjali’s grandmother) to the Narmada Jacksons Hotel for the christening reception.  What a trip.  It was held in a two-roomed upper ballroom, where there were two Indian DJs playing awful ’80s American ballads, that were all hideous songs you don’t even remember until you hear them, to a room of well-dressed Indians and their many small children. There was a table of veg and non-veg snacks, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.  Many of Anjali’s relations trying to force alcohol on me, one after another.  I am not much of a drinker, but Anjali desperately wanted some whisky, so I got the drinks which she then surreptitiously drank.  At all the functions we have been at where alcohol is served, the men insist over and over that I drink, while no women are drinking, or even offered a drink, and Anjali felt that she was on the receiving end of scandalous glares when she would attempt to sneak sips from our tumbler.

Before dinner was served, and after I had eaten far too many paneer tikka kabobs, the DJs started blasting pounding Bollywood-house music over large speaker stacks facing a lit-up raised dance floor with changing colored lights.  I didn’t think anyone would dance, and after the music was turned louder and louder, adults joined the children already on the dance floor, and even Anjali and I went out to cut a rug.  A throng of young girls were the enthusiastic front line (“Pappu Can’t Dance” (Remix) was a favorite), but the best dancer was a stylish man with Down’s syndrome in a leather jacket who was graceful, enthusiastic, and loaded with moves.  A Gond (local tribal people) queen really threw herelf into the dance as well.  The DJs were awful, brutally crashing from one song to the next, usually only playing a few minutes, and transitioning awkwardly, heedless of tempo or song structure, often pulling a song in the middle of a chorus.  It was a familiar set of recent Bollywood hits, and one old pop bhangra nugget.  Many were songs I regularly play, so it was unique for me to be experiencing these songs on the dance floor, and not in the DJ booth.  The lit-up dance floor was cool, and fun to dance on.  Eventually people cleared the dance floor, except for a few of the young girls, and despite the fact that people were clearly done dancing and ready for dinner, the DJs just kept playing louder and louder pounding house music until Anjali complained on behalf of her grandmother, at which point the DJs returned to playing awful American ballads, many for the second time.

Dinner was finally served and the veg options were competent, if predictable, Punjabi standards such as mutter paneer, channa, and dal fry.  The deserts were the best: a very tasty gajar halwa (and I am not even much of a fan) and a desert called shahi tukra, which was sugar syrup-soaked sponge cakes with custard and silver leaf on top.  After many hours, we finally went home, close to midnight.  On boxing day we went with Anjali’s grandmother and uncle Ajit to the local tourist attractions.  Bheraghat, or Marble Rocks, is a gorge on the Narmada river of dramatic marble cliffs.  We went to the Dhuandhar, or Smoke Falls, so called because of the spray of mist that rises up from the crashing falls.  The place was mobbed with tourists, all Indian, except for myself.  The Narmada river is the third most sacred in India, according to Anjali’s uncle, and despite the fact that there were stands selling items for pooja (offering) and there were people bathing in the sacred waters, the place was covered in garbage everywhere I looked.  The place has become highly commercialized, and there is now a cable car going over the chasm, in addition to recently added paved walkways, to accompany the long-standing strip of vendors selling carved soapstone items, religious, secular, or blank, to be monogrammed with your name, or the name of someone you love.  The amount of garbage covering every inch of the place really detracted from the experience for me.  There was no viewpoint where you couldn’t see garbage in every nook and cranny, casually tossed over the side.

We then drove to and climbed the steps to the top of the high hill where the 10th century temple, Chausath Yogini Mandir sits.  The temple is lined by a circle of carvings of 64 Indian goddesses, all at least partly destroyed many centuries ago by conquering Muslims.  Here we saw our first white spiritual tourists.  They earnestly carried red velvet triangular pillows which they used to sit around the temple and meditate in the Lotus position.  The temple is currently active and worshipped at (I was offered prasad while I was there.), and there were signs of fresh offerings on the Shivalingams, but these spiritual tourists had a unique way of worshipping, which certainly didn’t resemble any spiritual practices of the locals.

Anjali and I then caught a rowboat stuffed with Indian families for a tour of the gorge.  Apparently the boats are designed for ten, but there were closer to thirty on our boat.  The sun set shortly before we got into the boat and as we were surrounded by mosquitos out on the water we realized we had not sprayed or prepared ourselves in any way for their onslaught.  Despite the fact that there were clouds of them hovering around our heads we somehow avoided getting bitten.  The tour of the gorge was narrated in a loud oratory in Hindi performed by one of the rowers. Among other things it consisted of a recounting of what rock had been used in which Bollywood film by which actors.  The crowd was highly amused, and their was frequent laughter, and much additional commentary from the Indian tourists,  but I only caught bits and pieces with my practically non-existent Hindi.

While we saw the occasional cow in Delhi, Jabalpur is overrun with them, although according to Anjali’s uncle they are not allowed in the city.  One night returning to our hotel we even saw three water buffalo resting on the side of the road.  We really stand out in Jabalpur, but since it is not a tourist town, we are harldy ever accosted by beggars.  We are here for another day, and then off to the hill station of Pachmari.  We thought we were picking a quiet out-of-the-way place for a mellow New Year’s Eve, only to discover that it is a highly popular spot for Indian tourists during the Christmas to New Year’s Eve period.  Accommodation costs go through the roof, and it gets very hard to find a room.  We opted not to change our plans, and had to advance a fabulous sum to a “resort” in the center of Pachmari town.  The rate includes all meals, so I hope fervently that they have a good cook.

Take care everyone!


Some Indian Reflections

Hello everyone,      

     It is our last evening in Delhi.  We are catching an overnight train tomorrow to Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh to visit Anjali’s grandmother, uncles, aunt and cousin.  We had a really sketchy experience on an overnight train in central India on our last trip, so I’m hoping I won’t have a gang of rough-looking dudes try to steal my berth.  It’s OK if the aisles fill up with village women sleeping on the floor, however. 

     I didn’t need any reminding, but I just ate the best home-cooked aloo gobi and mutter paneer (which I usually hate), so dense and rich with concentrated flavors; which proves to me yet again, that the best food in India is served in the homes.  Although, I had my first paneer masala dosa from a grimy storefront food stall the other day, and it was fabulous. Indian cheese stir-fried with spices, tomatoes and onions on a hot griddle, then wrapped in a rice and lentil flour crepe fried on the same griddle.  Served with sambar (hot and spicy lentil soup) for dipping.  It tasted like an incredibly flavorful and spicy scrambled egg wrap.  Yum!  I’ve had a ton of dosas in my time, but never the paneer masala dosa.
     A little note on my dosa eating experience.  Anjali was shopping at a Jaipur block-print boutique, when I went and bought my dosa.  I didn’t think the guard stationed out front (guards are veeerrry common out front of nice stores in Delhi) would appreciate me eating my dosa on the fancy steps, so I went and sat on a filthy curb by the street.  I had my dosa in one hand, and had a rubber-banded shut plastic bag of hot sambar in the other.  I was somehow trying to get the rubber band undone so I could dip my dosa in the lentil broth goodness, without setting my dosa down on the dusty ground.  The guard saw how much I was struggling, and waved me over to sit on his bench.  He took his own food bowl out of his day pack, rinsed it (how could I worry about tainted water and spurn such a kind gesture?), and opened up my sambar baggie and poured it into the bowl.  After offering him some food, which he refused, I ate my scrumptious snack, and then went to tip him, because I am trained to tip every service in India, and he recoiled in surprise from my offered bill.   What a sweet man, just like our cycle rickshaw driver tonight, who when he couldn’t find Anjali’s cousin’s apartment, waited with us at the Mother Dairy, while we waited for her to come meet us.  He then offered to take all three of us in his cycle the short walk to the apartment.  Such thoughtfulness and concern.    

     A few random thoughts:
     If you go to a cocktail lounge in Delhi and order a mixed drink, it will be brought in two glasses.  One is the alcohol by itself, so you can inspect the pour, and the other will contain the mixers.  Once you have verified the alcohol to your content, the waiter will mix the two glasses in front of you.  Anjali’s cousin Sheena claims this is because high-end hotel bars, which used to be the only places you could get mixed drinks, were so stingy with the alcohol, that now bars have to prove they are serving you a decent amount of liquor to earn your dollars.  And while prices have gone down, drinks at a fancy bar are on par with average drinks in America.
     Most pants don’t come hemmed here.  I thought I would never be able to find pants long enough for me here, since the population is generally shorter than in America, and  I often can’t find an inseam long enough in the States.  I learned that even cotton pants are sold unhemmed here, since tailors are so numerous and cheap. 
     Even in the fanciest bakery in Delhi I watched a rat peek out at me from under the display case.  It didn’t seem to be phased by all the rich Delhi-ites buying Christmas Cakes (like fruit cakes, only good, apparently) and plum puddings.
     All of the buses and auto rickshaws in Delhi were forced to convert to CNG (compressed natural gas) for fuel.  The bus fleet advertises itself as the world’s largest eco-friendly bus fleet.  Apparently this greatly lessened the air pollution for a while, but now so many reach Delhi-ites are buying imported German diesel cars that all the improvement in air quality is gone.  The sun at sunset is a orange-red ball, but the haze around it never changes color, staying a filmy gray.
     The word “diversity” means something very different in India.  We use diversity in the States to mean people from all over the world living in one place.  In India it is used to talk about a place that has Indians from many different Indian states living in one place.  Delhi is therefore, very diverse.
     People throw trash everywhere.  There has apparently been no successful consciousness-raising around the issue of litter.  There are piles of plastic trash on the sides of the road, and even in a fancy shopping district I watched a girl through her fast food plastic soda cup right over her shoulder and into the parking lot, to be quickly crushed under the wheels of cars looking for parking.
     Modern tattoo studios have invaded Delhi.  There are ads for visiting tattoo artists from the States.
     Lots of Tibetans and Nepalis are living in Delhi.  They are often salespeople at stores.  You can also order veg and non-veg, fried or steamed momos (Tibetan or Nepali dumplings) at just about every restaurant, and roadside stand.
     Anjali can’t believe all the whiteys she is seeing in Delhi this trip, far more than in all five of her previous visits.  There are still hippies traveling to India, but now the hipsters have joined them.  We blame the “Darjeeling Limited.”  Wes Anderson has much to answer for.  I took pictures of the Shatabdi Express bathrooms, with the hole open to the tracks, so people can see what trains in India are really like.  Unlike our visit to the Qutb Minar, when we were surrounded by Indian tourists, our visit to Humayan’s Tomb shocked us with the sight of dozens and dozens of white tourists exploring Delhi’s Mughal past.
     Delhi girls and tourists alike choose to wear super tight jeans on their matchstick-thin legs.  Fashion is universal.  Style is hard to come by.
     Indians don’t touch water bottles to their lips when they drink, but pour it down their throats from on high.  It is considered more hygienic.  I am trying to redevelop this skill, but I still end up with water spilled over the front of my shirt.  Sodas you can place to your lips.  Maybe its the ads. 
     Because labor is so cheap, there are often dozens of salespeople hovering over you in shops that are far too small to hold that many people.  They will want to assist you with every little thing, and not everyone understands “just looking.”
     There is allegedly a plastic bag ban in Delhi, but you would never know that by how many bags the store people want to use for even your tiniest purchase, and how difficult it is to convince them that you don’t want a bag.
     If you are shipping items back to the States from India, keep in mind that you can’t ship gold jewelry, edible items, currency, passports (?!?), soap, or incense.  I guess they are afraid of scents contaminating other shipments. 
     You might recognize the name of a dish on the menu, but that doesn’t mean you will recognize what is served to you.  Anju ordered “minestrone” at a cafe that appeared to be run by Nepalis, and what she got didn’t have any pasta or beans in it, but was a far more flavorful and delectable soup than anything served in America by that name.
     If you are in Delhi, and you have the advantage of having Indian locals as friends, make sure they negotiate auto rickshaw prices while you are hiding, and you will end up with a far better negotiated fare, having sneakily avoided the gora (whitey) tax.
I hope the Portlanders are staying warm, 

Amristar, Punjab

Hello All, 

     Back in New Delhi again after several days in Amritsar, Punjab.  We took the Shatabdi Express train from New Delhi, and I was really looking forward to the food, because when we took the Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh, Punjab on our last trip, the food was amazing.  This time it was a super disappointing “vegetable cutlet” which is a common Indian food item, of spiced mashed potatoes and vegetables fried into a patty.  It was just OK, and I kept thinking another bigger meal would arrive at some point during our six-hour train ride, but this was not to be.  To me the vegetable cutlet was bland, but I love extremely spicy food, and I realized that if an American who doesn’t like spicy food were to take the same train, they would probably find the cutlet too spicy to eat. As disappointing as the food was, they do bring you as many pots of hot water as you want to make your own tea, a large bottled water, a newspaper, bread, butter and jam, and a box of mango juice, which was more than we got in twenty hours of flying Western airlines.
     Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site.  Unfortunately any place in India that is home to some place considered spiritual that attracts a lot of visitors, will feature hordes of unsavory characters doing their aggressive best to make a buck off you.  In a scene that is very typical for India, Anjali and I were assaulted by scores of aggressive touts as we tried to exit the train station.  We hadn’t made a hotel reservation, which is tricky, because if a taxi cab or auto rickshaw takes you to a hotel where you don’t have a reservation, they will get a hefty commission for giving the hotel business, which will be tacked onto your bill.  The micro map of Amritsar in our guidebook made it look like the hotel we were looking for would be a short walk directly across from the train station.  And in a way it was, but the road was incredibly wide and hectic, with a large median, and there were so many signs on the other side of the street covering all the buildings which were scrunched up together, that there was no sign of the “Grand Hotel” for which we were looking.  Our side of the street was mobbed with auto rickshaw wallahs and cycle rickshaw wallahs, who swarmed around us the second we paused.  When a Western tourist tries to avoid a mob like this and make their way on their own, the auto wallahs eventually realize they won’t be making a buck off you, so they will often settle for mocking you and making jokes to each other at your expense.  Not a fun way to be introduced to a city.
     After some very stressful moments we finally made it across the traffic-clogged highway and into the surprisingly serene lobby of the Grand Hotel, where the manager then attempted to pressure/sweet talk us into using his services to hire a car to go to the Pakistan border, where an elaborate gate-closing ceremony is staged every evening.  We knew from our guidebooks that we could catch a bus to the border for 15 rupees, take an auto for 200, or a cab for 400, and the manager wanted 850!  “Friendly management” said one of the guidebooks.  I would be friendly too if I was scamming people for that much money.  
     There were vacancies, and we inspected a room, which looked nice enough, but after paying for the night, and taking a closer look, we realized how ripped off we were.  In Amritsar you can stay for free at the Sikh gurdwara, there are guest houses for 200-400 rupees a night, and this place was 1200-some plus taxes, so we had every right to have fairly high expectations.  In India you can find places to stay for only a few dollars a night, or you can stay at the most luxurious hotels in the country for hundreds of dollars (or a thousand!) a night.  Twenty-five or thirty bucks will usually get you a very fancy place, that would be far nicer than any place I will ever stay in the United States.  Anjali and I are not extreme bargain hunters, as we want a private bathroom, hot water (at least in the cold North), clean sheets, relative quiet, etc.  The Grand Hotel was recommended by the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Footprint, so we thought it was a sure bet.  Hardly.  All three publications will see a future complaint lodged by us.  There were no sheets or towels, the pillows were filthy gray, the blanket looked very scary, and neither of us wanted it anywhere near us, there were no light bulbs in the lamps, no soap was provided, the wash buckets had been used to mix cement, there was mold growing in the fridge, the shower water never got hot, and the TV didn’t work. (I don’t watch TV in America, but in India I watch as much of the many music video channels as possible, to catch up on all the pop music of the subcontinent.)  If you are spending $25 on a room in America, this might be acceptable, but when you spend this much in India, this is outrageous.  Clean rooms could be found for a sixth of this. 

     After recovering from how much we had been ripped off on our accommodation, we caught a cycle rickshaw to the old city of Amritsar to see the Golden Temple.  The main “street” (filthy, congested alley lined with dingy storefronts and clogged with auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles and scooters) leading up to the temple was a mob scene, and we were pounced on by people trying to sell us head scarves (one must have one’s head covered to enter the temple complex, although scarves are available for free there) or other trinkets, trying to arrange a trip to the Pakistan border for us, or simply begging.  India may be filled with spiritual places, but you have to have great patience wading through the commercial and material world before you can get there. It was nearing sunset, and we hadn’t had a full meal, after being up since 5:30am, so we didn’t follow the worshipers streaming into the temple complex, but instead ate at one of the recommended, filthy, fly-smothered dhabas serving incredibly oily Panjabi food across from the temple.  When in doubt we take sulphur pills after our meals, and we downed quite a few after that one.  
      There are very clean bathrooms outside the temple complex, as well as sinks and soap directly to the side of the temple entrance, and a trough of water across the entrance you wash your bare feet in before you enter.  Cleanliness and bathing are very important to the Sikh faith. Our giving into our physical needs before tending to our spiritual ones meant that by the time we checked our shoes and entered the temple complex, there were only the faintest pink cloud trails remaining of what I imagined to have been an amazing sunset, which no doubt looked glorious reflecting off the Golden Temple.  I took lots of pictures anyway, and Anjali was brought to tears by her first sight of the temple.    The whole temple complex is a sea of tranquility and beauty in the middle of a very filthy, ugly city, Punjab’s biggest.  (I should comment hear that the Northern half of Amritsar is allegedly the shiny, leafy, suburban new area of town, but we spent all our time in the old city.)  The entire complex is always filled with the sound of chanting voices, tabla, and harmonium, occurring in the center of the temple, and broadcast throughout the complex on loudspeakers: hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, the eternal guru, the holy book of the Sikhs.  The temple is surrounded by an enormous placid pool, the Lake of the Holy Nectar, believed to have healing powers.  As you circumnavigate the rectangular pool, you see constant signs of devotion.  People touch their hands and head to the ground upon entering the complex, siting the temple, arriving at the edge of the water, passing any of the many windows where you can see Sikhs assigned to maintain a constant vigil of unceasingly reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, a complete reading of which takes forty-eight hours.  There is a spot for bathing in the pool, where the men strip down to their skivies and bathe morning or night, next to a covered, private bathing house for women.  There are many sacred spots along the marble path enclosing the temple, and I can’t pretend to have memorized the meaning and importance of all of them, but I duly noted that the devout, of which there are always hundreds in the complex, no matter what time of day or night (the temple is only closed for a few hours in the late evening, and reopens at 3am), would not cross these spots without praying and prostrating themselves on the ground.  When we tried to enter the long causeway to the temple proper in the center of the pool, I was separated from Anjali, and I was not allowed in with my backpack, so she found herself in the temple without me.  I waited outside the temple in the twilight, and listened to the music and the sacred hymns, and I was approached by a friendly Sikh named Lucky (short for Lakhwinder) who was one of the Sikhs who has reading duties at the temple for many hours a day.  He was very curious to know my impressions of the temple, and he was very excited to find out I was a bhangra DJ, as he was a big fan of bhangra music (although he admitted he was not much of a dancer), and we compared notes on our favorite singers, and he was so happy to know that Punjabi culture was being shared as far away as Portland, Oregon.  Anjali eventually found us, and Lucky toured us around the complex, inviting us to witness part of a sacred reading, and chatting with us for a while on the side of the pool, in the lamp-lit darkness surrounded by the sounds of the Sikh hymns.
     Anjali and I said our goodbyes after Lucky realized we had distracted him to the point where he was fifty minutes late for his reading shift.  We toured the gift shops lining the front of the temple complex, and discovered the Sikh Book Company.  I asked for an English translation of the Guru Granth Sahib, since I learned from Lucky that you can’t get the actual Guru Granth Sahib in English, just a translation.  Important distinction.  The proprietor brought over an enormous five-volume set that had the book in Panjabi, romanized transliteration, and English.  When I explained I was traveling and I needed something smaller he suggested a small introductory book written by Dr. Davinderpal Singh.  I opened the book to a passage that said, “My name is Lucky.” (Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo) When I asked for a book on learning Panjabi, he recommended another book by Dr. Davinderpal Singh.  I thought I knew who I was talking to at this point, and after Anjali and I talked to him about our lives as booksellers in the US, he admitted that he was, indeed, Dr. Davinderpal Singh.  His family has been in the book business for 110 years, starting in what is now Pakistan.  We talked at length about the Punjabi author Khushwant Singh, and Anjali bought a special edition of the book “Train to Pakistan.”  Dr. Singh claimed that some Punjabis think in Punjabi and write in Punjabi, and some think in English and write in English, but Khushwant Singh thinks in Punjabi and writes in English.  “Blunt” was how Dr. Singh described his writing.  The man was so wise and such a font of information, that it would have been easy to spend days with him chatting and sipping chai.    After being accosted by so many unpleasant people upon our arrival in the city, it was great to meet two such wonderful people at the end of our first day in Amritsar.
After taking leave of Dr. Singh, we wandered a street directly across from the temple and discovered the high-end CJ International Hotel we had read about in our books, and next door, the Indus Hotel, of which we had read nothing. It looked way too fancy for our budget, but at Anjali’s insistence we went and inquired anyway.  For slightly more than what we were paying for our shithole, we were shown an immaculate room, and to cinch the deal, were taken on a tour of the rooftop terrace that directly overlooked the Golden Temple.  Sold.  We knew where we were spending our next two nights. 
     Our next day we did indeed take a share-jeep (for a fraction of what the Grand Hotel manager was asking) to the “Wagah border” to see the daily border-closing ceremony at the only land-crossing from India to Pakistan.  We were not alone; a few foreigners, and thousands of Indians joined us.  There are two cement bench stadiums set up, one on either side of the border.  The Pakistani stadium was sparsely filled, especially in the women’s section (the Indian stadium was divided by sex as well), but the Indian stadium was packed with raucous revelers.  A loudspeaker boomed out the chants of an Indian military officer which were responded to by the crowd.  Chants in Hindi along the lines of “Long live India.”  Soldiers would strut and puff and the crowd would go crazy.  The same was going on over on the other side of the border, only “Pakistan” was substituted for “India” in the chants, and the smaller Pakistani crowd tried to make up for their lack of numbers by yelling all the louder.  At one point Bollywood songs started blasting out of the loudspeakers on the Indian side and children flooded down from the concrete bleachers to dance, and men held back by a barricade on the far side of the stadium danced with manic energy.  I actually took some videos of this scene, as it was incredibly over the top.  If the loudspeaker was quiet for too long and people could hear the chants on the Pakistan side, then they would spontaneously start their own chants.  Eventually after much pomp and circumstance the two flags were lowered, the gate was slammed shut, and everyone went home.
     Anjali and I had read that an Amritsar specialty is fish fried in lemon, chili, garlic and ginger, which sounded so good to us we went in search of a recommended restaurant called the Makhan Fish House.  Well, we walked the entire length of the shop-lined Lawrence Road (which had some very fancy shops, even if the “sidewalks” were just muddy shoulders of a filthy road), asked many locals about the location of the Makhan Fish House, and after hours of frustration, gave up.  We didn’t see any other fish houses either, just really sketchy looking roadside eating stalls that looked neither hygienic, nor appealing.  We finally settled for the Crystal, Amritsar’s fanciest restaurant, where we ordered from the Chinese section of their menu.  “Chinese” food is very popular in India, and most restaurants will have a small Chinese section on the menu.  In the same way that we have Chinese-American food in the States, in India they have Indo-Chinese, or Indian Chinese food, which is a distinctly Indian take on Chinese food.  It used to be you couldn’t get it anywhere in the States, but now several Indian restaurants in the West suburbs of Portland carry it on their menus.  Since we couldn’t get our Amritsar specialty fish, we ordered fish in hot garlic sauce, and the fish wasn’t that great.  Anjali loved the spicy Manchow soup, and the fact that in a major development since she was in India five years ago, she can now order wine from the menu.  Indian wine, probably too sweet for the Western palate.
     My biggest source of frustration in Amritsar was how difficult it was to find any bhangra CDs for sale.  The gift shops near the Golden Temple sold vast selections of Sikh devotional music, and there was a stand that sold a few bhangra CDs, but I spent days looking for a store with any kind of decent selection.  There were many television stations that were little more than 24-hour ads for the latest bhangra releases, and I was in the biggest city in Punjab, and I heard bhangra blasting from people’s cars, so how come I couldn’t find any bhangra music?  Along the shopping strip of Lawrence Road I found an outpost of the Music World chain, but they didn’t have much of a Punjabi selection, like several smaller stalls along that road that featured mainly Hindi music.  The few places I found that carried Punjabi music carried either VCDs (cheapo super-compressed DVDs) or MP3 CDs, but not what are called Audio CDs here, with the sound quality I need to play music over a club sound system. Finally on our third day we hired a cycle rickshaw driver to take us to a CD store, which after stopping to ask for directions several times, he managed to do.  It was a little hole in the wall in a narrow alley, but tightly packed with drawers of disks, and I managed to slake my thirst, since I know that outside of Punjab, I won’t be finding much Punjabi music in India.  My next major quest is to buy up all the Tollywood (Telugu soundtrack) music in Andhra Pradesh, since that has been one of my major musical inspirations over the last year.
     While our hotel room was only on the first floor (this is what we in America would consider the second floor, since ground floor is below the first floor in India) and didn’t afford a view of the Golden Temple, we could hear the music from the temple in our room around the clock, especially at night when the activity outside the temple quieted down.  We would lay in bed and listen to the melisma, harmonium and tabla.  At one point I couldn’t sleep in the early hours before dawn and I went and walked around the temple grounds by myself.  Sometimes I would just go to the rooftop terrace and listen, gazing down on the temple.
     Both Anjali and I managed to get sick in Amritsar.  This is an unavoidable aspect of any significant time spent traveling in India, and as bad as we felt, we could only be thankful that we spent our nights squatting on the toilet, and not hugging it.  I was also glad to be without an appetite in Punjab, rather than anywhere else in India.  Since it was the Punjabis who opened the world’s Indian restaurants after fleeing Partition, it is Punjabi food that most Americans think of when they think of Indian food.  Even Indian restaurants opened by South Indians in America will usually feature a Punjabi menu.  Because of this, I would rather make sure I have an appetite for rarer delicacies in the South, that aren’t as common in America.  I did notice that the menus in Amritsar featured dozens more paneer dishes than I have ever seen listed before, and I was curious, but I was not in the mood for such heavy food.  the Punjabi food we ate in Amritsar was either doused with oil on top (at the cheaper places) or butter (at the more expensive ones); rich and heavy food, served with heavy (often oily) flat breads, and not rice.
     One thing that really stood out in Amritsar is that you would see the occasional man and woman walking the street holding hands.  In India you never see public displays of affection between men and women, unless they are being surreptitious in a “lover’s lane”  area of a major city (usually a park in a rich area). It is just not done.  Instead you are far more likely to see men holding hands, or women holding hands, as there are no homosexual connotations for displays of same-sex affection.
     It rained in Amritsar while we were there!  Having not been in India during the monsoons, I had never witnessed rain in India before.  It made things very, very muddy.  It also meant that I never witnessed sunrise or sunset at the Golden Temple as the sky was completey overcast.
     I hope everyone in Portland is doing OK in the cold and snow.

New Delhi / Old Delhi Experiences

Hello All, 

New Delhi’s sophistication has grown to the point where it now not only has the slick monthly magazine First City (along the lines of Portland Monthly, only with lots of event listings) but also Time Out Delhi, now in its second year.  Since the first thing I do when I visit NYC is to grab a Time Out and go through the listings, I was entertained to see that I can now do the same thing in Delhi.  The Time Out is quite thin, however, and only comes out every two weeks.

Anjali and I have spent five years fantasizing about the food at certain restaurants in Delhi since our last visit, and two of our favorite restaurants have let us down upon our return.  On our last trip we ate at a South Indian restaurant called Sagar nearly every day.  We thought it was amazing, and only discovered it because it was in the neighborhood where we were staying with Anjali’s cousin.  Now it is in all the travel guides, but we thought it was nowhere near as good as we remembered it, even though there was a line down the block to get in.  (And this is a three floor restaurant!)  The paneer pakoras and lachha parantha (which arent’t South Indian, but were some of our favorite dishes at the restaurant anyway) were not amazing like we remembered, but merely servicable.  They still had the gunpowder hot sauce we would always order on the side, but it tasted grainy.  The tomato and coconut mint chutneys were still great. We also went back to the Italian restaurant Flavors.  Italian food is quite common in cosmopolitan India, and we loved this place because they made Italian food with an Indian level of spiciness, which is how I like to make my Italian food at home.  Flavors, too, has now made it into the guide books, but while it was solidly enjoyable, it was not amazing.  According to Anjali’s cousin Cherida, both of these places have gone downhill.  Sad to report that those were our thoughts as well.
Cherida and her sister Sheena and their partners did introduce us to a great chain called Not Just Paranthas, which has the longest menu imaginable, filled with scrumptious sounding variations on the Indian flat bread, as well as a million other tasty things you can put in your mouth.  I ate and ate, and then kept eating.  If I could open a franchise in Portland I would be RICH!  Stuffed paranthas, pocket paranthas, pizza paranthas, shredded paranthas. I took the endless menu as a souvenir.  The location we went to was next to a Subway and a Domino’s.  Domino’s here is a sit-down restaurant, with plenty of tables and chairs, even though they deliver as well.  McDonald’s also delivers in India.  They call it “McDelivery.”  They have little red McDonald’s logo scooters with a storage compartment in the back that drive around delivering people’s McDonald’s orders.
When we went to Not Just Paranthas it was 11pm on a Sunday night.  In Portland you would have a hard time finding a restaurant open at 11pm on a Sunday.  Or any other day, for that matter.  In Delhi 11pm is at least as late as you would expect a restaurant to be open.  Many stay open until 1am or later, and especially on a Sunday, which is a big night to go out.  Many people work a six-day work week and are too tired to go out Saturday night, so Sunday is the big dinner night.  We had to wait in line to get into Not Just Paranthas (or NJP as they call it) at 11pm.
Our hosts introduced us to the world’s best lassis at a little stand in a shopping area called Lajput Nagar.  They are served in tall metal cups, and you stand and swig them in front of the stand.  They are so rich that there is a two-inch layer of thick, foamy cream on top that quickly found its way all over my moustache.  So rich.  So good.
At the Qutb Minar complex (google it) there were so many Indian tourists when we went, that I didn’t feel out of place walking around taking photos since I was surrounded by hundreds of Indians doing the same thing.  We were also surrounded by busloads of schoolgirls and schoolboys in uniforms on class trips. Anjali thinks uniformed Indian schoolgirls are the cutest, so of course she asked to take some group photos.  At tourist spots in India you can always expect to be approached by “guides” who want some money, and which you always ignore and walk past, but inside the complex I was approached by one of the uniformed security guards who wanted to know it I wanted a guide.  This was not official, the guy either wanted to make money under the table, or would get a commission for recommending his friend.  Spooky when the security is in on it.
Any place tourists need or want to be, you will encounter a million liars.  They will do everything they can to misdirect you, in order to get some money off you.  At the New Delhi train station (hub of the world’s largest rail system), or anywhere in the vicinity, you will be approached by one person after another who speaks English and feigns helpfulness, all trying to convince you that they are trying to lead you safely to the official government tourist office to help you get your tickets.  There is an official tourist office where you don’t have to wait in the standard long lines, but they will lead you to another office in the complex which is really a travel agent’s office where you will get jacked on tickets that aren’t even always valid.  All around the station are offices with huge signs saying variations on “official,” “government,” “tourist information,” all trying to look as legit as possible, and all there to separate you from your money.  You have to hunt inside and upstairs at the train station before you find the real office.  The sad thing is that these rip-off places couldn’t exist if they weren’t fooling at least some people and making off with their money.  Outside of the train station we met a classic auto rickshaw driver who would give us a “deal” on our fare if we only did him the small favor of visiting his brother’s shop.  Yeah, right, buddy!  He was a well-kept Panjabi with an immaculate powder blue turban and the most striking light-colored eyes, and when we offered a high price to take us where we really wanted to go, he said, “No,” and scooted off, because he could obviously make a lot more money scamming tourists if he stayed around the tourist-clogged area near the train station.  I’m sure those eyes have charmed many a naive foreign woman out of her money.
There are so many scams and scammers in India, that knowing what to expect, and having some experience with it, I find it is possible to be amused by it all.  Of course some scams are quite frightening, and not at all amusing, but most scammers are pretty transparent and just want to make a few bucks.  Just keep this in mind: if anyone ever approaches you in public, especially in a tourist area, and says “Hi,” or acts friendly, just keep on walking.  They are just trying to separate you from your money.  Or put their arm around your partner, which has also happened to us.  
I went to Old Delhi with Anjali and our hosts Susan and Michael a few nights ago.  It had been a long time since Anjali had been, as during our last trip, her cousins convinced us not to go there.  This was my first trip to Old Delhi.  Old Delhi is the old Muslim city, as opposed to New Delhi, which was constructed by the British.  It has a reputation for crowds, chaos, thieves, and danger, or at least middle class Delhi-ites might have you believe.  When our hosts suggested we go visit at night I was shocked as I had been led to believe that you would only want to go in the middle of the day and keep a tight grip on your valuables and watch your back the whole time.  We spent hours wandering crowded, bustling, narrow, twisty lanes filled with street stands and stalls and locals, not tourists.  It was a great experience.  There were some beggars, but far less than in other places we have been.  There were many poor people sitting in the lanes around food stalls getting free meals, as Friday night is when this happens according to the local Muslim tradition. We weren’t allowed into the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, as it was after dark, and we are not Muslim.  There was a strong army presence there, and I think that it was related to a fear of reprisal for the Mumbai attacks.  When there is violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists in India, there is often an eye-for-an-eye response from Hindu extremists.  After seeing the outside of the mosque we went to the famous restaurant Karim’s nearby.  You have to walk down an alley, and it is not clearly marked, so no matter how famous it is, I’m not sure how we ever would have found it.  Their specialties are slow-cooked meat dishes, but we only do fish, so we had a good char-grilled fish, dal makhani, and amazing salted butter naan.   Later on we walked to a stall with the “world’s best” jalebi, otherwise known as fried, soft, sweet pretzels dipped in thick sugar syrup, which managed to run all over my shirt and pants.  Amazingly sweet sugar bomb.  I couldn’t even finish mine.     
I’m really glad we got a chance to see this area of the city.
 We took the Metro to Old Delhi, which is Delhi’s relatively new subway system.  It first opened in 2002, but it is expanding constantly, and this was our first trip on it.  It is incredibly clean, shiny, and immaculate, far more immaculate than any other subway system I have seen in the world.  Other than all the Indians using it, I would never think I was in Delhi if you dropped me in it.  Even the shiniest buildings in Delhi are surrounded by dust and decrepitude, yet down in the Metro you are surrounded by sleek and modern and spotlessness, with no context.  You have to get in an infinite line to use it, as you have to walk through a metal detector, and every bag must be searched.  The poor guard that patted me down on the way back from Old Delhi got his hands covered in jalebi sugar syrup, much to his consternation.  We experienced some good old crush of bodies, but it wasn’t as bad as my experience on the Mexico City subway earlier this year.