Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Long weekend in Shimla.

Late Friday evening, I headed northwards towards the mountains with eleven other interns. Since we had so many people, we rented a small private bus that took us around town during our stay, and booked a decent deal in a comfortable hotel, all for less than $60 for travel and board (after two weeks, I am still in shock at the obscenely favorable exchange rate).

Located at 7000 feet on the edge of a mountainside, Shimla is one of the premier hill stations at the base of the Himalayas, and is the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh (India has 28 states). Naturally, my visions of the place involved wide open spaces, sweeping views, and enough greenery to cure me of Delhi’s urban congestion.

In reality, Shimla promptly reminded me that the population of India makes it difficult to find quiet anywhere, and that the country’s exploding taste for tourism reaches even into the Himalayas, which once were so shrouded in mystique. I shouldn’t complain about the tourism industry itself, as I so clearly contribute and it gives employment to millions of Indians; but it was disheartening to see all the environmental degradation wrought upon a town whose infrastructure is not equipped to support all these millions of visitors.

Putting aside my distaste for the place, I focused my energies on enjoying the company of my new friends and stuffing my stomach with the nonstop supply of fantastic food.

Saturday: Arrival in Shimla early in the morning.

A lunchtime meal of channa masala (chickpeas), butter roti (whole wheat tortilla), and puri (thin dough that is fried until puffed). It was also at this meal that I began my fast obsession with masala tea, also known as chai. Simply, it is black tea boiled in milk with sugar and an assortment of spices, most commonly ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon.

Pony-riding in a (poor excuse for a) state park. I swore afterward never to take advantage of those poor animals again. They were unresponsive, overworked, and stood around unfed in their own feces. I enjoyed the photo-ops with my friends, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty. Same with the obligatory yak photos.

We came to the Mall for dinner, which is the outside shopping strip in the central, most trafficked part of Shimla.

Dinner of mutton seekh kebab (tender ground mutton in a thick sauce), rasjmash (kidney beans in a parsley-based sauce), and cheese naan (bread baked in a tandoor and stuffed with paneer cheese). After masala tea, sweet lassi is now my second drink of choice. It’s a palate cleanser after a heavy meal and so refreshing.

We ended the day with good ol’ wine and beer at the hotel, and piled on the bed to watch movies until bedtime.

Sunday: I woke up slightly ill today. My entire body felt tingly like I had a cold, and I was terrified that I was feeling the first effects of flu. I knew I was not myself, because my appetite plummeted and I just wanted to crawl into bed all day.

After spending the morning getting a tour of the academic center of Shimla (which looked like a scene directly out of Harry Potter), our driver dropped us back off at the Mall for the rest of the day.

The Mall felt strange because it did not feel like India at all. All the architecture was British, and there were even Indian men walking around with tweed and caps and walking canes. Even more curious was this catholic church placed prominently in the center of the strip. It was obvious that this was an artifact from British colonial times and merely an attraction today, with few serious worshippers. They even required removing the shoes, which is usually a Hindu practice.

A snack of samosa (potatoes, peas, and a mixture of dry spices, wrapped in flaky dough and fried).

Afterwards, some quality dessert time.

Came back to the hotel at 8pm, still feeling sick, and went to sleep for the next twelve hours.

Monday: In retrospect, I probably had some mild food poisoning the day before. I woke up a hundred percent better.

And just as well. First thing in the morning, we started at the base of a hill, and walked for 30 minutes up a strenuously steep climb to Shimla’s highest point to see the town’s most famous temple. The Jakhu temple was established as a shrine to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. And rightly so. We encountered hundreds of monkeys, probably out of thousands that roam the area. We carried sticks with us to ward off the more aggressive ones, but we re-emerged from feeding time without incident.

Five of us shared dishes for lunch, at yet another hole-in-the-wall establishment: channa masala, dhal makhani (lentils in gravy), paneer in tomato-based sauce, chicken curry, and chapati (crispy baked flatbread).

Then, the 9-hour drive home.

Shimla itself was just alright, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these new people, and having some of the most amazing, endorphin-inducing, moan-eliciting meals I’ve had in a long time.

More pictures here.

And thanks to my good ol’ job for giving me all this time to blog. I haven’t done any work for the past two hours.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The abode.

I promised a video tour of my flat, and here it is. It isn't much, but it's home.

I've learned to expect frequent cuts to utilities. A few days ago, I finally was able to shower after almost two days of no water, but then the electricity cut off while I was showering. We haven't had gas either, so I haven't been able to cook anything except vegetables steamed in a rice cooker. The funny thing is how little I care about these inconveniences. It's not hard to overlook small nuisances when the rest of the country has so much to offer you.

I'm leaving tonight with a dozen of my new friends for a 3-day trip by bus to the foothills of the Himalayas tonight, in a town called Shimla.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Excursion to Agra, part one.

What we wanted to do was take a bus to the city of Agra, see the Taj Mahal and maybe the Agra Fort, and come back in the evening. What actually happened was nothing of the sort. Welcome to India, land of the unexpected, unplanned, and totally unpredictable.

Plans being so last-minute, a crazy little Russian girl named Katerina and I set off at 4:30am Sunday morning to try to snag a bus ride to Agra. When we arrived at the station, we asked no less than a dozen agents where to find a bus, but to our frustration, each consecutive person just kept referring us to the next information booth. We were quickly fed up with walking in circles.

An auto-rickshaw driver noticed our situation, and said, pointing to his auto:

20 rupees, I take you to bus to Agra.
Uhhh... what?
Very short distance! Bus to Agra leaving at 7 o'clock!
No thanks, we're fine.
No bus, no pay! Only pay when you find bus!

Despite the initial suspicion, we realized we could either take this chance or not do the trip. The driver took us to a small road-side tourist information booth.

750 rupees, bus to Agra, round trip. (At $15, this was very reasonable.)
What time we leave?
7 o'clock.

What time do we return?
10 o'clock.
Are you sure that we go directly to Agra, no stops along the way?
Yes, sure.

Katerina and I considered our options, and finally decided, what the hell, why not. Ticket in hand, we found ourselves being shuttled to the station just as the bus was getting ready to leave. Our anxieties were quickly calmed when we saw that our bus was filled with middle-class Indian families with the same destination. We had come to the right place, or so it appeared.

That bus was hot . No air conditioning, no fans, three-digit-degree weather. Every pore on my body leaked sweat, my clothes stuck to my back and my hair to my neck, and the bus was rank with body odor. How long is this ride supposed to be? we asked the passengers beside us. Two hours, I believe. Nope, more like six.

Not having had any breakfast, I was happy when we stopped at a road-side cafeteria for a small meal. I had idli sambar, a type of floury cake, most commonly found in south India, that is paired with a vegetable sauce and yogurt.

When we finally arrived in Agra, the bus stopped in front of an enormous, imposing fortress, teeming with tourists and street peddlers, and I immediately knew it was the famed Agra Fort. But the question was, why were we here, and not at a bus station? Why was our driver giving an announcement in Hindiglish, mixed with phrases like "one hour" and "please remember bus number 9369"?

As it turned out, damn it all, we had paid for a guided tour of the city, instead of just a simple bus ticket! Curse our inability to understand Hindi and the broken English of our ticket salesmen! It wasn't long, however, before we became quite tickled at the situation. We had successfully arrived at our destination, and the full itinerary of the day was to consist of everything we had wanted to see, complete with explanations and transportation to-and-from sites.

The size of the fort was overwhelming. Some of the red sandstone walls rose up at least 50 feet, and the sprawling complex seemed to keep stretching on endlessly. Each massive courtyard had several gates which, in turn, led to more courtyards, and on and on until it felt like I could never hope to find my way back to the main entrance.

The fort was originally built for Mughal emperor in the mid-16th century. It was originally built as a citadel, but it could easy have been a palace as well, massive enough to house thousands of people.

Following this was lunch at a guest house restaurant, where I had dhaal makhani, spiced lentils and beans. It was too salty, but this, as I'm learning, is typical of real Indian food.

After wasting time at a few tourist shops, our bus finally dropped us off at the west gate to the Taj Mahal. We squeezed past the hoardes of tourists through the security entrance, ran to the entrance gate in excitement, and...

The rest is impossible to describe to any degree of effectiveness. The brilliance of the monument was simply staggering. I wanted to come to the Taj Mahal simply because it's something you're expected to do in India, but as soon as I saw it, I could only stand there transfixed for several minutes, trying to comprehend that it was actually real. At this point, I could try to spout off a stream of adjectives, but the only word that comes to mind is perfection. I could swear it was glowing.

India can be overwhelming in its dirt, noise, poverty, and non-stop street activity, but the Taj Mahal seemed to rise above all of that in a visually powerful way, almost as a symbol of constancy in a rapidly changing country. It's impossible to avoid thinking of the Taj Mahal in a symbolic, cheesily poetic way. Even the swarms of tourists did little to diminish its magic.

More pictures here. Rest of the trip to be continued...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wider explorations.

Starting from the very first hour I set foot in Delhi, I began the long, confusing, trial-and-error process of orienting myself in this sprawling mega-metropolis. It’s fair to say that the city has been designed to confuse the hell out of even the savviest traveler.

First, some basic geography. Delhi is composed of three main parts: New Delhi, in the center, is the colonial city, the aftermath of British settlement; Old Delhi is in the north, the historical remnants of ancient Mughal rule; and South Delhi, where my flat is located, is the result of recent business expansion from the main city on south.

Now, let’s zoom in on South Delhi. This part is further divided into districts, which are also subdivided into individual neighborhoods. For example, I live in Dayanand Colony within Lajpat Nagar within South Delhi within Delhi. You’d think that for such layered organization, one could systematically find their way around, this assumption is quite untrue.

For starters, absolutely none of the streets in Lajpat Nagar are labeled. For the newcomer, if you don’t have a map glued your nose as you walk, it is impossible to know what street you’re on. Secondly, the neighborhoods (e.g. Dayanand Colony) have blocks labeled alphabetically, except that the alphabet doesn’t go in order. Some of the streets curve so it is possible to lose sense of cardinal direction.

I’ve never relied on my navigational sense to this extent, ever. I have to go almost purely by feel.


This morning, my new Japanese friend Yasu showed me how to hail an auto-rickshaw, and we took the 30-minute ride to Connaught Place, where his work is located. Connaught Place (CP) is the heart of New Delhi. It’s a shopping mecca, the central tourist hub, and is an assault of the senses. The layout is in concentric circles.

As soon as I sat down to orient myself, I was immediately accosted by a local. I took his conversation as simple curiosity, and so I smiled and replied briefly. Soon, four or five others joined in the chat, and didn’t mind nosing into questions that westerners would find personal.

“I’m a shoe-shiner, but I can’t shine your shoes! (I’m wearing sandals) Are you Japanese? No? Korean? Malaysian? Chinese? I like Chinese people. Japanese people walk away if I talk to them, but Chinese people are nicer. How long have you been here? What is your salary? Do you have a husband? Where do you live? Where do you work?”

Perhaps delighted by my indulging their innocuous questions, they kindly showed me to a tourist information booth that handed out free maps of the Delhi area.

I wandered aimlessly around the inner circle for a while, stopping in a few bookstores, killing time before lunchtime. When the heat got the best of me, I ducked into the nearest air-conditioned place I could find: a McDonald’s, boasting menu items like paneer salsa wrap, and chicken maharaja mac. Tempting, but I stuck with my ice cream.

What I really was waiting for was the opening of Kake da Dhaba (literally translated “Uncle’s Restaurant, near Super Bazaar on the map), legendary to budget Delhi foodies. It was cramped, paint-peeling-off-the walls, and completely overrun with people. The kitchen downstairs took up half the floor space, and the entire place had ten seats, upstairs and downstairs combined. The clientele were completely men, the majority of whom looked like middle-class businessmen on their regular lunch break.

I ordered palak paneer, a pureed spinach dish with cubes of unfermented cheese, and served with naan baked in a tandoori oven. It was swimming in ghee and virtually exploded with taste. The first half was everything I asked for -- savory, rich, heaven on the taste buds -- but my appraisal changed in the second half when I started feeling the generous butter and salt content. Still, I couldn’t have picked a more memorable place to have my first real Indian meal.

By the way, I committed the ultimate social faux pas at the restaurant. I ate using my left hand. Considering how much amusement I took from the rule before I came to India, I still can’t believe it slipped my mind that the left hand is reserved for unsanitary purposes only. At some point, I looked around and noticed that people were one-handedly tearing their naan, and then it struck me. Here I was, happily stuffing bread into my face with my left hand, brushing off the stares of others as foreigner-induced, when perhaps they were really shocked and disgusted. Oops.

After my filling meal, I walked a bit further along Connaught Place to the Palika Bazaar (located on the map), a huge underground market for scarves, saris, electronics, sunglasses, fake goods, clothes, and nearly everything imaginable. Booth after booth after booth, around and around, selling all the same things, accosted personally by every single shopkeeper, offers yelled after me, items waved into my face. I left the market pretty quickly, but not without haggling a couple of silk scarves to half-price first.

outside one of the Palika Bazaar's many entrances

My final stop of the day was the Lakshmi Narayan Magir, a Hindu temple located just west of Connaught Place. Photography was not allowed inside, but the place was enormous and paved almost entirely by marble. Icons of deities were distributed within, and on the walls were etchings of prominent gods, goddesses, stories from the religious epics, and verses from the Vedic texts. I wandered around the surrounding garden for a while afterward.

figurest of elephants everywhere / back view of the temple

walkway into the gardens / vendor of worship materials

A thoroughly exhausting day ended with my gleeful discovery of wonderful street food stands just a ten-minute walk from my flat. I had chicken shawarma wraps, dipped in a parsley relish and yogurt (vendors on left), and Chinese dim sum with chili dipping paste (vendors on right).

I'm trying to learn how to take better photos. Most of them are terrible right now, but hopefully I'll improve my skills as I become increasingly frustrated that I can't rightly capture how being in Delhi actually feels.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Day one.

First things first, here is a video tour of my flat, where I'm living with 12 other interns about my age. For 300 rupees ($60) a month, this place is better than anything I could have found on my own, and the convenience of having in-house wireless is definitely not something I'm taking for granted. There is no air conditioning, but the fans keep the place livable, and the jugs of filtered water are replaced on a daily basis. You'd be a madman to want anything but a cold shower here, and just as well, because that's all there is. The laundry is usually done by hand, and there's a cleaning lady who comes in and sweeps in the morning.

(Ah, blast! my video is failing to upload with this spotty internet. Will post soon.)

I woke up early this morning to the sounds of vendors yelling out their wares in the street below. I went out the door for a walk, and promptly learned rule number one: do not so much as step out the door on an empty stomach, without carrying money. Smells of sweet fried dough wafted out from every corner.

One of my roommates walked me to the Lajpat Nagar (the name of the district where I live) Central Market a little later, dropping me off at the main thoroughfare before heading to work. I had a list of specific supplies to buy, but quickly realized that I had no idea where to look, and ended up just wandering the strip with my hands in my pockets trying to act normal.

My stomach, running dangerously low, led the way. I wanted to find a sit-down place to have a solid meal, but when one didn't materialize, I turned to the street vendors. Common sense says that the more crowded the station, the better, but this also required that my freakishly Chinese self ask for food in front of a handful of staring locals. These particular vendors didn't speak English, and they kept glancing at me bemusedly while they made my chapati.

Oh, that chapati. Whole wheat dough, rolled flat, sprinkled with salt, slapped onto a preheated skillet, and slathered with ghee (clarified butter). Feeling too foolish to stand around eating it, I plopped down under a giant Nokia sign, and wolfed it down with a yellow lentil sauce for dipping. Quest for food not quite over, I made my way to the first fruit stand I found, and bought some ripe mangoes and kiwis for 140 rupees (< $3). A few hours later, under the suggestions of several others, I sought my first sit-down meal at a place called Tibetan Kitchen, about ten minutes walk from my flat. Sat down at one of the ten tables, and five minutes later, I got my steaming bowl of thukpa: noodles in a beef broth with scallions and sweet basil, with a few pickled peppers and chili paste for a personal touch.

Stay tuned for more culinary adventures.