Thursday, October 31, 2013

Riding the Rails

Not an accurate Depiction, either!
When I envisioned the trains of India before I lived here, I had a mental picture of trains streaming across wide-open verdant spaces with its cars bursting with passengers. It seems I got only part of the picture correct.  We recently took a train to the north of our state, Kerala, and while it’s not my first foray into the world of India’s most popular transport, it will help redraw my revised, more pedestrian yet vivid mental picture of the experience.
Two days before we were scheduled to take 3 flights which took us to 2 different states before returning us to our home state, I had a meeting with the director of education.  At the end of the meeting he wished me a safe journey with a chuckle said he’d heard how I was traveling to the north, and shook his head in disbelief.  When he explained I could have taken a direct train that would only take 6 or 7 hours (in comparison to our 9-hour 3-flights, 3-states model), I was taken aback.  I was told (by names unmentioned) that I would need to take an overnight train trip that would take around 16 hours, so I labeled that a non-starter and starting searching for a direct flight. There are none to be had, which is a sad but true tale about much of the in-state flights in India.  When I told S there was a much easier, if not quite as clean, way to get to where we were going, we decided to cancel our flights if we could get a train ticket at the last minute. That’s when the fun started.
The next morning we had our driver pick us up at 11:00 to go directly to the train station to buy a ‘last-minute’ ticket, only to find that the quality last-minute tickets are released at 6:00 a.m. the day before its departure, and there is a line waiting for the few that were reserved. We were met with a quizzical look when we asked if there were last-minute first-class AC tickets for tomorrow’s train. Now we had to decide what level of comfort we could trade for the chance to have sufficient leg room, the ability to get up and stretch our muscles from time to time, and not have to subject our bodies to 3 altitude changes in quick succession. We decided we still liked the train idea, and we had armed ourselves with a quick online tutorial that explained, sort of, the different classes of fares.  There is 1AC, 2AC, sleeper, AC chair coach, etc.  After trying to decipher whether we were going to be sitting in AC or the hot wind, we were lucky enough to bag 2 tickets in the lowest class AC available. But, not before standing in 3 different lines, leaving to make copies of our passports and visas (wonder where those copies go to die?) and filling out a form for both departing and returning that required me to write my personal information 4 times, 2 times for each trip.
Next morning we rose early to catch our 6:00 a.m. train.  When we arrived at the very busy train station with 45 minutes to spare, we were dropped off by our driver. We waited for him under a portico where too many people to count were stretched out sleeping on the cement floor. The driver checked on the correct platform for our train, and then instructed us where to go, as he wasn’t permitted to go any further without a ticket.  We were confident we could figure it out, so bid him good-bye and began our trek up 2 over passes (with 3 pieces of luggage, 1 full of heavy teaching supplies) and back down the steps.  I didn’t realize I would get a workout as a bonus for taking the train. We found our platform, and our train was there and all seemed well. After a few minutes we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that announced a platform change for a train.  After listening a couple of times, we determined it was ours they were talking about, so we picked up all our luggage and headed back over the same 2 overpasses, up and down the same stairs.  We still had 20 minutes to find our car, no problem, just a little sweatier.  We were at one of those junctures where you’re not sure if the correct turn is left or right (a juncture I spend a lot of time in my life standing in because of my poor sense of direction) and we chose to go left. We soon found out it was a very long train with over 20 cars with the letter before yours painted on the side, and even longer when you get to the end of the train and realize you took the wrong turn.  We hoofed it back to the complete opposite end of the train and found our car, the next-to-last car, with a few minutes to spare.  BTW, it’s surprising how sweaty you can get in the early morning when you’re carrying luggage up and down steps and trotting with them behind you on an uneven surface. We snagged our seats, fell in a flop, and about 2 minutes later the train left promptly on time. In a country where almost nothing happens on time, that made me smile. I sat back and watched the parade of food and beverage wallahs begin, and noticed there was an electrical outlet on the wall beside me for my computer.  Unbelievably, it worked. That confluence made me conclude there is absolutely no figuring out parts of this country.

Paragon of Culinary Delights

Incredible India?  Incredible Malabari Food. I have always been one of those people firmly in the “Southern Indian food is better than the northern cuisine” camp.  I didn’t have any great expectations that this city, much smaller than our hometown, the capital of the state, would have incredible food joints, but I was happy to be wrong.  Even the food catered for our workshop was of a very high quality.  They seem to have a lighter hand with the spices, or perhaps a more sophisticated knowledge of them and their combinations, because their food flavors are one of many notes yet very subtle.  There is a lightness to their cuisine I appreciated after a few months of pretty heavy curries. Malabari food justly famous as very good regional food, in a part of the country that is already known for its good food.
We had gotten several recommendations, both personal and online, to be sure to visit the restaurant PARAGON.  What an apt name.  We are staying in a hotel that is rated as the 2nd best place to eat here, and it is very good food, especially their breakfast vadas, but there is a large gap between our hotel food, and the food at the PARAGON.  The first time we went (we are regulars after 4 days in the city) I accidentally left my camera behind, so a detailed description is in order. We had been told by everyone this was the best biryani in town, so we couldn’t wait. When I asked the waiter whether I should order the fish, mutton, or chicken biryani, he smiled and said it was finished.  Finished?  What does that mean?  It meant I wasn’t eating their biryani that evening.  He smiled and said it wasn’t a problem because they had many other good dishes. I was disappointed, but I regrouped and studied the menu.   We ordered chicken cooked in pandanas leaves for a starter.  I would have been content to leave after those, they were that good.  Succulent, perfectly seasoned deboned chicken thighs.  So good.  Next we strategically ordered 2 different dishes, and S’s chicken vembanadu was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten, anywhere.  It consisted of very small pieces of chicken, with even smaller pieces of pineapple, red pepper, onion, and some cilantro, I believe.  Using appam like a tortilla, I fashioned a type of fajita, and remarked to S that the taste was somewhat like a fajita, albeit with Indian spices.  My dish was a red mango fish curry.  There was unbelievable flavor in the curry, which consisted of tomato (the red part) raw green mango thin slices (sour/tart goodness) and a broth finished with coconut milk and containing chunks of the freshest fish.  One other delight in the evening was a sweet melon “milk shake”, which the waiter divulged only had pureed melon, some sugar and milk.  It was out of sight.  I gushed a bit when the waiter asked how our meal was, and he went to get the chef to hear the praise.  He was gracious and interested in our food knowledge, and shared that he trained in Paris, and cooked for 3 years in Dubai, first in a Mexican restaurant, where he said, “I know of your fajitas.”  AHA!

Dry Fry Shrimp with Rice

Chicken Vembanadu

Chicken Biryani
When we returned the 2nd time, the men all smiled and greeted us when we came in the door and someone went to retrieve the cook, who also came out to greet us.  I liked this treatment, as you can imagine.  I asked if he ever shared his recipes, and he assured me he would write the chicken vembanadu for me, and I assured him I was leaving the area and would tell no one. He helped us decide what to order, and assured us we came early enough this night to have some biryani.  The chef sent us several unordered dishes, including an incredible grape-melon drink concoction that was outstanding, and fresh mussels in a French preparation I can’t remember the name of, but it involved garlic, butter, and parsley. We had the signature “dry-fry” shrimp, picture in this blog.  Which is fresh marinated shrimp flash-fried in their shells, and covered with a coating of what I thought was very fine bread crumbs and spices, but was in fact ground rice, as the chef explained when he came out after each course to see how we liked it.  We liked it, all of it.  Next the famous chicken biryani, which deserves all its cred and then some, and a repeat of the chicken vembanadu.  The chef brought me a hand-written 2-page detailed recipe of the dish, which I will make some day back in the U.S. and wish I had seafood that fresh to work with.  It was a top-10 meal experience, right up there with Mario Batali’s Lupa, some of Rick Bayless’s finest at Frontera Grill, almost all the food in Turkey, particularly the restaurant under the church with the frescoes, the pizza at Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, The Red Bean in Kunming, and a couple of restaurants in Puebla, and …..I’m happy to remember there are a lot more than 10 restaurants in my top 10!  We will be going back a final time to see our friends and see how much more of the menu we can taste.  Really good food is a really good treat.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Ships of Beypore

About 30 minutes outside of the town I’m currently working in, Calicut, is the quiet small village of Beypore.  My students encouraged me to take a field trip after class to see the ships and boatyard there, so I had my driver take me there after class yesterday.  According to guide books, the wiry Khalasis have used traditional methods to make urus (huge wooden vessels) from teak for 1500 years. They craft the ships using memorized plans and ancient construction techniques, and, as the pictures show, also make elaborate hand-carved details on many parts of the ships.  I asked my students if these ships were used for commerce or recreation, and they thought they used to be used for commerce, but now are used mainly for recreation, which would account for the beautiful carving.  They are pushed out to sea here when completed, then sail to the Gulf States for the interior trimmings and the motor, and finally are sold to people around the world for good times. I also asked students about the teak use, since I’d hear it was illegal to cut teak from the forests, but they said this teak was propagated particularly for the urus.  They were very impressive to see, for both their size and the craftsmanship, and as we looked around we both remarked that this is probably one of the few places left in the world that uses this type of personal craftsmanship to build ships.  
On another field trip today after work we visited the beach where Vasco de Gama came ashore.  Yes, I'm talking about THE Vasco de Gama of 7th grade geography book lore.  I'm unclear on how long he stayed, but the beach was pretty and much calmer than our local Kovalam beach in Trivandrum.  We have one more beach left to see tomorrow, which is our last day here, so it's been a beach-a-day schedule this week… It's rough work, but someone's got to do it.

Apparatus used to take ships to water

Live crab on Vasco de Gama's Beach

Lovely Home front on way to beach

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Playing Dress Up, Indian Style

Silk is serious business in the south of India; they are famous for their quality and variety.  Visiting a silk shop here is a little like going over to someone’s house to play dress up, except there are multiple attendants assisting you with the dressing up.  When you enter the store you are greeted by at least 2 or 3 people, one of which attaches herself to you for the duration of your shopping experience.  These are always young, beautiful, uniformly sari-clad young women with a bright smile on their faces.  I must admit there is a healthy competition to work with me, partially because they hire so many sales people and they have to stand around looking busy when they aren’t, but mostly they are very curious about this white lady, and even with only a little English they attempt a conversation.  I tell them what I’m looking for, and off we go to various floors of the shop.  Yes, there are ALWAYS several floors of shopping space in a silk shop.  I would verify with pictures but most establishments have serious signs on their premises prohibiting any photos.  I will include a photo from an excursion with Daughter #1 from last Christmas, who has always loved dress up, too.

My assistant begins pulling out various selections for me to reject or be attracted to, and as I decide, they watch carefully and pull another 10 or 20 items with the similar vein.  I usually point to the sequins and beads and tell them I don’t like those, and then they start telling the other salespeople who are gathering, “Plain, just plain.”  I want to defend my choices as sophisticated or stylish, but they don’t care, they just want to pull the stuff and then see what I will choose.  Usually after 5 or 10 minutes I’ve attracted a crowd, and they are talking among themselves quite animated and laughing, no idea what about, and then one brave soul asks either “Your name, mam?” or “Coming from where, mam?”  Once I tell them the U.S., they are all oohs and ahhhs, we’ve got ourselves a rare bird here!  Many have probably not met a US citizen before, so I’m feeling both special and responsible for my behavior.  By the time I make a selection, we are old friends, and we all wave good-bye until next time.  The experience is a very pleasant upper, and it brings a different meaning to “retail therapy”.  Sometimes these chatty, innocent young ladies with their eager smiles are exactly what I need.   During yesterday’s trip, I was tickled under the chin like a baby as they puzzled over my skin color (yellow, or pink?) and held by the wrist to be gently pulled where I needed to go when our language skills were insufficient.  While showing the crowd how one particular kurta fit, I showed one woman a button that was loose, and when she touched it, it fell off.  The 5 or 6 compatriots couldn’t stand up straight for a while they were laughing so hard.  Finally the perpetrator assured me, “We don’t care.  It’s not ours!”   I had a good laugh with them, and threw it in the reject pile.  Off they flew to see if there was a replacement.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dusk at our House

Having lived in only landlocked areas all my life until now, the ocean and all things coastal hold a special fascination for me.  One of the many wonderful perks of life here by the sea is beautiful sunsets, and from our west-facing terrace on the 7th floor, we have established a ritual of meeting at the terrace to watch the sunset and let the breezes float over us.  For about 30 minutes during the falling of the sun, the horizon changes many colors, and in the sky the kites (the bird variety, not the paper kind with string) put on an aerial show that would rival the Blue Angels.  They gather and take to the sky, then catch the wind currents and coast around and around.  It's a dramatic sight that isn't easy to capture on film, so just trust me, it's cool.
There is also an audio component to our watch.  We call this the "Bourne" moments, because I feel like  I'm in an espionage movie.  Open with the gorgeous woman (that's me) on her 7th floor balcony, breeze gently flowing through her auburn locks (it's a movie, I can look however I want.) She looks down over a grove of palm trees enjoying the same breeze and a sunset in progress.  Next the muezzin begins his evening call to prayer.  As it dies down, a lone peacock cries out. [time passes….] Just after dark, bells are heard from the Hindu temple to the right of her vision. As they subside, songs of praise begin and are chanted over the next hour. Finally, the neighborhood lion begins his vocalizing for the evening. She is NOT in Kansas anymore...

South Indian Food Delights

Appam, egg curry, and potato stew
Making the Appam, dressed in a sari, of course!
I could wax eloquent on the many merits of the almighty appam of South India, which is a bit like a crepe, except it's not…. It's made from rice flour, freshly ground, coconut, yeast, sugar, and I think one more thing I can't remember.  It is cooked like a crepe, except not really, because they purposely leave a  little more in the middle than the sides so you can have a center of goodness after eating the crunchy outside bits.  Appan is used as a food-carrying device much like chapati are used in the north; tear off a section, capture some side dish with the appam, and deliver it to your mouth.  Repeat until appam and/or side dishes are gone.  It's not as good as a great fresh corn tortilla, but I believe it is in second place for my "world's best bread substitutes".  Yep, it's a strong second.  My friend and colleague invited me and a guest from Delhi over for a typical South Indian breakfast, which always involves appam and dosas, and sambar.  They are all worthy of each other's company.  It's rather remarkable how different the northern cuisine is from the southern, and the northerners who are brave enough admit that the south has the best breakfast in the country.
Earlier this week I found some passion fruit at the market, and had no idea what ripe ones felt like so bought an assortment, because although this is a favorite flavor of mine, after the queen mango, I've never had any fresh passion fruit.  It was great fun cutting the outer layer in half to see the very interesting, very gelatinous interior that covered the seeds.  That gooey substance and the seeds is the edible part, and although S tried to rain a bit on my parade by likening their appearance to frogs' eggs, they were fantastic. They do resemble frogs' eggs a bit...
Finally, we visited a CHIPS shop on the way to the beach this afternoon.  Chips here are serious business, and of the banana variety, but taste nothing like the hard, waxy banana chips we get/produce in the U.S.  These are of many varieties, and my current favorite are the long, thin masala banana chips that are sprinkled with lots of spices after they come out of the coconut oil.  I had to buy a minimum of 100 kg and found it was not a problem to consume them all, quite the contrary. There were other "chaat" at the chips store, which is a dry snack in Indian culinary terms, which you see in the pictures below, and halwa of many flavors, which tastes a bit like a caramel/butter base with some fruit essence for the flavor.  Very rich, and a little goes a long way.
 Enjoy the photos of our culinary day in the south.

Halwa flavors at Chip Shop

Masala Long Chips

Pryamid of Goodness 

Taking Large Boat out to Sea Against the Tide
Pushing it past the tide and lighthouse

Free at Sea!

Steve and Driver Outside Chip Shop

South Indian Breakfast

Beignets?  Can't Tell, No English spoken at Chips Shop!

Passion Fruit shell and interior

Fish Eggs?  No, Passion Fruit

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Language Shifts

It was inevitable and only a matter of time: my language is changing.  I have decided it is better to sound odd to myself but be understood by the Indian to whom I am speaking in certain circumstances.  Here are some changes that I find myself using pretty naturally….
“Let’s make a SHIFT”:  Indians use SHIFT like we use MOVE, or GO, so basically you’re saying “Let’s go.”   This is NOT to be misconstrued to think your group will then automatically get up and go somewhere.  It’s just to let people know you’re thinking about it….
SPECS:  for glasses, because when I don’t say SPECS, I end up pointing to my glasses so people understand what I am talking about
TIMINGS:  Hours of Operation. I started using that last year to ask about hours of an establishment. Then I discovered that, particularly for the morning opening, there are things that remain undone when the shop opens that prevents you from knowing exactly when it's a good time to show up to shop.  There is a puja to be done, and the sweeping and mopping of the front stoop, and so on.  I usually give it an extra half hour.                                
Local Temple for Durga
BATCHMATE:  This means classmate, and I don’t use this because it sounds like cookies are involved, and it makes me sad to remember there are no good cookies here anywhere in this country that I can find. French pastries I can find, but the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip variety, or, a direct-from-God oatmeal raisin, forget about it.  I occasionally entertain thoughts of flying to London just to raid a great cookie shop I was lucky enough to smell at Heathrow. It’s still a half-baked idea….
There are a few lexical items I still resist using.
1.“From my/our side”:  This one is tricky, basically it means, “I am offering to pay”, or “This will be on me.”  But it’s hard to put in a sentence correctly, so I don’t use it but have a passive understanding of it when someone offers to give me something or pay.  There are perks to understanding this one, after all.
2. LORRY for Truck, and FLAT for elevator:  Sorry, they both still sound silly to me, like they belong in a Monty Python skit, so I can’t use them with a straight face.
While on the topic of language variants, many times the teachers I work with will try to be charitable and quietly point out what they think is a spelling error, like COLOR or LABOR, or THEATER.  I hold my ground for profession and country and refuse to change it.  I like reminding people I'm an American, because many times people will think I'm from the United Kingdom.  As if.....