Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From The Darkness to light

I recently read Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger, a fascinating story that exposes the corruption, violence, and struggle in 'The World's Largest Democracy" (India). Throughout the book, the protagonist refers to a place called "The Darkness," often contrasting it to his life in Delhi. But what is The Darkness? Is it a specific place? A place full of poverty? I interpreted it as a reference to the main character's home state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions that is severely impeded by corruption.

I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendent of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.

After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, afterall, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'

As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vacinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.

I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret wearing, rifle toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.

Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shoken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.

It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?

I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.

To my immense relief, it was a bona fide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


This morning we woke up on the train, already several hours into our journey from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Though I won't go into great detail about it, as words and even images cannot do it justice, the Taj Mahal was awe-inspiring. Other than the birth of a child, I don't imagine I will ever again witness something that beautiful. It is every cliche in the book--brought a tear to my eye; felt like I was in heaven. If you are willing to brave India, don't miss it.

But this post is to describe our next destination, Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, believed to date back more than 3000 years. But what gives the city it's significance is not its age, but its spot on the holy Ganges River. Hindus rom all over India come here to bathe themselves or cremate their family members. All of this is in clear view to the public, which is what makes Varanasi such a unique and surprising place.

When we disembarked our train, we were greeted by the usual harassment from taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers. We made a B-line to the prepaid auto-rickshaw stand, which provides a set and fair price to any destination in the city. We were taken to a location where we were to met the owner, Monu, of our guesthouse. Monu had informed me that our accommodation was located down a narrow alleyway, which auto-rickshaws cannot enter.

We were dropped off at the designated spot and Monu soon approached. He seemed like a kind, but no nonsense Indian man who spoke clear and quite natural English. We followed him across a busy road, where I was nearly run down by a cycle rickshaw. We then wove through alleys filled with the usual cows (and the stinking piles of manure that come with them) and stray dogs, as well as plenty of human traffic--barefoot women dressed in brillian saris, brown uniformed police, men on bicycles, children chasing each other, and leering young men. Small shops nearly overflowed onto the tiny streets, selling snacks and drinks, saris, bangles, sweets, and scarves. The heat was suffocating, so it was with great relief I entered the guest house.

I passed out in the room while Katalin and Amy took to the streets. When they returned, I heard all about their excursion, walking along the river's ghats (steps or landing on a river). They wandered upon Manikarnika Ghat, one of the main cremation ghats in Varanasi. Here they saw bodies wrapped in golden fabric being carried out from the alleyways. The body is taken down to the water, where it is briefly submerged, and then brought back up on the ghat, where it is placed on a pile of wood.

Wood is seen in 10-ffot piles all around the cremation ghat. There are several kinds of wood to choose from, the most expensive being sandlewood. Once the body is situated properly a top of the wood, the fire is lit. It can take up to five days for the body to be fully cremated, at which point the ashes are put into the Ganges. The bodies burn and the work goes on day and night, every day .

After hearing about Katalin and Amy's experience, I was eager to see the river and its ghats myself. I overcame my heat-induced lethargy and made it out of the guest house. Once at the river we were met by numerous children selling small paper bowls filled with merigolds and a simple wax candle. Katalin purchased one for each of us. We lit them and followed the example of others who had set them adrift in the Ganges. The significance of this nightly affair, I do not know.

We continued on to Dasaswamedh Ghat in time to catch the beginning of a performance. The sun had just set, but the atmosphere was lively as ever. Hunger had set in though, so we drifted away from the river and sat down to a lovely Indian meal. I ordered a thali, a personal buffet of sorts. For 120 rupees ($2.50), I was given cheese curry, spinach curry, rice, flat bread, yogurt, lentils, chutney, and a dessert.

After finishing our dinner, we left the restaurant and stumbled upon a parade. Women carried chandeliers on their heads, men played instruments and danced around, flaring their arms while spinning in circles. Next came a series of decorated trucks, their displays powered by the disel fume spewing generators that followed them. The procession was slow, too slow to captivate the attention of any ordianary American audience. But the three of us were enthralled, swept up by the energy and excitement of it all. The celebration was linked to one of Indian's many castes, but the full meaning of it all I don't understand. Regardless, we felt lucky to witness whatever it was we were witnessing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Paying for your own suffering

I have experienced few things in life that are worse than a really bad restaurant meal--not only is the food awful, but I am also left with a bill at the end. I am, in turn, paying for my own suffering.

In my last blog I praised Indian food and I hope what I am about to say does not take away from that. I still firmly believe the cuisine here is fabulous. It is the first Asian country I've traveled through in which I didn't crave Western food. With all the deliciousness, there is the occasional disaster. Unfortunately, I have been hit with two, back-to-back.

Last night we had to catch an 11pm train for the small desert fort city of Jaisalmer. Before our departure we decided to have dinner together at a restaurant, Kalinga, near the station. We flagged down an auto rickshaws which putted us through the busy, dusty streets of Jodhpur past shops, cows, stray dogs, and the obligatory McDonald's. Once deposited outside the highly recommended restaurant, we realized it was a little out of our price range. Instead we settled on a hole in the wall joint dishing up vegetarian thali (all you can eat, set meal) for 30 rupees (65 cents). Big mistake. My naan (Indian flat bread) was slightly charred, with an actual piece of charcoal stuck to the back of one piece. The curries were luke warm and the rice was cold. Considering the low price and my lack of appetite, I was able to push aside my disappointment.

That was not the case with the questionable breakfast I had to endure this morning. I ordered black coffee and a chocolate pancake. As the coffee pot was placed on my table, I was told my black tea had arrived. "Black tea?" I asked, "I wanted coffee." The waiter yelled, in Hindi, back to the kitchen and a response was promptly given. It was, in fact, black coffee, I was reassured. I gave it a taste and sure enough, it did actual taste like a weak cup of black coffee--which is not always the case here in India. Sometimes coffee tastes like tea, probably due to all the milk, sugar, and spices they like to dump in it.

Next course was my chocolate pancake. While the dish was coming toward me, the waitor knocked my cup thus dumping half my coffee on the table. I got a reluctant apology, but shook the incident off due to the pangs of hunger hitting me. The appearance of the pancake was satisfactory, but the taste--not good. The chocolate sauce had chunks in it, of what, I'm not sure. The pancake itself was slightly scortched and had a faint flavor of garlic to it. I opted to just settle on the coffee and push the chocolately, garlicy pancake mess aside. I should probably go now, as it's 3pm and I haven't had a decent meal in the last 24 hours. I think I'm due for one now.

Please feel free to report any horrendous restaurants meals you've suffered through. I'd love to hear all the gory details.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Accidental Vegetarian

Some say that India is the best place in the world for vegetarians. The dietary restrictions on so many Indians make a veggie friendly society inevitable--Jains and Buddhists often adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, Hindus don't eat meat, and Muslims don't eat pork. Evidently, there's not much to be had at an Indian McDonald's (oh yes, Ronald can be found here), just a Crispy Chicken or Fillet-o-Fish. Looking back over the past week, I realize that the only "meat" I've consumed was a couple pieces of fish I ordered while indulging at The American Diner in Delhi. This is a stark contrast to the very carnivorous diet I practice in China.

Being a vegetarian is certainly a personal and conscientious decision and a life choice I do not think I am willing to commit to. However, I do believe that if someone wanted to transition into vegetarianism, Indian would be the best place to do it. I'm nearly becoming one myself without trying, much to the credit of delicious Indian food. With meat (namely chicken, mutton, or fish) or without, the food here is simply amazing. I probably should add that a willingness to try new flavors and spices is imperative in appreciating the cuisine. As stated in a previous blog, I, for one, am fairly adventurous when it comes to food and beverage. Whatever your tastes, I definitely think you should give Indian food a try.

In an effort to expand my knowledge of Indian food and improve my kitchen prowess, I signed up for an Indian cooking course. In Udaipur, the small city in Rajasthan where we are currently staying, there is no shortage of establishments offering such courses. Everywhere I turn is a sign advertising "Cooking Lessons;" our guesthouse even provides classes. I decided to go with the highly recommended Shashi ( For 500 rupees (about US$11), I would be educated in the art of making masala chai, chutneys, pakora (a batter fried snack of veggies or cheese), curry, rice pilaf, naan (unleaved, white flat bread), tomato sauce, and even paneer (cheese).

My class included three other students, all of us foreigners eager to learn Shashi's secrets. She took us to her small kitchen and over the course of five hours taught us the basics needed to create an Indian feast. Afterwards, we dined--the results were delcious beyond my expectations. Though I was bound to secrecy, I will reveal one recipe here for anyone interested in cooking up an authentic Indian curry:

Eggplant Potato Curry (serving size: 2 people)
1 small eggplant, cut into chunks
1 large potato, halved lengthwise and then cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, cut into pieces
1 small piece (half the size of a thumb) piece of ginger, cut into pieces
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 pinch cumin
1 pinch turmeric
oil (any kind)
fresh coriander (if desired)
1. Put eggplant chunks in a bowl of salt water. Set aside.
2. Put garlic, ginger, 1/2 the diced onion, and salt into a mortar and grind with pestle into a paste.
3. Put 2 tbsps of oil and heat over medium high.
4. Add cumin and remaining onion to heated oil.
5. Add the garlic/ginger/onion paste to the pan. Cook.
6. Once the onion has browned, add coriander, chili, and turmeric.
7. Add 1/2 cup water and simmer, uncovered, until water evaporates.
8. Drain eggplant. Once water has evaporated, add the eggplant. Cook, covered, for 2 minutes.
9. Add potatoes. Cover and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
10. Add tomatoes. Cover and cook for 3 additionally minutes, stirring occasionally.
11. Check to see if potatoes are tender. If tender, curry is ready.
12. Sprinkle with fresh coriander if desired. Serve with rice or flat bread.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Beauty amid chaos

Yesterday we arrived in Amritsar, a city of about 1 million, located in the state of Punjab, near the Pakistani border. Exiting the bus, we were greeted by the usual mob of taxi, auto-rickshaw, and cycle rickshaw drivers. Unwilling to brave the crowded, dusted streets, we hired an auto-rickshaw to take us to a local guest house. After a quick negotiation over the fare, we were off to Tourist Guest House.

Our guidebook describes the budget hotel situation in Amritsar as "underwhelming," which certainly seems like an accurate word for our digs. The price was cheap (350 rupees, about US$8) for a room, but I was afraid to touch anything in it. We tried to make the best of our situation by pulling out into the courtyard the lawn chairs and table that furnished our room. Gary, a fellow guest at our accommodation befriended us, and eventually we decided to head out into the city with him as our bodyguard.

While our guest house is underwhelming, walking down the streets of Amritsar is certainly overwhelming. The dusty, dirt roads are filled with honking taxis, buses, and auto-rickshaws. Cows, people, and cycle rickshaws loiter the roadside; there are no sidewalks. Garbage and piles of shit can be found everywhere--watching your step while avoiding getting run down by traffic is an essential survival skill. The bazaars are a lively, colorful mix of fruit, saris, flowers, and sundry items. Everyone turns their head to stare; whispers are shared among locals as we walk by.

Weaving through the labyrinth of streets, we eventually made our way to the Golden Temple. This temple is the reason people come to Amritsar. For Sikh's (pronounced 'seek'), this shrine is like Mecca--the holiest site and one all followers of the religion aspire to visit. The temple itself is rather small, a two story marble building covered in a roof of pure gold. Surrounding it is a holy pool of water, which many pilgrims take the opportunity to bathe in. Around the pool is a walkway of marble. People of all sorts can be found circling the walkway, Sikh gentlemen in their bright colored turbans, Hindu ladies in lavish saris, boisterous children asking to shake our hands.

Just outside is a dining hall, which serves free meals to pilgrims and tourists visiting the site. Anyone at anytime can eat there--the hall serves nearly 80,000 people a day. The place is a buzz of people and plates; we lined up and upon entry were were given a silver tray and bowl. We were then guided upstairs where we sat in a long line, on a thin floor mat, in a huge hall filled with other diners. We were served a delicious bean curry and chapati (flat bread), boiled water was poured into our bowls. Men came around to serve us seconds and thirds (which we kindly refused). As we were finishing up, a Sikh man plopped his young toddler in Amy's lap to take a photo. Next the baby was passed to me. After the obligatory smiles, hello's, and photos, we exited the hall.

A young Sikh approached us. "Excuse me," he said, "but can you tell me the meaning of a word, "retarded?"'

Amy and I looked at each other awkwardly. "Hmmm, it's a bad word. It means to have mental problems." Amy said, pointed at her head.

"Yes. It can mean stupid. It's not really a good thing to say. Where did you hear this?" I asked.

"A rap song," he replied proudly.

We chatted with him, a volunteer at the temple's dining hall. He invited us to see the kitchen's chapati machine. How could we pass up such an offer? Following him from room to room, we witnessed what it takes to prepare meals for some 80,000 people. Cauldrons boiled curries, machines kneaded dough and pumped out flat bread; an assembly line of dish washers efficiently cleaned thousands of plates, bowls, and spoons; groups of people peeled and cut vegetables and garlic--almost all the workers are volunteers.

After our tour we returned to the temple to see what it looked like in the full moon light. The golden temple was shimmering, casting its color into the surrounding water. People continued to circle, bathe, and pray. It was a beautiful look into India in the middle of a dirty, bustling city.