Friday, December 18, 2009

Agra and the Taj Mahal (December 14, 2009) Written 15 December 2009

I struggled to wake up at 5:30am, got in the auto at 6am, and was at Hazrat Nazamuddin Railway Station at 6:30am. As the dawn light was emerging, the station was fully active already, hundreds of people with huge white bags, briefcases and backpacks and duffel bags of all sizes and colors. Carts with bananas, oranges, and guava. Chai-wallahs. Crowded train platforms. India has…lots of people. I have spent the past 4 years using Tokyo as my base, which is supposedly the second largest city in the world, but umm Delhi seems pretty crazy to me too.

I was riding general class since the Taj Express fills up early and there were no other seats available. Which means I was tightly wrapped in my pashmina shawl but still shivering my butt off. Train rides in India are endlessly entertaining, as vendors come through to sell everything from peanuts, water, chai, samosas, and all sorts of sweets (I’ve decided Indian sweets are not my thing, which is good because it means I have to forcefully restrain myself only on the savory food). I was exhausted by the time I reached Agra, and caught an auto to the Taj Mahal. Well, it’s pretty phenomenal. The white marble domes are stunning to say the least. But what really did it for me was the interior, with the semi-precious stones inlay. And I really enjoyed the mosques on either side of the Taj. I’m quickly learning that at any tourist site in India, people will want to have their photo taken with me. Many times people travel from small villages to the big sites like the Taj Mahal and they are so excited to see foreigners. I don’t know if I’ve experienced that in many other places – maybe Vietnam.

I pretty much headed straight back from the Taj Mahal to the train station and caught the next train back to Delhi. Oh, the lines at the train stations. I have become way too used to the way people orderly arrange themselves in Japan. This is a free-for-all and I think people see me and think, ah! Submissive Japanese girl, for sure she won’t say anything if I just elbow my way past her. Hrmph. I had some sort of unreserved ticket so I sprinted onto a train that way pulling out of the station, showed my ticket to the people in the compartment and they communicated to me, I think, that I was supposed to proceed to the back of the train. A few cars later, a guy stopped me, asking me for my ticket, and motioned that I should sit in his seat. I sat, not really understanding what was going on but decided I would figure it out if I had to. It turned out that I had to buy a ticket to occupy that seat, no problems at all, and I shared this metal bench with this lovely man and his friend. They were clearly from the lower classes, and spoke no English at all, but they offered me everything they had. Tea, Madam? Samosa, Madam?

I have yet to discover (I forgot to ask Padma and her family) what the deal is with the transvestites in the trains. Twice on the train from Agra to Delhi a few very dark-skinned people dressed in bright, low-cut saris came through, caressing the men in the car and asking for cash. Are they hijras? That’s the only Indian group that came up in my Homosexuality seminar in Anthropology when I was in university…

There is definitely poverty, and I must admit that I am a bit surprised at the lack of reaction to it that I have had so far. I think it’s a combination of Bangladesh having shocked the crap out of me, totally traumatizing me, and so far India’s poverty (that I’ve seen, which probably is a tiny fraction of what I could see) is far less visible. Yes, there are lepers and many dismembered people roaming through traffic begging. There are boys only a few years older than my 2.5 year old nephew who are cleaning windows of vehicles, their eyes listless, staring off into space. Yes, when I gave my extra samosa to a barefoot, nearly naked girl who was probably 5 years old, 5 or 6 more kids her age instantly appeared before me. Yes, there is an endless pile of trash lining almost every road and railroad track, and an undeniable stench in many places. We’ll see how things evolve as my trip continues.

I arrived back at the apartment in time to hear the ending of music class. Padma’s mother is a vocalist, and she plays the harmonium. The harmonium has 42 keys and is like a cross between a piano and an accordion. As you pump air into it with your left hand, the sound gets stronger as you press in, and the vibration is really captivating. I have heard the harmonium only in association with kirtan and yogic chants, and I got to play around with it a little bit with Padma’s mother, who has a magical voice. Lovely.

Remi and Rohit had become my all-in-one saviors (Smriti and Gautam did this too!) – they were my travel consultants (negotiating India’s trains is much more complex than I had hoped, but at the same time completely understandable given the size and population of the country!), my advisors on my yogic path (haha – I have been debating tremendously about what sort of program I’m looking to do – more on that later), and cultural ambassadors in every way. I can’t thank everyone enough.

I was keen to check out the Indian early morning routine in parks and gardens. Padma’s mother goes every morning to Jahanpannah Forest, about a kilometer away from their complex, and so I joined her and Krishna-ji this morning at 7am. People are inside doing yoga, you walk by people doing kapala-bhati, the breath of fire, people are walking their dogs, and a few, but not many, are jogging. We slowly walked 3km, stopping halfway on a bench where Padma’s mother sang a few songs, we did a stretching routine, and talked about all sorts of things from Japan to the US to views on marriage, religion, child custody, etc. What an interesting experience to be able to hear 3 generations of opinions of Indian women. But Padma’s family is not typical; Remi is 24 and living with her boyfriend, Padma’s mother separated from her husband of 28 years just two years ago, and strikes me as a fiercely confident yet compassionate, tender woman. It’s hard to explain, but I felt graced by all of their presence. So after this lovely morning walk, I had a coconut (agua de coco gente!), first drinking the water, then eating the supremely tender flesh, and then I went back into the forest to go for a run. I had been really craving this for awhile, since New York was too cold for me to do anything outside.

A few more hours hanging out with Remi and Rohit and then off I was, back to Nazamuddin for the train to Sawai Madhopur. That’s where I am right now, but today I’m sitting in a reserved AC compartment, with reclining chairs, white cloth covers on the headrests, well-dressed wallahs bringing through meals, chai, and all the usual assortment of snacks. It’s so orderly, organized…I don’t know which I prefer.

Are you sure this city only has 12.8 million people Lonely Planet?? Hmm… (Delhi, India 11-13 December, written 15 December 2009)

A long flight. A really long one. Finally landed in Delhi at 2:30am. Wide-eyed and excited, I got off the plane, and everything was so…modern. Just like any major modern airport, except everyone’s Indian. Which could mean they’re in long orange robes, or Sikhs with turbans, or women with flowing saris, and people in “normal” Western suits buzzing past them. I made it quite effortlessly in a prepaid taxi to Smriti and Gautam’s house, and off I was to bed.

Friday morning, my first experience with home-cooked Indian food – Manju, the girl that helps cook and clean, made me a sort of savory pancake made with gram (chickpea flour) – and fresh grated coriander, tomato, and a smattering of herbs and spices – cumin and turmeric were the main ones to go in this. The pomegranates here are the best I have ever had in my life, no joke.

We went to meet Fumi, a Japanese girl that Rich in Tokyo had introduced me to, at the DLF Shopping Mall. Another relatively shocking experience, being my first stop in India outside the home. People in India go to the mall to see and be seen; they wear their fanciest clothes and go to the mall with their friends and family – it’s a whole social experience.

We had lunch at Haldiram’s, a chain of Indian street food made into fast food, and it was actually delicious. We had gol gappas, which are comprised of deep fried wheat flour hollow bite-size balls. You break open the top and then put in a spoonful of aloo chana, a spiced potato and chickpea mixture. Top with a sweet tamarind chutney, a savory mint and coriander chutney, a tangy water mixture, and now you delicately put the crunchy water ball in your mouth. Repeat.

Then we had dahi bhalla, which are essentially dumplings made from lentil flour and rice, soaked overnight and fermented, and topped with lots of sweet tamarind chutney and yogurt, and finally finished off with fresh ground cumin, coriander seed, black pepper, and bits of other spices.

We also had chole bhature, which consisted of chana pindi, but which was quite different from what I’ve had outside India. Black chickpeas in sauce, with strips of raw ginger and coriander. Accompanied with raw red onion, spiced roast potato, and pickled green chili – delicious but watch out for the spice level! This was eaten with a long football-shaped hollow deep-fried wheat bread, with bits of red from the chili powder in it. Yum.

And then I was introduced to my great Indian love – Paneer. Paneer is a sort of cheese made from heating up milk and sifting it and hardening it – so it’s like a very soft, mild white cheese – and it turns out that in many ways it’s like tofu in the way it tastes and feels here. My love. We had a paneer tikka, cubes of paneer cooked in the tandoor, with red onion, tomato, and green peppers…YUM.

We also had palak paneer momos (Momos are dumplings from Tibet/Nepal/Northeast India) – and these were filled with spinach, onions, and bits of paneer.

After that, Fumi and I continued to Qutab Minar, ancient Muslim ruins. Beautiful spot –and then we went to the market at R K Puram, where the road is lined with vegetables, meat, clothes, watches, shoes, movies, whatever. The first Indian market I visited, it was lively and colorful.

That evening, Smriti, Gautam and I went to Chic Fish (meaning Chicken and Fish, not vegetarian – although their vegetarian food was mouthwatering). We got a vegetable platter of which the highlights were Tandoor Gobi (large pieces of cauliflower which had been marinated in yogurt, turmeric, cumin, coriander seed powder, and mango seed powder, then cooked in the tandoor), and Stuffed potatoes – bharwan aloo, filled with spiced crumbly paneer. There were two varieties of large, chunky paneer – the first was dipped in mint and coriander chutney, the other in a red spice mix of chili powder, turmeric, etc. The Missi Roti was awesome, a gram flour dense bread with fresh coriander kneaded into the flour. And a paper thin roti, cooked on a giant tawa outside the restaurant.

Saturday morning after some tomato toast and fruit, off I was to the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Centre in Nataraj, South Delhi. I have not had too much exposure to the Sivananda style of yoga, but knew that a yoga session is basically comprised of surya namaskara, then a sequence of 12 asanas with savasana between each asana. The center itself has a tranquil, modest feel and I thoroughly enjoyed the class. Afterwards, I walked to Nehru Place, known for its extensive selection of shops containing all things electronics and computer-related. Indeed this was the case, and I shopped around for a memory card reader. But the concept of shopping is so lively here. Yes, you have fixed businesses but interspersed amongst them are people deep-frying aloo tikkis and samoshas; young boys walking around selling zippers, or lighters, or fake DVDs…whatever you want. So much noise, movement, color.

Afterwards, I had decided to visit the Lotus Temple since I was so close; it’s a Baha’I Temple but welcomes anybody for meditation and prayer. I was able to see the temple from quite a distance away, so logic told me to just walk in a straight line towards it. Oops. I forgot that I had to account for slums and construction sites as possible obstacles. So I hesitated as the smell of feces rose into the air, and crumbling concrete piled up. Naked children covered in dirt were running around emaciated dogs. A man only clothed with the torn remains of what was probably once a longyi had his back to me as he bathed, the water rippling down his body that had virtually no body fat. I proceeded as an older man waved me through, motioning for me to keep going, that I didn’t have to find an alternate route. So I did, heading to the glittering white massive structure, the contrast between the neighborhood around it and the immaculate interior of the temple etched into my consciousness.

I admittedly am not an expert in any way on the social systems in India; for one, they are far too innumerable for anyone to fully comprehend since there are so many variations based on religious, urban vs. rural, economic class, etc. But it stands out very strongly that the shade of your skin directly corresponds to the work that people are performing. In virtually every situation, the person who is doing the hardest manual labor, the least desirable work, is the person with the darkest shade of skin. Movies, billboards, TV, and magazines are dominated by fair-skinned gorgeous Indians. I guess this is the reality of modern India, I wonder how, when, and why it will change.

Every transaction with an auto-rickshaw (commonly referred to as autos) is a nightmare for me. I stopped enjoying bargaining years ago; Tibet marks the turning point for this, in January 2004, and since then it has been a downward slope. I loathe arguing over what for me is pennies, I loathe being taken for some millionaire foreigner. I am not entirely opposed to local/foreigner prices, but there are limits and decency. Anyway, the autos in Delhi are notorious for gouging prices. Alas I arrived at Dilli Haat, a marketplace which you must pay 15 rupees to go into, thus keeping it clean and beggar-free.

Smriti came and met me, and in we went. The merchants at Dilli Haat change every 15 days, ensuring that you can come shop to your heart’s delight every two weeks! The current event was that they were showcasing the National Award winners from the whole country, so the best artists and craftsmen from all over the country. The enormity and scale of India’s cultural diversity was well represented in the market, ranging from large colorful murals from West Bengal to exquisite Kashmiri work including Pashmina, walnut wood carvings. Palm leaf etchings with incredibly minute detail…it was really impressive. Smriti was the perfect guide to have with me; she has an impressive knowledge of the techniques and the history behind all the decorative arts. I wanted to buy lots and lots of things all around me, but I restricted myself to scarves, since the salwar kameez and saris I feel I won’t use once I leave India. Dilli Haat is also quite famous for its food area, which is comprised of vendors selling typical street food from every state in the country. So you can eat Maharashtran sev puri and thalipith whilst munching on Nagaland momos and sip Kashmiri Kahwa tea. Paradise in Yuri’s universe.

So we stuck to the Maharashtran food – pure taste bud ecstasy (see, click on Set: FOOD) Thalipith, a dense breadmade from seven whole grains and coriander, topped with a dollop of butter, served with green chutney and a yogurt with fresh coriander and red onion was divine. Sabudana khichdi, a grain with a mocha-like texture, tossed in ground peanuts and cumin, served with a more liquid yogurt; sev puri, a street food with a deep-fried dough base, topped with spiced potatoes, tamarind chutney, green chutney, and sprinkled with noodle-y bits made from chickpea flour – besan – another magical ingredient as I’ve discovered this week. And dessert was the puran poli, a flaky, buttery roti filled with saffron and butter paste.

Afterwards, we went to watch a Rangoli competition, which is where people (in this case it was entirely female competitors) make designs using sand or flower petals on the ground. Often times chalk is used to outline the design, and then vivid bright colored sand is used to fill in the white lines – this is what we would call in Mexico, “chinga tus ojos” colors – I love it.

We went home and I got to try on a beautiful sari and a couple salwar kameez sets, complete with a bindi. It was hilarious. Both items of clothing have strong arguments in favor of making anyone look thin while at the same time having nice curves, the only problem is it would take me forever to learn how to dress myself.

The dinner we had at home that night was beyond delicious. Bindi – okra – deep-fried in a light batter of gram flour and water. The batter itself just had turmeric sprinkled in, but after frying was sprinkled with mango seed powder, which I am discovering is this versatile, character-building ingredient. It adds a sort of sour tanginess, and a little bit goes a long way. Probably my favorite flavoring of this week.

And then the shahi methi paneer. Quite possibly the best dish I’ve had in India thus far. The gravy (sauce) comprises of: a cinnamon stick (later removed), a few cloves (later removed), very finely ground tomato and onion, fenugreek, garlic, coriander seed powder, cumin, turmeric, and a ground cashew paste. Simmer and stir for awhile and you will not believe your results. Toss in chunks of paneer and you will want to cry. Ahhhhhh.

Of course we also had delicious dhal with this, along with fresh roti and pappadums. I am exercising willpower as never before to not overeat in India.

I love Indian humor and wit, from the little I’ve seen. The people I have come into contact with are extremely educated and cultured, mix in British dry humor, the Indian endearing accent and even more endearing head wobble, and I am just bursting into laughter every moment. Gautam proceeded to tell me that my plan of jumping on a random train, getting off somewhere with no accommodation reservation, and hoping for the best could turn very unpleasant very easily. He proceeded to tell me that Goa has been announced the rape capital of India. That I shouldn’t get in any vehicles with tinted windows as they are illegal in India – so it’s not a good sign if they are already doing something illegal before you’re even in the vehicle. And I should avoid Andhra Pradesh since there is political turmoil and I might never be able to leave. And so on. They are really a lovely couple who complement each other so well.

A leisurely Sunday morning with delicious fresh squeezed tangerine juice as I browsed the classifieds section in the newspaper. The first part of the wanted ads almost unanimously work in my favor – I am at least 5 foot 3 inches, fair-skinned by Indian standards, educated, beautiful (haha according to who? ; ) female who likes to cook, but umm, I’m not Brahmin, and perhaps more importantly, I’m not “homely”. What the hell does that even mean? Anyway, a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday morning activity – reminded me of how Ole used to read out the sleazy Metropolis ads in Tokyo to me. I slowly prepared to switch houses. I was headed to Alaknanda to stay with Padma, an environmental journalist for the Sun Times. A totally different experience but equally wonderful for sure. I was staying in Padma’s sister’s apartment, Remi (her real name is Sriparna – how is it that nicknames, called petnames in India, can have absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the actual given name?). Remi lives with her boyfriend, Rohit, from Rajasthan, and Nitin, who is Padma’s boyfriend, who was away in Copenhagen covering the climate change conference. Padma’s family is Bengali (originally from Kolkata). On Sunday evening I had my first Hindi movie experience. I love how the Hindi is peppered with English, which means I had to actively pay attention to the whole dialogue even if it was all in Hindi because the occasional “Do you think I’m so stupid to not see that Hindi Hindi Hindi…I can’t believe you!” would pop up and I would once again be put back on track on the plotline. We saw Rocket Singh, Salesman of the Year. Awesome soundtrack. A feel-good comedy, and I actually feel that watching it taught me a lot about India in a lot of ways.

So that was my first weekend in India. Phew!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Starting Again!

Yeah, I know, I haven’t written on this thing for a really really long time. Believe me, it’s crossed my mind numerous times, especially because I’ve received quite a few emails asking me why I haven’t written, and I don’t really have a good excuse. But, I do know that once you fall behind, if you intend to start where you left off, the task seems to become overwhelming and then I end up putting it off again, and then, all of a sudden you’re more than a year behind.

Right now I’m in the US, and the quick story is, since my Europe trip last year, I went back to Japan to work the autumn season, then I spent a few weeks in the US, went down to Argentina for 3 weeks, then to Brasil for 3 months, basically to see if I could make living there a realistic possibility. The answer was a big fat no, but it was a very complicated, long, drawn-out process – my feelings towards Brasil - and when I say Brasil, I am referring to the land itself, the people, the culture, the food, the music, everything – are extremely complex, and it is nothing short of a love-hate, addictive, can’t live with it can’t live without it relationship. I’m still sure that the whole deal with Brasil isn’t over yet – that chapter closed, and another has followed since then, and I’m pretty sure there will be more to come.

Anyway, I left Brasil, took a week-long rejuvenating eating and seeing loved ones holiday in Mexico, passed through the US and back I was in Japan at the beginning of March. An insanely busy spring season, Hong Kong for the Asia Yoga Conference in June, along with a quick visit to Vietnam, 2 weeks between Taiwan and Bali in July, and the rest of the year until November was spent in Japan. The first time I’d spent this much time in Japan, and really started to grow roots in Japan. It’s WEIRD. I never thought that that would happen in Japan, but for a multitude of factors, it worked this year.

And so I left Japan, confused, conflicted, ready to go, wanting to stay, and arrived in Los Angeles on a crisp sunny morning, and the same exact feelings came pouring down. As I walked the walk I had done hundreds of times before, from the bus stop at Lincoln and Rose, stopping by the burrito stand, having that delectable kick of guacamole and cilantro at 9am, taking my shoes off at exhale, and then stepping onto the sand, I thought, I could live here again.

A week later and I’m on a plane back to the east coast, where I spent the years from when I was 5 to 18.

And now I’m at the airport in NYC, waiting to board my plane to India. And the past month has been a whirlwind rollercoaster, the end result of which is: I want to spend more time in the U.S. California just makes too much sense. Except for the making money part…hmm. So although I am thrilled and excited and overwhelmed with what will happen in India, I am majorly looking at just staying and exploring options in California. So as of today, December 9, 2009, the plan is that I’m spending the next 2.5 months in India, then I will go via the US back to Japan in March to work for 3 months, explore the possibility of doing a Thai Massage certification at Wat Pho in Bangkok, and then…try to move back to California. Perhaps make a documentary with Molly. Perhaps look into environmental activism. Perhaps look into yoga. And most certainly look into the organic vegetarian/vegan food scene, and, oh yeah, spend time playing in the sun.