Archive for the 'India' Category

A Taste of Holiday at Home

I took a cooking class in Bali when I was there in September. I love to cook, I love food, and I loved Bali. It like seemed a good way to spend three hours.

As it turns out, I also really love Balinese food. The prominent use of lime and ginger—coupled with the sweetness of palm sugar, the subtle tanginess of tamarind, and just enough heat to make you sweat—hit all my foodie sweet spots. The cooking class was one of the highlights of my trip.

Anatomy of a cooking class, Bumi Bali Cooking School in Ubud. September 2011.

However, I have yet to cook a single Balinese dish at home. Why haven’t I put my fancy culinary skills into practice?

I met a young Belgian bride at my cooking class who told me she and her husband learn to cook the cuisine wherever they travel. They then plan monthly date nights to make the food from their holiday destinations. “It’s little taste of holiday was once you go home,” she said. What a great concept.

I thought of her the other night as I ate Turkish takeout out of an aluminum bowl. It turns out that New York, in all its international culinary glory, has spoiled me from ever bothering to create international culinary brilliance on my own.

The best Turkish food I’ve ever had? Not in Istanbul. In Queens. Mangal Kebab in Sunnyside got me through grad school. I can also score a bottle or two of Efes, a Turkish pilsner, at the deli two blocks from my apartment.

Istanbul via Queens: lamb adana, home bread, some of the best baklava I've ever had. Washed down with the beer I was too ladylike and respectful to drink in Muslim Turkey.

I became obsessed with palak paneer in India. Minardirectly across the street from my office, does some of the best—complete with Bollywood music and Hindi newspapers. Check.

I’ve even found a pretty close match to the elusive Singaporean/Malay laksa. FoodParc’s new Mr. Wong’s Noodles does a red coconut curry broth that, with some pho, fried tofu, and add-on bamboo shoots transported me back to that first happy meal in Asia.

Fresh lime juice and curry laksa, my first (heavenly) meal in Singapore. Well, if you don't count the quiche at the Changi Starbucks. And I don't.

And at home in New York: Mr. Wong's red curry coconut broth. Not exactly laksa. But pretty darn close. And deliciously indulgent in its own soupy rite.

I will cook Balinese food. I will. I’ve even going to try to beat Mr. Wong at his laksa. I gloated to my cooking class compatriots that I didn’t need to smuggle back exotic spices because, in New York, we can get everything—even galangal root and kaffir lime leaves (Asia Market on Mulberry and Bangkok Center Grocery in Chinatown, if you’re wondering).

But, as any New Yorker will tell you, there’s a big difference between having it all and having time for it all. Even in the hustle of the holidays, I hope to set aside some time to sink my teeth—and my Santoku knife—into some sayur urab and a big steaming pot of opor ayam.

If I can’t find time to cook it all in New York, I have a plan. I will trudge around town, procure the ingredients, wrap them ever so carefully, and smuggle them in my luggage to a faraway land where they can’t be found. Iowa, where I will spend nine relaxing days at Christmas, is exotic in its inactivity, and I’m looking forward to sharing the taste of my holidays with the family I love.


Let Me Just Call My Driver, Part 1

I’m aware, telling my India stories to friends, that I frequently use the elitist-sounding phrase “our driver.” But for a short trip, I could find absolutely no down side to hiring private drivers in lieu of using autorickshaws or public transportation. First, there’s not a lot of public transport. Second, and my deciding factor, drivers are so cheap. Even when our relatively posh hotels arranged the drivers, we never paid more than $20US for a full day of being driven around. On a tight schedule, I think it’s totally worth it, even for budget travelers—of which I am one.

Taxi prices are what you could call “scalable” in India. If you are Indian, you pay one price. If you are foreign and non-Hindi/Telegu/Marathi-speaking, you pay, oh, about triple that price. To be fair, we’re not talking big numbers. My friend and I took an autorickshaw in Vizag to run an errand for our friends’ wedding. We found the auto in our hotel parking lot, and then called our Telegu-speaking friend (the groom) to tell the driver our destination. The driver wanted to charge us something like 100 rupees. The groom countered with the fair price—30 rupees. The driver apparently said, “But, sir, they’re foreigners!” Our friend told him, “No, they’re not. They’re my fiancee’s family.” (This is one of my favorite stories from the trip both because it’s an inside look into taxi pricing and shows so wonderfully the character of my friend’s husband.)

On one level, the 300% markup seems absurd. And it is. But 100 rupees is $2.20US. Westerners no doubt overpay over and over because it’s just so much work to fight on the price and the difference makes so little difference to our abundant bottom lines. When you hire a driver, you know what you’re getting into from the start and save the drama of haggling over the price of a vehicle every time you get in a vehicle. You also save yourself the mental anguish of said negotiations, which for me, goes something like this, “Did I overpay? Should I have offered less money? But it’s still so little money. And it’s such a poor country… I should give him a really big tip. Maybe he has kids to feed. But, then again, he totally tried to screw me over, and I don’t want to feed into this system of dishonesty…” And so on.

Drivers led to some of my favorite stories in India, some of which I’ll tell here. As a devoted NYC public transit customer whose budget permits maybe one taxi a month, I think I’ll rather enjoy remembering that, once upon a time, I had a driver.

Attack of the Sacred Cow

As I sat down to tell the story of how a farm girl from Iowa got attacked by a cow in India, I realized I don’t even know why cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. I did what any good post-modern cultural anthropologist would do (Googled it), and came up with an article that asserts, “Cows are guileless in their behaviour…” Forgive the pun, but…


The free-roaming urban-dwelling cows of India are one of the most visual representations to an American that, as we’d say, you’re just not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry. I’ll stop now with the agricultural kitsch.) I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I’m used to cows, but behind fences. And on my dinner plate, thank you very much. The prevalence of cattle in India is akin to the pervasiveness of yellow cabs in New York City. They’re everywhere, interrupting traffic, brash as hell, and just might kill you if you don’t watch where you’re going.

But they look docile enough. “Guileless,” as the aforementioned Guide to Hinduism claims. The things that amaze and astonish you on the first days of a trip to somewhere as different as India become commonplace by day 12. Cows on the street? No problem. They move slower than the mopeds. Weave past, dash around, stay standing, no problem. I walked past that cow in Udaipur like I had many a cow by that stage, at a safe but narrow distance, and kept along my way.

Except this time I apparently did something to offend, or terrify, or something, because she lowered her significantly-sized head and slammed it into my vulnerable thigh. Like an embarrassing, loud, and very uncool little girl, I screamed — at the top of my lungs — managing even to draw compassion from the street vendors who had previously been interested only in my rupees.

Someone asked me if she (He? I’m not sure. The cattle with udders also had horns, and I didn’t stick around to check under the hood to get my attacker’s history) had gored me. GORE? Rii-ight… I checked out my leg, which hurt like hell and was now marked by a cow-nose shaped dirt smear, but no signs of a “gore,” thank God. I quickly moved on down the street, though I was already lost at this point in the maze of Udaipur’s lovely winding streets. I’d been trying unsuccessfully to find my hotel, unwilling to pull out my map just yet. And I’d just been attacked by a cow.

Bruised and stunned, I stumbled around a few more side streets, encountering a couple vendors/touts/drivers who wanted to sell/scam/chat me up. Fifteen minutes ago, I’d felt completely confident and comfortable wandering around this strange new city, exploring the locals’ market and off-the-beaten track side streets. Fifteen minutes ago, I was digging deep into the cultural fiber of this amazing country, enjoying its differences, and stopping to chat to anyone who said hello. One bovine attack later, I felt like everyone who spoke to me was on the prowl. I started to think a man was following me. I was scared. And all because a stupid cow rammed me in the thigh

I stumbled on a German cafe called Edelweiss that had been written up in my guidebook, which was filled with Europeans reading guidebooks. I gratefully snagged a table, ordered a latte, and pulled out my Moleskine to write all about it. While massaging a bruise the size of a pint glass and talking to a German medical student backpacker. So much for the authentic Indian experience.

Would I have been so afraid if a taxi gave me a tap in the middle of Midtown? Absolutely not. The danger factor being equal, the unfamiliar will scare us much more than the threat that we know. I am queen of my domain in New York City. I have very little idea what’s going on in India. I think this vulnerability is one of the things I love the most about traveling. When we are out of our comfort zone, we have a choice. We can curse the unfamiliar, cast judgement, and walk away… OR, we can jump in, take a risk, and, well… get attacked by a cow. But we become all the better for it.

As for me, I’ll keep weaving in and out of the cultural and agricultural land mines. I love people far too much to stop learning about how the ones on the other half of the world live. I’d rather suffer a few bruises than a closed mind any day.

Initial impressions: The Sounds & Smells of India

It’s late, dark, and I’ve only seen the airport. My observations are somewhat limited so far, but initial impressions..

As we were landing, my seat companion (another woman of Indian descent who has grown up in the States) said, “And that’s India. You’re gonna smell that every day for two weeks.”

She described it as a mixture of burning trash and raw sewage. That sounds a lot worse than it is, but there is a definitive odor. It’s distinctive. Not necessarily bad. It reminds me a bit of the Dominican Republic. The smell of the developing world.

Behind the row of airport chairs where I’m sitting, Mumbai’s version of elevator music is being pumped out of a speaker. I was just treated to a Bollywood-ified version of La Macarena.

On the ground less than two hours, I’ve already seen my first slums, lined up against the airport walls, seen from the windows on the airport bus. Several lights dotted the rows and rows of shacks. I wondered who’s up late, what they’re doing. I envision a diligent young student, studying. A hardworking mother, mending. So many stories I’ll never hear.

Much, much more to come…

Halfway Across the World, a Neighbor

I’m writing this from a BlackBerry in the domestic terminal of the Mumbai airport, where I will spend the next four hours waiting to board a flight, my final of three, which will take me to Vizag.

“Vizag” nearly got me left at the international terminal. The city, to where I’m traveling for my friends’ wedding, is officially called Visakhapatnam. I just had to look that up in my guidebook. Thanks to Google autofill, I haven’t learned how to spell the actual name of the city I’m going to. And my SpiceJet itinerary also used the colloquialism. The Indian police didn’t know where or what Vizag was. Thankfully, they did get my stumbling attempts at the town’s real name.

As I’m waiting for this bus to arrive, surveying the dilapidated scene at the Mumbai airport, the only non-Indian person around, a young Indian girl with an American accent asked me where I was coming from. She was born in the States, currently lives in Sioux Falls, SD, and goes to school at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

I grew up within 2 hours of those places. I met her at an airport halfway around the world. If there were ever an appropriate time for the cliche, this is it: It’s a small, small world. Which is an amazing thing to be reminded of as you find yourself alone at midnight in an airport halway around the world.

It’s easy enough to choose to be intimidated, or defensive, or skeptical when in unfamiliar surroundings. But it’s a whole lot more fun to open up, pray for favor, and discover ridiculous bursts of joy. Like riding the bus with a girl who was at my college campus last month for a conference.

What a small and lovely world.

India Travel Planning Links


Udaipur, Image from TravelInfo Rajasthan

Two weeks from today I’ll be in India.

I’m still reeling at that reality. Reeling, mostly, with gratitude. A trip to India is something I never would have dreamed was possible, but a friend’s wedding there inspired me to boost both my faith and my resolve. So, in two weeks’ time, I’ll be in India.

I’ll write as frequently as possible while I’m there. For now, I want to start posting links I’m finding helpful in my travel planning in the hopes that they’ll be helpful to others (and to keep them all organized myself).


  • 36 Hours in New Delhi, New York Times: I tend to have the same tastes as the writers of these columns (art, the changing face of the cities reviewed, etc) even if budget requires my tastes to be less expensive
  • Time Out Delhi: Gallery listings, cultural events, restaurant reviews, all from a rather Western perspective (for better or worse)
  • Lonely Planet Delhi: I love their “Top Picks,” as I’m spending limited time here and this is a great focusing tool – without buying the book. They also allow you to purchase PDF chapters of their books online, great for reduced costs and luggage weight.


I’m so excited to visit here, at a friend’s recommendation—and would have otherwise missed it. Udaipur is called India’s most romantic city and the “Venice of the East.” I depart for here on Valentine’s Day. Naturally.

  • Uncornered Market Blog on Udaipur: This just inspires me. This is why we travel.
  • Trip Advisor forums featuring UdaipurMagic: If you’re willing to sort through it all—and/or you’re looking for specific details—this Trip Advisor user seems to know it all.

Visakhapatnam (aka, “Vizag,” which I can actually spell)

This is where I’m spending the most time, but I’ve done the least research here, as I’m fortunate enough to have locals in town. But here’s a photo of the beach to get you—and me—inspired.


I’ll keep adding to this list as I go. I’ll also post more details on the visa-getting process when I have time to write it up and the process of making a transfer between terminals in Mumbai’s airport after I’ve experienced it.

Adventure awaits!


Where I’ve Been

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