Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lindsay Luth Goes Postal

After weeks of pleading, I finally relented and am pleased to welcome my first guest blogger; the lovely, the talented, and the ever so sassy, Lindsay Luth. Please note, what follows is only 14% longer than her average Facebook post....

The hand written scrap of paper indicating I had a package was less than official, but off I went to find the post office.  As I patiently stood in queue, I was able to survey my surroundings and quickly size up that there was no way in hell that my package was here and even more surprising, I don’t know how any mail makes it to a destination.  It was kind of like a time warp, not unlike the FRRO, with stacks of mail just lying around, people in the ‘receiving’ room just drinking tea, and people cutting in line.  I did like how a local India woman who was well dressed basically told the guy to wait his turn and said loud enough for me to hear how no one ever respects the queue.   I took the hint.  When two different people tried to shove in front of me, I repeated her line and gave her a look.. she looked impressed that the Gringo  stood up for herself and gave me an approving smile.

I approached the window and was directed to the ‘receiving’ room where the 6 or so guys drinking tea watched the one guy with an arm cast try to locate my package by half heartedly looking at some random stacks of unclaimed mail.  When he said it was ‘returned’,  I started to turn on the sass and asked ‘really.. you mailed it back to the US?’.   He gave me a look acknowledging that I had called bullshit and didn’t stop me as I tried to help by going through the piles of mail.  I think my fatal error was when I called out the lazy asses who just watched the one armed cast guy and I go through the mail.  They didn’t like that so much so got the ‘post marshal’ to shoo me out and giving me some bogus line that my package was in Delhi.  So, where ever you are my package.. I tried.

While I might have gotten booted out of the receiving mail room, I did come home to find 2 pieces of mail from the US AND apparently someone had contacted the landlord about my foray to the post office and people were trying to locate my package.  Lesson to all… observe, be patient, but don’t be afraid to get a little sassy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

If You Need It, She Can Find It

Surprisingly, in the first eighty or so days that we’ve been here, Lindsay has yet to reengage her Indian shopping addiction. Part of me wants to believe that it’s because we bought enough pashminas, elephants, scarves, and other random crap to fill a house last time we were here. The smarter part of me recognizes that she’s patiently planning for the big ticket items. She’s already learned of and romanticized a wondrous place that basically sounds like a furniture junkyard called Sharma Farm. Apparently, Sharma Farm is “the” place to go to get unique furniture pieces refinished to whatever level of repair suits your fancy. Fortunately, it’s located in five non-air-conditioned warehouses, so barring an unexpected cold front, we might be safe from the Farm until fall hits.
Somehow, Lindsay has transformed her pent up shopping energy into an uncanny knack for finding specific camera batteries in random shops. We’re headed to Nepal on Saturday and will likely not have the ability to charge batteries for 10 days. As a result, we decided that we would need three camera batteries for each camera hoping that a battery would last for three or four days (that’s about as scientific as we got in making that determination). The problem was that we only had one spare for each camera and didn’t have the luxury of any short-term visits by any co-workers to courier extras spares for us. The solution was letting Lindsay loose in the shops of Gurgaon. In only three shops at Galleria, Lindsay was able to find a spare for the Nikon.
For some reason, when we went shopping on Sunday, neither of us thought to go back to the same store and instead headed to Ambience Mall where I I knew there was a Canon display (actually a fairly large piece of real estate that didn’t actually sell anything and was more a marketing tool for Canon). While they don’t sell anything, they did call around for me and found a Canon shop in town that claimed to have the battery. We headed there but, not surprisingly, no one at the store recalled receiving a phone call and, according to them, that battery wasn’t available in India.
Lindsay, never one to be denied, stopped back at her trusted camera battery store at Galleria on the way to work today, and lo and behold, was successful in her quest. While we ended up paying import prices for both batteries, I was shocked that we were able to actually find them in-country.
While one spare for each camera may have very well been enough (I mean, it was four batteries for two cameras), I didn’t want accidentally forgetting to flip a power switch to adversely affecting my first trip to the Himalayas. With our current cache of battery power, I’m confident that we should last through the trip or, at the very least, have enough memories captured by the time we do run out of power that it will be the least of our worries; which frees us up to worry about more meaningful things, like an unlikely chance encounter with Maoist rebels on the trek.

Welcome to Summer

Apparently, yesterday was the hottest day in the month of March in some 65 years in Delhi. The mercury hit 39.2 degrees Celsius, or as it’s more commonly known, 103 degrees. After what many are describing as the coldest winter in recent memory, everyone at work is expecting a hotter summer than normal. Having still not lived through a real Indian summer (the term “Indian summer” is much more politically correct in these parts but not nearly as pleasant), I keep telling myself it’s going to be just like the winter in Chicago (i.e., you’re really only outside to get from point A to point B but not for much else). On the bright side, a co-worker told me it tends to cool down by around 11:00 pm each night.

Call me crazy, but I’m going to say that just living here in the summer is probably good for five or six pounds. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ozone Fitness Center for the Audibly Impaired

I’m not exactly a fan of loud noise, which can be problematic in a country like India. It becomes particularly problematic when you enter the subculture of the typical Indian health club. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the general consensus seems to be that it would be impossible to get one’s self in shape with anything less than the music pumping and thumping at or above concert level volumes. This is very much the case at our gym, Ozone. Even with an iPod Shuffle, it’s not uncommon for me to ask an employee to turn the music down if the gym isn’t crowded (because who am I to impact the listening enjoyment of too many other people). Of course, the “quiet time” lasts for all of five or six minutes before someone else just turns the music back to its original level.

The gym is divided into two separate rooms, aptly and concisely labeled “Strength” and “Cardio”, that are joined by a corridor. The music was pumping as usual in the “Cardio” room, but there was actually a step aerobics class taking place so there was very little I could do. About halfway through my workout, a gentleman in the front corner of the class decided he needed to make a loud sneezing sound each time he stepped up. It was kind of like each time Serena Williams grunts when hitting a tennis ball, only three times more annoying and seven times more frequent. Suffice to say, my patience was running low by the time I hit the “Strength” room. Again, the music was thumping, louder than I’d ever heard. To make matters worse, there was actually a DJ in the room, at the music console, sifting through CD’s (mind you, it’s only 10am at this point). I lasted about eight minutes in the room before I could take no more. I walked to the front desk and made my displeasure known. As you’d expect here, he (1) seemed genuinely surprised that the music was too loud and (2) made a move to have it fixed right away, because as everyone knows the only way to fix a problem is to overreact.  On the bright side, at least both I and the guy promising to make the change knew it was a temporary promise that was ultimately also an empty one.

After receiving the empty promise, I went to locker room to get cleaned up to go to work. One really nice thing about the locker room is that the central hot water supply is infinitely better than the geyser system we have at the apartment. The other thing I realized this week about the locker room is a service I’ve yet to be offered. If you set your bag out of the locker, the locker room attendant will literally get your things out of your gym bag for you and set on the bench, thus minimizing the time required to get ready in the morning. It’s also a prime example of how little tolerance there is to actually perform manual tasks. In fact, I think the other members look at me strange for taking items out of my own bag; it’s either that or because I’m typically the only Westerner there.

All things considered, the gym is actually very nice, modern, and clean. The equipment is in good shape and outside of the music, I really have no complaints. The only other quirk is that the place closes on Monday, almost like it’s a country club. Obviously, I’m not going to use the place seven days a week, but I’ve never heard of a health club that closes for an entire day. Not surprisingly, each week when they open, it’s crowded on Tuesday and generally sees fewer and fewer people throughout the week; basically, the same effect we have in the U.S. around the first of the year, it’s just a little faster cycle in India.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Best Rs. 150 Ever Spent

For little more than three dollars, Lindsay brought home a toy that is all things; practical, the likely source of hours of entertainment, and quite probably the “John is going to be a really bad influence” gift for any of our friends at home with children between the ages of six and eleven. Please note, this “toy” is NOT two bottles of Kingfisher Premium Lager. It is, however, the Badminton Bug Zapper.

The Badminton Bug Zapper serves the exact purpose as those mosquito zappers you’re all familiar with that glow blue around your backyard barbeques (or other places of general gathering during the summer) that go, “zzzz-zzzz” every few seconds indicating the glorious demise of yet another biting pest. The Badminton Bug Zapper, however, is literally shaped like a badminton racket, which has obvious ramifications; not the least of which is turning mosquito hunting into a bona fide sport in the apartment. So as not to confuse the Badminton Bug Zapper with any other Badminton rackets you may have laying around the apartment, the manufacturers were responsible enough to put a lightning bolt design in the head, clearly indicating there is electric current involved. The manufacturers were also generous enough to put an on/off switch with a safety mechanism (i.e., you have to push a button to complete the circuit) to ensure it’s only by those whom are qualified. In addition, there’s a cool little electrical current whirring sound that gets produced when you turn the switch to “on” and press the safety, so it’s pretty obvious when the juice is flowing. The manufacturers were also ingenious enough to not require batteries; this beauty plugs right into the wall.

Now, with the first sight of mosquitoes, I grab my trusty Badminton Bug Zapper and chase them around the apartment; not only is it fun to hear the “crack-pop-pop” when you get a big one (yes, big mosquitoes make a different and grossly more gratifying sound), but it feels nice to do my share around the house.

Last night was the first night that I heard the annoying buzz of a mosquito hovering over my head. After a few minutes, I decided to break out the Badminton Bug Zapper, turn on a light, and make the little buzzer pay. Of course, Lindsay was still asleep. Lindsay also has a tendency to attract mosquitoes. Needless to say, she wasn’t too excited to be woken up from a deep sleep, being told to move quickly, and then hearing the near instant crack of yet another successful kill. Had the hunt been less successful, I’m certain she would have been even less excited. Regardless, the Badminton Bug Zapper has found a much needed place in our home. Personally, I can’t wait to turn Badminton Bug Zapping into an official athletic competition.

Feel free to pass along any suggestions.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Birthday (aka Goa, Part II)

While the trip to Goa was timed perfectly for a much needed break from Delhi, the primary purpose was to celebrate Lindsay’s birthday. It was also the first time we’ve done a resort-style vacation without a thing planned besides informally figuring that we’d need to find time to schedule a massage and a strategy to snag the preferred chairs at the pool. Upon arrival, we took a tour of the grounds and quickly made our way to the pool, which was a beautiful southwest facing infinity pool overlooking rice paddies (someone old us it was wheat, but I had never heard of a wheat paddy, but then again, it’s not exactly Kansas, so they very well  may have been wheat paddies) with palm trees blowing in the distance. You couldn’t actually see the Arabian Sea from the hotel, but you could just kind of tell there was a massive body of water lingering just beyond the last row of trees. We spent the afternoon alternating between swimming, reading, and cocktails. Yeah, that’s right, cocktails in the afternoon. Shocking.

Apologies for the length of the post, but I’ve tried to break it up in pieces.

Ranger, Leisure Concierge
While sipping cocktails by the pool, the leisure concierge, whom we had met at check-in, found us at the pool and brought his menu of offerings. His name was Ranger, and he claimed his parents named him after the Lone Ranger. While that was probably just a story to endear himself to unsuspecting tourists that could pronounce and remember the name, he seemed like a good enough and genuine dude. Among Ranger’s more interesting offerings was something called “beach bubbly” which amounted to sparkling wine sunset beach picnic and a combination outing to the local fish market to bargain for seafood and a lesson with Chef Linda as she prepared the food you had purchased. Thankfully (as you’ll learn later) we opted to skip the beach bubbly based on the menu but figured the fish market would be a good opportunity to feel like we did something “local” rather than only lounging by the pool for three days.

India’s Pike’s Place Market
 We awoke early on Lindsay’s actual birthday to venture to the fish market with a guide and driver. We were too early for the retail market so we headed to the open-air wholesale market, and we were glad we did. It was a market in its most basic form with dozens of impromptu stalls selling everything from snails to sharks to other various sized fish pulled from the Arabian Sea. It certainly wasn’t a place heavily visited by tourists as evidenced by the fact that we were able to walk around without the constant pull of hawkers and beggars; basically, we were left alone to explore. Lindsay placed herself in charge of bargaining for the night’s main course and relegated the the evening’s starter to your’s truly. As we approached the kingfish section, it was time to bargain. We really had no idea how much fish we needed, so a “medium-sized” kingfish seemed appropriate.

Lindsay quickly got herself into Indian market bargaining mode. The salesman’s first asking price was Rs. 1200 (I’m not going to convert everything into dollars here, but let’s just assume we’re using a $1.00 = Rs. 46 rate going forward which makes this a $26 fish). At least he recognized us as Americans. Lindsay’s initial bid? Rs. 350. The salesman quickly got crazy eyes and started yelling incoherently (“incoherently” is another way of saying it was a language I didn’t understand). Apparently, he was insulted. He grabbed the fish, took it to another stall that had a scale (in hindsight, it’s a little odd he didn’t have a scale), and weighed the fish; just over two kilos. He came back and basically said, 500 rupees per kilo so 1000 rupees. Lindsay pulled the “let’s start walking away” move. Having taken two steps toward his neighbor, we heard his price quickly begin to fall.  His newest offer was Rs. 500. Lindsay had the figure 450 in her head (not sure exactly why, maybe because it was close to $10?), made one last effort to try and get that price, and felt comfortable with Rs. 500. Upon walking away from the stall, the hotel guide who had been mysteriously silent through the entire process said, “You got a very good price on that fish; it would have cost at least Rs. 700 or 800 at the market in town.”

Since the tiger prawn selection was somewhat limited at the wholesale market, the fish market in town was our next stop. The Margao marketplace resembled some of the markets we’ve seen in Thailand; however, it was still early in the morning so the crowds had not yet arrived. The first stall we found had absolutely enormous prawns that were the size of a fist. The price for those was equally outrageous at Rs. 1100 per kilo. The shopkeeper was treating it as fixed price and wouldn’t budge .We walked away. We weren’t so fortunate this time as we allowed to keep walking. At the next stall, they didn’t have prawns nearly the size but the prices were much more reasonable. The second shopkeeper also seemed intent that it was going to be a fixed price affair; based on the commotion Lindsay caused when she stepped on a stray cat as I was trying to bargains, I decided that Rs. 225 for a half kilo of prawns (about 12 based on the size I had selected) was fair for my purposes and dinner had been purchased.

The marketplace also contained fresh fruit stands with the world’s smallest bananas (probably figuratively, not literally) and a butchers’ row with stalls dedicated to various meat types, including the first beef butcher I’ve seen (Goa has very much a Portuguese influence, and with that has many more Christians). After walking around for ten minutes or so, we figured we had had enough local flavor for one day and headed back. At 8:30am we were at the hotel.

Chef Linda
The rest of the day played out quite similarly to the day before; swimming, reading, and cocktails. We did, however, find the time to squeeze in an afternoon massage.  The second bookend on the fish market experience was to learn how to cook the local catch with Chef Linda at one of the hotel’s restaurants. While the lesson basically amounted to us watching her prepare the food, it was still a fun experience to get into the kitchen and see how it was done. If nothing else, it convinced me that buying and preparing fresh shrimp isn’t really as gross as I had always suspected (i.e., I won’t feel as tied down to the bags of frozen cooked shrimp in the grocery store at home).

The prawns were prepared with loads of butter, garlic, coriander, and chopped onion and were absolutely delightfully delicious. We selected two preparations for the kingfish; simple grilled  filets and chunked cubes in a red masala. Both preparations were great, though Lindsay was partial to the grilled filet and I the masala; if for no other reason that I could enjoy with some naan.

Lindsay’s birthday concluded with one last cocktail by the pool that was interrupted by Ranger, who had learned it was Lindsay’s birthday, and one of his leisure concierge lackeys that brought a birthday cake and serenaded her with a “Happy Birthday” song (Ranger also plays acoustic guitar, his talents are multi-faceted).

The Beach
The day after Lindsay’s birthday we had very little planned so decided it was time to experience the Goan beach which was supposed to be a ten or fifteen minute walk from the hotel. I think we may have missed a turn and the walk was a little longer; however, it gave us the opportunity to walk the main streets of Majorda, the nearest town. To be perfectly honest, the beach disappointed. As soon as our feet hit the sand, every shack’s front man approached us to either have a drink, rent a chair, get a beachside massage. If a front man wasn’t approaching us, a beggar was. In short, it felt like India. Not that that’s a bad thing; it just wasn’t the intent of the trip.

As sad as it is to say, the most entertaining part of the beach was getting photographed in the ocean (it’s my newest thing, kind of like (but nearly as entertaining as) getting a photograph at the entrance to a National Park). Honestly, the only reason that was even entertaining was that Lindsay had set down her flip-flops to take the picture and an unexpected large wave nearly washed them into the sea.

The most surprising thing about the beach was the way it catered to Russian tourists. Many of the signs labeling the beach shacks were written in Cyrillic script. Upon seeing the script, I started to feel like I was at some Black Sea resort. While I’m sure there are many nice resorts on the Black Sea, again, not the intent of the trip. Upon seeing one beach massage in action; which consisted of a topless Russian woman laying facedown, with her husband basking in the sun a few feet away, the male masseuse eagerly working out any knots, and some sort of masseuse’s assistant leering at the customer. Surprisingly, Lindsay wasn’t into this and decided it was time to head back to the hotel.

The downside to traveling on a holiday weekend is that you end up missing the ability to actually celebrate. Holi is India’s festival of colors and amounts to participants having colored water fights. It stains clothing, hair, you name it. One American colleague here on a short visit took part in the celebration and came to work on Tuesday with her blonde hair looking like a clown wig. When I saw her later in the week, nothing had changed.

On the ride to the airport in Goa, there were numerous revelers on mopeds that were absolutely covered in colors. We couldn’t get any pictures because our driver was driving a bit fast and erratically, which is to say he was driving very normal. My sister actually passed along a good slideshow (the pictures are well beyond anything I could have produced):

Needless to say, it’s something I’d like to experience next year. When we arrived at the gate in Delhi, the Kingfisher ground crew had obviously partaken as their hair and skin was stained underneath their clean work uniforms.

The trip and break from “India” while remaining in India was exactly what we needed. By the second day of the trip Lindsay mentioned that something like this might be necessary every eight to twelve weeks. While I’m not sure I need the tropics that frequently, we’re only three short weeks from our first “John” trip of this adventure; two weeks trekking in central Nepal to Annapurna base camp. Not much time to get into hiking shape.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Kingfisher Experience (aka, Goa, Part I)

Five years ago while in India, we chose not to visit Goa and instead headed to Kerala, primarily basing that decision on Goa being known as one big beach resort and Kerala having more culture and history. This time around and having not left the National Capital Region (NCR) for nearly two months, we decided the beach resort was exactly what we needed.

I had only flown domestically from Delhi one time in the past and had two vivid memories; nearly having an iPod docking station confiscated at security because I had packed the cord in the checked baggage and couldn’t make the strange new machine “work” and having to visually identify our checked luggage once we went through security prior to it being loaded on the plane.  Since that experience, Delhi had opened a sparkling new domestic terminal from which our Kingfisher Airlines flight departed.

The check-in experience was surprisingly pleasant. As soon as we hopped out of the car a Kingfisher porter approached and helped get us into the terminal and didn’t even make it seem like a tip was required, which of course encouraged me to tip; maybe I am a sucker. No line to check-in and would have been the same at security; that is, if I had obeyed the signs and removed all electronics from my carry-on, not just the laptop. So it came as no surprise that my bag, which still containing two digital cameras, a bag of cords and adaptors, a Kindle, and an iPod dock (the same dock that caused such confusion years before), was pulled aside and forced to go through the x-ray a second time. Once inside security, we were met with a modern, clean facility with shops, food options, and laptop stations that put any of O’Hare’s terminals to shame (though I suppose that’s not saying too much).

The “gates” were really just holding pens on the ground level that resembled a bus terminal (I’m not saying that in a bad way). When a flight was ready to board, they called the flight number and passengers loaded a bus and were taxied out to the waiting plane. I had always found the “bus” approach somewhat inefficient and amateurish, but for some reason it seemed to work here.

The “Kingfisher Experience”, which passengers are reminded to enjoy on the welcome video from the company’s chairman, who portrays himself to be the Indian Richard Branson (for those unfamiliar with India, Kingfisher Airlines is a subsidiary of a conglomerate that also brews India’s most popular beer under the same name and logo) was truly that. It’s pretty much what I imagine flying in the ‘70’s to have been like, minus the smoking and drinking; hot meals are served for free, the plane is plastered with Scotch ads (which is somewhat ironic since alcohol is banned on flights within India but a good advertising opportunity for Indian Branson), and the stewards were all female and dressed from head to toe in red. Absolutely no complaints with Kingfisher; with the check-in experience, the flight, and what I found to be their practice of holding back exit row seats, I’d willingly pay a small premium to fly them again.

The flight departed fifteen or twenty minutes late; however, the arrival at Vasco de Gama airport in Goa was still on time. The checked bags (absolutely no liquids are allowed on flights within India, so if you’re traveling overnight, you’re basically checking a bag regardless of size) appeared quickly and we found the hotel placard with our name. The only travel hiccup of the day was a minor brainfart on my part and something I would mercilessly remind Lindsay of if she had done the same. As we were walking to the car, I allowed the hotel representative to take Lindsay’s bag and a somewhat similarly dressed man took my bag as well.  Lindsay immediately asked, “Is that guy with the hotel?”  I mumbled, “yeah probably” as I was relieved of the labor intensive responsibility of wheeling a 22 inch roller no more than the length of a pool, thought for a few seconds, and finally asked the hotel guy (whom I would have thought as my thin defense would have proactively said something) who said, “Nope”. The guy with my bag was just a local looking for a tip that preys on unsuspecting tourists that I actively steer clear of in Delhi; at any rate, I not so politely got my bag back, felt like an idiot, and soon enough we were at the car.

The ride to the hotel was uneventful by Indian standards, which is to say our lives were at risk no more than one time every two minutes. We quickly left the main highway, which was actually a divided four lane road and drove through a few small villages. Goa has a Portuguese influence and brightly painted buildings of pink, purple, and orange seem to explode from the jungle. At that point though, we were ready to relax, and approximately eleven near death experiences later, we finally approached the gates of our destination, the Alila Diwa Goa.

More to come on the actual trip….fish markets, a concierge named Ranger, Russian tourists, screaming children, tawdry beach massages, and yet a beautiful and relaxing hotel.