Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Come Drink Beer Cafe

When one visits an establishment with an acronym for a name, and that acronym stands for "Come Drink Beer", one has certain expectations.

Unfortunately, CDB seemed to treat their beer menu like many restaurants treat their wine lists; as in, they're not too particular in maintaining a supply of what's offered.

From a menu that contained fifteen or so imported varieties, all of which I've seen elsewhere (expectation number two was that they had some mystical supply of beer I'd yet to see in India), they had a grand total of three. When the waiter sensed our frustration with this revelation, he drove the point home by walking over to the refrigerator and coming back with one bottle each of Corona, Asahi, and Peroni to show us the menu much like you'd expect at dessert. Defeated, I ordered an IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor) Budweiser. It doesn't taste like a real Budwesier (no complaints there) and is only marginally better than the typical selections of Kingfisher and Foster's.

After the disappointment of the CDB, I've decided my next challenge is to try and find "Little Devil's India Pale Ale", which is apparently the only IPA actually brewed in India <insert obvious ironic reference to the "I" in IPA here>. I've yet to see it offered and not even sure the company that brews it still exists, but if anyone can find, I think I might be just the man.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Maybe I'm Not so Smrt

I went out to lunch with some co-workers in the oldest part of the newly developed Gurgaon, DLF Phase 1. The restuarant, Yumz!, was in an older shopping arcade called Qutab Plaza. It's not a place I would take Lindsay and probably not a place I would have chosen to venture on my own, but I was up for a little adventure. In addition, based on my slim efforts to learn Hindi, the primary means for me to earn credibility in the office is to basically eat anywhere and eat anything people deem appropriate for a meal. Upon arriving at the restuarant and not surprisingly, someone volunteered to do the ordering. I stated my requisite, "I'll taste anything once; if I don't like it after that, I won't eat it." Little did I know his plan for the appetizer was....fried sheep brain. 

Upon hearing the order and thinking I might be able to add to the conversation with some edible sheep part experience, I described the one time I've had Rocky Mountain oysters. All of the others, including the one that had just ordered the brain of an animal, looked at me like I was describing how the average American revels in a nice New York strip done medium rare. Little did they know that the sheep brain actually more resembled that you'd expect the Rocky Mountain oysters to look like. From a taste standpoint, the brain itself wasn't anything too terribly different. It was fried, so it kind of tasted like fried stuff and had the general consistency of a hush puppy. 

Surprisingly, that wasn't the most dangerous part of the meal. For desert, we ordered, philri, which is a rice and milk-based dish. It was an odd yellow color and had flecks of the shiny film associated with many Indian sweets. The shiny film doesn't taste like much but looks like a shiny fish scale. Appetizing. At any rate, I dug into the philri which basically tastes like rice pudding. I didn't particularly enjoy it but knew I pretty much had to finish the bowl. One of my co-workers quickly said, "Stop! Don't take another bite, I think the heat has gotten to it." Awesome. I was at least two bites in. At this point if I happened to get sick, there was now no way to tell whether the culprit was the mutton brain or the rancid philri. 

We decided to skip dessert at Yumz! and instead headed out to try and find gulab jamun (delightful dough balls soaked in sugary goodness). While the establishment where we stopped wasn't technically a street vendor, it was probably about as close as you can get. Bottom line, I still haven't sampled the street food, but based on today's lunch, I think we're inching closer and closer in that direction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Top 10 Ways You Know It's Hot in India

WARNING: Portions of this post will be plagiarized by's Rick Reilly in the event he ever visits India in the summer.

In other words, it's predictable and basically writes itself. And yes, I recognize what follows is basically a Letterman Top 10 List; but that seemed better than copying Jeff Foxworthy and creating a "You might be hot if...." routine. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Ways You Know It's Hot in India.

(10) You haven't been to the pool in weeks.

(9) Rather than allowing your red wine to breathe, you allow it to come down to an acceptable temperature  by refrigerating it a few minutes before consumption.

(8) You hear the constant buzz of vuvuzelas. Oh wait, sorry about that, I got slightly confused with the 1st, 4th, and 10th things Rick Reilly would predictably change about the World Cup (I have no qualms linking to his article, not exactly a lot of free publicity coming from this site).

(7) There's no need use the geyser in the bathroom for a hot shower.

(6) Your driver greets you in the morning with, "It's hot".

(5) The peanut butter in the cupboard has the consistency of honey.

(4) The undershirts in your closet have that same comfy feel as when you remove them from the dryer.

(3) You seriously consider weekend trips to locations in the heart of monsoon season.

(2) You think you feel a cool breeze, check the temperature, and realize it's still 91 degrees. At 10pm in the evening.

And the number one reason you know it's hot in India (yep, totally stealing from Letterman)....

You constantly think about ways to draw comparisons for folks at home between the actual Indian summer and the racially biased yet infinitely more pleasant "Indian summer" of your midwestern American youth (I'm not sure exactly how Reilly would tie this in, but it's a fairly safe assumption he'd save it for the number one position).

I'm almost ashamed I created this list. Almost.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

It's Not So Foreign Here

I had the opportunity to watch the Holland/Japan game with our Dutch neighbors yesterday. They claimed to be novice soccer fans so I felt I might fit in; however, once the game started they seemed to know all the players by names and the sordid private details of their strikers' lives (apparently the strikers appear more in the tabloids than those playing defense). It was a good game, though Japan's style of play effectively killed the viewing enjoyment in the first half. Other than that, I must admit it was a little odd to see my cook playing with their baby in the background throughout the game (we found our cook because she's their nanny so it really shouldn't have seemed strange).

After the game, we had a long, casual dinner with varied topics. The thing that got me to think the most (other than the fact I learned Samoa recently changed from driving on the right side of the road to the left side of the road to better coordinate with Australia and New Zealand) was that I now believe it's relatively easier to be an American expat than an expat from another country.

The reason for this is not deep at all; in fact, it's fairly basic. All around me, whether driving on the streets or shopping in stores, there are signs of America: McDonald's, Tommy Hilfiger, Budwesier, Pizza Hut, even TGI Friday's. While it can easily be argued that those images have varying degrees of importance in American society, they are still familiar symbols that one can easily identify with. The same holds true in the grocery store, where many of the imported products are imported from the U.S. If I want Skippy peanut butter, I can get it in three or four varieties (sadly, Jif isn't available). You pay a price, but it's here.

For the Dutch? EVERYTHING is foreign here (except Heineken). At least when I'm paying INR 250 for a small jar of peanut butter, I know what I'm getting and paying a premium for a small piece of home. For them? It's just an expensive jar of foreign peanut butter.


Other random things I learned yesterday:
  • The announcers of the Holland/Japan game mentioned a connection between Holland and South Africa with this paraphrased quote, "The Dutch have some history in this country; 300 years ago Holland conquered South Africa."
  • The country of Holland fields a world-class soccer team from a population base that is equivalent to the states of Illinois and Iowa.
  • Children's clothing is outrageously expensive in India; unwittingly confirmed by Lindsay after her day of shopping and a birthday purchase for our niece.
  • When Lindsay doesn't want me to know how much money she spends shopping, she switches between currencies when listing how much she spent on various items to throw me off her trail. It doesn't work.
  • Samoa's decision to switch which side they drive on the road was the first such switch since the 1970's. Sweden was the last such country. Not the country I would have guessed.
  • The Prime Minister of Samoa likes to wear flip-flops.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Always Read the Small Print

Here's a screen shot from a recent inquiry on Orbitz to rent a car in Turkey for an upcoming trip in July:

I completely understand an extra fee to drop a rental car at a location different from the pick-up, especially if the drop location is remote. However, with the one-way fee quoted here, is it safe to assume Avis just abandons the car? Or, assuming they have a scaled back operation in Bodrum, do they just really, really not want to drive the 3 hours to get the car?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Servant's Quarters

The room where we currently hang dry our clothes may soon be used for its intended purpose, living quarters for the help. And yes, I know "the help" sounds derogatory and demeaning, but if you can think of a more politically correct way to describe it, I'm open to suggestions.

Our cook, Yashoda, learned yesterday that one of her other part-time employers (also the one with whom she resides) was moving permanently back to Finland. Today. Mercifully, he is allowing her until the end of the month to find a new place of residence. Our servant's quarters are a potential new residence.

The quarters (as I'll refer to it going forward) for our apartment has its own separate entrance, consists of a room that is probably 8 foot by 12 foot, has a small bathroom with a primitive toilet (the same style we used while trekking in Nepal), a ceiling fan, and an entrance onto a small covered balcony. From the balcony, there is also an entrance into our kitchen. Based on this setup, we can actually lock our kitchen door such that she would only have access to her quarters, the small balcony, and the kitchen.

This entire situation opens up a number of questions into the culture and economics of domestic help, some of which have easier answers than others:
  • Do we directly charge her rent?
  • Do we reduce her salary to account for providing a living space?
  • Do we add to her tasks (i.e., all grocery shopping, ironing, etc.) to "pay" for rent?
  • Is it just assumed that it will be free?
  • If we extend the number of days or meals she cooks (currently, she cooks a double batch of three meals per week), do we adjust the relative amount paid per meal? (i.e., if she's currently paid "X" and we double the amount of time she works, does that mean she now gets paid "2X" or is there some scale we take advantage of?)
  • Where does she bathe? (Might seem odd and not really our concern, but there's no traditional washing facility in the quarters.)
  • Is she relegated to the quarters at all times when she's not working?
  • Do we lock our internal kitchen door each night?
  • Is it assumed that the guys who clean the apartment and use the quarters as the storage area for their cleaning supplies continue to do so?
  • What additional "rules" do we set around access or activities?
I'm sure no one truly cares about the trials, tribulations, and living conditions of our domestic help (maybe "domestic support" sounds less demeaning?), but other than it being somewhat strange that there's likely going to be someone that's basically a stranger living in my house (though with its own entrance), I'm fascinated to find out exactly how this whole process will work.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Chicago is Overrated Anyway

Around a week or two ago I learned of the potential for a week-long meeting that would have brought me home to Chicago for a completely unexpected trip. This morning I learned that that meeting was no longer taking place.

Even though I had no intention of returning to the U.S. until some point in October for a planned home leave trip, I was looking forward to an "extra" trip that would have enabled me to see family and friends and now find myself somewhat homesick for the first time. The stars seemed to be truly aligning; my little sister was going to be at home for the July 4th holiday weekend and a great friend that had moved from Chicago was actually going to be in town the weekend I would have arrived.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of tricking my mind into thinking I was two weeks from returning to the states. The "new" reality is that I'm still four plus months from visiting home, which was always the plan. Regardless, I still feel like I've lost something even though it never technically existed.

On the bright side, things could be a lot worse. There are a lot of familiar people, both professionally and personally, that will be making appearances in the greater Delhi area over the next three months. Plus, this frees up a holiday weekend in India (we basically follow U.S. holidays in the office so the 4th of July is a holiday here as well) to travel. Lindsay will actually be back in the states for one of her best friend's (or maybe it's her best friend, I'm not sure and would hate to offend anyone) wedding over the holiday weekend (quick note, we do actually like one another, she just has considerably more vacation than I do this year) so I'll be traveling alone for the first time in some time.

Ideally, I'd like to keep it to four nights at most, don't feel the need to just "see" a city, don't mind exerting physical effort, do fairly well at elevation, and am open to leaving India. Any suggestions or ideas on places that fit this criteria? And yes, I realize that criteria don't get much more general. As long as it's a reasonable flight (and yes, "reasonable" has a flexible definition depending on how interesting the destination), I'm game.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Grumpy Old Man or Savvy Investor?

If you're looking for sound investment advice, you might want to consider looking into companies that manufacture or research the development of auditory aids. There is an ever-expanding cohort of young Indian professionals that will be requiring their services in the next fifteen to thirty years. Don't believe me? Head to the top floor of any mall in Gurgaon on a weekend and follow the music.

Saturday night we had the opportunity to attend a work celebration for one of the teams in Lindsay's group. There was nothing formal about the evening, it was really just a social gathering for the team to celebrate an accomplishment. We arrived fashionably early, or around fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time, and there were probably only ten or fifteen other people there. When we walked into the club, the DJ was already spinning ear-splitting remixes in a near empty atmosphere. Without people filling a confined space, loud music seems even more out of place to me. The fact that I walked into the party with a pre-existing headache certainly didn't help matters. Regardless, Lindsay and I didn't even attempt to talk. There was simply no point to verbal communication. As people arrived and the club started to fill, they invariably introduced themselves to the lone westerners. I dutifully shook their hand, smiled, nodded, and mouthed, "I'm John....yes, John....very nice to meet you", but I have no idea what their names are. Of course, as the club started to fill, the music didn't seem incrementally softer, so my "empty confined spaces are louder than full confined spaces" theory was quickly shot to the wind.

If you think I sound like a grumpy old man that can't believe those crazy kids would treat their future health with such ill regard, I again suggest you head to the to top floor of any mall in Gurgaon on a weekend, follow the music, stick around for a couple songs, and come back and read this post again. There's a greater difference between "decibel level at a typical concert" and "decibel level in an Indian night club" than there is between "decibel level of jet turbine" and "decibel level in an Indian night club".

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Plight of the Stray Dog

There are a lot of dogs in India. Stray dogs. Pretty much wherever you turn there's a stray dog laying in the sun or roaming around aimlessly. I'm not going to lie, the strays around here aren't exactly the cute little strays you might want to take home from the local pound; for the most part, they're malnourished, filthy, and often have mange. It's one of the things, for better or worse, you just kind of accept here as there's really nothing you can do to help the plight of the Indian stray dog. Out of morbid curiousity, I must admit that I have thought, "Do these dogs ever get hit by cars?" (Note, one thing you don't see much, if at all, is road kill, so while highly improbable  that no dogs get hit, it's a more valid question than you might think.)

On the way home from the gym this morning, I learned firsthand that those dogs do, in fact, get hit by cars. We were just about to turn into the apartment complex when a mangey black stray ran out in the middle of the road. There was a car in the "lane" next to us on our right, which is to say it was literally a dog's width away from us. For a second I thought the dog might have lucked out and ended up in that dog's width gap. If anything, based on it's location I thought the other car might nip it. Then as we passed, I heard the thud. Not sure exactly what to do or say, I finally decided on telling Kailish, "I think you hit him." As you can tell, I was firing on all cylinders. He just kind of acknowledged it with a sheepish shrug. In a split second I started to think through what the protocol might be for the offending driver that hits a non-bovine animal (knowing full well that the protocol was to just keep driving). Not a second later, the dog popped up and crossed behind the car and limped away on three legs.

On the bright side, the dog lived; on the not so bright side, I'm now fairly confident that, even with the lack of physical evidence, this is a fairly common occurrence in Gurgaon.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Probably the Most Romantic Dinner?

As we had been told but chose not to believe, Lake Pichola is a seasonal lake that dries out in the summer until the monsoons bring enough water to fill the lake to its banks. As a result, what is left is a dried lake bed used by grazing livestock and as makeshift cricket pitches. In addition, the palaces located within the lake that appear to be islands are merely building out in the middle of nowhere. The most famous of these palaces is the Lake Palace, which the Taj Hotel Group has turned into a luxury hotel. One side of the palace appeared to have some sort of channel dredged so that the guests could still be ferried by boat, though I'm sure it loses a bit of its mystique when you could just as easily approach the hotel by foot from any other direction.
It was from the "watered" side that we had our view from dinner at the Sunset Terrace located within the City Palace grounds in Udaipur. I believe this was the first time that both Lindsay and I had elected to order Indian food from a menu that included continental selections. Said another way, I believe it was the first time that Lindsay had ordered Indian food from a menu that included continental selections. Midway through our non-veg kebab platter and dal makhani, the sun had set and the city took upon a floodlit glow. It was also around this time that we noticed a flock of birds flying out in front of the palace from the south to the north. They kept coming and coming and coming. It started to get a little noisy and as Lindsay looked a little closer she remarked, "Um, those aren't birds...those are bats!" Sure enough, we were witnessing the nightly awakening of the colony of bats that call the exterior of the palace home. I'm not one to get weird around animals, but suffice to say that that many bats was enough to trump the view of the Lake Palace and the sunset behind the Aravelli Mountains as the most memorable part of the evening.

Where Are You From?

As I've written before, the novelty of having westerners around has basically worn off in both Delhi and Gurgaon (i.e., the National Capital Region, or NCR). So even though we've traveled outside the NCR before, I had kind of forgotten that white people, for lack of a better term, are still a bit of a curiousity to some people, and more often to children. Even while waiting at the gate for the bus to take us to the plane, a small group of children lead by the oldest boy, Nikhil, approached us to ask where we were going. His family (yes, what looked like much of the extended family as you might expect in India) had been on a holiday to Shimla which is a hill station north of Delhi. They were on their way home to Udaipur. I've never seen a group of children get so excited as when we said that was where we were going too. Quickly, the rest of the family came over to meet us as well. For a second, I was convinced we were going to get an invite to dinner (we didn't).

When we arrived in Udaipur it didn't stop. When our rickshaw broke down, we were immediately swarmed by children who wanted to talk to us, but more importantly to get their picture taken, and even more importantly to see their image on the digital screen. While we were touring the City Palace in town, Lindsay was again approached by a shy young girl and her mother. For some reason, the girl really wanted to meet Lindsay (I mean, let's be honest....who doesn't?). While I'm not sure exactly where this family was from (I was too busy taking pictures and looking surly so no one would approach me), it's possible that we, or more appropriately said that Lindsay, is one of the few westerners that this little girl might ever speak with, at least at this young of an age. There's some level of implied responsibility with that kind of interaction as Lindsay (Luth) might be the lone impression this individual has of the United States outside what they see in the newspaper about that other Lindsay (Lohan).
Ambassador Luth greets the youth of Udaipur

It also goes to show the general friendliness and inquisitiveness of the people here. Maybe I was just an anti-social child, but I can't imagine as a kid that I would have walked up to a foreigner just to meet them and find out where they were from. In fact, I'm pretty sure that that kind of thing might be frowned upon at home.

Return of the Rickshaw

The auto rickshaw is a very visible symbol of inexpensive Indian transportation, something you see nearly every day, yet we hadn't had the need to utilize one during this assignment until our weekend in Udaipur. Most rickshaws are green, dirty, old, and probably not the safest mode of transportation. What we initially found in Udaipur was the exact opposite (well, probably minus the safety part). The hotel had a custom rickshaw that was painted a color to match the other hotel vehicles, appeared to be brand new, and even had custom throw pillows and curtains. Basically, it was the anti-rickshaw version of a rickshaw.
We decided it would be a fun way to go to dinner so we rented it for a couple hours. Unfortunately, the gleaming new rickshaw wasn't a very reliable mode of transportation. By the time we made three turns from the hotel gate into the narrow winding streets of Udaipur, the driver had stalled and it quickly became evident that he had no way to fix it. It didn't seem to help that the children of the city found the hotel's stalled rickshaw enthralling and quickly circled the wounded vehicle. After we emerged from the backseat, Lindsay and her camera became instant celebrities. While they enjoyed having their picture taken, they seemed to enjoy seeing themselves on the screen even more. As Lindsay was busy making friends, the driver was busy pushing the rickshaw back to the hotel. Once back to the hotel, they called us a local rickshaw.

A few minutes later, we met Abdul Hakim who ended up becoming our personal rickshaw driver / tour guide for the weekend. While his rickshaw didn't contain the unnecessary creature comforts like throw pillows and embroidered ceiling fabric, it was easily the nicest "regular" rickshaw I'd ever seen. That night he drove us the ten or so minutes to and from dinner at a slightly discounted price compared to the hotel's rickshaw, and we made plans for him to take us around the city the next day (he was enterprising enough to recognize he could meet an otherwise unmet need of having no idea of where to go or what to do).
We had expected just some one to take us from Point A to Point B throughout the day; however, Hakim quickly exceeded those expectations. Of course, we had no idea how much we were paying him because when asked, "How much?" he simply replied "As you wish." After an hour or so stop at the City Palace, where Hakim had a registered guide waiting for us, he took us through the narrow streets to the city center. As we were headed in that direction he said, "I take you to city center. That is the real India." He wasn't lying. It was a phenomenal local market with tea and other spices surrounding the perimeter and a couple dozen produce stands on the ground in the middle. All around were women in brightly colored saris and other traditional garments. It's always fun to get out of the typical tourist circuit and see what life is like in these periphery cities.

After walking through the market, we headed to one of the "other" lakes in Udaipur, Fateh Sagar, which promised to actually have water. The primary (and most famous lake) is Lake Pichola, but it's seasonal and had basically dried until the late summer's monsoons hit. The thing I was most interested in Fateh Sagar was that it was where Hakim said there was less traffic and where he'd let us drive the rickshaw. I really I could say I then drove the ricksahw through the winding streets barely missing pedestrians, dogs, and elephants; however, he stayed int he front seat and basically kept his hands on the wheel the whole time. Driving a rickshaw is a lot like driving a motorcycle, of which I'm not terribly experienced, so Hakim probably made a wise decision to protect his investment.

The best part of the weekend was how we turned the very lazy decision of renting the overpriced hotel rickshaw into a nice little adventure with a local guide. Even if we overpaid Hakim (I'm certain we did), it was better than being "those" tourists getting wheeled around town in a prissy vehicle taking looks of scorn from the locals and other tourists.

As an unsolicited plug, if you're ever in Udaipur and want a local guide (we later learned he also had a taxi so longer excursions are also possible), I'd highly recommend Hakim. Here's his contact information:

Abdul Hakim
+91 98292 76923