Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Expats and Locals

Here's a link to a blog I follow with an interesting post that attempts to answer the question (as definitively as I've seen and much better than I could have answered), "Why don't expats hang out more with locals?"


If you're an expat or a local, I highly recommend checking out the link and sharing your thoughts.

Similar to what she mentions, I've been involved in more than a handful of conversations that start with the question, "So how do you find India?" or where I ask, "What part of India are you from?" The reality (or probably more my opinion than reality) is that if you don't have something in common besides geographically being in the same spot, there's likely not a meaningful and lasting friendship on the horizon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Wounded Rickshaw

While waiting for the car yesterday, I saw a bicycle rickshaw slowing pedal past that was hauling a rickshaw that had obviously been involved in some sort of accident. The wheel was bent to hell, kind of like what a bike looks like in the "after" shot from an accident on TV. The driver didn't seem hurt, which is good, but I couldn't help but feel bad for the guy. His likely sole source of income was the rickshaw. And while it wasn't destroyed, his livelihood had temporarily been taken from him. While wishing the driver well in my head, I couldn't help but start to think through what was actually represented with the scene before me:
  • Was this just a Good Samaritan helping out a competitor?
  • Is there an unwritten code of bicycle rickshaw drivers that they help another driver in need?
  • Had the driver of the wounded rickshaw hired the other to haul him?
  • If he had been hired, is there a pricing premium based on the situation and/or awkward size of the load?
  • Had the driver of the wounded rickshaw hired the other to haul him working off the cost by pedaling?
I know, I'm lazy and simply watched the guy pedal past, but these are the things I think.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Open Letter to My Sisters

Dear Anne and Sarah,

Recently at work a colleague brought to my attention a festival named Rakhi. The thing that caught my attention the most about this festival, in this colleague's words were, that it was basically a day when for sisters and brothers. More specifically, it was a day when sisters pray for their brother's long life and show their love and affection for their brothers by tying a bracelet of threads on their brother's wrist.

Imagine that! A festival specifically for sisters to honor their brothers! I thought to myself, what a GREAT idea!

Before doing some additional research on the topic, I started thinking through the logistics of how I could import Rakhi back to the states, what day it should be, and whether it should work the exact same way (primarily symbolic) or if we needed to work some sort of gift giving toward the brother in addition to the bracelet.

Unfortunately, this colleague had failed to point out that there is gift giving associated with the festival. However, it's actually the brother that gives the gift and promises to care for their sisters for a long life, thus shattering my lifelong dream of importing a scarcely known actual celebration where sisters honor their brothers. I mean, the actual meaning of the festival is noble and all, it's just not the same thing.

Don't worry though, I'll keep my ears open in the event there are other festivals that might qualify.


Note to readers that aren't my sister: For actual information on the true meaning behind the festival of Rakhi (also known as Rasksha Bandhan) that took place yesterday, check out this link.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Slowly Learning Hindi - Update #2

On the way to the office this morning, I received one of the more thoughtful gifts in some time that didn't involve multiple flavors of Crystal Light from a very surprising source. My trusty driver Kailesh, whose English courses the wife decided we'd help subsidize (she's far more charitable than myself), slowed the car and reached to the passenger seat, producing a small Hindi-English phrasebook. Initially, I thought he was just showing me a book he had purchased as part of his course, but it quickly became obvious that the book was a "thank you" for the support and intended to aid the painfully flat learning curve associated with my Hindi skills.

More important than the gift (though it was much needed and even more appreciated), was the absolute joy Kailesh expressed when offering it. He stopped the car and quickly opened the book, picked a page, and read: "English word, 'My name is Robert, I have a  reservation here'; Hindi word, 'mera nam Robert hai, yaham mere nam se kamra araksit hai.' Now your turn!" After I struggled through the translation a time or two (and yes, I absolutely had to go back to the book to get the Hindi translation), he seemed content with my progress and drove the final way to work.

As an expat, there are ups and there are downs. Admittedly, it's much more fun to write about the good and, in India, the quirky and frustrating. It's also more difficult and admittedly rare to express what can sometimes be considered the outright bad,. But it's moments like the drive to work this morning that help on those difficult days and help make this entire experience worthwhile.

Kailesh, ap gari accha chala chelo.

(Hopefully, that's a real sentence.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Relapse of an Indian Tailor Addict

After years of hearing about the glories of his wares, listening to stories of his famous clientele, and reaping the benefits of others' visits, I finally stepped foot in Grover Cloth and Tailoring House in Khan Market on Saturday afternoon.

For those unfamiliar with my previous stint in India from October 2004 to April 2005, I had made a near weekly trip to a tailor, Kumar Brothers, located in South Extension in Delhi. So infamous were these trips that my fellow expat work colleagues at the time joked that Lindsay and I had singlehandedly paid for the installation of air conditioning in their small shop. I'm honestly not sure if they were joking and couldn't argue the validity of their claim. The final tally of garments from Kumar was staggering: 30+ shirts, 10 dress pants, 5 suits, and 2 sport coats.

Saturday's visit to Grover was my first step inside a tailor in nearly six years. I quickly felt like a recovering alcoholic abruptly thrust off the wagon. As a recovering tailor addict, you can't imagine the urge to simply pull bolts of fabric from the shelves and bark orders about wanting a dress shirt with French cuffs in this fabric and a shirt with the collar and cuffs set on a diagonal in another fabric. Thankfully, we had a visiting friend, Paul, along whose sole purpose was to restock his wardrobe so I didn't feel quite the need to purchase (as much).

While Paul certainly gained preferred customer status, I stayed conservative selecting just a few shirts and couple pairs of pants. You know you're an addict when you consider yourself conservative by selecting six shirts and two pairs of pants while constantly scanning the bolts lining the wall for a fabric you may have missed.
Paul displays the unbridled joy of his maiden tailor visit
When filling out the order form and still scanning for more shirts, I wasn't ready for the sticker shock of Grover's prices. My price baseline was formulated from the 2005 experience as well Naresh, the tailor we've found that makes house calls (I never said I had quit the whole tailor thing cold-turkey; just said I hadn't stepped foot inside a tailor). Apparently, when you can boast of having Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as clients (quick aside, they don't actually boast of this, it was a rumor we had heard that I verified in a Delhi commerce promotional book published in preparation for the Commonwealth Games that features Grover), you can extract a pricing premium. That, and their fabric is basically the same stuff that the Italian designers use.

However, the price of a linen shirt I had selected (Rs. 4200!) was borderline insulting considering my man Naresh stitches together a linen shirt for around Rs. 700. Granted, the fabrics were nicer, but six times nicer? I took a pass on that shirt but not before semi-playfully trying to bargain down the prices on the other items. After seeing the price of the pants (apparently, I had selected his nicest fabric), I decided to take a pass (temporarily, at least) there as well. Apparently, Lindsay thought my bargaining was bordering on insulting and she pulled me away from the counter so as to not upset them too much as Paul still hadn't begun the process and had far more at stake.

Even with the pricing surprise, I had forgotten the joy of visiting the tailor. Thankfully, the shop is a good 35 - 40 minute drive from the apartment so it's not an every weekend kind of place (though we did find time to go back before brunch today for a quick fitting). Unfortunately, clothes here take a beating in the laundry so I may need to wait until we near the conclusion of our assignment before getting too much more made; however, the expectations surrounding Grover were exceeded and the myths confirmed. The man cuts a good shirt.

Indian Poker

While on our "looksie" trip in November, the wife and I were playing an innocent game of gin rummy in the Crowne Plaza lobby and were quickly told to put the cards away as it was basically considered gambling. As a result, I had no intention of finding a poker game while here and didn't even bringing a set of chips with me from home. So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email at 10:09pm on Friday night from a friend from home, Paul Williams, who's randomly here in Gurgaon for a two-week work trip. The email read simply:

This is going to sound strange but I found a local poker game with some co-workers tonight - interested?

Um, interested? Even with the inferiority complex of having been in India for over seven months with not so much as hearing the word "poker" while Paul had been here for all of six days, of course I was interested. However, I knew the wife had had a very long week and figured I'd better be served playing the part of supportive husband. When she arrived home a few minutes later, I mentioned in passing what Paul had offered and she looked at me crazy and said, "Yeah, of course you've got to go." To emphasize her point, she called the driver and said, "Ashok, sorry, but can you come back? Sir needs to go someplace." Who was I to complain? She's pretty awesome. A few minutes later Ashok was back at the apartment and I was handing a slip of paper with a random address to find my first poker game.

After getting close enough in the car, I walked around a locked gate and found my way to the correct house, which ended up being a guest house owned by a friend of one of Paul's co-workers. It felt a little like a cross between a safe house and a sparsely furnished bachelor pad. Pretty much the perfect place for a card game.

If there had been college football playing in the background, it could have just as easily have been a game in my basement in Lake Zurich. Well, except at the games in Lake Zurich there aren't houseboys scurrying around to bring plates of fried appetizers. In no way was I surprised when they starting bringing out chafing dishes at midnight to prepare the buffet table. From here on, I'm just going to assume that if I'm invited to a social gathering of any kind that is hosted by an Indian that I can pretty much count on a full meal served after midnight. I'm pretty sure that's just the way it is.

The game itself was enjoyable; as in most casual games, there was a variety of characters; including the guy that just looks at the game as means for social interaction that cares little about the money, the guy who's sort of part of the group but is obviously a much better player than the rest and knows he's going home with money in his pocket, and the first-timer that doesn't understand the game, likes it a little too much, and keeps throwing money out of wallet to try and learn the game. Plus, at this game there were two random Americans keenly observing the entire scene and situation.

That scene lasted until around 2:30am when I determined it was probably best to make an exit and minimize the silent disapproval I'd receive from the driver when getting picked up. In all honesty, if someone had pulled on me what I had pulled on him, I'd be a little upset. Basically, he thought he was being released from duty 90 minutes early, was called back shortly after being released, and then had to finish out his shift and work 3 or 4 hours of overtime. If this had happened in America, I would have received a big "EF YOU" right around the time the phone call was made to request him to return to duty.

While I felt guilty and bad for Ashok, I must admit it was nice to just act like a retarded dude for the first time in nearly eight months.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ozone Fitness Center for the Audibly Unimpaired

Nearly three months after the renovations to the gym were scheduled to be complete (yes, there was a sign posted saying that the mess and noise were regretted but should only last another week; however, that sign was posted in mid-May), they finished up this morning with the installation of the weight equipment. Being the early bird that I've become, when I arrived at 10:15am the installation was not complete. No worries as I hadn't planned on the "Strength" room being open. I was there today to focus on "Cardio" (to alleviate confusion, the two rooms are actually labeled as such). I decided to check the new "Strength" equipment just to make sure it had been worth the wait.

It was. But what struck me upon entering the room wasn't the sparkling new equipment. It was the utter tranquility that the room. After months of frustration with the generally accepted sound level of the Indian gym, the trainers were busy testing the new equipment to the unexpected soothing sounds of traditional Indian music at a respectable, if not even quiet, level. Here was a room where I could workout and actually listen to an iPod without sneering at the nearest employee or shrugging inconsolably when the bass started thumping.

Of course, when I went to "Cardio" it was business as usual, so I'm guess that soothing traditional Indian music at a respectable level which would enable a customer to listen to their own music of choice on a personal device is a pleasure reserved only for product testing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Slowly Learning Hindi - Update #1

I'm halfway through the first week of my recommitment to learn at least some Hindi. It's safe to assume that the "informal tier" described in this recent post will be the most effective tier (and yes, it's also the only tier that's been put in motion). For those unwilling to read the prior post, it's my agreement with Kailesh, my trusty driver, to teach me Hindi as he's honing his English, which is actually quite good for someone I can only assume has learned what he knows completely on his own. However, it seems in preparation for the English class in which he enrolled he's taken it upon himself to start my Hindi lessons early.

After three or four days I'm making a little progress but no part of my control or understanding of any part of the language could qualify as even sub-rudimentary. He's focusing on teaching me how to tell him where I need to go. In fact, I can now tell him to take me someplace fairly politely, "Kailesh, Palms Club jana eh" ("Kailesh, I'm going to the Palms Club") or as more of a command, "Kailesh, Palms Club chalo" ("Kailesh, take me to the Palms Club!"). He does seem to appreciate when I get back in the car from the Palms Club and say, "Kailesh, gur jana eh" ("Kailesh, I'm going home"). As you can tell, my command of the word "jana eh" is exemplary and will become my most overused verb.

I actually appreciate him focusing on this part of the language. Not only will I have a chance to communicate with (or surprise) any unruly taxi drivers, but I can also show off in front of unsuspecting visitors when picking them up from the airport.

My primary concern is that my capacity for learning might not meet Kailesh's high expectations. As he dropped me off at the office this morning, he was obviously quite excited with my progress (in the spirit of full disclosure, he mentioned that I seem to be a slightly better pupil than the wife) and started saying something to the effect of, "You must now practice your new words. Today at work, there will be people that speak Hindi. You must practice with them!" I didn't realize I had signed up for homework assignments courtesy of the driver.

Tomorrow I may need to start taking notes....

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Staple Comfort Foods

This post is in no way a formal solicitation for family, friends, or strangers to send any of the items listed below. However, if you were to do so, there would certainly be no complaints.

Like any college freshman, the self-respecting expat enjoys the occasional care package stocked full of comfort items from home. Thankfully, we're fortunate enough that people have either mailed packages to us (we're pretty sure they've all arrived since Lindsay Luth went postal) or have had friends from work that have used their second piece of checked luggage as a de facto care package. While the specific contents of those packages obviously vary, we've been able to maintain a basic stock of some very specific and familiar staple items. Some of the items you can actually find here, but either they seem price prohibitive (imported food is extremely expensive, like $6 for a pack of El Paso flour tortillas) or aren't quite the exact same. In no particular order, here's a list of the staple items we try and maintain and have been able to do so with the help of family and friends.

Kraft Mac 'n Cheese
It's the wife's "I haven't felt well but am feeling better but still claim to be sick and just need something familiar" food. It can actually be found in the stores but costs about $3 - $4 per box, which just seems too much when it's consumed more frequently than the initial reason stated.

For a coffee producing country, whole bean coffee is extraordinarily difficult to find in Gurgaon. Maybe it has something to do with the India's love affair with tea. Coffee hasn't been an issue as I imported 15 pounds of whole bean coffee from a friend's coffee shop, Coffee Please, in Madeira, Ohio. We're still working our way through the first 5 pound bag. Even though we've increased our coffee consumption at home as of late, I'm thinking it pulls us through until at least the summer of 2011.

Crystal Light
The filtered water is entirely safe to drink but for some reason it seems safer with a packet of Crystal Light, preferably a packet of Cranberry Apple Crystal Light. I thought we had a comically large supply of this, including the "to go" packs I take to work. That supply is dwindling and will be a major part of the restocking operation when we go home in October. No substitute currently exists though there are single serving packets of Gatorade to pour into water.

"Real World" Chocolate
The chocolate in India deserves its own post (and I'll run out of topics at some point and actually post it), but suffice to say that it's not nearly as sweet. It's the climate's fault. American chocolate (or as I've heard it called, chocolate from the "real world") melts at a much lower temperature than Indian chocolate. As a result, chocolate should only be brought over in carry-on baggage or shipped during winter months.

Lawry's Fajita/Taco Seasoning Packets
Though it insults some people to use seasoning packets, the reality is that you can produce fairly close to the same chicken-based Mexican food here as long as you have the seasoning packets, which unfortunately, you can't find in stores and helps explain why there are no decent Mexican restaurants here even though Indians seem to like Mexican when they eat the award winning (no joke) Mexican restaurant in town, TGI Friday's. Quick word of advice: If there are any budding restauranteurs out there in Delhi, find a way to open a slightly below average Mexican restaurant and charge whatever you want. You will make money.

Graham Crackers
A fairly basic snack that we've been unable to find here. These also aren't exactly the easiest items to transport so they are, perhaps, more of delicacy than one would traditionally think. In addition, we've yet to find anything close to resembling a substitute, so the mystique only grows.

Peanut Butter
The all American item most widely quoted as the item to bring or that people miss is actually available at grocery stores here. The price is steep, around $5 for a 16 ounce jar, but it's Skippy, which is good enough (I'm a Jif man, but beggars can't be choosers). With a substitute that readily available and a price that is expensive but not THAT expensive, it will be one of the first items cut from the list when we come back in October if baggage weight becomes an issue.

Oats and Chocolate Fiber One Bars
Not only do these bars make a delicious treat, they also contain actual chocolate chips from the "real world" so you get a little bit of that chocolate fix as well. Plus, fiber is good right? We have four large boxes from Costco (30 bars each) in the cabinet but it's safe to assume we go through 1 - 1.5 boxes per month (I eat one at work each day) so a restock is in order. The only substitutable item here are imported granola bars; not worth the price for an item that isn't as good.

Heinz Ketchup
I was quite excited when I saw Heinz ketchup in the grocery store. I was less excited when I tasted the substance inside the Heinz ketchup bottle. I was very relieved when our shipping crate arrived and I had three large bottles of Heinz from the pre-departure Costco run which should be more than enough to take me through the end of next year.

Jack Links Turkey Jerky
The mother-in-law sent a care package with some jerky and I had forgotten how delightful it was. I'm not a huge consumer or jerky at home, but any time you can have meat as a snack, you'd have to consider it a  good time. I'm fairly careful to request turkey jerky because (1) it's "healthier" and (2) I'm not sure if there are laws against importing packaged beef products.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Grumpy Camel

Much like the average six year old, the wife still maintains a "favorite animal." Luckily for her, that animal is the camel and there's no shortage of sightings in our current environment. After dinner last night as we were waiting for Kailesh to pick us up, we sighted a fully dressed camel sitting on the side of the road, obviously there for economic purposes. Not surprisingly, Lindsay wanted her picture taken, so I handed her a Rs. 20 note (around $0.50) to offer the camel's master in the event he requested money for a picture. While I'm not typically a huge fan of exploiting animals, I make an exception for camels due to Lindsay's affinity for them and the fact that it's basically a domesticated animal in these parts. I also make an exception for elephants, because let's face it, who's going to turn down an opportunity to ride an elephant when it presents itself?

Would you want a picture with this sinister looking camel?
Last night, however, all Lindsay wanted was a basic picture with a camel, which I can only assume was destined to become her new Facebook profile picture; however, it became quickly obvious that the camel wasn't in the mood. He just looked grumpy. As she approached, he snapped at her. Always the stubborn one, she tried again with the help of the young boy in charge of the camel. Still no luck and a a second snap at Lindsay. On the third attempt, she tried to put her hand out, which was nearly removed from her arm. On the fourth attempt, she finally decided to call it quits.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture this all on film and was only able to get the two photos you see below. I am still kicking myself that I inexplicably missed the left side of her face in the second shot. No excuses; I flat out failed.

Attempt 3; she could almost be accused of taunting the camel at this point
Attempt 4; the camel's revenge

Friday, August 13, 2010

To Learn or Not to Learn

On the drive to the gym this morning, my driver Kailesh informed me that he was planning to begin an English language course in September and that, if the wife and I were OK with it, he'd be unavailable from 6:00am - 7:00am each day for three months. Considering his shift doesn't typically begin until 8:00am; no complaints. If it had interfered, totally different story...

I'm kidding, of course. I think the wife may have actually agreed to pay for the course, which may have been Kailesh's strategy all along. It's safe to say we would have found a way to work around it if the time wasn't so convenient. Though, special points go to the ingenuity of whoever is offering an English course targeted at drivers and the like as the 6:00am - 7:00am time slot, based on my experience, is pretty much an open slot in the Indian culture.

The reason I write of this is that it really raises a question which is, not surprisingly, more selfish: Why exactly haven't I put forth the effort to learn Hindi?

Granted, Kailesh arguably has a lot more to gain economically from his decision than I would to learn Hindi, but let's be honest, I'm living in a country (for two years after having lived here six months previously) and have made zero effort. It's embarrassing. There really is no good answer.

I've determined a three tiered approach will work best: formal education, informal conversation, and bribery. For formal education, I'll be dusting off the Rosetta Stone from the laptop hard drive. The two times I tried it, it actually seemed an effective learning method for me. For informal conversation, I've made a deal with Kailesh that he'll start to teach me as he learns English better. Of course, I'm basically his boss so I have the power to revoke this at any time. Finally, for the bribery piece I'm going to put some sort of candy bowl at my desk at work. Indians, in my experience at work, love candy. The deal will be simple, take a piece of candy, teach me a word or phrase in Hindi and write it on a note card, English on one side, phonetic Hindi on the other so I have some way to remember it.

Of course, if this is the last you hear of my three tiered learning approach, just assume I'm a unilingual ignoramus being chauffeured around by an English speaking driver. Man, I hope he doesn't quit....

Monday, August 9, 2010

Our First House Guest

Twelve hours after our arrival from Turkey we welcomed our first house guest, a good friend from childhood, Luke Gerdes. Luke is two-thirds through a two-month trip to complete research for his doctoral dissertation, passing through Delhi for six nights. I'm not sure whether he actually got what he needed while here academically, but I can say we enjoyed our time together. In all honestly, it almost seemed like he was more in need of seeing and talking with familiar faces than we were, which can probably be expected as he had been traveling the previous six weeks, spending no more than four of five nights in any given country.

Luke's and my family are close friends (in fact, his parents are considering an India/Nepal loop with my parents early next year), and Luke and I had grown up together but the frequency of our meetings had basically dwindled to a beer or two the day of Christmas Eve as my Dad and I make the rounds to family friends (actually one of my favorite traditions, though the Gerdes house is the only stop that guarantees a frosty beverage).

The other thing to know about the Gerdes family is that while growing up, and still to this day, my family refers to Luke's mom, Sue, as the "Domestic Goddess." In fact, Martha Stewart may very well be the "Sue Gerdes of Connecticut." Thankfully, he learned something from his mother and volunteered to fix what was easily the best freshly prepared Mexican meal made from scratch in India last week, which would have been the case even if likely not the only entry in that category. What made this feat all the more impressive was that he successfully navigated four grocery stores alone in Gurgaon finding fresh avocados for guacamole. Needless to say, he set a high bar for future guests to follow.

Since he had done quite a bit of travel in the developing world and had spent a few days in Mumbai, he was more immune to the shock value that greets many visitors to Delhi. As a result, we were able to do fun things like eat at Karim's and get lost in alleys in Chadni Chowk. Getting lost in alleys might seem dangerous, and we were careful to keep Lindsay between us at all times, but in hindsight, it was a fairly safe place to be. In one instance, some local men stopped us because some rupees had fallen out of Luke's pocket and they wanted to make sure we found. Not five minutes later, a young boy who had self-appointed himself our guide to a main street tried to refuse a tip from Luke. Luke tried to hand the kid Rs. 50, which I can only guess is a LOT of money for this kid, and it took Luke's continual insistence for the kid to actually accept the money. Sometimes, India can pleasantly surprise you.

Later on Saturday night, we had planned to relax at our favorite rooftop establishment in a mall, Vapour, but received a phone call from a friend's landlord who we've met socially. He invited us to a housewarming party some of his friends were having, which isn't the type of invitation you'd want to turn down if you were interested in experiencing new things. The party didn't disappoint. The topic of conversation quickly turned to politics and had quite the diverse cast of characters, including an imbibing Muslim, a Hindu businessman that held American citizenship and sold quite a few pairs of jeans to a certain retailer based in Arkansas, a clean-shaven Sikh, our friend the landlord, and the host, a gentleman that appeared in an Apple computer print ad in the mid-80's. Needless to say, the addition of a couple of Americans that were a few cocktails in, and it was a spirited conversation. They remembered our names by saying, "Luke and John? Like the Bible?" Well, sort of, I guess. Luke ultimately earned extra points and the respect of the other guests since he was apparently the first person to verbally disagree with the blue jean baron in some time. I literally sat there and laughed for two hours. Not surprisingly, as we were getting ready to leave around 12:30am, dinner was served. An hour and many worthwhile and tasty calories later, we finally said our good byes.

I'd have to say it was a successful first house guest. Surprisingly, by the sixth night we weren't ready to kick him out and I don't think he was entirely sick of us either. It was a great chance to share a little of our adopted home, share new Indian experiences, and get to know one of my oldest friends better (if that makes sense). And if he thinks his invitation to us to spend some time at his family's fishing cabin in Canada upon our return was simply a courtesy invite; well, then he doesn't know the wife and I quite well enough.

Finding Karim's

A good friend from childhood, Luke, has been visiting the past few days as he passes through Delhi on a research trip. Knowing that Luke, a former college football player, is not averse to the consumption of meat, it seemed like the perfect time to find Karim's, Delhi's oldest and probably most famous restaurant.

After a short visit to Jama Masjid, which seemed to make sense because the location of Karim's is described in most dining guides as "near Jama Masjid", we walked out Gate 1 simply because Lindsay said, "it just feels like it's going to be in that direction." We still had no idea exactly where it was but took advantage of a bicycle rickshaw driver offering his services for a tour of Old Delhi and asked directions. Once he confirmed Lindsay's original thoughts, we disappeared into a side street. Not fifty yards in, I looked up, saw a sign that said, "Karim's, Inside Street" with an arrow pointing to the left. Apparently, the search was a lot easier than anticipated.
If you find this view of Jama Masjid's Gate 1, you've basically found Karim's
After being seated at a table that we were asked to share with a group of French tourists, we were all a little cranky and a lot crowded. Thankfully, another table in the section shortly opened up, our French table guests moved (they seemed just as happy to have their own table as we were), and order was restored in the world.

I had heard that lamb or mutton was the way to go at Karim's but still couldn't help myself from ordering butter chicken, which I've determined is the litmus test of any Indian restaurant. The food, as expected, was excellent, and we ordered way too much for the three of us. The taste of the butter chicken was excellent though they lose a couple points because the chicken was still on the bone. Probably the way it's intended to be prepared, but considering the "national dish" of India (or so I'm calling it) was invented in the past 50 or 60 years, I feel there's no reason it should have bones. Other than the butter chicken, Lindsay enjoyed the naan, which was thicker and chewier than any other I've had but had the basic consistency (and taste, to be honest) of an unsalted soft pretzel. The mutton dishes, both the burra and the curry, were tasty though by the end of the meal there was a good quarter inch of oil on the top of the curry, again another Karim's staple.
The spread at Karim's
It's definitely not the most healthy of foods but for those looking to hit an authentic Indian restaurant in an authentic atmosphere, I think it might be tough to top. Based on the location, it's the kind of place that can easily both scare and capture the imagination of a new visitor to India, but then again, that's kind of the point.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Monkey Watch 2010

Upon the return from vacation, I found this letter posted near the elevator in our complex:

While I'm sure the monkeys are likely a nuisance, it's a little presumptuous that the Estate Manager categorically states that they're a nuisance to all residents. I must admit I'm anticipating my first encounter with a monkey in the complex. I can only hope I have the camera when the time comes. I also hope that, when that time comes, the monkey hasn't found a way into our unit. That would not be good.

It's a little scary to think that "no permanent solution can be found" but guess it's a good thing that they're making efforts to find a Langoorwala (a google search turned up all of 38 results). From what I'm able to gather, it's either some sort of monkey wrangler or monkey trainer. Based on the tone of the note, I'm going to assume they're looking for more of a wrangler than a trainer.

Delhi's Sparkling New Terminal 3

I have a little more to share about Turkey but wanted to give initial thoughts around the new terminal in Delhi and it's quite possible other notable things might happen in India between now and the time I get around to finishing Turkey posts. As a result, I'm reserving the right to go back and talk more about the trip. Since I'm in charge here, that's allowed.

At 3:30am Tuesday morning, our Turkish Airlines flight pulled into Delhi's sparkling new Indira Ghandi International Airport Terminal 3, known also by the title of Schwarzeneggar's blockbuster film, "T3." I had read a couple headlines while away about it being a disorganized mess but found, for arrivals at least, it to be quite the opposite. Other than Lindsay not liking the carpet choice along the walk from the gate to immigration, the first impression of India is much more positive than with old Terminal 2.

When approaching the immigration counter, two things struck me. First, there are huge hand sculptures affixed to the wall in various yoga and/or spiritual poses. A nice touch. Second, the hierarchy (as I'm defining based on the proximity to the bottom of the escalator where passengers emerge) for passport holders to get to the appropriate immigration desk: (1) Diplomats, (2) First/Business Class, (3) Foreign Passport Holders, (4) Special Needs, (5) Indian Nationals. Maybe it's just me, but the fact that "special needs" being fourth wasn't the biggest surprise. It was the fact that Indian citizens being forced to go the furthest. The signs were electronic and easily interchangeable, but it still kind of seemed like they were saying, "Welcome home! Now, keep walking." It's quite possible it's a courtesy they extend to foreigners and I'm probably way overthinking this; however, wouldn't that be a nice little touch to extend those returning home? At the immigration desk next to us, there was a Greek family that we overheard was headed to a hospital (have no idea the reason) but there was some general confusion about their entry. They also had a plastic grocery bag stuffed full of fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes looked delicious, as far as tomatoes go, but something tells me they probably weren't still with the Greek family when they ultimately cleared customs.

At baggage claim, the bags starting coming out quickly but it still took over a half hour for our's to appear. Bags kept slowly appearing, just not our's. That's pretty much always the way it goes for us. Poor us, but not the end of the world. The only other minor slip-up at the baggage claim is that backpacks and other odd-shaped items come out in a plastic tub so that straps and pieces don't get caught. This is good. Unfortunately, once on the conveyor, the tubs would get caught on the lip where bags came out. Just a small quirk that they may or may not work through, but in the meantime it gives the attendant at the baggage claim something to do.

After claiming bags, we quickly cleared customs and our trusty driver Kailish was dutifully waiting for us, even though it was now after 4am. The walk to the car was longer than the old airport, but we also had to walk all the way to where the car was parked rather than just out to the curb. On the walk, the skyway between the elevators and the parking structure wasn't air conditioned but rather had been outfitted with industrial looking fans. For an airport claiming to be "world class" this seemed an odd place to stop short; however, it's possible that it's not 100% complete and it will be changed in the future. Regardless, not a big deal.

As a whole, other than the distances between places within the airport (which it's logical to expect that a new airport would be larger, so it's hard to find fault there), it was a pleasant experience and definitely a step up from the previous terminal. It looks like it should be more than sufficient for October's Commonwealth Games. Now, whether the rest of the Delhi area will be ready is an entirely different topic all together....

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Trials and Tribulations of Turkish Travel

So it really wasn't a trials and tribulations type of trip, but I couldn't think of a better post title. Here's a quick list of observations on some of the various aspects of our recent trip to Turkey. What you're about to read is complete opinion, so take it for it's worth.

The Language
A quick lesson I learned upon arrival in Turkey was that for all intents and purposes, the India in which I live has no language barrier. Sure, I may force myself to speak slower or use fewer or less complex words when communicating to certain people, the net result is that communication in India is simply not an issue. I lulled myself into thinking that was the case everywhere.

Then I showed up in Turkey. I was absolutely stunned at the lack of English language fluency in the country. I ignorantly didn't think those types of places still existed. Among the English-deficient included those that make their living in tourist-heavy industries; airport employees, hotel employees, taxi drivers. After some initial frustration, it was actually refreshing in a strange way to find a place that, in this day and age, that basically said, "screw it, we speak our language." Turks weren't rude about not knowing their language and they were genuinely helpful when asking for directions or trying to communicate; however, some were nearly as stubborn about speaking my language as I was about even attempting to learn their's. Even when both parties were equally stubborn (ok, maybe one side was stubborn and the other was ignorant), once a key word was understood I'd gleen enough information to get myself where I needed to be.

Maybe that's the case through the rest of Europe or other parts of the world. Maybe I live in a privileged bubble in India. Maybe English isn't becoming the global language after all, which is certainly frustrating as a unilingual traveler, but I'm not exactly in a position to complain.

The Flag
The Turkish flag is bright red with a white cresent moon and a white star, and in Turkey, it's everywhere. On the front end of the trip I thought that maybe it was just because we were in a port where ships and smaller boats proudly displayed the flag; the nautical world is, after all, a little more flag happy than other worlds. However, I quickly realized that it wasn't a "we have flags on our boats because flags are cute and seemingly more approrpiate on boats" kind of place. Proudly flying in any prominent place was the basic yet imposing and impressive Turkish flag. Let's just say that with the flag and the language, it's fairly obvious that the 70 million Turks are proud of their country and culture.

The Heat
As any guidebook or website will tell you, Turkey is hot in August. For some reason, having lived through one of the hotter springs and early summers in fifty years in India, I thought I would be immune to effects of the heat. What I failed to realize is that even if I'm exposed to temperatures in India that regularly approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, I'm exposed to those temperatures for minutes at a time, not entire days. Bottom line, the guidebooks and websites weren't lying; Turkey is hot in August.

The Coffee
While walking around Bodrum one evening, a restaurant owner was conveniently walking into the patio just as we were walking past. As is usually the case in Turkey, he tried to lure us in to the restaurant, which was (I think) the only Chinese restaurant in Bodrum. Having no intention of eating Chinese food but still interested in the free coffee, we decided to sit down, where as promised, we were brought free Turkish coffee and the restaurant owner, "Charlie," sat and talked to us. It was a little sketchy (if not disturbing) that he guessed the hotel we were staying at saying only, "another American couple was there the night before and mentioned there was one other American couple at the hotel" (note, we had no idea who this other American couple was). Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe we're naive. He was an interesting guy who had been an interpreter in Iraq and avidly followed the NBA even though the west coast start times weren't terribly convenient for his time zone. At any rate, the Turkish coffee was actually very good, stronger than any I've ever tried before (I'm a staunch black coffee drinker but had to ask for sugar), and left a good half inch of sludge in the bottom of the small cup. As we were leaving, we tried to leave a small tip for the waiter (something like $3 for the two free coffees) and they nearly forced it back in our pocket. Charlie ultimately seemed to just want to show us some good hospitality. Of course, if we had wanted Chinese food at a harborside restaurant in Turkey, he may have just had a sale.

The People
As evidenced by Charlie, the people of Turkey were extremely gracious hosts and very friendly. Even with the language struggles, they were more patient with us than they needed to be and I never felt uncomfortable or like I was in the wrong place. They were easy to talk to and Lindsay found, that if she offered to take a picture of a group of people, they often wanted to include her in the picture. We were visiting a cave church near Goreme one day and Lindsay climbed a ladder to get into the chamber. After she got up, there was a group waiting to come out that I left come passed. In the two or three minutes that it took me to get into the chamber, she had made good friends with these two older women that were there with their family. I have no idea how she did it, but it was good to see that Ambassador Luth was back in action (I had no idea Lindsay was this funny but apparently she can tell a good joke in Turkish).

The Touts
Those same guidebooks that warn summer travelers of the heat also warn unsuspecting tourists that they will be mercilessly badgered by people trying to sell them things on the street. This is one area where our experience in India had us ready, if not too ready. In India, it's best to simply not make eye contact or keep walking as people approach to try and sell you something in a market. In short in Turkey, "no" really means "no."

The Driving
I drove for the first time in nearly seven months and also realized shortly after leaving the rental car counter that it was the first time I had driven in a foreign speaking country. Admittedly, it took a couple days to get comfortable behind the wheel again; however, I struggled the most with the signage. Signs indicating the street name were either nonexistent or precariously posted walls that weren't too obvious. Arrows at various angles seemed to inconsistently indicate exactly where one was supposed to turn. Ultimately, I made it where I was going, it was just more frustrating that I would have hoped. When asking for directions, our pronunciation of cities and streets pretty much sucked so that took longer than you would typically expect or we'd get one key information from a person and drive until we felt it time to ask a new person. Often times directions would come in the form of, "just keep driving and then turn left." Not exactly the precision of Google Maps.

The roads were actually in very good condition, and, unlike a certain other place, drivers basically stayed in their lanes. Other drivers had a habit of coming up right behind you and swerving out and swerving right back in front of you; however, I quickly determined that if I drove a little faster this didn't happen nearly so often.

The Verdict
As a whole, there is a lot to see in Turkey. Probably not groundbreaking news there. It's a little difficult to get around by yourself but ultimately not impossible (as proven by the fact that I'm writing this from my living room in India). In fact, for us, it actually helped define the trip and was part of our experience. Since the wife and I tend to have about a 90 minute attention span when just looking at things, we were much better off driving ourselves around without a guide trying to explain everything to the "nth" degree. Of course, we would have been somewhat insulated from some of the items above, but then again, would fun would that be?