Indiosyncrasies

I have to admit, it is hard to be clever after being on the road in India for 10 days, the last five of which included sleeping in a bug and roach infested hotel, staying in hotels with hairballs in the shower and black hair all over the floor, staying in hotels in which the shower is just free standing in the middle of the bathroom over the toilet (so the entire room gets completely soaked), spending a night without air-conditioning in ninety degrees, taking multiple cold water showers, and using numerous “toilets” that were so filthy I basically had to wade through liquid (I pray it was water, but likely it was urine) just to squat in the filth (the western style toilets weren’t much better when they existed). And this was just the south of India — Kerala and Goa — which is much less confronting than the north, where I will spend the next couple of weeks. I am tired and cranky to say the least, and have had few mental implosions and explosions in the form of tears and tantrums. All of this isn’t to say that I haven’t had a good time. In fact, I’ve had a great time, particularly thanks to Josh (you know who you are).

Additional posts will cover some of the food we’ve eating but here — for my entertainment as well as your’s — I’d like to highlight some of the Indian oddities/idiosyncrasies I’ve observed over the last week and a half:

1. The head bobble. No matter what question you ask an Indian, and no matter what the answer is, the vast majority of the time the response will look like this (clink on the link). The bobble is reminiscent of bobble head dolls and looks as though the person’s head has been somehow disjointed from the neck. The bob means “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “I don’t know,” “I have no idea what you are talking about,” “ok,” “leave me alone,” “I don’t care,” “I am not listening,” and basically other good, bad, or explicative reply you can imagine. Needless to say, it definitely facilitates the communication barrier. As a visitor, one must be weary of imitating the head bobble — first you do it because it’s funny, then it turns into a habit, then it becomes natural.

2. All Westerns who dress like Westerners (i.e. no hideous Ali Baba pants) learn what it is like to be famous. Random Indians constantly come up to us and ask to have their picture taken with us. They also sometimes just ask to take pictures of us. This really confuses me because (i) it isn’t like they haven’t seen a Westerner before and (ii) this also happens in big international cities such as Delhi where they’ve definitely seen many Westerners.

3. Shahrukh Kahn. This Bollywood star is omnipresent. He endorses every product in India, including cars, mobile phones, silk, tea, watches, shampoo, soap, and most other things you can imagine. Photos of him appear on every other page of almost every magazine. He brings the term superstar to a whole new level; I don’t think any Hollywood star would compare in terms of popularity or coverage. Then again, he does have an audience of one billion people. I’ve seen him so many times, I am starting to develop a crush; repetition does that.

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4. Cows on the beach. I expected them to be everywhere, but admittedly, I hadn’t considered the beach — or one trying to eat my leftover mango.

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5. Every travel agent books you at his cousin’s or brother’s hotel, regardless of the health risk and regardless of the accommodaton you’ve requested. Going into detail on this point will just infuriate me, so let’s just say we’ve ended up at some bug infested joints and some that were so dusty we could hardly sleep because our sinuses were so stuffed up. I don’t even have sinus or allergy problems and it was torturous. This was after we made it abundantly clear to the travel agent that cleanliness was our only concern in terms of accommodation. The paternalism always becomes obvious when the hotel where you wanted to stay turns out to have availability when you were told by the travel agent that it was full. I have learned something from this — in India, never pay in advance for anything. Also, do not stay at the Shamrock in Munnar or the Excellency in Kochin.

6. The honk. Indians honk (or “toot” for my Australian readership base) to indicate everything while driving. They honk to make their presence known to the car in front of them. They honk to indicate that they are passing of overtaking a vehicle. They honk to indicate that they are backing up. Sometimes I think they just honk because the bumper sticker on the car requests it (no, I am not making this up).

7. Indian time. Take however long someone tells you it will take to get somewhere and multiply it by four. You still should be flexible because it could take longer than that.

Next post will feature, food. I promise!

Notes from Goa

I foresee a big problem arising as I try to write about my experiences in Indian cuisine over the next month or so. The food here can be delicious and interesting, but it photographs terribly — it often just looks like bowls of brown stew and Indians are not focused much on presentation as far as I can tell. You might have to use your imagination a little.

I have been in Goa for a few days and it actually took almost that long to sample Goan food, which apparently is a dying art. Goa is a tiny territory where one goes to explore India’s beach and hedonistic culture (trance music is not for us, so we steered clear). It is a tiny place with a coconuts, cocohuts, hippy, yogi, and trance seeking tourists, a Portuguese influence (they ruled here for many years), and is probably the only place in India you can wear as little as you want and nobody cares. Oh yes, there are also cows on the beach.

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(this guy was all up in my business)

I am embarrassed to admit that my first meal in India consisted of the following at the Delhi airport.

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Josh highly encouraged it, despite the fact that I have not eaten McDonalds in memory, so I wouldn’t risk getting sick on my first day as we were waiting for our connecting flight. In a way, it was an Indian meal anyway, as Indian McDonalds do not have beef on the menu (the cow is sacred here). As I write this, I realize that no McDonalds actually have real beef on the menu, but you get my point. I had a McVeggie. Kind of gross, kind of good. McFlurries taste the same.

Anyway, last night we finally made it to a Goan restaurant. We tried two local specialties – pork vindaloo and crab xec xec. The vindaloo was really good. It was like the Indian version of pulled pork. I think vindaloo is typically made with vinegar and garlic but this dish was a little sweet and the pork was very tender. The crab was very spicy and difficult to eat because of the shells, but decent. Afterwards we actually went to a north Indian style restaurant for dessert, but I’ll save Indian sweets for another post.

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These photos look unappealing, but really the food, the pork in particular, was good. I’ll work on my photography.

Oh, one last thing. At the end of a meal you are sometimes handed paan, a betel leaf that aids digestion, freshens your breath, and acts as a palate cleanser. You are meant to chew it for a few minutes and then spit it out. I could only chew it for 15 seconds before spitting it out, but it did work — my breath was fresh. I just learned there are shops that sell these leaves for pennies up to one hundred dollars depending on the type you buy. I will be on the look out.

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