Category Archives: Travel

  1. The days of good food karma

    Work demanded a recent visit to Ahmedabad. I was back with money in my pocket and that was a change. I did my design education there and was pretty much a pauper right through the stint.

    Design education was not a standard academic option that South Indian middle-class youngsters would choose those days. It is not like my father dreamt that I would grow up and be a graphic designer. The truth is, till date, he does not know what I do for a living. Our design school campus was in Ahmedabad, a dusty quasi-capital of Gujarat where short-frocked milkmen flirted with camels. The campus however was self-sufficient fortified dream capital with clean air, love and bad food available in plenty. Other than structured courses that demanded us to go out and document through conversation and drawings, we students were immune to the grime and grit of the city. The proverbial ivory tower of the self proclaimed cerebral knights.

    I had a hand written boarding pass and clambered over seven software engineers, two media women with black lipstick, a vegetable dyed NGO lady, a gaggle of clipped cackling British guys and an unattended Samsonite to identify my lonely blue bag on the windy tarmac – the systems were down. It is needless to say that I had no friends in that flight to Mumbai. I gate crashed at Vivek and Monisha’s house, ate up all their food and subjected them to Woody Allen banter further bored-down with my own. It is a miracle that Monisha was still willing to join us in Ahmedabad the next morning. But her pursuit was more epicurean and less camaraderie.

    That night I slept with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and dreamt of samurai sword carved lamb in a strange seaside restaurant.

    Vivek and I took a ruthlessly early flight to Ahmedabad with foul coffee and no breakfast. I have this nasty habit of growing hair all over my face, incessantly drooling and tearing through my shirt when I do not have breakfast. But I held on. The early morning Ahmedabad air hit me with deep nostalgia and a mild hay fever. We were driven to a guesthouse, an apartment with late Victorian Gujarati baroque décor where chartered accountants and mills men were dished out custom breakfast of upma, cereal and tea. The cook was good and he baled us out. But we did miss the coffee. We had factory visits the entire day and I was dreading the lunch. But that was not bad either with an unnecessarily spiced spinach soup, cottage cheese in get-as-fat-as-you-can gravy, high calorie rotis and a thimble full of rice. More of factories and I reached my threshold – breaking point. I almost skipped a fantastic dinner at this highway restaurant done up like a supposedly rustic charming village for visitors from faraway land called Vishala.

    Monisha had flown in later with the sole purpose of eating at Vishala and Lisa accompanied to join us for the factory visit. Winter darkness arrived before you can say ‘jamvamaté jaun chu!’ – ‘I am going to eat’ in Gujarati. We landed at this oil lamp lit walkway of Vishala village bumping into each other in darkness. A turbaned young man, who in broad daylight could be an ex-collector’s son from Srirangam working in Ahmedabad for a living, ushered us in. (Later I should tell you this story about Palaniappan who wears Pathan suits and serves in an Afghani restaurant called Kabul in Amsterdam.)

    We started with jaljeera. I hated this drink in my earlier days in Ahmedabad. I could not understand how a drink that tastes like dilute cough syrup and smells like acute flatulence in livestock could be refreshing. I learnt to like it over years and I had a few glasses now. I also learnt that the cattle flatulence ingredient was rock salt or ‘kala namak’ as it is popularly known. We were walked further into the village and were seated on mud washed floor against a low table in a thatched roof cupola. Then it all started. It was as if their leader did a strong propaganda speech around the corner in militant Gujarati and the gist of it was ‘FEED THEM! SHOW NO MERCY!’ The turbaned youth brigade got into action. They brought leaves and pre-formed cups made of dried lotus leaves. First there was a sea of salads with sprouted chickpeas, peanuts, sweetened cucumber pickled, tomatoes in limejuice and more. Then they brought the vegetables – bataka nu shak (semi-dry potatoes with turmeric, cumin seeds and a little tomatoes to make it moist), mind-blowing undhyo (an amazing, tasty oily dark gravy with unrecognizable vegetables in it), and lots of deep fried fritters, thin rotis, butter and gooey jaggery to go with it. All this served with so much love and persistence that I ate too much, my legs went off to sleep and I needed help to get off the ground. It was wish fulfillment, manna from Amdavadi quarters of heaven, a nostalgic awakening, culinary excellence that surpasses a Gujarati invoked Bull Run – I was satiated and had a dreamless sleep that night. It was not over yet.

    The next morning and I was still craving for coffee. The ignorant cook at the guesthouse showed me a bottle of Nescafé. He did not know that instant coffee is not kosher among people in Bangalore. Alternatively he offered milky white ginger tea that can launch lactose intolerance in R2D2. I realized that coffee is not necessarily a core competence in this part of the world. I had a fleeting glimpse of a café as we drove in the previous night. This is one of those places where very nubile young things and very young thugs courting nubile young things are draped on chairs looking vacant (read cool). I walked across middle-aged Gujarati men riding scooters sidesaddle and located the café. I asked the man at the counter for two double espressos, little milk no foam, to go. He looked at me as if I just ordered the 1952 version of Clark’s Logarithmic Table in Hebrew. I slowly deconstructed my order and drove it home. He was a slow barista and that is an understatement. The wait at the café felt longer than it was. There was an impervious early morning Roman orgy well underway in one sunlit corner involving a lot of thugs and things. If this coffee was not happening I was planning to go intravenous, sent right where it matters. Finally I was violently sucking at a paper cup filled with my coffee and took a couple back to the guesthouse. Then there was a boring breakfast and more factories to visit before our noon flight.

    We boarded. Vivek had an epiphany somewhere over Surat. We were going to Highway Gomantak for lunch. Highway Gomantak is a small restaurant on the service road in Bandra that promises a good seafood meal. They somehow manage to gently coax every living creature in the sea to convert to a delectable curry dish or a rava fry on my plate. I let Monisha and Lisa decide between a hoard of dishes with names that sound like the entire process of cooking – ‘slowly twist the head and pull the inerds out as you sing an upbeat excerpt from a Konkani song’ could pretty much be a name of a dish. The place was teeming with inspiring eaters who with a sleight of hand could devour a crab with a lot of rice and sunset yellow gravy in coconut sauce. I probably had a significant part of an underwater food chain that afternoon – clams, mussels, silver fish, shrimps, pomfret in their many styles. I loved the food and hated the fact that I was going to work and Monisha to sleep at home.

    I was back in Bangalore that night. This trip was an epicurean deliverance. Thanks to Vivek, Monisha and Lisa who brought in the good food karma.

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  2. Deconstructing a Svengali – Advertising voyeurism

    In America Television is God. It is the all-pervasive omnipresence. When the people are saying their little prayer at their table a small television is on and watching them. The channels are vying the spot on their mind luring them with grand promises while doing mundane things like predicting weather. American television commercials are probably the best keyhole to peep, to conjure up an intelligent voyeuristic opinion on the country that is otherwise uninteresting. In this post I have tried to deconstruct this Uncle svengali Sam through a set of advertisements caught on a Friday from noon to evening central time.

    TGI Fridays
    Americans are cursed with a countrywide eating disorder. There is the morning meal with bacon eggs grease-fest plus lots of coffee, a couple of demented hi-sugar snacks, a loaded lunch with half an angus (you can hear it moo) in it with a super-size soda, then a few more snacks that range between packed candies to salted cheese fries and then there is supper with lots more things that are dead and unhealthy. They eat varied meats, an assortment of fowls, soda and sugar in bowls. TGI Fridays is an all-American institution (Does anybody know what this actually means? Can you call me?) that promotes overt consumption of a gastronomical nature. They have juicy (read bloody) steaks beautifully rendered in all its pristine glory while being cut and dipped in a sweet sauce and there is an entire family playing hooky to eat at TGI Fridays. There are more such advertisements – Papa Johns, Red Lobster, Taco Bell, Olive Garden and it goes on. They have to feed 295,734,134 people with similar disorder and I do not blame the chains. They are making their bread.

    Thyrin ATC
    This is a derivative of the earlier paragraph – obesity. Let me feed you with some statistics first. New statistics reveal that a startling 64.5% of American adults, or more than 120 million people, are overweight or obese. The numbers probably will mean an explosion of diabetes and heart disease cases if things don’t improve, top U.S. obesity experts say. The number of Americans who are overweight is at the highest level ever recorded. 31%, or about 59 million adults older than 20, are obese. Obese is defined as 30 or more pounds over a healthy body weight; overweight is roughly 10 to 30 pounds over a healthy weight. 33% of adult women are obese, compared with 28% of men. 50% of black women are obese compared with 40% of Mexican-American women and 30% of white women. (The survey doesn’t have a category labeled Hispanics.) There is virtually no difference in obesity among men based on race. 5% of people overall are extremely obese. That’s up from about 3% in the early 1990s. But 15% of black women are extremely obese. About 15% of children ages 6 to 19, or about 9 million children, are overweight.

    There are equally staggering amounts of prescription-less cure for obesity for a lot of money. One such product is Thyrin aimed at the larger ladies. The advertisement is a boring set of facts with typical before and after scenarios. Thyrin cures – as the tagline suggests – ‘weightloss plus thyroid support’. I sometimes wonder, can this be ever reversed?

    Bowflex – Delivers Results
    This obesity and eating disorder issues are discharging a more health and fitness oriented culture. I personally think, unhealthiness is associated with a class that the upcoming urban America does not associate itself with. This is why they need regimens of diet and fitness. Low fat, low sugar, good carb, bad carb (like in a culinary film noir whodunit), high fiber, bran, light beer, with a promise of a six pack abs and plasticky looking people who are on Red Bull to do the commercials –this is the overall scenario. Bowflex is a home gym product with pumped up men and women working out. You can get one for $19 a month and it apparently delivers results. I am happy about this. This is probably the tip of the reversal.

    Coca Cola Zero
    I think cola commercials have gone beyond the standard message to generic banter. It is more about recurrence and so a recall. This commercial is for a zero calorie Coke that is focused at the health conscious American. It has a man from the Coca Cola Company who claims that they have nailed it – they have discovered the Zero Calorie Coke. As he says that he wants to share the formula he gets hit in the neck by a blow dart and faints. You see an executive hiding in the next room with the dart pipe. Can anybody decipher this masterpiece from Madison Avenue? For some odd reason you do not see desis drinking Coke. I am not sure whether this is about staying healthy or saving money.

    Dell Dimension
    Talking about saving money Dell is whipping out deals before Thanksgiving to lure families to own a new desktop. They are cutting costs – moving more jobs to Bangalore. Dell has been a pioneer in this call center outsourcing bandwagon. The other day I called United Airlines to change my flight and my call landed on a table in Pune. I had meetings that were more pro outsourcing than before. So Dell Dimension can sell at $399 to a suburban kid playing games.

    Gameboy Donkey Kong
    Hip-hop is an irreverent culture that is prevalent among young adults. For the uninitiated this is about wearing clothes that are a few sizes larger, showing underwear that include boxers, tshirts that look like they have been vandalized, jargons and groupie moves that others cannot understand, general demeanor of disrespect to anything other than fellow hip-hoppers. This has left quite a few parents worried. Gameboy is a mobile gaming product that promotes this culture. The commercial has a bunch of kids driving an old car with one playing a Gameboy and the car is slowly getting filled with cartoon-ish surf culture tattoo-ish florals and characters that jump out of it. Everything about this commercial including ’77 automobile is worrisome.

    Mazda 6
    Car advertisements have gone desi in America. Everybody is promising mileage. The fuel prices have been bad after the country got made by the three witches of the south – Katrina, Wilma and Rita. It was close to $6 a gallon at one point and America has suddenly been shaken into understanding moderation and fuel efficiency. All car companies are taking about the mileage or hybrid cars that run on electricity or ethanol. Mazda is one of those few old school car companies still talking about an exciting new car – not boring as the other sedans. The commercial has people sleeping in their cars in a typical downtown street while Mazda 6 zips past.

    Geico – Different Tastes. Different Personality. Same Insurance Company
    In corporate America the next best thing to compare among men after the size of manliness blessed upon thee is what you paid for your automobile insurance. I have always heard desis harp a lot about paying a brown limb for their insurance. Geico has been the most visible of the companies. This advertisement is actually for motorcycles with members of a strange looking suburban family driving different vehicles including a scooter. Ends with the proverbial 800-number that you can call.

    The Cochran Firm
    America knows how to sue. You can bite into a beef jerky and your teeth comes off you can sue; you can keep a coffee cup between your legs and it mars your ability to exercise other things between your legs you can very well sue; you can sue for injury, for somebody’s error, for pain and for prayers not of your belief. The Cochran Firm is a couple of legals in Dallas area who will help you with your injury claim. They advertise with these suited guys standing back to back like the Starsky and Hutch to save you from evils of injury of any kind.

    There are more – upside down Christmas trees, holiday vacation plans, more food, a lot of odd beverages and snacks.

    And a dumb president.

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  3. Immigrant Angels – Four cabbie stories

    I flew an Embraer 170 jet across the United States from Dallas Fortworth to Chicago O’Hare. A small thing to take care of in Chicago and I took another such flight to Washington Dulles.

    This is probably the perfect time to visit the capital area – fall. The State of Virginia looks like a young media professional from London when shades of reds are the color of the season – wearing red silks, fluffy boa, dyed hair, bright red demented eye wear, jewelry and more. (After I paint the picture I realize how bad it is.) Virginia looks beautiful, surely more attractive than that media girl.

    The people from capital area are predominantly occupied in governance or working for agencies that are government parasites. Of what I hear from friends who work in defense contracting companies the bureaucrats are a bunch of frustrated sods warming chairs and acting pricey for the mere fact that they are sitting on government money. I got a fantastic deal at the Hyatt Dulles right next to the airport (and I almost missed the flight back to Dallas Fortworth and that is another story). I got a well-appointed room overlooking a terrace garden with a lounge area and a sleep area for $80 a night all inclusive and it otherwise costs $354 and taxes ( rocks!). This is like a pauper placed in a palace. I was sharing elevators and waiting for cabs with bureaucrats wearing arrogance on their two thousand dollar suit sleeves. They threw loaded glances at this strange Asian guy wearing jeans and an Eddie Bauer corduroy jacket – ‘is he staying here. I need to get Cindy to change my reservations next time’.

    There is a pleasant comfort in meeting immigrants in the capital area. Like New York City, Washington DC has always attracted immigrant population driving cabs or working at Delis. They are legal immigrants polite, confident and engaging. This posting is about four cab drivers who in their own way made a difference to my otherwise sober trip.

    Flare of existence – Kelly Zhu
    The first morning at Hyatt and I was worried about calling a cab from the hotel. I thought they would send me a gleaming Merc and fleece the daylights out of my meager travel budget. However, I decided to go with them and a Lexus GS440 lands up. I had to share the ride with another Asian girl from California. She was going to Reston, VA and I was going across the bridge to McLean, VA. Kelly Zhu, a Japanese lady in her thirties, was the cab driver.

    The champagne silver Lexus was a fantastic car with a Magellan GPS (the type that constantly talks to you – ‘you missed the exit you dumb ass’). Kelly maneuvered the car with great ease and skill. She was a silent woman with a pleasant smile; unlike the ones in Ozu movies. I pictured her in a small town home that smells of fish in Maryland with her Pokemon daughter, eating small portions of clean food on a perfectly square plates on perfectly square low table. She dropped me at McLean, VA, handed me her card and left.

    After I finished my meeting I get a cab driven by Siraj Khan and we got stuck on the beltway. The radio said that there was a rather bad accident on the beltway. We crawled for over a mile and saw those flashing lights up ahead. We had to skirt around a tow truck and a couple of police cars blocking the accident and one of the lanes. Then I saw it through those flashing lights in my eye – the ravaged hood of champagne silver Lexus awkwardly pulled up at the shoulder. The airbags flopped over the front windows. It cannot be Kelly’s car. But since then, I had grit in my mind about Kelly and the visual of the mangled car filled my vacant afternoons. Kelly Zhu if you ever read this show me a sign – send up the flare of existence.

    No line of control – Siraj Khan
    Irrespective of where you flag them in the United States, Pakistani cabbies have a consistent remark. They are out to prove that the hostility between people of our countries is a weak mirage conjured in the heads of the state for political advantage. The truth is we are one, like renegade Siamese twins.

    Siraj’s illustration of this point was a bollywood-style drama of friendship. He is of Pakistani origin – a cricket player-like handsome man in his early thirties in a Walmart polo neck, jeans and wrap around dark glasses. He drives an unmentionably yellow cab with the CD player incessantly playing ‘Pretty woman dekko dekko na Pretty woman’, franchised for Falls Church Cab Service. His friend Raj, of Indian origin, drives a cab for the same company. (Raj – Siraj. Who said truth cannot be cheesy!) Raj threw a huge bash on Diwali day with booze and fanfare. There were three Indian families in attendance and about ten Pakistani ones. They had a ball, of course on a common ground of Hindi film songs, not to mention the inebriated sing-along and dancing.

    Raj and Siraj do not eat lunch without each other. And they do this everyday. Last month was Ramadan and Siraj was fasting. Raj had these unhappy and lonely lunches that he ate to live. Yesterday was Id and Siraj organized a do and invited the same bunch – biryani, butter chicken and lots of beer to wash it down. A re-run of the song and dance routine and the bunch was elated. Now, Siraj’s fasting is over with Id and he can eat lunch again. He wanted to drop me of at Great Falls, VA as early as he can for the friends are uniting again for lunch after a month. Raj is buying Chinese and they are meeting at Tyson’s Corner.

    I did call Siraj that afternoon for a drop back at Hyatt. He was at DC after lunch and he called back to say that Raj was tied-up too. I called the cab company and after couple of hours of wait they sent me Steven Mbwaza.

    This was a typical establishing decoupage in a Hindi movie to illustrate friendship, with jumpy comic songs, heroes in colors that hurt, which the west will discard as something camp and not at all übersexual.

    As corny as it may sound, it was earnest and I liked that.

    From the fields of gold – Steven Mbwaza
    Friday afternoon, I was working at Content Enablers at Great Falls, VA. Brad went early to convert eighty pounds of chicken simmering at home into enchiladas for a night party. Mathew came over, had a $9.99 Gyro dinner at Deli Italiano with me and left. I called for a cab and they sent me a thin, tall, articulate, deep voiced young African American who introduced himself as Steve.

    Steven Mbwaza was from Ghana, Western Africa. His country was a colony of the British Empire and was declared independent ten years after India in 1957. Steven was 32, well read and well informed. He wanted to know my take on the Delhi bombs and was concerned that the Pakistani borders were not secure after the earthquake. He was all for democratic progress and India seemed to be his benchmark. ‘You guys are smart and we want to be there too.’

    Ghana is a small and peaceful democracy of about 14 million people south of Sahara with rich metal resources. Appropriately christened Gold Coast by the British Empire, it traded that name for Ghana later. The unpronounceable President of Ghana is apparently a progressive man sending youngsters out to learn and bring back wisdom to make a difference in the economy and governance of this small country. Kofi Annan is a Ghanian and he supports this cause. Him being the UN Secretary General visible and influential has helped in Ghana getting noticed by the larger global community.

    Steven, a dual citizen of US and Ghana, drives a cab, studies at the University of Maryland and runs a small acupuncture pads business back in Africa. ‘I want to go back home soon, like how you Indians are and make a difference to my land.’ I was impressed and inspired by this young man’s patriotism, drive and conviction.

    My travel planner – Ahmed the Turk
    Too many Sam Adams the earlier night and I woke up late. I had to catch a flight at 8.27 am and the front desk had told me that there is a sh
    tle every half hour. They did not tell me that they start at 7.45 am on a Saturday.

    I had to call for a cab. Ahmed the Turk drives in and I politely told him to step on it. It is a short drive. Ahmed talks without a pause in an interesting mid eastern accent with guttural flourishes to an otherwise insipid monologue. I made the mistake of confessing that I am planning a week’s vacation in Istanbul. Ahmed quickly donned his cap of the knowledgeable guide set out to create my itinerary as I panic.

    ‘First day is at the bazaar Kapalıçari; next day is at the mosques Ahi Celibi, Selimiye, Al Sophia and Zeyrek; then the churches Anglikan and more. You get everything in Istanbul, the legit and the illicit. But you need to know the path. You should eat the fish, with what do you call that, lemon and olive oil at the bazaar. Ask them to make it hot and eat it slowly. Do not forget to take the ferry across the river between the European quarters and the Asian quarters. The sauce for the fish is an amazing combination of olive leaves and spices. Ask the guys to top it’. At this point we have been at the United gate for a few minutes and my flight will shut in about twenty. I can see that the airport is extremely crowded with weekend traffic. I am being polite and listening to him as I pull my wallet out. He continues with the color of the sea in Turkey, extended services in a Turkish bath (he winks), but does not tell me the fare. Another minute of his banter and I am about to excrete wire-cut house bricks. In between somewhere he said ‘Thirteen dollars’ and I stuffed a twenty dollar bill in his palm and shot out like a moor during crusade. I ran to the counter, inched nervously in the queue, get half naked through security check, dress up, reach gate C16 and as the lady is deciphering my last name to announce I slide to her, enter the gate and it shuts behind me. I was the last person to enter the plane and the vacation in Turkey was the last thought in my head.

    I breathe as the Embraer taxis out on the runway. It lumbers up the sky and I ease into a comfortable content nap. I am going back to Dallas.

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