Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Stanley's Steamers

We awoke on New Years Eve at around 7:30. The crows had long finished their early morning squawk, the cicadas had stopped their humming, and the day was beginning to heat up already. As is now our custom, I put some water on for masala chai, and when it boiled Laurel went in to add the tea powder, milk, sugar, fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and clove. Emma was also up, and went into the kitchen to chat with Laurel. I was checking my email in the living room, during one of those rare moments of phase coherence when both the power and the internet were on at the same time, when I saw our landlord, Stanley, amble up the front steps, looking very determined. The doorbell rang. "Stanley's here!", I yelled out to the girls. The ladies were not exactly dressed in a way that would have made for acceptable viewing by our next door neighbour. They scurried about and locked themselves in the kitchen, the nearest point of refuge. I thought I may have heard a muffled four letter word or two, but I'm not sure.

I opened the door to Stanley, and the first thing he said as he pointed to the gate was "Where is lock?". I had forgotten to re-lock the front gate with the big silver padlock when we returned from our outing the previous evening. A most embarrassing gaffe for a fledgeling tenant. I located the errant padlock on the front deck and made a motion to pick it up, but was waved off by Stanley. Gruffly, he said "Come!", and walked around the side of the house. I followed, figuring that he was going to show me some new light switch or water tap that might require my attention in the future. Stanley is a detail guy. I was very surprised to see his smiling wife Gee Gee standing at the fence. To my even greater surprise, she began to pass dishes of food to Stanley over the fence! A big covered bowl of steamed idli, those little fermented rice cakes so common here for breakfast. A big bowl of amazing sambar, and finally a freshly made batch of coconut chutney with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and red chili.

This was a traditional South Indian breakfast, and a fabulous homemade one at that. Together, a smiling Stanley and I carried this treasure carefully into the house. The girls still had not had time to get dressed, and were still trapped in the kitchen! But there was no stopping Stanley. He told the boys in no uncertain terms that hey needed to sit down at the table. I went into the kitchen to get some plates, and a ferocious round of sign language ensued between Laurel and me. Something to the effect of "There's a strange man with a big mustache out there, and I'm not wearing any pants!". I countered with "I know! I'm getting plates because he brought us breakfast! Stay here!!" I returned to the dining room with plates, and Stanley took immense pleasure in serving Isaac an idli, and then gently spooning some of the sambar on top for him. Same with Miles. He now insists that the boys call him "Uncle", which pleases him greatly. He's just the nicest man, and we can't believe how lucky we are to have crossed paths with him and his lovely wife. Gee Gee, as I have said before is an amazing cook.

Through a brief exchange of pidgin English and sign language, I was able to make Stanley understand that the reason my wife was not out here greeting him and thanking him for the breakfast was because she was trapped in the kitchen without her pants. Emma too. After thanking him profusely, he ambled out the door. Laurel and Emma emerged, and we tucked into a truly wonderful breakfast. My goal is to learn to make sambar and chutney as good as Gee Gee's. She's promised to teach us, and let us film it to boot. Can't wait!

Later, we went to meet John and Mary Ann at the boat dock. We caught one of the ferries to Fort Cochin and poked around the bazaar street. I finally took out my video camera for some preliminary outdoor filming experience, and was later rewarded with some great footage when I reviewed it last night. We were a little late going, so we missed the rice meal at the local diner, and were forced to resort to a very posh restaurant instead. Here, the inviolable Law of Inverse Expectations was in full evidence. There was cutlery. Always a bad sign. I'm not exaggerating when I say that each dish had an extra zero after it, compared to the similar offering in more humble surroundings down the street. We all kept waiting for the flavour to happen, but it was just flat... Sort of like ordering a pepperoni pizza and getting a plain rice cake instead. Literally ten times the price, and one tenth as good.

Later, we left Jewtown and went into Fort Cochin to find the fish market. This was pretty cool, as we watched boat after boat land on the beach, only to pull out some very large fish which were placed on the walkway within seconds of landing. Instantly, a crowd of about 20 men surrounded the fish, and inside of 3 minutes, the auction was over and the fish were packed in ice and loaded onto trucks. We managed to by a giant cuttlefish that was still twitching a bit and changing colour, vainly trying to blend into the surroundings in hopes of not being noticed, We took the cuttlefish to a nearby restaurant, which grilled it for us for a small fee. No way we could complain about the freshness there!

We lay in bed last night, and listened to the fireworks going off in the neighbourhood at midnight. At least I hope they were fireworks... Tomorrow, we're blowing a months rent on a houseboat cruise through the backwaters. We're told that it is indeed extravagant, but worth every rupee. Its a deluxe three bedroom floating air conditioned palace. We get all our meals and drinks, and we may even be able to fish too! Stay tuned for that one.

In the meantime, we wish all our friends and family, a very happy new year!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

This Ain't No Disco

So there I am, floating like a sunburned cork in the amniotic Arabian sea, when suddenly I find myself surrounded by slim and youthful bodies, their relentless brownness only interrupted by brilliant white flashes of teeth. Nearly a dozen college students corner me like a bunch of Somalian pirates in a daring daylight ocean raid. Fortunately for me, their purposes were more benign. "Coming from?", asked the ringleader, in that rapid and clipped Malayalam accent with the Spanish-style rrrrrrrrrolled r's. By now, I was used to fielding this question from strangers, and I knew it to mean "Where are you from?". "Canada", I replied. This was relayed by the ringleader to his troops to a general murmur of surprise and approval. "Your good name?", came the next question. "Robert", I answered. "And what is your occupation, sir?", asked my twiggy interrogator. Here, I hesitated. How do I explain what I do? Let's see. "I own a recording studio, but it's kind of dormant right now. I also do some software consulting for video game companies, but I'm kind of taking a break right now because I'm here in India with my wife and two kids trying to make TV series about food..." . Nope, that wasn't going to work. I opted for the safe answer that would be easily comprehended by a group of relatively new English practitioners. "I am a software engineer", I replied, knowing the engineering was a respected profession. Without skipping a beat, my new friend asked "And what is your salary?". Here, I was flummoxed. I very briefly considered averaging my last 3 years income and spitting out a number, and although that may have been satisfying from an ego perspective, it might have been crushing news to these young men who were studying hard to get their fledgeling careers started. Especially when a little quick mental math revealed that I bill more in a day than they would earn in two months, even after getting a degree. So I fudged around. "Uuhhhh.... it varies, you know...". He didn't seem to mind my obfuscatory answer. "You are liking Kerala?", he asked. "Oh yes, it is very beautiful" . At this point, he grinned wide, and turned to face his dozen or so floating compatriots. He thrust his fist in the air and shouted "KERALA!". His bobbing socialist armada quickly followed suit, and a collective cry of "KERALA!!!" went up. They were very pleased with themselves, and obviously really enjoying this encounter with a soggy and salty bearded white guy. A look of concern flashed over the face of the young man who had been asking me questions. He looked at me gravely, and asked "You are not disapproving of how we are disposing of your time?" After the few seconds needed to process the syntactical structure and tense of the question posed, I replied. "No no no. But thank you for being sensitive". Another round of "KERALA!!!", and we drifted off in different directions, literally and metaphorically.

We've been really enjoying spending some time with our cousins John and Mary Ann. It's a lot of fun seeing people experience this place for the first time. By now, Laurel and I are old pros at being here, and in fact, haggling for a cheaper autorickshaw ride has become my favourite sport. We decided to cook a big family meal together yesterday, so naturally, that meant going to the market up the street. Emma looked after the boys, and us four adults took our cloth bags and headed out. Now although the market is open every day, Sunday is THE market day of the week. Many more vendors than usual congregate and clog the already crowded sidewalks with carefully constructed displays of their wares, which are usually a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

It was fresh seafood we were after, and that meant penetrating the inner sanctum of the market, which one does by entering off the street via a narrow corridor about 30 feet long. This opens up into a rectangular open air space, the perimeter of which is rimmed with flesh vendors of various descriptions. Chickens in cages, waiting to be dispatched. Recently butchered carcasses of sheep and goat hanging in dark and aromatic stalls. There are bloody skulls and hooves distributed randomly on the stone floor, which while not necessarily advertising what kind of creature is hanging from the stall's ancients metal hooks, certainly give a strong indication of freshness.

The center of the market is where the fish and seafood vendors ply their trade. Freshly caught fish, prawns, squid, cuttlefish and crabs are displayed by a variety of vendors. If you get there early enough, some are still twitching and flopping about. The choice is staggering, and it varies from day to day, depending on the catch. I always check the gills for redness and the eyes for clarity when I buy fish. I selected a nice carp-like specimen this time and negotiated a price. "Cuttee?", the gent asked, enquiring as to whether I wanted the fish whole or scaled, cleaned, and sliced. As always, I chose this option, and my fish was handed off to a machete wielding piscean sculptor who deftly carved off the fins and scales, then cut it up into the little steaks that are so frequently seen in the restaurants as "fish fry". We also bought a kilo of really good prawns, and a kilo of cuttlefish, which had already been cleaned. Amazing stuff.

John, not looking conspicuous at all in his khaki shorts, polo shirt, and green plastic sun visor, busied himself with his video camera, recording every aspect of this slow motion journey up the food chain. For him, it was the first time he had seen anything like this. At one point, he stepped off the raised center area where the fish are sold and onto the the perimeter butcher's area. Or so he thought. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the trough that surrounded the raised area. Now the market gets a pretty regular watering down, and all the dirt, bits of fish guts, blood, and random animal parts drain off into this trough, where they proceed to marinate for an undetermined period of time. John's sandal clad foot stepped right into this trough, and he sank up to his calf. The vendors erupted in gales of laughter at this poor hapless foreigner getting his karmic comeuppance. A couple of men at the fish cutting block helped John wash the thick, black ooze from his leg, and John, being the good sport that he is, took it all in stride, so to speak. I got the sense that this may have been the funniest that that had happened there in a long time. Our bags bulging with fresh goodies, we walked the half kilometer home. John showered.

We had a great dinner last night. It's been a great experience for me to see that such good quality food can be had in circumstances that would horrify most Western people. Now, despite the smell, and the in-your-face nature of the meat vendors, I really look forward to going to the market to buy food. There are no nicely labelled plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays to insulate you from your position in the food chain. If you're going to eat something, you're going to see it whole first, and in some cases, see it breathe its last before it's tossed in a bag for your consumption later. This is a good awareness, and I much prefer it to mindlessly waltzing a cart down a supermarket aisle filled with prepackaged goods that have been trucked from 5000 miles away while Muzak softly emanates from the store speakers, distracting me just enough to stop me thinking about the evils of agricultural monoculture, industrial meat production, and multinational corporate food conglomerates.

This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Now The Fun Begins

We've check a bunch of stuff off of our list. Packing the house. Flying across the world. Adjusting to the time difference. Finding a house. Setting up an office. Trying to do an approximation of Christmas with the kids. Now its time to get to work.

We have a few shoots lined up already. There's a woman we found who demonstrates Keralan cooking in Fort Cochin that we plan to visit for a preproduction meeting this week. There's a spice farm/homestay a few hours away that has agreed to be filmed and provide accommodation in exchange for promotional mention. We've also been invited to a large Hindu wedding (500 people!) in a nearby town. We've been given permission to film every aspect of food prep for the wedding party. But best of all, there is our landlord's wife, Gee Gee. She is an amazing cook, and has agreed to let us film her making several of her favourite things. In fact, yesterday was a pretty special Christmas day for us. Stanley and Gee Gee invited the whole family over for an elaborate Christmas day lunch, the epic scope of which we were a little unprepared for.

We arrived just after noon bearing a fresh pineapple, only to be quickly ushered into the dining room where a coconut-pineapple cake was instantly produced, sliced, and literally stuffed in our mouths. Literally. Stanley pushed a piece into my face with his hands. Gee Gee and her daughter Amrita did not sit and eat with us, but instead, hovered attentively. Small glasses of homemade ginger wine were next. Then came a beef and coconut milk curry with appam, the pancake-like flatbread, accompanied by beer that Stanley poured with a flourish. We ate tons, and complimented the yummy quality of the food, which was better than any restaurant we had eaten at. We figured that we were done. Then there was a chili chicken, shrimp fried rice, and roast duck! Another complete meal! Groaning, we discovered to late that if you finish everything on your plate, as we were taught to do when we were kids, it's actually a signal to your host that you would like more. Bugger.

Then there was a dessert course of carrot cake with cardamom. Followed by a fruitcake. More beer. Then a fruit salad with ice cream. Tea. About 2:45, we waddled out into the bright sun, looking vaguely like Mr. & Mrs. Jabba The Hut and their bloated youthful entourage. Good thing that they live next door, as a lengthy walk would have proved challenging. Gee Gee is a truly amazing cook, and we can't wait to document some of her recipes. They are both so kind and gracious towards us. We're feeling pretty lucky to have landed in their backyard.

Upon arriving home, I commenced the prep for our own Christmas dinner, as we were expecting my cousins John and Mary Ann, along with their son Aidan, to arrive later in the evening. They had just completed an epic journey from Vancouver to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Mumbai, and then Mumbai to Cochin, all in the space of 48 hours. Now cooking a meal for 8 people on a two burner propane cooker with two pots and a small frying pan is definitely a challenge, but we were up for it. First, I assembled the veg biryani. Next came the spicy potatoes. Then I got to work breaking down the two ducks I had bought at the market the day before. This was no Safeway duck. They were rather complete, to say the least. The feathers had been removed, but that was the extent of the butcher's work. In a scene that bore a passing resemblance to the film "Caligula", I found myself probing the inner recesses of two ducks with my hands in order to extract the tiddley bits, which were still very much attached. My efforts were rewards with two entire duck livers, which I cooked along with the duck. The ducks themselves were scrawnier than the breeds that we get in Vancouver, but they were sure big on flavour. Adding a few tablespoons of black pepper to several minced shallots, ginger, garlic, and turmeric, the duck braised in the pot for a couple of hours. This formed a thick and spicy gravy. The duck is then removed from the pot, and fried piece by piece to crisp up the skin. Then its returned to the sauce after reducing it.

Next up was a kilo of fresh prawns fried with curry leaves, turmeric, shallots, green chili, garlic, lots of black pepper, chunks of coconut, and butter. John and Mary Ann finally managed to locate us via auto-rickshaw at around 7:30, and we sat down to eat our decidedly non-traditional Christmas meal shortly after arrival. It was great to have family at Christmas! The poor buggers were severely jet-lagged though, and shortly after dinner I walked them back to the main road to flag down an auto-rickshaw to take them back to a well-deserved rest. Returning home, I discovered that my good buddy Doug had called us. We were thrilled to discover that we could actually video chat with each other using iChat on our laptops! We took turns walking around with our wireless laptops showing the details of our surroundings. As I said in an earlier post, the broadband internet has changed things here...

So now we will divide our time between showing our cousins around the town and surrounding area, and trying to line up a production schedule for the next month or so. The hard part is done, so let the fun begin!

Not A Gecko Was Stirring

"But Dad, how will Santa find us when we're in India?".

A look of grave concern was etched on Miles' face, as he pondered the sudden possibility that Santa may not be able to locate Isaac and him this year. This is a critical problem for a seven year old, and grave concern was in danger of morphing into full-blown panic. Fortunately, the ever-resourceful Laurel anticipated just such a logistical dilemma, and packed up a solution to the problem before we left in November.

Reindeer food.

More correctly, flakes of oatmeal mixed with gold glitter. Everybody knows that reindeer love oatmeal, and the gold glitter makes it easy to spot from 30,000 feet, which everyone knows is the acknowledged reindeer cruising altitude. Actually, this is a tradition of ours that we've been doing for the last 5 years or so. Every Christmas Eve, the whole clan goes out on the deck and sprinkles just enough of this magical mixture to ensure that the reindeer are motivated enough to land. So Laurel mixed up a very potent batch, put it in a zip-loc baggie, and stashed it in one of our gear cases.

Now we all know about the draconian drug laws in Singapore. Importing even a joint into the country is enough to incur death by hanging. Seriously. They're just kind of fussy about that kind of thing for some reason. So needless to say, when the X-Ray machine exposed a baggie full of suspicious material when my gear case was scanned at customs, I got hauled over to the "special table" for closer inspection. They asked me to open the case, so I complied. The baggie was sitting right on top of the wireless mic packs. An ounce of North Pole Gold. "What's this?", the agent asked, his tone tone still friendly at this point. Not skipping a beat, I replied "Reindeer food", and smiled my best smile. A puzzled look fell over his face. "Yes, for the kids at Christmas", I continued. "You know... to attract the sleigh with the reindeer and presents and stuff". He looked at me like I had been partaking of Rudolph's stash, and picked up the baggie. Fondling it in his hand, his long experience told him that he was probably not going to make sergeant by prosecuting this one, and the conversation switched gears into camera talk. Whew...

So last night, after a good dinner of fresh squid with chili (3 dollars a kilo at the market!) and rice biryani, we went out into the lane in front of our house, and dutifully sprinkled reindeer food. Miles was still concerned that this might not be enough, so he composed a note for Santa, indicating that there was a beer and some pineapple on the table for him, and that the stockings were hung on the window. It must have worked, because this morning we had two boys very excited about the fact that it worked! Santa had found them! They both got a Nintendo DS game system and a couple of games, some cool books on Indian mythology, and many cards with cash inside from aunts and uncles. I may be borrowing money from them before we're done here.

We must be hard wired for the mulled wine, fir tree, woodsmoke, nippy weather thing. No matter how many times Bing Crosby warbles from the iPod, Laurel and I just aren't feeling the Christmas vibe. Fortunately, our kids are...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 10 Indications You Are In India

10) The street you are looking for is the only one not marked with a sign
9) There will always be construction occurring just outside your room. Always.
8) Animal Planet and the Bollywood channel are the only cable channels available
7) Your waiter responds to every request with a pronounced head wiggle. This could mean anything.
6) The term "deluxe" appears to have suffered in translation
5) Your autorickshaw driver will never have change. Ever.
4) No matter what you order, the family who arrived a half hour after you always gets their food first.
3) Just as you are about to send the email you've spent 45 minutes crafting, the power goes out.
2) Ridership on a motorcycle is not limited to 5. Livestock optional.
1) People you don't know will always go out of their way to help you.

Sometimes it's hard to understand how anything gets done here. To the untrained eye, it just seems perpetually chaotic. And yet, after a few weeks of careful observation, patterns begin to emerge. It's as if you are watching a Polaroid picture develop in front of you. At first, there is nothing. Then vague shadows. Dark forms. Finally, a reasonably clear picture emerges, and you are left scratching your by now wiggling head as to why you didn't see it earlier.

Take traffic for instance. For those used to driving on Canadian roadways, India seems like the circulatory system of some huge beast running completely amok. It's like every corpuscle is simultaneously on a collision course with every other corpuscle, all at the same time, yet strangely, there are no collisions. In Canada, four-way stops are occasionally painful displays of hoser etiquette. "After you, eh.... No no, I insist, after you eh...". In India, there is absolutely no such thing. In fact, virtually every signal, sign, or other indication of lane marking is routinely ignored. The center line in the road, when you can find it, functions only as a quant suggestion. A mere reminder of the duality of existence. It is a very common thing for your driver to suddenly veer out across where the line used to be and into the stream of oncoming traffic. Your driver has somehow mastered time and space in such a way that he can accurately judge the width and length of his vehicle to within an inch of the perimeter. Sometimes less. At first, your knuckles are white and the blood routinely drains from your face, which is perpetually locked in a silent scream expression of "Noooooooooooooo....", but soon, you find that you can relax and completely surrender to the experience. You learn to trust in your karma.

At first every driver's move seems motivated by the wish for an early death, but soon you start to detect the little cues that the drivers use to signal that yes, indeed I am crossing five lanes of traffic, and you had better stop. It's mind-boggling to jump into this perpetual motion machine, knowing that somehow you will end up where you are supposed to be going. It's no surprise really that the nation with some of the most treacherous traffic in the world is the birthplace of many a transcendent religion. Getting from A to B brings new meaning to the term "God's will".

Then there is the power. Electrical power that is. What first looked like huge eagles nests on top of large poles were not nest at all, but in fact wiring. I'm no expert, but I'm willing to bet that there is a lot of clandestine access to power on some of those poles. Great clusters of tangled wire sit on top of virtually every pole like a confused Brillo pad, with thin strands of disparate gauge going madly off in all directions at once to their secret destinations. Being an electrical inspector is either the worst job in the country, or the easiest, depending on which side of the bribery fence you're on. In our neighbourhood, as in most, the power goes off a minimum of once a day for anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours. Today, it cut out a total of three times. I'm not sure if this is a cost-saving measure, or just the routine breakage of flimsy infrastructure. If it was all cost-saving, you might figure that there would be a schedule so you could plan to work around it. But no. It's as if John Cage were appointed Electrical Commissioner, and the I Ching was used to create a continuously random schedule of power availability.

And yet strangely, even beautifully, things get done, and the peculiar order of things begins to reveal itself. You just have to train your eye.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Extreme Christmas

I think it would be safe to say that this is a pretty weird Christmas.

At a time when our friends and family at home are experiencing the most extreme winter since 1968, we're here sweating like Robert Downey at a bail hearing. On the one hand, its great to be removed completely from the festival of consumerism that this holiday has evolved into, but every once in a while, you just want to be reminded that it's Christmas. You want to smell a freshly cut tree . Woodsmoke from a cozy fire. Baking cookies. Mulled wine. Any kind of a reminder at all of any good memory from childhood Christmases past.

Instead, we see 60 ft grotesquely undernourished Santa Claus effigies in front of the "posh" stores. Flatbed trucks, the decks of which are populated by cobbled together vintage PA systems blasting tinny carols and men in thin fake white beards and dirty red hats, desperately trying to keep their palm-beer impaired balance as the truck careens through traffic. Gangs of vaguely menacing young men in Santa hats roving down the back lane and rattling our gate at 11:30 PM, singing incomprehensible Malayalam lyrics to the tune of Jingle Bells. A store that specializes in crudely contstructed model wooden mangers and little else. Obviously, Christmas matters to a lot of people here. It's just very different, and different in strange and interesting ways.

There is an open air church about a kilometre from our house, a temple to St. Anthony, whom I believe was the patron saint of quality footwear. It's interesting how in India the Christian iconography morphs into the Hindu tradition, or should I say, the Hindu tradition is inclusive enough to include Christian iconography. We've all seen the many armed statues of blue Shiva. In front of this church, there is a statue of Jesus, but the style of the carving is very Shiva-like. There's even a sacred fire that burns ghee in front. There's a ton of Christian history here in Kerala. The Christian movement here was founded by St. Thomas in 58 AD. That's about as Original Gangsta as Christianity gets, as Thomas was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. There's actually more unbroken history of Christianity here than there is in the west. So does that make the European tradition more like "Christianity Lite"? All the redemption and half the calories....

But I digress. Again. Right now, we're trying to plan a menu for Chritmas dinner that we can execute on a two burner propane stove. Laurel and I picked up a nice cookbook today that had some great traditional Syrian Christian (the prevalent strain in Kerala) dishes. We're leaning towards a black pepper fried fish with curry leaves, and maybe a long braised duck dish, providing we can find a pot large enough to do that in. Duck is a traditional Kerala Christmas thing. Add in some spicy potato, okra masala, dal, rice, and chappati and I think we might be on to something. Turkey is just not done here, and no one has an oven that I've seen yet.

The boys have been amazingly adaptable. They don't bat an eye when the power goes out, as it does at least once a day for about an hour or so. That means that the fans and AC stop working... The picture in this post of Miles at his laptop during a power out. They are totally used to eating without cutlery of any kind, and just using their right hands. Walking for two hours in the midday sun doesn't even seem to faze them much anymore, especially if there is an ice cream bar somewhere in the mix. So far, there's been no complaints about the lack of Christmas tree even. The decorating committee did manage to hang a few stars from the lighting fixtures last night, but that's about as Christmas-like as its getting around here.

We've been invited to our landlord's (Landlord Stanley?) house for a special Christmas lunch. Stanley invited us over yesterday for Sunday breakfast, and his lovely wife GeeGee (sp?) made a fantastic breakfast of appam (a kind of fermented dough pancake) and a coconut milk vegetable curry that was absolutely wonderful. We're going to ask if we can film her making it, because its a great dish, yet very simple. Gotta learn that one!

So here we are, 15,000 miles from home. Sweltering while our friends are snowbound, and trying to bridge the gap between two radically different cultures. An Extreme Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dust, Diesel, And Dolphins

After much stress and manic activity over the last few weeks, the Bailey Family Entertainment Steering Committee unanimously decreed that it was indeed time for a day off. Now, some of you may scoff at the notion that we need to take a day off from what seems to be an extended vacation. Trust me. India is not exactly chill. It is a festival of extremes. A dichotomous pendulum that swings wide and fast. You love it. You hate it. It's filthy. It's beautiful. It's friendly. It's hostile. Pick any adjective you like and then pit it against it's polar opposite. Do that several times a minute until you senses becomes blurred and your brain turns to goo. And that's just the brochure.

We decided to head to the beach. We got up early and had a great breakfast of oatmeal (Nature's broom!) and fresh fruit. There was the requisite waiting around for the grains to do their trusty work, and then we were off. We walked up to the main drag, which is a little less than a kilometer from the house. We easily snagged an auto-rickshaw, and 40 rupees later, we were deposited by the boat jetty very close to the Bijus Tourist Hotel that we stayed at while looking for a house to rent. Cochin has a great system of ferries, and for a total of 10 rupees, all 5 of us climbed on board a little passenger ferry that seats maybe 80 people. Its about a 40 minute ride to the other island. These little boats are pretty old and battered, but they are surprisingly efficient and effective. They belch diesel fumes, the windows are non-exisitent, and a lot of the seats are broken, but you do get there, and on time too.

Once there, it's a short walk to the bus station, where we opted to kick it old-school and take a local bus for the 40 minute ride to Cherai Beach. There's nothing like an Indian bus. You don't spot many foreigners here. Its local all the way, and that's why we like it. For 33 rupees, the 5 of us made it clear across the island to a magnificent stretch of sandy beach that edges up to the azure expanse of the Arabian sea. It's definitely got a "resort town" feel to it, but its still sleepier than most. We did a recon walk down one direction of the main drag, and discovering there were some hunger pangs amongst the group, ducked into one of the local eateries. Actually, the whole strip was populated by ice cream shops. Food almost seemed to be an afterthought. Once again, the spider senses tingled. Hmmmmm.... just a bit too clean. No prices. No menu for that matter. We all ordered a masala dosa, and the boys each had a fruit lassi. When the dosa came, we could scarcely believe it. Mostly because it was so scarce. The teeniest, rubberiest, and most anemic looking dosa ever arrived, to our collective chagrin. We decided to say nothing and take one for the team. Twice the price of a regular dosa, and half as big. Once again, the law of Inverse Expectations...

We hunkered down later at a stretch of beach and actually got to relax. The water was incredibly warm and beautiful. I showed Miles how to body surf, and Isaac eventually got used to the idea that water was not a thing to be frightened of. The boys had a blast. For the ladies, it was not quite so much fun, as local custom dictates that a lady should have a proper bathing outfit on to go in the water, and that means essentially your street clothes. Men can trot out there in a Borat-style thong and not raise an eyebrow, but a woman must pretty much don a burlap bourka before getting damp if one does not want to raise the unwanted attentions of the local males. Bikinis are decidedly not cool, although one or two foreign ones were spotted on the beach. That's where groups of 17 year old boys in satin shirts and embroidered slacks hovered like a halo of flies.

While Laurel was in the water moistening her bourka, about 30 feet away from her a fin arched up in the water, followed by another. "A dolphin!" exclaimed Emma. I knew from my steady diet of English language National Geographic channel over the last 3 weeks that she was absolutely right. Two large dolphins lazily swam past, no doubt interested in the little fish that the boatloads of fishermen were actively trying to capture in their nets just offshore. We were also interested in fish, so we went off in search of lunch. Ambling back to a place I spotted earlier, we came across a lady who selling young coconuts, which the boy had been dying to try. She deftly hacked a small hole in the top to allow the juice to be drunk with a straw, and when that was gone, she cut the shell in half so that the "sporty" young jelly-like meat could be extracted. Appetites whetted, we walked on to the restaurant.

Lunch was nothing short of awesome. We had Black Pepper Fry Crab, Shrimp Roast, Okra Masala, and dal with rice and garlic chapatti. The crab was the real star of the show. Nice whole fresh local crab fried with butter, a load of garlic, caramelized shallots, curry leaves, and lots of fresh black pepper. Black pepper is a vastly underrated spice. We're used to the really old and stale pre-ground pepper we knew as kids, and that bears no resemblance to the stuff here, which is hot, fresh, and vibrant tasting. The whole dish we had is similar to Singapore Black Pepper Crab, but the addition of curry leaves, garlic, shallot, and tomato wedges give this version a uniquely Keralan twist. Everything else was quite excellent too, and we plan to return to try it again. I promise to post up my version of the recipe as soon as I can!

We retraced our steps back on the bus, ferry, and finally through the choking dust and exhaust that is Indian traffic in rush hour. If you don't believe in a god when you get in an auto-rickshaw, there is a high likelihood of religious conversion before the journey is through....

Friday, December 19, 2008

And Lo, There Was Much Rejoicing...

What a roller coaster ride. For three days now, despite assurances from the bank people to the contrary, our bank accounts have still been frozen. For three days, we've also been promised an internet connection in our new house. It's very much like dealing with the cable company, in that one must remain chained to your doorstep until the blessed technician appears to magically connect you with the rest of the world. And stay chained, you must. Hours and days pass with the constant fear that if you even go for a pee, the dude will come and see that nobody is home, and the request/promise/arrival cycle needs to begin all over again. This leaves you holding your schvantzer, which as magical as it may be, is still incapable of broadband connectivity last time I checked.

However, Ganesh must have removed some obstacle, because last night, after at least 5 promises to appear, the internet guy arrives with our new modem after the wiring crew had popped a cable through the wall the previous day. 10 minutes of setup later, he was gone, leaving me with only a badly worded service agreement wherein I am referred to as "Sri Robert William". Our email address is also hopelessly mangled in the agreement, thus ensuring the complete inability to contact us should anything go wrong. This, I have come to find, is normal. Before the obligatory head wiggle and fleeing into the night, he did say that in two hours I would be connected, and all would be well. And it very nearly was.

I was elated to find I was able to access webmail and do basic browsing, but our Vonage phone refused to work, and my laptop was the only one of the three that could get on the net. Our elation turned to dismay in a nanosecond. No amount of futzing with it could get anything else to work, so I went to bed, only to rise again at 5 AM so as to be able to email my banker about our frozen accounts. I was actually able to get a response from her, and eventually got everything straightened away. At least in theory. Then it hit me. The cable modem could only connect to one thing at a time. If a router was the first thing it saw, then all would be well. At least in theory.

Stanley, our new landlord, arrived around 9 AM to inquire about the internet, and "if you are happy". My crafty explanation of the subtleties of TCP/IP networking protocol appeared lost on this gentleman who commands a total of about 35 words of English, so I reduced it to "One more problem. Phone". He pulled out his mobile, and we called tech support (actually in India!), and within seconds, everything was reset on the provider's end, and I had Internet on all the machines, and the Vonage Phone working to boot! Huzzah!

One more call to the bank ensured that all was well with our online accounts and ATM access. It turns out that the first guy we called a few days ago using the Vonage phone in the internet kiosk did..... nothing. Laurel and I walked the kilometer or so to the nearest ATM, and did a veritable dance of joy when a bundle of rupees was regurgitated from the machine! Finally! We bought an Indian power bar, and went home to hook up our new little production office. All I have to do tonight is go and buy a mobile phone, and our setup is complete. India is mobile mad. I swear even the beggars have mobile phones. "Food, papa... foooooood. Whoops!, gotta take this call...".

It doesn't sound like much. Getting a net connection. Getting a phone. However, Laurel and I are amazed at how reliant we are on digital communication. Just being able to go away, and still carry on some modicum of business, is only now possible because of net. When we were last here in 2000, there was dial-up everywhere. Now, its all broadband, and cel phones are ubiquitous. Big change.

So yes, our world phone is on, and we can email without stepping in goat poo. I have to laugh at our perspective though. When I look around at where I am, our little problems with modems and bank cards that have been the source of so much angst for us over the last few days must seem impossibly abstract to just about everyone I see.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vonage Saved My Life

There is nothing like the panic of being far away in a strange land and having your means of economic survival snatched out from under you.

Laurel and I both had our bank cards frozen today. MIne worse that hers. The layout of the alphabet on the numeric keypad is different in Asia. I always spell my PIN number, and never actually bothered to learn the number sequence, which is surprising for a such a dyed-in-the-wool geek as myself. Being a creature of habit, I entered my Groucho secret word to the ATM. The spelling was incorrect of course. On top of being a creature of habit, I'm apparently a stupid idiot, and stubborn to boot. I entered it again twice more. My card was toast. Permanently.

Now my sensible wife actually uses numbers for her PIN, and was able to withdraw three months house rental two nights ago with no incident. This pleased us greatly. Then Big Brother stepped up to the plate. When we went to withdraw some more today, we were thwarted at no less than 8 ATMs. The game was afoot. Apparently the system flagged these as "unusual withdrawal patterns", as we actually live on Bowen Island, and someone in India was using our account to withdraw hundreds of dollars, no doubt to finance some sort of terrorist action. We panicked.

So we jumped into an auto-rickshaw and headed down to the bank that was the site out last successful withdrawal. Again, no luck. We found an Internet cafe, and tried to log onto our bank site, which politely informed us that we were now persona non grata. This meant that if we ran up our credit cards, we could not even pay them off, as we would have to log onto our bank site to transfer funds. Suddenly, our ATM problem was increased by an order of magnitude. So we decide to call Customer Service in an effort to sort this evolving mess out. Now Customer Service for this bank is a 1-800 number. It is impossible to call a 1-800 number from within India, although goodness knows we tried. India is peppered with little stands that advertise "STD". This is not a quick and easy way to contact a sexually transmitted disease, as the name might imply. It's like a little booth where you can dial an overseas call. For a fee of course. Four half hearted attempts later, we failed miserably.

So we jumped back into an auto-rickshaw and headed back top our house, which contained not only Emma and our children, but our secret and as yet untried weapon: the Vonage internet phone. Now the Vonage phone consists of a little modem-like device that connects to an ethernet cable, and then connects to a standard telephone handset. In theory, this allows you to make calls for free within the US, Canada, and curiously, Puerto Rico. We set it up at home, and it worked pretty well, but not until we downloaded firmware upgrades and replaced the dodgy cable that it came with. Laurel and I figured that if we could collect the Vonage modem, power adapter, and handset that we packed with us, stuff the whole mess into a shopping bag, and find an internet cafe with a substantial connection, we could call the 1-800 Customer Service line, because in theory, it was a local Canadian call! We only had 45 minutes before the Customer Service center closed, so the race was on...

There is nothing quite like the feeling of walking down an Indian sidewalk, which actually more closely resembles a hybrid of a moonscape, slaughterhouse, and random archaeological rubble, with a bag of hi-tech stuff, and a do-or-die-must-find-a-net-connection kind of attitude. Did I mention the heat? We find one place that is actually up on the second floor of a dilapidated building. Of course, nearly every building is dilapidated, so that's hardly worth mentioning. There's actually a line-up. Our turn finally arrives, but the dude in charge insists on taking our passport information, address, and home phone number, which gets dully entered into a dusty old ledger. All in the name of security, you know. I feverishly start to yank out the ethernet cable from the back of the PC and start to set up the Vonage modem. The dude in charge sees this, and is not pleased. We exchange indignant head wiggles and I carry on like a man possessed. The modem boots up... and..... Error Code 1202. The connection is not fast enough to support Voice Over IP. Bugger.

With less than 25 minutes left, we quickly pack the stuff back into the shopping bag and flee. I think I said "Not fast enough!" as we blew through the ancient door, not even bothering to proffer a rupee. We walked for two more blocks before we found another place. Less than 20 minutes left now. I think I was very much the rabid foreigner bursting into this little establishment and demanding to be able to rewire their system to meet my fiendish needs. With the translation help of a sympathetic chap who happened to work in a call center, who was actually familiar with what I was trying to do, I began to wire up my rig while Laurel dealt with another passport and personal info session. The modem powered up. It found an IP address. Retrieved my profile. And... "READY TO MAKE CALLS!" I picked up the receiver, and lo and behold, there was a dial tone. I dialed the 1-800 number and..."Your call is important to us. Due to unusually heavy call volume, there will be an astronomical wait before we can connect you with a live human. Stay on the line until you are old and gray". Fortunately, shortly after that, the adapter fell out of the wall socket and the line went dead. Start again.

To make a long story a tad shorter, I redialed, and was actually able to connect with a human this time. The phone sounds great! Really clear, and with only a slightly noticeable lag time. A nice chap named Kevin (who ironically, was probably working out of an Indian call center, after has having his accent modified to sound Canadian by extensive idiomatic language training) sorted out our troubles. well, mostly. My card is still hooped, but Laurel's is not. All the stress and hi-tech jiggery-pokery was no doubt vastly entertaining to the small crowd in the shop. We went to go and pay for our half hour of net time, and the bill was the princely sum of 10 rupees. About 25 cents.

Best quarter I ever spent....

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stanley is our Saviour

We did it! We have finally found a house to live in. After several adventures to neighbourhoods both safe and seedy, viewing "furnished" houses without furniture, fridge or stove, we finally met Stanley. Stanley is a gentleman who made his fortune in "spare parts" in Saudi Arabia and returned home to purchase a few houses in a neighbourhood of Kochi called Kaloor. It's a "posh" neighbourhood Stanley tells us with pride, the occupants of the nearby houses are Engineers and Advocates (Indoglish for Lawyer). The house is about 700 metres off the main road on a quiet and clean lane of coconut palms and bougainvillea. The house itself has marble floors throughout, 3 bedrooms, a large diningroom, smaller living-cum-sitting room, kitchen with refrigerator and 2 burner gas cooker. It even has a laundry room with a washer! Each bedroom has its own bathroom (toilet and shower), overhead fans and built-in cupboards. One of the bedrooms has AC. Everything is brand new - mattresses that have not been slept on, and the decal remains on the TV!

Stanley and his wife Gee Gee live in the house behind ours. Their children are in College and at a boarding school away from Kochi.

Like many of the people we have met here, Stanley and Gee Gee are Christians - Rob and I have had an interesting time fielding questions about what religion we belong to! It is a question that is asked in what would be considered at home a blunt manner (since Westerners are often strangely private about religion). Luckily the Christians here have that all-pervasive Indian assimilation thing (resistance futile!) so that subscribing to some kind of "it's all One" belief makes them happy enough to accept you as one of their own. I had thought this a quirk of Hinduism - taking the best of everything and making it their own: yeah, Mohammed, he was one of ours. Jesus and Buddha too. Turns out it is more an Indian thing than a strictly Hindu thing. Regardless, it works for us.

Soooo, we move tomorrow! Stanley is calling the internet company for us to set up internet in the house. It could take a few days but we are hoping to be wired and settled a bit so we can actually get out the camera and start filming!

I think we've really turned a corner today. The boys are specifically asking for Masala Dosa, Emma is enjoying teaching Isaac to read (he read two whole sentences today! It's a really exciting time for him) and Rob and I are just so grateful. Grateful for the angels who created the brand new Naked store on Bowen, grateful to have our family with us on this wacky adventure and grateful for Stanley and all of India's other saints that seem to come out of the woodwork when you really need them...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Foreign Devils

We are being continually flummoxed in our quest for proper housing.

Our main lead for a nice house evaporated today in a poof of smoke. We had been waiting for three days to have a meeting with the woman who owns the house that was suggested by our friend Mr. Krishnagopal. Laurel and I gamely got on the ferry boat to Fort Cochin this morning, and caught an auto-rickshaw to the Santa Cruz Basilica. We walked to the house from there. When we were ushered inside, Mrs. Gomes greeted us with a couple of glasses of mango juice and we had a nice chat. After getting down to brass tacks, however, she wanted 40,000 Rs. per month for a two bedroom house with no AC! Naturally, this was out of the question, and we politely made our exit.

Some of the info we got from her did explain why we have been getting such an unexpected cold shoulder on the housing front. Apparently, in the these terrorist-rich times, owners who rent to foreigners are obligated to fill out a mountain of extra paperwork and report all the details of their tenants to the local police. This was news to us. I spent a good chunk of yesterday on the phone to realtors trying to arrange showings of properties we found on the net. The first question that they ask is "What company are you here working for?" I'm not sure if my response to the effect that we are an unemployed family of soap-making hippie dharma bums generated much enthusiasm. I discovered the hard way that "I will call you back in a half hour" is actually Indian for "You foreign devils can sleep in the street for all I care".

We still have some options to pursue. The hotel that we are at is, despite being incredibly noisy with the constant construction that pervades this country, staffed by some rather nice and helpful people. There is one especially nice chap who has offered to make some calls on our behalf tomorrow when the latest wave of listings comes out in the local paper. The paper is not in English, so without his help, we would be reduced to almost walking around to apartment buildings and knocking on doors. We still have hope that a 3 bedroom air-conditioned apartment is available for less than we are renting our own house out for. AC is essential, as it is already 37 C., and the hot season has yet to begin.

Laurel and I did go out to see a place yesterday that was being rented for 15,000 Rs per month, which is in our budget. After a harrowing auto-rickshaw ride that saw our driver get lost at least three times, we managed to locate this brand new place. It was owned by a Mr. Aggarwhal, who greeted us somewhat nervously at the gate. He had a real deer in the headlights thing going on, and he seemed unsure of what the foreigners would do next. Would we cover ourselves in whisky and fornicate in his driveway, while listening to Britney Spears on the boom box that all foreigners carry with them? Were we packing heat? Were we going to rob him? Anyway, he showed us this really huge and cavernous suite that would have been perfect if the construction were actually complete and if there was a single stick of furniture in the place. When asked how long it would take to finish the construction, we received the classic "No problem.. Few days..." It had a rooftop deck and everything, but no fridge, no cooker, no furniture, and obviously, no deal.

If we don't find something in the next few days, we may have to regroup and alter our plan of attack.

On the positive side, we have a restaurant across the street that serves up some pretty wicked fish thali. Isaac has developed a taste for Masala Dosa over the last couple of days. My consumption of beer has declined somewhat drastically, as buying alcohol in Kerala appears to be the social equivalent to booking regular visits to the Safe Injection Clinic. Yes, it's possible, but it ain't easy. I did manage to locate a beer to take back to the room last night, but not before walking 4 blocks, negotiating past a bar scene that resembled something out of Star Wars, and ending up at a steel cage worthy of a maximum security prison. The young man behind the steel cage only had one kind of beer, which he took great delight in charging exorbitantly for. I very nearly had to fill out paperwork.

I walked back to the hotel in the dark, creeping along a narrow lane through putrid smoke smelling of plastic and dead things. Past the humping wild dogs, impassive goats, and crumbling buildings. Clutching my beer by the neck like a potential weapon, I felt like.... a foreign devil.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Law Of Inverse Expectations

Bailey's Law - "The less money you spend on an Indian meal, the higher the quality and the greater the portion"

This law, recently postulated, and still subject to proof by the established peer review journals (Saveur, Gourmet, etc), has never been more vividly illustrated than in the last few days. As we have not yet secured proper accommodation, we have been eating out in restaurants. A lot. Being a white guy, as my Serbian friend Aleks says, is "a two bladed edge". On the one hand, we are in an economic position that is the envy of 95% of the population of the world. That gives a bit of comfort, although frankly, it can be more than a little embarrassing at times. On the other hand, it also means that when asking for restaurant advice from a local, they usually assume that you want all white bread and McNuggets, smothered in the provocative Velveeta sauce that is normally associated with the culture that you come from. A local wants to make you feel comfortable, and that usually means helping you find your own version of "soul food".

As a result, we have been steered in some less than ideal directions for dining, the pinnacle of which came a couple of nights ago. When I asked the lovely chap at the desk where I could find some "real, authentic Keralan seafood", he whipped out his map and directed me to the restaurant of another hotel. Excitedly, we headed off into the night. Our little entourage is getting quite adept at avoiding death by motorized vehicle. We snaked our way through the labyrinthine alleyways and emerged on a bustling main street, the crossing of which is not for the faint of heart. Arriving at the hotel, we were directed upstairs to the restaurant by the desk man with the by now de riguer head wiggle. Upon entry, the spider sense was definitely tingling. Hmmmmm...... potted plants. Napkins... And horror of horrors. Is that CUTLERY?!?! Despite my gut reaction to flee, we were soon seated, and I was somewhat relieved to find that they actually served beer, which is a real rarity here. Opening the menu, we cruised past the fish and chips, chicken, and pasta sections, eventually arriving at a tattered "Keralan specialties" page.

So we ordered. Spicy crab fry. Keralan prawns. Eggplant Bharta. Bhindi(okra) Masala. Rice, and 4 naan bread. "Hmmmmm... maybe this won't be so bad", I thought as I tucked into my second beer. This brief moment of optimism was shattered however when the food arrived. Gluey and bland, the Eggplant was devoid of both inspiration and flavour. The version I make at home completely kicked its ass. The okra fared a little better, but the Masala sauce would have seen a better application affixing the wallpaper to the wall. The crab was most likely from a can, and tasted like.... soap. And the prawns were, to put it mildly, off. Really off. To the point where I advised everyone not to eat them. Unfortunately, the portion was so small, that everyone had eaten one by that point, and only two remained. The naan were quite good, actually. My mood went really sour I'm ashamed to say. I sulked. I called the waiter over and pointed to the prawns. "I'm afraid that the prawns are not fresh, and I'm sending them back. Please take them off the bill". Taking a page out of the Fawlty Towers playbook, he dutifully took the dish containing a mountain of glutinous sauce and two incredibly dangerous prawns back to the kitchen. Several minutes later, he returned with the same dish and placed it back on the table. He even stirred it once or twice. "But sir", he said. "You have already eaten most of them". Once again the inscrutable head wiggle. He then walked off.

At the end of the meal, the waiter delivers the bill, and as I expected, the prawns were on there. It was now time to become that most loathsome of creatures, the irate Western Tourist. I called over the head waiter, and as politely and firmly as I could, I said "There is a problem with the bill. The prawns were bad, and I refuse to pay for something that is going to poison my family". He looked a little stunned, but gamely walked off. A lengthy discussion ensued in the kitchen, and nearly ten minutes later, he reappeared and informed me that it had been taken off. I can only hope that the tipping point of the conversation was having the cook rescue a prawn from the gloopy canister of sauce and sample it himself. It was only 170 rupees (about 4 bucks), but damn. First napkins, uniformed waiters, and then cutlery, but should a man have to smile and eat poison shellfish? The bill was still 1000 rupees. I harrumphed off into the night, cursing my lack of judgement and wondering if I was destined to be worshipping at the porcelain altar for the bulk of the night.

And now the flip side of Bailey's law.

We took the ferry to Fort Cochin, which is about a 20 minute ride from the boat jetty that is a couple of minutes walk from the hotel. It's a pretty little place with a sleepier feel to it. Its the home of one of the original Jewish settlement in India. There's a big spice market and a flourishing fishing center. We walked all the way Dutch Palace and then to the synagogue. On the way back, we were hungry, so we ducked into a little hole in the wall restaurant. Now this is the kind of place that would make most people I know turn and run, for fear of intestinal invasion. It was a real South Indian working man's lunch spot, and the decor was, well.... not. Dirty floor, peeling paint, old pictures of saints on the wall. We ordered three veg. thalis, or rice meals, to share between the 5 of us. Now the thali comes on a stainless steel tray, and consists of a mound of rice, a couple of vegetable curries, a chili pickle, sambar (lentil gravy), rassam (or pepper water), and yoghurt. The beauty of it is that it is bottomless. When your curries are gone, a dhoti-clad gentleman of indeterminate age comes around and plops more on your plate. This game goes on until you are full. It was actually the best thali I've had so far. Real honest food with soul. We were stuffed and happy. So three thalis, a 2 liter bottle of water, and two masala teas totaled 130 Rupees. Ten times better than the previous meal, and almost 1/10 the price!

We have found evidence of this law in other places in Mexico and Hawaii. The best food was in the street stall serving grilled pork. Sure, the aroma of the sewer blew through when the wind was just right, but the food was the real deal. Our experience has been that you stand a far greater chance of food poisoning in the big hotels that cater to Westerners than you do if you eat where the locals eat.

It's all about inverting your expectations.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Breakfast Of Champions

We've been in Cochin now for a couple of days. Mostly resting and trying to get adjusted to the time zone. The boys are finding it a little bit challenging, as India does present a full frontal assault on all of one's senses. It's the polar opposite of sitting on the beach in Cabo San Lucas and ordering a series of cervezas from the pool boy. Doing the simplest thing can be very daunting, as every cultural cue that you are used to using for social or geographical navigation does not exist. It's a little like showing up for your corporate office gig topped up with a near lethal dose of hallucinogens and expecting to put in a good days work. Everyone looks at you differently and you're not sure why, and the landscape that used to be so familiar is now completely alien. New sounds. New smells. Your eye gets caught up in minute details of architectural decay. And the colours... the colours... Okay, the 60s were good to me, I admit.

Soon, one begins to adapt, and gradually it becomes more normal to traipse through rough and broken streets at dusk, looking on the unmarked streets for a distant restaurant that has been recommended, surrounded by small swooping bats, and dodging cockroaches the size of chihuahuas on what used to be the sidewalk perhaps 100 years ago. Our little entourage, now looking like the poster family for "Polygamy Today" magazine, picks their way though the constantly changing obstacle course. We move past wafting smoke from fires of unknown origin, and clouds of incense intertwined with the aroma of sewage, dodging regular assaults from the legions of tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) that buzz past like big noisy honking insects.

It's insane. And it's fabulous.

That said, the India we are seeing today looks a little different from the one I saw in 2000. Yes, there are still beggars and rampant poverty, but there is an emerging Indian middle class. Everyone has a cel phone, and we even see some women in jeans. That's a lot of cultural change in such a short amount of time. Also, while there is still some livestock in the streets, there does not seem to be as much before. Once again, I'm not sure how much of that is location dependent, as this is my first time in the South Traveling as a family is also quite different than the backpacking trip Laurel and I did in 2000. We can't just wake up and do as we please. Kids need to be fed and entertained, and that takes planning. We're really lucky to have Emma with us, as she is wonderful with the boys, and they are very fond of her. We must make quite an odd sight when the five of us meander down a street! The funny thing that we're discovering is that Isaac is regarded as a rock star here. When we cruise down a street, other parents smile at us and try and pat his head. Other kids point and stare in amazement at this little blond haired blue eyed stranger. People in the South are much darker than in the North, so he really stands out in stark relief to the landscape! Fortunately, he has not realized the full extent of his newfound stardom, and has not demanded an increase to his already hefty appearance fee.

Today, Laurel is doing some business remotely for her new Naked Soapworks store that opens next week on Bowen Island. Thank Vishnu for the internet! My task is to find a voltage converter to replace the made-in-China one that blew up instantly the first time I plugged it in when we were in Singapore. Curiously, the fuse was the only thing that survived the incident. I really thought that the Chinese had a better handle on quality control. Tomorrow, we begin the search in earnest to see if we can locate a house to live in. This is the last link in the chain for us before we can get down to work planning our filming. That should be an adventure!

For the last couple of mornings, we've been going to the Indian Coffee House for breakfast. It's just down the block from the hotel. It's part of a chain operated by a workers co-op. This is a Communist state, after all! They do awesome fresh grape and pineapple juices for 10 rupees. Wonderful parathas, puris, and chappatis. Great masala dosa. There are two things that are new to me. One is the "Egg Roast", which is a hard boiled egg sitting in a very spicy sauce with caramelized onions and tomato. It's spiced with clove, cinnamon, cardamom, chile, and a hint of fennel. Its quite excellent, and highly addictive. The other is "Bombay Toast", which is kind of like french toast. That one has proven very popular with the boys, despite the complete absence of maple syrup. The masala dosa comes with a nice coconut chutney, and great sambar (a kind of spicy lentil gravy). The filling has tomato, onions, spices, and potatoes that actually taste like potatoes! Breakfast for the five of us with a dish, breads, coffee, and fresh juice comes in at around 175 rupees. About four dollars Canadian! Laurel already makes a pretty good dosa batter, and I do a decent masala potato filling. I really want to perfect my sambar recipe before we return. Right now, that seems pretty far away...

Friday, December 5, 2008

24 Hours In A "War Zone"

Up at 4 AM yesterday to get to the airport to catch out flight to Mumbai.  We were led to believe from reports in the news that the whole city was locked down, with machine gun turrets placed on strategic corners manned by vigilant mustache-heavy elite troops.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We waltzed through immigration with nary a hiccup, and when we approached the secondary bag screening station, we actually got pulled from the line and told to just walk on through.  I guess it was because we were white people, and weren't even on the terrorist radar.  It was a  little disconcerting.  Fortunately, our guy was waiting for us with a crude "Laurel Bailey" sign, and after having our carts hijacked by a couple of airport porters/extortionists, we piled into a deluxe AC taxi.   At least that was how it was billed. 

The boys fell asleep immediately, and on the way in, all the memories of the India I knew came back in spades.  The dense traffic, where use of the horn is the rule as opposed to the exception.  The painted lines that provide the merest hint of lane organization.  The diverse mix of Mercedes and ox carts.   The casual public pissing.   And the smell...

We arrived at the hotel after an hour, and basically hunkered down.   The streets were busy, and from what I could tell, it was business as usual for the people of Mumbai.  We took a brief and somewhat hallucinogenic walk around the neighborhood, but we were in such a sleep-deprived blood sugar crisis zone, we basically went back to the hotel and had something to eat in the hotel restaurant, thereby violating every rule of international travel.  

Around 5 PM, Emma showed up at our door to our great delight.  We just basically crashed after that, and tried our best to get enough sleep to take us through this day's flight to Cochin.  Enough time zone changes already!  We just want to hunker down and chill after this.  We're all really tired of being constantly on the move.  Hopefully next week, we'll be able to find a proper place to live.

And set up a kitchen so we can cook again!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

We Came Here To Eat

After another amazing vegetarian breakfast of faux char siu bao, char kway teow, fried rice and taro cake, we were off to do a little shopping, Singapore style. Rob had his heart set on picking up a terabyte hard drive to back up all our photos so we headed a few blocks away to a 7-storey building devoted to electronics and all things computer-geekery. Imagine entering a mall that sold only shoes - store after store of shoes. Almost all the same kind of shoes. How do you pick out the one that contains the shoes you seek at the price you want? Each floor of this mega-electronic-mall easily had over a dozen stores. We got to the 5th floor before we found one that had the right kind of hard drive. On the one hand, this is a great way to shop - you go to the neighbourhood that sells the one thing you are looking for, instead of driving all over town. On the other hand, you get a lot of hard-sell as you walk buy since everyone is offering the same items at almost the same prices. Crazy-hard way to make a buck.

After yesterday's successful nosh at the Albert Food Centre, we decided that a return trip was in order. We started with a little BBQ pork on rice, followed by the Singapore speciality, Oyster Omelette. The omelette was a treat, nestled in the many folds of the omelette were plump little oysters - simple but satisfying. We followed the omelette with popiah and carrot cake (hold the cream cheese frosting! Singapore carrot cake is an entirely different beast), also Singapore specialties. "Carrot" cake is made with daikon, which looks like a white carrot, and also is an egg-based dish. Daikon, eggs, chillies and a sweet soy sauce are scrambled together for a truly tasty treat. Popiah is a thin crepe-like pancake on which is sprinkled peanuts, cucumber, bean sprouts, grated carrot and stir-fried turnip or jicama and a little drizzle of sweet soy or hoisin. The whole thing is then rolled up and sliced into pieces. It reminded me a little of a Vietnamese Salad Roll. We washed it all down with some amazing fresh fruit juices. These fruit stalls are dotted all over SIngapore and are a great way to deal with the high heat and humidity. For about Singapore $1(Canadian $.85?), you get about 350 ml of beautiful fresh juice - basically, fruit blended up, occasionally sugar (for lemon or kalamansi) or water needs to be added. You can choose from watermelon, papaya, dragon fruit, carrot (the orange one this time), beet root, pineapple, sugar cane, kalamansi (my personal favourite!), sour sop and more. You can also buy chunks of the fruit, peeled, cut and ready to eat. Rob and I couldn't help but comment on how different fast food is in this part of the world. Fast food back home is nasty, unhealthy and cheap. Fast food Singapore-style is (mostly) healthy and still manages to be really affordable. A good sized plate of "carrot" cake is S$2!

While we were polishing off some of the goodies we had bought, the heavens opened and an tropical-style deluge commenced. What a downpour! I had forgotten what the rainy season is like here. All us Pacific North Coasters think we know rain, we know a really gentle version! A tropical downpour can drench you through in 10 seconds flat. Inside the relative comfort of the Albert Centre with its metal roof, we waited out the bulk of the thunder and rain for about 25 minutes. Miles commented that it was so loud he could only hear himself speak - personally, I think this is a common issue for Miles, regardless of torrential rains...;-) ! We passed the time listening to both the storm and getting to know our fruit stall vendor. A nice fellow who works, on average, 14 hours/day, 7 days a week. He was smitten with Isaac - handing the boys free fruit jellies (like jello, made with agar agar) and bits of nori. The storrn gave him a bit of a break from the usually hectic pace of his day. And he was intrigued by Canada, but felt we should move to Singapore.

We had planned to take the boys to the Botanical Garden this afternoon but the deluge put a damper on those plans. We leave very early tomorrow morning for Mumbai (one night only there, where we meet up with the lovely Emma Condé, our soon-to-be-Nanny) and the beginning of the Indian leg of this venture. I was feeling bad about not showing the boys more of SIngapore but as Rob reminded me - we said from the beginning that we came here to eat.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Memory Is A Funny Thing.

Walking around in Little India, the smells evoked a surprisingly emotional response, as little details of the previous trip there bubbled up from the dim recesses of what few brain cells are left functioning. Incense wafting out of shops and restaurants, mixing with garlic and masala. I had forgotten about the continuous construction and destruction that is always going on, no matter where you are. It's as if Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva all joined forces, donned hard hats, and went at it 24/7. Something is always being torn down, drilled, tiled, or riveted. Invariably, the compressor that drives this cosmic hardware is parked just outside your hotel room window. Then there are the open sewers on either side of the street, posing a constant threat to your balance. At least the ones in Singapore are fairly dry...

We took a cab to the Seafood Center for what we hoped would be a fabulous revisiting of the crab dinners we had enjoyed nearly a decade before. We got there a little early, so we spent some time on the beach. The boys made sand castles and dodged the medical waste that peppered the high water mark until we went to eat. Instantly, my senses told me that something was not quite right. Every restaurant had a well groomed menu-waving tout in front of it, and walking across the strip between the restaurant fronts and the beach was like running the gauntlet, as we were politely harassed by someone from each establishment. Sort of like cruising the midway at a state fair. We settled on one place, "Jumbo", and were seated outside. It was here that I discovered the disconnect between the Singaporean chair design and my decidedly Caucasian ass. Juuuuuuuust a little to narrow for a comfy sit down dinner.

An American gentleman in his late 20's, perhaps on his first or second business trip was dining with an Asian colleague, and the conversation we overheard was hysterical. the American guy says "I don't like fish. People tell me that salmon doesn't taste like fish, but it does. I don't like fish". His Asian colleague, looking quite crestfallen, but trying very hard to be polite, said "But you eat prawns, right?" "Yeah, I'll eat prawns. But not the ones with the heads on. I can't eat anything that looks back at me". At that point he went off about beady little eyes, and we kind of tuned out. I felt bad for the Asian guy who was obviously trying to impress and out of town client that obviously would have been much more at home at Arby's.

So we ordered deep fried baby squid as an appetizer, and some Gai Lan in garlic sauce to go with the Sri Lankan Chili Crab. Within minutes, the squid came. It was way overcooked, to the point of near incineration, and the oil that was intended to make it crispy was perhaps sourced from a Korean War surplus Jeep. Not a promising start. The waitress came by and asked "How is it?" Not being shy, I said "Disappointing. We ate it because we were hungry, but it was way overcooked, and your oil hasn't been changed in a while". She must have taken this as some sort of obscure joke, because she just tossed her head back and laughed before disappearing. The Gai Lan was quite fabulous. Then came the crab. Somewhat smaller than I remembered. And the award winning sauce was, well... pedestrian. It was a tasty crab all right, but Laurel and I looked at each other and each kind of faked a smile, knowing exactly what each other were thinking. We were about halfway through, when another waitress came up and was perhaps trying to be helpful by informing us "Ooohh, watch out. There is some hot chili in there!". I think I mumbled something like "That's what we ordered", and tried to ignore her. Perhaps she was trying to build a bridge across what she perceived to be a massive cultural divide, but it felt rather condescending from this end.

So we tallied up the bill, skipped dessert, and basically fled the premises, hoping that squid did not make a surprise reappearance at midnight. We talked about it later, and were kind of puzzled by the whole thing. Was the meal we had nearly a decade ago that much better? Or have our palates changed over the years? One thing is for sure. We both agreed that our homemade version that uses Dungeness crab was far superior. I'll post that recipe up when I return home, I promise. The Sri Lankan crabs themselves are a treat, though. You just don't see them in North America. Interestingly, this meal cost exactly ten times what the food court Laksa meal cost, and the Laksa was twice as good, and the service was friendlier and genuine. I know where we're going tomorrow!

Memory is a funny thing. And you can't go back.

Three Bowls Full

Sometimes I just don't understand white people.

Our hotel stay comes with a free breakfast. You are give a choice: either a Continental Breakfast, which consisted of instant coffee, canned orange juice, and two slices of white bread of dubious origin, along with those lovely rectangular packets of preserves that archaeologists will be digging up for centuries to come, or...... Chinese Vegetarian Buffet, which this morning was fried rice noodle with gai lan and shiitake mushrooms, cubes of taro cake, vegetable spring rolls, faux BBQ pork buns, and fried rice! All you can eat! With only a couple of exceptions, every person of caucasian persuasion opted for the Continental.

After we had eaten our fill, and were just sitting in our chairs digesting like a family of anacondas that had just consumed a small herd of deer, an older English woman sat down at the adjacent table with her Continental plate. I could not help myself. "You should check out the Vegetarian Buffet, it's pretty awesome!". In her best Sybil Fawlty voice, she replied "Oooohhh... Ah did try it once, but it was soooooo spicy!". It should be noted, that there was not a single chili appearing anywhere in the breakfast buffet, although there was a nice sambal and a pot of pickled chili peppers on every table. At this point, I'm starting to think that my whole family has some some weird genetic mutation. Are the English allergic to flavour? I just don't get it. Then an Indian gentleman, obviously visiting on business, appeared. To my absolute horror and amazement, he too ordered the Continental! The pervasive influence of a century of British rule perhaps...

After breakfast, we went back up to the room in an effort to train the boys in the intestinal ways of the sub-continent. This involves eating a healthy breakfast and retreating to one's room until there is a confirmed movement of one's bowels. At least one. We learned the hard way on our last visit that one does not want to get caught out when an extreme urge to find a toilet hits. At home, one can go "Hmmmm... note to self. Find toilet in the next hour or so". In India, your bowels, which were once a staunch ally in the processing of yummy things, have the potential to turn on you and betray you faster than Stephen Harper can don a sweater. A savage 30 foot snake of coiled intestine hisses "Find a toilet...NOWWWW!!!!!!!!!". Nevermind....

Since yesterday, Miles has been wanting a Laksa, so after cruising around LIttle India for an hour or so, we went to the Albert Street Food Center, which is one of those massive buildings filled with hawker stands. The stands all specialize in one or two dishes, and some of them are second and third generation. There could be a few lifetimes of experience in that bowl of soup you order. We ordered three bowls of laksa, and I got clams as an extra in mine. This cost us the princely sum of 6 Singapore dollars, or about 5 Canadian or 4 US. It was simply fabulous. And fabulously simple.

We're thinking of splurging tonight and going by cab to the Seafood Centre, which is right on the beach on the way to the airport. This is a huge complex of open air seafood restaurants, and our goal is the elusive Singapore Chili Crab. Or shall we have Black Pepper Crab? Hmmmmm... perhaps both. These are two amazing Singaporean dishes that feature huge Sri Lankan crabs the size of Volkswagens. The females are the tastiest, as they are packed with roe. It's messy and sloppy, and damn shiok man!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

We Lose A Day. Miles Loses His Lunch.

So here we are in Singapore. It's 4:30 AM. We're all up.

We arrived yesterday after a gruelling 20 hour+ trip that saw us fly to Hong Kong, wait an hour and then go on to Singapore. Along the way, we discovered something previously unkown about Miles.

He gets airsick. A lot.

The poor guy just could not keep anything down, and he had his face in a series of barf bags for the entire trip. We all felt really bad for him, as there was nothing we could do for him. Pretty much just dry heaves by the end of the trip, but hey, its good training for university. Laurel and I managed to get a couple of cat naps lasting 15 minutes or so each, but that nice refreshing REM thing remained elusive. All told we were up for about 36 hours. Isaac was fine. Slept well. Played video games. Tucked into several trays of food. I, on the other hand, arrived moderately delirious, and when I went to go freshen up a bit in the washroom, my eyes were so bloodshot, I looked like I had been on the tail end of a 48 hour crack binge.

We got into the hotel, which is basic, but nice. A little shower... A little brushing of the teeth... Good enough for a walkabout. We walked out into 89 degrees and 85% humidity. We grabbed abowl of noodles and a soup, exchanged some cash, and wandered about for a bit. Around 3 PM, we decided to "have a little lie down". I vaguely remember being prodded around 6 PM, but the long and the short of it is this: its the middle of the night, we slept for 12 hours, and now we're all up.

I opened my laptop and did a wireless network search, and after trying a few, I found one unsecured network, but I could only get a connection by standing on the bed and extending my arms fully. But we have a connection! Woo hoo! We got emails from our tenant on Bowen, who has just moved in, appears to be enjoying herself immensely. Another email from Krishnagopal, our friend in Cochin, saying that he thinks he has found a house for us. Furnished. Overlooking the sea in Fort Cochin. It belongs to a friend of his, and more details are forthcoming. Another email from Emma, who says that she got a room in the hotel that we are staying in in Mumbai, and she is on track to meet us there on December 5th. Could it be that all our plans are actually coming together?

So we made quite a sight. Laurel and I checking our with our matching laptops, completely naked, perched on the headboard ledge above our beds. Everytime we want to send or recieve anything, we have to raise our arms fully above our heads, as if praying to the gods of the internet. The fact there is a very large mirror across from us did not help...

So we'll wander about today to try to get used to the heat. Eat some good food. We found an awesome food court in our walk yesterday that we plan to revisit today. I promise to take my camera and get some good photos to post up.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rob And Laurel's Bogus Adventure

Murphy was an optimist.

After a really nice reunion with my old friend Ken Felton and his wife Lynn (and two boys Casey and Quinn) last night, we were faced this morning with the crushing realization that checkout time was 11 AM, and we had no place to put the Dirty Dozen, or to the uninitiated, the 12 bags we're carting about with us. Laurel and I were faced with having to go right to the aiport and hang out until the checkin opened for Singapore Air.... at 8:30 PM. Then I had the brilliant idea of seeing if the proprietors of this little crack den would lock up our stuff for the day for fifty bucks.

Putting on my most charming smile, I pitched this idea to the person at the desk. A negative nod of the head was about the only response I was getting. "Can you cash a travellers check so I can pay the cab driver?", I asked. Another nod to the negative. "Sorry, no cash. Come back tonight when owner here..." So there we are, out on the pavement with all our stuff, waiting for the cab to come at 11:30. No cash and the prospect of 15 hours or so in the airport.

Then a flash of inspiration. I went across to the street to the neighbouring hotel, which happened to be run by Indian people. I explained my predicament, and they not only cashed a travellers check, but they let me store all 12 bags in a secure locker for 20 bucks. To boot, the proprietor said "If you are going to India, you must look up my cousin, who runs a heritage hotel. Wonderful food. If you mention my name they will look after you like royalty". She starts writing all the info out on a business card. I had to resist the urge to kiss a stranger. Suddenly, everything was looked after, our stuff was safe, and we were free to go wander about the town again, which we happily did.

So here we are in the departure gate for the flight to Singapore. We board in an hour and a half. American airports have the most absurd theatre going on for security. At the check-in for Singapore, the dude says that the carry bags cannot exceed 7kg, and we're only allowed one each. Of course every bag we had was overweight by a kilo or two. He actually made us take out the field mixer, some of the medicines, and some books, and then produced what looked like a blue shopping bag. We filled that with almost 7 kg of loose stuff! So now we have 5 carry on bags instead of the requisite 4. We got through security, after taking out three laptops and vials of medication, removing stinky shoes and divesting ourselves of loose change. My Pelican case of wireless mics, which must look like a Taliban detonator training kit, went through unquestioned, as did the two bottles of scotch in my camera case. Once we cleared the scanners, we took all the stuff out of the shopping bag and put it all back in the original containers!

If someone can explain to me why this happens, I would really like to know. It makes about as much sense as having us all hop on one foot, and rub our tummys and pat our heads while singing "Rule Brittania" at the top of our lungs. To be ritually humiliated by sparsely trained minimum wage workers in the name of national security is incomprehensible to me. And the PA just informed me again for the 20th time this hour that we are on "Homeland Security Orange Alert".

Anyway, we're nearly on the plane, we have all our stuff, and its nearly time to tuck into the scotch. It's going to be a long 20 hour flight...