IST

31
Jan
2015

And just like that, you are in another country, on another continent (the airport is on the European side after all).

It has never been a huge hassle for me to get a visa for Turkey, but now it is even easier. You used to have to get it on arrival at the airport, necessitating a wait in a separate line from passport control before entering the country. Now you can just get it online and go straight to passport control.

After I go through passport control and baggage claim, I was greeted outside by my good friend Emre, who was a total sweetheart coming to pick me up. We headed into town and met up with his partner Karpat, then went for dinner and a walk around Istanbul, as I tried mostly in vain to fight off my jetlag. But even through the mental fog caused by that, it was striking (after the last few weeks) how much more even this place resembles the culture I grew up in than India does. I was really noticing how neatly laid out the buildings and sidewalks and roads were, how quiet it seemed in the absence of excessive honking, and how fresh the air felt.

It was so nice to see Emre and Karpat again, but by 9pm I was falling asleep standing up, so hit the hay early. This morning I feel much refreshed, and ready to attack (in a totally non-violent way, of course).

IST

BOM

29
Jan
2015

So my flight to Istanbul was set to take off at the ungodly hour of 6:40am. That meant I would need to be to the airport by 4:40am, which meant I would have to leave Malabar Hill at around 4 or so. Nik helpfully used an app on his phone to reserve a cab for that hour, and we returned to chatting and drinking and celebrating Rittu’s pre-birthday. Around 11pm, I got notice that my flight would be delayed until 8:30, so Nik called and changed my cab to 6am. When I woke up this morning, I got packed, got ready, and was down in front of the house just after 6am, but no cab. I didn’t want to wake Nik so I just walked up the hill a bit to one of the busier streets and within a few minutes I had a cab.

It is a pretty amazing experience to be whizzing through the streets of Mumbai so early in the morning. Whereas the traffic is usually pretty crazy, tight, and slow-moving, at this hour one travels at dizzying speed. We reached the airport in something like 25 minutes. It was still dark out and I have to say the new airport looks pretty stunning at night, all lit up as it is. When I first arrived at this airport a few weeks ago, I noted what a new and clean terminal it was, but I was not overly impressed with the design. Going through the departures and ticketing area is an entirely different experience, the place is really beautiful.

As I approached the check-in counter for my flight, I found out that my flight was delayed yet another hour, so I was really early. Oh well I thought, I can hangout in the business class lounge. I went through the special security screening and passport control area they reserve for business class passengers, which was about the easiest of these things I have ever gone through in my life. There were exactly zero other passengers in this line, and the whole process took about 2 minutes. I then headed over to the rather nicely appointed business lounge area where I am currently holed up writing this very post.

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Last days in Mumbai

29
Jan
2015

I’ve been having a pretty great time in Mumbai the last few days, hanging out with Nik and Rittu, doing a little work, getting caught up with Alok, Vikram, Shumona and Xerxes, and meeting a lot of lovely new people. Most of this has revolved, naturally, around eating and drinking. I have pretty well managed to stuff myself with just about every Indian food type there is while here, and I have been loving it. Perhaps because I spent so many months here all those years ago, but this trip has felt in many ways like a homecoming. Everyone has been so welcoming, and it has been surprisingly smooth sailing getting back into the Indian swing of things.

I actually picked up a little technology work here, so if all goes well with the project, I expect that I will not be waiting another 8 years for my next visit, but will rather be back within the year. Tomorrow morning I will take off for Istanbul for a week, then Portugal, and finally back home.

Dhobi Ghat

23
Jan
2015

A couple of weeks ago, Rittu, Ken and I went to visit Mumbai’s famed Dhobi Ghat. This is one of the major centers where laundry is done in Mumbai, and the largest operation of its kind in the world. It is partially run as a kind of collective, and we met a nice fellow at the entrance who charged us a fee (saying it would go to benefit the collective, who knows) and then guided us around for an in-depth tour. He showed us the concrete tubs where hand washing is done (and told us a little bit about how the machines are replacing/displacing the hand washers because they are faster), then took us through a number alleyways hung with colorful and matched washing. He told us about the kinds of work they do for hospitals and first washing of clothes for export when they come out of factories. The place is an amazing labyrinth, pretty fascinating, and well worth a trip when you are in Mumbai.

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Could you call that taking a sun check?

23
Jan
2015

There is a new word I learned the other day that is English and used here in India, but which I have never heard used outside this country. That word is “prepone”, and it is the opposite of “postpone” which we use all the time. As you might imagine, to prepone something is to move it to an earlier time. I found this out when my flight was briefly preponed (before being postponed). I love this word and am going to introduce it into American English with a vengeance.

Goodbye friends (and Delhi)

22
Jan
2015

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Delhi. Is is a crazy large, chaotic city with some attendant wonderfulness that one finds in most such agglomerations. There is some great night life, amazing food, incredible history and fascinating sites to see. But there is also horrible traffic and the worst pollution in the world. The pollution somehow seems even worse than 8 years ago when I was here last, and I can see why the numbers for respiratory and other health problems are through the roof here. At many times, one can not see the sun on an otherwise sunny day.

But then there are the absolutely remarkable people I know here, who make every visit a total delight. Meeta, Digraj, and Aashni have really made this trip special. They are kind and generous hosts that I love spending time with, and they have been sharing the best of their city (especially the food) with an amazing warmth and playfulness.  They make Delhi a fantastic place to visit, and make me want to come back again and again. I always have fun with them, and I will miss them.

Did the CIA send you to kill me?

22
Jan
2015

My hair was looking a bit ragged, so I thought I would go for a haircut. Meeta told me she knew a good place and would book for me, and asked me if I wanted a head massage. I wasn’t entirely sure what this involved with respect to my haircut, so I was a bit sheepish, but she went ahead and booked it. In the US, they will kinda sorta give you a little massage while washing your hair, and old style barbers will do a couple of minutes on the back of the neck, but this is nothing I have ever ordered separately, so I wasn’t sure if we had actually ordered a service or were just asking whoever to be sure to spend a little extra time touching me while doing their normal wash and cut.

I arrived at the salon and they seated me and told me that the massage guy was busy, could he do it after the cut, and I said sure. I showed the stylist a pic of myself with a previous haircut I liked and told him that was what I wanted. He then asked about my beard and I said sure, trim it a bit to match, but no shave. The guy was pretty thorough I will give him that, trimming my hair and then beard and nose hairs and eyebrows and then taking the straight razor to trace a nice beard line in my neck and cheeks. I was pretty impressed already as the massage guy came over to do his bit. He covered me in towels, then asked me if I wanted coconut or pineapple or about 4 other things I can’t remember. I wasn’t sure what exactly he would be doing, but I have positive associations with all things coconut, so I chose that.

Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. It started innocently enough, with a general top of the head rub down that became progressively more vigorous. Then, he really started to put some elbow grease into it, and it felt like he was trying tocompletely knead out any line or furrow or vein that might be interfering with some platonic ideal of smoothness. He reached for the coconut oil or lotion and started to work it in to each and every pore on my head. At one point, both his thumbs were pressing very deeply into my eyes and I had a slight, panicky realization that he could be an assassin sent to kill or at least blind me. Then he moved away and back to the top of my head thankfully, which was quite pleasant if by this point a bit hallucination inducing. Following that, he moved to my neck, front and back, and then attacked each shoulder, arm and hand with an intensity I have not witnessed outside of certain experiences combining drugs with sex, or perhaps in a movie that depicts a deranged vet on a killing spree of some kind. After that, it was back to my head and face, where he spent another few minutes rubbing, and polishing. At this point, some 20 minutes had passed and I was wondering if the service was one in which I was supposed to say “stop” (or just as likely, “uncle”) when I had had enough.

Just then, he stopped, and abruptly walked away. I was left there quivering and wondering if I should now get up and get my jacket and leave. I sat there for a few minutes pondering the correct course of action in this culture, when suddenly he returned with a steaming hot towel that he very tightly wrapped around the top of my head as he leaned me back in the chair. Then he got some sort of moisturizing lotion and started working it into my face and eye sockets and nose, squeezing and pushing and preventing me from catching my breath. After a few minutes of this, he put hot towels on my face as well, and left me immobile with those on my face, with nothing but a tiny breathe hole for several long minutes. At this point I was pretty sure I must be on some sort of Indian version of Candid Camera, and any minute someone would come out to ask me how it felt and why didn’t I tell him to stop or figure out that this was all an elaborate joke.

Finally, he finished, and then washed my hair and dried it, and I paid and tipped and left. The entire encounter ended up costing about $16. And when I saw Ashni I asked her if it was normal to have this treatment for a simple head massage and she verified that it was as expected.

Wow. I definitely have to try this again sometime.

Goodbye Ken

20
Jan
2015

Yesterday I bid a fond farewell to Ken, who alas has to return to NYC and his work schedule. I think it is safe to say that Ken was genuinely surprised (and at times quite unsettled) by the chaos of India, but after this trial by fire it is also true that he will not be so shocked again. The next time (if there is a next time) will be much easier to deal with. Ken says he would like to come back, but only time will tell. India is the kind of place that works on the mind not only while here but in reflection after the fact. Ken will need some time to become either further intrigued or suffer bouts of PTSD about his trip here, and those feelings will determine whether he decides to come back one day. As I have said before many times, I always discourage people from coming to India if they have less than a month to spend, because one needs an initial adjustment period before one can see the wonder and beauty and cultural interest behind the disorienting chaos.  Of course it was a great safety to Ken that I was here and traveling with him, as it shielded him from some of the uncertainty. And I was really happy that Ken was here as well. Beyond the fact that we are friends and I think that Ken is a really great guy, showing him around (even as we saw things that were new to me) allowed me a unique perspective. Being able to see Ken’s reactions (as well as judging my own) gave me a nice bridge view into past and present, and an awareness of both that is not often able to be experienced simultaneously. Being a guide and negotiating the experiences and daily logistics of this trip allowed me to hone a few skills that are less used when one is alone.

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Humayun’s tomb, Fabindia, and Old Delhi

20
Jan
2015

Trying to stuff as much India into Ken’s last day here as possible, we rented a car for the day and alighted on several sites worth visiting. First up, and a good alternative since we missed the Taj Mahal, was the stunning Humayun’s tomb. I have been here before and absolutely love this monument for its beautiful, simple design and rigid symmetries and axes. They have done a lot of work restoring the gardens and fountains since the last time I visited, and it was certainly a treat. It was also quite a peaceful place, with very few people there and a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. This was a good restorative for Ken I think before we plunged him into what was to come, the sine qua non of India experience, Old Delhi. But before we headed there, we first made a stop at Khan Market to have coffee and shop for kurtas at Fabindia. After that, it was a delicious outdoor lunch at the Delhi Golf Club with Meeta and Aashni, after which we were finally ready for Old Delhi.

Aashni decided to come with us, and we took the car to the outskirts of Chandni Chowk and hired a bicycle rickshaw to cart the three of us to the Jama Masjid. The guy wanted an exorbitant price for hauling us in, about 5 times what I had paid on a previous visit. We negotiated down to 3 times the previous amount, but with him huffing and puffing trying to cycle our collective weight through, I just felt too guilty to give him anything less than he had originally asked for, and he seemed quite happy at the end of our trip when I gave him the money. He offered to wait for us to take us back, but I told him we would walk out, as that was part of the experience I wanted us to have.

We first entered the Jama Masjid and walked around for a bit, which is quite a nice experience for anyone who has never been (even if the entry way smells terribly of feet). After that, we made our way down the side and plunged into the narrow winding streets of Old Delhi, making our way out to the main road of Chandni Chowk before heading back towards the fort and our driver. I could tell by the look on Ken’s face that he was surprised (after our trip around Amritsar and in Bombay) that there could be anything more chaotic and foreign seeming than that, but clearly this was it. We kept him close as we made our way slowly past the outdoor butchers, sellers of old auto parts, papers, bangles, some jewelry, all manner of knick knack, paan wallahs and paratha sellers to come out the other side.

One thing that has been a bit of surprise on returning to these types of places is that they are far easier to navigate than they used to be, thanks to something that has become ubiquitous in our lives: smart phones and Google maps. Where it used to be a forbidding maze where one could easily feel trapped, now it is a rather simple affair to navigate one’s way. It is striking in fact how much technology has changed my experience of India this time, making things that used to be such a hassle so much easier.

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Food, glorious food

18
Jan
2015

It has been a treat being back in Delhi and hanging out with Meeta, Digraj and their lovely daughter Aashni. Yesterday they took us to a chaat place for lunch, where we sampled papri chaat, aloo tikki, chole batura, pakora,  gol gappa and finished off with a little dessert of ras malai and kulfi. It was all a bit heavy, but very tasty and I enjoyed my food coma afterwards as we made our way to Dilli Haat for a little browsing in the very nice weather.

Ken and I wanted to thank our hosts for their hospitality, so for dinner we took them to a place I had taken my parents many years ago (on their two day stopover in Delhi), and one that Nik had reminded me of a couple of weeks ago, Bukhara. Although a bit tourist heavy, this place serves some of the tastiest meat I have ever had in my life. In particular, a dish called raan which is a roast leg of mutton. They also have fantastic (and famous) slow cooked black dal (named appropriately enough “Dal Bukhara”), and I also sampled some chicken and fish dishes that were delicious.

Feeling happy if a bit bloated, we returned home to pass out shortly afterwards.