Friday, December 25, 2009

India: 1 month in (another email)

I'm sorry to flood your inboxes again...I am just so excited after spending 8-9 hours on the phone and videochat yesterday with family and friends. I've effectively received my 30th wind.

Fashion alert the first: Grab your bellbottoms from the back of the closet. THEY ARE IN!!! Well, “in” in India. It’s actually funny though. The majority of those wearing the bellbottoms are the super skinny ones; the more rotund ones (and yes there are lots of those) tend to wear a more conservative straight-legged trouser.

It’s been 36 days in India and things are just peachy (mangoes are out of season)—phew, thank God my jokes are still so fresh. I haven’t lost my mind, or my wallet, or my dignity yet. Maybe the jury is still out on the losing my mind thing. I wish I could say that I was starting to fit in; however, the fact that people still stare me up and down and poke me tells me that “fitting in” will never be an option.

One part of me that is certainly fitting in is my smell. The curry makes a nice bouquet when mixed with the generic Indian laundry detergent. After meals it’s just impossible to get the smell of curry off my fingers and I’m sure that my clothes wreak of it. But that’s all part of the game. I wanted the curry smell and I got it; I wouldn’t be a true spice traveler without it. But here are two things that I don’t think I’ll conform to:

1) Holding hands with an Indian man who just met me. A large proportion of men hold hands and hang onto each other’s waist or shoulder. It’s just normal, but I can’t help but be uncomfortable when there are a bunch of Indian guys that want to hold on to my waist. Last week I went to see Avatar with these guys from the gym. The whole night, one of the guys was trying to hang onto my waist…not cool, dude!

2) I will not be hocking loogies to and fro in crowded streets! It’s very common for both men and women to spit in the streets and in the train station…really anywhere. In a ten minute rickshaw ride, your rickshaw driver is guaranteed to spit at least 7 times!

Now for some general observations on India.

One thing that is very obvious is the lack of drainage. When I saw pictures before I came to India in November, they portrayed streets filled with 2-3 ft. of water after monsoon rains. The fact of the matter is that the smallest rainstorm will flood the streets with over 1 foot of rain. Small rainstorms are rare, however…when God turns the faucet on over here, he really turns it on. One of the first things I noticed when I came here was that the curbs on the streets are extremely high…hmmm, it seems like investment is going toward building the wrong thing. Build drains!! The other thing that is obvious about this problem is that stagnant water is here to stay. As a result, mosquitoes will always be squatting in peoples’ homes. Disease will also continue to be a problem, especially considering that half the population still walks barefoot through the streets!

India has just been declared the most polluted country in the world, and I will definitely back that. There are no trash cans and that means that every single person will throw their garbage on the sidewalk or street. I can sense no compunction when I see someone throwing their sandwich wrapper in the street…it’s crazy and drives me bonkers! As I sit in the coffee shop at this moment, I can see a man washing his mouth out and spitting it into a very large body of stagnant water in the street filled with garbage. Eeee gads!

The curious smells that sting the nostrils also emit from these bodies of water. When you cross the river in Chennai, you will notice a couple of things: one is that the river runs brown and emits a very pungent raw sewage smell; the other is that the straw hut slums line the banks of the river. Yes, the people still bathe and wash clothes in that water.

Most of the people that I meet are very nice and almost too polite. The deference that I’m paid is very disconcerting. I’ll tell you what would make my day…if my waiter at the coffee shop came up to me and punched me in the face instead of asking me if he can clear my coffee cup from my table. I would greet that act with a smile.

I don’t want to make this email too long, so I’ll briefly comment on some of the food goings on in this country. Basically, you have two categories of food, veg and non-veg (as they are affectionately called). Non-veg almost certainly means chicken and mutton; however, I visited a southwestern (Kerala) restaurant the other night and had beef for the first time in a month. It was marinated in coconut, coriander, black pepper, salt, cilantro and probably cumin and chili powder. I’m getting pretty good at identifying the spices used in different dishes without seeing it cooked. Kerala, the area of the country where this restaurant originates, contains Syrian Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they certainly do not have any qualms about eating beef. Watch out Bessy!! I know that the coexistence of those three religions in a small area sounds like a ticking time bomb, but they have been living in harmony over there for hundreds of years. It’s where Vasco Da Gama built his spice empire and I will be traveling there on January 5, so I’ll report more then.

Here in Chennai, you will find that the food glistens with butter and ghee (if you were to melt butter and let it sit, the ghee is the clear stuff that separates on top—clarified butter). The chefs insist on telling me that the copious amounts of fat in the food are necessary for the dispersal of the spices’ volatile oils, but I know that to be false. You only need a small amount of fat for dispersal. The common vegetables used in dishes are cauliflower, peas, carrots, potatoes, drumsticks (like a big okra), bottle gourd (like zucchini), beets, peppers, onions, lotus flowers, turnips, green and red chillies, and corn. You’ll notice that a few of these are “new world” adaptations, namely corn, peppers, chillies and potatoes. What I mean by “new world” is that they came from the Americas back when Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama were rockin’ the waters. Who can resist a potato, right?

So, not only are ghee and butter added to these dishes, but, the ingredients are commonly deep-fried in sunflower oil before being sautéed. The dishes will usually fall into another two categories besides veg and non-veg; that is, they are either a gravy dish or a dry dish. Gravy just means that the dish is a little more liquid and can be sopped up with some rice or wheat based “sponge.” I’ll save the description of these “sponges” for another post.

So, wrapping things up a bit, this means that the Indian diet (I’m generalizing a lot here because the cuisine is so diverse) is predominately carbohydrate and fat based. This produces a lot of fat people…a very gelatinous fat, not the typical American rotund fat because there is not as much muscle to back up the fat underneath. About 4 weeks ago I had my fat content measured at the local gym. According to the charts, a typical Indian male will have a fat content that measures anywhere from 18-24%. Females usually come in at about 10% higher than males. I came in at 11%, if you must know, which means that I am (or was) 2% fattier than when I left the states. I guess that’s not too much of a surprise considering that I’ve been gourging on international cuisine for 6 months or so. Interestingly though, I conducted an experiment over the course of the month, which consisted of me doing intense weight training about 4-5 days a week while eating only the typical Indian cuisine. After 30 days, I can report that I have not succeeded in gaining any muscle mass. I’ve only become a bit stronger and leaner. If I were eating my typical American diet of 65% protein, 25% carbs, and 10% other, I would probably have gained a solid amount of muscle mass. Conducting this experiment cost me a couple of dollars a day. Can you imagine how much I would have to pay to do the same experiment in the states? Consider this: a typical Indian meal in Central New York will cost me between $10-15. Yikes!

I realize that my Christmas note sounded a bit downtrodden. Upon later inspection, I determined that I wrote the note in the five-minute span when I was most wistful and homesick. Yes, there are some things over here that can really pull at your heartstrings; however, on the whole, I am still bubbly and bright-eyed, ready for my next adventure. Bring it on!

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And a blissful New Year!

My wistful Christmas email to family and friends

As I sit below my stocking, I can't help but realize the stark contrast this Christmas poses against all former Christmases. When I open my window, I'm greeted with heat and humidity, not the cold winter chill that initiates the drinking of hot chocolate. When I walk outside, sweat beading across my forehead, there is no snow to pick up and throw at my friends. Glancing about, there are no trees, no tinsel, no lit up houses--just my stocking above my head, swaying in the breeze of the fan.

My home away from, well, my guesthouse has been the little coffee shop up the road that has set up a very small plastic Christmas tree next to its counter. I sit in that coffee shop for hours brushing up on some economics readings, but the real reason is because I can order ginger snaps with whip cream on top and listen to Christmas music coming through the speakers. It makes me homesick, yes, but my time could not be better spent any other way.

I just received a package full of candy and gifts sent by my family; the stocking above my head was enclosed. I felt like a little school boy as I rushed to the balcony with my brown parcel and placed it on the ground between my legs. Times like this don't need a chair, just an open piece of floor and lots of space for throwing wrappings. Two of the guys that work at the guesthouse, Ravi and Rajesh, brushed aside their duties of cleaning my room to rush to the balcony also. They've never experienced Christmas. I think their faces were just as lit up as mine as I pulled package after package of candy out of the box. I had a hard time explaining why my Christmas card was all nephews were degraded to little people in order to get my point across.

I immediately fetched a plate from the guesthouse kitchen and piled it high with all sorts of goodies for the guys that work here. I don't think they experience too much kindness. They all work 7 days a week and don't even have a space to stay. When I come home at 1 or 2 am sometimes, I can see them all scattered about on the floor, many of them cuddled up with each other, a single candle lit in the corner to keep the mosquitoes away. Some are in the lobby, some in the dining room, and the remainder in the kitchen. There are about 10 of them. Just the smiles and ambiguous excitement that ensued from the sight of the candy laden plate was enough for my Christmas present. One of the smaller guys walked up to me and shook my hand saying, "Happy Christmas!" Wonderful.

So on this Christmas Eve, I want to thank all of you for your love and support, your kind wishes, and your season's greetings. You've all influenced my life in some way shape or form, and for that I am forever grateful. From my religion to yours, Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Season's Greetings! Happy Holidays!

With much love,