Tuesday, May 5, 2009

found in translation

Today was a public holiday and we decided to buy a little camera for easy quick shots. We want to document all the great food we eat and places we go on the spur of the moment, and the lovely big Canon is just too heavy to carry around most of the time. It's also currently under the weather with a broken lens. I don't know when we will get that fixed or how much it will end up costing, and we want to just be able to take quick shots every day. So... reviews indicated Sony Cybershot was the way to go and we headed to Pantip Plaza to negotiate our way through the madness of a million shops. As well as electronics it's full of DVD stores selling illegal copies of movies, tv shows, games and software and we decided to pick up something from one store in a long line of them. Just after we collected our dvd's we saw a bunch of people running around frantically, pushing store fronts around and moving their merchandise behind the counter.. it was crazy, within a minute or two everything was moved and gone - a raid. Some cops must have been coming through and they all worked together to make sure nothing was showing. Very amusing. Lucky we got our dvd's in time!

After getting the nifty new camera (and Sony is *not* cheap in Thailand), we went to Siam Paragon to go to a place we'd been drooling about all afternoon. The famous Oriental Hotel has little cafes in various places around the city, and the one at Paragon serves amazing food. The bread they serve is delicious.. Gagan was just waiting for it. He also ordered a Java Dream mocktail, while I had a green tea.

My sandwich was the mouth watering garlic ham and smoked mozzarella with a side salad (balsamic vinegrette - my fav!) and the most amazing baked garlic. The whole garlic bulb is sliced at the top and baked so that each clove becomes juicy and melty like mashed potatoes. Yum!

Gagan ordered a roasted chicken and hummus pita wrap. It came with little side dishes and fries. Everything perfectly presented and blends of flavours so nicely balanced.

I'll leave you with this. When we bought the camera, they talked us into getting a protective film on the LCD screen. As they were putting it on, I picked up the packaging and had a quick look at it. I think it takes the prize as the best ever translation. I really have no idea what they were *trying* to say. I leave it to you. This is what caught my eye straight away.

If you would like to enjoy the entire document in all its glory... read away!

feliciano's kitchen caper

Last night as I went to wash some dishes and make a cup of tea after such a good meal... I had a close call in the kitchen. A small visitor dropped by and he almost didn't make it out alive! Feliciano the gecko scuttled out from under a dish in the sink and began to panic. He ran down the plug hole - came back out, tried to get up the side of the sink and failed and ran around and down the plug hole again. I was frantically turning off the tap, grabbing dishes and trying to make sure I didn't flush him down. He was positively minuscule! A wee little guy... very tiny and fragile. I finally got him out of the sink but he jumped onto the floor and ran around like a banshee. We got him onto some paper and through a hole in the wall to the safety of the outside. Phew... it was craziness! We did manage to get one picture of him in the middle. Very sweet little thing he was... I bet he's telling all the other lizards about his caper right now. He is *very lucky*!

Monday, May 4, 2009

two for one

I got to fulfill two dreams today. Both entirely unrelated and both very satisfying. Firstly we got Gagan's Thai resident visa... he is now able to stay in Thailand as long as I am and no longer has to keep returning to India. To say we are relieved is like that old thing about bears and what they do in the woods. Yes... we are! He can now be here happily. He can travel in and out of the country. He can (and this is a biggie folks) apply for visas to other countries *from* Thailand... which means not having to deal with the bureaucracy of Indian visa applications *anymore*. The enormity of that one is bigger than I can describe here... but any Indian who has had to go through the inhumane humiliation of filing a visa application in their own country will know what I'm talking about. Thailand may have its own share of red tape but it is far more straightforward and we can really see the horizon ahead. We might even be able to plan some trips as tourists... what a concept!

Oh yes... the other dream? That has a little history behind it. Now I'm not going to pretend it has quite the weight of a visa to it... but my stomach will probably argue its importance in the Comestible History of Jude, placing it solidly in the top 5 or 6 top meals of the last 40 years. Nothing to be sneezed at certainly! So - the history behind the post. Years ago in Los Angeles I came across a book called Untangling My Chopsticks. It's a pretty incredible journey of a woman going to Kyoto to learn the ancient art of tea kaiseki... which at the time I had never even heard of. I am a *big* Japanese food lover and her detailed descriptions of these small delicate dishes of seasonal ingredients perfectly prepared and artfully presented sent me mad with desire. I searched Chowhound for kaiseki restaurants all over the greater LA area but there didn't seem to be anything. I just had to put it at the back of my mind and hope that one day I'd get to Japan.

So a couple of weeks ago we're leaving our favourite ramen noodle shop on Thong Lor, a major street in our area so densely packed with eateries you don't know where to start. Ramen is wonderful... those soothing japanese noodle soups just like in Tampopo (you know "poke the pork") which if you haven't seen and you like food, drop everything and rent it *right now*. We're full and satisfied, even though it is raining cats and dogs and we are getting drenched. We can't get a cab to save our lives so we just keep walking up the street... walking walking.. wetter and wetter. Suddenly, a little side lane shows up and the dark wooden entrance to a restaurant appears.
Covered by noren, the japanese curtains, it looks different to all the other places we've seen.. and it's out of the way and looks fancy and authentic. I think at the same time I see it I also see the sign... Maru Kaiseki!

Getting a visa seems more than enough reason to go out for a nice meal. I knew from poking about the net that Maru was not going to be cheap, but today was a good reason to go. We didn't know if we'd get a table but we got there early and had about 200 women in kimonos welcoming us.. okay okay... I am prone to exaggeration. There were maybe nine or ten. The recession has hit Bangkok and tourism is down, so high end restaurants are very glad to get business. They seemed very happy to see us - no reservations needed!

The menu was all pictures - which was lucky as we took ages to choose and it was hard enough with a very big choice. Everything arrived looking just like its photo and tasting quite sensational. We started with something traditional - some hamachi, or amberjack which was beautifully presented in a handmade bowl over ice and seaweed. The fish was fresh and firm and tasted... perfect.

Next was a delicate bowl of micro thin sliced radish, cucumber, onion and seaweed with lemon all soaked in a small pool of a soy vinegar liquid. The star of the dish was juicy fingers of snow crab which also soaked up the tangy vinegar, a flavour that brought out the sweetness of the crab and gave a burst of cool freshness in your mouth. The sauce was light and not too acidic to be overpowering - it all worked together so well that all we could do was look at each other and raise our eyebrows in surprise.

From the same menu group was an unusual dish that also had us nodding in agreement. Yam with sea urchin (uni) and vinegar. The yam was a white variety, it seemed raw and crunched like an apple. With very little flavour, it mostly provided a textural difference to the soft and slimy uni that was some of the best I've tasted. It was sweet and tasty, still with the hint of the beach. Gagan had never tried it before and this was a good way to start. Microslices of nori (dry seaweed) was piled on top and proved to be very hard to pull apart with small pieces of uni and slices of yam. Not an easy dish to share, but tasty none the less.

The next dish was unexpectedly good. We wanted some vegetables and ordered asparagus. They came looking like something you would want to decorate your house with. So perfectly made and smelling so tasty! Two rows of about 7 stalks each - lightly fried in some yummy batter not unlike tempura, but all over the bottom half were stuck little golden rice crackers - perfectly round balls - about 2mm wide. Being fried, the whole thing now held together like a little bamboo wall and they looked as well as smelled, wonderful. Dipped in the small dish of salt the effect was pretty spectacular.

Two more courses to come. The next to me seemed like the ultimate dish. Japanese comfort food meets Top Chef. It's hard to believe such tastes could come from such a simple dish. On the bottom, almost like a crab cake, a patty of mashed potato - a yellow potato like a Yukon Gold - mixed with tiny pieces of cucumber and minced shrimp. The potato cooked to be warm and golden on the outside. On top of that a perfectly cooked piece of salmon - to look like a giant piece of nigiri sushi - the salmon moist and melting in the mouth. On top of *that* a meringue of whipped egg white, cooked to perfection and atop that... nestled in to the foam of eggs... giant orange salmon roe. Every bite just exploded with flavour. The roe would burst a little bubble of salt water to top off all the other tastes and the mix was just amazing. It was warm and comforting and fancy and familiar even though I've never had anything like it. Genius!

Lastly, in a bowl of his own, one giant ball of happiness. Well, pumpkin actually. The size of a baseball. The pumpkin was mashed and had big pieces of scallop and giant shrimp hidden away inside, then lightly fried and placed in the bowl with slightly sweet gloopy sauce that had a little tang to it, drizzled and poured over it. A strong onion was cut into thin slivers and placed on top. Simple... and delicious.

It was a perfect meal. We were not too full and we enjoyed every single bite. An excellent way to celebrate a visa and a great introduction to kaiseki. The menu at Maru is large, and our appetites are endless, so I expect we'll be back to try more. Maybe next time we'll take some photos. For now though, I think it's time for some tea and putting my feet up. A good day :)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

illusive muse

So I’m watching Elizabeth Gilbert give a TED talk on inspiration and the illusive muse, and it makes me think about how often I am struck to write at a time I can *never* actually put pen to paper.. or fingers to keyboard in my case. It’s always the middle of the night when insomnia bites, or worse, sitting on the loo, when the most prosaic little bit of prose pops into my tiny noggin and starts wobbling about, taking form and adding adjective after adjective. Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone and a thought comes to mind… something I would love to capture. Too late… it’s come and gone. When I sit down later it turns into a flat and boring essay, stale bread and moldy cheese. I leave dejected and don’t come back to the writing table for a long time. What causes it? why is the timing always off? Why are my energies so out of balance?

My thoughts turn to my Mum. In the last few years she has started to write. She always did, but it’s become something serious and amazing. She started with amusing poems, somewhat in the style of Roald Dahl. I can see them as large books in a children’s library with wonderful illustrations and tongue twister rhymes. Since then she has gone on to tender and delicate haiku and all sorts of various short stories and essays. She’s not a mother, a wife, a manager… she’s a writer… a *good* one… a prolific one too.

Her discipline makes me think I should be more determined. Elizabeth Gilbert talked about how creative people are internally tortured and scared of the constant possibility of rejection. I don’t consider myself creative, but I do want to write for my own satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if what you write is good, bad or indifferent, as long as something has made it out from inside the vacuum. If I can grab one bit of these things as they come into focus and dance out again it will be worth it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

one night in bangkok and the world's your oyster

We seem to spend so much time smiling now. Sometimes I think I am going to burst from smiling so much… big goofy silly smiles. It’s good and nice and I’ll admit I think we deserve it. There was a time when I never thought I would smile again. You partner up a bad situation with depression and you have a cocktail that is enough to knock out even the toughest prize fighter. It’s hard to describe what depression can do… how its icy tendrils latch onto your innards and just zap all your ability to cope, to fight back, to move forward through the mirk. I was painfully aware that it was brain chemistry gone awry, I knew it and recognised the symptoms, but couldn’t change it or fight it… just sank deeper and deeper. The best I could do was close my eyes and hold on to Gagan… I didn’t think I would get out of it.

Never say never, though. We’re in Bangkok living a very treasured and lucky life. With a lot of work and support my fibromyalgia is getting under control and I am starting to lead a reasonably normal life again - for the first time in .. well, lets not go there. The depression has disappeared as suddenly as it arrived - high tailing it on that express bus out of town to some unknown destination that I hope is far far away. I know it has my number though. I’m on the lookout. But I’m medicated and prepared - you wanna fight, then meet me at high noon at the OK Corral baby, I’m ready for anything! Well… I think so… ;)

Our days go something like this - we walk to the main road and catch the tiny little green bus to work. It’s a hurtling crazy whirlwind of a ride. For 6 1/2 baht each (about 18 US cents) we spend 5 minutes holding on to the ceiling hand rails as the driver swings the bus from lane to lane Formula1 style. Just getting on is a challenge as there is a reluctance to stop so you jump on and hold on for dear life as one foot may still be hanging out the door as the dinky wee bus takes off at speed and you’re away! It’s a hoot and a miracle we make it off alive each day. We joke about doing a ‘jump, tuck and roll’ to get off.. and are always a bit breathless as we get to the pavement.

After a fun day at work, we wander back to the main street, pass by lots of street food vendors and climb the overpass to cross the road. Resisting the mango and sticky rice stall is always hard. Has to be one of our most favourite things to eat here… mangoes that are sweet and juicy and plump, and sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and toasted lentils to sprinkle over the top.. the combination of tangy fruit, sweet rice, and crunchy salt all making for a delectable mouthful. The Thais are masters of these blends of flavours, and we are their willing guinea pigs.

We take a cab home. The traffic is always really heavy and the 5 minute morning ride takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more. The cabs are amazing. Mostly very new and comfortable (lemony fresh scents and sometimes all pink seats with Hello Kitty *everywhere*!) and they come in every colour of the rainbow. Predominantly pink (eecks, my nightmare), I have to say it really brightens up the streets of Bangkok to see all the colourful cars - purple, green, yellow, blue. An explosion of colour…. a fiesta. And the congestion is considerable. At peakhour it is like any major city at its worst, with hundreds of motorbikes and scooters whizzing through the stalled cars at high speed. But after 2 years of the chaos of India, where you sometimes feel your brain will explode from the constant assault of noise on the road, it is so quiet here it’s almost eerie. In LA there was always a honk or two, but here it’s deathly quiet. No one is impatient, everyone is polite and calm and just waits their turn. We have never seen anything like it. Refreshing is hardly the word for it. Mindblowing might be a little closer!

Having no cooking facilities in our kitchen, we have to eat out every night. This is pretty common in Thailand… and taking a look at the City of Food (as I have officially renamed Bangkok) it’s not a surprise. The entire place is just all about foooooood. My kinda town! So we come back to our little ‘settlement’ which is mostly known for really cool looking nightclubs and bars, and go to one of the restaurants. I am happy to say Thais love their Japanese food as much as I do, and there seem to be one Japanese restaurant per head of population. Perfect! There is Thai food we can bring home - freshly made to order and so tasty. Most of it costs just over a dollar. We basically eat Thai or Japanese every night and our minds and hearts are happy, our bellies full and our clothes not big enough anymore.

The weather is at its hottest right now. The high 30’s every day (that’s near 100 for those not ‘metricated’ yet) and very humid and heavy. Sometimes big clouds gather, erupting in brilliant and violent storms of thunder and lightning and heavy rain that flood, and then stop after half an hour. The view from our 8th storey apartment is wonderful. The heat keeps us inside a lot. But as I am getting healthier it makes us start to plan our weekends and getting out to see more of Bangkok again. The city comes alive at night, looking like an alternative Blade Runner, one where the apocalypse didn’t happen. We have so much we want to see and do. Every bit is precious and we feel alive and happy and lucky. You *can* go from the ridiculous to the sublime apparently… and that is why we smile!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

last day

[I wrote this on January 11th 2009 - but we had no internet at the hotel. Just realised it should really be posted!]


It seems only fitting that my last day in India should begin with stomach pains and a running arse. It’s a condition that was so common for such a long part of my journey here, and although, gratefully, I can say it hasn’t plagued me so much in the last few months, it’s almost like the last little farewell from a disliked friend who has been allowed to hang around too long. It seems fitting.

So the early hours of our last morning have been spent in considerable discomfort, sequestered in the loo with Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday reminding me of all the long lost passions I have with the ancient world, and lying in bed with Gagan reading out loud Bill Bryson’s jaw dropping inspiring A Short History of Almost Everything. As I try to ignore the combination of unhappy enzymes and gases wreaking havoc in my lower intestines, he throws morsel after tasty morsel (oh perhaps I shouldn’t talk of food) of fascinating information about physics, astronomy, geology and all things scientific, and my little brain happily boggles away. If you have to be feeling pukey, this is probably the ideal way to do it! There is something very reassuring about rediscovering your utter insignificance in the universe, and also the sheer amazing coincidence that you are here at all. As we go about our day to day lives (and right now there has been very little ‘day to day’ about our particular lives at all) it’s nice to know the problems aren’t really that important, and our movements are simply part of the giant machine of the universe going through its motions. The infinite hugeness and infinite tininess that exists around us is very comforting. All those self important idiots that have made my life hell don’t matter at all! What a pleasant thought.

It’s not quite imaginable yet that today can really be the ‘it’ day. Certainly it’s going to take quite some time for that to sink in. I need to have a fair amount of distance, both space and time, to get India out of my clogged and polluted system. Not to mention rewashing all those clothes that have soaked up the horrible moldy smell in the cupboards just from being in Bombay for months after the monsoon. We all need a good long soak I think. A ritual cleansing.

Meanwhile, there are noises of the hallway being washed, distance voices talking in that cranky way that so many Indians have. Probably simply discussing breakfast or if they’ve put out the garbage, but the tone and delivery would be enough to cause any american business meeting to rapidly dissolve into a decidedly ugly shouting match with much finger pointing and vein bulging. No time spent on the niceties here.
Gagan is still asleep. My nausea is increasing. Perhaps it’s time for another trip to the loo with Tony’s book in tow. It’s alright.. I’m simply shuffling a few zillion atoms around. ;)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

black day

It's 26 hours since the terrorist attacks on Bombay started. They're still going. At least 125 people are still inside the Trident/Oberoi Hotels.. with several terrorists holding some hostage. There are fires in those hotels. The beautiful Taj is on fire in the dark and has been repeatedly blown up all day. 9 or 10 other places around the south of the city including the famous Leopolds have been attacked.

So far, 125 people are dead and 257 injured. Those numbers are sure to increase once this is over.

It has been a very ...


a terrible day.

Surreal scenes.. watching and watching. Places we used to go all the time. Would have been in a day or two. Memories now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

lost and found

Six months.

Six months since I wrote last. I considered starting a new blog, but that might have been disingenuous. Tonight I looked over this for the first time in more than 6 months, and it brought back so many emotions.

I'm a different person now. I feel a lot older, rougher around the edges, lucky for having had it all, but not the same. That was then, this is now.

The oh-so-sweet stuff? We got hitched. Although I'm less inclined than I used to be to say things happen for a reason, I know I got what I truly needed by coming to India. A person to share the rest of my life with. All I need eh? :)

I am sad that I didn't continue blogging way back when. I didn't write about it at the time because a lot more was involved. The managers at the company I worked for had problems with my blog. It rather astounded me - so much for freedom of speech! I wasn't told 'you can't blog' ... but many harsh and painful things were said that made it not a good time to continue. I regret that now... I should have just kept writing. But hey, you can't change the past, and more importantly, when surrounded by ignorance, jealousy and idiots, the most honourable thing to do is stand up for what you believe in, not bow down and let them dominate you. But I caved thinking my career was at stake. It's good to have that far behind me now and to not be faced with those people any more. I hope I have learned to see through lies a little more clearly in the future at least!

For now it's onwards and upwards. Though the dream of India is perhaps lost behind the cloud of its reality, I know that in time I will learn to love it in new ways. I was never so naive to not see all the negative as well as the good. But I was experiencing it in that lucky way that tourists and business travelers do... a bubble of colour and convenience and being taken care of. The real India is less careful with its inhabitants. Perhaps the good thing is it has made me realise what I do care about in my own culture so I can return and value that once again.

I can remember what I used to see - I still see that sense of wonder and joy in other travelers. But now I feel worn by the everyday things - poverty, corruption, the lack of care for the desperately poor, no hygiene, sexism, apathy, and vast cultural differences I struggle to understand. I'm about to turn 40 and I know I am less mellow with age instead of more. Hmph... that's not quite what I expected. Not how I was writing a year ago! But I think India can push you to extremes. She is not an easy landlord.

So... there is the India I have lost and the India I have found. The country that used to soothe me which is now gone, and the Indian who took my hand and walks beside me on this once lonely journey. I was lost, then found.

One little note: So many of my friends are Indians. I know they will be very disappointed at my feelings. It's not nice that many westerners come to India and only see the hardships here, so I know they really enjoyed my delight in all things Indian. But it is hard to be stuck between two cultures (just ask Gagan!). The longer I am here the more I find the natural instincts I grew up with are just too different and don't make sense here. Things I perhaps found quaint before, now seem stifling. I can only see things through my western interpretation, and I know I need a balance of my world as well. I will always love India.. just in a different, more realistic way. I hope you can forgive me for that.

Monday, April 7, 2008

the cat's meow

I haven't blogged in a while.. which irks me a bit. I thought at least I'd post a few photos. If you ever wonder about how cats adapt to life on the other side of this spinning ball.. then check these out.

Pippin on a sleeping Kaustubh .... she'll climb on anyone!

Pippin and Kaustubh again... he barely had a chance to get comfy.

...and Tufty... who was NEVER a lap cat, blissfully on his idol Gagan.

Apart from a slightly unfortunate flea episode (the lil blighters are exterminated now!) life is pretty peachy for these pampered purries. Imported food, 18 hours a day of sleeping ... and many people adoring them. What more could you ask for!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

theory of relativity ...

So what would you do for $100? I mean in the work-for-a-living sense. I suspect it seriously depends on who you are and where you are reading this from. If you're one of the fortunate few sitting behind a computer in LA working on visual effects shots for the next blockbuster - you'll probably say you'd work for 2-3 hours. If you're working one of two jobs washing dishes and busing tables in Kentucky... it might take you 17 hours of hard labour. And chances are you're not reading this coz you can't afford a computer or the internet....

But let's get relative here. How about in India? Now the tables have turned a little... and my western mentality (and western pay packet) find it a little harder to wrap the synapses around these things. I mean, I know people have to scrimp and scrape over rupees on the mean streets... but there is an example where it pops into my living room and I know my pals and I see this very differently.

OK... lets cut to the chase. We have a maid. Firstly, this is NOT something normal for me coming from the west. It didn't sit right for quite a while... but I've gotten used to it - largely because she is an awesome, lovely, unique, wise, caring, funny woman who is easy to spend time with. She comes 6 days a week, for a couple of hours. She cleans the bathrooms, makes the bed, washes the dishes, hangs out and folds away clothes, cleans all the floors, tidies and cleans up everything.... and cooks! Can you imagine? she cooks! I remember my friends and I in LA dreaming about what it would be like to have someone cook for you ... big smoking pipe ain't-no-chance-in-hell-*that*'ll-ever-happen dreams! Not a chance unless we suddenly found ourselves in possession of a LOT of dough! But here I am suddenly, living a truly charmed life.. being cooked for, cleaned up after and fussed over. And for this... we pay her $100 a month (depending on the exchange rate, that's pretty much what it is give or take some change).

My friends here also have maids... maids that do all the same things, or various versions of them. They live in parts of the city close to our old office... not this fancy 'burb of Bandra - all hip and happening and exclusive. Their hard working women charge a lot less than those working in this area... one month of labour comes to significantly less than a 1/4 what we pay. So you can see my friends perspective... 'you're being totally ripped off' 'WE'LL come and clean for that much'... it goes on.

I'm always reminded of someone wonderful in LA. Not too many of my friends there had a cleaning lady... but I did. The same one as several others from work. She was remarkable... 61 years old, bringing up her *great* grandson single-handedly with no help from the State, cleaning houses and always hoping to find new clients to make ends meet. She would come to me once every two weeks... and after two hours my messy apartment would sparkle. And for these four hours... I paid $120 and felt I got every penny's worth.

I think you can see where my conflict comes from. To me I am getting a bargain and still feeling like I am taking advantage of someone. So much work for so little money in this expensive city. But I am thinking like a firang and that internal conflict will always rage. I don't think my friends can ever make me change how I see it... it's all a matter of relativity. And being thankful at what I have and have come from. And meanwhile I'll keep on enjoying my cherished time with Augusta for however long this dream goes on....