Friday, November 29, 2013

Back where it all began

It's been about 18 months since I last blogged about life in India. During my last year living here I had lost my blogging mojo, in fact it was more than that, I had lost my India mojo. I found the last year here particularly tough, I think it's because I knew my time here was coming to an end and I had mentally let go and the daily frustrations where really getting me down. I was a little bit pathetic, I would burst into tears over the most stupid things. I had lost the ability to recognise how blessed I really was, especially considering the country I was living in and how much harder life was for the millions of Indians living below the poverty line. I had well and truly switched off and was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

I moved back to Sydney in early July and I have been loving it. Even 4 months later I am so grateful for the simple things… Being able to step out my front door to go for a run, the anonymity on public transport, long hot showers, the food... oh the food. 

When I left India I wasn't sure when I would be back, and at that point I didn't really care. Don't get me wrong there would be things I would miss, but I was worn out. I knew I would be back but when? It turned out that when would be the 26th of November, the five year anniversary of the day I first went to India. It must be my personal auspicious day for travelling to India. 

From the moment I arrived at Sydney Airport I immediately felt back in the culture. India is heading into wedding season and my flight was packed with Indians heading home. On my flight to Singapore, sitting across the isle from me, was an Indian couple. In the row in front of them sat their two children (one still a baby) and their nanny/wet-nurse. Such an unusual and foreign concept for an Australian, to watch this older lady look after and feed this affluent couples' children. The connection between the nanny and children was clearly very strong. I had so many questions whirling through my brain. Such an interesting dynamic.

I arrived in India at 10:30 pm on the same day. I'm not much of a sleeper on planes so I was exhausted. Despite the exhaustion I was wide awake at 5am (10:30am Sydney time). I didn't waste anytime getting back into the swing of things. The first thing I did was meet up with the old running crew at Pansheel Park. In a lot of ways it felt like I had never left. I was expecting the weather to be cold and foggy but I have been pleasantly surprised with warm weather, however the pollution is hideous.

On day one I went with Ray to a hygiene training class for slum kids. We cruised through Delhi on the back of Paul's Royal Enfield. It seems that Vino- the sexy purple scooter, has been somewhat neglected due to fancier options. I'll be giving him some love while I am here. 
The area in Old Delhi where this project was held is one of the smelliest places I have been in Delhi. The streets where narrow and congested, and trucks lined the streets filled with fresh goat skins swarming with flies. Outside the building the hygiene class was held, the pavement was covered with human excrement. It was a confronting place and it was good to be reminded of how blessed I am.

For lunch we visited one of my favourite haunts, the Afghani Darbar restaurant…. Oh how I missed you. I ate my weight in the most delicious cuisine washing it back with lassi namkeen (a slightly salty,cucumberry yoghurt drink with cumin). I must make it when I get home.

Day two saw me back behind the wheel of a car. A driver was needed to take the development team to a homeless shelter bordering Yamunna Bazzar. I now realise my Delhi driving style is my preferred default, I enjoy the freedom of changing lanes without fear of cutting someone off, the organised chaos of roundabouts and generally driving without fear of aggravating other drivers. It's far more relaxed. Driving in Sydney scares me now, I am so aware of the 'rules' so careful not to cut someone off and I find myself being over cautious when it comes to giving way. In Delhi you can be as selfish with the road as you like and no one cares. On the drive to the shelter the Indian staff were not the best at giving directions. We headed north and then I was directed to take a U-turn under a flyover and to cross four lanes of traffic as quickly as possible. Once I came to a halt was instructed to reverse about 400 metres into oncoming traffic to arrive at the shelter. Well okay then. I've still got it.

After the session at the shelter I dropped the team to the Old Delhi project and headed back to the office. I hoped to stop at my favourite Old Delhi Lassi stand on the way, but sadly it was demolished to make way for the sprawling metro.

By the time I got back to the office I was starving! I hadn't eaten Indian food since I left in July and it was time. Steph went and picked up some Shahi Paneer and Aloo Gobi from a local vegetarian place. It was good stuff. I am not really too careful when it comes to food in Delhi. I have built up a fairly good immunity to Delhi belly over the years. With the food came the ubiquitous salad of radish, cucumber, onion and lemon. I nibbled at a few pieces before noticing it was actually pretty dirty, so I left it alone and thought nothing of it.

Day 2 was also American Thanksgiving. I forgot how social our life was in Delhi so when we were invited to a friends pot luck thanksgiving dinner I was there. American thanksgiving food is like nothing else. You might be thinking it's similar to an Australian Christmas turkey with all the trimmings, and in some ways it is. The funny thing is that the main course dishes would be considered dessert in Australia. I chowed down on mashed pumpkin with maple syrup, stuffing, and my favourite; sweet potatoes cooked with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts with mini marshmallows melted over the top. Now where I come from that would be considered dessert. I'm not going to lie, it was good and I ate waaaaay too much.
Despite struggling to stay awake (damn you jet lag) it was so nice to catch-up with some of my favourite Delhi friends. I'm really happy to be here.

At 3:30am I paid dearly for, what I am pretty sure was, the dirty salad. And I have been paying for it all morning. Argh Delhi Belly! I am hoping to pull it together this afternoon because it's Friday, and that means drinks at the Australian High Comm.

So that's where it's at.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The land of scuzzy portion size

There are a few aspects of Indian culture I just don't get. No matter how much I try to rationalise it I can't make sense of it. In those instances it's very hard for me to admit that these aspects aren't wrong but just different.

My biggest frustrations always seem to be food related. So although this aspect of Indian culture relates to a wide variety of negotiations for me it largely comes down to food. I am happy to haggle for a handbag, but not my food.

I am passionate about ice-cream. I love it. It is the best concoction ever created. I am not talking about the cheap nasty stuff; I rarely waste my stomach space on that… it has to be the good stuff. In Australia I am quite partial to Royal Copenhagen, Maggie Beer's concoctions, and on occasion New Zealand Natural. In Delhi it's Haagen Dazs and once upon a time Gelato Vinto. However, I will no longer patronise Gelato Vinto no matter how good there product… why? Because of scuzzy portion sizes. I don't expect big American size portions but the last time I ordered at Gelato Vinto I received this tiny ball of ice-cream barely more than a tablespoon rolling around the bottom of my cup. Now you might ask... why didn't you say something? I could have, and they might have given me a skerrick more… but why should I have to? Now days when I order ice-cream I send Ray and he deals with it and demands more. The idea that I have to ask for my fair share, for some reason, makes anger bubble up inside me. This sort of situation is not just limited to ice-cream but also most things and for some reason french fries. We have ordered a side of fries at a few places and what arrives is literally 10 chips on a plate. Maybe they give one potatoes worth per serve. Even at McDonalds the servings are laughable.

For shops like Gelato Vinto I don't understand it from a business point of view. To me normal or even generous servings means repeat business and scuzzy serves the opposite. Surely I am not the only one boycotting Gelato Vinto.
I wonder where the balance lies. Surely a decent serve and more business is the way to go rather than skimping on product.

So over three years I have been mulling over the scuzzy portion sizes and have tried to get my head around it. I have wondered if it is the establishments owners that tell there staff to give the minimum. Or do the staff give little so they can skim some off for themselves… I couldn't work it out… I thought someone must be giving the directive…but I just learnt that no one says a word.

I recently read a book and I discovered it's ingrained in the culture. The book was called OMG Delhi. It is a novel by an Indian author who has a central character who is used to narrate chapters of anecdotes about Indian culture and the way things work in Delhi. The author even makes a point in many of the chapters to highlight the nature of give and take in all aspects of Indian culture. Most of the chapters are summarised with the line 'maximum for minimum' in the case of the consumer and the reverse for the vendor. This book opened my eyes. I now understand that a boss doesn't have to tell the staff to scrimp on servings, it's just the way it is. Unlike other cultures there is no clear cut fair share. You just have to ask for more until you can get no more or in reverse you try and hang on to as much as you can. There are no rules, there is no right or wrong and you can't even consider the ethics of the situation.
The ethics is the hardest part for me. In many situations in India it's not that things are ethical or unethical it just doesn't come into play. I can't articulate it, it just isn't part of the equation. So many people and companies (Airtel!) conduct business and and their lives in which I would judge completely unethical but really that is just a foreign concept from a foreign culture. And who am I to judge. Ok… here comes a long tangent which I will save for another day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Water Woes

Ray: There is no water
Me: What sort of water?
Ray: What do you mean? There's no water
Me: Tap water or drinking water?
Ray: There is no water coming out of the tap
Me: Try the butt hose… there is always water in the butt hose.

This is one of those conversations you could only have in India. Back home in Australia, free flowing water coming straight from the tap that is clear and drinkable and never runs dry is something we take for granted. In India things are a little different. In Delhi most dwellings have black water tanks on the roof. We get water for an hour or so each day and pump our supply up to tanks on the roof. When the tanks are full, water can be gravity fed into bathrooms and kitchens.

Delhi has particularly rickety infrastructure when in comes to water supply. Thankfully in my neighbourhood we have it pretty good. If I run out of water I run downstairs and ask the landlord to turn on the pump. Occasionally the water coming out of the tap is dirty but most of the time it appears clear. The water is pretty hard so clothes don't come out of the wash as clean as they could and most Delhites are plagued by 'hair fall' so there are countless varieties of hair fall shampoo available… They don't work… My hair is getting thinner by the week... Good thing I started with a lot.

In contrast, many slum dwellers have to fight the crowds for their water. Many slums have no piped water supply so the Municipal Jal (water) Board truck delivers water a couple of times a day. However there is never enough for the growing slum populations and many people receive no water at all. Coupled with this the water deliveries are supposed to be free but in reality residents must pay bribes to have the water delivered.

It doesn't matter where you live in Delhi the water supply is contaminated with sewage, 70 per cent  of samples fail  purity tests conducted by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Perhaps I should go back to brushing my teeth with filter water.

In our old apartment our landlord installed a fancy-schmancy water filter as he thought having 20L drums delivered was unseemly… whatever… For a while I enjoyed the convenience of the filter water but after a while I noticed a lot of residue building up in the ice cube trays, our filter clearly wasn't removing everything. So I went back to ordering in bottled water for drinking and used the filter water for cooking and washing vegetables etc.
Even though there is no proven correlation between hard water and kidney stones I seem to hear of a lot of people in Delhi being afflicted, so I would rather not take my chances.

As for the butt hose… I have no idea why it and the toilet never seem to run dry.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Indian Food
My Kingdom For a Decent Salad

Back before I lived in India I quite enjoyed Indian food. I would often make it my choice in food courts, I would sometimes dine in Indian restaurants and I would even attempt to make it at home. After three and a half years in India I don't dislike Indian food, I am just tired of it and it would no longer be my choice. And at the risk of being controversial I think the reason I am tired of it is because it all tastes the same.

The thing about Australian food is that it does not really exist. We just take what we like from everywhere else making the choices and flavours very diverse. Although not all Australians appreciate this as there are plenty who barely deviate from a bland diet with the standard dinner fare of meat and three veg.

Indian food however all seems to have the same undertones… a mix of turmeric, cumin, cardamon, coriander and cloves. When I first arrived in India I loved it all. The first lunch of dahl and rice at Sewa Ashram was the best thing I had ever tasted. But after eating it everyday for 6 months I could barely get down a single mouthful without gagging. Indian's of course never get sick of Indian food and a lot of them don't enjoy other types of food. Perhaps that is why there are so few foreign food restaurants here and even fewer that serve up anything worth ordering. The pickings are slim, even in food courts I struggle to find something appetising. In fact even in McDonald's just about everything on the menu has been Indianised.

In contrast just about every suburb in Sydney will have the following restaurants…Chinese, Indian, Thai, Pizza, Lebanese, Japanese, Fish and Chip and sushi. My taste buds weren't brought up with slight variance of the same flavours… it's all about diversity.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with the differing eating styles I am just saying that food choice is probably one of my biggest struggles here in India (a silly problem as living in India I am confronted with real problems on a daily basis). Some days, even after 3.5 years, I literally don't know what to eat. On those days it's a matter of finding something, anything that will keep the hunger away. Usually yoghurt, toast or a banana. In fact I went through a stage of making the most delicious banana bread a few times a week, until one day I realised it was just sitting there going moldy as the thought of eating another slice would make me gag… So I guess what I have learnt is I need to plan and I need to come up with new things that I can make and rotate.

It's not all bad really, it just takes a lot more planning and the choices are limited. I have to make a special trip to buy decent bread. I am yet to find good rocket or other salad greens. There are limited choices when it comes to good cheese and ice-cream… unless you are made of money. I would not even know where to start looking for fresh seafood that hasn't been swarmed by flies.

I am rambling now but here is a thought… In a city which has such hot weather for most of the year why do they eat all there food hot and their veggies with all the life cooked out of it?… Why not salads, gazpacho, cold noodle salads and soups, sushi, sandwiches.… I don't understand. By the way… they even fry sandwiches here!

I wonder if I would face the same dilemma in Japan… I have always considered sushi something I could eat everyday… I wonder how long it would take until I gagged.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Escaping Delhi

While Ray and Sam took off on their motorbike trip through the Himalayas, Hunter and I were fortunate enough to have been invited along on my mum and sisters trip to Europe.

As usual our flight out of Delhi was at a ridiculous hour… 4am. This was made particularly torturous due to the fact we had been up since 4am the morning before when Ray and Sam departed for their trip. You would think that having been awake for the better part of 24 hours I would have crashed once I got on the plane but I am yet to master the art of sleeping while sitting.

We met up with my mum and sister at Dubai airport. Let me just say Dubai airport is a dive; crowded and way too small for the number of people transiting this airport and not enough seats to go around. I have never seen so many people strewn all over an airport floor 

Copenhagen… I could live here.

First Impressions
One of the first things I notice when I get off a plane is the smell of the country. To me Denmark smelt a bit like timber crossed with a slightly sweet pastry smell…haha…I can't quite describe Delhi's smell but it is very distinct.
I found the customs check in Denmark to be very relaxed… No arrival forms, didn't even look at my photo, just found an empty page and stamped…very efficient. After waiting what felt like forever for our luggage we found we had missed our car ride to the hotel so took the train instead.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel which was really well located but our room was teeny tiny and was on a slope…. weird.

Highlights of Copenhagen…

Running Tour… 
Not sure how I came across this but I decided to do it and I loved it! The guide, Lena, was fabulous and I am amazed at any one who can run and talk at the same time. The tour was perfect for getting the lay of the land. I saw all the major sights including the little mermaid with about 100 asian tourists.

Canal Tour…
Lots to see, lots of history and some amazing architecture… I love this city

Illums Bolighus…love… if I could live in a store this would be the one. If I believed in reincarnation I I would assume I was Danish in a past life. This store is the mecca of Danish Design. Of course I bought myself a lil something.

Oh Yeah! All the things I have been missing… seafood, liquorice ice-cream, pastries, summer fruit.. I could go on.

The Palace…
I really like how the palace is set up around a big round-about and you could walk right up to the front door and knock. It was nice to see where Mary lives. Apparently the running tour has caught up with Mary out on her morning run. That would have been cool.

Bike Riding...
I have never seen so many bicycles before…actually, maybe I have in Holland. I think the cycling culture is one of the reasons I feel I could live here… everyone gets around on bikes; something like 80% of the population. One evening Hunter and I went and found ourselves some free city bikes and went for a ride down to the harbour baths. Even though we were there during peak summer it still felt too cold to swim. 
We deliberately avoided peak hour and went for a ride at about 9pm, the locals ride like they are on a mission and you have to keep out of their way. I found riding on the right side of the road a lil confusing too, especially when making left turns.

A tip… Never ever cross the street in Copenhagen unless the walk sign is illuminated. It seems this is one rule not to be broken, even if you are in a rush and no cars are coming. If you do you will be yelled at and accused of setting a bad example for children. I did not learn this from experience. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012


One of my pet peeves is people talking about the weather to facilitate social interaction; I find it more dull than silence. I have previously resolved never to turn to the weather for a topic of conversation… today, however, I am going to break my resolution because it is freaking HOT here in Delhi. For the past week it has consistently been in the mid forties…. and that's in the shade.  It also happens to be the temperature in my kitchen as witnessed by the thermometer hanging on the wall. So as you probably understand, not much in the way of cooking has been going on in my house this week. I think the most I have managed is to stick some eggs in water on the stove, walk away and then come back 15 minutes later to pop them in the fridge to chill… We have eaten a lot of hard-boiled eggs this past week. Don't ask me what else I have been eating because other than mangoes I honestly couldn't tell you. There has been a lot of sugary liquids consumed, that is for sure. When it is this hot you not only crave liquid but  sugary liquid… I think your body instinctively knows water is absorbed better when it has some sugar or salt to follow.

Fortunately this week I have managed to travel from air-conditioned room to air-conditioned room in my air-conditioned car. Usually with heat like this comes regular blackouts and hours of sweating wondering when the power will come back on… but so far so good… touch wood.

The other thing that comes with heat like this is crazy wind. And with the wind comes dust storms. Every surface in my house seems to be perpetually covered in a layer of dirt.

It may appear that I am complaining but I assure you I am not. I love the heat. I would much rather be in stifling heat than freezing cold…. even in a landlocked city like Delhi with a shortage of swimming pools. There is something about being wrapped in warmth that appeals to me more than wrapping myself in layers in the cold.
The other major bonus of this dry heat is that my hair is lovely and smooth… not looking forward to the frizz that will arrive with the monsoon.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The most feral animals ever created

100th post… wow that's a lot of verbal diarrhoea.

I tend to read the Sydney Morning Herald on Ipad a couple of times a week. It keeps me up with the news back home as well as current themes in the media and special interest stories.
When I got to the World section yesterday there was an article on the problem of monkeys in urban Delhi. The article caught my eye as it is about my current home town and it was also about an animal I loathe.
I have never liked monkeys… something about their humanoid features creeps me out. It's not just their looks I don't like; they can be aggressive, they carry rabies and they spend their days picking who knows what out of each others fur… seriously, what's to like?

I knew the monkeys of Delhi were a problem but I did not realise how out of hand things were becoming.
I have lived in my particular neighbourhood of South Delhi for nearly two years now. It was months after I moved here that I saw my first monkey in this part of town. But now I see them regularly, almost daily. I hate them. I hate seeing a gang of them roaming down my street looking for ways into houses to pilfer food; especially when I am carrying bags of fruit and veg and I have to walk between rows of parked cars to avoid them. I hate that we have to have a monkey grate to close in our outdoor hallway so they can't get into our kitchen.

The article in the SMH said the reason the monkey population is getting so out of hand is because people feed them. Monkeys represent the Hindu god Hanuman and Hindu tradition calls for feeding of monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays… random.

Apparently there is a trapping program in Delhi. The city pays $12 for every monkey trapped. This is not bad money, yet in a city where there are millions of people looking for a job there are very few people applying.
The trapped monkeys are apparently taken to a large 'monkey prison' on the outskirts of Delhi. There has been no decision on what to do with them from there. Authorities want to send them to forests in neighbouring states but those states refuse to take them. There is also the problem that these monkeys are urbanised and would not survive in a forest where there are no kids to steal candy from.

Yesterday a friend was telling me that they went up onto their rooftop and found a monkey pulling the lid off their water tank and then hopping it to drink water. This is the water that they wash their clothes, dishes and shower with…ewww.