Monday, November 8, 2010

Surreal Singapore

I’m not sure what to think about Singapore.  We docked where cruise ships do and emerged from security into the fringes of a monstrously large, crowded, overwhelming mall.  Perhaps it is the stark contrast of its fluorescent lights, gleaming hard surfaces, very upscale stores and enormous crowds of vacationing Asians with the grime, smells and pollution of Chennai that gave it a surreal feel.  Singapore seems to function as the Disney World of Asia and that is an odd world to enter just three days out of India.
The mall, Vivocity, was very confusing and we literally got lost one evening and began to worry that we’d be locked in the mall since we couldn’t get our bearings.  At one point, we went into what appeared to be a Wal-Mart type store and proceeded to the grocery which turned out to be two floors down into the basement.  We made our way through the grocery section and exited out the back to find ourselves in another enormous wing of the mall.  The one positive was that we found the ice cream we were interested in and got to try durian ice cream too.  Durians are fruit found in SE Asia that smell to high-heaven, but revered for their flavor by many.  In Singapore, it is illegal to eat durian in public or a hotel or to bring it on public transportation.  This meant that if we wanted to try it, we’d need to go to “The Four Seasons Durian Café”.  We were not successful in our attempts to find the café, so we were happy to be able to try the ice cream.  It smelled a bit “skunky” and initially tasted a tad garlicky (like the flavor you get if you slice fruit on a cutting board upon which you’ve recently sliced garlic) before that sulfur-based flavor subsided and tasted fruity.  I still hope to be able to try the fruit in Vietnam.
Most everyone knows that Singapore has a very strict system of laws and there was evidence of that most everywhere we went.  I think what surprised me about this was the friendly tone of the reminders about what was and was not legal.  There were posters reminding us not to litter, not to spit, not to eat or drink on the train and even looping commercials about how to board the train on closed circuit TV playing on the rapid transit system.  They addressed the system that should be adhered to for boarding a train – basically, one should Q to the side to allow passengers to disembark first.    

There were signs – mostly friendly looking cartoons – letting people know the fines for particular offenses.  The tourist trade must be making a mint off of the t-shirts sold all over that play on this aspect of Singapore law.  There are t-shirts that list all the offenses and monetary fines (it isn’t so funny to list out capital punishment), those that say “Singapore is a FINE city”, etc.  At least the government lets folks make light of it.  I will say that Singapore is safe and clean, but many of us spent our time constantly analyzing whether or not what we were doing was illegal.  I fed a cat some meat left over from our cooking class and I was probably doing something illegal.  We jaywalked in Chinatown because everyone else was, but I was waiting for the big fine at any point.
On the first day we enjoyed a dim sum lunch in Chinatown.  The thing about Singapore is that it is a melting pot of Asian cultures and it seemed that nothing was strictly Chinese, Indian or Malaysian, etc.  For example, a chili sauce served with the dim sum was something I’d never encountered with that type of meal.  It was similar to a mixture of Korean and SE Asian sauces I’ve had.  In the grocery, all food comes from elsewhere.  It was a bit like shopping in a grocery in a big city that caters to many Asian immigrants.  It was odder though, because there were also German, American, Italian, etc. products.  One interesting find were grapes from the US.  WE don’t even get those at home – ours are from Chile! 
I love the packaging in Asia and found the description of this snack food fascinating:

I have always said that an excellent dose of delicious food adds onions and that crispy crispy good flavor is a must!

After abandoning our efforts to sample some durian, we made our way back to Chinatown for a dinner of giant prawn noodles from a stall on Food Street.  Again, it was a bit of Asian fusion.  The broth was spicy and tasted like it had some of the roasted chilies in oil paste that I make for Thai cooking, the noodles were Chinese and it came with a soy sauce/red chile garnish that itself seemed to be a fusion of Japanese or Chinese/Thai or Vietnamese.  It was good except that the shrimp was very sweet.  A couple of bottles of Tiger beer helped cut the heat!

On the second day in port, I participated in a Semester at Sea organized cooking class at a place called At-Sunrice Cooking Academy.  While the two dishes we made were good, it took much longer than required – we only had two days and one night in Singapore - and it was very expensive at $99.  We had some fun cooking but ended up with four people at our station – all things considered the group worked amazingly well together and the dishes turned out great.  We made kung pao chicken that was very tasty.   I wish I knew what type of dried red peppers we used.  For the most part, they had excellent flavor and moderate heat.  I say for the most part because every so often one was sizzling hot – the last one I ate was like this and had my eyes and nose running.

Interestingly, we marinated the chicken and then deep-fried it.  It helped keep it moist and gave it great color, yet it wasn’t oily because the oil temperature was high enough to prevent that.  The chef recommended cotton seed oil…not sure how available that is in the US, but it worked well.  We used lots of garlic and ginger as well as ground white pepper to give it great flavor.
The other dish we prepared was fried rice with the usual suspects – diced roasted pork, diced vegetables, green onion, and egg.  We also added shrimp.  Both recipes were good and very easy to do at home.  I do wish we’d learned some of the uniquely Singaporean food instead of Chinese.  They serve chili crabs, chicken rice, and other local specialties that I can’t recall – I would’ve loved to have made one of those.

After the cooking class I met up with Greg and we went to have pizza from a wood-fired oven.  It sounded good, but was just okay because I don’t believe they actually had a wood-fired oven.  I had hoped to get some “pork floss” – a marinated grilled thin piece of meat (kind of like a fresh jerky).  We’d had a sample in Chinatown and it was good.  It was reminiscent of the flavor of Korean bulgogi.  We ran out of appetite, money and time though so we were floss-less.  I was also sorry we didn’t have time to eat at the Piggy Porky restaurant we spotted in Chinatown. 
They Lay’s potato chips in Singapore were of the varieties found in the US.  They had plain, sour cream and onion, etc. so we didn’t get any.  We did, however, try some cassava chips.  They were sliced ultra thin that had a very slight BBQ flavor (Greg inadvertently got them with a flavoring).  They were nice and crispy, but nothing I’d seek out.  Then again, I don’t ever buy potato chips at home so I guess that is not a good measure of quality.
We visited a beautiful Buddhist temple – the Buddha’s tooth temple – in Chinatown.  It was beautiful and it was interesting as the monks were chanting when we went through.  It had many floors with one featuring a sealed room containing what is supposed to be part of one of Buddha’s teeth and it was festooned with lots and lots of gold leaf. 

On the roof top was a garden with orchids – an unexpected treat!

It also housed the largest cloisonné prayer wheel (not sure how many cloisonné prayer wheels in the world there are, but I will verify that this was sizable).

What I enjoyed most was a small museum of the story of Buddha and a display of artifacts.  I learned a good deal and got to bathe a Buddha statue which pleased me to no end for some reason.  A visit to the bookstore resulted in my purchasing a lovely Way of the Buddha book of verses.  Ending the day with a verse or two is a nice way to go to sleep.  I find I’m intrigued with Hinduism and Buddhism and have several books on order from Amazon already. 
We have one day until we hit Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam.  It is far too soon and I’ve spent a good part of the day in a semi-comatose state.  We did too much walking in the heat and humidity on hard concrete.  I need to rally for tomorrow!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Goodbye Chennai!

Our second visit to India could not have been more different from our first.  In 2003, we stayed one night in Mamallapuram (south of Chennai or Madras) and spent the rest of the time in and around Chennai.  Chennai is dirty, crowded, noisy and not all that appealing although it is interesting.  I knew that I wanted to see something different in India, but didn’t want to embark on a marathon trip to the Taj Mahal or Varanasi.  While I want to visit these places, I want to learn more about Hinduism before I do.  Greg gets cranky in hot, humid conditions so I decided that the best plan would be to visit some place cooler and more laid-back.  It is easy to become exhausted by the negotiations required to get anywhere or buy anything in Chennai. 

I do think that there were fewer people begging, it was cleaner and the river smelled better than the last time we were here.  I think their improved economy is trickling down although this could just be wishful thinking. 
The bureaucracy in Chennai was double that of our previous visit.  Upon our arrival, we each had to go before immigration to get our passports stamped.  Simple enough, I thought.  Initially, we were to pick up our customs forms there too (we had earlier listed all electronic gadgetry we have), but the customs agents decided to stamp each one and have us pick them up at the Purser’s desk.  There was a huge line snaking every which way – people were impatient and upset although I saw it as just a taste of what was to come and not anything to get one’s panties in a bind over.  In my mind we were lucky the ship was cleared by about 10 a.m. – far sooner than I’d imagined. 

As we prepared to leave the ship to embark on a short shopping excursion prior to a SAS trip for one of Greg’s classes, we were caught in a LONG line out to the gate.  The reason for said line was that each passenger had to show his or her passport and customs form (you CANNOT lose this – it is checked all the time) and be checked off of a list of ALL passengers.  Why?  Who knows?  After that, another person checked custom forms and made passengers show their possessions – why?  Again, who knows?  We walked out to the port gate - later in the week this was deemed illegal by Indian officials - to catch an auto-rickshaw.  At the gate, we had to show all our documents again.  The shopping trip was uneventful with the exception of the driver trying to gouge us upon our return even we had upon three times the going rate before we even got in.  He acted insulted and refused our money saying “his treat”.  Of course, when we turned to walk away to call his bluff he took it.  What had been a happy little excursion was changed into one that left us all with a bad taste in our mouths. 

We had to show our documents again at the port gate.  Greg had both our passports in his travel pouch and he handed me mine which I passed to the official.  He looked at it and gave it back.  Greg gave the official his passport and he seemed satisfied.  When I gave my passport back to Greg, I realized that it was HIS and that the official was just going through with some charade – it was all just intimidation and harassment.  I generally find it amusing, but it can get tiring and was more reason for us to get out of Chennai.  The worrying thing is that this was supposed to be part of their high security system, which appeared to be a complete sham.

Amusing signage:

 We tried two varieties of Lay's potato chips in India.  Both were aggressively spicy - not hot, but too much spice for my palate.  The variety with the lime was much better than the other one.

At Long Last...Ganesha

On our last day in port, we visited Mamallapuram which is the site of several non-working temples. They have fantastic carvings – some are carved from a single boulder while others are carved in pieces and assembled together to form a temple. To this day, Mamallapuram is a city of stone carvers – there is a street lined with little shops and workshops with beautiful work. It was a great day out with friends and I realized my dream of getting a stone Ganesha of my own. This guy is the Hindu remover of obstacles and is the friend of students, taxi drivers and anyone who wants to get things done. He is about 6" high and 12" long and will reside in my garden. I chose a reclining Ganesha because the standing versions with the more typical 4 arms tip over more easily. Maybe someday I’ll get a larger 4-armed guy to go with my tiny sandalwood version.

The Shore Temple was our first stop in Mamallapuram.  It is 1300 years old and is different because it houses both a shrine for Shiva and one for Vishnu. It is also an early example of an assembled - rather than boulder-carved - temple. There are Hindu’s who follow Shiva and others that follow Vishnu – to house them together is rare. With that said, this was never a working temple.

There are a whole lot of Nandi bulls for Shiva to ride!

It is amazing how much detail remains in the temple carvings after so much time in the seaside air:

The Five Rathas (5 chariots) is about 100 years older than the Shore Temple and is an example of monuments carved out of boulders – as our friend Manuel puts it the “artists liberated the shapes from the stone”. The problem, of course, is that if you mess up you can’t correct it. If you are assembling carvings together into a structure, you can re-do the part you made incorrectly. These carvings are incomplete.

The display below shows a possible play on words. The word for the style of roof on the structure in the background translates to “elephant’s backside”. The artists put an elephant’s backside ride next to it…a lot of work for a pun!

Perhaps the most interesting carvings are on the Descent of the Ganges:

This, Too, Is India

On this trip, I decided that we should visit the state of Karnataka - more specifically the Kodagu (or Coorg) region.  It is at a higher elevation and isn’t heavily visited by tourists.  About a week before our arrival I began to plan, but soon realized that just getting the train tickets we’d need would be a daunting task.  This led me to contact an Indian travel agency despite my misgivings about entrusting someone.  I ran several ideas by Murugesh (the agent) and he quickly gave me estimates.  In the meantime, I discovered that our next-door neighbors wanted to go to the same area and they decided to come along.  The final itinerary was to travel to Mysore, spend one night there and then proceed to Coorg where we’d stay two nights.  Murugesh had originally made a suggestion of a hotel in Mysore that is of a higher class than we usually go with so I told him that I’d wanted to stay in The Green Hotel – it has some environmentally friendly features and gives its profits to charity.  Based on that he selected a homestay in Coorg that he thought I’d like.  It was then that I turned over all arrangements to him.  It was a great decision to make – we were picked up right outside the ship, given all our train tickets, driven to the station and led to our seats (okay, the last part was overkill, but it was part of the guide’s job so we went along with it).  We didn’t have to worry about a thing and the entire trip only cost us about $550 – the lack of headache was worth every penny.
We met our driver right outside the ship at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. train to Mysore.  It was a 7 hour ride, but we were entertained by constant visits from train staff providing passengers with water, then biscuits, newspapers, apple juice, coffee, tea, lunch, etc., etc.  The scenery was also interesting. 
We arrived in Mysore and were met right outside our train car by our driver who took us to a market which was supposed to be one of those “musts”.  It was colorful with conical mounds of dye being sold and an olfactory overload due to the jasmine, incense and essential oil purveyors. 
We found that the banana section was peaceful – no one is going to try to sell tourists 100 pounds of bananas:
It was also full of hawkers selling cheap anklets and sandalwood items.  Mysore is famous for its sandalwood and silk.  In the end, I purchased 15 anklets for approximately $8.  I was resisting the vendors who walked with me the entire length of the market trying to talk me into buying and finally one said he would sell me all he had for 400 rupees.  I gave in and said okay – they are a variety of styles and I’ve worn one and gave two to a student who wished she’d gotten one.  I am sure they will fall apart in no time, but they are pretty.  I joked with the vendor that I was going to go open my own shop. 
After fighting off offers of sandalwood fans, incense, boxes, trinkets, etc. we’d had enough and went to Chamundi hill to visit the Chamundi temple.  The temple is dedicated to the goddess Chamundi who defeated the demon buffalo, Mahishasura.  After that, we walked down a hill to see a Nandi bull (Shiva’s vehicle) carved in 1659 from a boulder.  He is 16’ long and 25’ wide.  The Nandi bull is one of my favorites!
We were exhausted after a long day of travel so we spent the evening having beer, appetizers and dinner at the hotel restaurant.  At the end, we asked to see their tandoor and they happily took us into the kitchen.  The hotel had a beautiful garden and the restaurant is on the far side:
The rooms were clean and the bed comfortable.  There were monkeys the following morning, but they left us alone:
After some shopping at the nice little hotel shop, we set out for the main course of our visit – Bel Home coffee plantation!  The 3 hour drive took us across the Mysore Plain into the Western Ghats.  For the last hour the road was very curvy and even when the roads weren’t winding, the driver wove across the road to pass auto-rickshaws, goats, cows, bicycles, pedestrians, large trucks, etc.  Both Debby (one of our traveling companions) and I were feeling green around the gills and were extremely happy to get to our destination.  The upside of that last hour was that it was beautiful driving up through the hills. 
We got to Bel Home in the early afternoon and were met by our hosts Ramollah and Vijai –two of the nicest, most hospitable people you can find.  Ramollah and Vijai are Kodava people – an interesting “tribe” found in the Kodagu or Coorg region.  Historically, they purchased their land back from the British who’d made them into coffee plantations.  They are a light-skinned people of unknown origin who have very different rituals and beliefs than those in surrounding areas.  For example, they worship nature and their ancestors instead of the idols worshipped by Hindus.  They eat a lot of meat – especially pork – and alcohol is not forbidden.  In addition, they are big field hockey players (many famous players are Kodavas) and are the only people in India allowed to carry arms without license.  They are a martial group and have had a strong role in the Indian military.  They aren’t out starting fights, but had to protect themselves and traditionally hunted a lot.  These days, they are very well-educated and are having a difficult time keeping the plantations in the family as children get degrees and move to cities to work.  I’m not sure what will happen to these beautiful plantations in the next generation. 
My Indian family:
They showed us to our accommodations – a building of about 80 years that used to house plantation workers and rice.  They had remodeled it into two bedrooms and two bathrooms.  It had a lovely front veranda where it was easy to spend time relaxing.
Ramollah and her assistant – an ancient woman who had been on the plantation for 60 years – had prepared a feast of Coorg food for us.  It was delicious and convinced us all that we had made the correct decision about what to do in India.  We had two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners at Bel Home and they were all excellent.  It was mild heat-wise, but very flavorful and featured a lot of exceptionally prepared vegetable dishes.  I’ve never had better beats, okra or eggplant dishes.  A pumpkin dish, in particular, was out of this world.  Of course, there were rice dishes and breads served with every meal.
Our time was spent walking the plantation, learning about shade grown coffee, looking at beautiful birds, spotting cool insects and other creatures, hiking with their dogs Tigger and Patch and visiting with our hosts, their children and his parents.  They provided us with a stack of books so we could learn more about the area and its people – cooking, birds, flowers, coffee growing, Hinduism, Mysore painting (Ramollah is a wonderful artist).  The weather was cool in the evening and the morning when fog would roll in – they call the region “the Scotland of India”, but pleasantly sunny and dry during the day.  The pictures don’t do it justice at all, but here goes!
View from plantation across neighboring hills:
Coffee trees – they trim them to about 5 feet high so that the coffee berries are easy to pick.  The slopes of the plantation are incredibly steep:
Vijai with a pepper vine growing on the trunk of one of the shade trees:
They grow vanilla as well:
Tigger – hiking partner extraordinaire:
At one point I mentioned, with surprise, to Debby and Sarah that Tigger was neutered.   Debby asked why that was surprising and I said that it was because we were in any other place than the US!  Tigger and Patch were happy, active dogs who accompany Vijai out on the plantation.  It was fun to see two dogs that weren’t mangy skeletons. 
Patch on a hike:
Tigger racing down path to say hello:
Scenes from on and around the plantation:
Greg's friend Rolly - he was as long as a tube of chapstick!
I feel very fortunate that we got to see this other side of India.  There are some that would say that it isn’t the “real India”, but I think it is ALL the real India.  It was beautiful, refreshing, relaxing and we learned a lot.  We were the only guests and we spent an evening with the family in their home.  They showed us a video that Vijai’s aunt had made to educate others about the Kodavas and they shared their wedding album with us so that they could show us some of the rituals they perform.  There are no priests or ministers at such events, it is all overseen by the elders.  I’d read that Bel Home has been rated as one of the top 10 homestays in India and I’d say it belongs there.  We left with a bag of their coffee and a bag of their peppercorns as gifts – they were generous with their time as well!
We sadly left our fabulous hosts and returned to Mysore to catch the train.  We visited a palace because we were told we “must” although I have to say that we would’ve skipped it had we not felt some pressure.  It was pretty, but after a few days of peace and quiet I wasn’t ready for the sandalwood vendors.  My temper was short and at one point I actually elbowed a guy out of my way and threatened to break his sandalwood fan like a twig.  I didn’t want a fan or a flute or a snake or a box or…I just wanted to be able to walk 5 feet unhampered! 
 Really, all I want is a lick!
We caught the 2:15 train back to Chennai, were met by a driver who took us back to the port.  We had to show our passports twice and Sarah’s was taken and inspected because they had accidentally stamped Oct. 2 on the visa, not Oct. 22.  It doesn’t matter since the thing is good for 6 months…just more hassle.  Although the driver was able to pick us up at the ship without issue because they had the proper pass the return wasn’t the same.  They had the proper paperwork, but this time wouldn’t accept the photocopy of the driver’s ID.  They made us drive to a nearby building where they took his photo.  We returned to the gate where the same men examined our passports again.  We arrived back at the ship and had to show our paperwork yet again to get back to the ship.  In the course of about 20 minutes we showed it 3 times.