Pondicherry, Bangalore, and Beyond!

The last week has been really incredible, filled with food, family, friends, and adventures taking me from Bombay to Pondicherry to Mahaballipuram to Chennai to Bangalore and Mysore, and back to Bombay!

Last Wednesday, I had a great time with A Mama, A Mami, and cousin S.  We enjoyed a buffet at the fabbed out Courtyard Marriott in Andheri East and later went to watch Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which I really wanted to like since it was Yash Chopra’s last —  but it sucked. :\ I liked the wig, facial hair, and fingerless gloves on SRK though.  Katrina Kaif should retire, or just be a model for one of those godawful “Fair Look” infomercials.

I spent Thursday morning celebrating my first Bhaubeej at H Mavshi’s, and also got in an evening celebration at A & V’s, where I also got to meet V’s brother and parents.  I’ve now shifted from the hotel to the home of S and brother-in-law D, which looks like a palace! And yet feels like a home.

On Friday, S, A, V, and I met up at the Bombay airport and set off to Chennai, and from there grabbed a prepaid taxi to the lovely Franco-Tamilian city of Pondicherry.  S had booked us a stay at Seaside Guest House, a pleasant spot conveniently located on Goubert Avenue (also known as Beach Street).  The weather was comfortably warm, and it was nice to roam around Beach Street at night, since it is closed off to traffic during some hours.  We enjoyed frequenting the 24-hour Le Cafe overlooking the water, and the food at the nearby Le Club was really tasty, especially the “Creole Prawn Curry.” We were only in Pondicherry for about a day and a half, but we packed in many activities, thanks largely to the full-day bus tour organized by the tourism office. We did the tour on Saturday; it departs the office at 9:45 and ends up at the Aurobindo Ashram at 5pm, and it’s actually rather well-paced, according sufficient time for chilling, browsing, and boating as appropriate at the different stop-offs.  The only weird thing is that the tour guide did not point out or discuss anything whatsoever along the way, even though it seems we passed by several things that should have been of cultural and/or historical significance.  He didn’t even describe the places where we actually stopped and got off other than “Here is [location] — be back in the bus at [time].” But oh well — there’s always Wikipedia!

On Sunday, S, A, and V rented bikes from a local bike shop and urged me to do the same.  I’ve heard that you never forget how to ride a bike once you learn, but here’s the thing: I never learned.  I mean, I tried to when I was 10, but I veered into a bush and quickly gave up, resolving that it would be easier to stay indoors, eat pizza rolls, and read Stardust.  I am fairly open-minded, but some things will never change, and one of them is my conservatism when it comes to anything athletic.  I mean, maybe if I take up this effort again, it will be in an American tree-lined suburb, with a helmet, and maybe an astronaut suit.  Anyway, our plan was to return the bikes at 2pm on Sunday and then immediately leave so we would have time to check out Mahaballipuram before returning to Chennai to catch our respective flights — but the bike shop was closed when we got there. We tried calling the owner, but he was having lunch or something and sent some other guy.  The other guy rushed over but forgot to bring the keys to open the garage where S’s ID was being held as collateral, so his presence was completely useless.  S tried to contain her frustration and quietly muttered something about him being “murkha” (Marathi for foolish), which made me giggle because I had previously only heard my parents use that word, usually to describe me.  Finally the owner came and opened up shop to return the collateral and we did make it to Mahaballipuram, and then to the Chennai airport in record time!

From Chennai, I caught a flight to Bangalore.  This leg of my trip was unique in that I wasn’t meeting up with friends from the Bay, and I don’t have family there. I do have a little online community though, including A and A, whom I had befriended in person when they lived in the Bay Area.  I thought it would be a good spot for a “me” trip since it’s a big city with western-friendly amenities and stuff, and I do have some contacts there. Upon arrival, I got ripped off at the airport by some unnecessarily swanky taxi company which drove me to my hotel for 1400 rupees (the return trip through City Taxi was 700), but I quite liked the hotel, Lemon Tree Ulsoor Lake.  It’s a nice, clean, affordable hotel with good service and a great breakfast buffet.

On Monday morning, I thought that maybe I’d go for a walk to Ulsoor Lake and then go on foot to some tourist traps.  However, as soon as I emerged from the hotel, a friendly rickshaw driver who later introduced himself as Mani insisted on driving me somewhere, anywhere.  I asked if he’d just like to be my tour guide for the day and take me to recommended sites, and he was happy to oblige. It was a fruitful day, with lots of time spent at Lal Bagh and the Bangalore Palace, setting up a day tour for Mysore the following day, and then spending thousands and thousands of rupees on kurtis that are way too tight for me.  At the Bangalore Palace, I succeeded in passing for a local and saving myself a few hundred rupees on the ticket price.  The guy apparently suspected something and asked, “From which country you are?” to which I replied in the worst fake Indian accent ever, “India only! Bombay!”

In the evening, I worked out a spontaneous Tweetup with A, A, S, and M, which was so cool!  I thought that maybe I’d get to meet up with these Tweeps for just a brief time during the trip, but it turns out I got in quite a bit of quality time with them!  S joined me for Mysore the next day, which was fun and really cool because he gave me better historical perspective on the sites we visited and took me to the right spots to snack along the way (including street food: bhel puri with flies swarming around the ingredients that a woman mixed with her hands and served to us from a newspaper — delicious!).  The next day, I had a fancy schmancy breakfast with M and my namesake L at the Oberoi.  Before leaving Bangalore, I saw Mani outside the hotel again, and he asked if I had any currency from back home, since his wife was interested in seeing it, so I went up and dug a dollar from my suitcase.

Yesterday I came back from Bangalore and booked myself a cool cab from the Bombay Airport to cousin V’s place.  The driver was a guy named Pandey whose co-worker cabbie had just been treated very disrespectfully by some rich bald guy.  Pandey before getting in the cab mouthed the guy off with “Arrey ja takley, tere jaise bahut dekhe hain, benchod!” which is such a wonderfully filmi dialogue (roughly “Get out of here, baldie, I’ve seen a lot of sisterfuckers like you”)!  On the ride, we discussed how it is not really that uncommon or surprising for formally well-educated people to be assholes. When I got to V’s place, we had a nice little reunion with the other V’s, U Aatya, and sister-in-law M and her parents with delicious homemade food. As usual, I ate so much!  This afternoon I saw S Aatya and then spent more time with U Aatya and the V’s having homemade heavenly fish and prawns and later chaat, again stuffing myself to exhaustion.  I suppose it is only appropriate for me to do so, though, as it is Thanksgiving back home!

On any day, but this one especially, it behooves me to take a moment to reflect in gratitude on all my blessings, including the lovely peeps that have got my back.  I’ve had so much help from family and friends to prepare for the trip, and I was provided all kinds of support, suggestions, and gifts such as a camera, a book for the plane, a passport holder, a Swiss Army Knife, and a big wad of rupees; while on the trip, I’ve been provided a home, a local cell phone, a custom-made purse, use of cars/drivers, and accompaniment to all sorts of errands. I have a great team of trustworthy people who are handling my work stuff very diligently while I am gone.  All of my family in the UK and in India, as well as friends new and old have really extended themselves and their resources to make me feel taken care of.  I am missing my immediate family a lot, but also really happy to enjoy such a strong sense of belonging from people thousands of miles away whom I seldom get to see.

Oh yeah, and though I have yet to make it to Gold’s for celebrity stalking, I have meanwhile made front page news for occupying Dharma Productions!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sittin’ by the Dock of Bombay

I haven’t even been in Bombay for a week, but I have already had such an incredible range of experiences!  Between all of the excitement and the weird hotel policy of charging for Wifi on a per-device basis, I couldn’t make blogging happen more regularly, but I will try to hit all the highlights.

I arrived in Mumbai on Thursday afternoon, prepared from past experience to deal with all sorts of crowds, hassles, and general bullshit at all stages of the airport experience from immigration to baggage claim to customs to finding the hotel car.  Surprisingly, all of these things were handled very smoothly and efficiently, and I made it by mid-afternoon to my hotel, the Oriental Residency (a good, convenient spot, and reasonably priced).  That evening, I met up with three cousins, a sister-in-law that I was meeting for the first time, and an adorable niece that I was also meeting for the first time!  It was totally fun to catch up over some kabobs at Sheesha in Bandra West, which has a great view of the city from the terrace.

Later that same night, H asked if I wanted to check out Olive Bar & Kitchen.  I had gone there for dinner with a couple of cousins on my previous trip, but apparently late Thursday nights are when the “who’s who” shows up.  I agreed to go, excited with the prospect of commencing my Bollywood stalking on day 1.  We did see a couple of familiar faces from Bollywood: Sanjay Kapoor, and Madhur Bhandarkar.  But mostly, we saw gawky cologne-drowned suited men and early-20s women with leopard print dresses who had a habit of lightly pushing the person in front of them with their manicured claws whenever they wanted to go anywhere, even though the push did nothing to facilitate movement.

At one point, H and I found ourselves near a very flamboyant-looking man named Yash with dyed side bangs and a low-cut mesh top which revealed the deepest cleavage I’ve ever seen in my life.  H asked Yash if he was gay (H is, by the way, which may somewhat diminish the jarring nature of the question), and Yash very stoically said no.  H was like “You’re straight?” and I laughed, obtusely assuming that Yash was probably joking with his answer.  Yash then turned to talk to someone else.  Later on, H Googled Yash, Bandra and found his way to who this person was.  Apparently, he is part of some really important billionaire industrialist family, and he’s married with a kid… OK!

Another character we encountered that night was Preeti, whom we later Googled and discovered to be a model/actress.  At one point in her lightly inebriated state, she mentioned somewhat casually that someone she knew had recently committed suicide.  Thirty seconds later, a server came to our table to see if we wanted any drinks, and she drawled, “Could you please get me a fresh kiwi juice margarita?”  “What does that mean, madam?” inquired the puzzled bartender.  “It means, you can take a kiwi, and then you can make a fresh juice from the kiwi, and then you can use that in the margarita.  Don’t use the juice from concentrate.”  Later in the conversation, Preeti asked each person at the table individually, “Do you judge people?”  H along with the two straight guys at the table who were dying to hook up with Preeti answered in the negative.  When it was my turn, I answered “yes.”

On Friday, I explored Churchgate a bit and ate a spectacular Gujarati thali at Samrat, and in the evening, my cousin A took me to Lower Parel to check out this really cool show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Mumbai.  The food was horrible, which I suppose it must be across all Hard Rock Cafes (I don’t think I’ve eaten at one before) — but the music was great, blending various Indian folk/classical styles with rock and metal.

On Saturday, I saw a couple of uncles in Dahisar. My cousin P was kind enough to commute all the way over to my hotel about an hour away just to accompany and help me get to their place.  Both homes had a delicious spread of food, but I was so full and wiped out after all the gorging.  Nonetheless, after napping for a few hours, I was ready to join H in fabbing up and hitting the Four Seasons in Worli.  The venue is inherently amazing, and with the Diwali decor, it was definitely worth a visit just for the photo ops.  The rooftop bar had a sweet panoramic view of the city.  In terms of the crowd, I’ll use a wide brushstroke to say that Olive is the space for wannabes in the mainstream entertainment world, and Four Seasons is the space for people who think they are too good or too busy for mainstream entertainment. Boo-ring!

On Sunday, I enjoyed a half-day excursion to the Elephanta Caves with H and my cousins A and S.  We cabbed to the Gateway of India and got the ferry from there.  As we passed by several monkeys on the way to the ticket area, S cautioned me not to talk at the point of sale, lest they identify me as a foreigner and charge me the higher rate accordingly.  “Marathi madhye pan nahi?” I asked (“Not even in Marathi?”).  “Especially not!” S replied.  The mission was accomplished of being admitted per local charges which were super nominal, and we spent a few hours documenting the site, which has already been well-documented in the amusing guidebooks.  The caves are amazing and definitely worth the trudge, which got us super tired and greasy.  We stopped into this little restaurant shack thing on the way down and got some magic masala chips and 5 Star bars.  Then we went to Cafe Mondegar in Colaba for a late lunch.  The setting and artwork were cute, but the food unfortunately was not great.

Later that night, we chilled at Marine Drive and watched official and unofficial fireworks.  I don’t get to see people including small children frolic and light crackers and rockets in the middle of the sidewalk in the US (for good reason :\), so this was something unique and exciting for me.  It was really fun to be in those surroundings in general, but two incidents stuck out the most.  The first involved a small child who seemed to have gotten injured after a rocket lit up very quickly; he started bawling and kicking uncontrollably, and his mother took him away from the scene and hugged him tight.  Five minutes later that same boy was back in the same spot, lighting a rocket and smiling and clapping.  The second incident involved two rockets erupting into huge flames, and a woman in a salwar kameez walking right through them, unfazed, as if she hadn’t just barely escaped being engulfed in flames.  I guess people in this city learn to be fearless after constantly walking and driving through traffic and all the death-defying maneuvers pulled by rickshaws, cabbies, bicyclists, cows, and pedestrians.

And Monday! Oh, goodness, Monday! It was going to be H’s last day in the city, so we decided to hone in on our most beloved Bollywood stalkee of all time: Karan Johar.  We’re actually internationally recognized for stalking him.  No, seriously.  I think I will later on resurrect a blog devoted to that enterprise to elaborate on the experience because otherwise I’ll gush way too much, but suffice it to say that we actually entered the Dharma Productions office, sat on KJo’s waiting room couch, heard KJo gushing about some party from just about ten feet away, and hand-wrote letters to him via his heinously bitchy assistant!  It was the ultimate Diwali treat!

Later that day, S helped us out with a currency exchange around Shivaji Park, and we got a tasty Maharashtrian snack at Aaswad, followed by some paan per A’s recommendation.  We walked around the super Diwali’d out Ranade Road, and I had my first local train experience, which wasn’t so bad since it was in reverse direction for the rush hour, and then scoped out the beautiful Victoria Terminus, or now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or whatever.  Then we ate at Pizza by the Bay, which is excellent in terms of ambiance, location, and food.  Then we did a horse carriage ride to Nariman Point, and then lit up our own fireworks on Marine Drive!

I spent the morning of the main Diwali day with H Mavshi’s family.  They have a lovely new home, and I was happy to have the familiar Diwali meal of five pohas with close relatives, since I missed it with my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and in-laws!  My nephew O is all grown up from 2 when I last saw him to 8, and is such a cutie! S then showed me around some spots in Shivaji Park and helped me do a bunch of my parents’ requested shopping on Ranade Road, and then I rested at the hotel before having dinner with the families of three cousins and an aunt at India & Beyond in Worli.  The food was delicious, and it was so great to see them and my two nephews who are in their twenties!

The amazing thing is that my trip is not even halfway over — I still have so many people to see and things to do in Bombay (including Gold’s Gym!!), and I am off to Pondicherry and then Bangalore for a few days starting this Friday!

Connecting, Reconnecting, and Reloading in the UK

In just a little while, the test results concerning the fundamental sanity of the United States will be out.  If I were at home, I would have been watching the presidential election coverage, armed with a bottle of wine to enhance my growing state of revelry or despair.  But now that it’s getting late into my last night in London, I will just keep surveying and reloading Facebook for updates concerning my home country’s fate for the next four years; my Facebook friends are the most credible news source anyway.

In matters of more certainty in revelry, I am having such a fabulous time in the UK!  The flight out from SFO on Thursday was smooth and didn’t at all feel like it was more than 10 hours.  Upon arriving at London Heathrow on Friday morning, I got my bags, sailed through customs, and hopped on a National Express coach to Wales.  After riding through the lush, quaint countryside with views of many brick buildings and grazing sheep, I arrived at the Bridgend stop, where my cousin S picked me up to spend the weekend in her lovely home.  I got to see my brother-in-law V for the first time since their marriage almost 15 years ago, and I met their two delightful children for the first time (the first in our family to have Welsh/British accents)!  Even though it was my first time in the UK and I had barely seen this part of my family, I felt immediately at home with delicious homemade biryani, and a poster, song, and dance prepared by the kids!

On Saturday, the family took me to the Big Pit to tour a historical coalmine.  Before we were allowed underground, we were provided belts and helmets containing a light bulb.  I thought these artifacts were sort of a cute touch to romanticize being in a coalmine — but it turns out this was the real deal, and those lit up helmets were really quite essential to prevent our skulls from cracking while crouching through the various windy, dark underground tunnels!  It was interesting and heartbreaking to learn about the working conditions for the mine workers, who began working at age 6, and their families, who had to do their best to prevent and ward off disease and infection.  After wandering through the pithead baths and the mining galleries, we grabbed some food in the canteen.  I tried a traditional Welsh Cawl, a simple but tasty dish consisting of lamb, carrots, leeks, and potatoes.  We went to a charming pub called Caesars Arms in the evening which had tasty food, not least including the delectable sticky toffee pudding.  On Saturday night, we got in our pajamas and played tennis and “Just Dance” on the Wii, which was loads of fun, followed by a viewing of Rock of Ages (as in the Tom Cruise one), which I actually totally loved!

On Sunday, we checked out the Cardiff Castle, which is quite an exquisite site, modernly located across from a Burger King and Subway in Cardiff.  Each part of the castle is adorned with an amazing history of its own, including tunnels that had been used as an air raid shelter during WW2.  After seeing the castle, we got some yummy food at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Cardiff before I got on my train back to London.  I had such a great time with the family’s gracious hosting, and it was sort of surreal to have met my niece and nephew for the first time; I’m hoping they will all visit us in the Bay Area soon!

Once I arrived in London on Sunday night, I had another wonderful experience with reconnecting and first-time-connecting: I was greeted by my cousin M whom I hadn’t seen in almost 15 years, and for the first time met my brother-in-law R.  They graciously welcomed me into their stylish apartment, and once again, I felt right at home, catching up over scrumptious homemade food and Bollywood on the telly!  My friend H joined later that night, and we stayed up until late at night, excitedly discussing our upcoming activities in London and plans to travel to Bombay at the same time!

H had found out about Sandeman’s free walking tours, so M, H, and I decided to do one the next day.  We really lucked out with sunny weather and had such a great time on the tour!  It covered pretty much all of the tourist destinations of Westminster, such as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament, and the tour guide did a great job weaving in wit, humor, and history.  H kept holding up the group with his persistent photo-clicking, but I am sort of glad he did, because we captured some amazing photos!

After the tour, we went to this pub, where we were joined by B, who had hopped in a couple nights before from Barcelona!  We all got fish and chips to get more in the mood of our current setting.  Unfortunately, the fish and chips were disgusting.  Now, I am by no means the world’s greatest proponent or practitioner of good nutrition, but this “fish” was just a nasty puddle of grease and bones.  We all ended up a bit sick and poor M had to go home, but B, H, and I persevered into the night to see some breathtaking views of the Thames, the Tower of London, and Tower Bridge.  We ended the night with dinner and a gay bar in Soho.

I slept in quite a bit this morning, and when I woke up, M and I got ready and met up with B for lunch near the Victoria station before B headed on back to Barcelona.  M then took me to the amazing shopping destination known as Harrod’s.  This building, including the architecture, lights outside, and all the displays along the exterior and interior, are all just spectacular!  We got in lots of quality time together over tea and OMG-worthy macarons at Laduree.  Then we walked around a bit in some other hoods, amazingly worked up more of an appetite, and then met R for dinner at Kadiri. What versatile and mouthwatering food!  After coming home, M and I partook of one of my most favorite at-home comfort activities: pajamas, green tea, and Gossip Girl!  Then I caught up on some work, packed to take off to Bombay tomorrow, and now here I am, blogging and awaiting news of Obama Round 2!

While waiting, here are some miscellaneous thoughts:

– People are generally dressed pretty well in the parts of the UK that I’ve seen.  I guess the climate here sort of necessitates jackets and scarves, which in some sense limits the scope of frumpiness, but still — everyone’s clothes seem ironed, and the people seem alert!

– I have instinctively immature reactions to things like a historical pub called Dirty Dicks and a tube station called Cockfosters, especially when announced in proper British accents.  I guess that reaction is a function of me being American and/or perpetually 12.

– Please come through for me, USA. And do it soon because I’d like to be done reloading for the night!

– I expected to gain weight during this trip, but it has happened so much more instantly than I expected.  I have gone from reasonably plump to bona fide pregnant with triplets in less than a week!  And Diwali is approaching in India! But, so is Gold’s Gym…

– My family is awesome, and  I couldn’t possibly be more excited to continue on the journey of connecting and reconnecting with them in my next stop: Bombay!