Food Fascination #3: Indian Coffee / Indian McDonald’s

One of the most charming aspects of India’s culinary landscape in the art of the Indian coffee. As I learned, there is a method to pouring the coffee that involves transferring the hot milky contents between two metal saucers. We stopped for lunch one day at Saravana Bhavan in Connaught Place where a friendly waiter demonstrated for us the traditional method of serving the perfect coffee.

 

While in Delhi, we also had the experience of visiting a McDonald’s. In my opinion there is never really a valid reason to enter a McDonald’s unless you’re an irritated French sheep farmer who has a point to prove. Much of the world agrees: there is something outright demonic about McDonald’s unabashed pursuit of profits, its disregard for nutritional value, its questionable relationship with the environment, and of course the way it panders to children with “happy meals” and “play lands.” Be that as it may, between our visits to the mobile creches and the NIPCCD we were pressed for time and needed a quick bite to eat, so to my chagrin we pulled up to Ronald McDonald’s house of horrors. I should have started my hunger strike against the corporate juggernaut right then and there, but curiosity got the better of me. I decided to check out the “veg” and “non-veg” selections to see what was what. I ended up ordering something called the McSpicy Paneer, featuring the normally delectable soft cheese that has been a part of Indian diets for so long that it is referred to in the Vedas dating back to 6000 BC. Ron’s version is breaded and fried and slathered with a tangy but otherwise indefinable red spicy sauce, which is then served up between two ubiquitous MickyDee’s buns and then called “lunch.” I picked at mine with distrust as I tried to remove the breading and all the other bullshit in an attempt to rescue the savory, unsalted paneer. To summarize, this was truly my best experience at a McDonald’s anywhere in the world, and I highly recommend that you go somewhere else when your stomach begins to grumble while walking in Delhi streets. Buy some fruit from a vendor instead.

Oh, McDonald’s, you are the same the world over. Well, almost. What are you trying to hide anyway?

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Mobile Creches (Delhi, Day Five)

Mobile Creches is a non-government organization that provides services to children of construction workers in India. My group visited one of the sites outside of Delhi to get a firsthand look at the wonderful things this organization is doing to make life a little bit easier for hardworking men and women while providing an educational and social framework for their children.

We started at the NGO’s headquarters in Delhi where Ms. Mridula Bajaj explained the practices behind her organization. In case you didn’t know, a creche is a nursery where babies and young children are cared for during the working day. The term originates from the French and has a primarily British usage among English speakers, which is why I wasn’t immediately familiar with it.

The Delhi-based mobile creche system caters to children, from newborn babies to the age of fourteen, with critical emphasis on children under six years old. Approximately 50 children benefit from the services of each center. The need for such a service is great, as more than 150 million Indian women work in the “informal” sector doing backbreaking work while still living in poverty, leaving their children in dire need of care. Without the creches many of these children simply loiter in the streets with their siblings, malnourished and lacking educational instruction. According to the information I received during my visit, it is estimated that among the children of construction workersin India about one quarter of them, girls in particular, are still not enrolled in any kind of educational system, which is what makes Mobile Creches’ work so vital.

The first creche in India was established in 1969 at the Rajghat district of Delhi. It was inspired by the sight of children of construction workers, who were playing in the rubble of building materials for a memorial to Gandhi. That picture seemed entirely contradictory to Gandhi’s vision of altruism. Today the organization oversees 23 daycare centers which provide intervention in 9 different slum settlements in and around Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi, who became India’s sixth prime minister after his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination, played a pivotal role in developing the mobile creche system. The Rajiv Gandhi creche scheme established the practice of a 50/50 split in the provision of funding between the government and the NGO, with the NGO footing the groundwork.

After a brief lecture, we boarded a bus to visit one of the mobile creche units in Gargaon. Before I continue my narrative about the creches, let me first explain the theater of insanity that unfolded on the highway as we crossed from Delhi to neighboring Gargaon.

A shot of the gate leading to Gargaon taken from my seat on the bus.

Immediately after going through the gate, our bus was pulled over by officials dressed in their saintly white, neatly pressed uniforms. The bus driver, along with our program director Aditi went out to speak with them.

Aditi speaks to an official as I surreptitiously steal a shot through the hazy bus window.

What was the problem, you ask? Well, apparently, unless I completely misunderstood this, the bus driver was told that horns are illegal in the Gargaon province. I know you can re-read that, but let me say it one more time with capitals for added emphasis: The bus driver was ISSUED A TICKET FOR HAVING A HORN. That’s 2000 rupees to courts. God love them.

Several members of my group as well as the bus driver’s assistant went out to try to help the situation. See below the photos of the the bus driver’s assistant as he is first talking on the phone, and then walking to pick up his phone off the ground after the indignant official wrenched it from him and threw it to the ground. No joke! I watched the whole thing in amazement.

"Hey, are you talking on the phone while I'm writing you a ticket?"

"Not anymore you're not!"

Amy, Jennifer and Gary tried to insert some logic into the situation, but to no avail.

Sorry for the diversion, but it just goes to show that you never quite know what to expect in India. In the end, the horn was confiscated. The official had asked for a bribe but Aditi refused. And I think the assistant’s phone got scuffed up pretty good, poor guy. Now, back to the creches…

Workers and children in the foreground of a new luxury apartment building in construction.

We continued hornlessly and noiselessly on to our creche visit. After a short while we came to the site of a massive construction project, a colossal residential building, which we were told would offer luxury apartments upon completion. The irony of high-end living quarters built on the sweat of people who can barely afford to clothe themselves was not lost on me. Obviously there is a huge disparity between the worker’s income and the income of those who will occupy the completed building.

Young children sitting in rubble while their parents, unable to supervise them, toil in the background.

Each creche depends on the contractor’s permission. As centers rely on space provided by the contractor, there is a strident effort to collaborate with contractors to make the creche a standard practice, since construction sites are “mobile” and therefore constantly changing.

Education is the key component of the creche system, a concept keenly understood by the 17 educators that made up my Fulbright group. Learning opens doors that offer an escape from poverty. The creches employ the “play way” approach. Since the majority of the children are quite young, playtime is an integral part of keeping them engaged. While having fun, they are taught readiness skills for living in the real world that will also help to mainstream them for student life.

The children of the creche play a game as part of their learning activity.

These girls study at the creche school, which is integrated with the actual building site.

We entered the partially constructed building to view the makeshift classrooms established by Mobile Creches. Red woven blankets were spread over the bare floors to offer some slight comfort to the students and teachers who take their positions in a circle as they engage in a lesson. Only the barest resources are visible–no doors, no cabinetry, just some basic learning supplies and the humanitarian effort and dedication of the creche teachers. The children’s colorful pictures are strung across bare-brick construction, juxtaposing symbols of education and labor, two worlds conflated into one.

One of the creche teachers begins story time with her pupils.

A shrine situated high up on a telephone pole just outside the creche classrooms.

The bare bones of a high-end residential complex.

As our bus pulled away, my friend Robert Barrie who sat in the seat in front of me narrated his impressions of the experience into a handheld recording device he’d brought along. I can’t quote verbatim what he said, but I remember thinking his descriptions were so accurate, so perfect, that I didn’t feel I would have much more to add to the group’s narrative of this trip, because he seemed to cover it all in succinct poetic language. I’ve been too enwrapped in my own literary exercises to pay much heed to other people’s blogs, so I’m not sure whether Rob posted his narration or not, but I certainly hope he kept that recording.

We were all touched by the good work we witnessed at the mobile creches, and I pray for their continued progress. If you want to learn more about how you can help, please visit http://www.mobilecreches.org/

This Old Mausoleum, or Welcome to Taj Mahell

The Mansingh Palace hotel in Agra seems to be caught between two worlds. Opulent marble floors and elaborately carved wood paneling give the hallways an antiquated cricket-club feel. Bleak lighting points to some Anglican or Dickensian or otherwise non-Indian inspiration. An intricate floral pattern surrounds the perimeter of the elevator, adding some domestic flourish. The feet of tables and chairs all seem to have claws, as if designed to please royal sensibilities. However, as I sit in the barroom eating hot curried peanuts and admiring the stained glass inlay of the ceiling, I can hear the sounds of change not so far away. The hammering, the clanking of metal parts, the constant swish of sweeping and smell of fresh paint foretell a near future of improvement. To me the state of this hotel is a metaphor for the country, in the process of aligning its past to get on a smooth track to the future. It’s not so much East meets West, but old meets new.

In Agra it’s easy to lose sight of what I’m doing here in the first place. After three weeks of exploring urban slums areas and trekking out to remote villages to witness the initiatives being made toward social progress, here I am suddenly thrust into tourist central. Westerners abound here in numbers I haven’t seen in the other places. What’s more, the hotel has followed suit by inflating its prices and charging for anything and everything that can be given an additional charge. Wi-fi is an astounding 600 rupees, while most other hotels we’ve visited offer free or low-cost service. A Kingfisher will set you back 300 rupees, and oh yeah, did we want a projector for our guest speaker’s presentation? That also came with a fee. This being said, I cannot blame the hotel for wanting to make money. In America, I could hardly dream of staying in a hotel like this without forking over a lion’s share of my paycheck and perhaps subsisting on peanut butter and air sandwiches for the last week of the month. I can appreciate the hotel’s need for profit and expansion, even if they are ripoff prices by comparison. The fact is, people will pay. Because the Taj is only half a mile away.

The Taj Mahal, the “frozen teardrop of all eternity,” is just a short trip down the road. The plan is to see it at sunrise, to beat the heat, beat the tourists (yeah right), and see the magnificent marble structure bathed in golden pink sunlight.

*     *     *

Three Kingfishers and six hours later, I awoke at roughly 5:40 a.m. Hmmm… 3+6 is 9…. 5+4+0 is 9… These should be good omens according to popular numerological belief. Unfortunately, the sun beat us to the punchline.

We set off at about 6:00, almost leaving a few stragglers behind–to be fair, I barely achieved non-straggler status–and with the sun bright and luminous above, a sense of giddiness spread over the group as the bus dropped us by the ticket counter.

A “high value” ticket will get you a diminutive printed totebag containing a cool bottle of water and a pair of booties to cover your shoes when entering the mausoleum. From the ticket counter, located in a separate building about a kilometer from the actual site, I boarded an open-air trolley and gripped the bar tightly as we jolted over speed bumps.

Our guide, who bore stylish purple-tinted shades and clothes that might have belonged on a Banana Republic mannequin, gave a brief introduction to the Taj Mahal, only when he said it, it sounded like “Taj Ma-hell,” which it turns out is the right way to say it. This was later confirmed to me by a Bihari art dealer in Dilli Haat. So forget about the “ma-hall” stuff. When you enter the Taj, you’re entering the gates of “ma-hell.” And let me say, those gates are quite heavenly.

The story of the Taj Mahal is pure romance, living and tangible. The guide explained how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan wanted to honor his wife whom he affectionately referred to as Mumtaz Mahal. “Mum” means beautiful and “taz” or “taj” means crown. The shah thought of his beloved as the precious ornament of their palace. In life, she had asked for a memorial, a simple vault, to be placed in the wake of her death. Never could she have imagined a structure so grand as the one which still stands today. In the time it takes a newborn baby to learn to walk, study through twelve years of school, choose a college degree and buy his first beer, the Taj Mahal was constructed. It represents the labor and fine craftsmanship of thousands of artisans. The shah could see no limitations in honoring the woman he loved, and he spared no expense in preserving her memory.

Earlier the guide had listed off all the banned items, which to my dismay included notebooks. Notebooks! I think the reasoning is that with notebooks come pens and with pens come potential defacement of world heritage property. At least cameras are allowed, albeit in limited capacity. It goes without saying that there are more than enough images out there already, so I used my camera sparingly, opting instead to simply enjoy a stroll through the gardens and a tour of the inner chambers. The gentle sounds of birds chirping and hushed voices of people in awe soothed my ears as I walked through the humid haze of late July. As with other grandiose structures on this trip, the overwhelming beauty of the architecture can only truly be experienced firsthand.

A stray dog guards the south gate.

An average of roughly 4 million tourists are attracted to the site every year.

A conservationist maintains the floor of the south entrance.

Once you enter through the gate you will be bombarded with invitations to have your picture taken by a professional in a variety of fun-loving poses.

Noeli was kind enough to take my picture, and she didn't even charge me.

The grandiosity is hard to capture. Go there.

An observation deck sits across the river on the north side of the Taj. I wish I could have made it over there to see the majestic reflection. Actually, I'm not sure it's even accessible.

Let's call it reverse planking. I don't get why it has to be face-down anyway. I was extremely tired that day, as this was nearing the end of our trip.

Well, an unfortunate thing happened as I was entering the mausoleum. A wayward monkey jumped from some hidden recess and attacked me, wrenching the camera from my hand before he absconded to the inner chamber. I raced in after him and looked all around, to no avail. As I became resigned to my loss and headed toward the exit in disgust, I beheld the rapscallious monkey climbing a marble screen or jali on the exterior window of the western balcony. I rushed over and caught him by the tail. Then, taking a banana from my back pocket–one of the few unprohibited items–I offered an exchange. This monkey knew when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to take the banana and when to give me my camera.

Alright. That story may seem like b.s. to you. But I’m sticking to it.

If you want to see what that temporary thief did with my camera, take a gander.

While waiting for a connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, I saw this advertisement.

Ah, the land of Kubera. Nice marketing strategy.

Akbar International / Camel Spotting

Since the Mughal era, the craft of pietra dura has been practiced in Agra and it remains one of the city’s leading commercial commodities. The craft involves the cutting and fitting of colorful polished stones to be assembled as inlay for marble tabletops, jewelry boxes, coasters, plates and other decorative items. Following the excursion to the Taj Mahal we headed to Akbar International, a leading manufacturer in the industry.

The craftsmen cut and shape each individual stone and then lay each piece in place to construct the inlay. Notice the temporary peach coloring of the marbletop, used for contrast while fitting the pieces in place.

A sales representative explains how the interlocking stone pieces of the inlay are held in place. Glue is used sparingly and the mixture is a closely guarded trade secret.

The work is painstaking as the individual stone pieces vary in size and shape, and the fit must be precise. Crafting pieces for curved marble surfaces is particularly challenging.

The salesroom featured an endless variety of everything from large tabletops to tea coasters to ornamental elephants. If I'd been blessed by Lakshmi there's no telling how much money I would have dropped here.

The pieces vary in price according to the complexity of each design. Just look at the assortment of tiny stone pieces this artisan has produced, as he completes the inlay.

Visit: http://www.akbarinternational.com/

I exited the building a little before the rest of the group so I wouldn’t be tempted to spend money! I’m glad I did because as I stood outside I saw a camel coming down the road, something I’d seen several times during various bus trips, and I had been wanting to capture some footage.

In the Temple of the Fish-Eyed Goddess

While visiting Lady Doak College in the Tamil town of Madurai, my group made an excursion to the famed Meenakshi Amman Temple, which I’d been anticipating with deep interest. The temple is one of the few in the Hindu faith devoted to a female deity, and it is the most colorfully and elaborately decorated place of worship I’ve seen on this trip.

The story of Meenakshi begins with a childless king who founded the city of Madurai. In granting the king’s prayers for an heir, Shiva provided him with a child born “not of the womb” who was three years old when she appeared to the king. Meenakshi was said to have fish-shaped eyes, and as if that wasn’t unusual enough she also had three breasts. According to prophecy the third breast would “fall off” when she encountered her future husband. Her disconcerted parents were instructed to raise her as a male, and Meenakshi grew up to be a powerful war-minded successor to her father’s throne, reminiscent of the story of Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen often depicted in ancient art with a false beard to emphasize her “masculine” dominance. In fact, Meenakshi was such a skilled military strategist that her expeditions led her to a battle with Shiva himself. At this point you might guess what happened next… “As soon as she caught sight of him, her third breast disappeared. and, overcome with modesty, innocence and shyness, she began to scrape the ground shyly with her toe.” (from Hindu Goddesses by David R. Kinsley). Shiva reduces the powerful battle queen to a shy maiden and eventually subservient wife. This theme of female deities being subjugated or tamed by gods is common in many other myths, particularly in South India. You’ll notice in the pictures below the proximity of Shiva to this temple meant for Meenakshi. As her creator and subsequent husband, his presence can be duly noted within the temple walls, although she clearly remains the focal point. In fact, when I later asked about the local significance of the goddess during a discussion with some of the Lady Doak faculty, the professors told me that her legend has deep roots in the community. It was a treat to be able to see the effect the temple visit had on the various patrons who entered.

I’ll mention also that William Dalrymple, one of my favorite travel writers on India, published a book called The Age of Kali, alternatively titled At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess, if you want to read more about the subject of Meenakshi and other fascinating stories relating to the subjects of women and power in India.

The Fulbright group along with a group of students from the International University of Japan (also staying at Lady Doak College) were given a guided tour. As you can see from my pictures below, the temple was crowded and because of the noises and echoes in the inner chambers, I could hardly hear what the guide was saying throughout his enthusiastic gesticulations. Much of the time I wandered around by myself, taking in the stimulating scenery and trying to grasp the underlying complexities of what I saw. See for yourself:

Walking to the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai

A young devotee having his hair shorn outside the temple steps

The shoe depository. The girl to the left wearing the pink sari is a student from Lady Doak who accompanied us. She kept encouraging me to catch up with the group as I was lagging behind with all my picture-taking.

A view of the roof outside the temple entrance, depicting the seemingly endless pantheon of Hindu deities

Another view of the immaculately sculptured architecture

The crowd entering the temple. To my knowledge this was not a special occasion, just the normal early-day flow of patrons.

Sadly, even sacred sites like this are fringed with rubble and discarded waste

This ceiling fresco near the entrance is notable for the cherubic creatures flittering at each of the four corners, a depiction I've not seen anywhere else in India. I wondered if these were in some way inspired by Christian iconography but have not gotten a definite answer.

Detail of ceiling fresco. One of the students from Lady Doak told me that these angelic creatures are referred to in Tamil as "asparas," but after a little independent research I'm not so sure if these qualify. Please comment if you know anything about this!

A devotee leaves an offering at one of the many shrines inside the temple

Garlands are made and sold for patrons to place among the shrines

Mother and daughter pray before a shrine of Ganesh

This woman maintains the temple grounds with a "jhadu" or broom that is typically made from dried reeds or stems

Maintaining the temple in its pristine state

A refreshing sight. This young couple shares a loving embrace, one of the few displays of affection I've seen so far in India among members of the opposite sex.

A devotee applies a mixture of ochre-colored sandalwood to her forehead as she stands before the goddess Meenakshi (at least that's who I think it is).

Note the seemingly endless row of Hindu scripture along the wall to the left

I'm not entirely sure what the powder is, perhaps white ash which is often used to adorn the forehead during pooja, a mark associated primarily with followers of Shiva.

Common to many notable sites in India, a model of this grandiose temple is displayed behind glass so patrons can take in a holistic view of the structure

The smell of burning incense augmented the atmosphere. Note the statue of Nandi the bull.

Another view of the prayer candles

The family unit portrayed in some of the temple's artwork

The lotus flower, an emblem of purity in Hinduism and other eastern cultures

During poojas, worshippers often receive bowls of prasad, although this looks like it might have been some other food.

Worshippers prostrate themselves before the sacred shrines. Note the "kolam," a traditional floor drawing in southern India, thought to bestow prosperity.

Yes, that's an elephant in the temple!

During the bus rides in the city of Madurai, I had seen elephants being taken along some of the roadways. Apparently they are regularly brought to the temple to give blessings to patrons for a small fee. I’m not entirely sure what the normal price is for a blessing but for tourists it was something like 10 rupees, roughly a quarter in U.S. currency.

The guide encourages people to step forward to receive their blessing

Amy gets blessed

Bhavani and others receive their blessings.

Later, we went to another part of the temple where people could pay to ride the elephant, and presumably become doubly blessed.

Stacy is the first brave one

A fun time...

...briefly becomes a frightening time.

I hope Noeli’s blessings in particular take her very far. She was certainly more daring than me that day, because I didn’t get up there!

Kris and a student from the international school, giving the peace sign

Connie, in one of my favorite camera shots from the day

Natalie and some of the students from the international school took their turn…

A lot of us wondered how the elephant felt about all of this. He was quite gentle and patient, if not a bit yawny, during the whole performance.

We moved onward toward a newly designed extension of the temple that houses a special shrine to the fish-eyed goddess. Along the hallway leading to her statue, we saw stone-carved depictions of many other deities, as well as the musical bars which you will see below.

Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and music. I actually started the trip with a paper printout of Saraswati fastened to my backpack, to protect it, but it fell off. At any rate, I retained all my stuff.

The guide demonstrates the hollowness of a statue by tapping on it while Noeli listens to the resounding notes inside.

Reminds me of the Arany Tökös Ló Szobor in the castle district of Budapest, for reasons I won't explain here. Please note the false moustache and beard. Again, one must wonder what this is implying about feminine power.

The guide demonstrates the musical bars with what I believe was an original, perhaps improvised, composition:

A smiley shatriya stands in front of the goddess Meenakshi and Shiva's Nataraja incarnation..

A version of me stands before the goddess Meenakshi

After leaving the temple, we headed over to a nearby crafts manufacturer that specializes in carpets, statuary, jewelry, and many other quality works. From there we were able to get a rooftop view of the temple, which is what you see in the lead photo of this post.

Another rooftop view with Shiva's dancing Nataraja incarnation in the foreground

While we were there, the carpet dealers made a kind of sales presentation, while imbibing us with sodas. The rugs featured intricate patterns and organic dyes.

All in all, this was an utterly fascinating experience. It is worth noting, however, that I was not able to enter the innermost chamber of the temple, which is strictly the domain of devoted Hindus. Despite that stipulation, which seems entirely reasonable, the sense of spiritual wellness in the accessible areas of this temple was palpable. I feel so lucky to have seen this sacred place, and moreover to have seen the people gathered there in peaceful devotion.

On the Road Again…We Can Make It to Agra If We Try

The drive from Delhi to Agra takes about 5 hours. In traffic that translates to about 7 to 9 hours. Halfway through our journey to see the Taj we asked our bus driver to pull over someplace where we could stock up on fruit for the long ride. This is where we ended up:

Despite its looks, the fruit stands here were incredible. I had a pomegranate that I am still dreaming about. Seriously, it sent me into a surrealist Dali-like state of mind.

I have been preparing a post on the solid waste management problem in India, which anyone can see is a huge problem. Admittedly, I’ve missed out on many of the best opportunities to immortalize these waste areas in photography. Most noteworthy is the culvert in the center of Madurai, a golden opportunity lost. More on that in another post…

In addition to buying fruit I decided to document some of the life of this place, the name of which I never came to know. Before I could snap any pictures, some guy pulled up in his car and started waving at me. I was standing by a drainage ditch about to get a shot with the fruit sellers in the background, and I thought he was upset about something I was doing. As it turned out, he just wanted me to take a picture of him and his friends, for reasons unbeknownst to me, as he only spoke Hindi and I only know nine words in Hindi. He made the international sign for snapping pictures. I humored him:

Ok, dude. Now you’re in my blog. Congrats.

Back to the scene…

I thought the only appropriate way to document the experience was through some covert videography. I tried to keep my camera inconspicuous by holding it at my side and covering all but the lens with my hand, which explains the perspective. The footage is a bit bumpy since I was walking, filming, and dodging rickshaws, motorbikes and everything else, all at the same time.

Notice at the end of the video how I turn around abruptly. Well, that’s because the bus that dropped me off was no longer there. I didn’t worry too much, as we had a failsafe in place, a numbering system to account for everyone (there are 17 total in our group). I’m number 15, pandra. Anyway, a short walk revealed the bus was parked further down the road.

If anyone happens to know the name of this place, please inform.

The police were notified by the company of our travel guide that we were going to the Taj Mahal, and in light of the recent bombings in Mumbai and other past incidences, the police provided an escort for a lengthy stretch of the way to Agra.

I wish I’d been able to capture a street view of some of the wilder scenes of traffic congestion. Here’s a small glimpse of what I saw through the bus window upon entering Agra.