India Road Notes

  Kolkata When my dad was still alive he always wanted to know the little, special things that made my work in other countries different and interesting, so from time to time in a new place or on a long trip, a small number of blogs became “notes to my father.”  Some random observations come to mind worth noting and some unexpected treats of the trip, and, boy, do we miss that man, so here goes with a combination of some road notes from the India highlight reel.

    • Everyone here, young and old, knows how to drink from a bottle by pouring the water directly into your mouth without your lips ever touching the surface, but me.  This seemingly simple skill is harder to master than you think.  It is based on a sense of universal good manners for sharing water and in country which is either too dry or too humid in many areas; this is also a skill that prevents waste.  I am even more pained at my early efforts to learn this skill since inevitably I spill water on my shirt or somewhere while making the effort.
    • In the West finger bowls are almost unknown except in the most hoity-toity establishments of fine dining, but in India even the roughest, roadside roti and biryani joints offer them as a common practice.  People eat with their hands of course, so this is a necessity.  It would be a mistake to get the wrong idea though.  Most eating areas have a special area, sometimes even a separate room, for hand washing before the meals.  The finger bowls later always have a small piece of lime for the water to ensure your hands don’t smell of your meal later.  This is all way too civilized!
    • In Bangalore Suresh and I had the same driver for two days, who was an excellent 21 year old man of good humor and limited English.  Having taught two young people in my life how to drive standard transmission 5-speeds, I was dying after a day and a half when he kept lugging the gears on the hills of the city.  He got the biggest kick out of our translated lesson on how to delay shifting until he reached a higher RPM ratio, and I felt better having gotten him a couple of more years on his clutch and transmission.   
    • In Chennai I saw advertisements in an auto-rickshaw for ATV, a coffee company, specializing in Premium Coffee and Chicory.  Asking around people thought this was unexceptional, but Chennai and New Orleans are the only places I know that are devoted to this rare and special treat.  My biggest disappointment of the trip was not being able to find any quickly to bring home at my son’s request that we all try it together.
    • Waiting for a meeting, I watched a street side chai walla making his specialty.  I have rarely seen bartenders with more flare.  The tea had to be banged into the glass twice and loudly.  The hot milk ladled out and first poured in smooth motions into the glass at more than a two foot distance from hand to cup and then splashed into the glass for the right mixture.  The tea, when it came, seemed mostly coloring for the heavy mixture of hot and sugared milk.  All for 5 rupees or 10 cents US, and it’s the national sugar rush propelling people along the way.
    • The train trip to Agra was about 3 hours.  When you buy the tickets you either get a seat or just a ticket.  Once the seats are sold, the selling continues at the same price as you buy the chance to stand in the aisles, doorways, and wherever throughout the trip. The trains are old pieces of rolling metal.  The bench seats fit three.  There are fans lining the walls and ceiling waiting for the season.  Papers are passed back and forth from lap to lap without comment or question.  Some sleep but probably out of exhaustion since there is constant sales traffic working the aisles.  Every stop brings fresh troops shouting chai-chai down the aisles, selling samosas (the most popular of the trip), wild varieties of chips, and paan. 
    • City traffic is amazing everywhere because of the constant “jams,” as everyone calls them here.  There is no concept or marking of lanes.  The task is to fit as many vehicles of all descriptions into the roadway as possible between cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, scooters, 150 cc motor bikes, and auto-rickshaws (which are 3 wheeled 2 cycle scooters with seats).  The funniest sign sometimes seen will be an admonition in big letters to:  MAINGTAIN LANE DISCIPLINE. If the horn goes out of commission, it is no longer safe to drive.
    • Saying all of that, I have to admit one of the thrills of my trip was taking a ride from Sampath from our meeting at the Harbour Workers Union Hall back to the hotel on the back of his scooter.  Did I mention helmets?  Good, so few use them that it’s not worth the note.
    • India is a nation of languages.  Some report that 200 are used throughout the country.  Hindi is the national language, and English is the language of law, business, and government.  In a country of more than a billion even regional languages such as Tamil or Malayam or Mahrathi might be spoken by a 100 million or more, so they are in no danger of disappearing.  I asked Suresh and Anil, the driver, in Bangalore, how many languages they spoke, since the driver was embarrassed at his faltering English during our driving lesson.  Suresh spoke 5 languages including English.  Anil, embarrassingly, only spoke 4, not willing to count his English.  In the US he wouldn’t be making 200 rupees a day driving, but running the language department at a college, but that would only be if there was a demand for more languages among US students, but of course there isn’t, so he needs to learn not to lug the gears.  Speed bumps are everywhere and the main means of enforcing speed limits (which do not exist!).  I taught them the Mexican word for speed bumps, taupe, and we joked that they could claim to each add another language now.
    • Huge treat in Bangalore eating dinner with Vinod one night at his older brother’s brand spanking new restaurant called Highnote near the Defense Colony suburb.  We were there on the 3rd night of its opening.  One floor was a luscious bar with a performing space and small dance floor for his jazz club customers.  The next floor was a patio style, open restaurant space above the trees in the breeze of the Bangalore night which was delightful under canopies above us.  The top mezzanine floor above the restaurant was another space available for private parties.  We arrived at 7 PM and were the only customers in the restaurant so it was easy to monopolize the owner’s time while I worried that this obviously expensive endeavor might be doomed, but it turned out we were simply the early birds because when we left the tables were full and contented.  Highnote, tell them I sent you when you are in Bangalore!
    • We were wrong.   The great Sea View restaurant overlooking Juhu Beach in Mumbai is still open.  Even on the hottest, most humid and sweltering night there is a breeze that comes off the Arabian Sea while you eat snacks and drink Kingfisher.  The rumor we had heard on my last visit that they had closed the Sea View for a fancier hotel development is no doubt going to eventually be true, but at least not yet.
    • Contrary to these notes, India is at best a two meal a day place.  Lunch when we are lucky enough to have the time is late, towards three or four, and at that point, just call it dinner.
    • Saturday is a work day in India all over the country.  For some it is only a half day, but there is no concept of a 5 day work week here.

      I’ll spare you the theories on negotiations and bartering that I’m now developing (at least for now!), and let this be enough to give you some of the spicy flavor of this wild and amazing country.

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