Saturday, January 31, 2009

Movie Making in Jodhpur

After the rush of big cities--Jaipur, Bangalore and Delhi-Jodhpur, a city of 1.2 million (give or take few thousand migrant families camped in front of the palace) seems positively provincial. Camel carts still stop traffic and roads in the poshest neighborhoods are cratered and chaotic with goats, donkeys and rickshaws. The majestic 16th century Mehrangarh fort sits unmolested at the serene summit of the city.

Time moves even in the parched heart of Marwar, the historic center of an ancient kingdom known as "land of death" in the local language. The middle class in Jodhpur gets their Pizza Hut fix and soon McDonald's will open (there are 3 in Jaipur). The kids in my local host family watch Indian version of So You Think You Can Dance, Indian Idol and music videos where movie legend Shah Rukh Khan shimmies with women in sequined bikini tops who are skinny even by international standards (plump heroines are longer in vogue). The family's 15 year old--like so many image-conscious American girls--is painfully underweight, refusing anything but toast and Pepsi, while their youngest has become a poster boy for childhood obesity.

The food is terrifically familiar. Chapattis, leaden and tasteless down south, are featherweight, slightly charred and plentiful, the better to mop up chili-speckled paneer (cheese) vegetable curry and spicy dahl (lentil soup) without the heavy cream base one gets in the states.

After months of searching in years past-Rajasthan is to yoga as Mississippi is to pilates--I've discovered a pair of yogis proffering sun salutations and advice about color therapy and other homeopathic remedies. Ravi Kant and his stunning wife Ruby work with a local ex-patriot couple who've built a palace of their own in the city's outskirts where they hold court with visiting furniture buyers and the filmmakers and photographers who love Jodhpur. The Darjeeling Express, I've learned, was filmed here at the desert heart of Rajasthan, instead of in the eastern Himalayas, as the title would imply. Liz Hurley's wedding was choreographed here for HELLO! at various palaces including pink topped Umaid Bhavan, where the local maharajah puts up. Most recently, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra has touched down to shoot a commercial for a local bank, exciting a flurry of front page news coverage.

Climbing up to the fort in the morning, before the sun gets too heavy, I feel like I'm in a movie. This is the view from the red turrets in the photo above, the lowest point on this multi-tiered monument

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Old is New Again

Bangalore's M.G. Road -- a namesake to make doti-clad Mr. Gandhi roll over in his grave--is the Oxford Circus of India. Lined with Tommy Hillfiger, Levis, Puma, and Ruby Tuesdays, the buzzy strip's watering hole du jour is the Hard Rock Cafe, predictably if mystifying bedecked with "SAVE THE PLANET" banners on its faux-castle-like exterior. Inside, waif-like girls in tank tops sipped cocktails, their bony elbows brushing boys in sunglasses. Phones trilled and evening plans were made.
My plans? To crash early and fly to Jaipur the next day on Kingfisher air, also The Hard Rock Cafe beer of choice. Kingfisher is India's answer to Virgin, the airline glamorized by daredevil businessman Richard Branson. Kingfisher CEO Vijay Mallya sports Branson-style rocker-rumpled hair and sunglasses and tells passengers in an on-air announcement how he carefully selects his flight crew. Indeed, they are immaculately turned out. Kingfisher stewardesses wear cheery cherry-red figure-hugging skirt suits and carry boxy 1960s-style totes in matching crimson--an enviable accessory that is unfortunately not for sale to dowdy passengers.
Even up in Jaipur, Rajasthan's dusky "pink city" of palaces, I noticed several new loudly-colored malls. The biggest emporium, fronting a busy traffic circle, featured a kind of amusement park with children bouncing up and down on a giant harness, like New York's trapeze school on the West Side Highway.
However, much of Jaipur still seems to operate around familiar North Indian landmarks: markets with oranges, cucumbers and limes piled high; women sitting sideways on the back of scooters their husbands pilot to pani poori snack stalls; tank-like Ambassadors hurling across roundabouts.

Fish were piled on wooden carts. For obvious reasons, one avoids fish in Rajasthan.

Friday, January 23, 2009

In Search of India

Losing patience with security checks, I entered a [hotel] on foot this evening, fumbling through a cloud of mosquito spraying. Guests sat to the right of the entrance inhaling chemicals with their expensive chicken tikka. Hotel had 5 power cuts during dinner, which guests ignored, persisting to follow their points as the room fell into oblivion-darkness. At one point we standing, were conversing near the buffet line, when the light went away. I panicked that I might not be able to finish my paratha, until the generator roared back to life.

For all its giant Levis stores and Land Rovers, Bangalore finds itself back in the subcontinent at the end of the day. The city's yuppie elite might celebrate birthdays at lavish terrace restaurants but they still wrangle auto-rickshaws for 30 Rs ($.50) at the corner.

Tomorrow, I'll visit some local NGOs to see the truly Incredible India behind this glossy international business centre.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama-ji Storms Indian Media

I watched the news of America's $170 million dollar inauguration preparations stream in from Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi, en route to Bangalore. My taxi driver had quoted me the figure in rupees when I told him it was a very important day for my country. "This very expensive day!" he pointed out, adding that he liked Obama and thinks he will work hard to make the world a better place. In clear agreement were the Kenyans dancing on IBN7 Hindi language news, which the producers cut to in between shots of Obama grinning in front of the YES WE CAN mantra.
Though losing ground to the news coverage of Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar nods (best picture, director and score), American inauguration coverage here has been nonstop.

Shri Obama, as he is likely called in a temple nearby, has a lot of expectations to answer to. CAN OBAMA CHANGE THE WORLD? screamed the Time Now network, and apparently, 63% here think he can (he looks a bit skeptical in the freeze frame). Times of India's front page announced his MISSION AMERICA. To watch the Big Speech on January 20, I begged the bar keeper to tune the flat screen at Amnesia club to CNN. The only patron I cheered the television and showed off my Obama t-shirt to the Nepali waiters, who were not impressed. Finally, one bored French IT consultant wandered in to keep me company at the bar for a glass of Maharastran wine. As the CNN anchors roared with excitment, he looked puzzled at the fuss, finally reflecting that it is a big step for America [to elect a black man president].

Aside from gawking at the glamorous new first American couple, what do Indians want from Mr. Obama's new post? The papers say Indians want a stronger economy, action on climate change, a better relationship with India. Mainly they want an end to terrorism. The frenzy of excitement over Slumdog Millionaire, filmed in Mumbai, must be rooted in India's post "26/11" pride--like New York became a proxy for the unflappably optimistic American spirit after 9/11, Mumbai is now a touchstone for India's strong nationalism.

As a visitor, the security here in airports, hotels and upscale restaurants is unnerving. To enter the Windsor, a Sheraton hotel, our car was stopped on the main road, before we turned into the winding driveway. The vehicle's underside was inspected with mirrors. We drove to the front of the Regency-era white colloladed structure and inspector #2 peeked under the car. Entering the hotel, our bags were thoroughly searched. At some hotels our bags have been scanned as in the airport. Finally admitted, we were forbidden to access wireless internet as an additional security measure. It all kind of put a damper on the gracious welcome the man in Raj-era suit gives as he opens the door, on the other end of the metal detector.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Life on the planet of South Delhi

At left is Shish-Gumbad, or Dome of Glass, a stone-faced 15th century backdrop to the pastoral Sunday picnics in Lodhi Gardens, a 90-acre oasis named for the Lodhi dynasty whose rulers are buried in the stone tombs. Families batted cricket balls, played charades, ate and laughed. Small groups dotted the neat green lawns, while in the nearby woods, couples canoodled under the shade of tall trees.

Am I in India? Certainly not the same India where I taught English to child brides who borrowed shoes to wear to school. Then again, there were no villagers partaking in the multicourse lunch at the Garden Restaurant at Lodhi, with a bonaza buffet that--banish thoughts of chana masala and papadum--featured raw-tuna salad, grilled prawns and a juice bar stocked with beets, carrots, orange and coconuts. The adult bar advertised bloody mary shots and mulled wine (it is winter here, albeit 70 degrees). While a DJ played Moby and Frank Sinatra, a fat-cheeked caucasion toddler stumbled past the table of an academic type in black rimmed glasses drank red wine with his bejewelled companion.

The security guard below Looks Salon in Khan Market, where I took an autorickshaw to from Lodi, looked skeptical at anyone sans designer handbag, aside from raggedy foreigners like me. I left a lot less raggedy, thanks to an hour-long scalp massage, threading, a mani-pedi and a blow dry. The total? Dollars-speaking, pretty cheap for Maryland's Towson Town Center. In rupees? More than a week's salary for an office worker in Delhi--or, months and months and months of carrying stones on one's head to a road in Rajasthan.

Feeling more respectable, I strolled on to inspect the shops of Khan Market. By day, it's the ex-patriot's shopping center of choice, so you have a Citibank, handmade stationary shop, and an excellent book store. On the market's other side, there is Etam lingerie, the Body Shop, and the meticulously-tailored dresses, shimmery salwar kameze and sophisticated jewelry of Ritika Bhasin by Rahul Popli. Nearby, an 8500 Rs. ($175) leather handbag caught my attention at Rana Gill, but I think I'll stick to H&M. South Delhi is too posh for me.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dhaka, you rocked me all week long

The Amarya Haveli guest house, where I am staying in New Delhi, has 6 rooms. None of them are scented with urinal cakes, which I've decided is what was behind the cloying odor of my guest house room in Dhaka. I identified the small white objects as moth balls when I saw them in the closet of my room, but upon seeing them (quite logically in a urinal) today in Delhi I made the slow connection. My mentally retarded logic is a likely result of consuming, say, 1/4 of a cracker on Thursday, but this delay in processing time meant I left my clothes in that god-forsaken closet the entire week. Upon leaving for Delhi yesterday, I sluggishly managed to wrap them, as they came out of the closet in nearly toxic condition, in three plastic bags to avoid contaiminating my suitcase contents, including gifts (now, that wouldn't be a very nice present).

Earlier this week, the urinal cakes made an appearence in the sink of a bathroom where I stood retching outside a hotshot government press conference. The saltine I had forced down earlier didn't sit well during a hair-raising one-hour drive over unevenly paved roads spent playing chicken with cement trucks.

The scenery, on the otherhand, was lovely. Lush palm trees lined the road and we passed canals, ponds and green flooded fields--Bangladesh is below sea level and about a third of the country is flooded every monsoon.

Men with long white beards rode bicycles and small boys peered out of madrassas at the traffic going by. Women in purple purdah hijabs pulled goats on leashes. Compared to Rajasthani road traffic (you won't get far with the camels, donkeys and goat herds), it was all pretty ordinary.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dhaka Belly

Delhi Belly is a notoriously persistant part of many traveller's visit to India. It's kind of a hazing to weed out the pansies who retreat to the international hotel cafes when the going gets tough. Today, I was initiated in the phenomena of Dhaka Belly as my breakfast, lunch and dinner went out of me first thing this morning. Wobbly and cranky, I made my way to a sprawling health complex with some 20 buildings all identical in cement and blue signs in Bengali. After 45 minutes--a confused round of visits up many flights of stairs to a medical training centre, nutrition building and population centre--I finally stumbled upon the right building, an hour late. After some more meetings I retreated to the leafy Dutch Club. Ex-patriots honed their backhand on clay courts a few feet from where I snored in the moth ball/insecticide scented room (a 2 foot tall can of bug repellent adorns the bedroom sidetable).

With difficulty I roused myself to meet some NGO workers for dinner. The ex-pats--American, British, and Pakistani--drove to comparatively glamourous Banani, which, as one Fulbrighter said, is the Meat Packing district of Dhaka. We ate (or they did, I picked at 1 piece of butter naan before stopping, just. in. time). A bottle of Smirnoff they'd brought sat beside the kebabs and chaat--only foriegners are allowed to drink, so restaurants don't sell booze but permit byob.

According to Wiki Travel: "There really is nothing to do in the city. In all due seriousness, all outdoor recreation for the locals exist in the form of various fast-food joints and shopping for clothing. The locals pass time by eating out, shopping for new clothes and mostly chit-chatting with one another"

Between a discussion of sex workers and microcredit schemes, the ex-pats chit-chatted about the week's fetes at the American Club and Raddison. "We go out every night."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dhaka Duty

The capital of Bangladesh is not a vacation spot. I am in Dhaka on business and the city is too. Apart from the odd roundabout sculpture, its cement apartment buildings, plastic-fronted shops and treeless roads are no nonsense, madam. The predictable South Asian snarl of telephone wires, wildly honking cars, and roadside snack shops remind me of India, as do the pleading children at the car window, but this place seems to be missing it’s mother country’s eccentric charm. Perhaps the crumbling old buildings are south of here in Old Dhaka. I’m staying in comparatively posh Gulshan, where international agencies, embassies, media and newly-armored American hotels are. Luckily, there’s some eccentricity on order at the Dutch Club, a guest house in the shadow of the Italian embassy. Directly outside my sliding doors is a hazy expanse of tennis courts (eccentric? yeah, think of a grassy croquet course on New York’s Lower East Side), safari-style tents and a climbing wall. Beyond the climbing wall is a giant trampoline covered in skinny stray cats. One was screaming during one hour this afternoon—probably in heat. Like the manic dog fights I remember in India, these wailing cats remind me that our pampered pets live better than many people here.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Baltimore to Dhaka

In 2006, the last time I posted on this blog, I had recently returned from Jodhpur, India to roost on 25th street in New York City. These days, home is a carriage house apartment in historic Mt Vernon, Baltimore. Albeit infrequently, I chronicle neighborhood goings on here. In place of Italian leather and destination spas, my beat in the Big Apple, I'm writing about an icky bacteria that causes childhood pneumonia and meningitis. Shortly, I will travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and on to India to attempt to further this cause. I'm hoping to get time to write here about the things we'll see on the street on the way to meetings. As Mr. Pushpender Singh Rathore always said, on the road in India anything is possible.