Spots of Time

May 11, 2004

Indian Masala (Part One)

Dear friends and family! The "Two Weddings" story is taking longer than planned, so this week please enjoy the following "Indian Masala" or Indian "spice" - a collection of little anecdotes about my travels in the subcontinent.

Vegetarianism and garbage disposal

There are probably more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined. People are vegetarian for religious reasons - cows are considered sacred to Hindus while pigs are considered dirty to Muslims. People are vegetarian for economic reasons - a vegetarian diet is cheaper than one which involves meat. And, people are vegetarian for cultural reasons - the ancient Indian Vedic texts promoted vegetarianism as a more enlightened lifestyle.

My reasons for following a vegetarian diet while in India are also numerous. There are economic reasons - vegetarianism is cheaper. There are culinary reasons - the vegetarian food is almost always deliciously prepared and so I don't miss meat at all. There are accessibility reasons - vegetarianism is the norm here, so it is much easier to find than in the US. And then there are the hygenic reasons.

I won't talk about meat handling procedures, the fliess and bugs that reside on cuts of fresh, uncovered meat in markets, or the meat juice soaked hands of food staff who move from one food to another without washing their hands, their knives, or their cutting boards. What I will tell you about is the unique garbage disposal method I noticed everywhere in the state of Rajasthan.

Instead of putting out garbage for a garbage man to collect and take to the local dump, most folks put their garbage out in little piles throughout the city. Left open, these bags quickly attract the roaming pigs, holy Hindu cows, goats, cats, dogs and rats, who root through it and eat (indiscriminately) anything that tastes good or goes down easy.

Not exactly free-range, grain fed beef, eh?


Early one morning in Udiapur, eating breakfast overlooking Lake Pichola, I sat daydreaming about the romantic Lake Palace Hotel, the $300+ per night former palace which sat picturesquely in the middle of the lake. I wondered what those people were eating for breakfast, where they came from and what they were thinking while sitting in their posh surroundings.

The loud "thwaping" sound of heavy wet cloth on stone woke me from my daydream. Between my lakeside cafe and the palace were dozens of local men, women and children. They were bathing, washing clothes and washing dishes in the half dried up lake. To them, the lake was not the idyllic setting for the historical palace, but a vein of daily life constantly threatened by low monsoons and irresponsible pollution.

I looked between the palace and the locals for a few minutes and wondered: did they look at me and my cafe lifestyle with the same wistful daydreaming that I looked upon those people staying at the palace?

A Palace in the Clouds

The Taj Mahal is a tomb, built by the former Mungal emperor Shah Jahan, as a monument for his beloved (late) wife. It is the most beautiful building I have ever seen, hands down. Pictures and postcards do not do it justice.

My first view of the Taj took my breath away. A palatial structure of white marble, it looks unreal, almost two dimensional from a distance, like the extravagant set of a Hollywood film set. Though the gardens and buildings around it are lovely, it looks as though its proper home should be somewhere in the sky above us, floating on a perfect cloud, far above the dirt and grime of the world below.

If God asked me to be the architect for a holy place, something that would be fit to grace the kingdom of heaven, I would say something had already been built and point down to the Taj Mahal.

Aggravating Agra

Agra, once a great and glorious capital of India, home of the incredible Taj Mahal, and rich in history and culture, is now a place to be tolerated as opposed to be enjoyed. While the physical grounds of the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and the other buildings are lovely, Agra itself is a headache from start to finish.

Of all the cities I have visited in India, only this one (and perhaps Delhi on occasion) made me completely lose my patience and want to run screaming into the streets.

The touts, men whose sole job is to separate tourists from as much money as possible (and get their cut in the meantime), descent like vultures from the moment you step off the train platform in Agra station. A polite "no, thank you" does not work. A firm "NO, I am NOT interested" also does not work. You can be polite, rude, indifferent, funny, charming, sleazy - it doesn't matter. These men will stick to you like glue until they get what they want.

They will tell you places are closed, quote rickshaw prices double or triple what is standard, or even worse, quote you a decent fare, then once they have you in their rickshaw double, triple or quadruple the price, assuming you won't want to walk the half kilometer back to the rickshaw stand.

A German man I met while waiting in line for a return ticket lost his temper and started screaming before even leaving the parking lot of the train station. I fared better, but I also had 9 weeks of travel experience in India compared to his 3 days. Still, four hours later, I was hiding inside the Agra fort, my "plan" for the day scrapped because I just couldn't go out and face the touts.

Why are Agra (and to a lesser extent Delhi) such a nightmare for tourists? Mostly because, no matter what, tourists will go to these cities - and the touts know it. They will fly into the capital, they will pay the outrageous fees for entrance to the Taj Mahal (foreigners 750 rupees, locals 10 rupees), they will brave the streets of Agra because to so many of them, India IS the Taj Mahal. These touts know that no matter how much they harass the tourists, there will always be more tourists to take their place - so what do they care?

It is really a pity, and the people who lose big are the locals who are just curious about the international visitors descending on their city. At one point a seemingly nice young man tried to talk to me but I dismissed him with a wave of my hand, too tired and frustrated to deal with anyone else and desperate to be back in Delhi at my hotel. I felt horrible about it later, but after being tricked so many times, I saw personal isolationism to be my only choice.

Masala Chai and Other Spices

The first time I gave up coffee it was concurrent with an exercise program my roommate and I were beginning. Two days into it, my co-worker Renee called my roommate to beg her to allow me coffee again, for the sake of all involved. It was not a pretty picture.

While in India I have become a big fan of chai - Indian tea. Made strong, sweet, and with lots of milk, it has surpassed coffee to be my preferred morning (and afternoon and evening) beverage of choice. Served country wide, in train stations, on street corners, inside shops, hotels, restaurants and airports, the demi cups of chai cost anywhere from 2 to 12 rupees, but usually average 4 rupees per cup (8 cents US). For one rupee more, you can get masala chai, a spicy
alternative, which includes the addition of cardamom or ginger, depending on the season.

Chai is a national obsession, and appears to be the most commonly drank substance in the country. Shop keepers and tailors offer chai while-you-wait, it is the traditional welcome drink when you enter someone's home, and you are guaranteed the cry of "chai. chai garam (hot)" every 10 minutes on any long-distance train in the country.

For those interested in a taste of India, below is a recipe from the Bajpai family, whom I stayed with in Mumbai:

Masala Chai
Boil two and one half (demi) cups water on stove top, adding 2 tsp of loose black tea, 4 tsp of sugar and 2 cardamom pods (seeds and all). Allow to boil fully, until the water is dark, about 5 minutes. In a separate pot, heat the milk until hot. Mix one half to three fourths tea with one half to one fourth milk, according to taste. Serves two. Enjoy!