8. A Garden, a Dinner Party, the Dalai Lama and a Palace (5 December 2004)

The Garden 

We have a small garden in front of our house.  When we moved in, it was a full of dirt with bits of green popping up here and there.  Our realtor had told us that the green stuff was “Mexican grass” and that, within a few days, it would cover the dirt completely, making a lush lawn that would make us the pride of the neighbourhood.  Well, one month later, we still had a garden full of dirt with bits of green popping up here and there and not a single neighbour had stopped by to tell us that we were the pride of the neighbourhood.  It was time to do something.  We needed a gardener, which was good because one showed up a few days later.

With our driver acting as official interpreter, I explained that I wanted the garden to be a wall of privacy, with lush green plants letting in sunlight but keeping out prying eyes and shielding us from our ever-present guards.  We also have a small terrace off our dining room.  It has a very small patch of dirt that runs along a bare white wall.  With our driver still acting as official interpreter, I explained that I would like the wall to be covered in flowering vines.  I mentioned jasmin and honeysuckle as examples.

The gardener nodded as our driver interpreted and, while I do not understand the local language, Kannada, I did hear words like “privacy” and “vine”.  It seemed to be going well.

With cost and timing agreed, Hans Einar and I then went on a trip to Sri Lanka.  The trip was fascinating, as you may have read in an earlier Bangalore Brief.  On our return, the drive from the airport was filled with anticipation, knowing that our garden was completed.  Finally, we would have the privacy of a tropical paradise.  At this point, I would like you all to repeat after me: “oops”.

The following photos are accompanied by my instructions to the gardener.  These are the “after” photos

Wall covered with flowering vines

“I’d like this wall covered with flowering vines”

The wall of privacy

“And a wall of thick bushes for privacy”

You may have noticed that the gardener did lay down real grass.  From the result of his work, I have an idea of what he did with the Mexican grass…I think he must have smoked it.  

It has been a few months since the gardener was here…for the last time.   A new gardener was hired and the garden looks much nicer.

Our First Dinner Party

In attendance

5 Indian nationals (3 castes, 2 religions, 4 regions, 3 languages, 1 vegetarian)
2 Norwegians (1 west coast, 1 east coast)
1 American (democrat)

Food Served

Appetizer:       Humus with raw vegetables, bread sticks and roasted cashews
Main Dishes:    Eggplant Parmigiana, Salad with Walnuts, Garlic Bread
Dessert:           Indian Sweets, Bananas
Beverages:       White Wine, Fruit Juices, Water (room temperature and cold)

Amounts Consumed

Our indian guests ate one small serving each of the main dishes, politely refusing seconds.  The Norwegians and the American ate well.  Hans Einar and I ate eggplant parmigiana and humus for 4 days…

Nobody admired the garden.

Travels with My Husband

Dharamsala

We spent one week in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and, perhaps more famously, the Dalai Lama.  To get to Dharamsala, one takes the train from Delhi to Pathankot.  The rest of the trip is by 4-wheel drive vehicle for a 2-hour ride up into the mountains.  The trip started off well.  Hans Einar and I arrived in Delhi and met one of his colleagues from NCA Oslo, Anders.  We proceeded to the Delhi railway station, ready for our adventure (our first train trip in India).  As with everywhere else in India, you arrive at a major transport station besieged by porters (called “coolies” in India) who are more than happy to hoist your heavy luggage on top of their heads and speed away as you follow, trying to keep sight of your floating belongings.  We were taken to our seats on platform 16, from which the train to Pathankot was to depart.  Just as a precaution, I asked two different railway employees on the platform to confirm that we were on the right train.  They did and we settled in nicely.  Despite being 40 minutes lates, the train departed without incident.  Little did we know that, by that time, the incident was already in progress.

About an hour into the 9-hour trip, the conductor came by to collect tickets.  We proudly showed him ours and waited for him to punch it and let us get ready for bed.  Unfortunately for all of us, the conductor neither punched our ticket nor spoke English.  We found out from a fellow traveller that the conductor had no intention of punching our ticket because we were on the wrong train (here, it is useful to imagine feelings of total panic on our part).  As it turns out, we WERE on a train to Pathankot but it was a different train from the one we were supposed to take and it would take a longer route, getting us to Pathankot a few hours later than expected.  We breathed a small sigh of relief, knowing at least that we were headed in the right direction.  Our fellow traveller then proceeded to tell us that (1) our ticket was not valid on this particular train; (2) we would need to purchase a new ticket AND pay a penalty for travelling without a ticket (3) we were seated in the wrong class of travel (we were in a 3-tier air-conditioned car instead of a 2-tier air-conditioned car) (4) there was no space available in the 2-tier air-conditioned car).  Keeping all of our wits about us, we agreed amongst ourselves that we would pay for new tickets in the first-class car.  The rest of the trip passed without incident and, by the way, without much sleep for any of us.  Do you know how difficult it is to sleep in a moving train???

Dharamsala is a lovely town and, while it is in India, there is little that is Indian about it.  It is populated mainly by Tibetans and young Western hippies who come to study buddhism, reflect on life and be hippies in a place where hippies can still be hippies.  I spent most days wandering around the small winding streets being happy not being a hippy.  One day, I took a class offered by Lhamo, a young Tibetan who makes a living giving cooking classes.  I learned to make “momos”, traditional Tibetan steamed dumplings.

Lhamo

Lhamo

Dharamsala - 6

Skilled hands forming moms

Our Tibetan government hosts took us on a field trip to visit some of their projects.  There were two highlights of the day:  the Norbulinka Institute and the transit school for Tibetan refugees.  The Norbulinka Institute specialises in training Tibetans in ancient forms of art, including the famous Thangka painting and wood and metal work.  They have a museum of Tibetan dolls made by monks showing all forms of Tibetan customs and dress.  The day we visited the Institute was special as only the master teachers were present.  All of the students were in Dharamsala participating in a hunger strike for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk who has been sentenced to death by Chinese authorities.

The Transit School provides a basic education for newly arrived adult refugees who have been denied an education in Tibet.   There, students learn the Tibetan language and culture.  We sat on the grass amidst a group of young men studying, Chinese-Tibetan-English dictionaries sprawled about.  Only one of these young men, Taski Nyima, was brave enough to talk to us in English.  I asked him to tell us his story.  In halting English, he described his 50-day walk through the Himalayas with a friend and a guide, his arrival at a Tibetan refugee camp in Kathmandu and his subsequent transfer to the Dharamsala transit school.  He was so nervous speaking English that his hands were shaking the entire time.  After he told me his story, he then asked me to tell him my story.  Shocked and humbled, I blurted out something about working in Paris, falling in love and moving to Norway and then moving to India.  He seemed as fascinated by my story as I was by his.  It was a strong moment.

DSC00671

Taski Nyima and me

Our visit to Dharamsala was over and we headed to the train station.  On our way, we were privileged to stop at a Tibetan convent to meet with Ugyen Trinley Dorje, recognised as the 17th Karmapa Lama of Tibet.  The Karmapa Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, ranking only behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in the Tibetan spiritual hierachy.  Ugyen Trinley Dorje was the first high lama to be officially recognised by the Chinese government.   In January 2000, when he was 14 years old, he fled Tibet, much to the embarrassment of Chinese authorities and has now been granted exile in India.   We had a short, private meeting with him, during which we held out the traditional Tibetan white scarf (the kata) for him to bless and place over our heads.  He gave us a small red ribbon symbolising the lama’s protection and blessing that we tied around our necks.   While meeting the 17th Karmapa Lama was awe-inspiring, it was also very touching to realise that this spritual leader of Tibet is a young man…not a typical 18-year old by any means, but, nevertheless, an 18-year old in a body that seemed slightly too big for him.

A final word about our train trip back to Delhi.  We managed to get on the right train this time and the right class of travel (first).  This is good!  The only incident on the return trip was that we had an additional traveller in our first-class compartment.  We didn’t notice him at  first but, as we were comfortably seated and talking, we noticed a small, quick movement out of the corners of our eyes: a small mouse had decided to accompany us on our journey.  Since none of us likes mice, I went to notify the train conductor, who sent two train attendants to our compartment to catch the mouse.  It was fun watching them scrambling around on the floor trying first to find the mouse and then to catch the little critter.

In search of the mouse

In search of the mouse

They did not manage to catch our fellow traveller (who, by the way, was travelling without a ticket and I thought they should have been prepared to fine him) and they gave up.  Several minutes later, the conductor came by to tell us that the mouse had moved into one of the other first-class compartments and they managed to chase it off the train.  We slept well that night, knowing we were safe.  We awoke refreshed and hungry.  It was at that moment that I decided to eat some of the leftover cake we had purchased the day before in Dharamsala and, as I reached for the package, I noticed that someone had beaten me to it: our mouse friend was happily nibbling away at our breakfast.  At that moment, I could only appreciate the psychology of the train conductor who, by telling us a lie, had allowed us to have a peaceful nights’ sleep.

Leftovers from the mouse

Leftovers from the mouse

The Palace on Wheels

The Palace on Wheels is hailed as “one of the top ten luxury trains in the world”.  I’m not sure what the other 9 trains are but I can unequivocably say it was the most luxurious train I have ever been on.  Until 1991, the Palace on Wheels comprised some of the original cars of the formers princes of Rajasthan, the Maharajas.   Apparently though, trains fit for Maharajas were not fit for tourists and, in 1991 new air-conditioned cars with individual bathrooms were inaugurated.  Despite the overhaul, the Palace on Wheels remains a tribute to travel in a most luxurious (and comfortable) style.  Not only were we referred to as Maharaja and Maharani, we were treated like princes and princesses.  At the end of each day of sightseeing, we entered our train car, greeted by our head cabin attendant Umesh who handed us cold towels sprinkled with rosewater to freshen us up.  The bar was a friendly meeting place where we sipped outrageously-priced Indian wine before being called to dinner in one of the two dining cars, named, of course, the Maharaja and the Maharani.  The food served by white-gloved waiters and all of it was good.

The 7-night, 8-day journey took us to the most famous “purs” of Rajasthan: Jaipur (the pink city), Jailsamer (the gold city), Jodhpur (the blue city), Udaipur (the lake city) and Agra (the Taj Mahal city).  We also went on an early-morning Tiger Safari (the no-tigers-in-sight place) and a visit to a bird sanctuary (the not-such-a-sanctuary-as-it-was-teeming-with-tourists-like-us place).  At each city we were met by guides who, after taking us around the forts and palaces of Rajasthan humbly thanked us for our attention and mentioned that we could show our gratitude as appropriate (the tipping cities).

Everything we saw was splendid.  However, I must admit that the Taj Mahal is overwhelmingly spectacular.  Despite the vast number of photographs I have seen of it, nothing can convey the sheer size and beauty of this monument to love.  It was built between 1631 and 1653 by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his wife after her death during childbirth.  It is also a tribute to the 20.000 artisans who worked to build this monument, some of whom had their hands or thumbs chopped off so they could never replicate the work they had done.  While reflecting on this monument to romanticism, it is worth noting that legend has it that Shah Jahan also planned to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black to house his remains.  This never happened because, when his son found out, he decided that this was not a good use of his inheritance and imprisoned his father.  He was, however, considerate enough to imprison his father in Agra’s Red Fort in a room with a direct view of the Taj Mahal.

Some images from our voyage on the Palace on Wheels

DSC00872 DSC00890 DSC01014 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 2 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 3 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 55 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 56 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 72 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 73 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 78 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 113

Hans Einar’s Birthday

Like everything else on the Palace on Wheels, this was celebrated royally, with a birthday cake and flowers in the morning after our no-Tiger safari and another birthday cake presented to him in the bar before dinner and served later as dessert.  Warm wishes from family and friends were with him on the train (and via mobile telephone) and he spent part of the morning opening gifts and birthday cards and hearing me read a very special speech sent from Norway.  Our Palace on Wheels friends, Anna and Graeme, surprised and touched us by sending a bottle of champagne to our room (which we shared with them at dinner).   But, while his day was spent in one of the most luxurious trains in the world, surrounded by new-found friends in one of the world’s most spectacular places, I would venture to guess that Hans Einar’s birthday celebration was only complete when we decided to skip the day’s afternoon visit to yet another fort and walked into town where he called home and spoke to his parents on the 50th day of his birth.

Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 139

Happy Birthday from our stewards of the Palace on Wheels

Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 151

Hans Einar at 50

Epilogue/Prologue

Since our garden debacle, our dinner party and our fabulous trips to Northern India, we have learned that we will be leaving India much earlier than planned.  It has been decided that we will move to Colombo, Sri Lanka where Hans Einar will set up a new South Asia regional representation for NCA.

7. Driving (Part III) and Getting Screwed in Bangalore (17 October 2004)

Driving in Bangalore (Part III)

When last I wrote about driving in Bangalore, we had taken a short, partial drive to the local shopping mall, abandoning the car at the first intersection at which we had to turn into traffic.  We were, nevertheless, very proud of ourselves because (1) we drove in a city known for crazy driving (2) we shed some of our feelings of dependence on having a driver and (3) we didn’t run over any people or cows on the way.

Our pride lasted only until the next day when our faithful friends at the NCA office discretely pointed out that (1) it was very brave of us to drive in Bangalore and (2) wouldn’t it be good if we had a driver’s licence so that we do it legally?  We agreed with both (1) and (2), so we set out to get our Indian driver’s licences.

Now I have had experience with changing driving licences in foreign countries.  In Paris, the OECD did it for me.  In Norway, I spent 30 minutes at the driver’s licence place (most of it trying to figure out how the photo machine worked), handed over my French licence and was issued a Norwegian one in its place (with a horrible photo that I will just have to live with).  Armed with this worldly experience, we went down to the local driving licence place, smug in the belief that we would walk out with our Indian driver’s licences.  At this point, I would like to pull out my common phrase for my Indian experiences….OOPS.

The first thing we found out was that, because we were foreigners, we had to go and see the “head guy”.  We knew that he was the “head guy” because, in the 10 minutes we sat in his office waiting for him to give us our driver’s licences, he had tea served to him, important papers brought in by assistants for him to sign, shooed out a young man who showed up 5 minutes too late to get his licence and, in general, acted like a “head guy”.  He then turned his attention to us.  Our NCA angel (remember her, from the Assistant Police Commissioner’s Office?) had filled out all the appropriate forms in triplicate with our official photos at the ready.  We were prepared…

After a quick glance through our dossiers, he noticed that our driving licences were from Norway and that they were in a foreign language that he did not understand.  A quick review by the three assistants who were standing around his desk confirmed that no one understood Norwegian (although they made a valiant effort).  Norwegian licences have the words “driver’s licence” printed on them in about 10 languages, including English.  What puzzled him were the dates: there were two of them, one of which was in the past and one of which was in the future.  Despite our explanation that the date in the past was the date of issue and that the date in the future was the expiration date, the problem remained: no one at the driver’s licence place understood Norwegian.  He patiently explained that he could not issue us an Indian driver’s licence if our Norwegian driver’s licences had expired (e.g., the date in the past).   He also went on to explain that he had met Miss Norway when she came to visit some friends of his family’s and that she was a lovely young woman.  Unfortunately for us, Miss Norway had long ago returned home and was not available to provide translation.

Then, the “head guy” noticed that I am an American and asked if I had an American licence.  I do, so I pulled it out.  Confirmation was immediate: he and his assistants understood English.  The “head guy” even had a list of American driver’s licence codes and could confirm that I was not licenced to drive heavy trucks (which is unfortunate in Bangalore since, by their sheer size, they are probably safer than driving a car).

The conclusion of the day was that (1) Hans Einar’s driver’s licence would need to be translated by an official Indian government translator and (2) I should proceed to have my photo taken and come back the next day for a driving test.

It has been one month now and I can confirm the following:

  • there is NO ONE in the Indian government who can translate from Norwegian to any language; and
  • I have an Indian driver’s licence, Hans Einar does not.

I have driven several times now, getting braver each time and going just a little bit further each time.  I cannot begin to describe the look on driver’s faces when they see me, a foreign woman driving, with Hans Einar, a foreign man sitting in the passenger seat.  I can only guess what they are thinking: probably something like “oops”!

The Screw Shop

I have a book produced by the Overseas Women’s Club of Bangalore.  It is entitled In and Out of Bangalore and is a guide for newly arrived expats.  It is a bible for me because it contains listings of places to go for things.  However, after only two months, I have found a shortcoming already: the book does not list screw shops.

The walls in our house are solid (and I mean solid) concrete.  This is nice in the event of an earthquake, a nuclear bomb or a cow stampede.  It is not nice in the event that one needs to hang a picture.  If our house had come with an Owner’s manual, it would have said something like “to hang a picture, use drill, plugs and screws.  Hammer and nail will not work”.  After procuring a hammer and a nail, I can confirm that they do not work.

After consulting In and Out of Bangalore, I proceeded to the hardware store that was listed as “having everything”.  I found this to be almost true: it had a drill.  For screws and plugs, however, I was told I would have to go to the screw shop.  And, in true Indian hospitality, the hardware shop sent a guy to accompany me to the screw shop.

I have thought long and hard about having a screw shop and have come to the conclusion that, if I were to have a screw shop, I would try and locate it on a main road, if not within a hardware shop, then next door.  But this is my own personal logic.  The screw shop in Bangalore is located several blocks from the hardware store, down an alleyway off the main road.  There is no sign indicating that a screw shop is located down this alleyway, but who needs a sign when one is accompanied by the screw-shop-guide?

The screw shop measures about 100 square feet (about 9 square metres) and is filled with ceiling to floor shelves containing hundreds of neatly lined jars of screws and plastic plugs, a sort of “screw library”.  Despite the small space, there were three salesmen sitting behind the counter.   For most of my visit, I was the only customer in the shop.  I guess I was shopping during low-peak screw demand time.

I got pretty much what I needed but, as with most experiences in India, I have learned a thing or two:

  • it is helpful to know what type and size of screw you need before going to the shop
  • a description like “not too big and with that cross thing at the top” does not really work to close the screw communication gap in India
  • it is possible to purchase screws in different colours, as long as they are black,  white or rusty
  • just because a shop sells screws, it doesn’t mean that the shop sells the size of plugs you need for the screws you buy

Finding a Travel Agent

Before moving to Bangalore, I fully expected that we would do some travelling during our stay here.  After trying to find a travel agent, I am not so sure.  I was trying to set up a trip for Hans Einar’s birthday.  I had two places in mind: a trip to Darjeeling or a trip to Ooty (a hill station south of Bangalore).  I rang the travel agent used by the NCA office, asking him for prices, train/plane schedules and hotel recommendations for these tours.  I even supplied the name of the hotel I wanted in Ooty.  He was very nice on the phone and promised to get back to me by e-mail with the information I wanted.  Our e-mail communication follows:

—–Original Message—–
From: yesudass patrick [mailto:yesudass_patrick@yahoo.co.in]
Sent: 28. september 2004 16:39
To: rbensky@writeme.com
Subject: reg ooty hotels

hello madam,

i am working on the hotel rates  in ooty,regency villa, and also on the pickup and drop from coimbatore.  the dates are between 11nov to 14nov…or any amendments.

brgds yesudass

—-Original Message—–
From: Roberta Bensky [mailto:rbensky@writeme.com]
Sent: 28. september 2004 17:01
To: ‘yesudass patrick’
Subject: RE: reg ooty hotels

Hello Yesudass,

The dates are from 12-15 November please.  Also looking forward to options for Darjeeling.  Best regards, Roberta

After hearing nothing for a few days, I sent a reminder:

—–Original Message—–

From: Roberta Bensky [mailto:rbensky@writeme.com]
Sent: 30. september 2004 12:04
To: ‘yesudass patrick’
Subject: RE: reg ooty hotels

Dear Yesudass,

I am wondering if you have any additional information on possible trips to Ooty and Darjeeling.  I am specifically looking for prices, train/plane schedules and hotel recommendations.  Also wondering if you have information for the Regency Villa hotel.  I await your response.

Sincerely,  Roberta

—–Original Message—–

From: yesudass patrick [mailto:yesudass_patrick@yahoo.co.in]
Sent: 30. september 2004 16:36
To: Roberta Bensky
Subject: RE: reg ooty hotels

hello madam,

possible trips to ooty, travel will be through train stop and mettupalyam, and transfers to hotel.

another way is flight to coimbatore and transfers to hotel.

2) to darjeeling the flights are via kolkata to bagdogra..and same return back also.

rgds,  yesudass

—–Original Message—–
From: Roberta Bensky [mailto:rbensky@writeme.com]
Sent: 30. september 2004 16:55
To: ‘yesudass patrick’
Subject: RE: reg ooty hotels

Thank you for this, but I need to know about costs, places to stay and train/plane schedules.  This is necessary for me to make a decision.  Regards, Roberta

I have not heard from yesudass since.

After similar experiences with a few other travel agencies, I have decided that it might just be nice to cut out photos of places in India, frame them, hang them on the wall and pretend we went there.  One thing I am sure of: we have the screws to do it.

2. Driving in Bangalore and Eating in Bangalore (24 July 2004)

“Driving” in Bangalore

I put driving in quotation marks because we haven’t done any of it ourselves since we arrived.  We have been chauffeured around Bangalore by Mr. Kumar, a very able driver and magician.  Driving in India is magic because you see it happen before your eyes but have no idea how it really works. 

Bangalore, like most large cities, has roads with dividing lanes and driving regulations.  The problem for me, as a westerner, is that none of these seems to function as I would expect.  I have come to realise that the painted lane markers on roads are used to help drivers centre their cars directly on top of the white line and driving regulations are mere guidance as to how one could drive if one wished.  The Bangalore traffic authority regularly reminds drivers of this guidance with signs such as “Follow Lane Discipline”.  The signs are, of course, mere guidance as to how one could drive if one wished. 

Drivers in Bangalore seem to follow their own inner lane discipline which, as far as I can see, involves no form of discipline whatsoever.  At any given time of day or night, the width of a two-lane road has 5-6 vehicles, not all of which are in a forward-moving direction.  By “vehicles” I mean cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and cows.  The cows, like everyone else, follow their own inner lane discipline, which usually consists of standing perpendicular across a few of them.  This in no way hinders drivers of other vehicles.  They merely cross over to the opposite side of the road to avoid the cows.

The licence plates in Karnataka State (of which Bangalore is the capital) all begin with KA followed by numbers.  In Bangalore, the licence plates are numbered KA01-06.  The auto-rickshaws have their licence number painted on the sides of the vehicle.  Those carrying the licence plate KA05 are especially interesting as the “5” looks like an “S”, which, when pronounced, aptly describes the driving conditions in Bangalore:  total “KAOS”.

"Kaos" in Bangalore...

“Kaos” in Bangalore…

Yesterday we were stuck (and I mean stuck) in a traffic jam for 15 minutes.  A small scooter with a driver and two passengers was weaving in a perpendicular manner through the halted traffic when Mr. Kumar remarked that carrying two passengers on a scooter was not allowed.  Blocking 5-6  “lanes” of traffic in order to make a right-hand turn into oncoming traffic elicited no such comment.

Too much traffic?  Cross over to the oncoming traffic lane.

Too much traffic? Cross over to the oncoming traffic lane.

I have yet to see an accident in Bangalore, but I read about them in the newspapers.

I did see one very interesting contraption that I have not seen elsewhere.  A red traffic light had a counter attached that counted down the number of minutes/seconds until it turned green.  I think this is an excellent invention which alleviates some of the stress of being stuck in traffic: at least you know how long you will be stuck and, while waiting, can relax and take in some of the roadside sights of Bangalore.

Southern India Cuisine

In a word, it is excellent.  We have been back to the same restaurant, Nandini, several times to delight in a south indian meal called a “thali”.  First, a large silver tray in the shape of a banana leaf is placed on the table.  Its shape is very handy since what follows is the placement of a large banana leaf on the tray.  This is followed by a server who arrives with a very large bowl of rice, spooned on to the banana leaf with a flat utensil.  The diner has the choice of having ghee (clarified butter) sprinkled on top of the rice.  Then, another waiter arrives with 8-10 small silver ramekins containing very good vegetarian things.  There are spicy things, not-so spicy things, a soupy thing, a buttermilk/custard thing and a very sweet dessert thing.  There is apparently a particular order in which to eat the things but I will have to spend more time learning about this and the names of the things.  Only one thing is eaten at a time…no mixing. 

The way to eat a thali is to pour some of the non-soupy, non-buttermilk things on to the rice and eat it…with the fingers of your right hand only.  Both of us have been to Malawi where food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, so this was no shock.  However, it is still easy to tell that we are beginners.  We are the ones with leftover bits of rice and other bits sprinked around our banana leaves and our mouths.  I have yet to understand how the banana leaves and mouths of Indians show no signs of having eaten.  The end of a thali is, thankfully, a warm bowl of water with a lemon to wash the dirty hand.  For us beginners, a shower would also help.

1. Destination India, First Impressions (21 July 2004)

In July 2004, my husband and I moved to Bangalore, India.  He was posted as the Regional Representative for Norwegian Church Aid, one of Norway’s largest NGOs.  I went along for the ride.  Here are some of the letters I sent to friends and family in 2004 about our strange life in Bangalore. 

Arrival in Bangalore

We arrived safely, after a 7-hour plane trip from Amsterdam to Delhi, an overnight in Delhi and a 2.5-hour trip from Delhi to Bangalore.  We were met with a warm welcome from our colleagues at Norwegian Church Aid (NCA).  They have been extremely helpful in our logistical needs.

Our first full day in Bangalore was a very tiring administrative day.  It took four hours for me to get our personal effects out of customs.  And would you believe that, in the end, the customs officials UNPACKED everything that we had so carefully packed???!!!  It was a Kafkaesque experience that I will write more about when I have the energy (and the sense of humour) to relive it all.

Hans Einar spent the day in the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) office…he got off easy!  All he had to do was to learn about all the business of NCA in Bangalore while I was traipsing back and forth between people whose names I couldn’t pronounce, whose English I couldn’t understand and trying to figure out what all the different signs on their foreheads meant.  The miracle of it all was that I had Mouli, the NCA administrative officer, with me.  He slid through the bureaucracy like a pro…but it was, nevertheless, Indian bureaucracy at its worst.  I hope I don’t have to deal with much more of it…but I’m sure I will!  I read something about this before coming.  The advice was to keep a sense of humour and relax.  I tried to keep that in mind as our personal belongings were strewn about on the floor of the Bangalore customs warehouse by men who held up boxes of Tampax, asking what they were, and waving a cheap plastic soup ladle around asking if my kitchen utensils have really been used…

It was, needless to say, an “interesting” day.  We are both quite tired.  I guess we’re recovering from the small time difference, lack of two nights’ sleep and the culture shock that is India.

When we arrived in New Delhi on Monday night, we watched a bit of TV in the hotel room.  I said to Hans Einar that I would feel comfortable in India if I could watch “24” and “Judging Amy”.  I no sooner said that then we switched channels and there was 24!  It’s about a year behind but it’s still here.  Then, last night, I was flicking through channels and there was Judging Amy.  The cable TV has about 70 Hindi-language stations with fantastically melodramatic movies and soap operas and several Indian versions of MTV, a lot of English-language channels and good old French TV5.  American sitcoms are everywhere and they even have Oprah.  India seems to welcome some aspects of globalisation…

The food is excellent, as you can imagine, and I am delighting in the mainly vegetarian fare here.  If there is meat to be found, it is only chicken.  I took two people out to a full lunch today.  We had a typical southern Indian meal: 8 different vegetable curries and sauces with rice served on a banana leaf.  Followed by dessert.  Total cost: Rps. 268 (USD 5, NOK 45).  A 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher beer costs Rps. 75 (USD 1.75, NOK 11) (Norwegian smugglers, delight!)

Some first impressions:

  • Understanding Indians speaking English will take some getting used to.
  • Understanding Indian driving habits will require some out-of-body experience.
  • Understanding that cows have more road rights than pedestrians will take some hours of meditation.
  • Understanding that a car horn is a means of communication, all day and all night, will take some good ear plugs and a cold beer.

That’s it for the first installment of news from Bangalore.  Both Hans Einar and I are healthy, glad to be here and excited for the adventures to come (Indian bureaucracy notwithstanding…)