Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Ode to my Body

I’m going to take this time to give myself a pat on the back. I am constantly amazed with my body’s strength and resiliency that I think it needs some recognition. From day one, I have enjoyed all of the street foods that India has to offer. Samosas, grilled corn, and even those little delicious potato things that come in tin cups. I also adamantly support my personal philosophy that some of the best food comes from the smallest, grubbiest, little restaurants and stores. I cook my own vegetables from the local market and I never pass on local food offered to me by friends or coworkers. I’ve watched roommates make trips to the hospital, surviving on toast for days, while I order delivery from the local hole-in-the-wall. Now let me not brag, I have experienced minor “bumps in the road,” to put it lightly, but for the most part my body constantly consumes and savors these delectable treats without major problems. In fact, my roommate has dubbed me the “iron stomach.”

But as the saying goes, all giants have to fall (is that how the saying goes?).  Anyways, I knew by sheer odds that it was only a matter of time before I came down with something.  So fall, I did. Literally. To spare you all the gory details, I got sick as soon as we arrived in Jaipur. I passed out the next morning and busted my chin open on the marble floor. A visit from the doctor, three stitches, and a couple of bruises later, I’m feeling much better and left with only a little band-aid. I spent my time in Jaipur, the renowned pink city, becoming intimate with hotel room TV and if I see another commercial for Dettol, Kohler, or some watch company again, I might scream. Bummer I had to miss the sights, but at least I have a cool story to tell now, right?

I think I can forgive me body for this one hiccup considering, as previously mentioned, how much I do “challenge it.” If you haven’t gathered already by my mention of food in every blog entry, India for me has been somewhat indulgent food-wise.  I feel like I talk about food in India the way Elizabeth Gilbert talks about food in Italy in her book “Eat, Pray, Love.” It’s a fascination, close to a point of obsession. But beyond enjoying the flavors and tastes, a big part of eating for me is about appreciating the culture it comes from. Food is such a big piece of every society that to truly immerse yourself, to get the full experience, you need to eat and appreciate the food it has to offer. It’s the same reason that I chose to put my vegetarianism aside when I traveled to Kenya. I didn’t want to create another obstacle between me and anyone else, another reason to define me as different or separate.

I was disappointed the other day when while eating at a nice restaurant geared towards tourists, my family was approached by another family from the US. They seemed really excited to hear I was living in Hyderabad and asked if they could ask me one question. Of course I obliged. Of all things, they wanted to know if I could eat the street food here. That’s the one thing they wanted to know? While some of the bacteria might be different, and for some it might be wise to get your stomach adjusted before you dive in, if the people here eat it, why shouldn’t we? I find that approaching a culture with an open-minded and flexible attitude lends to interesting and fulfilling situations later, like drinking chai with local shopkeepers or eating the Indian equivalent of fast food with my coworkers. Food opens doors, it’s an automatic conversation piece, and something to do. I feel like I would be missing out on so much if I lived my life afraid of doing as the locals do. I would miss out on my neighborhood’s local culture if I didn’t have my vegetable stand guy in the market or my weekly trips to the restaurant up the block. I would miss out on lunch with the ladies from work and homemade dinners at friends’ houses. I would miss out on truly experiencing India. Now this is all to say that you don’t have to love the food, just don’t be afraid to try it.

Maybe my good health has been due to an exceptionally strong intestinal track, but I like to think that a little part of my success can be attributed to a go-with-the-flow attitude.  Whatever it may be, thank you body for (mostly) going with the flow.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Breath of Fresh Air (literally)

Farewell Delhi, you will surely be missed. As my family and I drive out of the city and onto Agra to see the Taj Mahal, I’m going to take a minute to reflect on the capital city of India. While my time here was too short (a mere two nights) I can already tell I really like this place. Being the capital, it is clearly given first access to amenities– things like good roads, grassy areas (you mean there are trees in major Indian cities?), and even a metro! While there was still the abundance of cars, motorcycles, mopeds, auto rickshaws, bicycles, tractors, horse drawn carriages, and the traffic associated with all of them, I could walk around the city and actually breath. There is a lot of history here with old mosques, forts, and markets sprinkled throughout the city. We visited some of the sights like Humuyan’s Tomb and a famous minaret with the oldest iron pole in the world that scientist can’t explain why it hasn’t rusted yet (sad that the pole was my favorite part?). I enjoyed just driving around the city, trying to get a feel for the place. While I had no sense of where we actually were, we drove around New Delhi, and circled the parliament. The government buildings are vast structures with a clear history in the British colonial era and the areas surrounding them were spacious and green.

Humuyan's Tomb, I just like whatever Ben is doing here

The Qutat Minar

We spent Christmas Eve doing what Jews do best, eating Chinese food. We ate at this really nice restaurant in our hotel and were surprised by hotel staff carolers in the middle of our meal. Wearing Santa hats, they serenaded us with classics like Jingle Bells and Dashing Through the Snow, singing with distinct accents and not quite getting all of the words right. It was awesome, especially when I realized that probably no one in the whole restaurant celebrated Christmas (we had some Israelis sitting next to us and everyone else was Indian).

My highlight of the city though was spending the day with Nurit for our work-related meeting. We got up really early to meet our boss at his Delhi home in a surrounding city called Noida. After grabbing coffee and pastries in the empty hotel lobby we took a cab to his place and from there drove to his school in a rural area. The kids were off for break but we toured the building, spoke to the teachers, and huddled together in the office drinking chai. Delhi is freezing by the way. While I kind of always giggle at the South Indians in Hyderabad who start wearing sweaters and jackets when it is anything below 80 degrees, here it is absolutely legit. Manish treated us to some breakfast at an Indian fast food chain where although I don’t know exactly what I was eating, it was definitely tasty. We finished off the meal with one of the more interesting foods I’ve tried here so far- some sort of nutty ice cream topped with squishy yellow noodles. I though it was weird at first and put my spoon down, but who am I kidding, I ate it all. Nurit and I then tried out Delhi’s new metro to meet up with a friend of hers in a touristy market area called Pahar ganj. The metro is really fast and really clean. If it weren’t for some of the women wearing saris or kurtas around us, it felt like I could have been anywhere in Europe of the US. Actually I take that back, the Delhi metro is much nicer than the DC metro. Anyways, we spent the rest of the day checking out some markets, sipping chai with friends, and overeating delicious paneer butter masala and malai kofta for lunch. This whole over eating thing seems to be a reoccurring theme for me on this trip but as Nurit’s friend Johnty explained to me, Hindus believe that food is God and it cannot go to waste. So really, I’m just trying to do my part.
Nurit and I discover the metro

Well I guess to sum it all up, I wish Delhi and I had more time together. I liked her grassy areas and her bustling markets, her tasty food, and her character. Delhi strikes me as a city with immense potential. It a place where the old world and new world meet and a place where the feeling of India’s growth and “emerging world power” attitude feels palpable.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This one goes out to all the vegetarians

I saw a beautiful thing today. I didn’t go on a hike or to some remote village though, I was just eating at TGI Fridays. That’s right, TGI Fridays. I think two parts of that sentence are surprising: 1) the “I” part, as in me, Rachel Kutler, was eating at Fridays and 2) the part where there is a TGI Fridays in Hyderabad, India.  Anyways, we had some LIFE programming in the morning and collectively decided that we were homesick for some simple American food and went there for lunch.

The Fridays looks a lot like the ones you see in the states—random pictures and things on the wall, red and white striped tables, even our server wore the customary suspenders with “flair.” But back to that beautiful thing. I was looking over the menu, noticing some of the same items like potato skins and mini quesadillas, when there on the bottom, a little inconspicuous, beautiful mark appeared: a star to indicate the “non-vegetarian” items. That’s right, non-vegetarian, ie things made with meat. Now since day one in India it has been made abundantly clear that vegetarian food is the norm. It is exactly the opposite of the US so that here, when you go to a restaurant, you’re not sure if they will have meat items. It has been awesome for me, not only is the food already delicious but I can eat it all too! And eat it all I do. Naan, roti, aloo gobi, malai kofta, chana masala, palak panneer, the list goes on. I eat it for as many meals as possible each day, and can’t fathom ever getting sick of it.

So despite eating veg food all the time, seeing those little starred menu items indicating non-vegetarian dishes in a chain restaurant known for its burgers and meat in the US, felt like a little battle won for us herbivores: Vegetarians around the world: 1, Meat eaters: 0!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Most recent happenings

Greetings! I think its been a while, so here goes an update… Life here in Hyderabad has been good. My internship is a little bit of a messy situation, but that’s no fun to talk about, so instead, a rundown on the highlights of the past few weeks:

Thanksgiving- It was a blast. Every roommate made at least one dish and it was a legitimate feast- veggies and tofu, fried rice, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken for the main course (no tukey to be found), and a Brazilian chocolate dish for dessert. I think India has been tapping into my inner chef because Abby and I embarked on making two fancy dishes- stuffing and pumpkin curry soup- both of which were hits! We invited out country director, Venkat, along with his family. They are absolutely adorable but very traditional in a few ways. His children were weirded out by our strange looking bland food and only ate some chocolate we gave them.  I knew I did my job of passing on the traditions of Thanksgiving when Nurit, my Israeli roommate, immediately went to lie down on the couch after the meal.

Vizag- The seven of us took a weekend trip to Visakhapatanam (otherwise known as Vizag) for the weekend. It is the second biggest city in Andhra Pradesh and know for its’ beaches. After faring a 17 hour bus ride and coming off a little tired and a lot disheveled, we hopped right onto a crowded city bus (literally people hang out of the doors) out to Rushikonda beach.  The beach is a little further away from the city center and known to be a little more secluded. After searching for some deals, Alex, Nurit, and I stayed in this little rustic hut a 5 minute walk to the beach.

Coastal Andhra is absolutely beautiful and the beach itself, while crowded, is nice. The water is a perfect temperature although we didn’t get much of an opportunity to swim seeing as we were a major attraction for the Indian tourists. Hoards of people, mostly young boys in tiny bathing suits, kept stopping us, asking to take photos with them.—we could barely make it to the other side of the beach before sundown.  Then back to our hut for cold beers, dinner at a restaurant with a view, and off to bed to early to wake up for our city tour in the morning. We hired a private driver the next day to take us to all of the sites Vizag had to offer- a mountain with a view, a park with some strange statues, and my personal favorite, the fish market. Although none of these sights gathered nearly as much attention as a group of four white people walking around together. It is not uncommon for me to be stopped on the street and asked to take a photo with someone’s daughter, wife, or entire 6th grade class. Overall the trip was refreshing but lesson learned about traveling via bus: 17 hours  sitting in one place is never fun.
Hut sweet Hut

Rushikonda Beach
Fish until the eye can see (note: this is not the fish market)


Hanukah Party- By Hanukkah party I really mean we threw a party, put gelt  (the chocolate coins) on the table, and called it a Hanukkah party. We invited all of our friends (a total of about 5 people) plus some others we had met at a conference that day. Abby and I called upon our inner Jewish mothers and made potato latkes. I have never been more impressed with myself- they were dee-lish. Anyways, debauchery ensued and we all had a great time. Beyond the shattered dining room table and the fight that almost took place- the night was a great success!

Tollywood Film-  I am now going to be a famous Tollywood star. Just kidding (well sort of). Tollywood is just like its neighbor Bollywood but in Telegu instead of Hindi. There is big movie making industry in Hyderabad and they are always looking for talent (ie white people) to star in their films. We met with an agent who picked us up in the morning and took us to the set of “Ayare,” a movie about a swami but the plot of which, I still have no idea. All I know is that on the set there were a whole bunch of people dressed in orange and a giant poster of the swami looking over us on a rock above. A few people were sent to costume to put on the orange saris and matching red bindis while some of us stayed dressed in our western wear. I ended up spending the majority of my day napping in a shaded area but after a few scenes as an extra and then chatting with the director, Abby and I were given our big break. We acted as the swami’s followers, and had to follow the actor down the center of a parting crowd (her in her sari and me in my jeans and t-shirt). There were a few takes and  at one point the famous actor, Rajendra Prasad, was even asked to move over so we could be seen. We ended up joking with the actors and the director,  taking photos with them that we claimed would be used as publicity, and even made some money while we were at it.

Well that’s it for me in terms of the most recent happenings worth sharing. I’ve got some lists brewing so stay tuned for more soon…I hope all is well at home and enjoy the cool weather for me!