Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Pigeon Popper

The Taj Palace Hotel in Jaipur is stunning - yes, another palace - this one belonged to a guy who was, for a time, the richest man in the world.  The Maharajah of Jaipur.  When he was born, the first male heir in two generations, his delighted family opened so much champagne he was nicknamed bubbles.  And the nickname stuck until he died,  just 2 years ago.

The rooms, to someone who's never lived in a palace, are over the top.  In a good way.  I'm not complaining, but I'm also not redecorating.

And in the main courtyard there is a guy we call the Pigeon Popper.  His job?  Wave the flag at the pigeons to keep them off the fountain, and when waving doesn't work, whack the flag with his stick.  Pop!  Pigeons fly up...pigeons come back.  Guaranteed employment.

It's a bit like being near the Pacific flyway on the opening day of hunting season.  But it's easier on the birds - this is a Hindu country, and you never know, you could come back as a pigeon.  

In the lap of luxury, I'm glad I'm a guest here, and not a pigeon.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You say oo-day poor, I say oo-diaper

Breakfast and bathing at the Taj Palace in Udaipru are very different from breakfast and bathing across the water:

But the Maharana still has the best seat in the house. 

 A Rajah is a king, a Maharajah is an uber-king, and a Maharana is an uber-general.  He was really a Maharajah who called himself General in the hope his Generals would be less likely to overthrow him if they thought he was one of them.  Judging from his uber-opulent palace, it worked.  At least for a while.

We learn the formula for a successful Bollywood film:  a fast song, a slow song, a fight scene, a wet sari song.  We have wet t-shirts, they have wet saris.  

You can tell whether a couple is married or not by where the woman sits.  Before marriage she sits on the man's right.  After marriage she sits on the left, and our guide says that's because most Indian men keep their wallet in the right pocket.  

At our palace we have a concert of traditional music (think out-of-tune accordian meets treadle sewing machine and you'll get the idea) 

And traditional dancing:

And a fabulous roof-top dinner, the stairs to the roof strewn with rose and marigold petals.

Morning departure.  How many check-outs require a life vest?  A second mortgage maybe...but rarely a life vest.  And check out the umbrella.

There is a festival going on this month where the single women pray for a good husband, like Lord Shiva, and the married women pray for a good husband like Lord Shiva - in the next life.  

Most marriages are still arranged, and most marry within their community.  I think that means caste, even tho the caste system is officially outlawed.  But so is corruption and ninety cents of every dollar goes into someone's pocket.

Flights and Lights

The Mumbai airport has seats for about a third of the waiting passengers  So the rest flop down on the stairs leading to the gates, or lean against the walls, balancing laptops on one knee.  Or stand and watch a dubbed version of Conan The Barbarian playing on flat screen TVs  everywhere.  

Appparently the plane has the same problem as the airport.  Not enough seats.  Tim and Sylvia get bounced, and are to spend the night at an airport hotel (ah, luxury!) and join us tomorrow morning.

As Vivik is tucking them into a cab, a friend who works at the airport tells him to wait...apparently there is a little wiggle room in the closing time of the flight, and as the Indian travellers are on Indian Stretchable time, they tend to arrive a bit late.  Sure enough.  The agent closes the flight at the earliest legal time, and as Tim and Syl are handed their tickets, the late travelers whose seats they got arrive in a  flurry.

As we are waiting to climb the stairs to the tiny plane, moaning about the unfairness of life (Tim and Syl's, not ours - we're on the way to a palace!) Sylvia sneaks up from behind and gives me a hug.  I'm so happy to see them I can’t stop grinning.

We drive thru a wedding (groom on white horse has to make way for our bus.  Not happy.  Bad video.  Probably a bad omen too, unless his parents own a bus company.)

You have to take a boat to get to the Taj Palace Hotel.   The Maharana's winter palace across the water is lit up like an octogenarian’s birthday cake.

In the morning we explore the hotel.

It was the summer palace of the Maharana of Udaipur.  On an island in the middle of a lake.  They built the palace, then the dam.  Smart.  I could stay here forever. 

It's good to be king.  Or Maharana. 

Lights. Colors.

They look at color differently here.  No rules.  Have fun.  Actually there are probably rules, every color probably has meaning, but as I don't know, it's just fun.  The houses on Elephant Island, 

...the chairs to take you up the 120 steps.  (We walked.  We have some pride.)

The rickety boats that bring you here - (no life preservers, bashed in decks, but you could probably walk on the water it's so polluted).

The temples of Elephant island are monochromatic, monolithic...

...the statues look modern and are a bit risque:

...and the dogs are happy but a bit worse for wear.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ivory Towers

Vivek, our A&K guide introduces us to Jasmine, our Mumbai guide.  Elegant, sophisticated and beautiful, with the most incredible jeweled sandals, she takes us thru the city.  The contrasts are heartbreaking, this slum next to a Country Club...

On Malabar Hill slums hunker down in patches next to multi-million dollar homes.  Think Beverly Hills meets the Ozarks and you’ll get the picture.  Temples and vendors line the alleys, Audis and Mercedes are parked next door in front of mansions, whole families of homeless people live on the sidewalks.

Dhobi Ghat, the open-air laundry - and expensive new apartment towers behind.  We wonder how long before Dhobi Ghat becomes a posh tower.

Old and new, rich and poor, those with a bright future and those struggling to feed themselves and their families, whole families living on the street.  Our guide Jasmine, beautiful and cosmopolitan, says there is no resentment.  Hard to grasp.  

There is a 27 story blocky tower owned by the richest man in India (whose name I cannot remember - you can Google him).  Seven floors of the tower are garage for his 200 cars, the other 20 are his residence.  Dual helipads on top that he can’t use because his rich neighbors don’t want the racket.  A staff of 600 from the Oberoi (which he owns) to keep things together.   His Ivory Tower of a house cost a billion dollars.  God only know what that would be in rupees.

Jasmine says India is the one place all six religions live in harmony - Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Jew, Hindu, Muslim.  Apparently Lutherans are not part of the mix.  She is Parsi, a group that came from Iran eons ago, and they worship the elements.

Another kind of tower: we drive past a patch of jungle that hides the Towers of Silence.  Very private, only Parsi can go in and there are fewer and fewer of them.

The Parsi don't bury or cremate, that would pollute the elements, which they worship.  They place the bodies on a 17 foot tall tower, the Tower of Silence, and the vultures and the sun take care of the rest.  Not ashes to ashes just dust to dust.  Not sure I'd want to be vulture dust...not sure I'd want to live in an Ivory Tower.

It's a different world.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Diving In

Sylvia wants to see the Victoria Train Station and to Crawford market, so we reserve a car for 6 (Syl, Tim, Wally, Jill, guide and driver) for the morning.  But since it’s India, our big car has been taken by someone else (reservation? We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no stinkin’ reservation!).  I bitch, they wait us out, so we are put in two cars and we dive into chaos, cars clearing each other by inches, decrepit three-wheeled tuk-tuks rattling by, squeezing between huge brightly painted falling apart buses - all with horns blaring.   If you can't lean on the horn repeatedly for the duration of the ride, you lose your license.  Truck are even marked on the back. "Horn Please!" 

Victoria Station is a huge messy falling-down confection of elaborately detailed cast iron columns with a huge dusty sky-light that runs the length, and landing platforms stretching into the distance.  Barefoot men pushing dripping carts of fish on ice in round baskets hiss at us - their way of saying "coming thru".

As we walk toward a platform we can see a train approaching - there are no doors, and there are people hanging out of the place where the doors should be.

Sharmila, our guide,  gently herds us to the side as a massive wave of humanity breaks over us.  

We huddle against a dusty cast-iron pillar.  Within minutes three trains have docked (no other word for it), and commuters in suits, women in saris and vendors in rags with baskets on their heads or lumpy sacks under their arms flow by.  

The trains are meant to hold fifteen hundred, but five thousand crowd on.  On each train.  Of fifteen cars.  You do the math.

Those who are hanging out the doorway and have nothing to hold on to (no strap, no bar) are held in by those behind.  As Sharmila says, some days you are behind the bar, some days you are in front.  In Mumbai, there is aways someone there to help take care of you, because you never know when you will be the one without a strap.  We agree that there’s always someone there, but not too sure about the taking care part.  Mostly they’re trying to sell you something. 

On the way to lunch at  Khyber we stop to see the depa-wallas, or as we call them the tiffin-wallas.  Indian women make a hot lunch for their husbands, who have taken the early train, alas, before lunch was ready.  One tiffin walla collects the lunch from the homes, and goes to the train station where the tiffins (tall round tin lunch boxes) are sorted by which train station in Mumbai is closest to their destination.  Onto the train with another tiffin-walla, where on arrival they are sorted again, then hung from hooks on a bicycle rack and delivered to the offices.  Then they’re collected, sorted and sent home, and the whole thing starts all over again tomorrow.  

The small chalk-marks on top are the only identifiers: no laundry tag, no computers.  Yet three hundred thousand tiffin-wallas move millions of tiffins each day.  

Crawford Market is the main fruit and vegetable market downtown.  No Safeway, no Costco.   In the dirt parking lot of men walk with huge flat baskets on their heads.  They are the shopping carts.  You hire one - he follows you and puts your purchases in his head basket, then loads them into your car.

A dozen different kinds of guavas, half a dozen different bananas.  

Birds, puppies and kittens (too sad)

Candy and toothpaste, baskets and handbags.  And a gazillion kinds of curries and spices.  

One young handbag vendor takes a fancy to us - 

...and follows Tim thru the market, her price getting lower as we approach the exit.  Wally finally buys a bag for a tenth her original asking price.  It has a thin gauze bottom and plastic beads, but it is sparkly and it makes her day.  And her smile makes ours.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


It's 24 hours door-to-door.  Landing in Frankfurt was like landing on a wedding cake; I thought we'd slide off the frosting...

Double de-icing and two hours late taking off again - weather.  Who'd expect that?  In Frankfurt? um...

Mumbai? no de-icing equipment.  Warm and moist and fragrant.  Hammered with tired we look in vain for the A & K guys who, we'd be assured, would meet us on arrival.

Sleeves plucked at with "Car?  Best car!  Air Conditioned!  You come!" we are swarmed.  The Taj hotel people take pity on us, grab our bags and the throng falls back respectfully.

"Five minutes - car from the hotel Taj Palace will be here in five minutes.  Ten minutes later?  "Only five minutes more!"

Half an hour later, two apologetic and rumpled young guys show up - since our flight was late they had been sleeping in the car in the Parking Zoo (good description) and with a warm welcome they swing our heavy bags like kindling into their car.

Mr Toad's wild ride thru the night-time streets of Mumbai - even at 4 a.m. there are joggers, walkers, and traffic. People everywhere, we think.  Wait til morning, they assure us - this is nothing.  Flights arrive early morning because traffic during the day is hellacious.

Red lights?  We didn't stop at one.

The Taj Palace - famous for heartbreaking reasons.  Gorgeous.  

Out the window more pigeons than I've ever seen-

A yacht harbor with no yachts...


...and The Gateway to India, built to honor visiting British royalty.  Irony?

Crowded beyond belief, smoke and jasmine scent the air.  Sidewalks teem, traffic seethes, all horns blaring.  Beggars tug at our sleeves and pinch their babies to make them cry (who thinks crying babies are more sympathetic?)  

 We are definitely in Mumbai.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013


If you know me, you know I don't buy prepared food.  I make my own baking powder, for crying out loud, that's how un-prepared I am.  So it was a shock when Kevin made pizza from Trader Joe's pre-made dough.  It was crisp, delicious, and didn't have that pre-made preservative whiff that I so despise.

So last night we made pizza.  From Trader Joe's crust.  This one...

They have an herb-y one, but I'm a purist - I prefer my herbs fresh-snipped and on top of the pizza, not smooshed into the dough.

Dump it out, let it rest.  Then roll.  If it fights back, walk away for 20 minutes.  I had to do this twice, but eventually it quit shrinking up and covered a 13 x 18 rimmed baking sheet.  Peacefully.

Slice some mozzarella (it does not grate well, it fights back.  Trust me on this one and spare your knuckles a painful lesson. Also messy.  Thank goodness for tomato sauce!)

Also some parmigiano reggiano.   Not the cheap stuff, the real deal.

A few pitted kalamata olives, anchovies on his half (not mine!) and some whole tomatoes...

Again, not the cheap ones.  If you're going to bother to cook, use the best stuff you can find.  It's still cheaper than frozen prepared anything, or a restaurant.  And usually better. 

My favorite part: smashing the tomatoes.  Actually,  squeezing and squishing.  I recommend holding the tomatoes in a deep bowl when you squish.  And wearing an apron.  You'll figure out why.  

Scatter the smashed tomatoes over the dough - you can brush with olive oil first, but i like the tomatoes melting into the dough.

Scatter the cheeses, olives, anchovies - carefully! don't get any of that cat food on my half!

Bake. Eat.  I'd love to show you the finished product, but it got eaten before I remembered to grab my camera.  

Maybe next time.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Jill Jar

Lots of my friends stopped by on my Birthday - for a doggy play date, to see how Wally was doing (drippy and sick), to bring chocolate.  The Gossip Girls and family brought the coolest gift - 

It's  jill jar.  Inside, like fortune cookies but curled, and with things the family thinks about me.  

It has cheered me immeasurably on these cold sick days.  I have it on the counter in front of me now, and when I'm feeling a bit low (you know who you are) I pull one out and read it, and laugh, and remember all the fun we have had together - the meals cooked and shared, the "we're not really a sandwich family" converted by a panini press, the walks up the mountain, the Mr Toad's Wild Rides in Italy...friends are the best.  

Thank you.  

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Wisdom of Yellow

This is the time of year I am so glad I planted yellow in the fall.  Here, if you don't get it planted by September it won't grow.  You think your teenagers can pout?  You've never met a four inch annual planted in muddy soil in late fall.

Late August seemed too early, the days still hot and sunny, the nights just beginning to cool and lengthen.  Yet the Icelandic poppies I planted then are huge, with nodding cups of coral over the leafy mess that the garden has become since this year's freeze.  The one I found in its pot in December, the one I missed?  Still no bigger than its pot, but the rest are bushy, shaggy, floriferous (love that word).

Daffodils on the hill under the oak trees have joined the paperwhites that have been blooming since Halloween.  I keep saying I'll plant under the oaks, perhaps Douglas iris, the California native.  But I love the bareness, the sweep of land, the only color the daffodils of winter (it's California - they bloom here in winter)  and the self-seeded spring surprises.

Last year there were forget-me-nots and California poppies under the oaks, the orange of the poppies made more brilliant by the pure blue of the forget-me-nots.  

There were a few Campanula primulifolia last year, and there are hundreds of babies now.  Neatnick gardeners think I'm lazy for letting things go to seed, but I have masses of foxglove and forget-me-nots, of campanulas and hellebores.

Annie's Annuals has the campanula, and many more wonderful things besides - this is their photo.  Doesn't do the plant justice, but so many gardeners are seduced by pretty flowers.  (It is fashionable in some quarters to make fun of these people and sniff that they're not real gardeners.  Grow up.  We are all captivated by something, it's why we garden.)

Hellebores have been blooming since Christmas, and have seeded in the paths and rock walls where they're not supposed to thrive.  Live and learn.  I pull off some of the old leaves so the mother plant doesn't smother the babies.  Pinks and whites, and one so dark it is nearly black.  I have seen some yellow hellebores in English gardening magazines, but I'll wait 'til they work out the kinks - just yellow is not enough, I want beauty too.  And for the price to come down.

Outside the kitchen window, yellow pansies join last year's primroses - plant primroses high and in summer shade and they'll come back for years.

At Christmas I almost ripped this all out in favor of white cyclamen.  Then we had a few cold nights, and last year's cyclamen growing under the oak tree turned to slime.  And during the cold gray days (remember those?) just looking at this made me happier.  

Fragrance is one of winter's gifts, an apology that there are not more flowers, a compensation for the smallness of winter's blooms.  Daphne is the classic, but I have been seduced by Sweet Box, Sarcococca ruscifolia and aren't you glad you asked.  Last year I cut small sprigs to bring in the house, then in summer I cut the plant to the ground.  What a waste.  This year I cut many long branches, and my house is full of the sweet kind smell.  And when I prune in summer I won't have as much work, and I will remember the gift of fragrance in the dark of winter.

It makes a fabulous hedge for shade, it's not fussy, and the branches I cut last year lasted for three months, until I noticed the roots they had grown and planted them out in the garden.  So there may be a sweet box hedge in my future...or yours, if you come by.  Stay for tea.