17 August 2008

Portion Sizes & People Sizes

In my previous post, I didn't cover all of my Indian festivities. The other thing I did (aside from work) was go to the bank (which shockingly wasn't closed/out-of-order/suffering from some other problem). On my way back I passed Baskin Robbins and decided to get myself a vanilla milkshake. The store's ceiling was completely covered with balloons - it was quite a sight - and the store itself was the hottest ice-cream store I've ever been in (hotter even than Carvel in NY during the power outage of '05). I bought my favorite since I was a kid, a vanilla milk shake. It cost 79 Rupees ($1.83) - expensive by standards around here, but quite affordable to me. The shocker was the size. It was tiny. (seemed about 12 ounces) Now I knew how bloated American portion sizes have become (just pop into a 7-11 and look at the size of the smallest slurpee container), but getting this teensy weensy milkshake brought it home in a viceral way. Any you know, it was just the right amount. I really enjoyed just that much, more would have been fine, but my thirst was slacked and my ice-cream hankering was as well. More would have just been more, not better (and possibly less healthy). I think I'm going to try to keep that in mind - I'd alrady jumped on the bandwagon of "better food, more moderately consumed", but this was a great experiencal reminder.

Now this is good for a wealthy foreigner like me, but the flip side is that food, albeit incredibly cheap by our standards, can be quite expensive for regular folks here. Bangalore is one of the wealthiest, most modern cities in India. Most of the people here are, in fact, doing alright by local standards. But while we eat too much, they don't get enough, or perhaps if they get enough, relatively few get more than they need. I'm a really skinny guy, but I look really solid compared to the autorickshaw drivers who drive me around (also compared to most of the MSR drivers). Now these are full grown adults and probably can afford to eat as much as they need (at least the MSR employed folks), but I think if you've not had quite enough as a kid, maybe you're body loses some of the capability to store fat? This is baseless conjecturing on my part. But what I do know is that the kids in the playground and on the street are thin. Not emaciated, not malnourished, but really thin. And it seems to me they don't grow quite as large because of it. People around here really aren't in great shape:
part of that's b/c there isn't a fitness culture or nearly as much general health awarness - when I took a jog yesterday, there was no were to run but the street with cars whizzing by and bleching smoke out of their converted-lawnmower engines. There aren't any parks or tracks, not much green space at all. No pollution controls - the air is visible. And people don't even know what you are doing - you get these confused looks from pedestrains (why the heck would anyone who could afford to take a cab ever lift their feet?) and from drivers as well (one autorickshaw chased me for the better part of two blocks, over an overpass until I finally convinced him that I wasn't interested). Perhaps pushing yourself physically is considered menial? I don't know, but I did pass at least one Indian cyclist while jogging at maybe 55% of maximum speed.

Part perhaps is b/c people are too busy working.
But some is definitely b/c they aren't getting overmuch food. And on the flip-side, to compensate the food people eat when they can is super oily, rich, and suggary. Consequently, if you get more than just enough of it, it will make you sluggish, ill, fat, or just plain sick after a while (at least if you are a westerner like me - since Linda left, I've really taken to cooking at home)

So that's another taste of my life in Bangalore.

16 August 2008

Jai Hind!

This past Friday was Indian Independence day. I didn't do much to celebrate - mostly just went to work. Thought about going to a flower show with some other interns, but decided against since I had been told it wasn't great by one of the full-timers at MSR (also I don't care that much either way about flowers). For a bit I felt like perhaps I had made a mistake in not immersing myself in Indian culture, but as it turns out, I currently think I made the right choice for two reasons:
1) The interns never ended up making it to work (and I really need to get stuff done now so I can visit Linda next weekend in Jaipur)
2) I ended up having quite an Indian experience nonetheless!

Apparently, if one wants to celebrate Indian Independence day, the place to be is Spencers grocery store. Yes you heard correctly, Spencers grocery store. This was the second place I went when I took an hour out of work to do shopping. The first place was the Rebok store - I needed sneakers and they were having a sale that let me buy my pair for 55% off. My feet are really happier now, I'll have an easier time excersizing and even perhaps playing some ball (at my request, MSR has ordered a basketball for the lab) and the folks in the store were nice - it's good just to go somewhere, try on what you need, make a decision and leave. But I digress.

So I get to Spencers and the whole outside of the store is decked out with pictures of Indian heros, streamers, and banners - lot's of other shops had some decoration, but Spencers really went all out. You'll see right past the entrance a fellow dressed as a soldier who handed out Indian flags, paper flags w/ shirt pins, and celebratory sweets. He helped me with my pin, although I declined the candy. Next step was to leave my bags at the security desk (you can't bring a bag into a grocery store around here) manned by Mahatma Gahndi himself! A bit further into the store were various characters decked out with turbans, saris, swords and shields - various Indian folklore heros.

At this point a crowd had gathered around me while I shot photos (my iPhone is always a big hit around here). And I inquired what the traditional independence day greeting was (Jai Hind - "Victory to India"). Everyone was merry and I had a fantastic time! Subsequently, I actually did buy some groceries and probably even got an okay price b/c everything was on sale for the holiday (finally a bit of home ;-)

After finally leaving the festivities of Spencers, I did a bit more shopping then started to walk home. People were all over the street and there were far less cars than normal. Close to MSR (Microsoft Research Labs for those of you newcomers) I saw a fellow with a corn cart, and thought to myself, "why not buy some corn". So I got some hot spicy corn, took more pictures of donkeys resting outside of MSR, and then got a great shot of an autorickshaw as it was passing by (all of the auto's were sporting Indian flags). Finally I took a couple of the security guards who were quite tickled to see me walking around with Indian flags. They were so pleased, they even gave me a special Indian celebratory dessert (much better than the pre-packaged candies at Spencers. I went upstairs and back to work quite pleased with my adventure!

13 August 2008

Jews in South India - Part 2: Cochin and Kerala

I started working on this post several months ago, but with so much to do and so little time, I never finished it. Now it is the festival of Pesach (or Passover) during which we celebrate the exodus from Egypt and commemorate it by removing all leaven from our houses (the Jews didn't have time to let anything leaven when they left Egypt, the bread baked flat on their backs, so the story goes and so goes our tradition). It seems to me that my arriving again in the promised land on this Pesach holiday is an appropriate time to write about the Jews I left in India.

So I've written previously about the beginnings of modern Jewish life in the new, dynamic tech city of Bangalore. Now I'll tell you about the opposite - my brief encounter with what seems to be the final days of one of the most ancient Jewish communties in the world due West and slightly South in the city of Cochin, the major port of the Indian state of Kerala.

The Jews of Kerala have been there for a very long time, the first of them may have arrived in 72CE, as refugees right after the destruction of the 2nd Temple and subsequent exile. This unique community persisted, maintaining its Jewish identiy observing the same holiday, laws, and traditions (with their own unique twists) as those of Jews thousands of miles away, while welcoming new waves of Jews who arrived over the next two thousand years. This makes them one of the oldest Jewish permanent Jewish communities anyway (only the Italian, Greek, and perhaps Iranian communities are older to my knowlege) . The Jews of Cochin now look like Indians (or at least many do) but when I prayed with them, the prayers were surprisingly familiar - their liturgy is even more similiar to my own Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition than that of the Jews of Rome.

Now that you've got an idea of the historic context of things I can tell you about the fun stuff. Our friends Roni and Ilana (Roni was a visiting professor at MSRI while I was there), invited us to come along on their weekend trip to Cochin. As we'd been really interested in seeing Cochin for a long while and had determined that it would definitely be one of the places we visited while in India, Linda and I were delighted to accept their invite.

We flew from a dry, cool Bangalore early morning and arrived in a sultry, rainy Kerelan late morning. An old, British taxi drove us to our destination in Fort Cochin (a mildly touristy area) - the car looked like it was made out of cast iron. After an hours ride we made it to Fort Cochin, dropped our bags of at a quaint 200 year old Dutch-style inn, and then met Roni and Ilana for breakfast.

Later that day we visited Jew Town - the area of Cochin that the Jewish community has inhabited for several hundred years, possibly since the very founding of the town around 700 years ago. Although the Jewish community of Cochin was robust (numbering between 1000 and 2000 Jews) as recently as several decades ago (preceeding the mass migration of Cochin Jews to Israel after the founding of the State), there are now only 13 Jews in Cochin proper and perhaps three times that many in the surrounding area (who generally only come in three times a year for the main holidays). Consequently being there was a bit melancholy for us. It was amazing to be in one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements but sad to think that that continuity will almost certainly be broken within my lifetime. Although the Jews of Cochin have lived little persecution for a longer period than almost any other Jewish population worldwide, the economic realities made aliyah (moving to Israel) the clearly right choice for the vast majority of Jews here. The few that remain are almost all elderly. There are no children and of the several synagouges in the area, most have been taken over by the government and turned into museums.

We spent a bit of time wandering about in Jew Town. Mostly we saw old buildings and lots of souvenir shops set up by immigrants from the various *stan countries to the north of India. But we were able to get a peek at the outside of the synagouge and find out what time services would be that night. We then stopped at the post office where we wrote a whole bunch of postcards since, at this post office the India government offers a special "Magen David" (Jewish Star of David) for tourists. Although apparently it is essential to make sure that all postcards are very clearly canceled - otherwise people will peel the stamps off the postcard and resell them! So we spent a bunch of time running around to buy postcards, fill them out and then get exact change to buy the stamps. Good fun.

We had hired a car, and from Jew Town the car took us north some 36 kilometers to an old synaguogue in Chendamangalam, now a government museum. Although 30 kilometers isn't much of a distance in the West, it took us a bit over one and a half hours each way. We dozed during much of the drive as we watched the lush foliage, people, animals, and waterways pass by.

The synagouge at Chendamangalam was really neat. On the front lawn, before the entrance lies what the lonely planet claims in the oldest grave in all of India. The rock was incredibly weathered, but we could still make out some of the hebrew writing. Interestingly, although old, the grave isn't terribly old compared to many we saw in Europe in Israel - perhaps 800 years or so. The reason why it is so old for India (a place full of the ancient) is that before the arrival of Muslims and Christians, Jews were the only group to practice burial in the ground (native Indian religious choosing cremation or "sky burial"). Hence this gravestone being perhaps the oldest remaining in India.

We really enjoyed visiting the synagogue. It was surrounded by a wall on three sides that joined to the buildings facade in the front. When we entered we were instructed to take off our shoes in the courtyard and then proceeded through a second set of doors into the synagogue proper. What was inside was half house of worship and half museum but still beautiful. The ceiling was covered by a wonderfully restored pattern (apparently the building was in quite bad shape before it was taken over by the government) and the atmosphere seemed to me both holy and sad. I spent a while standing on the bimah thinking.

Upstairs on the balcony where the women prayed was a second bimah. This was very interesting and unusual. Whereas in most traditional houses of Jewish worship the Bible (Torah) reading was always conducted from the men's section, here a couple of times a year the scroll was brought upstairs to where the women prayed and read from there. This struck me as really thoughtful and something we western Jews could use to learn from.

We stayed for a while, but couldn't dally too much as we wanted to get back to town in time for afternoon and evening services. We hoped that perhaps we might make a minyan or quorum of 10 men needed for services (in more liberal circles, of which I wholeheartedly approve, it can be any 10 Jews regardless of gender) - currently there are only 5 men of the elderly 13 remaining Cochin Jews. In the end there were actually 17 men and slightly fewer women! We were privleged to pray with the first minyan the community had had in 5 months or so. As it was sabbath we have no pictures, but it was a beautiful service in a beautiful building. The room was lit by dozens of floating colored lights, handing from the high ceiling and the floor was covered by dutch-oriental tiles, each of which had a picture only slightly different than the others, but still with some unique detail. I prayed without shoes, even though here I was not a tourist (who during tours had to remove their footwear) but a guest of the community. I attended only two services during my time in India, but what they lacked in abundance they more than made up for in meaning.

After synagugoue ended we stayed for a while in the dark street outside (power outage) and talked with other travelers and natives. We stopped at the house of Sarah, who has lived there (her house is shown in the first picture of this post) since before partition. She told us stories of the community and we wished her a good shabbos before walking home for the evening. Later Linda and Ilana returned to speak with her and buy some judaica (Lin got me the neatest purple Cochin kippa with crazy gold magen davids :-)

Later in our trip we also were able to stop by the Jewish cemetery. It was gated and locked, but the proprietors of the store across the street let us go us on the roof from which we could overlook the cemetery. Like the gate, it was beautiful and old.

But the sun begins to set here and I find I've got to end. Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

10 August 2008

Jews in South India - Part 1: Tisha B'Av & Chabad of Bangalore

A good friend wrote me today: "Amazing realization that with you being a physical and mental world away from us, we will still both be observing Tisha B'Av..."

Some background: today is the fast of Tisha B'Av (the 9th of the month of Av), the saddest day of the Hebrew year. Basically the story is that today marks the destruction of both the first and second temples, the 2000 year exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and numerous other tragedies we've suffered. So we fast (no food, no water 25 hours and change), sit on the floor, try not to smile, and generally think sad thoughts. Although usually by mid-afternoon most of us are exhausted and end up sleeping or watching TV.

It's also the only Jewish holiday that will be happening while I'm in India (we came right after the Shavous holiday and will be leaving 2 days before Rosh Hashana - the new year). I figured I'd spend it alone (Linda's away in Jaipur) and read Aicha (the sad book we read on Tisha B'Av), which made me sad. But it turns out ironically that there was something to make me happy - the newly launched Bangalore Chabad - through which now I could share my sadness with other Jews. We had initially searched for Chabad (Chabad is an emissary organization launched many years ago by the Lubavitch sect to provide religious/cultural services to Jews in far flung places spiced with mild internal proselytizing called "kiruv") a couple of months before we came to Bangalore, but no dice. Then a couple of weeks ago in at the Synagogue in Cochin, we met two young Lubavitch men who told us a Chabad Bangalore was fortuitously just starting up!

So I managed to get in touch with them (now they've got a spiffy blog at jewishbangalore.blogspot.com ) and Mendel and Moshe immediately invited me over for a kosher meal that could have come straight from Crown Heights (ah, the oily taste of home - tasty but from a time before people understood why heart disease happens ;-)
I had a great time chatting with them, both New Yorkers - it's so nice to hang out with folks from back home, shout out to our new homegirl Jayce from Brooklyn whom we met in Cochin (great times in Cochin) - and am looking forward to sharing more meals with them and possibly a shabbos (Sabbath) before I leave.
Anyway, last night I was able to got hear Aicha which Mendel read wonderfully, and if I have the energy will return this afternoon for prayers, Israel solidarity of some sort, and breakfast.

It's nice that even in such a far place as Bangalore there's a bit of Jewish life to be found.

07 August 2008

Retroactive Inaugural Post

This is the retroactive inaugural post of my blog. I know this seems odd - my posts have been made since June '08 and it's now August.

But you see, the previous posts weren't actually made in blog form - this whole thing was an email chain until recently. So this is technically the first blog post, shechianu.

It is also the last email of the chain, or at least from the following line it is.

End of the line: recent mention of her soon-to-be launched blog by my wife, and complaint that there aren't any pictures of me on my relatively new facebook homepage by an old friend with whom I am now back in touch, have somehow combined in my mind to make me decide this email chain has gotten a bit too long and would be better off reincarnated (I am living in India after all) as a blog. Hence from here forth I proclaim that this email chain is at an end and you can now read about my/our adventures at my newly inaugurated blog http://mostlyslow.blogspot.com/

While you can of course just check the blog periodically, subscribe via RSS, and respond in the comments clickable from the blog, I have for your convenience created a private google group for which you will shortly receive an invitation [those of you who weren't part of the chain please refer to the Email Notification box at right]. Should you respond to this invite and elect to join this group, you will receive email alerts when I make new posts and as a bonus will receive email links to private picture albums which barbarians outside this group are barred from seeing!

Please send me/comment your feedback on this decision - like? dislike?

06 August 2008

Indian Bueracracy drives me nuts!

Just another tidbit for you. The system here in India is ridiculous, I've never seen half so much red tape in my life (and I worked in the National Labs for 2 summers). There doesn't seem to be any cultural capacity for connecting the dots.

Example: I talk to a phone rep who asks me a million questions to verify my identity, then make a request for an addition debit card for Linda. I'm then told, despite having verified my identity by answering every conceivable question they could ask - my name, birthday, mailing address w/ zipcode (if you leave off the zipcode it's clear you don't actually know the true mailing addres), cell phone number, debit card number, account number, employer - that I can't make this request without a "t-pin" (telephone pin). They start to say goodbye and I ask "so how do I get a t-pin". Write a letter is the response (of course it's almost impossible to make out the address and to whom I'm writing this letter is equally unclear). But why can't I request it over the phone? You don't have any transactions on your account, send a letter. But what if I did have transactions on my account? Then you could, but since you don't send a letter. How about if I wait until my deposit clears that counts as a transaction right? Yes sir, do that and call back. Any number I can call direct? No sir.Okay so I wait, call back, do the whole thing over again. I'm sorry sir you only have one transaction you need to send a letter. But what about what I was told. Only one transaction, you need to send a letter? But what if I had two? Sir? If I went to the ATM took out some money that's a transaction. If I have two transactions then I get request a t-pin, right? Yes sir, do that. Repeat and finally get a t-pin (note every time I need to go through the entire life history authentication process). And that's just to get an additional debit card on my account, which apparently costs 200 Rupees + tax and comes with a ridiculously small built in credit limit of somewhere in the range of $100 US. To change the credit limit? Guess what, I need to send a letter.

Attached please find a jpeg of one of the more useful error messages I've gotten trying to do simple things like log into my phone account - it should give you another impression of mental disconnect around here - note the phone number to call (you'll need to click on the image to do this) .

I swear I spend as much time just getting the basics for a three month stay set up as I do working on my research!

05 August 2008

New Apartment!

So we've been really busy lately with moving apartments, research (me), expanding culinary frontiers (Linda), and a variety of other stuff. I've got lots of backlogged pictures to send you, but not the time to write - and Linda is currently up in Jaipur for 2-3 weeks studying at a super-exciting aryuveda center. However, despite the busyness (in a couple of minutes, I'm heading over to the newly opened Chabad of Bangalore to meet the shlichim and have a meal ;-) I wanted to give you a quick update.

We've moved. Our old apartment was a great deal less than ideal. It was a quick walk to work and very convenient to transport and shops, but otherwise pretty bad.Our bathroom and kitchen windows faced onto a dim hallyway/airshaft that also served as a play area for children who particularly enjoyed throwing our windows open at unpredictable times to examine what must have appeared to them, some unusual fair skinned creatures. They also liked ringing our doorbell and running away. Our bedroom and living room windows on the other hand opened onto a panorama whose lower half was wall and upper gas station. We were right on a major traffic circle so there was traffic noise and police whistling at all hours, except late in the evening when the traffic cops went to sleep and were replaced by electronic sirens that rang out at random intervals. This noise prevented us from opening our windows late in the evening, the only time the air didn't smell heavy of fumes. Of course these were merely charms compared to the bathroom which increasingly stank over the weeks as a continually unfixed leak of slime from upstairs nourished two crops of mushrooms and flies. Also the power went out about half of the time, leaving us in the dark without internet. Oh and our clothes when washed always smelled musty, and the cleaning wasn't very good. See some pictures!


Our new place is super much nicer. The only drawbacks being minor/moderate bug infestation and a worse commute - it's pretty much the exact opposite. Spotless, beautiful view of the golf course, lots of light, fresh air. I'm super happy! Pictures of the new place

and surroundings (we are next door to the super posh Le Meridian hotel starting around $400 a night)