Thursday, February 23, 2012

90-Day Check-In

So it's been 90 days (technically 91 as I write this) since I set foot on Indian soil. I get questions asking how I'm doing here, and what it's like living in India...

Lookin' deranged while representing the 'D'!

The Food.

I'll admit, I was pretty worried about what I was going to eat when I moved here. I dislike Indian food in the U.S. No, scratch that, I LOATHE Indian food in the U.S. An overly seasoned, saucy, curried mess looking more like something that should fill a diaper than fill a plate. Let me tell you, REAL Indian food isn't really like that. Yes, there are spices, yes, there is curry, but it's just NOT the same. Much like 'American' food here in Chennai is a pale version of the real thing in most cases, Indian food in the U.S. is a pale version of the real thing.

As you might guess, rice is a staple food. It takes multiple forms. Rice is used whole as part of a dish or ground into flour to make any number of things like idlis, uttapam, dosas, and murukku. For those of you that think I just fell asleep on my keyboard, I assure you, I didn't.

Idlis: a steamed rice cake (not like the crunchy things that Quaker makes, but soft and delicious)

Uttapam: a thick pancake made with rice flour, I love these with onions. SO good. The onion caramelizes and is so damn delicious.

Onion uttapam with several chutneys, and sambar.
Dosas: a large, thin crepe-like pancake, I love these with sambar.

Murukku: an extruded dough string that is fried. This is a snack food, but I love it, so I had to mention it.

Poori: a flatbread made from unleavened wheat dough. When this is deep-fried, it puffs up like a little dough balloon. I adore this with the masala potato stuff (I can never remember the name).

Parotta: a layered flatbread that is best likened to a flat and VERY delicious croissant. These are among my favorite Indian foods.

Sambar- a liquidy stew made of lentils and vegetables (often onions, tomatoes, etc.) This is one of my favorites, I love it with idlis, uttapam, doses, vadas, etc. So yum.

Things that are interesting:

Utensils are your hands in many cases. Yes, you will see some people use spoons, but the majority of people eat with their hands, even rice. Sometimes at lunch, I sit in awe watching people mix their rice with sambar and other sauces, and deftly placing it in their mouths.

Mutton isn't sheep, as it is in the U.S. and many other places. It's goat, and yes, I've tried it. It's goaty. Nah, honestly, it tastes a little like a gamier version of dark meat chicken.


I have to admit, Indian snacks will be the death of me. Whether the aforementioned murukku, or the packaged biscuits that are store-bought, they're all pretty much delicious. I live for these sugar-glazed heart shaped cookies called Little Hearts. I will pretty much need to ship back a case or so with me when I move back. :-D


This is out of another world, and not for the weak of heart. Driving/riding can be terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, depending on the day, the driver, and your attitude. I've had days where a car has stopped less than a foot away from me, and days that were great! We travel mostly by auto-rickshaw, which is faster, cheaper, and open air. Open air for me is a bonus because being a lifelong sufferer of motion sickness/carsickness, riding in a car in India is pure hell for me in this traffic. Bargaining is always a factor with autos though, which can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. I figure that Chris and I pay about 20-50% more than a local for rides merely because of us being American. That said, I've gotten pretty brutal, and will send them on their way rather than bicker over 20-40 rupees. (approx 40-80¢). What can I say, I'm cheap.

There are driving laws in India, but I'm 99.99% sure that no one follows them. People drive on both sides of the road (even when traffic is present in both directions), traffic signals (though few and far between) are merely a suggestion, and there is definitely a death wish that comes into play. I will never, ever complain about shitty drivers in the U.S. again.


For the most part, people are nice. There are, like anywhere in the world, people that are genuinely nice and sweet, and people that really suck. It's human nature. We get stared at a lot, and not normal glances, more like nudge their friends, point at you staring. There are days when it doesn't bother me, and days where it infuriates me. I understand curiosity, but sometimes it just borders on rudeness. The people that I don't mind staring are the kids. I LOVE the kids, they're the cutest, funniest little creatures. They get so excited when they see us, and smiles explode across their faces when we wave. This picture was taken on my ride home from work tonight, they were so damn adorable I couldn't resist a picture:

Totally freakin' adorable, right?!

I find that the people that talk to us are totally curious about our lives, why we chose to live here, and where we're from. Auto drivers have told me about their families, their lives, even about their names (a man named Raja comes to mind, he asked if I knew what that meant, and before I could reply, he extended his arms and exclaimed 'It means KING!!' It was a hilarious moment).


Shopping isn't fun in Chennai. It's frustrating and difficult, and much harder than it needs to be. Our local grocery store is quaint and amusing, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason for product placement in some places. You can find DDT next to dog food next to toothpaste and incense. Milk is sold in what I can best describe as a juice box, and is not refrigerated, and the eggs are sold from the counter by the cash registers, and again, are not refrigerated. 

Electronics are sold at a different place than appliances, so don't assume you can buy a power strip at the same place you bought your washing machine. The electronics store we go to requires that you go to a counter, tell them what you want, they go fetch it, then you pay and leave. Drugs are sold at a Chemist/Pharmacy where you can essentially go in, tell what ails you, receive a medication, pay and leave. Yes, this means that when you go in with a cough, you will probably walk out with codeine-based Corex cough syrup (and for less than $2, no less!).

Another odd thing about shopping is that certain things are sold in certain areas. For instance, if you want a lamp, you go to the area where lamps are sold. Furniture? The same! Store after store in a given area will sell the same thing.

The Environment.

I don't just mean the climate, the trees, etc., I also mean the trash, the dogs, and the beggars. This is the part of India that gets hard. There is trash everywhere, and the stench (while passing by in autos) is overwhelming. There are trash bins located on most corners, but trash seems to accumulate around them rather than in them. This brings me to the dogs. There are stray dogs everywhere, some are plump and well-fed from the trash, some are sickly and plagued with mange. As a HUGE dog person, this is something that is really hard to see on a daily basis. I want to take them all home with me! Sharing the garbage are goats, and sometimes even cows. Lastly are the beggars. I liken them to zombies, gaunt and dirty with their vacant eyes, raising a hand to their mouth in a gesture of eating. 

As far as the weather, it's been beautiful so far, but it's starting to heat up, and that's going to S-U-C-K. Today, for instance, it was 90°F with 78% humidity. In February. :-/ I'm pretty sure I'm going to die this summer. :) The trees are beautiful, the flowers are everywhere, and we even have fruit trees in our backyard! (a Jackfruit tree, mango tree, and coconut tree!)

So yeah, that's it for now. I promise I'll write more regularly from now on... I hope. :D

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Happy New Year from India!

You've heard the old adage, 'When in Rome,' right? Take that, alter it a little, and you've got my New Year's Eve! To be honest, Chris and I intended to spend a relatively quiet night in for NYE, since neither of us are big on parties and whatnot, and besides, who do we know here well enough to get invited to a party? Our night's plan consisted of going to the roof of our building and watching the fireworks nearby, boy did that change!

 We live near the beach here in Chennai, and made our regular weekend trip to the grocery store and to our weekend haunt, Murugan's Idli Shop (best ever) for dinner around 7 or 8. Even at that point, things were already pretty crowded, the streets were blocked off, and vendors were preparing their wares for the busy night ahead. We gave in, we knew that we only live once, and how often can you celebrate NYE in INDIA?! We quickly walked home, took care of some stuff around the house, bid Homer (our dog) adieu, and hit the road, beach bound! We were met with (literally) THOUSANDS of people. THOUSANDS. I'm pretty sure that every one of them shook our hands, or at the very least, tried.

Speaking of hand-shaking, I felt like a politician!  I've never shaken so many hands in my life! Chris and I decided that to some, it was a dare, meaning that one or two would come over to us from a group, shake our hands, and wish us a 'Happy New Year!' The one or two brave souls would then return victorious to a loud cheer, an ear-splitting horn blow, and dancing from their group of friends. I was blessed, hugged, welcomed to India, photographed, and of course, wished a 'Happy New Year!' It was like we were Justin Bieber, and this beach in India was chock-full of pre-pubescent girls (not literally, obviously, the people were wonderful!)

We settled in for a bit, soaking in the celebration; the deafening paper horn blasts, the exploding fireworks (some just feet from us!), the people, and the view. Waves of people were flowing, dancing, and singing on their way to the beach. Indians really know how to cut loose and have fun. They're like no other people I've seen. We grabbed a couple Kulfis, which are frozen, sweetened milk popsicles with chopped pistachios, almonds, and cashews in them. They're amazing...and MESSY! With the climate being so warm, they melt almost instantly, leaving you with sticky hands and a smile. (that sounds dirty)

Fast-forward about 30 minutes to the fireworks display. Holy crap. It was like a Grand Finale for over 10 minutes. It was still going when we started walking back (a few fireworks went off a little too close for comfort). A display like that would have cost $50K in the states (at least), to put it in perspective. Awesomeness. The best part of the fireworks? They weren't done by the city or anything like that, they were shot off the roof of some guy's house!

To sum it all up, it was a great, albeit overwhelming experience, and I'm glad we did it. Where will we be celebrating New Year's 2013 (providing the world doesn't end, of course)? On our roof, checkin' out the view of Chennai... :)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Things I've Learned in India (so far)

So... I've been in India (Chennai, to be exact) for about a month now. I'm starting to settle in and become accustomed to India's quirks, faults, food, and people. In my relatively short time here, I've learned some things...

1. In India, farts are scary; you never know what might happen. (no I haven't soiled myself…yet)

2. People will pee anywhere. Men, women, dogs, name it. I've seen women in saris peeing in plain view, I've seen men on busy streets, in fact, I saw 4 men peeing on my 6 km (3.7 mi) round trip to work today.

3. Food in India is nothing like Indian food in the US (at least in my experience). I loathed everything Indian that I'd ever tried in the US, with the exception of my friend Chintan's samosas. Here, I've loved nearly everything I've tried, with sambar, dosais, and onion uttapam leading the list of favorites. One more thing…Indian food is SPICY. Not America spicy; FLAME-THROWER spicy. I've had tears rolling down my face on more than one occasion (and what I consider spicy, many of the people I've encountered consider bland).

4. American food ingredients are VERY expensive. For example, pasta can cost the equivalent of $3/lb. Pasta sauce? $5 for a jar of Prego or Ragu. I'm not devoted to my American food, but every once in a a while, a $2 box of Kraft Mac & Cheese can transport you home.

5. TV, even when aired in English, often has English subtitles. I can't figure it out.

6. Tamil, the language of Tamil Nadu (the state where Chennai is) is very hard to understand. The people here speak so quickly, and even words I know I have a hard time understanding. It's like a daily tongue-twister competition. I have no idea how the words roll off their tongues the way they do.

7. Indian snacks kick ass. Their biscuits (cookies), candy, crackers, chips, and other Indian snack foods are downright addictive.

8. Bananas are delicious, white guavas are not.

9. (Most) Indian people are sweet. They've always got a positive attitude and a willingness to help.

10. The flight here is SO. EFFING. LONG. I traveled for 30 hours. THIRTY. HOURS. I remember falling asleep on the flight from Brussels to Chennai, and waking up after what felt like a lifetime of sleeping, only to discover we were over Abu Dhabi, only 6.5 hours into our 10 hour flight.

11. Skincare is going to be fun to find here, since everything I seem to find is 'Skin Lightening', and about the last freakin' thing I need is to get any paler in this country. As if being a blue-eyed redhead and so pale I'm nearly translucent didn't get me stared at enough…

So that's it for tonight… I've learned more things, but I think I'll spread 'em out. :-D