12 hours in Singapore on my way to India

On a very cold New Jersey afternoon, I dropped my Mini Cooper off with my friend, Beverley, who, along with her partner Paul, will be taking good care of it while I’m in India. It was spitting a bit of rain and I had to stop briefly at the Princeton Mini Dealer to check on a low tire light, but other than that, it was a nice drive through the country side into Pennsylvania.

Beverley and Paul took me to the airport where I met up with my sister, Jacquie, for a quick bite to eat before my flight. We went to Chili’s, one of the only restaurants in the Newark airport available before going through security and when I say it was a quick bite, I’m not exaggerating! We ordered coffee and were told by the waiter that we could have coffee at Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts in the lower level. So, I told him I’d have a Latte from Starbuck’s and then we both laughed … my sister and I; not the waiter … at least not until a beat later. It seems that Chili’s coffee machine was broken, which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing, given our next experience! So, we both ordered the Caesar salad, and after only a moment of deliberation, decided it was the worst Caesar we’ve ever tasted. Instead of Romaine, they actually used limp Iceberg lettuce so drenched in some kind of odd tasting sauce that it was rather inedible. So, after announcing that to the waiter, he removed our plates and was kind enough to also remove the charge from our bill. So, we had a good chat, but not much in the way of sustenance!

My flight on Singapore Airlines was good. I slept quite a bit, but that long in the air (about 19 hours) does take something out of you. I arrived in Singapore at 6:30 a.m. two days later and met up with my colleague, Tracy’s parents, Liz and Albert. I had a 12 hour layover before my flight to Kochi, and they were kind enough to pick me up at the airport and show me around the city. They took me back to their beautiful apartment to freshen up and then we were off for a wonderful traditional Singapore breakfast of kaya toast and rich, dark coffee. We went to Killeney’s, renowned for their kaya and where the establishment roasts their own coffee beans.

Kaya is a coconut cream spread made with eggs, coconut milk, sugar and pandan leaves (a tropical plant cultivated in Southeast Asia). They put the spread on crunchy toast with a thin slab of cold butter between the slices. It oozes out all over the place, but is absolutely divine. Anyway, it was a day of eating, because not too long after that, we went to lunch at the Singapore Cricket Club; very posh!

In the afternoon, we toured the SkyPark at the top of the Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel. The rooftop deck on the 57th floor is shaped like a ship. It has large palm trees planted along a garden and an infinity pool overlooking the Port of Singapore. Rather amazing! The view was incredible and it was pretty scary seeing the hotel guests lounging in the pool, on the brink of infinity, with their backs to the edge of the sky!

Infinity pool at the Sands at Marina Bay

Infinity pool at the Sands at Marina Bay

To get to the hotel and enter the SkyPark from the parking garage, they have conveniently made it necessary to walk through the Shoppes at the Marina Bay Sands. Exclusive shop(pes) mind you, featuring luxuries and haute couture from  designers like Prada, ROLEX, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, FENDI and my personal favorite, Armani.

Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands

We didn’t go into the casino, as Singaporeans can’t get in without paying a S$100 fee, which they don’t get back. So, think about it … they go to gamble and begin already S$100 behind. I guess the casino wants to attract tourists, without corrupting the locals, or, as my friend Mark always says about tourists in Vegas, “Thanks for contributing to the local economy.”

It was a fantastic day in a truly beautiful city lush with beautiful flowers and trees reaching to the heavens. The most amazing Banyan trees lined the roadways and the city was breathtakingly green and amazingly clean. There was a wonderful rain storm that came crashing through when we were in Liz and Albert’s apartment in the late afternoon that you would have sworn was there to stay awhile, but it passed on through pretty quickly. No wonder everything was so rich and verdant.

Singapore is 2nd to Shanghai as the busiest port

Singapore is 2nd to Shanghai as the busiest port

Liz and Albert have invited me back and I look forward to seeing the botanical gardens and some of the other interesting places that make Singapore so vibrant.

 

Onam celebration

A big festival and holiday scheduled for 29 August had everyone excited and many people at the office planning vacations.

Onam is a popular harvest festival of Kerala, which honors the annual homecoming of a legendary king, Mahabali. Ten days of revelry, including carnivals, floral decorations, games and traditional banquets, mark the festival, which falls on the first month of the Malayalam calendar.

At our office celebration, everyone dressed in native apparel with most of the women wearing typical crème colored saris banded in gold, blue or green.

Activities included competitions, performances of the ‘thiruvathirakali’ dance form, ‘athapookalam’ (a customary arrangement of flower petals on the floor or ground) and someone in typical king attire (very authentic looking and colorful).

The King

The King

The pookalam reminds me of mandalas as the flower petals are arranged in circular patterns and designs using many colors. They are typically arranged in an entry way or outside near the door to a shop. They are meant as a welcome for the return of the king.

A pookalam competition was held with the winner displaying a beautiful design with a snake boat in the center. Offerings are also presented at the top of the design.

Winning pooklam

Winning pooklam

A tug of war was held and was very funny and enjoyable to watch. The judge was so intense! It took an amazing amount of time to get everything set up properly, with the exact center of the rope above the exact center of the ground; the teams standing at the precise locations, all under the scrutiny of the judge. Standing around in the beating sun and pressing heat for the few minutes it took for the ‘war’ to be won would have been exigent if not for the laughter and faces of the participants and those watching. After several ‘wars’ were waged, the winning team won bunches of bananas. One of our visiting colleagues from London commented that he would have an easier time as a manager if his UK team would get this excited over a bunch of bananas as a reward.

To the victors

To the victors

There was also a pin the tail on the donkey-type of game, where participants were blindfolded, spun in a circle and had to place a bindi on a poster of a person, as close to the ‘third eye’ as possible. That winner received a very large bag of dried bananas … are you seeing a theme here?

Following the dancing and competitions, we attended a celebratory lunch banquet with Kerala rice, sambar, a variety of curries and other great tasting food all served on a large banana leaf. No silverware was available, although they asked me and my UK colleague if we wanted some, but we said no … we want to go native. I always did like eating with my hands!

The entire day was fun-filled and entertaining, with work in between events. I’m leaving on Saturday night, so I’ll miss the actual day of Onam, but our work events gave me a slice of the celebratory flavor and excitement surrounding this popular Kerala holiday.

 

The crazy driving …

So, here I am winding down my initial India trip and wanted to fill you in on the driving madness here.

I can see why our firm doesn’t want us to drive. Jacob (a colleague in India) told us that the line in the middle of the road is “merely a suggestion.” People pass each other, using their horns frequently, while drivers are coming straight toward them. They squeak by, sometimes five abreast, four going one direction taking up most of the road and forcing the one coming the other direction to drive off the edge. Buses and trucks have writing on the backs of them that read: Sound Horn. I’m sure there’s a specific language associated with it; but I haven’t figured it out.

School bus in the middle

School bus in the middle

Our drivers have been VERY focused and so strangely enough, I haven’t been nervous when riding in this craziness.

‘Drivers’ can be driving camel carts, ox carts, horse carts, rickshaw-type carts, bicycle carts as well as just plain bicycles, buses, lorries, cars (mostly small), motorcycles (tons of these) and lots of Autos (Tuk Tuks), which are the small, three wheeled taxis (for those of you who saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you know what I’m talking about). We saw one of them with 17 people in and on it (our driver counted). Several people were riding on top and we were amazed that they didn’t bounce right off given the road conditions.

Busy street

Busy street

We saw five people on a motorcycle – two small children up front, the driver (presumably the father) with the mother on the back riding side-saddle in her sari and holding a baby. We’ve seen many with three people onboard and some with four, but this one surprised both Tracy and I when our driver pointed it out. Oh, and most don’t wear helmets. Oh, and our driver said 70% of the motorcyclists don’t have licenses.

You might see buses with people riding on top and squashed inside. We saw trucks that are open in the back (like pick-up trucks with wooden slats on the sides) that will just stop and pick people up (apparently people pay a small fee to ride in these). We also saw a ‘handmade truck’ with the wooden slats on the back, but when we passed it, there was no cab in front, simply a wooden slab with a steering mechanism and an engine underneath.

Bus with roof travelers

Bus with roof travelers

Coming back from Agra, it got dark and then it was really scary with many trucks having no rear tail lights. We passed one such truck on the right only to get stopped by cows in the road. Or sometimes the cars will turn off their headlights in deference to the drivers heading toward them. I told the driver that it must be really difficult on the back roads in the dark.

At one point, we were stopped at one of the very few stop lights and police officers were walking by and having all the stopped drivers breathe into a device to check for alcohol levels. Apparently they can’t just stop you, but if you’re already stopped, they can just make you take this ‘test.’ Interesting!

As in England, they drive on the other side of the road. People are walking everywhere with motorized and other vehicles sort of crossing every which way. There are also motorcycles and Autos driving on the side of the road, generally trying to cross, but basically coming at you from the wrong direction.

Someone asked me where the traffic police were and when I asked my driver, Majesh, he just laughed. On the way to work the other morning, we saw a guy come out of a bar and get on his motorcycle. He was weaving all over the place and nearly collided with several oncoming vehicles before turning off the road. Majesh was just shaking his head and staying as far away as possible!

This morning there was a bright yellow Lamborghini parked in front of my hotel. Majesh said it would be very sad to drive a car like that in India with all the traffic, congestion and road conditions!

So after this, I can’t imagine you’d be wondering, but just in case you are, I will definitely NOT be driving while in India.

Our last night in Gurgaon

We spent a wonderful day at the office getting to know one of our key managers, who also put together an impromptu lunch with her team. It was great to get to know them and also a little amusing because they had a complement of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food. And as it turned out, all the women ate at one end (the vegetarians) and all the men ate at the other. Tracy, having been ‘mostly vegetarian’ since arriving, ate with the men that day.

After work, we had a really great dinner at the Seasonal restaurant in the Westin; a buffet of Chinese, Indian, kabobs, everything you can imagine. We had the restaurant’s version of street food, which Indians refer to as small plates of savory snacks called chaat. We had the most amazing papdi chaat that included the papdis (fried flour crispies made of chickpeas, potatoes and pakoris (fried black gram fritters)) broken up as a base with everything piled on top from some type of seed, small chunks of potatoes and tomatoes, chick peas, generous portions of curd (yogurt), mint and tamarind sauces, all topped with pomegranate. The flavors were AMAZING!

So, we were so blown away by the great taste that the waiter (remember this was a buffet) brought us some pani puri, fried crispy shells filled with potato that you add either sweet or salty liquid (chili or tamarind) to and pop them in your mouth. Really interesting! The staff were fabulous and kept bringing us interesting things to eat … I guess they were intrigued because we would try anything and exclaim wildly!!

pani puri

pani puri

The dinner was terrific and then Tracy left for the airport to fly to Singapore and back to the US.

I spent the morning on Saturday at the Heavenly Spa, where I scheduled a pedicure and was quickly talked into a massage and a facial. How could I not? The total for all three was Rs 6,500 ($116 US).

I left for Kochi and arrived at Le Meridien where I spent the evening trying to get myself organized. I ended up in a room on the 5th floor, just down from the Fitness Center and I can’t wait to tell my sister that I actually spent an hour there this afternoon! (I have to work off all this food we ate over the past two weeks!)

So it’s off to work tomorrow (Monday, 6 August) where I’ll be spending some serious time over the next few weeks, so it may be awhile before my next update and frankly, it may not be quite as exciting … BUT I promise to tell you about the driving, honestly!

 

The Taj Mahal

Our trip to Agra

The hotel arranged for a car to take us to Agra and a guide once we arrived. It was a really long trip (about four hours by car one way) over very rough roads in some places. We saw some interesting sites and our driver was very knowledgeable.

When we were leaving Gurgaon, our driver pointed out the wild pigs that live in the midst of the debris that seems to be everywhere in this part of India. Since Indians do not eat pork, they simply exist on their own, foraging for food. We also saw lots of cows … well, actually cows, oxen and water buffalo. We just called them all cows! They were everywhere, tied in the middle of the road, in fields, tied to trees on the side of the road, walking with people leading them or just wandering around on their own. We were on the national highway with four lanes – two in either direction. The center medium was filled with beautiful flowers and cows lying down or standing in the midst of them.

Cow

Cow

We also saw monkeys (waiting by the side of the road apparently for people to toss bananas to them), camels, goats and sheep. (Still no elephants … I was promised elephants!) We stopped so the driver could pay a toll as we entered another state and a man with two monkeys tried to get us to take photos so he could charge us afterwards. The female monkey jumped up on the car window on my side and she had a little baby clutched to her. A rope was tied around her neck and anchored to a large and clearly heavy chain. It was unbelievable sad.

The Taj Mahal – one of the Seven Wonders of the World

The Taj Mahal was as magnificent as you would imagine. Our tour guide, Bobby, was very knowledgeable and took lots of photos of Tracy and me. He told us the story of the building of the tomb, but it differed from the accounts I’ve read elsewhere. Here is what he said: ‘Shah Jahan fell in love with Mumtaz Mahal, a Muslim Persian princess, but was not able to get permission to marry her because his father (the current Mughal Emperor and son of Akbar the Great) wanted him to marry an Afghan princess (clearly for political reasons). He married his first wife, but after his father died, he became the Mughal Emperor and so was free to marry Mumtaz. Shah Jahan had dreams of a glorious palace and had been looking for sites to build it long before his beloved Mumtaz died. On her deathbed in 1631, Mumtaz told him she would soon be forgotten as he would be totally consumed with building his palace. And so it was that he was so overcome with grief that he decided his palace would be a tribute to her.’ So it wasn’t conceived out of love, but ended up being dedicated to love. Nice!

The Taj Mahal from a park bench

The Taj Mahal from a park bench

While we were there, a couple from India asked Tracy and me if they could have their photo taken with us “for memories.” We said sure and were later told by our guide that they were probably from a small village and they’ll show the photo to their friends to impress them that they met people who are so pale.

Following our Taj Mahal visit, our guide took us to a factory of sorts – similar to the co-op in Kerala – subsidized by the government. We saw the artists grinding and shaping the semi-precious stones to inlay in marble for tables, boxes and other objects. They explained that it’s the same process the Persian artists used when building the Taj Mahal. The art was being lost, which is why the government subsidizes it. The handmade items are beautifully crafted and some take months to complete.

We had a great lunch at a local establishment and Tracy had her first sweet (banana) Lassi.  It was a wonderful trip; one we’ll always remember!

Off to Gurgaon

Week 2 India: 31 July – 5 August 2012

Tracy (Jones) and I spent our first two weeks trying just about every Indian food item we could. Tracy has been ‘mostly’ vegetarian except when her parents were here. She’s also gotten me into the habit of using hand sanitizer at appropriate times and I’m learning to not touch my face at all. We’ve been very careful about what we’re eating – mainly from the standpoint of generally avoiding street food, eating in established hotel restaurants (except at work and in Agra) and sticking to items that are cooked so as not to inadvertently take in the tap water from vegetables that may have been rinsed in it. We are also only drinking (and brushing our teeth with) bottled water (interestingly enough, mostly Aquafina).

Last Tuesday night (31 July), after a day spent in a quality workshop, we had dinner at the Holiday Inn with a couple of colleagues, one from our office in Gurgaon. They were very impressed that we knew all the names of the India cuisine (and in particular, Avial, a specialty Kerala dish)!

On Wednesday afternoon (1 August) we flew to Delhi, where we checked into the Westin, Gurgaon Center. Since both Tracy and I are Starwood Platinum members, we got upgraded to amazing suites. Both were identical but on different floors. The suite had a large living area with a desk and a beverage area with an espresso machine – cool – and a small bathroom off the entry way. The room included an entertainment area with a DVD and other electronic toys. The fairly large bedroom had a king sized bed, but the bath area was amazing! There was a bathtub that was nearly as large as Val’s hot tub (only oval) to one side of the large room that also had a separate shower, toilet and double sinks. Honestly, the bathroom area was larger than the bedroom!

Gurgaon is quite near Delhi (the capital of India) just to the southwest, but it is sort of like a really large industrial complex. According to our driver, 10 years prior, the area was nothing but trees. There was a small village, but the drive between Delhi and Sohna was not safe with lots of bandits. Now that it’s been industrialized, the road is safe, or so the driver told us and we have no cause to doubt him. When we were coming into Gurgaon from the airport, it was dark and it looked like we could have been in Anywhere, USA, with lighted signs on new office buildings marking Sprint, Deloitte and other well known US companies.

By the way, the blackouts that took place in the north occurred just before we got there. It didn’t impact us while in Kerala except for several instances where the power went out momentarily. This also occurred several times while we were in Gurgaon, but not to the extent that it had. So clearly, as we all know, timing is everything!

Our meetings in Gurgaon got moved to Friday, so we decided to take Thursday and see the Taj Mahal. It will be an early day as it is a long drive to Agra!

 

Houseboat in Alleppey

Weekend with Tracy’s parents: 26 July – 30 July 2012

On Sunday, Bevin arranged for Tracy, her parents and I to go to Alleppey (a town about an hour and a half south of Kochi) known for its canals and houseboats. Bevin said it was sort of like Venice only less clean – funny because it really was nothing like Venice. We went there for a houseboat ‘ride’ on the lake (actually the bay adjacent to the Arabian Sea) and through some of the canals. We were on the houseboat for about 5 hours and ate a wonderful lunch that was cooked and served onboard. We were stopped alongside the canal at the time and there were some goats tied to trees by our landing site, including a really cute baby, whose mama kept a close eye on her from across a small path! The trip was really amazing and the houseboats are very unique.

Houseboat at Alleppey

Houseboat at Alleppey

Bevin said the people living on the canals are disconnected from the world as there are very few roads in and out of this area. It seems to truly be life on the water. We saw many people washing their clothes, transporting goods (mostly fruit – mangoes, bananas) and fishing.

River life

River life

We also saw a Snake Boat in training. These are long, narrow boats that seat 100 people, two abreast with some people standing in the middle and on the end to guide it. The 100 people are all rowing together and chanting to the beat of a drum. During the races, each boat has a specific drum rhythm and individualized chant. It was way cool! It reminded me somewhat of the Chinese Dragon Boats.

Snake boat in training

Snake boat in training

Snake boat in training

Snake boat

The day was pretty remarkable.

Tracy’s parents left on Monday evening after we had a wonderful dinner with them at Lagoon, a seafood restaurant in our hotel (Le Meridien, Kochi). It was great to meet them and they have invited me to come to Singapore whenever I feel a need to get away. They’ve also said to contact them if I need anything and they will mail it to me (because they are so much closer than Tracy!). They are great and I really enjoyed getting to know them!!

That’s it for now. I know I said I’d provide an update on the driving and you shall have it, I promise.

Our Kochi (Cochin) tour

Weekend with Tracy’s parents: 26 July – 30 July 2012

We had a great weekend with Tracy’s parents, who arrived on Thursday night (26 July) from Singapore. Bevin arranged for a couple of wonderful outings, including dinner on Friday night at a Kerala restaurant in Dream (a boutique hotel) and a site-seeing tour throughout Kochi on Saturday.

Kochi’s colonial name is Cochin and I haven’t quite figured out when to use which, since it seems to be used interchangeably. When I asked Bevin, he told me that the Indian name is Kochi and the English name is Cochin, so I keep thinking it’s kind of like Mumbai and Bombay.

Cochin is situated on the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula and is the commercial and industrial capital of the state of Kerala, hailed as ‘God’s Own Country.

According to http://www.cochin.org/ “This lovely seaside city is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Its proximity to the equator, the sea and the mountains provide a rich experience of a moderate equatorial climate.”

It goes on to speak of the “unfathomable diversity and beauty of Kerala, rated in the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council and featured in National Geographic Traveler’s ’50 greatest places of a lifetime’.”

On our tour of Cochin, we saw the Chinese fishing nets, a seafood market on the water, Jew Town, the Dutch Palace (a museum), St. Francis church in Fort Kochi (the oldest church built by Europeans in India and where Vasco da Gama, who died in Kochi, was originally buried before his remains were taken back to Portugal much later) and Santa Cruz Basilica (originally built by the Portuguese in 1505, destroyed by the British in 1795 and rebuilt in 1905).

Fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

We had a lovely lunch at the Old Harbour Hotel, in the heart of ancient Fort Kochi. A 300 year-old building that was the first hotel of old Cochin and reopened as a boutique hotel. The food is all organic and was excellent.

We’ve had the same driver, Majesh, during our stay in Kochi, which has made things very nice for us as he knows the city very well and he seems to be looking out for us. As part of our tour, and I’m assuming to help support the Kerala economy and the artisans within the city, Majesh took us to a shop that housed 14 families of craftsmen making Kerala-specific products from cashmere shawls to jewelry, clothing and wood products. The cooperative of sorts is subsidized by the government in an effort to support artists. So, we did our bit for the Kerala economy and picked up a few items.

We decided to return to Dream on Saturday night after touring Kochi for the day to have dinner at Mainland China. Touted as authentic Chinese cuisine, the restaurant was lovely and I quite enjoyed the change (although Tracy and her parents – her father is Cantonese – said it wasn’t really authentic).

Tomorrow we’re off to Alleppey and a houseboat ‘cruise.’

The initial trip: Arrival in India

Week 1: 21 – 26 July, 2012

I arrived in Trivandrum, capital of the beautiful state of Kerala at the southern-most tip of India. I flew Singapore Airlines from Newark to Singapore (thanks to the insight of my good friend, Calen Rayne, who informed me that this is the longest nonstop commercial flight in the world — nearly 19 hours in the air)! I met up with Tracy Jones (my colleague) at the Singapore airport (a really cool airport, BTW!) and we flew into Chennai (Madras) and then on to Trivandrum. I left Newark at 11pm on Saturday night (21 July) and arrived at my destination at 3pm on Monday afternoon. It was a long day!!

We had an amazing dinner last night (24 July) at a resort on the ocean called surya samudra (Sun Beach) http://www.suryasamudra.com/. It was rather magical.

ImageThe rain has held off and the temperature has been hot but with pleasant breezes, so it’s been very comfortable. Thanks to climate change, they are experiencing a 22% decrease in rainfall so far during monsoon, so to them, a drought. We ate outside (no pesky mosquitoes – thank heavens) with the sound of the surf and really fabulous spicy Kerala food (Indian with coconut – similar to Thai but much spicier – cardamom, etc.). It’s high tide “season” because of the monsoons with lots of really rambunctious waves, so the sound reminded me of Ross Marino’s ocean sounds on steroids! We had dinner with the Trivandrum office manager and a partner in Pursuits from Switzerland (originally from Chicago). She was very entertaining!

We’re heading to Kochi tomorrow (further North), where I will be living when I am seconded. Tracy’s parents are coming for the weekend from Singapore, so that will be really fun! She tells me they are foodies and that her mother has her own personal jeweler, so I’m sure we’ll get along great.

Everyone here has been very friendly and they all seem to be really happy. (They smile a lot.) We’re working with Bevin, our relationship manager, who has been taking very good care of us. I asked Bevin if the people are REALLY happy or is it just for our benefit. He said, no, they are really happy because they can live with their families in Kerala (God’s own country) and work in Trivandrum for a great firm! OK, then!

I’m going to bed now. Just got back from dinner and it’s been a long day, so I’ll catch up with you later and fill you in on the crazy driving!