chitta chatter

island time

Posted in being human, food, peace, photos, simple pleasures, travel, winning by Nancy on January 5, 2014

We hadn’t been out of the country since India, 2010, but D figured he could safely take off the week of Christmas to New Year’s so he told me, “we can go anywhere.” Which I correctly interpreted as, “we can go anywhere that doesn’t require a torturous 22-hour plane trip or armageddon-strength antibiotics.” Add to that my requirements of turquoise seas, secluded beaches and potent rum drinks and the field narrowed considerably.

Paradise Beach, Carriacou, West Indies

Paradise Beach, Carriacou, West Indies.

I had seen the “Caribbean Island Hopping” episode of No Reservations (pirated, of course) several months earlier, after which I became mildly obsessed with finding a relatively painless way to get to the Grenadines, a small chain of islands in the West Indies blissfully unmolested (mostly) by tourism. But after copious amounts of research, I realized that getting there from the north would be torturous indeed, requiring flights from LAX to Miami to Barbados to St. Vincent (already nearing the 22-hour mark), with a likely unplanned overnighter in Barbados, not to mention the plane and/or ferry trips from St. Vincent to Bequia then Mayreau and any of the other islands we might want to hit up…. Uh-uh. Not happening. Not with only a 7- or 8-day window for the entire trip. We were going to have to look at this from another angle.

I ran across a post on a sailing blog about the Grenadines that had every good thing to say about Carriacou, the southernmost island in the chain, and one of two (Petite Martinique being the other) governed by Grenada rather than St. Vincent, the northernmost, which governs all the rest. A 15-minute puddle jumper would get us to Carriacou from Grenada (which has direct flights from Miami), then we could take day trips by boat to some of the other islands. Now this was more like it. And once I learned that there was an organic cacao farm cooperative and chocolate company on Grenada, well… to paraphrase Jules, “Shiiittt, Willie Wonka, that’s all you had to say.”

So at 3am on Christmas Eve, like a couple of coked-up elves, we headed off on our journey: LAX to Miami to Grenada. Word to the peckish: if you’re stopping at the Miami airport with any time at all between flights, do yourself a favor and head to Cafe Versailles for a guava-cheese pastry and cortado. Ay. Díos. Mío. But I digress…

Our flights ran smoothly, and on our arrival in Grenada, we were greeted by a steel drum band and bottomless rum punches to keep us entertained and anesthetized while we made our way through the Immigration and Customs lines. (Take note, ‘merica.) We then cabbed it to our B&B, Jenny’s Place, at the north end of Grand Anse Beach, where managers Meg and Erik had kindly kept the restaurant (The Edge) open late for us. While Erik whipped up some pasta with a killer, totally improvised, peanut-ginger callaloo sauce, we took a couple steps off the deck to dip our toes in the warm Caribbean sea… our limin’ baptism.

Sunset swim, Christmas Day, Grand Anse Beach, Grenada

Sunset swim, Christmas Day – Grand Anse Beach, Grenada.

Christmas Day turned out to be kind of a bust because everything was closed (islanders take their holidays seriously) and it rained off and on. And though Thursday was mostly sunny, most businesses were still closed for Boxing Day, this being a former British colony and all. We did, however, find the Grand Anse craft market open when one of its resident artisans lured us there from the beach. He actually had some cool pieces on offer, mostly jewelry carved from driftwood. His neighbor at the next stall, Ras Ian, wasn’t as much of a salesman, but he’s heavily into Jimi Hendrix and Willie Nelson, so he and D had a lot to talk about… he plays guitar, too. He also makes jewelry, but his medium of choice is (found) tortoise shell. Really nice stuff. Really nice—really high—guy.

With the beach bars finally open but their kitchens still closed, we headed back to The Edge for a bite to eat before our flight to Carriacou that afternoon. We would be staying at another (smaller) B&B for most of our time there, but due to a conflict with their reservations, we offered to stay our first night at a hotel closer to town, the Grand View. Bob, our B&B host, picked us up from the airport, drove us to the Grand View and made sure they could set us up with dinner as well as a picnic lunch for our boat trip the next day. We seemed to be the only guests there, but they really put a lot of care into the food. The concierge / bartender / waitress was really keen to hear D’s reasons for being a vegetarian and we got into a long discussion about factory farming, GMOs, etc.. Being a sensible person, she was naturally appalled that anyone would raise animals and crops that way and assured us that they don’t do it like that in Carriacou. Cheers to that. Here’s hoping they never will.

The next day would be the highlight of the trip: our boat excursion to the Tobago Cays. I had read about Dave Goldhill, who has a house and several rental cottages (which he built himself) at Bayaleau Point on the windward side of the island, near the village of the same name. He’s a New Yorker who’s been living in Carriacou since the 70s, running day trips on a sloop (the New Moon) and picnic launch (the Mostly Harmless) that he built, and like all the locals here—expats and natives alike—he’s quite a character.

We set off with a group of Danes—who were all staying at the Bayaleau cottages—and our skippers for the day, Junior and the one whose name I never got. Pretty chill dudes, but with a fierce need for speed. Still, they were adept at reading the waves and slowing down at critical moments to avoid giving us all whiplash. The ride alone was worth the price of admission ($115 US/pp). The 2 grandparents on the trip may not have enjoyed the journey quite as much, but they definitely got down with the destination once we stopped for rum punch and snorkeling (together again).

D and I had never snorkeled before but we figured this would be a good time to start. We figured wrong. Later, one of the Danes told us that it’s best to learn in completely calm waters… as opposed to, say, the middle of the Caribbean. I threw in the flippers after a few minutes of trying but D persevered long enough to get a few cool shots of the reef.


Coral reef, Tobago Cays.


Coral reef, Tobago Cays.


Daniel taking a breather, Tobago Cays.

Once the others had gotten their fill, we moved on to another spot where we hoped we’d get to swim with the sea turtles. No sooner had the anchor dropped than we spotted their leathery little dinosaur heads bobbing along the waves. That was all the incentive I needed to get back on the horse, as it were. I grabbed the camera, strapped on the mask and fins and jumped in. But it was like aquatic whack-a-mole with these things… they were popping up everywhere but vanishing faster than I could even point, much less shoot. Still, just seeing them right there in front of our faces made for such a “holy shit” experience… when you’re busy taking pictures, you tend to miss those.

After turtle stalking, we tied up to one of the cays and went ashore for lunch. Behold:


Tobago Cays – 27 Dec. 2013

Resident iguana, Tobago Cays.

Iggy the Maitre d’, Tobago Cays.

Then it was on to Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau, population 300. The waters were much calmer there—which is why it’s such a popular anchorage—so the guys suggested I give snorkeling another try and pointed out an area of coral I might want to explore. Muuuch better this time. The coral wasn’t terribly vibrant, but there were some sea urchins living in it, and several varieties of tropical fish… one little zebra-striped guy followed me around like a stray puppy.

Limin'. Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau.

Limin’ – Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau. (That’s the Mostly Harmless to the right.)

More snorkeling, more of Dave’s Magic Elixir (i.e., best rum punch ever), more lolling on the sand under the mangroves, then back to Carriacou.

Nearing Carriacou, we encountered this beast… equipped with a heliport, natch.

Once ashore, I settled up with Dave’s daughter and ex-wife (who very kindly bestowed upon me that killer rum punch recipe), then Dave came down to hang out with us while we waited for our taxi. He asked what made us choose the Grenadines for our holiday and I told him it was that No Reservations episode that got the ball rolling, but the Grenada Chocolate Company sealed the deal. Small world that it is, turns out the late David “Mott Green” Friedman (Grenada Chocolate Company founder / mastermind) was a friend of Dave’s. If I remember correctly, he said they met through Paul Johnson—who designed Dave’s boat, the Mostly Harmless—when Mott was just starting to get into sailing. D and I both enjoyed hearing Dave’s stories about Mott as well as his own life as an expat on Carriacou, living off the grid and outside the system. Inspiring stuff. Hell, why run away with the circus when you can be a pirate, right? (Plus, no clowns.)

Our taxi finally rolled up, so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the house in L’Esterre where we would spend the next 3 nights. It was a bit remote, but a beautiful spot overlooking Sandy Island and its cruiser/yachtie contingent. “Seaclusion Suites” have their own (essentially) private beach and are just around the point from a black sand beach which we never did hit up. But the dinners prepared by Bob’s wife, Marie, are reason enough to stay there. Before coming to Carriacou, she had worked for years in the hospitality industry in Florida as a restaurant GM, but she’s been cooking since she was a wee lass in Czechoslovakia. And I am still craving her fish cakes.

Seaclusion is also within a 20- to 30-minute walk from both Tyrell Bay and Paradise Beach, the latter being our hands-down favorite beach of the entire trip. Partly for the calm waters and the view of/proximity to Sandy Island, but mainly because of the Hard Wood Bar: truly, THE quintessential beach bar. Limin’ at its finest.

Hard Wood Bar, Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Hard Wood Bar – Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

Sandy Island from the Hard Wood, Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Sandy Island from the Hard Wood – Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

The fish (barracuda) plate for me, the veg plate for D, washed down with the local Carib lager… we could’ve stayed there all day. Every day. But Sandy Island was just sitting there, waiting for us to cavort along its banks and bury our toes in its sand. So we hopped aboard the Hard Wood’s dinghy for the 1-minute ride over. There’s no real shade to speak of (or a bar), so you wouldn’t want to stay all day, but we slathered on the zinc oxide and floated in the crystal clear water until the boat came to pick us up as we requested, precisely 1 hour later.

Sandy Island, across from Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Sandy Island, across from Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

I had heard about a place in town (i.e., Hillsborough) called Patty’s Deli that was supposed to have an excellent selection of wines, assorted gourmet noshes and, apropos of my personal addiction, freshly baked croissants. So after we took a little rest from all the resting we did on Paradise Beach, we headed into town to investigate. It’s a fer piece from the B&B, so we opted for the bus. Buses here are essentially group taxis that seem to be the main means of transport for most island residents. At $3.50 EC / $2 US per person (at least, for us), the fare was a little higher than the buses on Grenada, but the driver kindly went a couple blocks off-route to get us to Patty’s. Unfortunately, it was already closed, so we stopped in Bill Paterson’s for a beer instead. Paterson’s is a general store in the front, party in the back. Or so I hear. That particular holiday weekend late afternoon, it was just a party of two. Nice view, though, and really nice folks, as is the norm on Carriacou.

Next, we wandered into the Kayak Kafe for an excellent papaya-banana smoothie before heading back “home” for dinner. As we approached the bus terminal, I asked one of the drivers if he was going to L’Esterre. The guy riding shotgun threw his head back and said, in that West Indian lilt that makes everything sound agreeable, “Awwww… ‘im now go!” Which I took to mean, “Dang, the L’Esterre bus just left!” But all was not lost. He busted out his cellie and called the L’Esterre driver who came back around to pick us up! The bus was JAMMED, too. And in further contrast to LA buses, nobody had B.O. or Tourette’s or attempted to hack up a lung without covering their mouths. We got a nice little tour of the island, too, including Tyrell Bay, which we walked to the next morning.

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, West Indies

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, West Indies.

After another lovely dinner our last night on Carriacou (Sunday), I started going through my paperwork for our flight back to Grenada. Words cannot convey the sheer panic I felt upon discovering that the receipt that SVG Airlines had given me when we flew over had our return flight listed as 10:30am Sunday, not 8:15am Monday. I had made and changed the reservation over the phone, but they don’t do email confirmations or printed tickets or anything so high-tech as all that. So I just had to trust the agent, who had read back to me all the correct info and assured me we were all set. Their office was closed for the day, so we had no way to contact them to confirm. But Marie said it was probably just an old printout (which turned out to be the case) and I shouldn’t worry. Bob was taking us to the airport in the morning, anyway, so at least if they didn’t have us on that morning’s flight, we’d have a ride back to town. Or the nearest rum shop, whichever came first.

The next morning, we bid Marie goodbye and headed to the airport, heart palpitating and fingers, toes and eyes crossed. I watched with great dread as two other Suzuki Sidekicks pulled up, counting their passengers and worrying that they might all have seats on this 7-passenger flight. Turns out only 5 of us were Grenada-bound and SVG had us correctly booked after all. I guess, in a place that moves as slowly as Carriacou, you have a higher probability of things getting done right… if not exactly in a timely fashion.

Goodbye Sandy Island and Carriacou

Goodbye Sandy Island and Carriacou…

Soon enough, we were off to our final day in Grenada… and our organic cacao farm tour!

Meg (from Jenny’s Place) had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport on the southwestern end of the island and take us up the Atlantic coast to Belmont Estate, one of the largest suppliers of cacao to the Grenada Chocolate Company. Our tour guide, Kelly, a huge Lakers fan, gave us an intro, showed us the cacao bean fermentery and then took us out to actually harvest a cacao pod right from the tree and taste the fruit that surrounds the beans. Amazing! And delicious. Very mango-y, with a citrus tang. Then he took us to see the huge drying racks (as well as the greenhouse where they do a lot of the drying now), the mechanized dryers and other antique-looking machinery inside. And finally… SAMPLES! First, he brought out some cocoa tea, which is a delightful concoction of cocoa nibs, nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaf (they don’t call Grenada the Spice Isle for nothin’)… sort of like a cross between Indian chai and Mexican hot chocolate. Then… samples of the chocolate itself, in 60% and 71% varieties.

The beautiful cacao pod... freshly harvested in front of our very eyes!

The beautiful cacao pod… freshly harvested before our very eyes.

Cacao beans in the raw... the fruit surrounding them is sweet, with a mango-citrus flavor.

Cacao beans in the raw… the fruit surrounding them is sweet, with a mango-citrus flavor.

After all that, of course, I had to take some home. So I bought 10 bars from the shop, in 60%, 71%, 82%, and even 100% varieties. No sugar in that 100%-er, obviously, but it’s not as bitter as the baking chocolate we all tried as kids (to our great chagrin and our moms’ great amusement). Maybe it’s the cocoa butter that smooths out the edges… who knows? What I do know is this is far and away the best chocolate I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of great chocolate. A lot.

We reluctantly taxied back to our hotel by the airport—Groom’s Beach Villas—and settled in for our last night in the Caribbean. The hotel was one of the cheaper ones on this trip, yet somehow the most luxurious. I still dream about that shower pressure. And just 100 ft. down the hill was the eponymous Groom’s Beach and the highly regarded Beach House Restaurant. We couldn’t not get in one more swim in that warm, clear, Caribbean sea before the sun set—on the trip as well as the day—so we hit the beach immediately. The late afternoon light bounced off a couple hobie cats as I watched them zoom back and forth across the turquoise surf for what seemed like forever, unable to tear myself away.

Groom's Beach, St. George's, Grenada

Groom’s Beach – St. George’s, Grenada.

As the light faded, we headed back up the hill to get ready for dinner at the gorgeous Beach House. I started with one serious mojito and D, a beer. We ordered the curried conch (with another mojito) for me and the gnocchi for D, then capped it all off with a guava cheesecake and chocolate mousse gateaux, respectively. It was a suitably decadent ending to what has become a luxury in itself these days: a REAL (i.e., non-working, no computers, no watches) vacation.

Of course, planning such a vacation is no vacation… it took endless hours—weeks, even—of research and decision-making to get it right. But man, was it ever right. Huge thanks to all who helped make it so: Meg and Erik, the ladies of the Grand View Carriacou, Bob and Marie, Dave Goldhill and crew, and all the fine local folks we met along the way. And here’s to the one we didn’t get to meet but have been enormously inspired by nonetheless:


sidewalk sage

Posted in LA, pearls, photos by Nancy on February 14, 2010

Los Angeles, California


Posted in India, photos by Nancy on February 10, 2010

Mysore, India

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silver lake, sweet silver lake

Posted in food, LA, photos, yoga by Nancy on February 4, 2010

Ah, it’s good to be home.

We arrived at LAX yesterday afternoon and Mayra was there to greet us, giant bouquet of flowers in hand. After a stop to pick up my car at her house, we were soon cruising the old familiar 101 again, windows cracked to let the recently rain-washed wind blow through our hair.

Within the first 24 hours back I:

– Took a long, hot, glorious shower.

– Slept. Late. On a real mattress, with springs and everything.

– Watched It Might Get Loud for the hundredth time. Jimmy Page still outrocks them all… even Jack White.

– Walked to Trader Joe’s to restock my fridge. Looking forward to fresh broccoli sautéed in soy sauce, honey and ginger.

– Did primary series. On my Manduka (which, of course, I did not haul to Mysore, though the shala’s tile floor made me wish I had). The 9 rolls of garba pindasana never felt so good. Actually, after 22 hours on a plane, a 3-hour ride to the Bangalore airport, the drive from LAX/picking up the car in Long Beach, and god-knows-how-many hours in bed, the whole series felt good.

– Saw that the dosa truck is still parked on the corner every Wednesday. Don’t imagine I’ll have a hankerin’ for a while, though.

– Tried on my favorite jeans (which I also did not take to India, being my favorites and all) and discovered that, contrary to my usual travel MO, I actually put on a pound or two this trip. Damn you, India, with your ghee and sweets… and sweets made with ghee!!!  [ shakes fist at sky ]

– Noticed a new mural splashed across Circus of Books… Anthony Bourdain was here???

Still on the to-do list for this week:

– Start a flickr account and post the rest of my photos from India. Will post a notice here once it’s up.

– Laundry. Courtesy of Maytag. My clothes will finally be clean. Really clean. And my poor, dry, wrung-out hands will be conspicuously—and gratefully—absent from the process.

– Friday morning yoga at Runyon Canyon. Can. Not. Wait! Fingers, toes and eyes crossed that it doesn’t rain.

– The veggie taco and potato/cheese flautas at Pinche’s Tacos. It ain’t just the name that’s fresh!

– Meeting with my agency for a web gig for one of my favorite clients. I had a check waiting for me when I got back and work still coming in. Life is good.

– Pizza at the Rainbow. To be chased with a $5 shake that tastes like a $5 shake.

– Farmer’s market. Either Silver Lake’s on Saturday or Hollywood’s on Sunday. Probably the latter as I’m in need of more o’ that tasty, cold-packed honey they sell there.

India Sweets & Spices. And not for the spices.

Huh… even in LA, it’s all about the food for me. I guess it’s true that “wherever you go, there you are.” In any event, I’m glad to be back.

firsts and lasts

Posted in food, India, photos, yoga by Nancy on February 1, 2010

Last night was our last dinner at Aunty’s. Her uncle is sick so she has to go to Bangalore today and we won’t get to see her again before we leave. I was really glad we brought the sweets we got her last night instead of waiting until our last night here.

Turned out everyone else we had invited to “the last supper” decided to show up last night instead, as well. Almost everyone in our yoga class was there. Aunty was running around like the proverbial headless chicken trying to get us all served, but was clearly delighted to have all these new customers. We’ll both sorely miss Aunty and her fine south Indian food.

Earlier in the day, we had one last lunch with Elisa who’s just back from leading a photo tour through south India. The driver she hired for the tour started off by taking them to shiny, sanitized, touristy spots until she explained to him that, since this was a photo tour, they were after something with a bit more character. “Oh, you want old and broken!” he said. It was a request he had no problem accommodating.

We also batted around ideas with her for the upcoming ‘round-the-world Odanadi event (called “Yoga Stops Traffick”… wish I’d thought of the name) as D will be heading up the LA contingent. Then we were off to Devaraja Market for some last-minute shopping and to pick up the sweets for Aunty from Bombay Indra Bhavan… a shop she turned us onto. “They use ghee in everything!” she gushed. “Sold,” said I.

This morning’s was our last class with Iyengar.  We’re now sitting down to our last breakfast at the Mandala. We’ll also probably take our last rickshaw ride today. One last bucket bath. Have our last regularly scheduled power outage for a while. And hopefully it’s the last time for a very long time that I’ll have to get up at 4:30 in the morning. So many lasts.

But it was also my very first trip to India. And I have a brand spankin’ new appreciation for LA because of it. Looking forward to getting back to real life. In the Land of Make Believe.

* * * * * * * *

Scenes from our last morning in Mysore:


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“i see white people”

Posted in being human, film, India, photos by Nancy on January 31, 2010

In case anyone was still wondering if the movie gig would ever pan out, it finally did yesterday. For me, anyway. D couldn’t go because he had already confirmed with his meditation teacher for his final class. Plus, he’s done some extra work before (in Hollywood, not Bollywood) and found it mind-numbingly boring. 1000 rupees wasn’t going to persuade him otherwise. So off I went—along with our friend, Yishai, from the Mandala—to make my film debut.

We were essentially playing ourselves… white tourists. The shoot was at the Mysore Palace (not Lalitha Mahal) and we just had to walk around in the background of the star’s scenes. Whether we stay off the cutting room floor remains to be seen, but there’s a good chance at least one of our scenes will end up in the film.

Being the only white folks on set in a country where white skin is so prized that they openly sell and use skin whitening creams, we got special treatment. It got to be a little weird at times. (Yishai summed it up thusly: “We’re like the dwarf in the dream sequence.”) But we did get to meet and talk with the writer/director (who said his last film won 3 awards at some indie film fest in the US), the cinematographer, the script writer, the producer’s wife, the assistant director and many more… all of whom seemed very aware of our presence and concerned that we were having a good time.

On that front, I wouldn’t say it was mindnumbingly boring… it was cool to see the process and all the detail that goes into getting the shot. And I must say this crew rocked it out. They seemed to be having a great time yet they were clearly working their asses off. And they actually got everything done on schedule. We wrapped at 4:30, as promised. Never would’ve happened in Hollywood. Not the efficiency. Not me being hired as an extra. None of it.

Anyway, the film is called Mani Manjari (no one could translate that for us, but the closest we got was that “mani” means pearl and “manjari” is an affectionate slang term for a woman or for femininity). It’s a family drama, so—to our great dismay—there were no splashy Bollywood dance numbers to look forward to. But the writer/director seemed like a serious dude, so maybe it has some depth to it. And the shots I saw on the monitor looked really cool… a few even Amelie-esque.

No word on the release date, but until then, here are some shots of what went on behind the scenes:

the star in her freak-out moment:

star and director discuss the next scene:

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fear and loathing in Mysore

Posted in India, photos, things that make you say "whaaa?" by Nancy on January 28, 2010

First, the fear. It didn’t spring from any death-defying rickshaw ride or parasitic infection. Not even the Indian retail experience could bring it on.  No, this fear was 100% made in America.

I had the hair-brained idea today that I ought to check my credit card balance online to make sure everything was copascetic. I had used the card to get some cash several days ago at an HSBC Bank ATM and I wanted to see if I had been charged any kind of international bullshit fee. Having heard certain people who pass themselves off as Mysore travel experts say that it’s not safe to use ATMs in India—and doubting that line almost entirely, but not quite—I figured I’d be plenty safe using an ATM at a major international bank like HSBC. So I was none too pleased when I saw that the “recent activity” report listed not one but two 7000-rupee cash advances (one a slightly higher amount in US dollars than the other due to the different conversion rates at the times they posted).

Since we don’t have a cellie (thanks, Airtel), D and I scurried off to find a landline phone. Mysore’s yellow public phones are everywhere—even hanging from tree trunks—outnumbered only by yellow cows. So it didn’t seem like a big hairy deal. But even the most insignificant task becomes a major undertaking here. We soon learned that the yellow phones are for local calls only. For anything else, you have to use the ISD phones. Which are harder to find and, of course, require electricity… in a city with round-the-clock power outages.

So after trudging around under the hot midday sun and slicing my foot open on a sharp rock sticking out of the busted up sidewalk, we finally found an ISD phone at the Apollo Pharmacy (where they speak great English and you can get some serious antibiotics—or most any prescription drug you want—without a prescription, and at a sixteenth of the price we pay in the US). But time was not on our side: “No power,” they told us.

We headed home, comforted by the fact that we at least knew where we could make the call once the power came back on. When we got back, our neighbor Dennis offered us the use of his Skype account and I was finally able to contact the bank. They told me that “pending” charges still appear on the recent activity report even after they’ve posted (and are no longer pending). They only purge them once a week, so it only LOOKS like a duplicate charge. But it isn’t.

So it wasn’t a rogue Indian bank employee that caused all this injury and upheaval. Just good old American incompetence.

I am relieved now, though, and about to fill my belly with Aunty’s food. The loathing will have to wait for another post.

In the meantime, here’s a gratuitous monkey pic:

“Let’s get down to brass tacks… how much for the ape?”

let your freak flag fly

Posted in being human, India, photos, things that make you say "whaaa?" by Nancy on January 22, 2010

Ran into our first hijras today.  Hijras are Indian drag queens (sometimes actual trannies) who beg for change and, to those who pony up, dispense good luck. Which—according to Anthony Bourdain—is really just the absence of the bad luck they would otherwise curse you with for holding out on them. But our hijras seemed more concerned with being fabulous than dishing out curses. They could totally hold their own in West Hollywood. Two snaps up!

4 out of 5 trannies agree downtown Lakshmipuram is where it’s at. The place is positively teeming with freaks. It’s also where we saw the monkey boy a week or so ago. He looked like a feral Edward Scissorhands and had monkeys on leashes climbing all over him… trained pickpockets, no doubt, with the manual dexterity of fuzzy little surgeons.

And so it goes in Mysore. Acrobatics (yoga asana) at dawn. Drag queens in the morning. Monkey boys in the afternoon. This must be what it’s like to run away with the circus.

* * *

These are some free range monkeys that live in a vacant lot on our way to Iyengar’s and Aunty’s. We saw a few of them popping in and out of an apparently occupied second floor apartment window yesterday… probably stealing anything not nailed down that they could get their opposible thumbs and prehensile tails around. Best. Second-story men. Ever.

strange days indeed

Posted in India, photos, things that make you say "whaaa?" by Nancy on January 18, 2010

Just got back from dinner at Aunty’s. Without Aunty. Her husband served up some respectable grub, though, decked out in his white dhoti. Even offered us chai, which I wasn’t expecting. But Aunty uses more butter on her chapatis. I do hope she’s back tomorrow.

On the way home, D spotted a monkey on a rooftop and I made the mad scramble for my camera. The monkey hopped down onto a ledge then onto a parked car and sauntered across the street and up onto another roof, where he briefly molested another monkey that was already there, then sat down, opened a package of cookies and ate them. He didn’t seem too interested in sharing his cookies with the monkey he molested either. Real nice, there, Curious George.

"Who is this white man and why is he all up in my frame?"

A little girl and her mom were watching the whole scene with us and seemed as enthralled as we were… nice to know the monkeys freak out the locals, too. Of course, once I showed the little girl the picture of the monkey, she had to have one taken of herself. Monkey shenanigans be damned!

A block later, as we approached the bungalows where we’re staying, a man with a crazy look in his eye and a Frankenstein-esque lope stopped us in the street and asked if we “want some flat?” I thought this must be some kind of Indian hallucinogen and he must be on it. But D surmised that he was asking if we needed “a” flat. Just roaming the streets, looking for tenants, like ya do. And we thought all the crazies were on craigslist.

moon over Mysore

Posted in food, India, photos, things that make you say "whaaa?", yoga by Nancy on January 16, 2010

All the lunar shenanigans of late have made for one crazy week.

Starting with the yoga. Now, ashtanga ain’t for sissies. And when you practice every day for weeks at a time (and are no longer in your 20s), injuries are bound to happen. At Wednesday’s class (my 12th in a row), I pulled something in my lower back during supta kurmasana.  So I’ve been out of commission the past 3 days and probably will be again tomorrow. But Friday’s class was canceled anyway because of the new moon*, solar eclipse and the Makara Shankranthi holiday.

Makara Shankranthi is a harvest festival that starts January 14th and continues through the afternoon of the 15th. Rice and cows are the featured attractions, but the cows definitely get top billing. The locals wash the cows (mercifully) and paint them yellow (with the same powdered pigments they use to paint each other during other festivals), their horns and hooves painted red. Then they adorn them with flowers and bells, have them blessed in a “cow puja” and, for the grand finale, make them run through streets that have been lined with hay and  set ablaze. And these are the animals they like.

how bob became bessie:

looks like there should be a floating craps game going on in this alley… nope, just painting farm animals:

watch out fer them horns, cuz’:

Shankranthi Yellu

Aunty had invited us for a special festival lunch and served up my new favorite rice dish, pongal, made with jaggery (a natural sweetener) and raisins and/or cashews. Daniel hates the stuff so I ended up eating all of his, too. Aunty must’ve noticed he wasn’t shoveling it in as per usual and asked if he didn’t like the food. Fortunately, he had an alibi that satisfied her: he had been invited to a fire ceremony by his meditation teacher that morning and after the ceremony there was food (including pongal) so he had already eaten before we got to Aunty’s. When we left, she gave us a bag of seeds and nuts and sugar that was molded into little figurines. She said it’s prasad (blessed food) and it’s traditional to share it with friends and family.**

Later that evening, we went to Nagarathna’s Yogic Supplies for dinner. We had gone by her place earlier to check on an order Daniel had placed with her… part of the order had come in, but she had forgotten to place the other part. So when we returned for dinner, she told us that, because it was a holiday, she could not charge us for dinner (which was dee-lish, btw). I think it was more that she felt badly about having forgotten part of D’s order. But whatever… free meal!

Afterwards, her husband told us we should go to the Mysore Palace to see the festival spectacle… he said they would light the palace (which they usually only do on Sundays) and there would be music and a lot of people would be bringing their painted cows. “Good for snaps” (snapshots), he said. So we hired a rickshaw and headed over.

When we arrived, two little boys dressed like scouts (school uniforms?) greeted us and seemed to be trying to strike up a conversation to practice their English. Daniel offered them a few “country coins” (coins from one’s home country) and they went berserk over them. Later, one of the boys found us and thanked D for the coins. D thought it was odd that he would go to the trouble, but I told him the kid’s mom probably made him. Sure enough, we ran into them again at the Ganesh temple and his mom was with them. The kid went on to explain how “very, very old” the temple is and how “people from all over the world are coming to see it”. He’ll make a hell of a tour guide someday. (Like tomorrow.)

Anyway, as promised, the palace lights came on not long after we arrived and it is, indeed, quite the spectacle. Walt Disney would be proud:

But the unlit Palace is truly impressive, especially for dingy little Mysore (eat your heart out, Marie Antoinette):

It’s one of the few Mysore attractions that consistently make it into the India guidebooks. Daniel’s friend Sean is actually helping to organize a yoga event on the Palace grounds to benefit the Odanadi Project.*** The location alone should help them generate plenty of press.

Sean invited us to his house in Gokulam yesterday morning for his birthday breakfast bash. Great timing, since everything was closed for the holiday. And quite a spread—croissant, fruit salad, eggs, French toast, muesli, yogurt, chai, coffee—not to mention a gorgeous house. Seems accupuncturists can do a brisk business among the well heeled ashtangis who converge on Gokulam like lemmings to study with Sharath (Pattabhi Jois’ grandson and heir to the cult/throne).

Later, I went over to the Mandala for (another) fruit salad, but the café was closed (power outage). As I walked through the gate I found Kumar (the cook, whose wife makes some righteous chocolate candy), Shanthala and the rest of the staff out front, looking up at the sky through a piece of glass that had been painted black. They asked if I’d like to see. It was my very first solar eclipse. A phenomenon at once enchanting and hazardous to your health. Not unlike India herself.

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* No class on moon days is traditional in ashtanga yoga. The belief is that your body is more affected by the tides or gravitational pull or some such natural phenomenon during the new moon and full moon, so it’s best not to practice on those days. But Iyengar—because he is a workaholic or because he’s 83 and reckons he’d better make hay while the sun (or moon) shines—still teaches on full moon days, though not on new moon days. Personally, I don’t mind that a bit… my practice usually sucks during the new moon anyway, but during the full moon it positively rocks.

** Daniel was given some of the same stuff by his meditation teacher. D is his only western student.

*** In March, a few of the Odanadi girls will lead hundreds of hardcore ashtanga yogis through sun salutations on the Palace grounds, kicking off what they hope will be an internationally coordinated effort to benefit the Odanadi Project. (Last time Daniel was in Mysore, he produced the soundtrack for a documentary about the women and girls being helped by Odanadi.)

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