chitta chatter

it’s gettin’ all soylent green up in here

I don’t usually pass this stuff along but I thought this was pretty important as it’s about the future of our food supply. Or lack thereof. If you haven’t seen the movies Food, Inc. or The Future of Food, both do a good job of explaining the situation. (If you only have time to watch one, I recommend the latter, available for free on hulu… just follow the link above. Food Matters comes highly recommended, as well.) In a nutshell, one company—Monsanto—is, right now, quietly taking control of the world’s food supply via tactics that are nearly as staggering as their potential impact on human life.

This petition is more specifically about Monsanto’s plans to spread their genetically modified seeds across the land… alfalfa, in this case. But if they get their way here, it will set a precedent that you can safely bet they’ll take full advantage of. Sure, signing this petition may not do a damned thing to change the course of events… but at least it will send a message that we’re watching them (Monsanto and the US government). And the more of us who know, the harder we can push in the opposite direction: for organic, non-genetically modified food produced by sustainable, independent farms.

End of sermon. Now go eat yer veggies… while you still can. And don’t forget to sign the petition here. (You can repost it on Facebook and Twitter, too!)


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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day 8

Posted in being human, India, photos, simple pleasures, things that make you say "whaaa?", yoga by Nancy on January 9, 2010

We’ve just started our second week in Mysore yet it seems like we’ve been here much longer. I’m starting to feel like I have some sort of handle on this town and our yoga asana classes with BNS Iyengar add an element of routine to our time here. We’ve done full primary series* every day for the last 7. The class goes by fast, so we’re back home by 7am, but it’s pretty exhausting. Not unlike dealing with the locals.

There’s some ridiculous number of languages spoken in India but I’d bet not one of them has a word for “subtle”. With all the yoga pilgrimages made by westerners to Mysore, you’d think they’d be used to us. But they literally stop what they’re doing and stare, mouths agape (no matter how modestly we’re dressed, behaving, etc.), and little kids will follow us down the street just saying “hi” over and over until they get a response.  Of course, to them, all westerners are Donald Trump (which, relatively speaking, isn’t entirely off-base), so we’re forever having to haggle for a fair deal… which I kind of enjoy, but only up to a point. Sure, we could probably afford to pay 100 rupees for what should be a 20 rupee rickshaw ride. But it adds up. And D and I are among the few here who have rent to pay back home.

But just like anywhere else, there are gems among the locals, too. Like Aunty, who serves the best food in town at the most ridiculously low prices ($1 for dinner with chai) with genuine, aunty-like hospitality. And Shanthala, who found us our apartment and wrote me a letter of reference for the cell phone company  that I’ll never put to use (more on that later). Even random strangers, like the guy who stopped us on our way home from class to ask where we were from and, when we told him, said, “Welcome to Mysore.” And meant it.

There’s a lot of filth and grime, but there’s a lot of almost otherworldly beauty here, too. The colors and patterns of the saris the women wear (even to herd sheep in). The Muslim call to prayer that we hear 4 or 5 times a day, every day, even during our walk to the yoga shala in the pre-dawn hours. The choir and organ music that accompany the mass at a nearby Catholic church, which I can hear as I type this. The vibrance of the Devaraja Market, where flowers, fruits, veggies, ceremonial paints, incense and essential oils bombard the senses. The graphics and package design of the beedies (hand-rolled cigarettes) you can buy on the streets.

Fine College, Ghaffar, and Ganesh brand beedis:

And then there are the flowers.

They have a thing for flowers here. Mainly a religious thing, I think, but a definite “thing” nonetheless. Every morning, the landlord of the bungalows where we’re staying sets a fresh flower on each windowsill. And flower wallahs with their giant, saucer-like baskets of blossoms already strung into garlands roam the neighborhoods at daybreak like some kind of trippy-hippy door-to-door salesmen. One of them greeted us as we came home from class the other morning and handed me a rose… which I set on the windowsill next to the narcissus(?) that was already there. Even BNS Iyengar hopped on his scooter after class that same morning cradling a rose (or was it a peony?) in his hand.

windowsill flowers:

crazy heart-shaped flower blooming from the banana tree that grows between our apartment and the Mandala:

Back to the cell phone… I thought it would be handy to have one here. I already had the unlocked GSM phone so all I needed to get was the Indian SIM card. Easier said than done. We went to the Airtel store last week and they told me I needed to bring them a copy of my passport and a letter of reference (Shanthala told me this was because of terrorism…???). Anyway, we went to see “3 Idiots” the other day and since the theatre was next door to Airtel, I figured I’d stop in and get the cell taken care of. Gave them the photocopy and the letter Shanthala wrote for me and they gave me a stack of SIM cards to choose my number from. Then they asked me for a passport sized photo. The copy wasn’t enough. And eventually, they would ask me to fill out a mile-long form, probably in triplicate. I gave up. We left and Daniel was laughing on the way out, muttering, “Bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West!” Which pretty much sums up trying to get anything productive done here. Lesson learned. I shall remain unproductive for the duration of my stay.

Except for the “movie-making”. As promised, here are a few videos we put together over the past week… enjoy:

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* There are around 60 or 70 poses plus vinyasas—the transitions between the poses—in the ashtanga primary series. Then you can go on to the intermediate and advanced series if you’re a serious masochist. Here are the seated and finishing poses of primary series (sun salutations and standing poses not shown):

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