May 06, 2012

Heads of State

Five thousand years ago the first Yandi ("Flame Emperor") ascended the Chinese throne. He was credited with introducing basic agricultural techniques and herbal medicine to the masses. The last Yandi was defeated by the first Huangdi ("Yellow Emperor"), who also got a lot of accolades for bringing about the invention of the Chinese calendar, astronomy, and character writing system. In the Chinese doctrine of five phases, fire creates earth, and yellow follows red, so everything fits together quite nicely. At the Yellow River Scenic Area near Zhengzhou, these two legendary figures have been immortalized in China's homage to Mount Rushmore.

A massive man made square separates the two stone figures on the mountain from the mighty river, which was barely visible due to the heavy fog. On the square, a reenactment of a royal procession kept me occupied for some time. A bevy of long haired beauties were dressed in colourful ethnic wear. After the show was over, my travel partner Swathish and I climbed swiftly to the top of the mountain to examine the two large sculptures of the emperors heads. On the way down we took a more circuitous and relaxing route, stopping three times.

The first stop was at the viewpoint from which Mao had stood and declared the Yellow River to be of great strategic importance. The second time was when we happened upon a fine artist who could very quickly modify traditional water brush paintings he had prepared in advance and add personalized calligraphy to them. Impressed by his handiwork, we commissioned the artist to create several parchments. The third stop was when several Chinese girls spotted me and asked me to pose with them for some pictures. Always the gentleman, I gladly obliged. My travel partner stood to the side, simmering with quiet jealousy.


"Arnab reveled in the some of his favourite items - Chinese beauties and concrete monsters." - Swathish

May 04, 2012

Finger Bowl

I was sitting at a restaurant in a Beijing alley with my coworkers when a dirty bowl of soup arrived at our table. One of my colleagues seized the opportunity to recount a Chinese pun:

Several friends were sitting together at a streetside eatery when the waiter arrived with a bowl of piping hot soup. His thumb was halfway submerged in it.

"Your finger is in the soup!" exclaimed one of the disgusted customers.

"Don't worry." the experienced waiter calmly replied. "It doesn't hurt."

April 21, 2012

ARNABites: It's Alive

After eating almost everything imaginable under the sun during my China years, I moved from inanimate to animate objects in Korea. At the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, dozens of fishmongers offer mysterious creatures of the deep to the public for immediate consumption. I was accompanied by my friend Zeki. As we exited the Noryangjin subway and turned towards the overhead walkway leading to the fish market, Zeki mentioned that I should have cash on hand as they probably do not accept credit cards. "No they don't." confirmed a foreign passerby who appeared out of nowhere for that brief moment as if performing a cameo in a movie.

After careful inspection, we selected a couple of octopi. I had wanted to share one, but Zeki insisted on two. He wanted to make sure that we each got a head. The fishmonger put the octopus in a plastic bag partially filled with water and handed it to me. We walked through a narrow opening between several stalls at one corner of the market and headed into a basic restaurant attached to the fish market. A lady roughly grabbed my octopi. I followed her into the back and watched in stunned silence as she quickly chopped off the tentacles and put the various squirming pieces onto a dish.

I had difficulty picking up the tentacles with the narrow metal chopsticks that Koreans generally utilise. I was accustomed to the better grip provided by the Amazon rainforest worth of disposable wooden chopsticks used by the Chinese. The strong suction cups on the tentacles were not helping matters either, resisting my attempts to pry them loose from the plate. After finally capturing one wiggling tentacle I dropped it into the signature Korean hot sauce. It twirled around by itself until it was fully sauced. The paste made it somewhat tasty as the raw tentacle generated little flavour by itself.

I avoided eating the head as long as possible, but soon the time came to devour it. Zeki warned me that it was too difficult to chew, and that I would have to swallow it whole. I did not want to do that, so I chewed valiantly for ten minutes after wrapping it in lettuce leaf. The head was about one and a half times the size of a poached egg, with a similar texture but much stronger composition. The membrane was not breaking down into something digestible despite my best efforts. My strength began to fade so eventually I had to swallow it as Zeki predicted. Overall, it was quite unappetizing but worth a try once.


And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. 
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- William Shakespeare`s Hamlet

April 11, 2012

Luang Prabang: Almish Paradise

A rite of passage for travellers visiting Laos is waking up at dawn in Luang Prabang to watch a stream of saffron clad monks collect alms from a row of kneeling devotees. The monks accept handouts without discrimination from whomever chooses to participate in the ceremony, be it locals who have been following this Buddhist ritual of obtaining merit for years, or beer guzzling backpackers without the faintest idea of why they had to get up so early and buy some overpriced rice from a street vendor strategically positioned nearby almless alms givers. Some majesty is lost with popularity, but it is still a memorable experience.

I woke up a bit after sunrise and hurried to Luang Prabang's main street to catch the festivities. Everyone awake at that time was heading in the same direction, so I followed them. I waited for several minutes until the tiny specks of orange in the distance became larger and larger. As the first group of monks arrived, many tourists swarmed them like paparazzi. Strict behavioural rules such as the way participants should sit (with feet tucked in and not pointing at anyone), dress (modestly), and position their heads (below that of a monk) are all defined. The groups of monks that followed could collect their alms in greater serenity after the initial photo taking frenzy had concluded.


"A jug fills drop by drop." ~ Buddha

March 24, 2012

Impenetrable Sea Fortress of Maharashtra

One of my first outings while stationed in Bombay was to Alibag and its surroundings. An office girl from Chennai who accompanied me did all of the talking. Catching a ferry to Mandwa from the Gateway of India is the fastest way to get to Alibag. As the journey began, I narrowly avoided reconfiguration of my handsome face as the ferry collided with a boat anchored right beside it. I had to duck to avoid the protective tire barriers on the side of the boat from hitting me in the head. Forty five minutes later we docked. Most of the  passengers on the ferry immediately ran from the Mandwa pier to a bus that would take them onwards to Alibag. After the bus was suitably overcrowded, it ambled away to its destination. The stragglers, including us, were stuffed onto a shared rickshaw which quickly overtook the bus on its way to Alibag.

We were dropped off in the middle of a roundabout near the town center. A dozen meters away was the ticket counter for the return ferry journey. The lady manning the booth told us the tickets had been sold out a week ago and advised us to hang out at the beach and then take a bus back. We had other plans and told her what we wanted to see, including a mysterious Jewish settlement. She said none of that was interesting, reiterated that we should just hang out at the beach, but then provided us accurate directions to where we wanted to go. Five separate shared rickshaw journeys followed with a variety of co-passengers. On one segment, a mother was teaching her son how to properly throw garbage out of a moving vehicle onto the street. Due to the prevailing direction of the wind, his attempts were only resulting in his empty bag of chips landing back inside the rickshaw whenever he attempted to toss it outside.

We could not find the Jewish settlement anywhere, although all the locals were vaguely aware of knowing someone else who had heard of Jewish people. We were advised to ask for "Europe people" or "Portugal people" if we wanted to see any colonial ruins. Alibag was where the Bene Israel Jews first landed in India over 2000 years ago. Some meandering through ancient forts, beaches, and villages finally led us to some spectacular sites. One of these was Chaul, location of a famous sea battle between the Portuguese and Egyptian fleets in 1508. A rich delinquent had even built his mansion within some ruins, completely disregarding the Indian Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.

After briefly halting at the palatial residence of the Siddi Nawab we had a delicious fish thali (mixed platter) at a popular beachfront restaurant. Hunger satiated, thirst followed. We had heard about a local concoction called maadi, made from coconut and fermented to perfection. A man overheard us talking about the beverage and took us to a shady clearing nearby. Another man climbed down from a coconut tree, took our empty water bottle and filled it up with some liquid from a petrol canister. It was very tasty. We then walked towards the next settlement in search of another rickshaw. For a while we could not find any, but as soon we got on a rickshaw and were on our way, two lost looking English beauties walked out of a back alley onto the main street. I groaned in disappointment. "Good thing we saw them now, otherwise you would have forgotten about me." murmured my travel companion.

Our final stop before heading back to Bombay was the impenetrable sea fortress of Murud Janjira. From the opposing shore we were hurried on to a barely seaworthy vessel, made even less so by the mass of humanity loaded onto it. As we approached the fort, it looked even more dark and menacing than it had from afar. Nineteen bastions holding cannons and thick walls rising a dozen meters into the sky loomed ahead. Inside it was much brighter, murky green ponds and shrubbery having taken over most of the man made construction. We climbed the staircase to the highest point. The entire fort as well as the bay surrounding it was clearly visible. Any ship approaching the area would have been spotted from kilometers away by the guards once manning this point.

Under the jurisdiction of it's Abyssinian Siddi rulers, Murud Janjira was never captured by Dutch, Portuguese, English, or Maratha forces, a distinction no other fort on India's west coast can claim. The name comes from the Konkani word for island, morod, and its Arabic equivalent, jazeera. If the fort at Murud Janjira was not spectacular enough, another floating citadel loomed out even further out to sea, constructed by Shivaji's son after he failed to conquer it by digging a tunnel into the fort. It is inaccessible to the public. On the way back to the mainland, a grown man started whimpering on the sailboat. "Is he scared?" I asked a man awkwardly crouching beside me and trying not to fall overboard. "I think so." he replied.