Thursday, January 27, 2011

Activities in Tourist-Land

Visiting the Taj Mahal is a seemingly requisite experience for visitors to India. So like good little conformist tourists, R. and I traveled to Agra to see the famed building for ourselves. But while most people's visit to India's most well-known landmark is defined by the sticky heat Agra experiences most of the year, our experience was decidedly more chilly! Not many visitors to the Taj Mahal come wearing down jackets and scarves wrapped around their heads.

We arrived before dawn. The morning fog resulted in no spectacular sunrise, but rather a gradual lightening of the white building. The Taj Mahal is beautiful both from a distance and up close, where the intricate marble-work can be seen. For the first hour, the complex was almost empty, and we enjoyed roaming the property and appreciating it from every angle.

A lot of visitors to Agra see the Taj Mahal and then leave immediately, on to other cities as part of a tour. But there are 4-5 other major sites of interest in Agra, including Agra Fort and several tombs and monuments, some of which we visited.

Another much remarked-on characteristic of Agra is the persistence of the numerous salesmen and touts lining the entrance of every sight. Check out the awesome video (posted below) of us running the gauntlet of hopeful salesmen waving peacock fans, stone elephants and camels, tiny chess boards, post cards, books, etc. Video credit goes entirely to R. who filmed, directed and edited this snippet!

And finally, some of the awesome beasties we met during our excursion.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Bird in the Hand

Colorful dimond-shaped paper kites are a common sight in the sky in and around Old Delhi. Children fly them from rooftops and parking lots, showing amazing skill in avoiding buildings and trees. But kites are fragile things with short life spans, and stray strings from deceased kites can be found dangling from trees and buildings, threatening to snare unsuspecting passerbyes. During our recent trip to old Delhi (see last post) we got tangled up with a kite of a different sort.

Near the fishnet salesman we ran into some lose nylon threads hanging off a roof-top. While untangling the stray strings from my hair, we noticed that the other end was attached to something above - something large and alive and unhappy - a huge black bird perched on the gutter of the overhead building! As we watched, the bird opened its wings and took off, only to tumble across the road and crash behind a row of autorickshaws.

Our wildlife biologist instincts kicked in, and upon investigation, we found the bird wiped out on the ground entangled in fishing line wrapped around its wings. It was a black kite (Milvus migrans), a ubiquitous bird of prey in the Delhi area. After throwing a shirt over its head to guard against the sharp beak, we cut the restrictive fishing line and placed the bird up on a wall out of the way. "It's dead" insisted the local chai-walla. But almost immediatly the black kite took off and flew away, returning to the sky to join the colorful paper kites dancing over the city.

Old Delhi Afternoon

On a recent afternoon R. and I took the Delhi metro (which is shockingly modern and clean) to the Chandni Chowk station in Old Delhi (which, while neither modern nor clean, is charming). Old Delhi is what was once the walled capitol city of the Mughal empire, containing many beautiful havelis (walled mansions), mosques and gardens. Years of neglect have obscured the splendor, but some havelis and spots of elegant architecture can still be found. Despite the modern crowds and dilapidation, Old Delhi is still the symbolic heart of the greater Delhi metropolis.

In contrast to Old Delhi, New Delhi refers to the city planned by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a British architect, designed to house the government institutions of the British empire in India in the years after the first World War. And South Delhi, where I live, is the modern urban sprawl of the last century.

Old Delhi is an intense maze of narrow alleys, bustling bodies, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, and (weirdly) goats. Wandering through the streets with festones of dangerous-looking improvised electrical wiring overhead and your hand protectively over your wallet, you never know what you will find around the next corner. As well as residential areas, the old city contains markets concentrating on different types of goods. For instance, there are several streets of shops selling nothing but spices, while another area concentrates on women's clothing. On this trip we stumbled across the used car parts market, full of buildings stuffed full of old tires, fenders, and bits of gears and electronics spilling out of second floor windows.

Despite the lack of any nearby waterway fit for fishing, several net-makers were selling their wares, as well as muchli-wallas (fish sellers) hawking fresh-looking fishes.

A paanwalla sold paan, little packages of areca nut and slaked lime paste wrapped in a betel leaf. Paan takes many forms and can contain tobacco, digestive and breath-freshening ingredients, or candied fruit and fennel seeds. My sister loves the sweet kind, which seems to be more common in Mumbai than Delhi, while I prefer the kind you hold in your cheek like a squirrel as it slowly dissolves, filling your mouth with a minty/liquorish taste.

As the light began to fade in the evening, we found ourselves on the steps of the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. And just across the road, we ended the evening with dinner at Karim's, a Mughal eatery, where we filled our craving for meat in this largely vegetarian country with lamb kabobs and spicy chicken. Too full to walk, we wizzed to the nearby Chawri Bazaar metro station in a bicycle rickshaw.

Improvised Baking

In the US, before I moved to India and my new hobby became being deliberately obstructive to pushy people on the Delhi metro, I used to enjoy baking. I had mastered cookies, brownies and other such basic deliciousnesses, and had just moved on to more difficult pies and breads. However all that came to a screeching halt when I moved to a country in which ovens are not considered a basic kitchen accessory.

Yeah, weird, huh? Indians don't use ovens! Tandoor ovens, giant clay ovens in which the temperature commonly reaches 900 degrees F., are used in Mughal cooking for meat dishes and flat breads. But these are massive great objects, often built underground, and are never found in private homes. Baking foods such as leavened loaf bread, cakes, brownies, pies and cookies is virtually unknown. Rich expats in Delhi will sometimes go out of their way to procure an oven, but our poorly furnished apartment in Delhi certainly didn't have one. So I resigned myself to a year-long hiatus from baked goods.

However, on returning to India from a New Years trip to visit my family, I was met with a wonderful surprise. You see, it appears that my boyfriend is actually MacGyver, and in my absence, he made an oven out of a sheet of aluminum siding. Wanna know what he used for tools? One nail, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and a pair of children's safety scissors. Oh yeah, and an empty champagne bottle (for a hammer).

This wonderful device is powered by resting it atop the gas burner, just like a camp oven. It very quickly gets up to temperatures in excess of 250 degrees C. Getto, you are thinking? Au contraire! It works like a dream, and I have personally used it to make an apple pie, peanut butter cookies, buttermilk biscuits, and most recently, double chocolate brownies! Impressed? R. is a renaissance man, no doubt.

Work Time

Contrary to what you all may be thinking based on the content of my posts, I am actually doing some work here. Upon arriving in Delhi in early December, I showed up on the doorstep of my affiliation here in India, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a non-profit organization tackling a variety of environmental policy and research issues including renewable energy, sustainable development, natural resource management and climate change issues. I am now working with TERI's Center for Global Environment Research on two of their ongoing adaptation to climate change projects. In one, a study of coastal vulnerably to climate change in one of India's southern states, I will be working to identify indicators through which to assess the vulnerability of various ecosystem services to climate change-induced changes in sea level and water salinity. In the other, I will be looking at the use of stakeholder involvement in the identification of agricultural adaptation measures to changing water resource availability in north-central India. In the next few weeks I hope to accompany staff members on several field visits in conjunction with these projects.

TERI is housed in the India Habitat Center, a massive and impressive building complex on Lodi Road in South Delhi. This facility also hosts several other NGOs, a hotel, a theater and gallery space, and several restaurants, including my personal favorite, a dingy room in the underground parking garage where a heaping thali (fixed price plate of north-Indian food) can be had for 30 rupies (about 65 cents). The location isn't great, but you can't beat the value!