December 28, 2006

Bangalore Day 3 - Google and Dakshin

I haven't written much about Google Bangalore, partly because I can't say much about it and partly because it's not that different from what I do for Google Mountain View. The office is in a nice building in a posh part of town, but not in one of the "Special Economic Zones" (SEZs). We walk there each morning from the hotel, Debbie does internet stuff for a while and sometimes we have lunch there.

The lunches are quite different from Google in Mountain View, not too surprisingly. For one thing, while we get Indian food in Mountain View. It's nothing like this! There is a choice of from six to eight hot dishes, two kinds of rice, one or two kinds of bread, fresh fruits, salad and dessert - and that's just the "Indian" side of the lunch. We also have a more "Western" style lunch with prepared salads, a salad bar, and various prepared sandwiches. Google also provided breakfast and dinner. I haven't yet tried the dinner, but breakfast was two kinds of hot farina, and an assortment of cold cereals.

For dinner we went to "Dakshin" a fancy restaurant in the Sheraton Towers. The idea is that it serves authentic southern regional dishes presented in an elegant setting with live music, in our case a duo from tamil nadu on the mridangam (drum) and venu (bamboo flute). The restaurant kindly moved us right up next to the musicians when it became clear we were really into the music.

The food started with papads fried in oil that had first been flavored by frying chilis in it. These were the lightest, crispiest, best papads I've had. I'm sure living in India we'll find even better ones eventually but so far these are the best! They were served with four chutneys, two of them standard coconut and cilantro, two of them more unusual - a tomato chutney, and a "sour leaf" chutney, a fermented leaf that reminded me of lime pickle, salty, tart, and pungent. All were great but the sour leaf chutney on the papads was especially good.

Next came a pair of fritters. One was slightly sweet banana and cashew, the other was a more salty rice and lentil flour dumpling. Both had been fried, and were quite delicious. We started with "Kozhi Varuval" a "dry" dish of pieces of boneless chicken marinated in spices and deep fried. Then Maama Saaru (boneless lamb mysore style), Kelayachi Bahji (raw banana with sesame and red chilis), traditional local rice, and Elaneer Payasam (Hyderabadi tender coconut kernels cooked in reduced sweet coconut milk flavored with cardamom.)

Finally they brought us a tray of paan (betel leaf) in this case filled with spices, sugar and flavors including cloves and crystallized ginger. I'm still trying to figure out how one is supposed to chew the things, but I'm going to keep at it for a while.

December 27, 2006

Bangalore Day 2 - Dinner at Sikander

For dinner tonight we went to "Sikander" a nice restaurant in Garuda Mall. The concept is foods from all the places that Alexander the Great conquered. An admirable goal but evidently Alexander only drank light pilsners. Finding a good beer in India may be a challenge. So far all the beers have been lagers, whats more they've been light pilsners. This is no country for an ale drinker.

We started in Turkey with Adana Seek, a ground meat formed around a skewer and grilled. We've had this in San Francisco, and this version was neither much better or much worse than we've had before. We also had Diwani Handi (fresh vegetable dish in browned onions and almonds) and Murgh Dum Biryani a Persian inspired dish of chicken and spiced rice.

Bangalore Day 2 - afternoon

Bangalore is an almost overwhelming maelstrom of impressions. There are women wearing beautiful saris carrying large budens on their heads past barefood sewer workers blithely carrying on in the middle of traffic rushing by on both sides of them as they work.

The sidewalk is cut stone slabs laid on kerb stones, but in places have fallen through or broken exposing the trench beneath. In some places it smells of urine, in most places it is dusty or dirty, often there is no sidewalk at all, and you share the road with traffic.

There are exquisite small shops in almost every block where local people shop and enjoy their daily lives, but as yet despite my curiosity I haven't had a chance to try them. I'm sure we'll get our chance.

Besides the small stores, there are also street food vendors selling all sorts of foods. Roasted peanuts, chaat, snacks of all sorts that I don't yet even have names for. Our local friends tell us not to eat at the street carts, but I'm sure we'll try them sooner or later...

The traffic is bad, but not so horrendous (yet) as we've been lead to believe. There have been a few cases of gridlock, often lots of traffic, but it's just traffic. There's dust and haze, lots of unfamiliar vehicles, but on the other hand it makes sense. Smaller vehicles, bikes, lots of small two-wheelers. It may be hard because we like to walk, and we like to take busses but it'll work out.

One thing that's taking some getting used to is how dogs are treated. In San Francisco we meet a lot of our neighbors through their dogs. We see them on the street, we say hi, we pet them. In Bangalore I have yet to see an obviously "pet" dog. We see lots of dogs, but none of them seem to have owners. Maybe they're "neighborhood" or "community" dogs, or maybe they're just strays, but they're all over. I have have no desire to try to befriend or even pet these dogs. It's a shock.

In spite of all the differences, there are pockets of familiarity. Not necessarily the things I find most attractive about my world, yet they are familiar. Global brands, designer labels, and rows of high end stores. MG Road and Brigade Road have all the familiar names and storefronts, but with a distinctly Indian twist - they all have generators waiting in front of them for the inevitable power failures.

We quickly found the shopping streets, the malls, and the big hotel restaurants. While they have their charms, I look forward to spending more time and enjoying more of the things that make Bangalore, and India what they are. It's not Dominos, malls, traffic, or even fancy restaurants in five star hotels. I don't know what it is yet, but I look forward to learning more.

December 22, 2006

Bangalore Day 2 - First Impressions

Today I got up and walked with Debbie to Google. Spent the morning doing various work things, then left at midday to meet with our friend of a friend (Suku) of a friend (Scott) Mohan. We spent a long time asking questions about living in India (he lived for many years in the US, moved there as a child and returned to India as an adult - so he has a lot of the culture shock information we want.) After chatting for a while about the relative merits of flats versus detached houses, how to hire a driver and deal with domestic help, the best brand of house water purifier to get and other esoterica, we all went off to lunch.

Debbie (and I) had been pining for dosas for a while, so we mentioned this to Mohan. He suggested the restaurant at the St. Marks, and off we went. It turns out that for lunch they have a buffet, but after some skillful negotiating by Mohan they agreed to make us dosas. We were very pleased.

December 21, 2006

Bangalore Day 1 - Hotel, Google, Dinner

We arrived safely in Bangalore - at 5:40am local time. Customs and immigration formalities were just that, a formality, and in no time we were standing looking around for our driver surrounded by dozens of drivers holding up little white signs with names on them. We only got accosted by a few taxi drivers anxious for our business, and finally Debbie found our driver in the crowd.

We loaded our bags into the car (well actually a couple of volunteer porters did the loading for us) and I apologetically informed them I had no rupees. They cheerfully replied that they would take any currency, so I gave them my last GBP small change - 30p. That worked out to about Rs 26 which is about right. Whew.

The ride to the hotel was exotic and interesting and bewildering for us, though looking back on it knowing what we know now it was actually very quiet and uneventful. Well except that the driver took us to the wrong Chancery Hotel... We went in to check in and they could find no record of our reservation. They realized we might be at the "wrong" Chancery Hotel and called over to the other one (The Chancery Pavilion.) Sure enough that's where our reservation is. They quickly ran out and stopped our driver before he left and we managed to get things sorted out. The two hotels are actually quite close to each other and after agreeing with him that he'd drive us to Google in the morning, we got to our room. Except for the fact that it has two slightly too small beds instead of one large one it's a fine room, a nice "five star" room that I'd be happy with anywhere in the world. Plenty of bottled water, internet access, a lovely shower and tub, everything you would want. We slept for a few hours then off to Google.

It turns out the Google office is a short walk from the hotel, the driver pointed out the route to us and since then we've walked each day. The office is nice, felt very "Googly" with all the standard Google arrangements. Meals in the office, soft drinks and juices, and all sorts of snacks. One nice feature is along with a good selection of teas, is an assortment of tea biscuits in brightly colored containers. One of the tea bags available is a masala chai which made me happy.

We came back to the hotel for their buffet lunch which was fine if unremarkable. The lamb chops were tasty, but it suffers from the same disadvantage of any buffet. Nothing is terribly fresh, and being held on a steam table makes the flavors suffer. Still it was our first "indian" food and it made us happy.

I spent some time in the office, catching up with work things and arranging meetings and talks for later in the week. With work done for the day our next "outing" was to try to find dinner. I'd looked at some Googler recommendations on the internal Google Bangalore website, and had noticed that one of the places "Nandhini" was on our way to the hotel. Nandhini serves Andhra style food which is spicy! It was the first really spicy hot food we'd had and it was delcious! Definitely need to go back. Unfortunately the beer selection has so far been downright bad. Well, it's fine if you want a light lager, but a good flavored ale? Forget it.

After dinner we went for a little walk around the "neighborhood." Basically down to the end of the block the Google office is located on, and back. At the end of the block we saw the only traffic accident I've seen so far this trip, which was a bike that went down when he didn't see the road was diverted to the right and he
laid it down when he hit a patch of sand while trying to turn too fast. Everyone rushed to help him (including me) but he was ok, no serious damage done. On the way back from that I saw the only graffiti I've noticed so far. I have no idea what it means...

London day 4 - off to Bangalore

latte at harrods 102We spent a leisurely morning wandered over to Harrods 102 to pick up food for the trip as well as have a little breakfast. Normally I would run screaming from a place that had sushi boats on one end, a convenience store in the middle, a cafe on the other end, and a dry cleaner in the back, but it was convenient and I had a sort of morbid curiosity about the place.

I had a berry smoothie, a latte and a pain au chocolate. Debbie had an espresso and a pear tart. Both were decent but as Debbie says "it was no Bluebottle." (My god, am I one of those tiresome people always complaining about how something or other just isn't as good as back home? I'll try to keep the whining to a minimum.)

moet at heathrowAfter that it was off to Heathrow! We just hopped on the Piccadilly line at Knightsbridge skipped the first train because it was going to Uxbridge instead of Heathrow caught the next train with the cheerful "Heathrow 1,2,3" on it and were on our way.

Sadly the cheerful sign was a lie. After a few more stops the announcement changed from "This is a Heathrow train" to "This train is going to Acton Town" bait and switch! The driver admitted to the switcheroo and advised people to change in Acton town - which we duly did.

Once at Heathrow, Debbie got in the (long) checkin line with our luggage while I went scouting for faster ways to check in. Travelling together works well - I found the automatic check-in machines, and the "tag and drop" queue and proceeded to print our boarding passes. Unfortunately the machine claimed I had already checked in (we had, on line, but I hadn't printed the boarding passes) and wouldn't proceed. Fortunately the nice BA lady sorted everything out. I fetched Debbie so she could show off her nice Indian visa and we learned that with just check-in we could just proceed to security. Yay!

I breezed through the documentation line and was merrily on my way to security when I noticed Debbie was no longer behind me! I came back to find that her bag didn't fit in the little bag size template. Boo. After a quick rearrangement the problem was solved and we had no further trouble getting through. I had a nice glass of champagne while we waited in the cafe for our flight, we boarded with no trouble and after a forgettable dinner of "chicken risotto" I snoozed through the rest of the flight.

December 18, 2006

London day 3 - Caffe Concerto, Tate Modern, Pierino, The Bunch of Grapes

We started off this morning from our cozy little B&B and visited Caffe Concerto an Italian cafe and bakery on Brompton Road. Debbie had two cafe macchiati with a millefeuille while I had a macchiato and double espresso with an apricot danish.

Breakfast done we took the tube back to the Tate Modern to visit their two special exhibits. "Fischli & Weiss: Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective " and "David Smith: A Centennial."

The Fischli and Weiss exhibit was charming, amusing, and provocative - an excellent combination. They produce what seem to be light witty pieces, very contemporary, but pieces that prick at you at the same time.
We especially liked Suddenly this Overview, a collection of small unfired clay sculptures that illustrate various themes both profound and mundane.

Next we visited the David Smith exhibit across the hall. I had only a passing familiarity with his work before this, but after seeing it as a collection, especially having just seen the surrealist and cubist works at the Tate I think I have a much better appreciation for his work.

For dinner we arranged to meet Tanya (tnt) from The Well, at Pierino. Pierino is a neighborhood italian place in Kensington where Tanya lives. From the outside it looks like one of a hundred other generic italian places you see all over the world, but they make all of their pastas in house, and the pizza crusts are obviously hand made and baked in a hot oven.

On the way home we stopped for a hand pulled pint of real ale - Abbot's IPA in the local pub "The Bunch of Grapes." With a name like that you'd expect it to be some kind of foofy wine bar, and while you wouldn't be entirely wrong, they also did have real ale and hand pumps. Unfortunately they also had cigarette smoke, which reminded me why I don't really like pubs all that much - except for the company.

We're off to bed, and tomorrow we leave for India! We can take the underground right from our local tube stop directly to Heathrow, so we should have a relatively easy time of it. Still didn't buy a cellphone, and I hear they're somewhat painful to get in India, but calling people over VOIP has worked ok so far, so we will see.

December 17, 2006

London day 2 - Borough Market and the Tate Modern

We're staying at a cute little B&B in Knightsbridge, just around the corner from the retail madness that is Harrods in christmas time. We had a nice little breakfast of yoghurt, croissants, coffee and fruit then walked to the tube. The nearest tube stop is Knightsbridge just a few blocks away and is directly opposite Harrods's entrance.

Our first destination was the Borough Market in Southwark ("sutherk"). This was originally a working wholesale fruit and vegetable market under the mainline train tracks right near London Bridge. We took the tube to the London Bridge station using our shiny new Oyster cards (after adding money to them... ahem. See previous post.) While it is still a working fruit and vegetable market in the wee hours of the night, that's not why we wanted to go. On weekends it turns into one of the biggest and most popular food markets in London.

The Borough Market has everything. If you've ever been to the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market, imagine that about three times bigger and twice as crowded. There are people there selling everything. Prepared food, lots of game including whole rabbits, ducks, and pheasants. Large mounds of fresh yellow butter being sold by weight, and meat. Unbelievable meat. Meat from cows, sheep, pigs and more exotic animals (springbok anyone? how about ostrich?), identified by breed, location, and how it was raised. Most exciting though was the sheer quantity and variety of smoked and preserved meats. Can you say BACON? I had no idea there were so many bacon possibilities and here they were on display. Back bacon, dry cured bacon, streaky bacon, each identified by the breed of pig it had come from. A cornicopia of bacon.

Besides meat, there were lovely fresh mushrooms (it's cepes season!), a wide variety of fruits both mundane (apples of all varieties) and exotic (dragon fruit, the fruit of a peruvian cactus), a huge assortment of cheeses with specialists selling one particular artisan stilton and generalists selling cheeses from all over the world. There was a good coffee shop, we were excited when we noticed they were using mazzer grinders, la marzzoco expresso machines, and I heard the familiar "tink" of someone knocking the portafilter before polishing the puck. Sure enough they were making excellent espresso though a little more acidic and not as velvety smooth as Blue Bottle I had not expected to find espresso I could compare to Blue Bottle just walking around a market!

Sprinkled throughout were various confectioners, selling cakes, pies, cookies ("biscuits"), shortbread, candies, jams, honeys, and yes chocolate. Chocolate bulk, chocolate confections, and chocolate truffles. Lots and lots of chocolate truffles. We bought an assortment to fortify ourselves for the rest of the day and wandered off towards the Tate Modern for the rest of our day.

The Tate Modern is London's museum of modern art (defined as "since 1900") and has three main floors each divided roughly in half. Today we visited two floors, but since the Tate prohibits all photography in the exhibit halls, there will be no photos from me! Photos below courtesy of the Tate. We started with "Material Gestures" with rooms by or about Anish Kapoor and Barnett Newman, Material Gestures, Rothko, Expressionism, Distinguished Voices, Contemporary Painting, Claude Monet and Abstract Expressionism, Tacita Dean, and finally another room by Tacita Dean. The "Material Gestures" room contained some lovely Giacomettis, and the Claude Monet room had a riveting Pollock "Summertime: Number 9A." The photo (click on it for a slightly larger version and discussion) does not even begin to do the painting justice. It's full of rhythmic motion and life.

We moved on to "
Poetry and Dream" which is mostly about Surrealism and its influence on modern art. I'm a huge fan of surrealism, so I was in heaven. The rooms were: Giorgio de Chirico and Jannis Kounellis, Giorgio de Chirico and Jannis Kounellis, Poetry and Dream: Surrealism and Film, Poetry and Dream: Beyond Surrealism, Francis Picabia, Thomas Schütte, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, Juan Muñoz, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing, Realisms, and Susan Hiller. One of the most striking exhibits was the Thomas Schütte exhibit "Enemies" consisting of pairs of male figures, heads sculpted from Fimo ("Sculpey") signifying the corrpution of current political figures. Not representational of an specific politicians, but somehow evoking all politics as corrupt.

At this point we were both hungry and exhausted so took a break for lunch in the excellent Tate cafe. Debbie and I shared fish and chips and I tried a beer from Wensleydale that had a sheep on the label. How perfect is that?

After lunch we went up to the fifth floor, which has two exhibits, one "Idea and Object" devoted to minimalism, and one called "States of Flux" devoted to Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. I found both of them tedious and boring. I guess I was either tired, or I don't like all modern art. (I suspect the latter.) Though there was some pop and Russian socialist realism in States of Flux that I liked.

At this point we were exhausted. Walked to the the Southwark station then back to the B&B for a quick nap and some internet. Then off to dinner at Haandi an Indian place right around the corner. The food was excellent, we had lamb chops, a nice chicken dish that's a favorite of north indian truck drivers, and a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

December 16, 2006

Dublin Day 6 - The Queen of Tarts (and London!)

This morning we got up early to try a bakery we'd heard was one the best in Dublin, "The Queen of Tarts." Across the street from city hall, it's a feast for the eyes as well as taste. Debbie tried a raspberry scone, while I had to try the almond raspberry danish. The scone was great, a well executed example of the art, but the danish was astonishing. Like no other danish I've ever had, it was a flaky yeast dough around a warm soft center.

We accompanied our pastries with a decent lavazza cappucino, but don't go to Queen of Tarts for the coffee - go for the array of tempting pastries and baked goods. They had raspberry cheesecakes on display that made me regret that I didn't have all day to spend here.

We later went across the river and tried Panem, which was decent, run by friendly people, and had good coffee, but Panem seems more like a lunch and food place, while Queen of Tarts is a bakery.

After Panem, I went to work while Debbie hung out, logged in, bought postcards and sat in a cafe writing postcards and mailing them. We met back at the hotel around 2:30 to pick up my nicely cleaned clothes, then off to the airport to catch our 6:30 flight.

Unfortunately our 6:30 flight got delayed, twice, and eventually left around 7:30. We arrived in Gatwick and had to disembark down stairs. I thought those went out in the '30s! Don't you have jetways? Anyway, after taking the shuttle to the terminal and then another shuttle to another terminal, we finally found the Victoria Express train.

We bought two one way tickets on the Victoria Express and were off to London. We made it to the Victoria station without incident, but were kind of tired. We got turned around trying to find our bus stop, then spent some time trying to figure out how to buy a bus ticket. (It turns out you need £1 coins, and all we had was bills from the ATM.) A helpful clerk in the book store (cute fat girl with a labret and bright red streaks in her hair - yay London!) told us to get Oyster cards, that we'd save the cost of the deposit many times over and that it's a lot more convenient. So after some wandering around I finally obtained Oyster cards for each of us.

We caught our 52 bus out to Knightsbridge, and with the help of some friendly passengers managed to figure out which stop was ours. (The bus driver was hopeless. When we asked where the stop was he just pointed his thumb at the back of the bus and said 'ask them.') Perhaps amusingly I noticed that while we had paid our
£3 deposit for the Oyster cards, that doesn't actually give you any value for USING them. You have to add money. When we casually swiped our cards I noticed the LCD saying "insufficient funds, invalid fare" or some such. Debbie on the other hand was blissfully unaware of this and breezed onto the bus. So I just followed quietly behind without saying anything, resolving to put money on them as soon as we could.

We got off at our stop and proceeded to follow the directions we'd gotten online. The directions had us following streets that seemed curiously indirect, but at this point we weren't in the mood to take any chances. I think the directions are driving directions and the oddities are to account for one way streets, but in any case we are finally here safely in bed AND THERE'S WIRELESS!