All posts in 2024
  • Chasing the Monsoon

    Where I dig through my archives and repost the stuff I like. This is from 2007.

    Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and all I will remember is driving up, around, up, around, up, around, in the swirling clouds as the rain lashed at my windows and I feared for my life, balanced so daintily in this tin can navigating itself on the hairpin road. This being Meghalaya, where everyone loves their rock ‘n’ roll, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” blasted from this tin can while I said a little prayer.

    The purpose for this journey? To spend the tail end of my summer living out the monsoon in the world’s wettest (inhabited) place. If London gets close to 600mm of annual rainfall, where I was hitting up racked up 12000mm consistently, also the holder of two world records: highest monthly rainfall, highest yearly rainfall.

    Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and I will still tell you the same thing: I’m not sure why I do the things that I do. Except that I was chasing the monsoon, that year and it just so happened I was paid for it.

    We’d gone from my beloved Calcutta hurriedly, up to Darjeeling. I was eager to revisit that hill station with such a huge chunk of my heart before the rains shroud my beloved Kanchenjunga in the monsoon mist. I remember walking, walking for no particular purpose, just as it’d been the last time. Even in leaving, I remember driving, driving for no particular purpose. We drove down the winding mountain roads, stopping in Garidhura for a chai. In Garidhura a toothless man grinned at us, saying he’d been an English teacher for decades but hasn’t had much practice in a while. We only had time for a chai and a chai’s worth of conversation; then we continued driving, driving very fast, driving around bends, past tea plantations, past army barracks. Rapidly descending in circles but what the air took in altitude, it gave back in the freshness of tea plantations and the lingering scent of Darjeeling, my sweet, strong, Darjeeling without sugar.

    But to chase the monsoon across to the west coast and down south — there was a quick intermission of the scorching Indian summer in the plains, by the Ganges and in the desert. Before long the three weeks of enforced vegetarianism had passed, and so had the worst of scorching Indian summer nights, there we were in Bombay. Expecting the monsoon to lash at Bombay as it had the past year, we quickly took off to catch a bit of the beach before the sea devoured it. Palolem, Goa. The monsoon had caught up with us. It didn’t rain but it poured for more than 15 hours a day — a few died in a neighbouring state, while they began to dismantle everything on the beach slowly. We were one of the last huts standing, still reluctant to leave, even though the monsoon had taken our electricity and internet and phone lines, and the sea crashed at our doorstep every night. A man stood in a raincoat knocking at my door at 10pm, saying he loved me and can you please come to Palolem in December. I broke poor Jailesh’s heart without him being ever able to understand why. We packed up the next morning, waited for the rain to subside before braving the journey out of Palolem and into Canacona. Even within the comforts of my air-conditioned sleeper bus to Bangalore, water went drip drip drip on my face, and unlike more natural elements, a broken air-conditioner right above me is more predictable than I’d like.

    Ask me again in a year, or three, or five, and I don’t think I’d be able to explain how I got myself to Bangladesh just one month after suffering from a faulty air-conditioning unit somewhere between Goa and Karnataka. Dhaka, Sirajganj, Syedpur, Rangpur, Bogra. What I really want to know is why in the year of 2006, every restaurant costing more than a hundred Taka had simultaneously decided to call themselves “Armani Restaurant”. No matter what anybody tells you, remember that Armani Restaurant in Dhaka, and Armani Restaurant in the Hotel Anik (Residential) Sirajganj, and the Armani Restaurant on the national highway to Syedpur, and the Armani Restaurant in Rangpur, are all uniformly bad. Even if an organization hands you an open tab for food and drink and rest, steer clear of the Armani restaurants that every man and his brother-in-law’s-cousin-in-law-owns.

    I missed the monsoon in Bangladesh that year, but certainly had plenty of flood victims to interview. One week I was sitting in an upazilla health complex between a man and his last toe (severe, untreated multi bacillary leprosy), the next week I found my monsoon in a mad taxi ride from Shillong to Cherrapunjee. Pulling closer and closer into where I was going to stay the night, strange romantic signs painted on the rocks before me began to appear. I will hold your hand in the rain, one went. I remember thinking: great, if only I had a hand to hold out here, and could do so without being blown away to Sylhet by this rain. Sohra, Cherra, Churra, Cherrapunjee. Sohra charmed me out of my raincoat, amusing itself with my feeble attempts at their language. I think it rained in Cherrapunjee every time the worst Khasi speaker in the world said ai sha dut laitilli, called someone khong, asked her for doh terkhong, and said kyublei.

    But it didn’t rain quite as much as I needed it to. The morning I left Sohra, as I sped from Shillong to Guwahati to Calcutta and Bangkok, I think it began to pour, and I’m never going to be able to eloquently describe what it’s like living in a Victorian governor’s house suspended between one thunderstorm and another, the precise moment before the rain begins, how the clash of light dances across my front door and across my fireplace. How your conception of the basics: as basic as love, and what you feel about rain, can be changed by experiencing the wondrous rain in the monsoon in the world’s rainiest place.

  • Sudder Street

    Reposting stuff I like from the archives. This is from 2007.

    At the stroke of eight each morning, I awoke. All my days in India have always had purpose, and it was especially purposeful in Calcutta, my crazy, lovely, chaotic, I hate you I love you Calcutta. This was a luxurious hole in the wall, 400 rupee a night room — a fortune. One could live on 400 rupees (S$13, US$9) for two days, but we blew it on a room with two beds, 24 hour hot water and electricity, items of much greater fortune. My purpose that morning was to get my eyebrows threaded in the neighbourhood beauty salon (oddly enough run by fourth generation Chinese immigrants who look like they could be my aunts, but speak only Bengali and Hindi now), queue up at the Bangladeshi High Commission for my visa, and zip over to Apple and Canon’s little hole in the wall offices to have our equipment returned.

    I opened my door and closed it immediately, an act which had come to become a signal to The Boy. All over the subcontinent, establishments of all shapes and sizes from the 400 rupee “luxury” of Sudder Street (like the one we were in), to 15000 rupees a night Park/ Taj/ Oberoi hotel rooms, The Boy, one of the several members of the entourage which you will deal with each day (The Boy, the bearer, the sweeper, the caretaker) is one of those inevitable legacies which outlasted the British Empire. The memsahib this time was not a colonial wife or daughter, but a scruffy yellow woman always dressed in tie-dye pants and a shirt which said “Om”. The moment the signal came, the boy would come to my door, and bring me a tray of coffee and tea, on the house. The boy in question here was about 25 (much younger than the Boy in Planter’s Club, Darjeeling, who was about 90).

    As a veteran, one occupies your own space in the ecosystem of Sudder Street. Or perhaps an ecosystem forms around you. I had been to Sudder Street four times in two years, and was slowly settling. Before long I graduated from the fearful Oriental who scuttled away when approached by drug pushers, semi-giggling and blushing, to the old India hand who had the entourage of neighbours to meet and greet. There was the Spanish group, who huddled together eating omelettes. They all looked bronzed and supremely attractive. The French-speaking always occupied the same table at the Blue Sky. The Americans and the Britons were buried in their Lonely Planet India, a tome thicker than the Mormon Bible and in a sickening shade of blue, perhaps as homage to the pop-art kitsch Krishna on its cover. Everyone, regardless of where we came from originally, said “namaste” when greeting each other, “dhanyabad” in gratitude, subconsciously complementing these with that Indian head wiggle and punctuating our sentences with “accha” and “baba”. Everyone was either a volunteer at the Mother Teresa home, or was travelling for a year, or both.

    A man walked up and down Sudder Street every afternoon and night, with a bag full of wooden flutes, looking so comical that you could make a Bengali arthouse movie (pop trivia: Bombay’s Hindi-language Bollywood is crass, commercial and popular; Calcutta’s Bengali movies are arthouse, obscure, and difficult but beautiful) starring him, the Piped Piper of Sudder Street. He would be leading a pack of backpackers and volunteers, playing his own wooden flute to classical Bengali songs. He was friends with the fruit seller, the man who stood outside the phone booth with a push cart hawking the best of Bengal. The fruit seller’s sister was a homeless 21 year old woman-child with a beautiful baby, and when we met we couldn’t stop talking. Each time I planned to meet friends at the Lindsay Hotel’s rooftop restaurant for dinner, I had to leave my room 2 hours earlier, because I inevitably ended up in her living room — on the sidewalk where she lived with her baby, just opposite the Blue Sky cafe. Tomorrow, she will sneak into a train on unreserved class with her baby, to go home to her parents for the festivities. If a train conductor catches her, she might give him half of her money — 10 rupees (S$0.35, US$0.22), but either way standing all the way to the station at her village.

    After speaking to her, I might nip across into Blue Sky for a quick apple juice. The boys from Sikkim, Assam and Darjeeling who had to travel to Calcutta to sit for examinations or go through job interviews would hurry up to greet me in Sikkimese, Assamese, Nepali, Khasi, just because I was the only person in the room with the same skin colour. Embarrassed “Oh I thought you were from Sikkim/ Assam/ Darjeeling/ Meghalaya/ Mizoram/ Manipur” comments would be exchanged, then I might sit down with my apple juice to read all the Indian English newspapers available. The Occasional Orientals might drop by, sit at the next table, and gossip enthusiastically in that loud voice we love to speak in when we think nobody understands our language. I just keep very quiet, eavesdropping, wanting to hear what they might say of a place I hold dear to my heart, in a language only three people in the whole street understood. They’re usually terrified of Calcutta, terrified of India, and for a good reason — most people are. The world would be better off without hacks like us contributing further to its literature of chaos and its teeming humanity, so I won’t go into that; but if you love this place, you can be sure you’re very, very much in love.

    I’m not sure why I keep returning to Calcutta — in writing, and in person. Is it because it’s my first Indian city, and that I had spent a month living there in Narendrapur, a little hamlet in its suburbs, showering with hot water the cook had heated over a cooking cauldron, eating rice cooked in mustard oil with my fingers and drinking tea in alleys with no street lights for miles? That wherever I may be, College Street still cheers me up, and the Indian Coffee House still amazes me every time? That their beautiful, poetic language is what I’d heard someone I loved once speak daily for two years, and its food was what I discovered and fell for, the same time I fell for and discovered a great love? That many nights were spent here in cheap hotel rooms, with Bob Dylan and the Arcade Fire for company, writing, and writing, writing some more and editing our photographs for print? I may never know.

    I opened my door and closed it — but no Boy came to my room with a tray of coffee or tea. I walked a distance to get to my neighbourhood Bengali restaurant, but its cardamom tea, its katti kebab, its Kolkata briyani, was a sham. I’d come so far to see you, and you welcome me with acid rain, endless electricity shut downs, and drug pushers on my beloved Sudder Street. Like the great love I can’t explain — so I can’t explain you away. All I know is how here, more than any place else in the world, more than even my home in Singapore, is where I have loved, and loved, and fallen out of love, but like a reliable lover Calcutta never fails to cheer me up, even long after I’ve gone.

  • Hungry Asian Woman On The Road

    Reposting stuff from the past. This one's from 2007.

    I’m a horrendously bad sightseer and tourist, that much is true. You have no idea how bad I am. I almost never manage to visit any of the attractions of the city — unless they’re glaringly obvious and utterly compelling, like, say, the Taj Mahal — other than that, I really should take a keener interest in museums and palaces and memorials. Somehow the idea of traipsing along with my nose in the Lonely Planet, paying a camera fee for each of my cameras and an inflated foreigner’s admission fee, visiting places where my pictures will inevitably turn out with the ubiquitous Korean or Japanese or American tourist with a sun hat and sunburnt skin in the corner, doesn’t cut it for me anymore. At home my idea of torture was to be taken to Sentosa or the bird park, so why should it be any different abroad?

    Before I’m flayed alive, in my defence I have a convincing excuse: I know exactly why I travel. It’s not to have the best shopping deals in the developing world, neither is it to rough it out or live it up in the cheapest manner possible. All of those are byproducts of my greater task — to eat.

    I love food with an extraordinary passion only an Asian can understand. You’d expect it to be so if my entire life revolves around it: have you eaten? is an acceptable, indeed the predominant method of greeting. It doesn’t matter if you’ve truly eaten. Just bloody say you have. After all, nobody ever says, “oh, terrible”, in response to “how’s it going?” As a family, in our personal capacities and in all of our social settings, the extent to which we’d go for a good meal is mind boggling to the uninitiated. Think of me — and my family — as an extreme version of Asians who love to eat; it’s not just the good meal we’re after these days, it’s the mind blowing meal that drives us further and further in search of it. All those stories you hear about crossing the Causeway to eat a specific dish for lunch, and flying around Asia to satisfy a craving for roast meats or herbal soups? They were probably talking about us! My English friends were shocked to hear about that. To their mind, it was as unfathomable for someone to be so obsessed with eating, as it was for that person to remain skinny, as it was for there to be more than one such person, or to even have a family full of such people. They couldn’t even fathom the idea of going to France for a good meal over a weekend. Now, if France was as close to me as it is to England — I’d be there to eat up a storm by now!

    Backpacking brings out the best and worst of national stereotypes. We inevitably end up banding with the Australians or Dutch or British or Canadian backpackers we meet along the way, and fall into that “doing stuff together” routine. I’d participate intently, in all the most important initiations this temporary alliance brings — especially in that inescapable discussion always taking place five minutes after meeting each other, the one about our bowel activities (“So I got diarrhea in Benares! It was really bad, out flat you know, 7 days.” “You were lucky 7 days was all you got. When I was in Dharamsala..”). Yet when it comes to sightseeing, I’m out of the picture. Minor temple? Palace? Sorry man I’ll see you later — I’ll be at a restaurant. In fact I’ll be at five restaurants today for pre-lunch, lunch, post-lunch, and tea. And I’m not exaggerating. My itinerary is vastly different, yet you can’t call it inferior. It depends on what you’re after, I suppose. I’m after a good meal, or two, or three or four, as I am with every meal I eat back home.

    Abroad, my sense of purpose becomes amplified; you could think of me as a younger, poorer, less famous, Asian version of Anthony Bourdain on a Cook’s Tour. My segment would be called A Hungry Asian Woman’s Tour (notice the clever and subtle turn away from “cook”). Aided by spectacular research and some insider information, nothing can faze me. I have had life-changing experiences eating at culinary institutions of each city, such as Bangalore’s Mavalli Tiffin Room. I have traversed the lengths and widths of Thailand and Laos in search of the somtam (papaya salad) fiery enough to put a fire on my tongue and to turn me purple. I’ve developed an unfortunate omnipotent immunity to spice, such that I barely feel a chilli buzz anymore, and that depresses me. Like an addict with eyes glazed over, I’m indignant to find my chilli high. All the food in India and Bangladesh was not spicy enough either. Time after time locals advised, challenged, and urged: what you are about to eat is deadly spicy. I eat. They watch for a reaction. There’s none, just disappointment on my part that if Indian food is not spicy these days, and that I’m blasé about a supposedly terrible tomyam or somtam which has driven my Thai and non-Thai companions to the point of almost pointing fire extinguishers into their mouths, maybe I’ll never find food spicy enough for me.

    After a certain amount of travelling in a certain area, you can’t help but feel fatigued by a certain sort of attraction a region has an abundance of. In Southeast Asia, it was wat-fatigue. In Europe, it was cathedral-fatigue. In Darjeeling and other Nepalese/Tibetan areas, I was ghompa-ed over. In Rajasthan, it was forts. Straight off the bus in Jodhpur, when the rickshaw-wallahs tripped over themselves thinking they could rip us off on a round trip to the fort, I turned it down flat. “No fort. You go Sardar Bazaar. Drop me East Gate. I go Shree Mishrilal. Drink best lassi in the world, accha baba!” I stayed in Jodhpur for 3 days, and made 6 stops at the lassi shop. We drank perhaps 5 servings of Mishrilal’s lassi each day, and brought 2 more back to the hotel. Then walked out of the bazaar to Shahi Samosas, best in Rajasthan, 4 rupees (S$0.14) for one, and before they were consumed we’d hail another rickshaw-wallah. “High Court Road, Paraswanath Khulfi”, for the most amazing khulfi (ice cream) you can have for 20 rupees. We never made it to the fort, but we certainly ate a lot.

    It’s not all gluttony, but a firm belief that if you want to know Asia — know what Asia eats. Best if dietary restrictions can be put aside temporarily, because to be vegetarian in Southeast Asia is pure torture. Eat everything once, and forget about your developed world idea of hygiene. Sit out by the streets, and bloody eat. See if you don’t have an epiphany. If I get diarrhea, I first think: was it from a good meal, or from a crap one? If it was good, I would probably excuse the cook for the murder of my loved one, and diarrhea’s just the unfortunate side effect so will you give me one more plate, please. So at soi Texas, Yaowarat (Bangkok), we found Lek Seafood in 1 minute, consulted the menu and decided on items for 4 people within 10 minutes, the food came in 3 minutes and we fell silent, deliberating upon the most fantastic crabs, mussels and prawns that S$6 per person can buy. The food was gone in 10 minutes, in the most silent meal ever, as each person had a quiet revelation about why we were there. In Luang Prabang we eschewed the mediocre restaurants on the main strip (where each item in every restaurant was at least US$5), tired of the renditions of Western food and mediocre versions of local food costing an arm and a leg. Stumbling into an alleyway for US$0.50 per person you can have a vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet plate in a corner shack; forging on, since vegetarian does not cut it for me, we settled on excellent feu ga (pho ga, chicken noodle soup). We doused it in fish sauce, decorated it with lime and small cut chillis, bought a whole fish and chicken from the shop next door, a big bottle of Beer Lao, and what an inspiring meal it made — sweating in a little noodle soup stall in a local market in 16 degree Luang Prabang.

    Food Street (Bangalore), Lindsay Street (Kolkata), Ari (Bangkok), Petaling Jaya (Malaysia); the places I ate the best are the places I was happiest in. In a tiny shop in dusty Syedpur, Bangladesh, nobody spoke a word of English and I didn’t know what I was eating. But boy, the “cow”, “chicken”, “fish” (fascinating, the choice of vocabulary I learn when learning a new language) they fed me turned me into an instant convert in the school of Eating With Only Your Right Hand. In a family’s dining room in Mawmluh village, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya (Northeast India), a family watched me engrossed in eating rice with fermented bean and beef and stewed pork, eating raw little chillis to go with my food (it’s a custom). Aoky’s mother thought I was so truly into Khasi culture and food that she believed I would have no problem chewing 2 betel nuts too. It was on that part that I faltered, though I’m sure if betel nuts tasted better, I’d be all over them too.

    Now I’m hungry again.

You can also read by tags.