Saturday, October 20, 2012

Running in Bangalore

About three years ago I realized that I was getting really unhealthy and overweight, and knew that action really needed to be taken. One of my neighbors used to be in the Army and had done tons of running but hadn't run in ages and was really missing it. So one slightly drunken evening we decided that we would try learning to run and see how we got on. The following morning we just about managed half a mile, but through perseverance, going out three or four mornings a week and gradually increasing our distance, we began to feel that we were OK at it. I had another friend who ran longer distances, and he encouraged me to run with him at weekends. The first time I ran five miles it felt like something of a miracle, but I found that it was easier than I expected, and also a lot more fun, especially running round the beautiful lakes of Minneapolis. After a couple of years of this I would wake up in the morning ready to go, and was in probably the best shape I've ever been in - I could do 10-15 miles without a ton of effort and it was really enjoyable, and lost about 25 pounds without having to cut back on what I was eating or drinking.

When we moved to Bangalore I unfortunately stopped running regularly. I was getting used to the overall upheaval of moving, and also getting used to the different work and life schedule, where I'd be up at 6:45 to get the kids ready for school, but work till 6 and then have several evening calls a night. I was so wiped out that I felt I had no energy for exercise, and whenever I did (rarely) try to go running it was way harder than I remembered and therefore really demoralizing. Part of the reason it's harder to run here is that there's a lot more pollution and we're at 3,000 feet, so just getting breath is harder than the clear, sea-level air I was used to. The other reason is that I totally love Indian food and was ballooning - I put on over 15 pounds - so it was much more effort to get myself moving.

Once again friends came to the rescue - a couple of guys here were feeling the same way and wanted some encouragement to get running, so we arranged to start going three mornings a week. We live in a gated community where it's nice and safe to run - clean, well-maintained roads, quiet traffic and no wild dogs - but we thought it would be more fun and interesting to run outside along the local roads. It was a bit daunting at first because of all the traffic (the sidewalks are too crumbly to run along without paying tons of attention so we have to run in the gutter of the road), plus the concern of getting lost, and of being attacked by dogs. There are loads of wild dogs in Bangalore and especially at night or early in the morning they can get pretty aggressive, especially towards runners or people on bikes. I know one guy who was biking and was chased down by a dog, which must have been really scary. When we're running and dogs start having a go at us, the best thing is to stop, face them and shout, or even pick up stones to throw at them - that usually does the trick. Also the local folks here are great about also shouting at the dogs, so although it's sometimes unnerving we haven't had any injuries. But anyway, the challenges are far outweighed by how fun it is to get out of our bubble of the gated community and to see "real" India. We run through villages and see the local people starting their days - lighting fires to cook breakfast, looking after their cows, goats or chickens, and generally living life. The houses are very small so a lot of life is out in the common space. We often get waved to by smiling kids, who love to shout hello and sometimes will run after us for a bit. Because we're on the eastern edge of the city, we're really close to fields and rural areas, and it's wonderful how quiet it gets as we run past rice paddies or banana fields. One of the guys is thinking of getting a small wearable video camera to record what we see as we're running. It's also made me much more confident about getting out and about and exploring the side streets more.

On the fitness side it feels like things are coming along pretty well now that I've been doing this for three months. Last month (with the aid of my Nike running watch) I saw that I'd run over 90 miles, and I'm on for beating that this month if I stick with it. I'm getting back to the point when I actively enjoy it again and often feel like I can just keep going for ages. A couple of weekends ago I did 8.5 miles on Saturday and 13 on Sunday - kind of exhausting but not killer. I've shifted a few pounds but still have another ten to go before I get closer to where I feel I should be. But overall it's been great to get moving again, and a fantastic way to enjoy India in a whole new way.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Doing Well by Doing Good

Toby has always been a caring little guy, he often asks about how he can help out and he always showed a big interest in my non-profit related work and our giving as a family. At the end of last school year we were going through his documents and we found a certificate of appreciation for his involvement in CAS - the school community action group. We had no idea that he had signed up for this and spent the whole year working with fellow students to raise awareness and solicit donations of time & treasure to support the community school and orphanage. Looking back we should have asked more about it when he did his speech about a donation drive, but we had assumed it was a classroom thing rather than extra-curricular. He got some lovely feedback on his end of year report and we were really inspired by the fact that he did this all on his own and never looked for recognition from us or others.

When school started in August I encouraged Toby to sign up for CAS again this year. His two best friends were no longer in India and I think that partly because of that, and also because there was a new teacher coordinating, he decided not to do it. Typical Toby style, I didn't find out about that until after a few weeks when I asked what they were up to. I didn't want to push it, but told him that I was surprised as he had enjoyed it so much last year and that at the very least he should go and meet the new teacher and find out more. The subject never came up again...

... until this past Tuesday when the following conversation happened about 7:00pm -
T: Mum
E: Yes
T: I need 50 cupcakes for a fundraiser at school on Thursday
E: Oh, where are you planning to get those? It is pretty late tonight and you have after school swimming tomorrow
T: Um... I thought you would make them for me... please?
E: I guess I can do that, a fundraiser?
T: yes
E: Fine - but you'll have to get on your scooter and head down to the shop for butter, eggs and some sugar
T: OK... Mum?.. thanks [hug]

There was, of course, no written notice about any of this in his school diary, so I resorted to Facebook to ask if any other Indus parents has been asked to magic up said cupcakes, or if it was merely a ploy to get better snacks. Somewhat unhelpfully I got no confirmation, but a lot of status likes.

So, Wednesday morning I get going and churn out 50 assorted cupcakes:
Photo: Toby's snack... choc with white choc and gems; choc with choc chips and lemon with gummi bears.

Small digression on the odd 5 chocolate ones. I made two sets of batter, one chocolate and one lemon. I glazed the lemon cupcakes with a lemon glaze and added gummi bears as they were all I had and I thought they would attract kids to buy the cake. The chocolate ones I did with a white chocolate frosting and gems, as I had some white choc left from Dara's birthday cake. Turns out, I was 5 cakes short with the frosting needed and was too lazy to manage another set of buttercream, so just semi-melted some choc chips and mixed with some icing sugar for an emergency glaze. Oh, and ways to annoy your housekeeper #457: spend all morning baking in the kitchen, make a huge mess and insist on cleaning it up yourself. At one point she was pulling my hands out the sink as I was trying to wash up a bowl...

When Toby staggers in after swimming at about 7:15 he goes straight to the kitchen to inspect the cakes. Over the evening meal we try to get more information. Turns out this is not a class thing, but a CAS project by a small group of 3rd, 4th & 5th graders.

E: I thought you decided not to do that this year
T: Well, I did what you said and I went to see the new teacher and I thought that she was very organized and would probably be a good coordinator and so I joined and the sale is what we are doing.
E: Oh, well that's good
T: yes, we had to see Miss Arpoorva (head of primary school) and tell her about our plan and she said it all sounded really good
E: are you only selling cakes?
T: No, mostly cakes, but one kid can make origami ninja stars and so he'll sell those for Rs5 and I think there are some pencils too. I'm bringing cupcakes and Shrikar is bringing brownies
E: I have not seen anything about the sale how are kids finding out?
T: oh, well we went to the computer place and asked the man there to design and print some posters and we have put them up around the school, and then some of us went to the middle school classrooms to make an announcement. The thing is it is at lunch and so I won't get to have a lunch break, but that's OK.

It was a two day sale and they had a goal of Rs 2000. Day 1 (cupcake day) they sold out of cakes in 15 minutes and made Rs 1958. Apparently the emergency choc glaze sold out first... typical..., and they pretended they were brownies as the actual brownies were forgotten at home. They said they just had low stock. (I got very careful feedback about the cakes. The choc white choc were very popular and tasty. Students thought the gummi bears were a nice touch on the lemon cakes, but that the glaze was not that tasty.) Day 2 went less well as there was ice cream for dessert at school so fewer kids looking for a tasty treat, but they still exceeded their goal.

Leadership is a core part of the curriculum at Toby's school - one of the reasons were are happy we chose it and we got a lovely email from Toby's class teacher:

I just wanted to let you know how proud I was of the way that Toby and his team conceptualised, planned and executed their fundraiser today. We do have some budding entrepreneurs in our midst! I would really like to help them develop these skills and look forward to working with them on this in the coming months. Many thanks to you as well for supporting them in their endeavour. Seeing their enthusiasm has inspired many other students in our class too. They are already discussing their ideas for taking action and some of their business plans have already come in. I am so looking forward to seeing them come to life. 

Toby is reluctant to take credit for leading it, he says that they really all did it together and that the 3rd grader was "really very helpful". Well, we love that our Toby is really very helpful - at least some of the time.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thinking Ahead

There's an interesting relationship here between a driver and the people he drives around. On one hand the driver is really in charge when we're on the road - in theory he knows exactly where he's going and the ability to survive in Bangalore traffic is incredibly impressive. On the other hand it's not uncommon for drivers to be subservient to a fault.

Our driver, Mahesh, is quite young, in his mid-twenties, and he's a very nice chap and very capable driver. We really trust him, especially with the kids and our other valuables, and as a family we rely on him hugely - I'm not allowed to drive at all, so whenever we need to go somewhere we have to have him there. On the whole he's very capable indeed, but today he showed me that kind of subservient, eager to please attitude which can very easily make you crazy.

We have some friends from Minneapolis coming to visit in late July, they're flying in to northern India and will have a week or so there before coming down to Bangalore. I'm actually off to Minneapolis later this evening (early tomorrow morning - all the international flights leave overnight) and will be seeing them next weekend, so my friend asked if I could bring him over an Indian SIM card so that he can use his phone as soon as he arrives in India - great idea. I spoke to Mahesh about it yesterday, and it turned out that while you can buy SIM cards almost anywhere, you need several types of ID, most of which I don't have, so I asked him to get a pre-paid one in his name. Today while we were going into town he gave me the card, and said that it should work just fine in the phone - I asked a couple of times if I should just pop it in my phone and was told that it was all set. A friend of mine was in the car at the same time, and he asked what we would do when the phone company calls this week to verify the name and address associated with the SIM card. Apparently in India you can't just buy and then use a SIM card - there are various background checks, and if the phone company can't get hold of you to validate your details within a week they just switch the card off. I'm told that it's a security thing, but like lots of bureaucracy and supposed security checks in India, it ends up being incredibly annoying without actually providing any kind of improved security whatsoever.

Anyway, I asked Mahesh about this call from the phone company and he said "yes sir, they will call." I asked what the call would be, and he said "They will ask for my name and address which you should tell them [so I would have to pretend to be Mr. Mahesh] - I will give you my address sir." Aside from the unlikelihood of someone with my accent being called Mahesh, I had to point out to Mahesh that he knew that I would be out of the country for the next two weeks, seeing as he will be driving me to and from the airport, and how did he think that the phone company would be able to get hold of me? He didn't have an answer for this, so after a while he suggested giving me one of the SIM cards from his phone (which strangely has two SIM cards) and they could use his number. I guess that's the only way we can make it work, so now I have his SIM card and he has mine.

So we kind of have it worked out, but it is one of the facets of life here that when you are the "sir" there are a lot of people who want to say yes to you (like when you ask "do you know where such and such an address is?") but they actually have no idea of the answer; or tell you that they have fixed things when actually the things are not fixed. I totally get that Mahesh wanted to do the right thing and show me that he had gotten the SIM card, but if my friend hadn't been there to ask about a fairly crucial detail it would all have been a waste of time. It's one of the things about being a newcomer to a country that lots of little details aren't immediately obvious and navigating even basic things is tricky (the same thing happened when I moved to the US) but it would help if the people who are supposed to be helping me would give me the whole story without me having to keep asking questions or somehow stumble on a potential problem.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Chez Mariannick

One of our favorite restaurants here is fortunately quite close to where we live so on a Friday evening we don't have to face tons of traffic to get there, or we can take a 20 minute walk. It's called Chez Mariannick, and is a place with so much unique atmosphere I had to post about it.

It was created and is owned by a lovely couple, Shashi and Mariannick - he's from London and she is from France. My understanding is that they built the place themselves, it's basically in a field off the main road, and it has a lovely rustic feel to it. The centerpiece is the amazing brick ovens, where they make bread, quiches, desserts and some of the best pizza I've ever had. During the week they're open for lunch and dinner and serve all those goodies - they even deliver croissants and other things to local residents:

Making pizza

Cleaning the oven

The patisserie case
On Friday and Saturday nights they also make amazing crepes, so that's when we love to go. It's such a great way to wind down after a busy week. As soon as you arrive (after an effusive welcome from Shashi) you get fresh bread and huge bowls of salad with the excellent French vinaigrette.

Bread and salad

My favorite crepe, La Dijonnaise. Cream, mustard, chicken and mushrooms

Thumb of approval from Toby

Dara prefers a plain buckwheat crepe

The main course pancakes are made from buckwheat flour. Apparently they had some trouble sourcing the right kind of flour at first, but now the quality of the crepes is consistently excellent. The dessert pancakes are to die for:

Peaches and cream crepe

La Belle Helene: pears, chocolate and cream

Look at the amazing texture on the edge of that crepe! Yum. 

They also have a really nice outdoor section with granite tables and benches, and a cool climbing fort for the kids. Toby and Dara always make new friends when we're there. 

Outside the restaurant

Shashi and Mariannick

We've taken a lot of visitors to the place, and if you're in town I highly recommend a visit.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Stormy Weather

We got back from Singapore to a huge storm. Fortunately the plane landed before it got bad, but as we were waiting for our driver at the airport the power in the terminal went out, and we could see loads of lightning flashes in the sky. While we were in Singapore there were quite a few storms, it being a rainforest and all, but everyone took it in their stride - no power cuts, and while people drove a little slower, the traffic still moved calmly and efficiently. Not the case, of course, in Bangalore.

On the drive home a lot of the roads were flooded. We're fortunate we don't have to ride in a rickshaw or on a bike - they must have been totally soaked. Within five minutes of getting home the power went out. We actually have two circuits in the house - one for low-energy appliances like lights, ceiling fans, the fridge and regular power outlets; another for high-energy like the kettle and kitchen appliances and the hot water heaters and air conditioners. The lights etc came on pretty quickly but the high-energy power stayed off until late in the morning so it was a cold shower for me before work in the morning.

Mahesh, our driver, was very late to pick me up in the morning - loads of underpasses on the main road from his house were really flooded so the traffic was terrible for him and on the drive to and from work. The power has been shaky for the last couple of days - we did get high-energy last night but it's been on and off all day so we had to have unheated lasagna for dinner. It was tasty enough but would have been better warm.

The other aspect of the rain starting has been the wildlife. We made the mistake of leaving the porch light on last night and this morning the porch was totally covered in dead beetles and flying ant things - apparently they hatch like crazy when the weather gets like this. It's a bit strange to see so many discarded shells and wings all over the place when you leave the house in the morning.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Neither Emma nor I have written anything for the blog in ages. I knew from various friends who have done the expat life in Bangalore before that after a few months it's just kind of life, and you stop noticing all the differences from your home country, like the traffic, the trash, the sights and sounds etc. Actually you do still notice the traffic and trash, but it becomes redundant writing about it all the time. It's just home and where we live and work. The kids are still really enjoying school and we're very happy with it, my work is going really well (although it's pretty exhausting, especially with the arduous commute on each end of each day) and Emma's going great with friends and exploring the city.

What's possibly more interesting is that we're starting to explore this side of the globe a bit more. We really enjoyed our week in Sri Lanka, and we're planning to go back again sometime, maybe to the south of the island. A few weeks ago we went for a long weekend in Goa which was wonderful. We stayed at the Park Hyatt Resort, and ended up not even leaving the resort the whole time. This was partly because we so enjoyed not having to drive anywhere, but also because the resort and its beach were so wonderful - great food and services too. Also it was really hot for exploring - we're thinking of going back sometime when it's cooler to take a look at the old city - when we got too hot we just jumped in the ocean, which was loads of fun.

This weekend we're taking advantage of the May Day holiday to do a weekend break in Singapore. It's somewhere I've wanted to go for ages, and it's a wonderful change from the chaos of Bangalore. Everything is incredibly clean and it all just works efficiently. The traffic is busy but everything runs smoothly and calmly - we've only heard one car horn in the four days we've been here. The sidewalks are also clean and despite the heat and humidity it's really pleasant to walk around (compared with Bangalore where the sidewalks are strewn with trash and there are often whole paving stones missing, resulting in a hole through to the drainage ditch below. A few weeks ago I saw a sidewalk in downtown where the trash under the paving had actually caught fire, resulting in four foot high flames coming out of the paving, which everyone just seemed to ignore). There are high rises and malls all over the place, all of which are clean, have nice public restrooms, and loads of food and coffee places. We've had Starbucks for breakfast each day - it may not be the absolute best coffee in the world, but when you don't have anything close in the country you live in, you do miss it. The food's been really good and it's nice to be able to have salads and drinks with ice and not be worried about food poisoning! 

View of Singapore from the top of the Marina Bay Sands
Enjoying a drink 57 floors up

Which brings us to the only downsides of this trip. Firstly the cost. Singapore is insanely expensive. For example at Starbucks for Emma and me to have coffee, the kids to have hot chocolates and us all to have a muffin or bagel, it comes to almost $40. But this is a bargain compared to the breakfast at the hotel, which would run to over $33 each. A beer at most places is about $15, and although the malls are excellent all the clothes are super-expensive too. Today we went to Sentosa Island, which is a big resort location, and each attraction was about $120 for the four of us. We did get a reasonably good deal which included the aquarium, butterfly and insect park, and ten minutes of fish spa, where they have the little fish who nibble at your feet. 

Birds at Sentosa Island

I'd never done it before and it was really fun. By the time we got to Universal Studios and saw that it would have been $250 we decided enough was enough, so we're having some downtime in the hotel before we go out for dinner later. However we have seen some cool stuff. The zoo was excellent - we made it there in time for their special breakfast with the orang utans, then had almost the whole day trekking around and got loads of photos of all the tropical animals. 

Having a snack

Blending in

Having a swing

We also did a bus and river tour of the city and got to see how it all fits together, and enjoy different foods. There's a food court near our hotel in the Marina Bay Sands Mall which has food outlets from all over easter Asia, so Toby had Chinese fried rice, Emma had Vietnamese noodle salad, Dara had freshly made udon noodles, and I had Hong Kong roasted duck and pork noodles.

Fresh ramen noodles

Hong Kong roast deliciousness

Frog leg porridge?

Yesterday we made the most of the British influence and had delicious fish and chips along with a couple of pints at a quayside cafe. 

River tour


Fish and chips!

The other downside is something we experience each time we return from a trip. We do really like living in Bangalore - we've made good friends and there are a ton of positives to being there. But the place is so frustratingly chaotic that it takes a few days to readjust to the noise, traffic and dirt. Hope it's not too rough a re-entry this time.

St. Andrew's Cathedral

Buddha's tooth temple

Anyway it's been a really nice break. We're at the Conrad Centennial Hotel which is nice and central, easy to get on the bus tours, explore places and walk to the Raffles Hotel, where we stopped for a Singapore Sling a couple of days ago. A bit cliched I know, but you have to do these things. Emma actually got quite emotional about it - she said it was something she'd always wanted to do, but then spoiled the effect a bit by saying that it was like having KFC in Kentucky. 

Raffles Hotel

Singapore Sling

Raffles stairs

Singapore chocolate milk

The Conrad has also been great with the kids - they had a coloring activity pack in the room for Dara, as well as Dara-sized bathrobe and slippers. A couple of nights ago we got room service for the kids, which they thought was awesome.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Snow at last

I titled this blog because I was hoping to be able to do lots of gloating about the bad weather in Minneapolis compared with here. Unfortunately (for this goal at least) this winter has been really mild back home, especially compared with the crazy amounts of snow and cold we experienced last year. But finally today there's been a decent snowfall in Minneapolis, and at the same time it's 86F and sunny here.