Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Firmly On the Beaten Path in New Delhi

A stop at the ultra-Western restaurant and bar Q'BA (kuba) brings this author face to face with the reality of a rapidly emerging middle class in India, and an unexpected understanding of a country on a cultural cusp.

When I shot the Indian episodes of The Peregrine Dame in 2008, I hadn't really planned to cover New Delhi. The plan was to head into the Himalayan hills and spend most of the tape on a Hindu ashram near Dwarahat making a pilgrimage to a Yogi's cave in the middle of nowhere. I ended up filming just enough of the city to cobble an episode or two together, and then most of it was just a bitch-fest.

I had been in relatively poor countries before. But I was utterly unprepared for the poverty in the large cities in India. The filth, the stench, the endless peddlers, shopkeepers, and beggars made my head swim.

I had no idea of the corruption running through most levels of government there and wondered why dozens of seemingly able-bodied men sat idly on curbs all day long without jobs. I had never seen that kind of over-population before; nor did I understand the consequences of it.

Before India I thought I was an accepting, understanding human being. Being there brought me squarely around to my own ethnocentric, arrogant reflection in the mirror.

But just as startling and perhaps equally big an eye-opener, was the juxtaposition of this mash of abject poverty and misery against the hyper-Westernized culture that has permeated the subcontinent for decades and that young Indians have embraced with such enthusiasm that a few places made me feel as if I was right back at home in Los Angeles. After all, the nightclub in the Marriott charged $25 a head to get in, with an endless line of well-heeled Indians handing over the rupees as if they were pieces of tissue paper. I don't even pay that in L.A. to get into a club.

The evidence of British systems of government and education are apparent everywhere. English is the official language of the Indian government to this day. Many city-dwellers, especially the younger ones, speak at least two languages, English with an Indo-British accent being one.

So I don't know why I was taken so off guard when I walked into Q'BA.

I had been invited there by a guy about my age that I'd run into a couple of times around the area my hotel was in (I'm not sure I wasn't being stalked).

I wandered around Caughnaught Place, the main tourist hub that's also popular with New Delhi Yuppies, for 20 minutes searching in vain for a place called Cuba. Finally seeing the sign at the entrance - which I'd walked past twice - was a real head smacking moment.

The boy, a drop-dead gorgeous 20-something sophisticate who spoke perfect English, wore only designer labels, and drove a Mercedes had been educated in Europe and now worked for his father in some family business or other. I don't know, it was hard to pay attention to what he said when I just wanted to stare at his face.

Although even that was hard when I was completely distracted by the fact that Q'BA was an entire hemisphere away from life outside.


I finally realized that this was what modern India was. An unapologetic sprint into the 21st Century; poverty be damned.

The patrons in this chic fusion restaurant and bar had money. A few blocks away were streets made of mud with cattle lying all over the place, open sewers, and people living in things that didn't even qualify as shacks. Here the sleek business set sipped happy hour drinks in three piece suits next to the Anglo tourists who came in because they found out the place was air-conditioned. It was lounge-y in the evening. At night, there was live music of all genres and the tragically hip got even hipper.

I was ambivalent. On the one hand I felt at home because, well, it felt like home. Paying $10 for a glass of wine in L.A. is just a matter of course (but here?).

On the other hand, I felt slightly guilty for being one of those Anglos who clearly wasn't hearty enough to take the extreme heat, humidity, and harassment out in the markets in stride. We slunk in with sheepish grins and melted onto the bar. I also felt guilty for stopping to enjoy myself for a second given the state of humanity right outside the door. But it didn't seem to bother the Yuppies, so, when in Rome . . . .



It was here I had one of the most profound conversations with anyone in India. Not the beautiful boy, but one of the waiters. He was in his mid-20s and had a good job. He was single and told me he wanted to be able to travel like I was sometime in his life. When I asked what was stopping him, he said his sister was.

I assumed something was wrong with her, and he had to physically care for her or support her. He explained that he had to take care of her, but not in the way I was thinking.

"She's not married," he said. "I have to take care of her for my parents because she's not married and they won't let me leave until she is."

He went on to tell me she was around his age, also had a good job, and was independent, by Indian standards. But it made no difference to his parents whether she could take care of herself or not. A male had to be around to look after her. If not a husband, then a brother.

This single moment finally made me understand why scores of young, well-educated Indians were lining up to shell out thousands of rupees to get into clubs in miniskirts and stilettos. At the risk of over-simplifying, it's their only outlet. A whole generation finally has the means and the knowledge that their parents never had to get out and travel and have their own experiences, but are still beholden to the traditions of a very strict social system. As Westernized as some aspects of Indian society have become, there is still what I would consider a stifling set of social rules that most still feel obliged to follow.

The ones like my date were the very fortunate. If we think the chasm between the truly rich and the very poor is a wide one in America, we ain't seen nothing yet. Now, in India the middle class is emerging so rapidly between the rich and the poor that it makes post WWII America look like the Bronze Age in terms of growth. And although India isn't the only country with deep cultural roots that puts immense emphasis on taking care of family - even being obligated to take care of family - it is one of the places that the traditions of the East and the culture of the West clash and at the same time fuse in such an amazing way that it just has to be experienced first hand.

There is beauty there, although you have to see it in and through the extremes of the two worlds, but the people are generally kind and warm and it's definitely worth watching to see where they'll go from here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Surry Hills Shuffle in Sydney

It’s cold in Los Angeles (by our standards), and it’s been wet (by anyone’s, almost). So I’ve been dreaming of the Southern Hemisphere lately. Knowing that it’s warm and sunny somewhere makes me, well, it makes me seethe with jealousy, mostly. 

So in honor of envious thoughts of the sun, here’s an afternoon walking itinerary for foodies in Sydney that wasn’t featured in the Australian episodes of TPD. But it was tried and tested by yours truly.

The Surry Hills Shuffle

Surry Hills is an eclectic, alternative, hipster mish-mash of a neighborhood nestled against the west side of Moore Park on the south end of the city center of Sydney. It’s within walking distance of the perfectly priced Y Hotel that I stayed in while shooting. Its closest subway stop is Central, if you’re on public transit.

Make your way to Crown Street, and start with lunch at the Clock Hotel (it’s not actually a hotel anymore).





With a menu that would make most head chefs at American gastro pubs sprint back to their drawing boards – try the Moroccan lamb, roast onion, pumpkin & tzatziki pizza on for size if you don’t believe me -  The Clock is a sleek, but unpretentious locals' hang out that still attracts customers from all over Sydney for its inventive food and laid back vibe. 

The staff is attentive and friendly and the almost exclusively Australian wine list is ample if you’re not going to get to wine country in person.

If you’re back in the area at night, the place jumps with three bars to choose from: the pool bar, the balcony bar, or the pub’s nighttime alter ego, the street bar.

The Clock Hotel
470 Crown Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010

A block north of The Clock is Sparkle Cupcakery. Although I know that the gourmet cupcake fad is several years past its due date, I still love cake. And the crew at Sparkle knows their stuff.

They offer a dozen flavors daily, from the exotic Oriental Flower which is lychee and rose cake with sweet rose petal topping to the mundane but perfect Milk Chocolate. And with names like Afternoon Delight, who wouldn’t want a taste?

Sparkle Cupcakery
132A Foveaux Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010

If you need a chance to fight off the diabetic coma your cupcake is trying to send you into walk a couple of blocks to the east on Foveaux Street and enter Moore Park for a rest in the sun and a chance to recharge. Whether you have anymore afternoon delight is up to you.

Newly refreshed, head back to Crown Street and wander north from Sparkle to the corner of Crown and Golburn Streets. You’ll find Café Lounge there to finish out your day.




A cocktail bar, restaurant, live music venue and performance space all wrapped up into one, you can find nearly anything to watch or listen to here. There’s a space for live comedy, one for live music and one for DJs. 

Simply flop on a squishy couch and get to know the stranger beside you, or dance your tuchas off (or both). Either way, you win. The crowd looks like Mardi Gras, an LGBT convention and the entire decade of the 1950s got thrown into a blender, and it’s one of the best times in the neighborhood.

Café Lounge
277 Goulburn Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
www.cafelounge.com.au


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Budget cuts are slashing college schedules and forcing students to miss classes, but there’s a better learning experience to be had


The Israeli security agent in front of me is not happy. He can’t understand why I’m traveling alone, halfway around the world from my home.

My U.S. passport has already been taken to another room, and two people have politely, but soberly, questioned me. I’m held so long my driver has sent another airport employee to find me. I later find out that Israeli security is suspicious of anyone coming into Israel, via Ben Gurion International Airport, alone; regardless of which passport you’re carrying.

This single experience taught me more about international policy, security, and culture than any class I’ve ever taken in school. It was a course in social anthropology as it relates to (a very touchy) sovereign country’s safety, smashed into one afternoon.

India taught me patience as I struggled to grasp the realities of over population and poverty mixed with incredible beauty. For example, it’s not looked upon as rude to cut to the front of any line there; it’s simply a survival tactic.

Italy taught me to calm down and not stress when I miss a train; there’s always another. Which came in handy years later when I missed my Eurostar from London to Paris.

Fiji taught me to slow down, period.

As entire college sessions are being scaled back or cancelled altogether, there is one alternative to traditional classroom learning that will pack more knowledge into your brain in a given amount time than slogging through that non-existent summer session would have anyway: travel.

Not the study-abroad type of student travel, where you’re still in a scholastic environment and herded through weekend day trips in groups, but the get-out-of-your-element and expand-your-horizons sort of travel.

Don’t worry; it’s not all interrogations all the time. It is, however, the best way to continue your education when you can’t be in school. You’ll learn more about yourself through the cultures you visit than you might while sitting in that classroom.

Before you start arguing that it costs too much for a college student to travel to Louisiana, let alone internationally, just hear me out. Yes, you have to be choosey about destinations, but it’s not as costly as you think and there are arguably more resources out there for student travelers than there are for everyone else. 

Using these resources, it’s perfectly possible to travel internationally for less than the price of a semester at school.

Here’s how it breaks down: let’s assume that you take a full load, 12 units. That’s $432 in tuition. You have to buy four textbooks at roughly $125 per book. Add $20 for a parking pass. That’s $952. And that doesn’t account for all of the incidentals you buy over the course of a semester.

Since you have a small budget, you decide to stay in the neighborhood (meaning the Americas), and choose Costa Rica. A flight into San Jose booked through STA Travel, the go-to company for booking student travel, will cost $553.17, round-trip in June. While you’re on their website, you can also arrange for a global cell phone, travel insurance, online visa applications, and any other of their 1,500 services tailored specifically to students on a budget. www.statravel.com

Budget after airfare: $398.83

Now that you’ve arrived, you transfer to the Pacific side of the country to lie on the beach in Tamarindo. A shuttle will get you there for $59 per person. It’ll take four hours. Book through Liberia Costa Rica Info. www.liberiacostaricainfo.com

Budget after transfers (round-trip): $280.83

As for a place to lay your weary head, you have two alternatives for very inexpensive accommodations all over Costa Rica: hostels or couch surfing.

Notwithstanding the serious aversion Americans have to sharing space with strangers, and the horror movies about how wrong staying in a hostel can go, it’s a fantastic option for people on a budget. You have the chance to make new friends from all over the world, as well as the country you’re visiting.

I once stayed in a hostel that was a renovated 13th century castle in Tuscany, and had the distinct pleasure of getting to know two crazy Australians, who insisted on bartending in our dorm most evenings, in Rome, through hostelling.

If you do chose to stay in a hostel, they start at around $10 a night for a dorm bed in Tamarindo. So if your stay is 10 nights long, there’s another $100 out of our budget. www.hostelworld.com is a very reputable site for - you guessed it - hostels all over the world.

Budget after hostel: $180.83

But if you’re more daring and aren’t afraid to really get to know people, you can arrange a stay in someone’s home through www.couchsurfing.com. The subscriber-based website provides a forum for like-minded travel junkies to connect worldwide with a system for screening and vetting each other. You see who’s available in the area you want, find out if they happen to be home when you’ll be there, and voila, you have a built in local guide who is usually more than eager to show you around their city. Then, you stay for free. Free is good.

Budget after couch surfing: $280.83 (give or take what you contribute to help keep the kitchen stocked).

That’s also the beauty of couch surfing; you hang with locals, and therefore eat like one, which means spending less on food than you otherwise would.

If you spend your $280.83 over 10 days, you have roughly $28 per day to spend on food and local transportation. I’ve traveled Europe on $30 a day, so rest assured, it can be done in a country whose exchange rate is currently 510.70 Costa Rica Colons to the U.S. Dollar. Stick with the locals, and you’ll have money left over.

If, on the other hand, you want to spend three times as much as the cost of this itinerary, there are ways to do it.

There are study abroad sessions coming next summer for community college students in my area in France and Spain. Each starts in the $3,000 range, which doesn’t include airfare, although this does include the price of tuition for the courses. More than likely, STA Travel is the company you’d book through.

I’m not knocking study abroad programs. I’m simply advocating truly getting to know yourself through the bare-knuckle experience of traveling either alone or with one or two friends into a culture where you are completely out of your element.

The world is the best classroom you’ll ever have, and if you can’t get those remedial courses in due to deep cuts in education funding, you might as well get out and learn on the road.

Be culturally sensitive, and people will reach out to you in ways you can’t imagine. We all have a desire to teach others about what our respective worlds are like. If you’re willing to learn, you’ll realize that we’re all much more alike than we are different.

You can view The Peregrine Dame episodes from Israel, India and Italy at www.theperegrinedame.com