Team fish

Stilt fishermen — guys perched high on poles in the ocean to get a better view of their prey — are one of the most iconic images associated with Sri Lanka. The men look striking, but the only problem is no one actually fishes that way any more. The island’s remaining “stilt fishermen”only scramble up the poles for tourists, then browbeat them into paying for any images they take. “The stilt fishermen nowadays are actors,” one Sri Lankan told us.

But men on Sri Lanka’s southern coastline do continue to fish in an ancient way that’s photogenic. Steve and I stumbled upon them on our walk shortly after dawn yesterday morning. The beach in front of our resort stretched farther than we could see and looked empty….…but we spotted a few fishing boats on the water……and then some guys in the distance, pulling a rope.The channel was too deep for us to wade across, but we found more men pulling hard on another line when we walked back in the direction of our hotel.The work looked strenuous, but sociable.Nothing happened suddenly, but eventually the net attached to the rope emerged from the water.The men were careful in its management.Eventurally the distant boat that had been somehow positioning the net approached the shore.It’s occupants first rowed, then lugged it onto the beach…Then they began to pull on another line that had been staked to a pole in the sand.As the net drew closer and the surf increased, the work could be rough.But the two wings of the team edged ever closer to each other.In the final stages, a host of birds swirled ahead. I felt nervous. What if, after all this work, the net was empty?No worries. As the haul emerged, there was bounty in the strands.The air was filled with the frantic flipping of dying fish.One of the fishermen told us it wasn’t a fantastic catch, but much better than it had been for the past few days. This guy asked if we wanted to go on an evening tour of the lagoon, but we had to decline. We had other fish to fry (metaphorically). I’m posting this now from the misty highland tea country. It’s a little hard to believe we’re in the same country.

A turtle twist

In this, the final phase of our long South Asian adventure, Steve and I are trying to cram a comprehensive look at Sri Lanka into 11 days. The island is only about the size of Ireland. But it has several distinct aspects that made us to want to cover a lot of ground. Tuesday, our one full day in the capital (Colombo), we walked around enough to feel satisfied. Wednesday we took a train south down the coast to the ancient trading port and current World Heritage Site of Galle. We stayed exclusively within the walls of its 500-year-old fort, a compact area now filled with trendy guesthouses and chic shops and good restaurants. We enjoyed the strolling and the eating — but there’s not much more I can say about it that’s interesting.

Next we wanted to briefly experience Sri Lanka’s legendary tropical beaches, so we hired a driver to take us about 45 miles east along the island’s southern coast. Tonight we’re staying in an unpretentious little resort at the end of a dirt road, deep within a grove of coconut palms. Its crystalline infinity pool overlooks the sand and crashing waves of the Indian Ocean; we swam a bit this afternoon before a downpour drove us inside. We plan to walk along the beach tomorrow morning before checking out and moving on. The beach is beautiful, and we’re thrilled to experience it. But again, what more can I say?

Our single offbeat experience occurred about an hour outside Galle on the way here, when our driver unexpectedly pulled off the road. He asked if we wanted to visit a turtle sanctuary and breeding center that was working to help save the world’s sea turtles. How could we resist? We each paid the $2.80 admission fee plus I popped for an extra $5.80, which the guy in the admissions booth said would allow me to transport a newborn turtle to the surf.

Inside, a friendly local man who volunteers at the center led us around the premises. He explained that when local fishermen find an injured turtle, they bring it to the center and receive a little more money than the animal might fetch in a local seafood market. A veterinarian helps treat whatever can be treated. One animal, for example, had swallowed a plastic bag that made it sick enough that it had lost its shell. But the shell had regrown, and in a few months, the turtle would be returned to the sea, the guide explained.

He reached into one of the watery pens, pulled out a young green turtle, and let Steve and me and two young Australians hold it.The volunteer guide introduced us to three of the other four sea turtle species that come to this part of the world to breed.We inspected the hatchery, where the center staff buries turtle eggs that have been dug up by locals and brought to them for protection against predators such as dogs and mongooses.I felt thrilled to see these amazing animals up so close. Finally the guide placed a newborn, hatched that very morning, into my palm. Black in color, and vigorously paddling the air, it felt strong enough to escape from my hand.So Steve and I hastened down to the surf. I placed him on the sand and we both held our breath, watching wave after wave come close but fall just short of reaching him. Then the incoming seawater swirled close enough, and the newborn paddled frantically.A minute later, he was out of sight.

We felt exhilarated. What a brilliant free-market approach to saving this species! Pay local folks who might otherwise destroy them to bring them to a refuge dedicated to getting them back into the sea. We gave the guide a good tip, gladdened by the thought that our visit was making the world a little safer for sea turtles.

Back in the car, driving south again, I checked my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guide for more turtle information. Sure enough, on page 99, I found a sidebar on “Hatching Turtles” which described the operation we had just seen and others on the coast around Bentota and Kosgoda. “But the reality is that the turtle hatcheries might be doing more harm than good,” the book went on. Putting the newborns in a tank “for even a very short time” deprives them of some of their eggs’ yolk that can give them for energy for their first hours in the sea. Moreover, female sea turtles like to return to the exact spot where they hatched to lay their own eggs. If they’re born in captivity, they won’t get a ‘magnetic memory’ of their beach of birth and thus are thought by some turtle experts to be unable to return to shore to propagate their species.

I felt deflated. The rescue/hatchery concept seemed to make so much sense. The turtles were so cute! It was irresistible to see and hold them. And here Lonely Planet was telling me Steve and I might have actually made the world a worse place for sea turtles by patronizing the place? That I might have condemned that valiant little baby to an unnecessary death?

It’s complicated being a well-intentioned tourist in the 21st Century. There are so many ways to get things wrong. It’s enough to make you want to go to an isolated beach and lie down on the warm sand and just not think — or write — about anything.

Culture shocked

Landing Monday afternoon at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I got the biggest dose of culture shock I have ever experienced. Emerging from the jetway into the terminal, my ears were filled with…. Christmas music! And there were plenty of Christmas decorations too.Like this.And this.

I’ve spent my adult life living in San Diego, where carolers dress in shorts and t-shirts, and folks string colored lights from their palm trees. So I’m used to celebrating the holiday in balmy weather. What was so strange Monday was suddenly being plunged into the Christmas Season after seeing not one hint of the approaching holiday anywhere in India (unless you count the Black Friday emails in my in-box.) This even though 19% of the population of Kerala (in India) is Christian. We stayed just a few blocks from the Cochin Fort’s Catholic basilica but saw not one wreath nor Christmas bulb there.

Sri Lanka has half the percentage of Christians Kerala has. Yet here we were, waiting for our suitcases while listening to The First Noel and Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem! This wasn’t just some show of airport internationalism. Once in the city, more signs of the holiday abounded:

When I expressed my surprise to one of the staffers at our Colombo hotel, he beamed and declared that Sri Lanka’s residents love to celebrate everyone’s holidays. Christians and Muslims put up Hindu garlands routinely, he said.

That was nice to hear. The savage 25-year-long war that ripped this country apart and killed 100,000 people had strong religious elements (Buddhist v. Hindu). It ended less than 10 years ago, with real reconciliation only dating back about three years. And even though Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) has been booming since then, political turmoil broke out just recently. In the past three days, we’ve seen a few signs of what’s playing out: demonstrators assembled Tuesday near the Parliament building in Colombo; some front-page headlines.

What we’ve seen more of, however, is orderly streets and serene landscapes. I’m already kind of used to the holiday decorations.But after India, I suspect we’ll continue to feel shocked by the peace and quiet right up to the minute we depart for home, eight days from now.I’m posting this from Galle, about two hours south of Colombo. We’re staying just a few blocks from this seascape. Clean water, clean air, uncrowded — that’s shocking!

The 2 blind San Diegans and the elephant

Throughout the seven weeks we traveled in India, I thought more than once about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It recounts what happened when a group of blind men investigated the strange new creature they had heard about. Each man touched a different part of the beast, and each formed a clear idea of what it must look like. The guy who felt the trunk said the elephant was like a snake. The one who touched its side said that was nonsense; elephants instead resembled walls. The man who stroked its ear concluded they’re like fans, and so on. Each was so convinced the others were wrong they eventually came to blows.

Before we left San Diego, I knew India was big and complicated. But our hands-on experiences were humbling. I blogged about our hellish midnight arrival in Kolkata where the line for prepaid taxis moved so slowly it took us more than an hour to reach the head of it. I could have (blindly) concluded we should never take another Indian prepaid taxi. But we did — at least a half-dozen times over the weeks that followed, including another time in Kolkata. On all those subsequent occasions, the service was fast and safe and cheap.

After a month of traveling in India, I wrote about how we had not once found anything resembling a modern grocery store. But then we went south, and in Kerala we found plenty of them.

Our final destination, the state of Kerala hugs the far southwestern coast of the subcontinent. Traveling to Kerala from Kodagu (the relatively isolated mountain district where we had our elephantine adventures) wasn’t simple. Interminable buses make the trip, but no trains. In order to fly, we would have had to drive east for at least four hours back to Bangalore and then fly west again. Finally, the simplest solution was to hire a car and driver. The ride would cost $157 and take about 10 hours, we were warned. Frankly, I didn’t believe it. How could it take 10 hours to go less than 220 miles?

We learned. Potholed two-lane roads in the mountains made the going slow at first. The flow would improve for a stretch, and our hopes would rise. Maybe the worst was over? But as we approached the coastal road south, we moved even more slowly. Traffic wasn’t as bad as what we saw in so much of the north, but the streets were narrow, and the constant flow of buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, bicyclists, animals, and pedestrians through them forced our driver to jam on the brakes almost constantly or at best creep along. I hunkered down in a back seat, trying to lose myself in blogging, but the twisty roads drove Steve up to the front seat. There all he could do was observe hour upon hour of our slog forward. In the end, it didn’t take 10 hours to reach Cochin. It took almost 11.

We stumbled out of the taxi, cranky and fed up with India. It felt irredeemable — until the next morning, when Peter Panathara took us on his “silent tour” of the local backwaters. Much of the coast of Kerala is broken up into a complex network of waterways. One of the big tourist activities here is to cruise them. Some folks rent houseboats and spend one or more nights sleeping on them, but day trips also are popular. I only read about Peter’s tour a few days before we headed for Cochin. He had an opening, a stroke of immense good luck for us, because he turned out to be one of the best guides imaginable.

In the 7 hours we spent together, we learned that before starting his tour business, Peter had worked for more than 20 years as an investigative reporter for one of Cochin’s daily newspapers, primarily covering crime and corruption. His knowledge of the region felt encyclopedic; his pride in Kerala palpable. The state towers over the rest of India in countless way, including average lifespan (at least 10 years longer); literacy and access to modern plumbing (100%), population growth (declining, rather than continuing to skyrocket), religious tolerance, and environmental consciousness. Cochin’s spiffy new airport is powered by a huge field of solar panels, the first we saw anywhere on the subcontinent. The state has already largely recovered from the devastating monsoon flooding and landslides that struck in August, the worst in a century, with a valor and vigor that would make a great action film.

Once we reached our embarkation point (about an hour outside the city), the experience grew even more magical.One bad thing about Kerala is its heat and humidity, but in Peter’s big canoe, propelled by a local villager armed with a long pole, a light breeze cooled us. Crossing a broad channel, we sheltered under a big umbrella……then slipped under a low gate……into a series of narrow canals shaded by coconut palms, mahogany, and other huge tropical trees.For a long time, Peter stopped talking, and we glided through the passages hearing only the birdsong and the swish of the water moving over the hull.

We stopped a few times, first to gather coconuts from one of the trees……drink their water…and taste their custardy insides.We continued on to a tiny island and met the man who first settled it and now lives there with his relatives and a few other families.We ate a delicious lunch prepared by two of the women in the family……and learned how to spin twine out of coconut fiber.That’s Peter. By the time we got back to our hotel, he felt like an old friend.

For me, it was probably the best single day of the whole 7 weeks. The next day, our last in India, couldn’t top it, but we still had a pleasant time strolling past the fishermen working just a few blocks from our hotelThe heart of old Cochin is 500 years old, and you can sense that.

That night, we had the strangest theatrical experience of our lives. One of Kerala’s traditional art forms is kathakali, in which actors and musicians present dramatizations of passages from the great Hindu holy books. In their classical form, these performances can last from 6 to 10 hours. However, visitors sample a vastly shortened form. It starts with watching the actors apply their makeup.Here’s what the stage looked like when we walked in.The make-up application had just begun.It continued over the course of the next hour.Then we listened to a short lecture about the performance elements. Actors don’t speak but rather communicate meaning with highly stylized hand signs, facial expressions (like this one. I think it was revulsion)…and eye movements. Kathalkali actors must train their eyeballs like athletes. I’ve never seen such amazing control over that body organ.

After the lecture, we watched a 30-minute excerpt.

When we emerged onto the street, Steve said, “We’ll, I’m certainly glad I came with you. If you told me about it, I would have thought you took some really heavy drugs.” We agreed it made kabuki theater seem as banal as a network sitcom. I cannot explain it any further than that, except to suggest it felt like we had touched yet another very weird part of the elephant.

Elephants and leeches

We didn’t go to Kodagu looking for elephants. We got interested in the area when a friend who has worked and traveled for pleasure in India told us Kodagu was a spice capital of south India, dense with gorgeous jungle. Then another friend put us in touch with an Indian friend who lives in Bangalore and owns two coffee plantations in Kodagu (also known as Coorg, the old British name). I emailed Sheila, asking if we might meet for a lunch, and in an amazing display of generosity, she invited us to stay in the guesthouse on one of her plantations. We made plans to spend three nights.

I haven’t written anything about our time in Bangalore and Mysore because we only had two nights in each. Both look more prosperous than any place we visited in the north, but sadly the air and traffic in Bangalore (“the Silicon Valley of India”) still wasn’t great. By far the highlight for us there was our rollicking three-plus-hour lunch with Sheila — a commanding, cosmopolitan lady with a surfeit of interesting opinions and insights and abundant good humor.

She had worried we might get bored with two and a half days in Kodagu, but this did not come to pass. I don’t know why the district isn’t on every Indian visitor’s list. For centuries (millennia?), Kodagu was an independent little state run by hundreds of clans. The clansmen were warriors but also farmers, growing rice along with spices and eventually coffee. Black pepper grows wild here. Trying to find a way to get to it is what led Christopher Columbus to stumble upon North America.

Kodagu didn’t become part of India until the 1950s, and it sounds like many folks today would like to go back to the independent old days. Living in their fertile valleys, shielded from the rest of the world by rugged mountain forests and the dangerous animals who inhabit them, blessed with clean air and a mild climate, Kodagu is a shangri-la — not just for people but for elephants.

We started our first day with elephants. Sheila’s farm manager, Arthur, found us a taxi ($43 for the whole day), and the driver headed northwest for an hour or so. Our destination was the Dubare Elephant Camp, an operation of the state (Karnataka) forest department. I sort of expected this to be a tourist attraction, and it was, but only in the loosest possible sense of that term.

We parked near a bank of the Cauvery River and joined a long queue of Indians waiting to board launches to ferry them to an opposing bank (43 cents per person for the boat ride; 29 cents for the camp admission).In about 15 minutes, Steve and I made it aboard a boat and quickly reached the camp. In the hour and a half we were there, no person, no signs, no brochures told us anything about what the camp is and how it functions. Maybe the Indians thought it was irrelevant. Most folks didn’t come here for helpings of wildlife education: the draw was watching the residents get their morning bath.

Young men were riding big old males and females and youngsters from an upper holding area down to the river… then using that ancient Asian-elephant-control tool, the hook, to make them lay down in the water…or stand patiently while their tusks were cleaned with a sand-paste rub.Poke this baby into the tender spot behind one of those big ears, and you can get a 10,000-pound beast to do what you want!

For an additional 200 rupees ($2.87), one could go down onto the beach and join in the elephant-spa activity. I (naturally) could not resist, but Steve claimed he didn’t want to get wet and so opted to stay on the cliff top and take pictures.

Down on the beach, I edged up to the action, simply watching for a while.It was hard to tell what the elephants thought.It didn’t look like they hated it. But was it pleasurable?

Once or twice, one of the young mahouts interacted with a visitor……as when one wrapped his charge’s trunk around this young lady’s neck, in response to a photo request. But most of the guys ignored the crowd gaping at them and concentrated instead on scrubbing the tough hides.They reminded me of car-wash attendants, irritable because of the long line of customers awaiting service.

I finally petted several animals…I tried to communicate good will with my touch. I ran my fingers over a few tusks, the source of so much elephant suffering and death. Then I rejoined Steve, and we walked to the high ground, where we found workers wrapping up brown rice within handfuls of hay.It did look to me like they enjoyed getting the tasty packages.

We made a couple of other touristic stops that day — toured a nature park; visited a large enclave of TIbetan Buddhist exiles. But our quirky, magical visit to the pachyderms overshadowed everything for me. That and the lunch we had with a friend of Sheila’s.

He met us near the nature park and took us to an exquisite riverside resort for lunch. Madhu is an amazing character: a coffee grower himself, but also a consultant to coffee growers all over the planet. His special (U.N.-recognized) expertise is in sustainable cultivation practices. We talked about coffee-growing and many other things; among them, the local elephants.

“You can kill a man and get away with it,” he declared. “But if you kill an animal here, you’re done for.” The Indian conservation and forestry officials were fierce and effective, he said, and in recent years, the local wild elephant population had grown well. We learned that elephants roam the roads and routinely barge onto fields in Coorg, mainly at night, when they’re foraging. When people harassed them or made them think their babies were threatened, encounters could get ugly. The elephants killed between 15 and 20 Kodagu residents annually, according to Madhu.

“But what does a grower do when a group of elephants comes onto his coffee plantation?” I asked.

The best course was to stay out of their way, Maddhu said. They would soon move on. Trying to chase them away was usually disastrous; frightened, stampeding elephants could do tremendous damage. Left alone, they rarely lingered. And in Kodagu district, an area about a third the size of San Diego County, elephants have lots of alternative eating grounds. Somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the district land is protected tropical rainforest. The only humans who can enter it are forest rangers and hikers with guides.

On our second full day in Coorg, Steve and I got one of those permits and two guides (the minimum acceptable number.) One carried a gun in his backpack, and the other, a 34-year-old guy named Chengappa, had a lot of experience and an okay grasp of English.He seemed to know a lot about the local elephants, so I pelted him with my questions. Elephants in India no longer can be taken from the wild and put to work (as they were for millennia), he told us. But the animals at the Dubare camp (all but the babies) were former “rogues,” individuals who had killed a human or otherwise caused great destruction. Such elephants were tranquillized and brought to a center, where they were (essentially) broken in spirit, re-educated, and used for a weird range of activities — everything from getting all gussied up to march in the biggest annual festival in Mysore, to helping with special logging problems, to being taken into the forest to participate in elephant funerals.

Cheng said in his 8 years of working for the forestry department, he’d never heard of a guide or trekker being hurt by an elephant, but it wasn’t unimaginable, and the forest harbored other scary creatures — the Indian gaur (a buffalo-like animal similar in ferocity to the African Cape buffalo), pit vipers, tigers, leopards, jaguars. The only mammal I saw was a civet, swinging through a giant tree, but the ground was dense with spider webs, some of which built complex tube structures.This guy was about a half-inch tall. The forest also teemed with little leeches…like this one, about an inch in length.

To protect ourselves from them, we all tucked our pants inside our socks, but several still fell from the trees and tried to attach themselves to my bare arms. Each time this happened I knocked them off with a yelp and a shudder.

We covered an eight and a half mile loop that included more tough climbs and descents than Steve and I have done in a while. The terrain we moved through was so dense and varied it felt Jurassic.Sometimes we edged ourselves downward by stepping into little ledges created by the elephant’s footprints, dodging fresh elephant poop. Even though we saw no actual elephants, it warmed my heart to know they still claimed such a breathtaking sanctuary as their home.

Besides sharing that space for a few hours, Steve acquired another souvenir from the hike. When he got back to Sheila’s and took off his shoes and socks, this is what he found:

All the leeches had fallen off, as Cheng said they would. We found them (fat and happy) inside Steve’s shoes, and we discarded them. Strangely enough, not one got to me. Another mystery of nature (or maybe sock mechanics).

Shopping in India

We still have eight more days in India, but I already know what has shocked us most: the retail shopping experience. We’ve been in few countries where so much of the commerce consists of tiny storefronts offering only one category of product. Last May, in the middle of the Amazon, we found a modern grocery store in the small town of Santarem (Brazil). But the only time we managed to find anything vaguely similar here was in Jaipur. Then, when we told our guesthouse operator we wanted a grocery store, we had to hire a taxi to drive us to one because it was too far to walk.

The dearth of general stores — even tiny ones — at times has been maddening. I think of our first night in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), last Tuesday. We’d picked up some vodka and wanted to have a drink in our room before venturing out in search of dinner. You can mix vodka with many liquids; our favorite is Schweppes tonic water or orange juice. People describe Mumbai as the New York City of India, and our hotel was in the Fort district (“a dining and shopping epicenter,” in Lonely Planet’s words.) How hard could it be to find a bottle of mix?

REALLY hard, it turns out! Steve and I tromped through street after street, all of them jam-packed with shops. We found places selling stationery-related products, snuff, laundry detergent, photocopying service, cell-phone covers, clothes, tailoring services, and much more I can’t remember. We passed eateries of all sorts, from nice restaurants to cheap Chinese food outlets to countless varieties of street food. But nowhere did we find tonic or even a boxed juice. We must have searched for at least 20 minutes before finally spying a bottle of sugary orange soda for sale. Grouchy and dissatisfied, we gave in, bought a bottle of that, and returned to the hotel to pour a stiff one.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think no American-style grocery stores exist in India. We’ve seen photos online of glitzy shopping malls that look indistinguishable from the nicest in San Diego.

We’ve also seen plenty of expensive looking stores selling Nike shoes and Coach bags and Zara products like this, even on very decrepit streets. I’m sure there must be grocery stores near the the fancy malls. But Steve and I haven’t been staying in wealthy enclaves in major metropolitan suburbs, but rather in staggeringly dense city centers. We started to wonder if there were no grocery stores around our hotels because the Indian government had outlawed them for some insane reason.

That does not appear to be the case. We got some inkling of the true explanation in Udaipur. The day after we took Shashi’s cooking class, we ran into one of the British couples who’d been our classmates and joined them at a coffee shop. The guy, another Steve, was an engineering manager who’d been living in Bombay for 5 years, while his partner, Allison, spent part of her time with him and part back in England. We had a long delightful conversation, during which we asked about the mysteriously missing grocery stories. They reflected for a moment, then suggested there were a couple of factors.

Very poor people probably paid a few rupees less to buy their fruits, vegetables, and milk products from the vendors who brought those products in from the country and sold them on the sidewalk than they would pay at any grocery store. Also, grocery stores weren’t a part of the culture of the Indian poor.“But there are plenty of middle-class people in India now, aren’t there?” I interjected.

This was true, Alison and Steve agreed. But the reality was that middle- and upper-class Indians could have their servants go out and buy anything they needed. Toothpaste? Toilet paper? A can of tonic water? Send out Rahul, or call the store for takeout service. Bombay Steve told us about opening the door of his apartment one recent day to find a guy bearing a cup of Starbuck’s coffee. (He’d wound up at the wrong apartment.) Most middle- or upper-class Indians would find it beneath their dignity to dash off to a grocery store, Alison and Steve said, adding that in fairness, some felt they were providing needed jobs to their fellows by using their delivery services.

I felt a little staggered to realize I was in a place with such vast numbers of extremely poor people that their existence made grocery stores uneconomical. The absence of the grocery stores didn’t mean you couldn’t get anything you might want. It meant other people would go out and find it and bring it to you if you paid them little more than pennies.

They didn’t need to go to a grocery store to find whatever you wanted because they knew what the various scattered sources were. The importance of such local knowledge was driven home to us our second morning in Bombay. We left the hotel early, before the city felt like quite such a steam bath and walked past the fantastic Victorian-era train station. Here’s what a small part of it looks like:Just north of it begins a series of neighborhoods renowned for their maze-like bazaars. As it turned out, it was too early for many of the shops to be open, but we did pass guys carrying big tubs of fish on their headsand others selling them from tarps on the sidewalk.We passed trucks of suffering and doomed chickens that made me (briefly) consider never eating chicken again.The old Crawford food market (the exterior of which still bears beautiful sculpture work done by Rudyard Kipling’s father)was just coming to life, and within it, I spotted a booth carrying all manner of canned drinks, including our beloved Schweppes (in both Indian and foreign sizes.) Steve was ecstatic. He bought six (Indian) cans from this guy.

Later that morning, we took an Uber car to another nearby train station (Churchgate). I’d read that the famous dabba-wallahs of Mumbai could be found gathering there every day in the late morning. These guys pick up lunchboxes from restaurants and private homes (where ladies earn some money by cooking tasty lunch items and packing them into tins for their customers) and they fan out across the city around noon to deliver them to office workers. I’d seen a charming movie (The Lunchbox) a few years ago about one such guy, and our guidebook also talked about them. (The sidebar claimed that more than 200,000 meals were delivered daily, and a 2002 Forbes Magazine analysis “found that the dabba-wallahs had…a 99.999999% reliability rating.”)

At our hotel we heard that the dabba-wallahs were in decline; corporate canteens were increasingly putting them out of business. I still wanted to try to find some, but at the train station all we saw was this lonely trio.Had we gotten there too late? Were dabba-wallahs as endangered as those Rajasthani camels? I felt a wave of disappointment.

We strolled aimlessly up a prosperous residential boulevard and then down a big commercial street. We popped into a non-self-service pharmacy (where everything for sale is behind counters manned with white-robed clerks) and found the sunscreen/moisturizer I’d been needing. I was too embarrassed to ask those guys if they sold pantiliners (one of my secrets to life on the road with just a few pairs of underwear), but Steve barged into the next pharmacy and emerged moments later with an 88-rupee package of Carefree liners.

Continuing on, we came upon a cluster of men I thought were selling purses or insulated bags. But Steve exclaimed, “It’s them! It’s the lunch guys!”It was indeed a thick congregation of dabbah-wallahs, loading up their conveyances. I hadn’t immediately recognized them because they were using so many insulated bags instead of the traditional tin canisters. Some had dozens of the lunch bags piled up on wooden hand carts……while others stood by bicycles hung with motley receptacles.The face of the modern dabba-wallah.

They milled about for a few minutes, then dispersed to make their deliveries.

We almost missed them because we didn’t know where to look or even exactly what we were looking for. I think more than a few things in India are like that.

An early thanksgiving feast

The city of Udaipur in Rajasthan is famous for the beautiful lake at its heart. It’s been the setting for many movies, with the James Bond franchise’s Octopussy the best known by Americans. We couldn’t believe how many of Udaipur’s guesthouses advertise that they screen Octopussy every single night. Steve and I passed on that, but we did take a boat ride on the water one morning, and we enjoyed the splendid lake views from various rooftop restaurants. What I’ll remember most, however, are the hours we spent in Shashi’s kitchen.

We wound up there because a listing in the “Activities” section of the Lonely Planet’s Udaipur chapter raved about Shashi’s cooking classes. I emailed to see if we could join one and got a response saying the 5:30 pm Saturday (11/17) class had two openings. This was a stretch; on Saturday we had to set the alarm in Jodhpur for 6 am to catch a train. After that five-hour journey, our taxi got stuck in a giant traffic jam. But we didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so precisely at 5:30 pm we walked into a trim little kitchen on the upper floor of a building down the street from our hotel.

Along with Steve and me, the students also included two friendly middle-aged British couples and an adorable pair of French almost-newlyweds who were traveling the world on a six-month sabbatical. Shashi appeared and silently tied little friendship bracelets on each of our wrists (women’s on the left and men’s on the right.) She applied a red stick-on bindi dot in the middle of each woman’s forehead, and more red on our hairlines (the indicator that a woman is married.) Then she sat and told us her story.

She’d been born abut 50 years ago in a village 200 km outside Udaipur. At 19 her family arranged her marriage to a man she’d never met before. But he was handsome and understanding, and they were happy to be blessed with two boys. The kids were 7 and 5, when one day Shashi’s husband was murdered. She didn’t explain the circumstances, but today her face still bears traces of the depth of that tragedy.

It went far beyond the loss of her husband. Rules binding the Brahman caste (into which she was born) declared that she could never remarry (though she was only 32.) She lacked the education to work in any of the limited professions acceptable for Brahmans (traditionally teachers and priests or professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.) She had no relatives who would take in her and her little boys; no savings or social assistance. To survive, she washed the clothes of foreign tourists and cleaned neighbors’ homes, but she had to do this furtively, because of the caste restrictions.

She hinted at the suffering in those years. Eventually she and her boys got to know an Irish tourist who learned what a good cook she was. He urged her to offer cooking classes to tourists. That seemed impossible; she spoke no English. The Irish guy nonetheless encouraged her, and Shashi screwed up her courage. Somehow it worked. The tourists came. Little by little, she learned English. When a Lonely Planet writer included her in the guidebook’s Udaipur chapter several years ago, that was her big breakthrough. Now, even though her competition has exploded, Shashi teaches two classes daily 5 or 6 months of the year. She’s hardly rich, but through grit and hard work, she’s made a life from the ashes.

We glimpsed her drive once our class got underway. I’ve taken many cooking classes in my life, but none that approached the scope of what this woman covered. She started by teaching us how to make masala chai, the spicy tea that’s ubiquitous in India. We sipped it while we watched her prepare a spicy chickpea-flour batter in which we immersed onion and potato slices.We deep-fried them, then gobbled them down, dipped in two kinds of chutney (coriander and mango) both of which Shashi showed us how to make.

We moved on to the “magic sauce” that’s at the heart of so many Indian dishes. Shashi’s younger son Ashish (who assisted her throughout the night, both in cooking and teaching) explained that if you start with this, you can quickly spin off countless seemingly different dishes. At its base is garlic, ginger, and onion sautéed in oil and then enlivened with key spices: cumin seed, coriander, chili, turmeric, and salt.We made the magic sauce, then we used it to makes several dishes, including curried chickpeas….deep-fried cheese in a tomato-butter sauce, and a vegetable pulao.As each dish was completed, Shashi stacked it on its predecessors,a teasing metal tower that grew more maddeningly tempting as the hours went by, and we grew more and more tired and hungry. But there was more to learn, and lots of joking and laughter to distract us as we toiled. We made chapatti dough; learned out to knead it and cook it on a skillet.Many hands make good chapatti.

We made naan dough, and Shashi demanded that we all handle acquire a basic proficiency with that.

The naan rounds puff up magically as you fry and roast them.

It was well after 10 before we all took seats around the table and dug into the spread we’d created. I can report that everything tasted delicious; it ranked among the best food Steve and I have eaten anywhere on this trip. The conversation flowed, lubricated not by any drop of alcohol but by the common work we’d just shared.

Shashi confided that she doesn’t always enjoy the larger groups, those as big as our eight-some. Sometimes people don’t get along, and some are difficult. But we were good people, she pronounced. I felt as warmed by her praise as I was by the chiles in the food we were digesting. It was clear to me she was not just a good teacher but also a good human being. It was a pleasure to learn that about each other. Preparing and eating a great meal together can teach you that.