Dinga Dinga Dee!

How do the Israelis sell arms to India? With a Bollywood video, of course!

This is unfathomably bizarre.

A Case of the Vapours?

I've been sick with the worst case of food poisoning I've ever had.

Normally I wouldn't mention it, but one symptom was (I hope I can now use the past tense!) so peculiar I thought I'd mention it: gas.

It was like NASA set up a wind tunnel between my legs. Had it been hydrogen, I could have single-handedly sent that balloon kid (and his little dog, too) from here to Nova Scotia.

I think it was salmonella because of the fever and other symptoms. The gas was certainly the hallmark, though. Any clues, let me know.

Other than that, things have been fine.

Wherefore art thou, Sabeena?

Sabeena is NOT some newly acquainted nautch girl.

I've known her a long, long time and don't know what I'd do without her extra special gift.

She performs nobody's business and puts a shine on everything she touches.

I've brought her to America on a couple occasions and she does her stuff just as well up there as she does down here.

Ahhh, Sabeena!

Sabeena is a soap/scouring powder made from what I think is sifted ashes and some phenomenally powerful, phosphate-laden detergent. I'm sure fish shudder at the very thought of her, but God! can it clean something fierce!

It's opaque on X-ray, so Indian customs always checks my bags when I leave India with a coveted 1 kilo stash. It's also horribly commonplace, so they give me this quizzical eye as if to say, "Why the hell are you taking Sabeena out of the country?"

If only they knew...

Happy Christmas!

Off the Dole

If you think the best pineapples in the world come from Hawaii, you're wrong; very, very wrong.

Even when I lived there I couldn't get pineapples like those in Kerala as Appu, my trusty photographer and assistant demonstrates:

At 20 Rs (43¢) apiece, I could live off them.

So how to choose and prepare a pineapple?
First off, find one that's uniformly yellow or golden and sniff the stem. You want them golden, but not to the point of fermentation, so if you catch a whiff of alcohol or ketone, it's over-ripe.
Second, pick one as nearly cylindrical as possible because this makes the dissection easier and with less waste.
Third, pick one whose surface is as uniform as possible. If the pits for the little flowers(?) are deep, much will be wasted in the peeling process.

That said, how do you cut it up? There are probably many methods, but through trial and error I've found the one below to work the best.

Start with a large, heavy chef's knife or a cleaver if you have one. Sharper is better, of course. Mind that if you're using carbon steel, pineapple is acidic and will discolor the blades in no time flat, so be sure to wash up immediately post operation.

Begin by twisting off the crown and cutting the tops and bottoms off so the remainder resembles a cylinder. You needn't chop off too much at this point because if they are rounded we can still salvage plenty of good fruit with some extra cutting.

Next, lay the pineapple on its side and slice off a strip of rind from the right hand edge about ¼" deep from the outside. At this point, check the cut pineapple edge to see if you've managed to cut out most (not all -- that'd be too wasteful) of the eyes. If too many remain, the subsequent cuts will need be deeper; on the other hand, if none remain you've probably cut too deeply and will waste a good deal of the pineapple.

Give the pineapple a turn of about 30° (12 or 15 cuts will be needed in total) and make another slice at a tangent to the perimeter beginning somewhere in the already cut portion. The idea at this point it to carve a polygon out of the circular circumference. We leave the curved tops and bottoms for a later step.

Now to those pesky tops and bottoms. Set the pineapple on its flat base and again repeat the tangential cutting routine 'round both the top and bottom angling your knife or cleaver as seen below. If the base or top was exceedingly curved, you can repeat the cuts at the angle formed by the side and bottom cuts.

Fan as I am of kitchen gadgets, at this point I think it's much easier to remove the core with a knife rather than one of those clever cutters, but it takes a sharp knife, a steady hand and a good eye.

Eyeball the skinned fruit and determine the centerline through the core. Your first cut is most crucial, so take your time. Measure twice, cut once! With the fruit still vertical, bisect down the centerline. If you lay the thing down on its side it'll roll all over, so be sure to do this with the pineapple in a vertical position.

At this point you can either repeat the process by halving the halves again along the vertical axis, but I find cutting the halves in thirds (6 pieces total) makes smaller and nicer chunks. Of course, you could always half the halved halves (8 total), but that's too much work unless the pineapple's really big or you want tiny little chunks.

Then just lay the resulting spears flat on the cutting board and cut the core out with a single slice at the edge of the woody portion. You needn't remove every bit of the core because that part closest to the flesh isn't so woody and fibrous. Then just line the slices up and cut them at 1 or 2 inch intervals and you're done! Be sure to wash the knife and cutting board asap because bees and flies just love that sweet, sticky juice. (Okay, so you may not have that problem in America!)

Bon apetit!

Next time we'll learn how to remove the husk from a coconut using just a machete...

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Kerala boasts a huge variety of bananas for sale. Some are cooked and steamed, others eaten raw, and still others are used just as offerings at temple.

When you go the market you specify not only the type of banana you want, but also how ripe: whether it's a "today" banana, or a "tomorrow" banana.

banana man

A common breakfast food is puttu and steamed plantains. Puttu is pounded rice flakes mixed with water, layered between grated coconut and steamed in a metal tube for 15 minutes or so.

Once it's emptied on your plate, you mash up some steamed plantain, mix it with the puttu and enjoy. Quite filling and tasty, too.

Another breakfast dish is uppumavu: basically a very dry cream of wheat cooked with some mild spices.

You eat that with mashed bananas and a drop or two of ghee (clarified butter). The bananas eaten with uppumavu are called pallayam todan -- a different, smaller and sweeter kind than green plantains.


Because bananas are such an important staple, a specialized knife has been invented to cut them off the stems. It's pretty clever and works well, but I wouldn't want TSA finding one in my suitcase!

Jack the Ripper used one of these

See Jane Run -- straight to her congress-critter

New CDC estimate: 1 in 110 children have autism

Yeah, and I'm queen of Romania. Tell me, will the greatest good for the greatest number be achieved by funding "special ed" for these supposedly developmentally disabled, autistic children; or would it be better spent funding "special ed" for the far more clearly defined 99th percentile on an IQ test?

Medicine in India

Preface: I've had Dupuytren's contracture in my left hand for a number of years and lately it's been getting worse, so much so that it's time to get it fixed. Given the cost of medical care in the US and that repair is fairly straightforward and commonplace, I decided to see what having it fixed in India was like.

It's 9:00 AM and I've tried calling the surgeon's two landlines to no avail. Dare I try his mobile? I do. He answers himself and says he'd be happy to provide a consult, just come down to the hospital and ask for his office at the Enquiry window. I tell him I'll be right down. 15 minutes and a 50¢ auto ride later, I'm standing at the Enquiry window at Ashwani hospital. Just then, a tiny little gal comes up and motions me to follow her. She doesn't speak a word, just beckons. At this point I'm not sure what's going on -- is she taking me to someone who speaks English? That might be good, so I follow. Ashwani is a private hospital and it's big -- well, probably not so big compared to UCSF or the like, but still... So I follow her up ramps and down corridors and through a warren of rooms until I'm shown to Dr Raman's office. Well, I've been expected! That's a relief.

Dr Raman's office is pretty rudimentary: about 20' x 10' with a desk in front and a tiny exam table behind, separated by a curtain. A few books, a sink and that's about it. Dr Raman himself is about 60-65, small brown and friendly. I thrust out my hand and say "Dupuytren's". He pokes the strained tendons, asks a few questions (Any trouble with your feet? Penis? Are you diabetic?) and then it's my turn to ask the questions. I'm concerned about a recurrence after surgery and he tells me it's unlikely. Any other post-surgical complications? "Yes, infection. Especially with you foreigners. You're not used to our germs." I had to laugh, having had some experience with hospital acquired infections in India, of which I won't go into detail. I ask about the surgery itself: local or general? Local, with a brachial block.

At this point I notice that after 5 minutes he's summed me up and is talking to me as an equal, not as some white-coated condescending priest of the "Medical Establishment". What a relief! No bullshit, no carefully guarded answers the lawyers have trained them to mouth, just an honest exchange of questions and answers and information.

He starts to explain the bystander system, but I know about that so he goes on. In India, you need someone with you when you go to hospital to act as an advocate, gopher and whatever. Maybe it's a requirement so they have someone to haul the body away if something goes wrong? I don't know. Surgery itself will take 45 minutes, but he wants me there for 8 hours, or until the sedation wears off. Stitches come out in 2 weeks and I tell him I heal quickly so it might be a few days before that (I've learned this the hard way -- having stitches pulled through healed flesh hurts!) He replies telling me that hands tend to heal more slowly that the rest of the body. I tell him I'm prone to keloid formation and he says not to worry, hands are an exception (True? I don't know).

Cost? 15,000 Rs. ($326).

That's sound about right. Mind you, this is a private hospital and a private doctor, so he's paying for the operating room (theater, they still call it down there), his office, and god knows what else. 15,000 is no small sum, either, and I have a hunch much of it is going to him; as is proper because I'm paying for his experience and knowledge. I wonder if he has malpractice insurance? ~snicker~

So that's about it. Just call him to make an OR appointment and then get the damned thing fixed. Easy-peasey. I can only imagine what it'd be like trying to get this done in US without insurance. Perhaps we could learn something from the Indian system? It's my hunch the damn lawyers are what have screwed it up so badly, and I'll give you two examples. First; I'm prone to boils and have learned the hard way it's better to have a sebaceous cyst excised BEFORE it gets infected and turns ugly. I had a doctor in Ohio who always sent them in to pathology afterwards, at a cost of $60 each. Why? Oh, the one-in-a-million chance the cyst wasn't a sebaceous cyst. The lawyers make him do it, you see. Better safe than sorry. Cui bono?

THIS speaks for itself. I can't get my teeth cleaned without indemnifying my dentist in proper legalese.


General Kvetch

I've had a cold the past three days and I'm miserable. I haven't had a cold in years, and it's pushing 90° every day and my head and sinuses feels like a haggis about to burst. I'm going to wander down and get some codeine and paracetamol and a pineapple and come home and read Agatha Christie all day.

There was power cut yesterday afternoon. No problem, happens all the time. It eventually comes back. But by 6:30 PM, the sun had set and I notice my neighbors have power but I don't. I check the fuse box: all the switches are on and the weird little switch is green. I call the landlord and he sends up the neighbor from downstairs. He opens the fuse box and flips the weird little switch from green to red. Power restored. Yes, that's right: in India, red is on and green is off. Or maybe it's just this circuit breaker manufacturer, because I notice the labels are also marked the same way.

Ah, India. You gotta love it.

Shiftless in Thrissur

One of the local engineering colleges held an exhibition yesterday at the temple round featuring old cars and motorcycles as well as displays of Indian space history. They had also broken down an old Leyland bus into its component parts and the kids -- um, young men, were on hand to explain how each part worked. The cars were nothing fancy to an American but a few caught my eye: a '57 Pontiac w/ right hand drive (not retrofitted); an '87 Mercedes jeep (who knew they made jeeps?) and the one which made the daily paper's headlines: a car made out of wood. Some guy had too much time on his hands, for sure, because he'd stripped some little thing down to the frame and rebuilt it out of wood. Did a damn nice job, I must say, but one wonders what the maintenance is like. Do you take it in for a wash and varnish? Does insurance cover termite damage?

But the high point for me was the 'reverse engineering' competition. You'd pay 50 Rs and have half an hour to reassemble the gearbox to some old manual transmission. The person who finished in the shortest amount of time won a kitty of 1000 Rs. I have never seen the inside of a transmission, but have a pretty good idea how they work thanks to a wonderful book my grandmother gave me when I was a wee lad: The Way Things Work http://tinyurl.com/yczjy9m vols I and II (not to be confused with a newer book by the same title)

It was a damn good puzzle and though I didn't finish, given another half hour I bet I'd have made it. I came back again today to try again, but some prattling poobah had taken the stage and so it'd been cancelled. I asked the kids - um, young men, if anyone had succeeded and they said no but told me I'd done very well!

I call them kids when they are really young men, but they are so bright and full of enthusiasm and curiosity they seem like kids. Just a joy to be around. Creative little buggers, too. One kid had come up with an idea for a wheelchair that crawls up stairs and they'd hacked out a prototype. It had a clever expanding cage which sat on the outside rim of each wheel and opened a dozen little legs arranged at a tangent around the circumference. Needs some work, but a good idea nonetheless. They'd also hacked together a battery powered wheelchair. (Hey, this is India - we takes what we can get!)

Another kid had single-handedly rigged a two-stroke engine to an air compressor, complete with a little solenoid to meter the air flow during the cycle. He was proud of it as a "demonstration of concept" to convert compressed air to rotary motion and he gets credit for that but I wasn't alone in pointing out its inefficiency. Apparently he'd taken some ribbing on the subject before and I got some laughs when I suggested he could mount a windmill on top of the car to run the compressor to run the motor…

With guys like that creating our future I'm pretty sure it'll be an exciting place.

Hot chicks

The chicken man was on the corner this afternoon and I couldn't help but wish I had one of my ferrets with me...

Incident on a bus

So I'm sitting on the bus and these two ditchdiggers get in and set themselves down next to me. I know they are ditchdiggers or roadworkers because they're carrying their peculiar spades and their gravel pans. Their life is truly brutal, nasty and short. (see footnote) But no matter -- the journey commences. After some time, the guy on my far left counts out some money and passes it to the guy next to me. Naturally I hold out my hand as though he should pass the money onto me. A fleeting sign of puzzlement and alarm registers on his face which is instantly supplanted by one of those smiles I love so much when he realizes I'm pulling his leg: wide, expansive and, as one wag put it, gingival; meaning it's so broad you can see his gums. We all have a good laugh.

So what's point, you ask? I don't know if there is one, except the incident sticks in my head as a tiny insight into what one could call national character, although I suspect is more topical to the South than the North. I know I must sound like some 19th century anthropologist, but these people have a really well-developed sense of fun and play one doesn't see in the West. _Nothing_ is ever taken too seriously, or if it is, it's with the realization that life is short and then you die, so why not have a few laughs along the way?.

* -- I'd also mention that the roadworkers have some of the most beautifully developed bodies I've ever seen. Not a gram of fat and tight, sinewy muscles sculpted on compact, lithe frames. I guess that's what 12 or 14 hours of toil and lack of calories will do to a body....

He's Baaaaack!

It's 5:15 am and the muezzin just bellowed out the first of five daily calls to prayer. It sounds like a baritone goat in its death throes, but sho 'nuf, the city is slowly coming alive: chickens are starting to crow, dogs are barking and the putt-putt of the ubiquitous two-wheelers can be heard as they start to crawl like ants around town.

I've spent the first night in my rented flat away from the bosom of Paliakkara, my friend's house, and so will have to begin to fend for myself. First on the list is food, and as Martha would say, that call to prayer is a good thing because I'm up in time to get down to the butcher's before 7 AM. Lest you imagine a neat and tidy shop with a smiling butcher in his white apron, lots of string and wrapping paper, let me set you straight. The butcher wears nothing but a lungi (basically a sheet wrapped around his waist) and his shop consists of little more than a chopping block, a knife or two and one dead cow. And some plastic bags -- so far, they haven't yet been banned here. I want to get there early so I can get the tongue and watch the whole process. Unlike in America, all parts are sold at 120 Rs per pound, which means that if I get there early and wend my way into his good graces, I suppose at some point I'll walk away with a whole tenderloin a $3/lb and have filet mignon for breakfast. I have hankering for tongue today, though as I'd like to make curry out of it for dinner -- and lunch, and dinner again. Besides, what better way to introduce myself as a crazy white man than showing up at 6AM asking for a cow's tongue?

Second on the list today is getting Internet, and that's going to try my patience. What I want is a 3g wireless card from BSNL, the state run phone company. Remember Ernestine the operator from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In? Imagine her in a sari, weighing 200 pounds and barely speaking English, but with just the same attitude and no sense of fun.

I did have some small successes yesterday, though. Flight came in on time, haggling with the taxi driver to get from the airport to Palikkara was minimal and he actually knew where the place was. After a fitful six hours of sleep I got up and felt right at home sipping my coffee (Folger's crystals -- add finding coffee to the list of things to do) and reading he English version of the Indian Express. I met with Anto the landlord at the appointed hour and he was helpful and there were no gotcha's. And lastly, I had some shirts ironed at the princely sum of 5 Rs each. Talk about inflation! It was 3 Rs last time I was here... Still, it's one of the true luxuries of India.

Mission accomplished! Must have been a damn scrawny cow, however, because the tongue can't weigh more than a pound and half. Wish I'd had my camera -- maybe I'll venture forth some morning to take pictures. The cow's head was completely degloved and the eyeballs were staring a bright, lurid red. He grabbed it by the horn and rudely flipped it over and with a practiced motion slit its throat with a quick vertical slash: first on one side down the inner mandible towards the jaw, and then the other. The tongue hung loosely to the remains of the skull by shards of throat muscle and was cleanly removed by yet another deft slice, leaving it in solitary splendor on the bloody chopping block except for a hanging tendril of moo tissue which I motioned for the man to remove. Having done so, we proceeded to discuss the price. As I didn't want to be so bold on my first visit, esp. when I'd achieved my goal so easily, I paid him what he wanted: 110 Rs. Only time will tell whether this was a strategic move on my part, or not...

I misread a headline in today's newspaper: Experts bat for revival of anti-defection law. A couple sentences in and I realized it wasn't about what I thought it was about...