Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chandigarh, Punjab

I spent the weekend in Chandigarh. Planners, architects and the like will perhaps recognize the name of this city for its (in)famous designer, Le Corbusier.  I wish I could report more on the planning of this city, but I was there during the weekend, and it was about 95 degrees with humidity through the roof.  So my pace was slower than usual.  I did not make it to the must-see Secretariat building, so I figure I’ll go back sometime in a few months.  I can tell you that the city is laid out in a grid pattern consisting of numbered sectors.  It has a spacious plaza area, even by non-Indian standards, with a fountain and lots of young Indians and people watching.  On this particular evening there was a critical cricket match on, so dozens of Indian men were gathered around the television cheering for India (I believe India lost to Sri Lanka). 

While I am enjoying most of the Indian food I eat, I was spoiled by the insurmountable options that New York offered me for the ten years I grazed the city’s restaurants.  So, finding myself near a Lonely Planet-recommended Italian restaurant, I decided I could use some pasta and Chianti.  Pasta I had; alas no Chianti. The bread was accompanied by, oddly enough, and a clear indication that I was still in India, butter. While Adam Platt may not have given it more than a star, I was satisfied, especially with dessert, which was a nice gooey chocolately cake served with vanilla ice cream. 

The following day I went down the street to Sai Sweets for breakfast.  Often it is easy to feel that a lot of the most common Indian dishes repeat themselves on menus, so you sometimes forget you’re in a different restaurant than the one yesterday, four days ago, last week.  And then occasionally Krishna is smiling down on you, and you enter a place like Sai Sweets, with new and varied offerings.  The menu described them as “onion filled crusty balls with chickpeas.”  While one side of my brain was telling me to run for the hills, the other side knew a crusty ball could never be a mistake.  On a side note, I’ve been trying to avoid potatoes while here; no small feat, as you can imagine.  The reason being because I believe potatoes were the culprit in the severe Delhi belly I got last time I traveled in India.  So I thought I would be safe given the description of this menu item.  So I was disappointed when I sunk into one of the crusty balls and the encased potato; however, one bite told me it would be worth it.  It was something akin to a biscuit with spiced onion and potato, and then a soupy mixture of chickpeas surrounding the buscuits.  This description is not doing the dish justice, but I am no Frank Bruni, nor do I receive anything near his salary for these reviews, so I’ll leave it at that.  I washed it all down with a sweet lassi.  I was joined by two French travelers for my meal.  We were then all joined by a Mr. Narinder.  He is apparently a fixture in this place (one of the French people had actually met him four years ago, also in Sai Sweets!), and asked me to stage a photo of him handing me a rock garden brochure and one of the French woman enjoying one of Sai’s sweets.  

Besides chasing down a Tata store that was doomed to be closed (Mr. Tata owns nearly everything in India.  I am most appreciative of his colorful trucks.  He was supposed to be my key to the enigmatic Indian Wi-Fi.  Apparently all stores in Chandigarh are closed on Sundays, by mandate from the Chandigarh government!)  and a vaccine that will hopefully prevent some rare but god-awful disease transmitted by the lowly mosquito (such a small creature to be hefting around all these diseases), I spent the rest of my Sunday at the adorable rock garden designed by Nek Chand.  Chand came from Pakistan shortly after partition and was appalled to see the waste generated from the demolition of villages that made way for the newly planned city of Chandigarh – intended to be a testament to India’s leap into the future.  See the pictures I’ve included.  I did my best to capture the whimsy of the place.

Next was a stop at Sukhna Lake – a man-made lake designed by Le Corbusier and dotted with colorful paddleboats.  I entertained myself watching these paddle boats after a cooling beer at the Mermaid Pub.  

A bus station is a good place to know the local language.  You don’t get very far when all you can say is “I don’t understand Hindi,” or “I am American.”  After some time, I figured out the system and realized why I was being pushed and shoved and ladies* were butting in line in front of me.  Essentially, you can buy a ticket only about 15 minutes before the bus is to leave. The bus should be parked and in the station before any ticket purchasing can be done.  So sure was I that I should wait for the a/c bus, I left the ticket line and went to the comfort of the small air-conditioned waiting room.  I was told to return at 5:45, fifteen minutes before the bus was to leave.  Return I did – to a line about a dozen ladies long.  Luckily, the man who had earlier told me to come back in a half hour recognized me and pulled me to the front of the line.  After boarding the bus, I realized that not everyone was going to get a seat for the two hour ride.  We left the station, but it frequently slowed down to accept more and more riders.  They just kept coming and coming.  We were so packed in there that the a/c could not keep up with all the summer body heated radiating from all of us.  It wasn’t a terribly long bus ride but I was happy to land in Ludhiana a couple of hours later. 

*Interestingly enough, women and men are still quite segregated here.  At the bus station, there were two lines. All women sat at the front of the bus and the men towards the rear.   Quite a few parents still forbid their children from having friends of the opposite sex.  Therefore, you see a lot of boys and men riding scooters together and holding hands.

I should most definitely get this for my niece

Plaza in Chandigarh

Watching the cricket match

Mr. Narinder. He gave me his email so I could send him this picture.

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