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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mumbai, India (Bombay)

Early Thursday morning, January 12

After arriving in the Mumbai Airport, Nameeta and a driver picked us up and we headed to her apartment in Bandra, a section of Mumbai where a lot of Bollywood actors live. We stayed up talking and catching up. Of course, we also had to eat—I tried a small, unusual fruit called a chikoo, also known as sapota. Nameeta also had gajar halwa, a sweet dish with minced carrot, cream cashew nuts with clarified butter (ghee) and sugar.

The next morning, Nameeta had breakfast prepared for us: Idli (steamed rice dumplings) topped with hot spicy sambhar (lentil puree) and coconut chutney. Also uthapam (open rice pancakes) some with onions, and some with onions and tomatoes. (I loved the uthapam!)

After getting cleaned up, we headed out to Smita and Nameeta’s parents’ house. Leaving, I noticed the crazy traffic—lots of horn blowing as everyone jockeyed for position. It looked like organized chaos. Between that and everyone driving on the left side of the road, I was glad we had a driver. (His name was Jadhiv, by the way.) Of course, I kept trying to get into the driver’s side every time I rode in the front seat. On the way, we stopped to do some shopping. I bought two pair of leather sandals—one with open toes, and one with closed toes. These came in very handy over the course of the trip.

We had lunch with Smita’s mom which consisted of buttery garlic crab, lentils, chickpea and potato curry, and roti.

Following this, Jadhiv drove us our hotel (The Shalimar, in midtown) to check-in, where we would be conducting focus groups for the next two evenings. After work, we went out to dinner near the hotel at an Italian place, called “Under the Over.”

Friday, January 13

After breakfast at the hotel, John, Smita, Nameeta and I headed out to Film City, where Nameeta was meeting with the founder of a film institute which was being built, called Whistling Woods. We toured the building in progress, and were presented the business plan.

Afterwards, we toured Film city, and saw the set of the Indian Version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which is hosted by India’s most famous celebrity, Amitabh Bachshan. This 35 year veteran of Indian films is highly regarded, and was in the newspaper every single day.

Leaving Film City, we drove back into Mumbai where we had lunch at Taj Lands End with a director who collaborates with Nameeta, named Sunil. In this awesome meal, I had muurg malai kebab (very tasty marinated tender tender chicken), tiger prawns in chettinad (red coconut curry sauce), garlic naan, roomali roti (very thin handkerchief-like bread), ganna juice (sugar cane juice) with Bacardi, and Muurg do pyaz (chicken in a spicy tomato and onion). We grabbed some pan (betel leaf with coconut, cherries, rose essence, anis, cardamom, clove, shredded betel nuts, used as a digistif) as we left.

After being entirely stuffed, we went back to hotel for rest before focus groups. To celebrate the last of the focus groups, we went out to have Sizzlers at a restaurant called Kobe in Phoenix Mills. “Sizzlers” come on a hot skillet, kind of like fajitas, but the meat also has French fries and other vegetables sizzling with it. After dinner, Smita and I drank Belinis at a pretty empty club while John had Heinekens.

Saturday, January 14

Saturday morning, Nameeta’s husband Ajay met John and I at the hotel with Jadhiv, the driver. Smita and Namita were already on the way to meet us by the Gateway of India. We joined them there, and then took a ferry to the Island of Elephanta, where there is a temple to Shiva from 700 AD carved from the mountain. From the ferry, we had a great view of the Gateway and the Taj hotel.

Once at Elephanta, we hiked up the mountain to the temple. Monkeys were everywhere. We had a very good guide, who explained the significance of the carvings in the cave temple. Afterwards, we had some snacks and beers as we sat on the mountainside overlooking the water. The day was a day of festival where everyone flew kites and ate a sweet candy where we were then to also “speak sweetly.” (We witnessed the kite flying event on the beach once we got back to Mumbai.) Coming back down from the mountain, I bought a set of red Ganeshas, the elephant headed deity who is the son of Shiva. Ganesha is a favorite god, as he is the remover of obstacles.

After ferrying back, we shopped along the Colaba Causeway. Here I bought three khurtas to wear as I had only packed winter clothing. (The weather in Mumbai was quite warm—80s and 90s, despite the fact that it was still winter.) I also bought an elephant made from rose wood. We had lunch at an old haunt called “Leopolds” (where I tried Indian Chinese food).

That evening, at Nameeta’s and Ajay’s, we meet up with a trio from the Netherlands who Nameeta was working with to bring an exhibit to Amsterdam recreating Mumbai. Earlier that day, on the Colaba, Ajay had purchased a street salesman’s entire inventory of rat poison (including his box and sign) just for the exhibit.

Sunday, January 15

Ajay made toast and eggs before heading out with a driver to Mantheran, a hilltop station, where we took hairpin curves beside cliffs up a mountain. On the drive up, we stopped at a roadside restaurant (more like a roadside stand with some tables and chairs) where we had Wada Pav, a deep fried potato mixture on a roll with hot green peppers and chutney, and pagoras (crispy fried onions.)

Manthran is environmentally friendly, so no cars are allowed. We had to stop and go up the rest of the way on horseback. Near the villa where we stayed (known as The Byke) there was a little village with shops. The roads were covered with red dust, which got all over our shoes and pants. On the way up the mountain, I was on a horse named Arju. John was on Albela. Monkeys lined the trees as we rode.

John and I were in a huge room with a bed and bathroom downstairs and a bed upstairs as well.

After arriving, the staff was eager for us to have lunch (the head guy had informed them that they had very important guests). We had a huge lunch called Thalis. The meal was completely vegetarian, but I didn’t even notice because there was so much variety and so many tastes. After lunch, we went to the game room where Smita and Nameeta taught John and I how to play a mini-billiard like game called Carrom.

After a nap, I awoke to find everyone else sleeping, so I decided to head up the road to the village by myself. Watching the sunset, I met up with two young people who taught me some Hindi and were interested in knowing who my favorite Bollywood stars were, and were eager to share their favorite Hollywood stars.

As I walked back, I met up with Ajay, Nameeta, Smita, and John coming the other way, so I turned around and walked back into the heart of the village. We walked alongside cows, bulls, and goats. One calf became particularly fond of me, nudging its head against me and following me around. A bull seemed to follow us for a while, too. He wasn’t nearly as friendly. Ajay and I both got head massages at the barbershop. John gambled at a local attraction, winning lots of rupees (at least to the villagers.) Heading back to the Byke, we played poker and Kingfisher beer and dinner by poolside.

Monday, January 16.

With slingshots we purchased the evening before in hand to keep monkeys from stealing our food, we enjoyed tea and breakfast on the front porch. Afterwards, we went horseback riding to Charlotte Lake, Lord’s Point and Echo point . This time I was on Albela, who was 15 years old. The horse keepers, who accompanied us, get paid 1000 Rupees a month, and sleep in the stables with the horses. Mine was named Pravahda. After heading back to The Byke we relaxed on our porch, packed, and then I mounted Abela once again to head back down the mountain. The staff was extremely disappointed we didn’t stay for lunch but we did not want to eat that much before the descent from the mountain.

Instead we stopped at the same roadside restaurant and again had Wada Pav (this time, much hotter than the previous day.)

After some shopping at a store called Fabindia, where I bought several more khurtas and an outfit for my niece, we picked up some Kingfisher and went to visit some with Smita’s family.

Later that evening, Nameeta had made reservations at a restaurant called Saltwater Grill, owned by one of her friends (who later comped the meal.) The food was delicious, and the view spectacular. The linen topped tables sat on the sand on the beach of the Arabian Sea, with the palm trees lined in lights and the view of “the queen’s necklace,” the lights that curve around the bay on Marine Drive. After dinner, we crossed the street to have cream and strawberries at a famous Mumbai institution.

Tuesday, January 17.

Tuesday morning, John, Nameeta, Smita, and I took rickshaws (small three-wheeled cabs) shopping in a district called Santacruz. Afterwards, we had lunch at “Only Parathas” where we had Parathas, bread stuffed with different vegetables. I had lassi to drink—a thick yogurt based drink.

After lunch and shopping, we headed back to Nameeta’s to pack our things. We went to dinner at Smita’s and Nameeta’s parents house before leaving for the airport to head back to Atlanta.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Wednesday, January 11-- Paris to Mumbai

We got up early Wednesday morning to head to CDG airport for our flight to Mumbai, India. After the 9 hour flight, we were met by Smita's sister, Nameeta, who had been escorted practically on the plane because their father is a government official. It had been arranged for us to easily get through customs, and there were two cars waiting to take us to Nameeta's house. Once there, we stayed up to 4:00 am (which was really only about 12:30 am Paris time), eating and talking and checking work emails (as it was still the workday back in the US.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tuesday, January 10—Back to Paris

Tuesday morning, Julien came by Louis’ to take us to the train station to return to Paris to attend our customer focus groups.

We arrived at the hotel (near Montparnasse) just in time to meet Smita and John, who had left us a note (unknown to us) to meet them at 1:00 pm, the exact time we arrived. Scott and I walked up the street for lunch (a delicious pizza and an appetizer of smoked salmon.) I normally would feel bad about eating pizza in Paris, but after several days of very authentic French cooking, I was fine with pizza. Ours had ham, cheese, and mushrooms, with a very thin crust. I drizzled mine with an olive oil infused with peppers and herbs--very hot.

After lunch, Smita, John, Scott and I walked down the street to grab some coffee, then headed to the find the facility where our focus groups were to be held. Dropping our things off, we walked towards Les Invalides to see Napoleon's tomb. On the way, we had a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower.

Following the focus groups, we walked back to a small bar near the hotel, called "Bueret," for a glass of wine before going to bed.

Monday, January 9, 2005—Lille

Early Monday morning, Louis knocked on my door to awaken me. I had promised to speak to an international marketing class he teaches at the L’Ecole Européen Montebello. I told them about the project I was working on, and the process involved. Afterwards, Louis commented that it was great timing as I covered many of the subjects that they are currently studying. I spoke mostly in English, trying to be slow and deliberate, writing many words on the board. I believe the class comprehended most of what I was saying.

After class, we returned to Louis’ house, picked up Scott, and headed to into downtown Lille for a walking tour and lunch. We ate at “Les 400 Coups” where I had a nice Salmon tartare. Afterwards, Louis returned to school for his afternoon class while Scott and I shopped and walked all over Lille (mostly trying to find the metro station back to Louis’ house).

Later that evening, we accompanied Louis to the supermarket, where we bought ingredients to prepare dinner. The supermarket had so many patés and cheeses that would cost an arm and a leg in the US but here they were just a few dollars. While Louis prepared dinner, Scott and I sipped on vodka from Poland which had been given to Louis. It was infused with herbs with a touch of sweetness, tasting like no vodka I had ever tasted.

Michel and Julien joined us for dinner. We had several different patés, two of which were made from duck (one more of a mousse), and the other was made from rabbit. For the main course, we had a Dutch dish, literally called “dish of small meat” which had rabbit, veal, and chicken cooked with onions and a gelatin. Louis also made a chicken dish prepared with a regional cheese.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sunday, January 8—Paris and Lille (France)

Sunday was a very lazy day. It was cold and cloudy outside—a good day to sleep in late. This was followed up by a wonderful meal—Dominique and Daniel made a brie quiche while Louis cooked a wonderful apple tart.

After Julien arrived (only about 5 hours later than the breakfast we expected him to bring), we got in the car and headed to Lille, a city a couple of hours north of Paris (by car) near the Belgian border.

Louis had called my friend Michel to tell him that he needed to see him when he arrived back in Lille. Michel had been unable to make the trip to Paris and was disappointed that he would not see me this trip, so I surprised him by being a Louis’ house when he arrived. After we had dinner (pasta in a red sauce with sausage, which Julien cooked) Julien, Scott, and I met his roommate Laure for drinks—a champagne based red drink in a huge glass, garnished with stale candy and glow-sticks. (Laure had been sick the last time I was in Lille, so I had never met her.) The bar was in the old part of the city. It had become Julien and Laure’s new hangout, so they knew the bartender (Max) as well as the DJ (Felix).

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Saturday, January 7—Paris

The next day, my coworker Scott arrived in Paris from Atlanta. We spent the day walking down St. Denis to Les Halles and through the Marais, stopping for lunch and a bottle of wine. We went in several stores and several more coffee shops as the day progressed, before finally meeting a large group of our host’s friends for dinner at Le Chant Des Voyelles on rue des Lombards. I was very impressed with the restaurant. The food was wonderful, and one could pick a starter and an entrée for only 12.50 euros. I had veal in a mushroom sauce with a sort of vegetable soufflé for my entrée, and a delicious pâté as my starter. We shared a crème brullée for desert.

Coming home later, Scott and I had told the cab driver to drop us off at the train station near where we were staying (Gare de Becon des Bruyeres). Unfortunately, as the cab pulled away I noticed that the train station didn’t quite look the same as when we had left. In fact, we were on the other side of the tracks—4 sets of tracks, I believe. We couldn’t figure out how to get around it, so we proceeded to climb over the fence and cross the tracks. We made it to the other side, but the station was locked, and the fence on that side was too high.We ended up crossing back over, where we walked until we found the bridge going over the tracks. It wasn’t very fun at the time, but it was hysterically funny once we finally arrived back at the house.

Friday, January 06, 2006

January 6, Paris

My 1:35 AM flight landed at 5:45 Paris time. It had taken forever to dim the lights, and then there was a very loud crying baby that cried the entire time. On arrival, I made my way to the Ibis at the airport to check in for a quick nap and shower before going back to my company’s office in France to set up a temporary office for the day. It was good to have a direct connection into work, and to actually be able to call in and talk to coworkers to catch up on company news.

Since it was Epiphany, the office in Paris was having “Gallette,” (sp?) a round almond pastry with a baby Jesus hidden inside. Whoever gets the baby Jesus is crowned King.

After work, my friends Louis and Julien picked me up and we headed into Paris to stay with their friends Dominique and Daniel. Dominique had cooked lasagna; we had a nice dinner before meeting more of their friends out for drinks. On the way, we rode beside the Seine, providing views of the Eifel Tower, the Musee Dorsay, and the Notre Dame.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

January 5, Tel Aviv:

After spending a morning of downloading emails and sending those I had responded to the evening before, I called Nirit, who had promised to show me around town. It was a strange day as Ariel Sharon had been hospitalized for a major brain hemorrhage the evening before. I had seen it on the news just before going to bed.

Nirit picked me up and we headed to a cute neighborhood with a name I can’t spell or pronounce. Then we walked along a promenade by the Mediterranean to the city of Jaffa, where we browsed flea markets and had delicious freshly squeezed orange juice at a Persian shop. We headed back towards Tel Aviv to meet Nirit’s husband Martin and to have lunch by the sea at a restaurant called Mantaray. Martin ordered lots of starters, including hummus, avocado with sardines, a salmon and parsley salad, and fried goat cheese. I had lamb, chickpeas, and mashed potatoes.

Afterwards, Nirit and I went back to the car and went to pick up her children from school. The school had formerly been a kibbutz. It was in a grove of trees, with peacocks, rabbits, goats, and groundhogs out back.

Afterwards, we headed for ice cream at the first ice cream parlor in Tel Aviv, called Montana’s. Of course, that didn’t look like it was spelled as it was spelled in the Hebrew alphabet. I told Nirit I would have to at least learn the alphabet before I come back.

After ice cream, we went to Nirit’s house where I caught up on the newspapers and took a little nap before going out to dinner (Shaul’s Inn) with Itai (sp?). I had chicken skewers, hummous, and another starter with peppers and egg plant (I think). Then we went to Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar, where there was hot chocolate of all kinds, lots of chocolate desserts, and even chocolate soup. After chocolate, it was time to head to the airport for the many questions and luggage searches I knew would follow.

Tel Aviv--The Arrival

I arrived in Tel Aviv after a 10 hour trip from JFK in New York. The adventure started early in the trip as John and I attempted to check in with El Al airlines in JFK’s terminal 4. Our flight from Atlanta had landed much earlier than the flight departure time, because I had heard how rigorous El Al’s check-in could be.

After asking a lot of questions, the security guard selected both of us for special screening. We had to give him all of our belongings, and come back shortly before boarding time. We couldn’t even clear security first, so we wandered around for several hours before finally coming back to clear baggage. Then, I was searched, taking off shoes and socks, then finally allowed to leave. However, we had to be escorted all the way to the plane door.

When we finally arrived at 1:30 PM in Tel Aviv, John made it through passport control just fine. I answered the standard questions, the agent flipped through my passport, and then started making telephone calls and speaking in Hebrew. I figured this could not be good. She wouldn’t even look up at me as she fumbled through papers. I kept silent.

Finally, a really really really big guy came up behind me, she handed me my passport, and he said, “COME.” I did. I followed him to where he said to sit as he took my passport into some back room. I sat. And sat. I didn’t even know if John saw that I was detained, and I also had someone from our agency in Tel Aviv waiting as well.

Finally, I was asked to go into a back room by a representative of the Ministry of the Interior. I went through another series of questions. Then, the woman looked me in the eye and said, “Sir, you have to know that you have matching characteristics of someone whom the Israeli government is searching.”

I said, “What characteristics?”

She said, “Not good.”

Shortly after this, she let me go, a bit paranoid, but glad to finally arrive in Israel. We arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Tel Aviv, where I had a room on the 15th floor (1510), with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. After showering up, we headed to our work.

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