A train crossing the trestle over the glen.
Last September, I traveled to India, to recruit students for my university. I traveled all over, south to north, east and west, literally ten thousand miles in all.
I wrote a brief post about this a few months ago, but wanted to add some postcards about individual cities, and about what it’s like to travel at warp speed through a country, and whatever flickers of insight you can gain.
There was no time to do any of the things I usually do – – museums, historic sites, people-watching from cafes, etc. Mostly, I saw hotels, conference rooms, airports, and offices. And cabs. Lot’s of cabs. Endless flights and meetings, zipping along in cabs and the occasional auto-rickshaw, everything seen in glimpses as fleeting as a Snapchat. Far removed from it all, not an active participant. Just a pair of eyes, passing through like a GoPro on a badly-steered drone.
And you know what? In some ways, it was liberating.
I didn’t have to do anything, or decide anything. I knew I had to get to such-and-such event or fair at such-and-such time. Whatever happened in-between meant that I was free to live in the moment fully, just soaking it in.
Obviously, a limited immersion. In some ways, like spending an afternoon at an aquarium – – a layer of glass removes me from the fascinating images and lives that I’m seeing, but not fully experiencing. Looking at sea creatures in a tank is not the same thing as swimming through a coral reef.
But sometimes, to be honest, arms-length was kinda pleasant – – in an air-conditioned cab, you don’t feel the humidity, and are safe from mosquitoes. But in some ways too, it cemented my status as an outsider, one who isn’t able to fully comprehend what is happening.
So… these little postcards and snippets are what I was able to gather.
I even had to ditch the newspapers I’d picked up. Unlike our dwindling industry in the U.S., newspapers in India seem to be thriving, and I wanted to bring home a sampling to show people – – lively, entertaining, sometimes strange.
I started jotting this entry during my second-to-last stop, staying in the LaLiT Hotel, Kolkata. It’s a luxurious, modernized place – but what was more of a kick for a history buff – this used to be the Great Eastern Hotel, 175 years old, the first hotel in India with electric lighting. You walk down hallways following Mark Twain and Kipling (well, just a few years behind). I loved that section of town, too – Old Calcutta – majestic colonial era buildings, like a capital in Latin America, large palatial buildings and walled-in gardens.
Kolkata was my favorite stop, Parts of it are like Singapore – massive Victorian-era buildings in pristine condition, gardens, parks, the biggest cricket stadium in India, a huge suspension bridge.
The Victoria Memorial still stands, like a giant white marble palace. Then ultra-modern tall, sleek buildings. Really tall lux hotels. Some neighborhoods are definitely not for me, but if I were to live in India, that’s the city for sure. There’s something special about it even amidst the chaos. Shrines to Durga and Kali (the multi-armed scary-looking one) all over.
I drove into town past a tall building with a sign flashing an ad for some soft drink. And it struck me as being how NYC looks in movies, but not in reality anymore, since so much old neon is gone.
Then I saw an old-school cab in front of a crumbly building and palm tree, and instead of Singapore, it felt like a street in Old Havana. It was a Hindustan Ambassador, a chunky 1950’s-style thing, like one of those dogs that are homely, but you just like on first sight.
(When I got home, The Economist had an article that noted exactly the same impression – – Kolkata’s striking resemblance in parts to Havana.)
Traffic is Chaotic.
The food was interesting. Here, seafood and banana-based food is popular. I steered clear of the fish, but had a meal made with bananas. I don’t recall the details of how they prepared it, but it was delicious. It was washed down with lime juice and soda water, which was also refreshing.
Lucknow seems like Colonial India is still alive. And it has a gorgeous river walk
Smaller by Indian standards, crazy traffic, like everywhere, but manageable.
The only true Old City I was in, the denseness of the streets and the sort of India you’d expect from watching movies – – masses of people of all walks of life, jumbled into one place. I was very glad to have be in a scene that met my expectations, and glad it was Lucknow, a storied, historic, artistic, and multicultural whirlwind.
And I particularly liked the hotel there. While the Lalit in Kolkata was by far the most swank, the one in Lucknow had a wonderful faded glory about it. This was true of the city too, faded but still majestic, at least in the old city.
Lucknow was one of the two cities (the other being Jaipur) where I broke my rule to not eat meat. In the land of Tikka Masala, it would be criminal to not partake. It was delicious and rich. My entire time in India was marked by amazing food, and the meals I was able to take in small eateries were in a way, the most authentic experiences I had on this trip. I tried whatever the locals were eating, dishes which I cannot name or even describe accurately, and loved everything I ate.
Ahmedabad was also a unique experience. Famed even by Indian standards for their vegetarian dining options, I ate incredibly well every day. But the highlight for me by far was the tea. Masala chai was offered frequently and I never missed a chance to have some. Chai is familiar in the West, but here they offered it with different varieties, including one I loved most, Ginger – – it has a real kick, but is delicious, and good for the stomach.
I was struck also by the number of Chinese business people that were there. In a country like the US, we assume that the whole world comes to us. But India and China both have trade agreements and rivalries, and there you see the rest of the world interacting with each other, hastening development or maybe looking into expanding their own industries abroad.
Ahmedabad was the only place I had any free time, though I used most of it to sleep, after 8 days of back-to-back flights, cabs, conferences, etc. But that evening, I went with the locals I knew to a restaurant/tourist village. This place was designed like a traditional village, with thatched huts and the like. We ate on the ground, legs crossed (or in my case, a sort of crossed-legs sitting that killed my lower back), and ate off banana leaves. The “Gujarati Thaali” is a true marvel — a spread of all sorts of vegetable dishes and salads, rice, flat breads, with many sides. Waiters arrive at the table from all sides, ensuring there isn’t ever an empty dish. Amidst the traces of smoke from smoldering mosquito repellents, it was a very charming experience and the food was excellent.
We had time to visit an unusual “Utensil Museum” — full of unfamiliar food preparation devices, and chock full of locks and keys – – all of which was surprisingly interesting.
Just outside of the bamboo fence was a mega highway, reminding you that this village is a simulation, and not how many people live anymore.
Chandigarh was a pleasant surprise. A “planned city,” by Le Corbusier and other architects, roughly the same 1960 vintage as Brasília, it felt unlike anywhere else in India.
Initially, traveling from the airport to the city’s industrial center and hotels, it felt like the rest of India. A horse cart on the side of the road, laden with sacks of tea or rice. A man with one crutch, dusty and haggard, going car to car to beg.
But the city itself is almost more like something you’d see in East Asia. Virtually no trash, wide clean avenues. For a semi-arid city, there were still a good amount of trees, green spaces, and as I learned, about a dozen public gardens. The market there was also unique. Rather than a maze-like souk, it was a spacious open-air shopping center with organized rows of tables, and many storefronts aligned in a large open rectangle offering an array of clothing, food stuffs and gadgetry. It was hardly the most interesting city, but I enjoyed it more than I’d expected.
Jaipur was the other city that surprised me. But, it was the opposite reaction. While Chandigarh was much better than I anticipated, Jaipur ([probably the most visited by tourists of all of the places I went) was not as beautiful or luxurious as I had hoped. Dirty, smelling of sewage in parts, I felt it had a bit of an edge I didn’t experience elsewhere.
Men were sleeping at the base of the city gate, while cars roared past. This was the city where people would make offers of whatever they were selling, the instant they saw me, and I felt more watched than others cities, where visitors are regarded with respectful curiosity, rather than seen as a mark.
Even the famed Hawa Mahal palace was a bit underwhelming – gorgeous, intricate and fascinating, but far smaller than I had anticipated. (Much like people always comment, going to a gallery to see “American Gothic,” or Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory,” which shocked me when I saw how small they were, the fame of things can make them seem bigger in our mind’s eye.) This is definitely true of Jaipur’s most fabled attraction. But still, striking and enjoyable to visit.
The Hawa Mahal looks like something out of a fairytale, with its many windows (which I learned are actually the back of the building). The name means “air or wind palace,” with its many tiny window-outcroppings, and was designed for the women of the Harem to look out of without being seen. The women were forbidden to be seen by the populace, and had to wear full veils when in public, so they created this strange viewing gallery, where they could see the town, while hidden from view.
While very short, not much more than an airport stop, I was briefly in Srinagar in Kashmir. And it struck me, that what you see from planes, is often misleading, you really need to go and take a walk to experience a place properly. But flying in over the foothills of the Himalayas, I looked down over what could have been Russia or Canada, not the tropical landscapes I had been seeing.
If you remember my somewhat fishy analogy in the beginning of this story, Srinagar was the closest to what I like about aquariums. I’ve always found them mesmerizing. Perhaps there, more than anywhere else, in the dim light and quiet, looking into an alien, watery world, watching the fish go by is somewhat akin to meditation. Noisy people are out of place. They’re disturbing the reverie. I sometimes wish aquariums would play some soothing ambient music or the like, to quieten the visitors. Srinagar was like that. I landed, it was silent, the mountain air was cool, and it transported me back to the hill country in Chile for a moment. There was an Urdu song (perhaps a prayer?) playing softly in the terminal.
Yes, this was during a period of unrest, and there were also a good many soldiers and police present, far more than anywhere else. But despite all that, it felt so peaceful. To me, for at least one moment, before being shouted after by taxi hawkers, it was the most like being in an aquarium. I found it magical. I guess you take whatever moments you can.
There’s a story I’ve heard many times, about a couple of my directionally-challenged aunts, getting lost on their way from NYC to visit my family in central NY, many years ago.
They were missing in action for many hours, and finally, late at night, they called from a payphone. “We must be near Waterloo, because we passed Watertown quite a while ago. It’s very dark, and there’s nothing but trucks loaded with logs. The sign says ‘Last U.S. Exit.'”
If you don’t have a map handy, you just have to know, they’d driven north from The City, and neglected to ever turn west, toward my town. They’d just pressed on, northward, like Admiral Peary, and were calling from the Canadian border.
It was assumed by most, they’d arrived somewhere near the St. Lawrence River, and the province of Ontario. But I think people underestimate my aunts’ ability to misplace themselves, and it could’ve easily been near Quebec, or even New Brunswick.
If they ever have time, and a platinum gas card, I believe with all my heart, that they could outdo Moses, who only wandered in the desert for forty years, and they’ve been practicing for almost that long now.
The last time I told this, the listener wasn’t surprised about them getting lost, since they’re related to me, but they asked about the log trucks. And they were surprised when I mentioned logging in New York.
I don’t think these photos are all that special, but they’ll serve as illustrations. Folks who’ve only visited NYC, might not realize, that New York still has lumbering. While not on the scale of the Pacific Northwest or southern states, NY is on the top ten list for producing hardwoods, especially maple, oak, and cherry.
The pine trees in the photos are something different. Government foresters planted them to help stabilize worn-out farmland. That was years ago, and I think all of the pine plantations around the Fingers Lakes, state or federal, are now mature, or a bit past it.
As they were harvested, some were being replaced with red oaks, but mostly it appears to be left to windblown chance – – so it’ll probably end up with the usual suspects – – beech, maple, oak, hickory. Sometimes you’ll see cottonwoods and dense thickets of poplars springing up – – not very valuable for lumber, but good cover for grouse, quail & woodcock.
This region doesn’t have the large-scale chip- and pulpwood farming that goes on in the south, with it’s industrialized pine monoculture. The white pines are in decline around here, between logging, windstorms, a destructive fungus that attacks the needles, blister rust, and pine bark beetles & weevils.
I guess the plantations are “fake forests,” of course, but I have to confess, that walking in these groves, through the orderly rows of pencil-straight trees, has always appealed to me. They’re not that common around here, so it makes a nice change. Almost zero undergrowth, so you can march along inspecting ranks, not worrying about ticks or thorns, breathing that great pine-y air, with chipmunks skittering across your path.
Especially when it’s frosty outside, it’s great to take the path less traveled by, but it’s also nice to not get bent in the undergrowth, always having to watch for trail blazes, and just let your mind wander, knowing you’re on the straight and narrow.
Today’s statue is not just an object of beauty, though often praised and imitated.
Butterbrot was a hero of course, a visionary and one of those eminent Victorians of brains, pluck, and intestinal fortitude.
But the statue also conveys a concept, or ideal, or dream – – toward which humanity still strives – – having great meals, without needing to cook, or go to a restaurant, or having pizza delivered.
Like many visionaries, he looked at problems that had bedeviled humanity for years, but had the gift of seeing them in a different light.
Some of his detractors would say, in retrospect, that the lights were on, but no one was home.
But the fact that his venture was a spectacular failure, and caused a financial catastrophe that bankrupted most of the county, and accidentally killed all of the fish in the Seneca River, in no way detracts from the beauty of his vision.
It was during a stay at Dr. Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, that a casual remark changed his entire life, and inspired his quest for Progress.
Yet it proved to be a profoundly depressing experience for Butterbrot. His fire engines couldn’t cope with buildings that soared to seven or ten stories. And like many of the new “skyscrapers,” the hotel was constructed of brick, steel, and terra cotta tile, and advertised itself as “The World’s Only Fire Proof Hotel.” He foresaw a future of such fireproof structures, and financial ruin for his fire engine business.
Worried and dejected, he checked himself into Dr. Kellogg’s spa for treatment. (He would’ve been cheered to know that it would burn down, in 1902).
In the course of a consultation, while enumerating the virtues of “Nuttose” (a meat substitute made from peanuts), and discussing other vegetarian and anaphrodisiac delights he was cooking up, Kellogg indulged in a bit of modern slang, saying “More inventions and patents are ‘in the pipeline‘ every day.”
“Upon hearing the word ‘pipeline,’ as Butterbrot often related, “a Flash of Inspiration nearly prostrated me.”
He leapt up, pumped Kellogg’s hand vigorously, and left for home on the next train.
His Idea, in brief, was to create “food preparatories,” industrial-sized kitchens that would transmit food by pipeline to workers’ homes, saving them the need for stoves, larders, iceboxes, pots & pans, etc. as well as the time wasted on going to the market, chasing & plucking fowl, et cetera & cooking.
Butterbrot described himself as a Techno-Progressive, and having grown up in Seneca Falls, where the first Womens’ Rights Convention was held, he wished to liberate members of the gentle sex from the burden of preparing meals. “Equipping each & every household with its own kitchen is inefficient, individualistic, and immensely wasteful of time.”
By freeing women from household drudgery, he could expand the pool of labor for his factory, and remove one of the incentives for getting married, believing that single workers, if well-fed, would be more reliable and productive. Demands for time off for weddings, unionization and a 55-hour work week would dissipate.
By the time he arrived at the factory in Seneca Falls, he’d filled pad after pad with sketches and diagrams, and immediately chartered a new company, “The Providential Provender Pipeline and Pabulum Pump Co.” or PPPPPCo. for short.
He began raising funds with circulars & flyers:
“Provisions Piped To You Piping Hot,”
“Pumping Iron…and Vitamins!” and
“Why a Duct? (It’s Not Quackery!)”
Seneca County responded with alacrity, as practically every resident invested in his venture, and with funding assured, he assembled his most accomplished mechanics, engineers, and several boardinghouse cooks of local renown.
“What was needed,” he’d explain in his telegraphic terseness, “was a single device that ground up, cooked, and then propelled the foodstuffs.”
Conical burr grinders, sausage-makers, cider presses, and corn-stalk-breakers were studied and quickly discarded. Rotating drums filled with cobblestones and heated with coal gas seemed promising, but lacked sufficient propulsive energy.
A mechanized mortar, pestle & piston machine proved unpredictable, and after a field worker on a neighboring farm was nearly decapitated by a cast-iron tureen of turnip soup, which somehow came loose and was flung two miles by the contraption, this was also abandoned.
“Finally,” as he later wrote, “the solution presented itself as I soaked in an effervescent hydrotherapy tub, studying Kellogg’s ‘The Uses of Water.’ The bath pump, one of my design, which produced the health-giving bubbles, gave a tremendous sort of hiccup, and the water slopped over the rim. I experienced another Flash of Inspiration. Like Archimedes, I leapt from the tub, shouting ‘Eureka!'”
However…this was Upstate New York, not heathen Greece, and folks don’t run down the streets naked & shouting. He toweled off, shaved, combed & pomaded his hair, oiled his mustache, drew on his trousers, buttoned on the braces, fastened the stud in his celluloid collar, tied his cravat, shined & tied his shoes, attached his watchchain & stowed the timepiece in a vest pocket, and arranged a handkerchief in the pocket of his frock coat.
He had by then, completely forgotten the brainstorm.
“Then, by some Benevolent Influence, heedless in my anxiety and distraction, I slipped on the wet flagstones, and cracked my head upon the basin. As I regained my footing, the whole Idea in its entirety again presented itself.”
It was Archimedes’ screw, one of the earliest pump designs in history. Slightly modified, and hooked to a steam engine, it became a “High-Shear Extruder,” whose compression and friction produced enough heat to cook the food, without requiring an external source of heat.
“We could now produce hot slush on a truly Industrial Scale, and Pump the Mash to the Masses!”
This is the End of Chapter One.
Chapter Two, “Persuading the Unleavened Masses to Accept the New Scheme of Efficient Cookery”
Chapter Three, “Early Success & The Later Backlash; Advertising Campaign to Address Malicious & Scurrilous Rumours RE the Currants In the Christmas Pudding”
Chapter Four, “The Hyperion Loop Pipeline Disaster, and Resultant Dying of Fish, Governmental Inquiry, Disgrace & Bankruptcy”
I’ll have to type all this up later, it’s kind of a tragic story.
It goes without saying, that Dr. Kellogg and The Palmer House were real, the rest of this is nonsense. The nice old photos are from the Library of Congress and the Wellcome Library. The statue is made from machine parts, from Goulds Pumps, a very real company, which has been manufacturing in Seneca Falls since the 1840’s.
In the 19th c. they made iron well pumps, corn grinders, fire engines, and now produce state-of-the-art pumps for industrial use.
When I was a kid, my irresponsible parents told me that this object (rusting away in the weeds, a short distance from the statue), was an early Soyuz capsule, from a Soviet space launch that went astray, and splashed down in the canal. You can see why I am the way I am today.
You may want to clear any small kids from the room before reading on.
My hometown barber, Eddie, is one of the nicest guys you can imagine.
The shop has three chairs, but his father and older brother are gone now, so it’s not as busy as it was years ago.
The front window is filled with tomato plants, which continue to produce fruit all winter, somehow. And there’s a lot of fishing and bowling trophies.
And it’s always neat as a pin, so when I received this shocking photo, or at least, a photo of a shock of hair on the floor, I was shocked.
I’d forgotten! Every year, once the Xmas season is over, one of Eddie’s friends stops by, a semi-pro Santa Claus actor.
He got a flat-top and trim, but will then start growing out his beard and hair all over again, only 342 days to go folks.
Random thoughts for 2020, looking through snapshots from 2019
A Tale of Unrelenting Horror & Bad Muffins for Halloween
“Nevermore,” I said through gritted teeth, as I felt my way up the creaking, long-disused stairs, breathing deep the gathering gloom, feeling moody and blue.
Why does gloom always do that? Gather, I mean. It could learn a thing or two from me, learn to dissipate a bit, at least on weekends.
My nerve almost failed – – I mean, it’s hard to say “nevermore” with your teeth gritted, but then, the stairs hadn’t been swept in years, so I guess it would’ve been gritty no matter what I did with my teeth. My throat was knotted with tension and my teeth were already on edge from the howling storm. All in all, it was a desperately nerve-racking situation, dental-wise.
I paused to shield the guttering candle, almost snuffed out by a sudden icy draft. Nevermore will I stay in a haunted B&B, when it’s only rated 1 1/2 stars, and the only muffins at breakfast were prune and artichoke. Another icy draft filled the dank stairwell, and the storm outside rattled the windowpanes. I thought some more about icy drafts, and how nice it would be to have a cold beer, just to wash away the dust on my tongue. But one of the embroidered signs on the bedroom wall asked Guests Please Refrain from Eating or Drinking in Your Room. And Do Not Sit Upon the Counterpane.
I didn’t know what a counterpane might be, so I didn’t sit on anything, and slept in the bathtub.
Or tried to sleep.
The night was wild with a vicious storm, branches tap-tap-tapping on the window panes, some stupid raven trying to get in, too, but what really rendered the night sleepless was a horrible banshee wail from somewhere in the upper, supposedly vacant floors! Finally driven to distraction, I ignored the “Private. & Kind of Creepy” sign, and forced open the door to the back stairs with a poker I’d snatched from the hearth, the splintering wood and rusty screech drowned out by the storm. Man, beast, or spirit, I determined to climb the stairs and confront this evil, poker in my hand & black murder on my mind. The wi-fi was out, so I had nothing else to do anyway.
I also had a candle, the Gideon’s Bible from the nightstand, and the bell from my bicycle. No holy water, but I brought the little complimentary spray bottle of Lavender & Paprika linen freshener, which really stings if you get it in your eyes.
(That’s a lot of stuff to carry, but luckily, I always travel with vintage 1920’s bathrobes from Abercrombie & Fitch, in MacKay tartan, the long-discontinued model called “The Huntsman’s Friend,” with tons of pockets, a hip flask, and ammo loops. You can unravel the belt for fishing line, in an emergency. I really recommend it.)
The horrible keening continued, and I froze for a moment, but with nerves of iron, I steeled myself to, no I mean, with nerves of steel and a backbone of iron, I was galvanized into action. That’s not quite right, either, is it. OK, like an iron, I pressed on. Whatever, I went up the stairs, metallically in some way, and burst open the attic door.
To be confronted
with a scene
of heart-stopping horror,
beyond the capacity of words to express!
Well, actually, we do have words to express it – – it was the B&B’s butler, playing the bagpipes.
The ghastly shrieks died away, as the fiend drew breath, fixed me with a glittering eye, and intoned sepulchrally, “It’s not keening, laddie, ’tis ‘The Rose of Kelvingrove’.”
I snatched my trusty Webley .455 from my bathrobe pocket, the one with a built-in holster, and emptied it in his direction.
“Ha!” I cried – – the stupid sign in my room said “Please don’t disturb the tranquility of our guests by turning on the shower bath, radio, or TV after 7:15 PM,” but it didn’t say anything about shooting guns!
“Ha!” I said again. (In crisis mode, my thought process was so quick, the casual listener would be forgiven for thinking I’d said “Haha!” instead of two distinct “Ha’s!” but I figured, really, after discharging a large caliber pistol in a confined space, they probably wouldn’t have heard anything at all, so I pantomimed “Ha!” for dramatic effect.)
Six shots rang true. The perforated bagpipe fell to the floor like last year’s haggis after a pub brawl in Glasgow.
The butler never flinched.
Totally impassive, he slowly turned, and bent to seize a large black leather portmanteau.
I felt an instant of dismay, because his kilt was rather short. He dragged the sinister case toward me. I regretted having expended all six bullets on the bagpipes.
Placing it between us, his mad glare never leaving my face, with infinite menace, he slowly undid the clasps and opened it.
An appalling odor of stale mazurka flooded the attic.
His lips stretched into a hideous grin.
“Polka time, then?” he asked, as he removed the accordion.
A tale of B&B horror for Halloween.