India: Outing to Alibag

The monsoons are expected any day now.  Indian Summer is winding down and by early or mid-June the country will be awash in steamy rain.  When the rains come, the storied Alphonso mangoes, grown in Maharashtra state, will be gone for the year.  Y'all, you have no idea what a mango is supposed to taste like until you have an Alphonso.  I will never eat a Mexican mango again.  

Why the talk of mangoes?  Several weeks ago an opportunity arose to head out to "the country" for a couple of days to visit with a coworker's family and to tour their mango grove.  Prajakt, my coworker, had invited us to his grandparents' farm in Alibag.  We were to meet his extended family and have lunch with them before continuing on to another village for a couple of days' rest.  (You'll only read about Alibag and lunch in this post because I ended up cutting the mini-vacay short due to bad water, as hinted at in the "Staying well" post.  Wah-wah.)

Ok, so off we go!

I was pretty pumped about our journey to Alibag because it meant I was going to expand my transportation experiences.  We've covered planes, trains, and automobiles.  I've also done a touristy carriage ride.  This trip involved a boat and a bus.  I'm conquering the Indian landscape, one vehicle at a time. 

We caught a ferry early one morning from the Gateway of India.  See the hills in the background?  That's where we were headed.  Given that you can see the hills through the Mumbai smog, you can correctly assume that Alibag isn't too far from Mumbai.  Our ferry ride lasted approximately 45 minutes.

Take a look above the guy's head in the middle of the foreground.  See the building with the dome and then a high tower to its right?  That's the Taj Palace hotel.  My office is two city blocks to the left of the hotel.

The ferry lands in Mandwa at a busy dock.  Just like the train system, tons of people use the ferries every day going back and forth across the bay to work and home.  

At the end of the pier were a few buses waiting to take ferry passengers into Alibag proper.  Alibag is a town serving as the main hub for many, many outlying villages relying on agriculture for their livelihood.  Our bus ride added another 45 min to the journey and, though hot and sticky, it was a fascinating ride through comparatively rural India; up until this mini trip I had only seen major metropolises here. 

We exited the bus in the middle of the road because proper bus stops are unnecessary!  While I was turning my head in all directions to avoid oncoming traffic, Prajakt was already running ahead to find a particular shop.  I wasn't sure what he was after but Carson clued me in: we were looking for a small gift to bring to Prajakt's grandparents.  Hostess gifts here are at the same heightened level of formality as the business card exchange.  Yes, we partake in these activities in the States but here the hostess gift and business card exchanges are far more personal, which means we couldn't show up with just any ol' thing.  

Where did that leave us?  A "sweet snacks" and "fried stuff" shop!  Prajakt's grandmother has a sweet tooth so we stocked up accordingly.

I wish I could tell you what all these things are but I have no idea other than to say they almost all taste the same to me: lots of raw cane sugar with slight undertones of varying nuts or condensed milk.

In the bins behind the counter were the "fried stuff" salty snacks.  I'd imagine that this place would make a killing if located in a college town.  

Here we have more sweet snacks.  They caught my eye because it looked like a type of kids' cereal I'd probably buy and eat multiple bowls of in one sitting.

Have I mentioned yet that it was super hot?  Oppressively so.  The heat ratchets up until the rain comes.  Despite the soaring temps, this guy is seated at a deep fat fryer in jeans and a somewhat thick shirt.  I could hardly stand by long enough to take the picture.

After finishing up at the sweet shop, we marched back to the road to find our hired driver for the weekend.  Add "private car" to the aforementioned transportation list.  Also add another 45 minutes to our journey, for we were on our way to Prajakt's grandparents' house, which is really more of a compound.

We have arrived!  Isn't this door wonderfully cheerful?  The family compound was made up of three or four modest homes that were sprinkled about the property.  Mango trees provided much needed shade.

The man of the trip, Prajakt!  (Sidebar: Prajakt is an amazingly skilled photographer and spends his weekends working with children in Mumbai's slums to teach them social skills through play.  If you have a minute, go here and read up.  It's very inspiring, I find.)

In addition to mangoes there were pineapples, bananas, lemongrass, sweet lime, and jack fruit.  

Blech.  Just thinking of the jack fruit (ping-pong ball-sized pods of fruit are inside that are dry-ish, fibrous, and sweet but not strong) makes my mouth water in an unpleasant way.  This might be the first thing I've tried in India that I vow to never eat again!  

We worked up a decent appetite that was then completely satisfied with lunch.  The ladies of the house had spent all morning cooking up the meal and they outdid themselves.  12 of these plates were served!  Let me fill you in on the goodies, starting at 12 o'clock on the beige plate: a vanilla/banana type pudding; a mash of potatoes, almonds, and spices that is eating with roti (bread); dal (like a lentil soup that gets poured on the white rice in center); another vegetable mash with onions, I think; roti; some other type of crepe-like bread that had a powdery, sweet filling; mango chutney; white rice.  And the crispy sheets in the separate bowl are pappadums, which are made from lentil flour.

I don't have too many pictures of our time with the family because taking pictures at all made me rather uncomfortable.  I already felt a bit like a voyeur and then feelings of unjustified superiority (maybe? I can't really articulate) got layered on top of that.  You see, when it came time to eat, the family all sat on mats on the floor while a table was pulled out of nowhere and set beside a bed in the living room; this is where Carson, Raju, and I were to eat.  And when I say the "family" sat on the floor I mean the men did.  The women in the house didn't eat with us but instead very attentively refilled plates as needed.  It was another instance of "me and the boys" and this smacked me in the face.  Men and women clearly had their places in the home and I found myself wanting to be with the women because they were part of the background and not on a (literal) raised platform.  Instead,  I ate lunch with my right hand while my favored left sat idle.  Did I need to?  I don't know!  But I wanted to blend in as best I could.  I'll tell you one place that forced me to assimilate: the Eastern toilet.  Too much information?

Later on, Carson and I talked about how lunch was served and he tried to explain to me that this is typical hospitality and urged me not to pass judgment.  I don't think my feelings at lunch were due to being judgmental.  Rather,  lunch was such a clear depiction of everyday life in a very different, very established culture that it simply caught me off guard as I realized that I'm pretty sheltered in my hotel/office world.    I haven't been exposed to this very intimate side of Indian life in Mumbai/Delhi/Calcutta and suddenly I had an appreciation for the common claim that Mumbai is the most cosmopolitan place in the country.  It's all relative, isn't it?  

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