What do you expect?

We have been staying in a medium priced, by no means cheap or low-budget, guest house at a popular place in the southwest of India.

For several mornings, there was no hot water coming from the taps in our bathroom. Usually, the problem was resolved after mentioning the it to the man looking after our guest house. We were paying an amount per night at which it was reasonable to be able to have hot water without first having to ask for it.

One morning, we asked a fellow guest, an Indian, whether there was hot water in his bathroom. He said that there was none. When we said to him that in accommodation of this calibre hot water should be available as a matter of routine, he said: “There must be a problem. These things happen occasionally.” After a few moments, he added: “What do you expect? This is India.”

His bland acceptance of low standards and feeling that these were to be expected of his country do little to move India forward in a positive way.

Taxi in Tirana

In May 2016, my wife and I landed in Albania at Tirana’s airport. There was a line of taxis whose drivers were all eager to drive us into the city centre and to accept either local currency or Euros. At other times during our trip, getting a taxi was never a problem. However, thirty-two years earlier, when Albania was a strictly controlled Stalinist dictatorship (at least as as repressive as North Korea is today) , getting to hire a taxi was impossible as this excerpt from my book “Albania on my Mind”  will demonstrate.

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A ‘busy’ street in Tirana in 1984

“After we had eaten lunch at the hotel, a group of us went into the square outside it. We saw a long line of taxis, which were waiting vacantly by a booking booth. We wondered how often these were hired and by whom; there was not a soul in sight taking the slightest interest in them. One of us walked up to the booth and asked the man sitting inside whether we could hire a taxi to take us up to Mount Dajti, some way outside Tirana. Just when it seemed that we had succeeded in hiring a cab, another person inside the booth lifted a telephone receiver, listened for a moment, and then whispered something to the man with whom we had just negotiated. He beckoned to us, and pointed at the hotel. Somehow, he made it clear to us that we needed to book the taxi not from him, but from the hotel reception desk.

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Tirana 1984. Typically empty main square (Skanderbeg Square)

We trouped back into the hotel’s lobby and made a beeline for the reception desk. Two suited men, sitting on a sofa nearby, looked at us over the tops of their newspapers. As we reached the desk, I noticed that the doors of one of the hotel’s two lifts were opening. Our Albanian guide Eduart hurried through them and towards the receptionist, who was beginning to attend to us. 
“What do you need?” Eduart asked us, out of breath.
“We want to hire a taxi.”
“Why?”
“We want to visit Mount Dajti?”
“Why should you do that?”
“We need some fresh country air. We’ve been in the city for too long.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Eduart protested. “You have already spent many days in the countryside.”
“But, that’s what we want, and we believe that the views from Mount Dajti are magnificent.”
“You cannot go.”
“Why ever not?” we asked.
“There is a lot of traffic. The roads are crowded.” We looked at Eduart disbelievingly. Traffic congestion was certainly not a problem in Albania in 1984.

“You know that there’s a big national cycle race on at the moment.”
“That was over long ago,” one of us objected. “We saw the posters announcing it along the roads.”
“You can visit Mother Albania, but no further.”
We had already visited the Mother Albania monument, which was located in the outskirts of the town. However, as we were determined to not to give in to our obstreperous guide, we agreed to his compromise.
“Alright,” we said.
Then, Eduart said menacingly:
“You may take the taxi to Mother Albania, but remember that if anything happens to you, we cannot take any responsibility for your safety. You will not be protected by your group visa.” “We’ll risk it,” one of us said.
I did not like the threatening sound of Eduart’s voice, but followed the rest of our small group back to the taxi rank. When we arrived there no more that ten minutes after we had left it, we found that all of the taxis had disappeared, and also there was an extremely long line of people waiting in a queue outside the booth. Accepting defeat, we made our way on foot to …”

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Traffic in Tirana, 2016

DISCOVER  WHAT IT WAS LIKE VISITING COMMUNIST ALBANIA IN 1984 IN “ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by ADAM YAMEY

It is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Cucumber sandwiches

My late mother-in-law, an Indian living in Bangalore, made the best cucumber sandwiches that I have ever eaten. She used fresh slices of thin white bread with crusts removed. Each slice was spread with a small amount of butter mixed with freshly mixed English-style mustard. Then, finely sliced, peeled and de-seeded cucumber was inserted as the sandwich’s filling. The result was both delicate and refreshingly delicious. Having eaten these superb snacks on numerous occasions, I formed the idea in my head that India is THE place for cucumber sandwiches. This led to an amusing incident.

sliced cucumber on white table

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some friends of ours from England were spending a few days in Mysore, which is not far from Bangalore, where we were based. So, we decided to drive to Mysore to spend a day with them.

Our friends were staying in an old palace that had been tastefully converted into a hotel. After we had roamed around Mysore with them, they invited us to have afternoon tea in the lovely garden of the hotel. When we had sat down at a table, I said:

“This is the ideal place to eat cucumber sandwiches. The best cucumber sandwiches in the world are made in India.”

Everyone was happy to order a plate of these. When we asked the waiter for the sandwiches, he asked:

“You want vegetable sandwiches, with capsicum and all?”

“No, just cucumber sandwiches, no capsicums,” we replied.

Some minutes later, the waiter returned with A plate of sandwiches oozing with a bright red paste filling.

“What’s that?”, we asked him.

“Miner’s sauce”, came the reply.

“Miner’s sauce? What on earth is that?” asked one of our friends.

The waiter simply repeated the words “miner’s sauce”.

After a minute or two, the penny dropped, and I said:

“He means mayonnaise.”

Now, many non-English people pronounce this word as ‘my-on-nays’, which is closer to ‘miner’s sauce’ than the English pronunciation.

“We don’t want that sauce,” one of our friends protested, “Only cucumber.”

The waiter looked confused.

“What, no bread?” he asked.

“Let me show you what I mean,” said one of our friends, standing up and accompanying the waiter to the kitchen.

The waiter returned after a while with a very sub-standard collection of cucumber sandwiches.

Later my wife pointed out that just because her mother made excellent cucumber sandwiches, this was not necessarily the case all over India, as I had foolishly assumed.

Chicken 65

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The state-run Mayura Hotel at Hampi is conveniently located in the midst of the extensive, picturesque ruins of the once very prosperous city of Vijayanagara. The former city was once the world’s second largest metropolis, but it was destroyed in 1565. I have stayed at the hotel on at least three occasions despite its shortcomings, some of which I will describe below. It is only fair to point out that the last time I stayed at this hotel was at least nine years ago. Things might well have improved by then.

On one occasion, we were driving to Hampi from Bangalore, and were running late. We rang the hotel to tell them that we would be likely to turn up by 6 pm. They replied that it would not be a problem: our room was waiting. And, so it should have been because check-out time was 12 noon. Whoever had occupied the room on the previous day should have vacated their room by noon.

When we turned up at the hotel, we were told that the room we had booked was still occupied. We were not pleased. The receptionist explained that the occupants of our room, who should have vacated it by noon, were still using it. We remonstrated and asked for an explanation. We were told that the family that was overstaying in our promised room had also arrived late the day before, and the hotel was kindly letting them extend their stay at our expense.  We were tired and not amused.

The receptionist and another member of staff settled us temporarily in a small bedroom while we waited for our room to become vacant and cleaned up. After a couple of hours, we were shifted to our allotted family room. There were several workmen in the bathroom. They were trying to turn off a jet of water, like a geyser, that was shooting up from the floor. They managed after about an hour.

There were no towels in our accommodation. By now it was well after dark. We asked for towels and were told that we could not have them because the person with the (presumably only) key to the linen cupboard had gone home.

At the end of one of our stays at the Mayura, we asked to have breakfast at 7 am, when the dining area was supposed to open. When we arrived promptly at 7 am, there was no staff too be seen. Apart from us, the dining area was empty. After a few minutes, I walked into the kitchen: it was empty. All of the kitchen and serving staff were standing in a crowd in a nearby room, their eyes glued to a television screen. We learned the reason when, eventually, someone came to look after us. The television was showing the funeral of the much-loved Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan, who died on the 30th December 2009. Vishnuvardhan’s family were dismayed because his loss was not so greatly mourned as that of another star Rajkumar, who had died three years earlier. People had committed suicide on hearing of Rajkumar’s demise. Nevertheless, our driver thought it would be safer if we drove with a photo of Vishnuvardhan attached to the window as a mark of respect. Without it, we might have been attacked!

During one of our stays, we were curious to taste what appears on many South Indian restaurant menus. It is something called ‘Chicken 65’. What appeared resembled breaded chicken nuggets. They were bland and tasteless – very disappointing. 

Some days later, we had dinner with an elderly Dutch couple, who were back-packing around India. It was clear to us that they had had enough of spicy food. We suggested that they ordered French fries (finger chips in Indian English), which, like omelettes and tomato soup, are almost always available wherever you are in India. Their eyes lit up at this suggestion. Also, we recommended that they order Chicken 65, which we assured them was not at all spicy. 

After a while, the chips were served along with a plate of chicken pieces that did not resemble the Chicken 65, which we had ordered a couple of days earlier. Our new friends tasted this dish, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. What had been served to them as Chicken 65 was far from bland; it was fiery hot. It seemed to us that the chefs in the kitchen paid little attention to what was ordered by the customers. We later learned that Chicken 65 is supposed to be hot and spicy. What we had been served before we met the Dutch people, was definitely not that dish.

The spicy dish was originally created at Buhari’s Hotel in Madras in 1965, hence the 65 in the name (see: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-hows-whys-of-our-chicken-65/article5042658.ece).

While we were staying in the hotel one visit, a tour group of Italians had dinner one evening. One man, who had had enough of spicy food, shouted out in a hysterical voice: “I want chicken, plain chicken with salt, nothing else, just chicken and salt, no spices, just chicken and salt.” He kept repeatng this, and we thought: “He should be so lucky in this eatery”.

Despite its elements of “Fawlty Towers” hospitality, the Mayura is a lovely place to base a few days of exploration of the substantial  ruins of a once great city.

HAMPI 3