Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Plums, Mums

{A Botanical Study for My Mama on Her Birthday}

Today is my mother's birthday. And on birthdays we love two things: Modern poetry and old-fashioned flowers. Last year I posted a beloved William Carlos Williams poem and tiny, ruffled dwarf sunflowers. This year, because I'm pulling out the big guns: her very favorite WCW poem of all, and, because she taught her daughters to remain Curious About the World, I present a collection of Strange & Marvelous botanical specimens. I've only managed to identify a few of them, but mummy, I am doing my very best to stay Curious. I love you very, very much. Happy birthday.

This is Just To Say {by William Carlos Williams}

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Monday, September 27, 2010

Flag Hill

{A Small Excursion}

The weekend sunshine was a much-needed break from the 100-year record-breaking deluge the flooded state of Uttarakhand has been suffering through these past few months. Everywhere saris, blankets, mattresses and carpets were drying out on rooftops and along the side of the road. To make the most of the sunshine and because he has sick land nav skills, P. organized a hike with some of his fellow-grantees and other friends from our Hindi classes. We wound our way down into the valley and found the trail to Flag Hill, which is exactly that: a wooded hummock festooned with Tibetan prayer flags. We morselized cardamom-lime cookies and someone brought a thermos of hot jasmine tea. I gathered flowers for botanical paintings and scrambled over rocks trying to catch a glimpse of the Himalayan Range as the clouds rolled in. We finally made our way back to town in high spirits, wolfed down some excellent curry in the bazaar, and, because it’s India and anything’s possible, found ourselves in the midst of a joyous, deafening Sikh street parade (pictures to come).

We were complete slugs on Sunday and didn’t get out of bed until 11, then ate our way through the day with short breaks for napping and, on my part, some half-assed reading of Midnight’s Children that went like this: read a page, have a conversation with beloved husband about where that jar of Nutella might be and how much might be in it, reread page, get up to make some tea, skim the same blasted page, go searching for said Nutella. We didn’t do a drop of Hindi homework and I didn’t prime a single canvas. It was a pretty magical weekend, even by Joshua Tree standards.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Small Victories

{Slow But Discernible Progress}

Small victories of the week: despite the fact that the carpenter was missing some digits (*not* the most reassuring mark of competency) he stretched some beautiful canvases for me. Major score. Also, we're on a first name basis with Anhil, who makes the best omelets and masala chai in the village. Double score. So this weekend will be spent priming canvases, eating omelets, washing laundry (read: beat clothes in a bucket of soapy hot water, rinse, repeat), and possibly exploring the neighboring valley on foot. Also, trying to avoid being the victim of a monkey ambush. More on that soon. Obviously the fact that an ambuscade of primates is a legitimate concern deserves its own post. Have a fabulous weekend, muggles.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Whipcord Cobra Lily

{And the Paintress Who Painteth the Flow'r Before Me}

The Whipcord Cobra Lily: all-female Cajun rockabilly revival band from Baton Rouge or carnivorous plant native to Himalayan rhododendron forests? Possibly both, but definitely the latter. The cobra lily (Arisaema tortuosum) grows all over the soggy vertical jungle around here. And it grew here a hundred and thirty years ago when Englishwoman Marianne North packed up her easel, hiked up her petticoats, and spent the summer of 1878 hiking around these very hills, alone, in search of Interesting Botanical Specimens To Paint. Alone, in 1878. That's one intrepid dame.

The scientific accuracy of North's paintings (before photography was a practical alternative) made her somewhat of a celebrity and her paintings an invaluable resource in her times. There's a museum of her paintings at Kew Gardens in London. Guess who's dying to see her fabulous crusty Victorian botanicals in person?

So here I am painting the very plant in the very Himalayan village Miss North painted over a century ago, and I'd like to think there's a sort of kinship in that. And thinking of her painting the whipcord cobra lily in particular makes me smile; it must have been the most amusing affront to Victorian sensibilities to behold a plant with such an overpowering eau de offal* and that unseemly, ridiculously long spadix. See her painting here.

*I’m a sucker for plants that smell like carrion. If you can’t smell like jasmine and attract honeybees then why not smell like rotting flesh and attract flies? Right? Right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Behold, the Recipe Index

{A Correction, Plus Some New Sidebar Features}

Thank goodness for fastidious fact-checking, fruit-eating readers. I did not have a quince the other day; it was in fact a small Indian guava. Which is embarrassing. But still delicious.

In other news, I've finally gathered up all relevant cooking posts and created a real recipe index in the sidebar to the right, complete with a list of some favorite albums to cook and eat to. Which is a very specific kind of album. I mean, who can listen to a crackling old Billie Holiday recording and not have the impulse to positively braise and stew something? (Any albums I absolutely have to add to the list? There are three stipulations: it must be an excellent album in its entirety; it must be conducive to modest hip-swinging, and it must not compete for airspace with dinner table conversation.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Nest

{The New Home of bigBANG studio}

We’re finally settled into our new digs. P. and I are renting a small stone cottage from a local Indian professor (Jonathan Franzen fan, hardcore birdwatcher, authority on dahlia propagation. We *loves* him.). His hillside compound is called Wolfsburn, and our cottage is called The Nest.

It’s spartan, clean and the corrugated metal roof only leaks when it really pours. As far as self-inflicted Himalayan exile goes, we couldn’t have found more charming accommodations.

There’s a small addition with a bank of windows, and the natural light makes it a perfect spot to set up a modest version of the real-life bigBANG studio. (How much I miss my Joshua Tree studio and the company of the ever-patient dogs is neither here nor there.)

No matter what the circumstances, there are few smells as distinct and marvelous as a tin of brand-new Faber-Castell pencils. The scent alone gets me all jazzed to start drawing. Which I’m finally starting to do. I found a bolt of raw canvas and a local carpenter to build me wooden stretchers, so I’m hoping to get back into the full swing of things ASIP (As Soon as Indianly possible).

I brought ten pounds of luxurious Dutch oil paint to India but forgot, amazingly, to bring basic watercolors. That’s like going to Greenland and forgetting mittens. Luckily P. found some cheapo watercolors at the local bazaar and although they’re a little gritty, the palette is surprisingly lovely and they’re perfect for sketching out compositions for future big oil paintings.

The Nest (and all of Landour, for that matter) is usually swaddled in dense fog, but on a few rare occasions the sun breaks through the cloud cover and sets our little hillside aglow.

When all this rain and fog dissipates in a few weeks we should, theoretically, be able to see the snow-capped peaks of the Great Himalayan Range. Which would be a major score on the Peak Life Experience list.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


{In Which We Are Engulfed In A Hindu Street Parade}

So the past week was an especially good one for the Hindu god Krishna, whose birth was celebrated in full force in our little Himalayan hamlet of Landour. It was also a good one for yours truly, for whom the concept of the Hindu street parade was a new and most enjoyable experience. Giddy with Krishna fever and feeling rather daring, I demolished a samosa from a street vendor and polished off a fruitmonger's quince, and would you believe there wasn't so much as a rumble in my tumble in the ensuing hours. Krishna must be on my side. (For now.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Current Score

{India 5, Stockman 4}

Strikes against: 1. The heaviest monsoon in over a decade molds and mildews our clothes, books, sheets, and -in moments of fevered weakness- certain people's moods; 2. The occasion of an engorged, slug-sized leech that found its way up my pants, down my boot, and through my thick wool sock; 3. The resulting leech hickey left behind by its rapacious, parasitic maw; 4. A confidence-crippling inability to properly pronounce the Hindi tongue-flap rla; 5. Hairless spiders the circumference of tea saucers. In our *bedroom*.

Strikes for: 1. The revelation of the perfect sweet lassi at Tip-Top Tea Shop; 2. The discovery of a local antiquemonger and resulting purchase of an out of print book on the birds of Uttarakhand (the northeastern state in which yours truly currently resides); 3. Momentary elation at the positive identification of the marvelous, gregarious, rufus-crested hoopoe through the afternoon mist; 4. Waking up this morning and realizing that I'm living in a cloud forest in the Himalayan foothills with my husband, and that fevers and leeches* and spiders and language barriers are a pittance to pay for such a privilege.

*Not to sound fussy, but I could do without the leeches. No one likes to play host to something that leaves a viscous trail. I mean, seriously.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


{Monsoon Season in a City of Extremes}

We arrived in Delhi just as a record-breaking monsoon unleashed its fury. It took a few days before I picked up my camera. It took two weeks to upload and sort through the pictures, pick the words. The place is a sprawling, stewing cauldron of humanity at its most exquisite and its most loathsome.

Shirtless men urinate on the sidewalk while infotech entrepreneurs whiz by in German luxury sedans; street children beg for rupees in the eternal fume-choked embolism that is every Delhi roundabout. Barefoot women in psychedelic saris go about their business washing clothes in the make-shift shanty towns outside the guarded gates of Mughal forts and ancient mausoleums. The back street bazaars offer an olfactory deluge of street food, men's cologne, human excrement, burning garbage, burning incense; touters yell Madam! Madam! Madam! And everywhere, long-faced street dogs.

Gurus festooned in garlands of marigolds preach to the devoted, while Bollywood stars advertise another brand of religion to India's rising middle class -chocolate, data plans, whiskey, air conditioners- on billboards above. 

In the respite of the shaded forts, old men play cards. Pigeons roost on 16th century minarets.  Outside in the flooded streets the honking infinity of rickshaws, buses, Ambassador cabs and donkey carts churn through a septic ocean of monsoon runoff: the bilge water of a city of 22 million souls. 

We sought refuge from the fray and spent two glorious, Imodium-assisted afternoons exploring the quiet ruins of the Humayun's Tomb and the Red Fort. We sweat as we mopped up unfamiliar curries and daals with hot chipatis, then sipped tangy lassis to cool us down. We queued for two hours at the notoriously unnavigable Foreign Registration Office in the line marked NON-AFGHAN NATIONALS, parallel to the line in which AFGHAN NATIONALS waited to show whatever precious documents might extend their asylum.

Finally, after one week in Delhi, we took a train from Delhi (complimentary juice boxes) six hours north to a city near the border of Tibet, near the border of the end of the world, and ascended into the cloud forest of the Himalayan foothills. And that is where we are, and where we will be, with varying degrees of electricty/Internet access/the trots for the next three months while we attempt to learn a bit of Hindi.

And that is the update from India.