I was taking a taxi to the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and the radio was playing sounds from the 70’s. As the taxi driver (a 20-somthing) is jamming along to songs by America and the Doobie brothers, it got me to thinking. I’m pretty sure, that in 1974, I could not have imagined that I would be in Singapore, 40 years later, listening to this music. After all, Singapore is just a place on my school globe that I land on spinning it.
But, I’ve jumped into the middle of the story.
This is my first trip to India. It’s never been on my radar screen as a destination. Lorie broke the ice last year, and then I got involved in a multi-society effort to put on a show about the future of energy, and cyber-enabled energy distribution; something that I’ve become quite passionate about. In for a penny, in for a pound, I created a series of panel sessions on Smart Living, one of our campus signature areas. Now, how to populate sessions with 12 speakers, most of whom must be from India (where I don’t know anyone). Fortunately, with a lot of help from my friends, some North American colleagues who don’t mind a 96 hour round trip, and the on-the-ground organizing committee, we put together some killer sessions. Ah, but wait, does everyone share this vision, how to execute it, and, all of a sudden, I wrote to Lorie, “I think I’m going to India” “That’s OK,” she responded, “I”m going too”. “Excellent, let’s meet up” And so, we were to overlap and go see the Taj Mahal, and experience a bit of Mumbai together.
Undaunted, I hire a driver and we set out. As everyone says, the traffic is crazy, there’s an unbelievable disparity between rich and poor with crumbling slums next to a 27 story house (no, that’s not a typo). So, rather than focusing on this, I do what I always do, learn about the culture through its food.
At first glance, Indian food can be written off as brown glop, green glop, and maybe some red glop. Alas, this is the steam table version of India – no cuisine shines there. As you can see below, giant prawns done in a tandoori, served via french service, accompanied by Indian Sauvignon Blanc. Clearly, this is not what everyone eats, but it’s a start.
I’d invited my driver in, but he was quick to point out, “I have my tiffin.” I didn’t press the point, and most likely he was happier to hang with his fellow drivers. Still, the tab bothered me, $75 USD for a 4 course lunch with wine, probably more than he made in a week, or a month (the average yearly wage in India is $600).
Back to the hotel for day of rest before heading to Singapore, and rejoining our story. Legroom, of course, always has to make the top ten pictures, and the exit row seat in the tail of an A380 was quite a pleasure.
Day 3, landing in Singapore was quite a sudden change from Mumbai, there was a distinct scent in the air, yes, it’s money. Singapore is really a giant financial district, with food from a multitude of cultures. I had the most amazing Cantonese food ever, in the hotel of all places, an absolutely over-the-top foie-gras and poached duck foot in a luxurious sauce that reminder me of the french laundry in Napa.
After a couple of very productive days at SUTD working on security attacks against power systems, I went along with the center director to a “big data summit”, put on by policy folks. I was pretty much of an interloper, but did get invited to the executive lunch. A four course banquet meal at lunch? Ok. With wine? Maybe not, there’s still the entire afternoon, plus it’s probably hotel wine, you know, generic swill where the merlot is the best choice. So, the wine sat, staring at me, finally, I could not resist a sip.
OMG, I asked to see the bottle. Who serves wine like this, at a banquet, at lunch? The date is obscured, but it’s a 1983 Grand Cru. Anyway, one of the most amazing wine experiences ever.
After getting back out of this fantasy world, the workday was done and I did a bit of touring. It’s the new year, the year of the goat, so the following little fellows in their climatron, were pretty funny.
Day 6, back to Mumbai and the conference. I was really heartened to see the traction the idea of “smart living” immediately got in a world-wide forum. What makes this picture particularly interesting, was that the presenter is the VP of one of the largest construction companies in India, and he’s looking to build with an eye towards socio-technical aspects.
What happened next, though, was really something amazing. We had three speakers in a cross-cutting panel whose talks spanned a continuum of smart and green technology from the industrialized world to small scale agriculture. Charles Despins of the IEEE Green ICT initiative discussed efforts to migrate data center tasks to geographic regions based on the current location of renewable intermittent energy sources. Robin Podmore of IEEE’s smart village took the story of energy availability to the small towns, emphasizing the contribution of small renewable powered batteries and the significant impact even one light bulb can make in a household, and how having charging for cell phones keeps people informed. Sumeet Srivastava of Monsanto carried small-scale energy and cell phone usage directly to the farmer, describing a system that gives farmers immediate pricing to help them take their crops to market for better profits. We talk about getting technology to people, but this, in my mind, really closed the gap – there was a tangible societal benefit to deploying technology, and this panel set the stage for the smart living track, showing how technology really is driven by societal needs. Could this be a hook to open our STEM pipeline?
Day 8, the conference ended on a high note. By this time I was ready to explore some more and enticed several of the IEEE staff to join the adventure. So, 7:30 PM Saturday night, we’re bouncing along the roads to south Mumbai. My goal, street food – the dire warning from everyone – do not do this! But, why not? We started with cocktails for 5 at the Taj Hotel, then wandering the back streets until we found Bade Miyan.
Of course, our driver had anticipated this and was waiting for us. Americans are so predicable. How did we find it? We “hired” a woman who was begging outside the Taj to lead us around the crowded streets. This ended up being a story unto itself, when I tried to give her some money, she led us to a grocery store. This played out in almost an amusing sort of way – clearly this was a set-up, but one of our party went in anyway, and entered into a long protracted negotiation on rice and condensed milk. The prices were ridiculously high (special prices for tourists), but hopefully, by the end of it, everyone got something. Still, we were clearly the only tourists on this balmy Saturday night. This is definitely a stand-up affair, but, we got the royal treatment.
By royal treatment, I mean that they brought some chairs for us. This is a hand-formed, charcoal grilled, Kebab place. From left to right are Veg, Lamb, and Chicken. I have to comment on the flavors, they were very spicy, but the spice was integrated into the flavors of the meats to create almost an alchemy. I’ve never quite tasted anything like it.
I had wanted to continue to the Mohammad Ali market, but through miscommunication, it was closed (only open late during Ramadan). Another time, perhaps. On the way back, we passed large-scale wedding after wedding, some taking up the space of entire American football fields, with bright lights, colors, music, and people dancing into the night.
Day 9, time for another high-end meal, this time in the hotel. Alone, again, I ordered a selection of Veg and non-veg asking the waitstaff for selection on particular breads. Many concerned comments: “Are you sure you don’t want both the meat with the veg, otherwise you’ll just have veg” Egad, what kind of impression do Americans give? Don’t answer that. This is clearly a peasant dish, but some of the most magical scents that I’ve really even experienced, a simple dish of
fenugreek and scallions in butter. Suspicion gave way to interest. By the end of the evening, I’d been visited by most of the wait and kitchen staff seemly wanting to know more about this American who took a real interest in their food.
2:30 AM, wheels up, next stop Paris, Detroit, then home. Thoughts, conclusions, they’ve been expressed by so many. Yes, I’m an interloper, poking my head into a culture, then retreating to a five-star hotel, as I so often do. For a different view, Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar gives a very different view of the interloper.
I still spin that globe from my childhood,