Sunday, September 28, 2008

When in Bangalore . . .

Except when it smells like dung or rot or rotting dung, all of Bangalore smells like a campfire, something I’m usually willing to tolerate only when armed with marshmallows and the appropriate stick. Here, given the mayhem, I assume I’m always downwind of some riotous tribal gathering meant to affect fertility. Not farfetched when the heat and the humidity inspire a sticky sort of sweat like I’m feverish, slightly over-caffeinated or sensing potential calamity that has my amygdale at attention. I’m frequently all three. It’s a simmering discomfort accentuated by the fear of being run over at any minute even when walking on crumbled sidewalks which are barely off limits to harried drivers whose considerations have more to do with the potential damage curb jumping inflicts on compact cars and less to do with the damage to lives that are clinging to the street’s margins.

The traffic looks more like a salmon migration, weaving at high speeds with limited hesitation. There is no noticeable recognition of lanes even when painted lines are meant to separate traffic heading in opposite directions. Vehicles spill out in any direction providing the pavement allows. The bulging cars suck themselves back into the flow in time to miss oncoming traffic, buildings and debris but grudgingly and only at the last second. Turn signals and rearview mirrors have been replaced by beeping horns as if the road exists only in front out the windshield and every thing else is navigated by ear. In the mornings as I wake I can hear the commuter’s startled chirping and squawking horns like a predator is running amok in a colony of exotic birds.

If nature allowed, the auto-rikshaw, or auto drivers would join the migration not as salmon but as angry swarming hornets with the insistent dangerous hum and darting movements that leaves the pedestrian feeling hunted. It’s an understandable yippy-dog attitude from people steering popsicle-stick projects with lawn-mower engines built by grade school children in science class. After my first ‘auto’ ride through narrow lanes directly into oncoming headlights that were dim and erratic, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was whispered a code word right before an inconspicuous package was thrust under my arm. It’s all very Jackie Chan with the same sort of energy except for the pedestrians who look drained and asphyxiated.

I crossed the street at the Queen’s Road rotary at what could have been a walk signal if such a thing exists and found myself faced by approximately 40 motorcycles ready to cross the intersection like I wandered into a motocross race at an unfortunate moment. Of the few pedestrians who crossed with me, I was the only one that seemed to notice the impromptu brotherhood bearing down. All two wheeled vehicles seem to travel like deep vein thrombosis mid-city. Of course it’s the only time I’ve seen 50cc mopeds revving next to vintage street bikes where nobody gets laughed at or pushed over and where ladies all brightly saree’d and sidesaddled sit primly decorating motor bikes in the midst of all the nonsense. They look fragile and bad-ass all at once.
My host Chandana’s driver, Shiva, navigates the roads looking alert but not concerned and only sometimes mildly annoyed. For the most part he’s at home with the weaving, noisy navigation. He only looks truly concerned when I get out of the car. It seems keeping an American from doing something stupid proves the greater challenge but then most locals have gathered that simply by watching the news. He stands in range and assesses the situation as I continually charge through security posts by accident. He shoves money back in my hand at the market and tries not to look baffled by my pointless changes in direction which take us through the dirtiest and sometimes bloodiest parts of the market.

A wrong turn had us both trudging through the Muslim meat stalls as if it was perfectly reasonable for a tourist to pause and watch livestock hacked to pieces like it was a puppet show. Perpetually in pink flip flops, which I’ve noted are not an all-terrain shoe, I return home each night with dirty, leathery feet. Chandana tries not to be appalled even as she slips an industrial grade pumice stone into my bathroom but my Yoga-guru sister who wears each prehensile toe like jewelry and could make them each dance like Bollywood extras would be truly ashamed.

The moment I finish drinking the water from a tender coconut and eating the jelly-like meat, Shiva whose standing nearby attentively inquires “another?” as If I could knock back half a dozen without raising an eyebrow. I considered for a moment wiping me mouth on my arm, making some impatient gesture and saying, “Hit me!” but I was already full and he wouldn’t have gotten the joke. Literally he probably would have hit me just because I asked and because ‘madam’ is very strange like that. He has the habit of calling me ‘madam’ which took some adjusting to until I remembered the reputation American women have and then I realized he probably thinks I run a brothel back in the States. That put me at ease.

Though he’s clearly interested in keeping me alive, he did fail to mention that straws at the market are usually reused and therefore I shared mine with dozens of natives. It sounds oh-so friendly unless you’re a ferenge with fragile digestion. Chandana told me about the straws later when a hollow gesture of “pit-tooey” was pointless. I distinctly remember my mother walking around when I was young explaining that this or that was “Teh!” which was meant to mimic a spitting noise and was used to indicate that something was dirty or shouldn’t be put in my mouth. India, it turns out, is “Teh!”

I like tagging along with Shiva when he goes to the market though it automatically ensures that Chandana will pay double for guavas at the fruit stand. Even she has a hard time when she wears capris and looks too ‘western’. Shiva will explain that she paid the ‘three-quarter pant price’ even though she speaks the language and sports all the right shades of brown. I think a few extra rupees are worth it when I scoop up the bags and try to carry them to the car for Shiva before he can make a move. It’s clear by the looks of horror on the faces of people who were staring at me anyway that ‘madam’ doesn’t carry bags. Secretly I’m sure he’s amused and he plays a game of ‘stunt driver’ on the way home aiming at a few more busses than usual just to entertain me. Perhaps mimicking the Masai system of tongue-clicks, Shiva beeps six times in rapid order as a way of demanding to be let back in to the proper lane before we’re run down. It’s worked so far.

I discovered on these outings that, at least in Shiva’s case, a head wobble means that he has no idea what I’m talking about and it occurs almost like a system error or an overloaded circuit. Luckily he reboots himself because frankly with all the processes and Gerry-rigging procedures I’ve learned for things as simple as making a cup of tea, it would be beyond me at this point to remember how it’s done. And I’d wobble back but years of fending off chokes in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and protecting my face in Muay Thai do not allow for neck muscles with that kind of suppleness. I can shrug and duck quickly enough but sideways wobbling in my world would only be used for baiting and taunting. My body operates like I’m in a Pink Panther movie and Kato is going to jump me from behind at any moment.
My neck as well as the rest of me will just have to adjust and that’s kind of the point. I’ve lived in my carnivorous world going ninety miles an hour for so long that I either have to learn a different way or manhandle all of India until it keeps pace. I have no idea which one of us will compromise and I’ve been so busy being right about fitness all of these years that I’ve lost touch with what the rest of the world is doing. So call this a recon mission and like any well planned special ops assignment, I’m minimally provisioned and adaptable.

One wonders if it was completely necessary to up and move but as George Carlin pointed out, where you live is just the place where you keep your stuff. I got rid of my stuff and now technically I live nowhere and everywhere. This makes the Post Office, or maybe ‘Homeland Security’, really uncomfortable and when I tried to tell them I live nowhere and everywhere they insisted I attach a street address to that. If you’d like to know why the cost of postage stamps is continually on the rise, it’s because the post office insisted on forwarding my junk mail to India. That Value Pack coupon is going to come in real handy.

Now, only a few days into my mission however and I’ve blinked. I’ve abandoned two local traditions in favor of my own: Screw tea with breakfast and sleeves on my shirts.

Damn the British and they’re tea. If I had a three-cornered hat and a few inebriated ‘Sons of Liberty’ I’d find a harbor to dump their Tetley in on a double-dog dare and then I’d go out for coffee. Days after landing and with the excuse of exploring the city, I jumped up from the table in the middle of reading “The Hindu” daily and threw on a well worn black sleeveless t-shirt – my first bare arms in Bangalore - to join Shiva who was leaving to buy eggs for breakfast. On the way back from the market I confided, “Shiva, Chandana makes terrible coffee. Can you take me someplace where I can get espresso?” I’d endured three days of syrupy, thick brews simmered South Indian style with a heavy percentage of chicory and limp milk that turned the mixture a disappointing grey. He looked at me gravely, wobbled his head and took me straight home.

I’ve since trudged around a bit looking for alternative brews. I have, after all, gone from the coffee capital of the United States to the coffee capital of India and though I’ve made some significant headway regarding south India’s unique taste in coffee, it’s been at the expense of my head. The pollution has turned my hair lank in some places and frizzy in others while my cheeks burn for hours after I’m safely indoors. The adapter for my hair straightener isn’t working and so I’m au natural with the most hideously unnatural result. I’ve begun to rely less on my footwork and more on my fingertips, searching the web for coffee feedback and maps of the city while my hair is slicked together with the local remedy of coconut oil. Now I have a clearer understanding of Bangalore’s coffee tradition, hair painted to my head like a Weeble and a hankering for macaroons.

In my first sampling of street vendors, I paid 10 rupees for a cup of coffee and I assumed the price was in dollars given that I frequented Starbucks in a past life but even for coffee that turns out to be damn-near free – A little more than 20 cents in the U.S. - it took some getting used to. Most street vendors sell tea and coffee in what looks like a DayQuil dosage cup which measures a dose of ‘swig’ but it’s scalding hot and I was quickly faced with the choice of burning off my fingers or my uvula. 3-2-1-burn digits burn. No longer can I be fingered by my fingerprints and it explains why every officiating body in India requires identifying photos instead. EVERY officiating body and in duplicate, by the way.
The Coffee Board which functions under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry is located around the corner from where I live and was set up in 1942 under an Act of the Parliament to control research, quality and promotion of Indian coffee in India and around the world. According to their website, “The Coffee Board conducts basic and applied research on coffee and can boast of 75 glorious years in coffee research. The Central Coffee Research Institute in the Chickmagalur district, Karnataka State has been in the forefront of coffee research over the years and continues to remain one of the premier institutes of the world as far as coffee research is concerned.” Cheers.

But just because they can study the brew and isolate its chemical compounds doesn’t mean they don’t simmer swill. I needed to investigate so Chandana and I walked into their shop after some impressive street-crossing reminiscent of a ‘Frogger’ high score attempt and I was greeted by official looking representatives sporting Raj mustaches and modified turbans with folded napkin swans swimming serenely atop their heads. Some turbans had seen better days and their swans flopped sloppily as if whoever folded them in 1942 promptly forgot how it was done and they’ve had to make do ever since.

The coffee was milky, sweet and bitter from the added chicory which is said to add body to the flavor but also has medicinal qualities. To me, it was better than what the vendors offered but it still didn’t taste like the coffee I have known. Again, according the coffee board, “The Board runs two quality control laboratories in Bangalore and Hassan, which control and advise the industry on quality issues. The labs are equipped with the best roasting and brewing machines. The best cup- tasters and quality evaluators keep a strict vigil on the pre and post harvest processes with a view to ensure that the quality of Indian coffee is maintained.”

I spent most of my Saturday morning waiting for the leisurely opening of Blossom Used Books and reading at a Coffee Day off of MG Road – Here Mahatma Gandhi is casually referred to as ‘MG’ like he’s MC Enlightened or something – because Coffee World’s day starts way later than my coffee day. The manager explained that they grow and roast their own beans nearby and he served me a free espresso for the sake of analysis since I was from Seattle and therefore an expert by way of zip code. After downing it to the nod and grin of the manager I realized that the confounding issue may not be the espresso here which was actually quite good but the scalded, questionably sourced buffalo milk heated to the temperature of a neutron star.

Though the coffee itself may be premium coffee, the chicory in traditional coffee is the variable that changes the flavor. Most Indian spices and additives inevitably turn out to be a digestive aid, an anti-inflammatory or both. The reasons are startlingly clear. In the case of Chicory, it’s both. The interesting thing is that chicory is also a sedative meant to blunt the effects of caffeine. After two days of impossible jet lag and several days of erratic sleep patterns, I wasn’t necessarily trying to defuse the dose of caffeine I was getting. Again, however, I marvel at how Indians seem to instinctively find organic remedies to various afflictions. It’s then I remember that this is an inhospitable place with a long history and an endless supply of both lethal threats and people impacted by them. Tradition is shaped by the trial and error of generations that leaves a staggering and yet virtually unnoticed body count in a country of over a billion people.

It brings into focus my most pressing question of whether or not the population can thrive on so little protein which of course is the question that is most pressing for me since I’m living in a household full of vegetarians. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 63 grams a day for men and 50 grams for women and for me it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to eat enough yogurt and lentils to make that happen even if we hired another cook and a staff of locals to rub my belly afterwards.

In fact, on the first day I tried eating lots of yogurt on the suggestion of a friend who said that eating a ton of the local culture would help my digestion adjust, I went to the fridge and dished up a big bowl of the fizzy, chunky ferment and almost passed in favor of a crippling stomach virus. Realizing that it’s rude to be so finicky and knowing that I couldn’t possibly fend off another meal with a handful of cashews which had thus far been my strategy, I slurped it down while reading the paper for distraction. Later I was told that the fridge, a more obscure brand with a manic thermostat that nobody can find parts for, had lost power and that the yogurt hadn’t ‘set right’. Again, too late for a ‘pit-tooey!’ and please pass the cashews. I’ve been buying yogurt at the store ever since but as you can imagine it’s always more carbohydrate than protein.

The loudest voice in the pro-plant protein camp these days is T. Colin Campbell, PhD, who authored ‘The China Study’ as a result of a 20-year project studying nutrition and health for the China-Oxford-Cornell Diet and Health Project of which he is the project director. His argument as a result of his research is "...Only 5-6 percent of dietary protein is required to replace the protein regularly excreted by the body (as amino acids). About 9-10 percent protein, however, is the amount that has been recommended for the past fifty years...The relatively few people consuming more than 21 percent protein mostly are those who "pump iron," recently joined by those on high protein diets." Given his credentials, I’d be inclined to listen more intently to his argument if only he would start supplying scientific data when answering his detractors instead of attacking their education and intellect. Like Dr. Atkins before him, he may have legitimate findings that get lost when he insists on being an ass.

Arguing the other direction, Dr. Loren Cordain – a researcher and a gentleman – makes the case that pre-agricultural diets suit our physiology proven again and again through his research. In ‘Implications of Studies of Early Hominin Diets,’ he states, “Although all available data point to increasing animal food consumption following the arrival of lithic technology, the precise contribution of either animal or plant food energy to Plio-Pleistocene hominin diets is not known. Obviously, then as now, no single (animal/plant) subsistence ratio would have been necessarily representative of all populations or species of hominins. However, there are a number of lines of evidence which suggest more than half (50%) of the average daily energy intake for most Paleolithic hominin species and populations of species was obtained from animal foods.” In further study of indigenous diets leaving out the most extreme climates where no plant matter is available he notes, “For all 229 hunter-gatherer societies, the median subsistence dependence on animal foods was 56 percent to 65 percent. In contrast, the median subsistence dependence on gathered plant foods was 26 percent to 35 percent (Cordain et al., 2000).

In the end and after exhaustive research on the health implications of high-carbohydrate intake, he makes the recommendation that endurance athletes, a segment of the population that demands the highest carbohydrate intake should consume 0.8 - 0.9 grams of protein/lb/day. That yeilds a percentage of the total daily caloric intake that still works out to be substantially higher than Campbell’s percentages even though it’s the low-end recommendation for Cordain.

Surrounded by vegetarians, it’s no question that they survive on a low-protein/High-carbohydrate diet like the one described by Campbell but there’s no real evidence that they consume enough of the essential Amino Acid Lysine from pulses rather than rich animal sources. This is the key deficiency that experts discuss when considering the vegetarian diet. According to Wikipedia, “The human nutritional requirement is 1–1.5 g daily. It is the limiting amino acid (the essential amino acid found in the smallest quantity in the particular foodstuff) in all cereal grains, but is plentiful in all pulses (legumes).” Listed among the foods rich in lysine are soy bean, Kidney bean, Lentil in sprout, Lentil in seed, black cumin and roman coriander. All of these are eaten here regularly but whether or not consumption yields the necessary one gram daily is a good question. One for which I have found no answer.

In the May 2004 issue of Public Health Nutrition D. Millward of the Centre for Nutrition and Food Safety, School of Biological Sciences, University of Surrey, published his opinion, “The lysine limitation of the cereal-based Indian diets is dependent on the choice of lysine requirement values from the published range. We consider that the value selected is too high, because of uncertainties and inconsistencies in the approaches used. A more appropriate choice from the lower end of the range would remove the lysine limitation of cereal-based diets, and reduce some of the perceived risk of deficiency.” And here I thought lowering the bar was a distinctly American approach. He continues, “We conclude that the choice of values for adult lysine requirement should be re-evaluated and that serious consideration should be given to the extent to which adaptive mechanisms might enable the metabolic requirement for protein to be met from current intakes. This will entail a better understanding of the relationships between dietary protein and health.”

In every case of indigenous consumption patterns there is talk of adaptation and an evolutionary process that takes place allowing the local population to tolerate local fare. Though I’ve seen discussions in which experts argue an adaptation to plant matter that accommodates, I’ve seen no actual science about how this is so. Also, if the residents of Bangalore stuck to local foods the argument for evolutionary adaptations might be plausible but like every emerging country influenced by western practices, the foods found readily available are predominantly made from white flour and do not reflect the diet consumed even ten years ago. Think Pizza Hut in the form of Tikka Deep Dish.

I went to the Kebab stand the other day for lunch after trudging through the heat and dust to find that it was closed for reasons anyone who speaks Kanada would understand. Thwarted, I went to the nearest coffee shop hoping to find something with enough meat to tide me over. I tried to explain ‘most chicken’ to the waitress while pointing at the chicken section. “Ah, most chicken, Madame!” Crap, she’s spoken to Shiva and she’s heard I own a brothel. She brought me a ‘Chicken Puff,’ a sandwich that I can only describe as a thin layer of a Chicken Masala marmalade in a genetically modified monster croissant. I shuffled back out into the heat only to pass a McDonalds where I read the take-out menu and realized that for the first time in my life I could have gotten a healthier lunch in a happy meal. Later, when I started looking at coffee shop menus to get a better idea of what people were eating, I saw that for the most part, local breads have been abandoned for American bulky rolls and bulky waistlines.

“With regard to diet and health, food staples and food-processing procedures introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial era have fundamentally altered seven crucial nutritional characteristics of ancestral hominin diets: (1) glycemic load, (2) fatty acid composition, (3) macronutrient composition, (4) micronutrient density, (5) acid/base loads, (6) sodium/potassium ratio, and (7) fiber content,” said Cordain in the aforementioned study, “Each of these nutritional factors either alone or combined with some, or all, of the remaining factors underlie the pathogenesis of a wide variety of chronic diseases and maladies that almost universally afflict people living in western, industrialized societies. “ The fact that wherever American food chains pop up, waistlines pop out doesn’t seem to catch the eye of the affluent who can buy this kind of food. Then they are left looking to the very people who are losing the battle to obesity for help.

I went back to the apartment, laid on the bed and watched the ceiling fan for twenty minutes while I waited for the lethargy to subside. I spent most of my twenties in a coma caused by wheat flour and even now I can’t escape the impact. Even Chandana, after a controlled weight-loss program in which she limited refined carbohydrates can now feel the difference that refined carbohydrates make when her energy is drained after consumption. Like me, she wasn’t able to tell the difference until she controlled her intake for a period of time. Until then the lethargy was just business as usual. When it comes to adaptation, we are two people who clearly missed that bus.

But even the carnivores argue for adaptations to explain the positive impact of higher protein diets even as they claim the only adaptation to cereal grains is metabolic derangement. In Cordain’s research he states, “Carnivorous diets reduce evolutionary selective pressures that act to maintain certain anatomical and physiological characteristics needed to process and metabolize high amounts of plant foods. In this regard, hominins, like felines, have experienced a reduction in gut size and metabolic activity along with a concurrent expansion of brain size and metabolic activity as they included more energetically dense animal food into their diets (Leonard and Robertson, 1994; Aiello and Wheeler, 1995; Cordain, Watkins, and Mann, 2001).”

Whatever the percentage, there’s no question of proteins importance. The immune system functions properly when sufficient protein ensures an adequate supply of white blood cells and antibodies. Robert Heaney, M.D., a bone researcher at Creighton University in Nebraska studies the way that protein helps maintain and improves bone density especially after fracture when adequate supplies slow bone loss and assist recovery. His research supports 70 to 100 grams of protein for older adults to maintain lean muscle mass. And even here trainer’s supplement with whey protein to help gain muscle mass. Of course, when they talk about taking ‘medicine’ to increase size they are only sometimes talking about whey protein.

“In reality, the difference between a diet that is one hundred percent animal products and one that is two percent animal products is merely one of quantity, while the difference between a diet that is two percent animal products and one that is zero percent animal products is one of quality,” sites Chris Masterjohn in his review of ‘The China Study’ for the Weston A. Price Foundation, “A diet low in animal products and a diet devoid of animal products are simply two fundamentally different things.”

One quick cruise of most bodybuilding websites will contain endless discussions about the bioavailability of various proteins. Quality and nutrient density are topics that can’t be avoided. Nor can they avoid the topic of boobs and body hair removal but that’s a completely different post.

“Not all animal products are equal. Putting aside all differences in quality such as soil composition, pasture feeding and so on, there are certain animal products that are by their nature vastly richer than most others in important animal-based nutrients,” Masterjohn discusses in where he posts a rebuttal of Campbell’s remarks on in which Campbell insisted on being an ass, much like he did in the protein debate with Cordain hosted by some time ago. He goes on to say, “This is particularly true of shellfish. It would take just over a quarter pound of beef per day to fulfill the minimum requirement for zinc, yet a single serving of oysters per week fulfills the same requirement. One would have to eat two servings of salmon per week to meet the minimum requirement for vitamin B12, but would only have to eat clams once per month to meet the same requirement. “

So when we’re talking about low protein/high carbohydrate diets, is the meager percentage recommended by Campbell misleading because of the nutrient density of the protein consumed? “The China Study's questionnaire had no questions specific to the consumption of shellfish. How, then, could anyone possibly draw a conclusion from it about what the optimal amount of animal products are, if the amount needed is so different when the nutrition is supplied by shellfish than when it is supplied by meat?” asks Masterjohn. Either way, it poses more questions than it answers in a time when I’m embarking on a study of my own with a single test-subject – me. Please pass the cashews.