Sunday, August 24, 2008

Journey's End

Back at Cornell.

Besides getting scammed and led astray in Bombay by hoteliers, policemen, travel guides and rickshaw drivers, I was otherwise busy doing other, more productive things, such as taking lots of good photographs. So I suppose there's a bright side to all situations, even if the bright side costs an arm and a leg... I'll post them after I PhotoShop the drab grey exposures a bit from the never-clearing overcast August skies.

After five days and five nights in Bombay, expecting only one of each, I gave up on the totally non-existent non-rev seating opportunities on Delta's nightly nonstop flight (I was prioritized 47th of 58 stand-bys, and only a few got on every night) and went to a travel agent to buy a full-price ticket. Whom I was surprised to even find, by the way- I personally have never gone to one before, coming of age right around the time Orbitz, Travelocity, and their kind gained dominance and destroyed their niche. It was quite an experience. I felt like the trip back home was really a trip back in time for another reason besides employing a travel agent; upon landing in the US, my phone was dead (I had fried my phone charger beyond functionality in a hotel in Bombay using a bad India --> US converter), so I used a pay phone. Now, I cannot remember the last time I used a pay phone. It may have been to call my mom to pick me up from Lloyd Center Mall, freshman year of high school. As in... ten years ago. As such, I spent five minutes trying to navigate my way around the buttons. Insert coins before or after dialing? Press "1" before area code, or dial like a cell phone? How do you get the digitalized woman to stop talking so I can dial? It didn't help I only had a big wad of rupees in my pocket, so I extracted $200- which comes out in $20s, not quarters. So, after getting change and failing at dialing a few times, having my money munched for getting friends' voicemails (did you know local calls cost, not a quarter, but 75 cents now?!? why WOULD anyone use a payphone? what's the excuse... the rising price of wheat? gas prices? 9/11?) I just fell back on my default- ask the nearest teenage college-bound girl (read: lots of pink luggage on rollers and a sorority shirt) for her cell phone, guessing educatedly they have unlimited minutes. It worked.

After catching a last-minute shuttle to Ithaca that was pulling away just as I got out of the terminal, I arrived halfway through the first day of mediator training at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, with bags in tow and after 24 hours of traveling. The receptionist greeted me cheerfully, "Oh, you're that India guy! Go right on up, they're ready for you." Glad to know I've finally made a name for myself around here.

The most prominent thing I've noticed on my return, from the Syracuse to Ithaca shuttle service ($80 for a 45-minute drive), a taxi's fixed fare for the same ($163), to the food prices around town (recently raised 10% due to the "increased cost of wheat"), was that everything is friggn' expensive. It surely doesn't help that I just completely drained my savings and checking account to pay my tuition and fees this semester. Remembering negotiable 120-160 Rs ($3-4) rickshaw rides covering the same distance and time and laying down $4 max for three-course dinners brings me to my last entry: things I will miss about India.

The things that will likely stick with me longest will not be the breathtaking sights and exotic locales I visited, but the everyday things in India that I have gotten used to and will likely never experience again here in New York or anywhere else. Daily maid service, Bollywood music videos and songs hopelessly stuck in my head, ambiguous Tamil figure-eight head wobbles, smashing open coconuts on the stone bench outside my room (Jungle Book, Mowgli-style), and the consistent meal etiquette (a plate of lemons, onion and cucumber to start off any meal, and to end, warm lemon water to wash up followed by sweetened cumin seeds for mouth-freshening). I will miss random kindness and openness from strangers, eating and living for next to nothing, fresh fruits of every kind for the same, having UNESCO World Heritage sites around every corner (replete with histories always spanning hundreds and sometimes thousands of years further into the past than any American site of the same), and, lastly, being a "sir" to men, women and children alike.

What a trip.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bombay Castaway

Feeling like Tom Hanks here. Marooned here for four days. Gave up and bought a $1150 ticket to NY.

I did a little better than some of my other American Delta standby companions (who ran out of money the first day of waiting, slept in the airport the first three nights, then I never saw them again), but still got the normal scam-outside-the-airport from the guys who "know a good hotel I can stay at."Even the police at the entrance try to pull the same thing. This place is unbelievable. I guess you could call it entrepreneurial or resourceful. I call it shady. The second place I stayed charged me $30/night, but it wasn't clear what the actual price was or if I had negotiated them down, until I observed a Nigerian-American getting the full scam-treatment at the front desk- we convened later that night to try to find out what was going on, and I found out they had demanded (and received) $180 from her. For a 1/2 star, worse-than-Hotel-6, mini-cockroached and enslummed hotel.

You win, India, you win. Just get me the hell out of here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hyderabad: miscellany

view from the monsoon-soaked street of Charminar's Lad Bazaar

Purani Haveli, the former residence of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Pasha. This is his gigantic wooden wardrobe, 786 sq. ft. room with closets on two levels. He would wear an outfit once and then throw it away. The wardrobe used to include 75 identical tweed suits- the Nizam liked the pattern so much that he bought the Scottish factory's entire stock of them. I was scolded for taking this picture but not specifically instructed to erase it... so I guess I have carte blanche

bakers baking a Hyderabadi naan that is stuck to the sides of an underground pot

so... does this mean a person of any other faith can?

giant camel blocking the intersection. it towered way over our car and made it very difficult to get a good shot. PS: they smell, and are grumpy

the monsoon that hit Hyderabad that weekend, flooding the city and killing over 50 people. boats were used in small neighborhoods to navigate the small alleyways. our car almost floated twice

part of the family that hosted my stay in Hyderabad

interesting sign at the Secunderabad train station. Railway accidents (people wandering on the tracks) kill hundreds of Indians monthly, but I don't know how you can take such morbidity seriously with these ridiculous cartoons

arriving back in Chennai, impatient soon-to-be-in-the-previous-cartoon people jumping off the stalled train

possibly the most annoying guy ever. he woke me up this morning blasting screechy-voiced Tamil music from his bike-card-mounted-loudspeaker at 7:30 a.m. thanks, buddy

daughter of a roadside launderer. you can get clothes ironed for a rupee each (2.5 cents) in Chennai, and the irons, huge clunkers that are heated by coal inside the main chamber, appearover a hundred years old

Hyderabad: buildings

The first few photos are of the Qutb Shahi tombs, the royal necropolis of seven of the nine Qutb Shahi rulers (the rulers before the Mughal Aurangzeb conquered the area, and the rule of Nizams began). Each tomb's construction was directed by the king that was to lay in it, and each have their own style- large Mughal onion domes, Persian arches, Turkish columns and Hindu brackets and motifs, with minarets surrounding them. The next are of the Charminar area of Hyderabad, in the Old City. This includes Charminar itself, Mecca Masjid, and Lad Bazaar. Charminar was built in 1591 by King Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah. Mecca Masjid is an enormous mosque completed in 1694 and has bricks from Mecca and the hair of Muhammed embedded in it. Lad Bazaar is an ancient marketplace where all brides-to-be in Hyderabad shop for wedding bangles, saris, herbal potions, henna, embroidery, pearls, and silver-leafed sweets. The next post will be of random Hyderabadi eccentricities, usually involving camels, public urination, or railways, the other half of my Andhra Pradesh experience.

Qutb Shahi tomb complex


Mecca Masjid

view from Charminar

Hyderabad High Court

Osmania Hospital, built in 1925 by the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad. It offers free medical service to the poorest of the city.

Olympic disappointment

All I can see on the news here is exaltations of Abhinav Bindra, the first Indian to ever win an Olympic gold medal. People here are so happy that last night a dessert plate was passed around the office. "What is this for?" I asked, expecting a child's fundraiser. "Abhinav's glorious victory!"

Where is this excitement for the U.S.? The last time I even watched was well over a decade ago. I feel like we are the L.A. Lakers of the Olympics (boooo), always winning the most golds and most overall medals. It's simply expected. Snore. When we win a gold, there is a collective sigh of relief instead of cheers of excitement. Holding on to titles is really boring. Toppling the dynastic titleholders is cheer-worthy.
There is something to be said for the underdog. No teams have more passion and faithfulness than those that perenially suck. (Mets fans? Blazers?) I have a strange wish for the upcoming Olympics: I hope we lose.

For now, I am cheering for India, where one guy's gold medal is cause for everyone's happiness and pride!

Monday, August 11, 2008


Heavy spontaneous deluges pour down just as darkness falls over the city. As I walk outside my room to investigate, alerted by the roar of spattering rain on the roof, I am greeted by the mellow, damp smell of tropical monsoon, which is notable not for its own faintly scented odor but for what it masks: the scent of neighbors burning their garbage on the roadside in little smoldering piles, and the choking fumes of automobile exhaust. It even shuts up the damn crows and peacocks incessantly cawing and crowing in our foliage, as they scurry elsewhere for cover, as do the more pesky raspy-voiced peddlers with their ever-present dinging bicycle bells and their astonishingly loud, monotonous, chanting bleats of "e-bulayyyy a sulayyyyyy a-boooollymayyy" (any Tamil speakers?). Even mosquitoes disappear temporarily and geckos scurry out into the streetlamp light, the reptilian cavalry coming out to feast and turn the tide in the battle against the dark horde of the bloodsucking Mosquitan forces, who are suddenly vulnerable as they cling to underhangs and light fixtures.
I also used to run for cover during these cumulonimbal outbursts, but I know better now. My neighborhood is at its best during these showers, with the unpleasantries of everyday Chennai life temporarily masked. I walk around in board-shorts and sandals and receive my Indian "second shower." I guess its a little Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption (only a little less deserving and a little more clean), but it is refreshing. Anyway, as long as you're not wearing business clothes or don’t have papers in your pack, it's quite nice, in addition to simply delighting in watching everyone else run frantically for cover and into the ever-patient maws of circling rickshaws, happy to charge a handy sum for their moving shelter.

On a similar note, I just got back from a weekend trip to Hyderabad, and boy, do I sure know how to pick 'em: my weekend consisted of this.

(photo yoinked from the link... my photos are much less impressive, taken at night from inside the car)

If you don't have time to click the link, basically, over fifty people drowned and the town was swimming in floodwater all weekend. Thankfully, the excellent sightseeing, unique local Andhra cuisine, and amazing hospitality of my hosts more than made up for a potential disaster of a trip. But the torrential monsoonal downpours and overcast skies made for really grey photographs lacking contrast (posted soon) that will be a little disappointing... may have to pay a visit to the 'ol Adobe PhotoShop.

The train ride, 15 hours, almost bested my other longest non-stop travel record, set just months before on the flight to Bombay from NYC (15 hrs, 45 mins), but thankfully it didn't, as this method of travel has much less amenities than the latter (and a few unpleasant creatures scurrying about that are not present in airplanes). Anyway, the car we toured Hyderabad in for three days almost floated on several occasions, as we ran the gauntlet a few times with a car to our right stalled and motorcyclists to our left turning away in disappointment after looking at the dips-in-the-highway-turned-ponds ahead. It was quite a scene. I asked the father of the family I stayed with about the lack of city planning and infrastructure I have noticed throughout India so far and in Hyderabad in particular. Interestingly, I was told, it wasn't always this way. The later Nizams (local Mughal rulers) of Hyderabad had installed storm drains and sewers (among many other essential public goods) in the early 20th century, but democratically-elected successors (instead of patrilineal rulers) have chosen quick-fixes and voter-pandering over less visible essential services, and the ever-expanding city seriously lacks city planning as a result. There is something to be said for absolute power and huge royal coffers, I suppose! Potholes half a foot deep and dips in the road with no estuaries (but plenty of tributaries, unfortunately!) clog motorways as cars pause before the obstacles to judge whether or not their shock absorbers can take one last pounding or their engines will last one dunk in the pond.

The food is more Mughlai than South Indian, for sure. It is therefore much spicier, uses more chicken, and is more “Punjabi-tasting” than the surrounding areas’ cuisines. I quickly got used to breakfasts of spicy scrambled egg (don't know the dish's name), idli, masala, coconut chutney, and dinners of “Chicken 65" (hot, red, and barbecued) with biryani and tortilla-like chapati. Tea is had every few hours at roadside stands in little shot-glass mugs, and fruit stands offer freshly-squeezed juice at every corner.The architecture was quite impressive and looked very similar to the sights in Delhi due to the erstwhile Shahs' and Nazams' ruling of the area. The styles incorporate Central-Asian-Khanate onion domes (like those of Uzbekistan's silk road landmarks, Delhi's Taj Mahal, and Moscow's St. Basil' s Cathedral, which ironically was built in to celebrate a victory OVER an invading Khan horde… whoops), Mughal, Turkish, and Persian designs, with minarets appearing on all four corners (the religious demographics are flipped in this city as opposed to the surrounding areas: a large majority of Muslims, which a minority of Hindus). Most positive has been the hospitality found in these households I have been staying at during my travels (which, incidentally, has reflected the religious mixture dominant in these areas: Hindus in Delhi, Muslims in Hyderabad, Christians in Chennai). It has been interesting observing the huge differences in religious and social rituals observed during all three homestays, whilst experiencing a similarity in their enormous concern with hospitality.

On the subject of hospitality/politeness, I continue to be impressed by the helpful and welcoming nature of (non-rickshaw and non-government employee) Indians. That is, those you encounter in everyday conversation: hosts, workplace acquaintances, strangers asked for help, random strollers on the beach. Even on the crazy rushed atmosphere that is the government city bus system, there are tacit standards that citizens seem to stand by.
When a bus pulls in, and passengers try to squeeze out while impatient boarders rush the doors, those with bags throw them inside through the open windows to reserve a space. Once, before I even opted for this seating method, a woman beckoned towards me whilst in the bus and motioned for me to throw my bag to her. I ended up saving my legs a two-hour stand all the way back from Mamallapuram due to her quick thinking.
Even inside the bus, where you have to watch where you sit due to ever-shifting zones for female-only seating, I was standing as there was seemingly no space to sit, but a bench full of old men pressed themselves to the sides to make room for me and insisted I squeeze between them (as a non-female, non-elderly, and non-disabled person, I am used to being the absolute bottom of the seating chart!).
As mentioned many months ago, even when the surge of passengers has ended and the bus chugs off, leaving a few stragglers sprinting alongside trying to gain footing on the door's platform, hands extend to catch the runners and lift them up to safety.
And lastly, on my long train ride to Hyderabad, my neighbors saw that I didn't fit on the upper bunks of the sleeper car and offered me a seat next to them down below to sit during the waking hours, while (for the sleeping hours) a girl traded me her bottom bunk for my head-bruisingly low-clearanced top bunk.

I doubt I could find any of these things to occur in public transportation back home. Once you get past the pressing, pushing throngs and different concept of personal space (where the "six-inch rule" reduces to zero inches), you see the other side of India’s populace.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


So this is why I was warned to always ask for any drink without ice or ensure it is frozen mineral water... this here is the ice supplier of a roadside "cool bar" (smoothie stand). He rides up in his bicycle-rig with huge blocks of ice which he places inside a dirty rubber sack. Beating them with a large stick, he can then be seen pouring out the chunks into a dirty bucket and placing next to the fruit-smasher. Happy drinkin'!

Tamil graffiti

Bats nesting in the trees outside the Government Museum complex

Cannonball Tree! These huge orbs are quite interesting. The pulp is blue, it stinks, and local governments have to ensure they do not proliferate near roadways or paths, as the heavy nut will make quite a dent in your armor

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

CSR (corporate social responsibility) visits

the philanthropical side of my company's operations- local schools, hospitals and a community research center

examinations taken in outdoor hallways...

in the courtyard...

and the playing fields. always gender-segregated (ponytails required- no exceptions!)

I am misspelling this, but this game is called "kho-kho". It's a mix between duck-duck-goose and total anarchy

School principal explaining physics instrumentation and basic experiments conducted with said instruments. Don't let the height difference fool you- it all went way over my head

Whenever I entered a classroom of younger students, the "ma'am" (teacher) raised her hand and eyebrows expectantly, turning towards the kids, who scrambled out of their seats, saluted, and sang in chorus "Good mahning sahhh!"

food carts

apples and oranges

holy crap, that's a lot of chilis...

and bananas....

and coconuts

best and worst of Tamil architecture

the pinnacle of Tamil architecture, and the bare foundations:

Indo-Saracenic architecture

Madras High Court

State Bank of India

State Bank of India

Government National Art Museum

Government Museum "Theatre"

last Chennai weekend- rickshaws

the following posts include shots from my wanderings throughout the craziest town around, i'll try to keep them themed-

The Kilpauk communist union batcave unveiled to the internet public, at last. Stalin would be proud

a driver awaiting unsuspecting prey to pounce on. I caught him unawares in his natural habitat

Ummm....? is this a ship naming, like "HMS ___ " or "USS ___"? I wish I had taken this regal ride instead of walking the rest of the way