Tuesday, November 20, 2007

saw it on the video

A little while ago I got a (3rd gen) ipod nano. Apple's tagline is "A little video for everyone" and while the screen isn't huge, it's tolerable... so watch little videos I do.

Despite making me feel obnoxiously adult-like, I have to admit I'm addicted to NYT's video podcasts (available via subscription in iTunes). In particular, the world video segments are delightfully compelling 5-8 minute looks into issues that normally get edited down to 30 seconds on regular news broadcasts.

On the longer video front, I really enjoyed watching the Larry Lessig's latest lecture about his new topic of focus: Corruption. I've been a huge fan of Lessig ever since I watched his excellent Free Culture lecture at MIT for 6.805 - Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier. I had the privilege of eating lunch with him when he came and gave a talk @ Google last year... he's just as awesome in person as he is on your computer. Two other worthwhile @google videos worth watching are Jose Gonzalez (taciturn musician extraordinaire) and Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball).

I've found that comedy works best on the small screen... drama not so much. I made it through Season 3 of Peep Show but I haven't been able to tackle Hotel Chevalier. If you know of anything worth watching on a screen the size of a large postage stamp, let me know.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

indian omnibus

Well, it's my last day in India for this trip and I've still got notes on close to a bajillion things to write about. So, in the spirit of the Ask A Ninja Omnibus, hop on aboard as I bang through as much as I can before returning to my New York based, infrequently blogging ways.

  • Chinese food -- Indian people generally only eat Indian food. The only exceptions to this are Western multi-national food chains (e.g. Domino's) and Chinese food. Just as the U.S. has its own brand of Chinese food (think "orange chicken"), so does India. Chinese food here is generally sauce heavy, spicy, and not fried. It's so distinctive, in fact, that it is available internationally and has its own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Chinese_cuisine
  • Landmark navigation -- No one calls streets by their official names and street signs are rare at best so everyone here relies on landmark navigation to get around. It's utterly confusing as someone who doesn't live here and makes it close to impossible to get anywhere you've never been to before (unless conveniently located next to someplace you have been to and remember). I thought I'd be all independent and learn where things are in Mumbai this trip, but I quickly gave up when I realized all the dirty streets looked the same.
  • Clothing -- My cousins took me to a store that sells casual dress shirts and started pulling out shirt after shirt for me to try, each a different and unusual color -- colors I rarely on people and certainly have never worn. Apprehensively I told them I'd try them on, but I was pretty sure they wouldn't go with my skin tone. Then, lo and behold, ever one of the ridiculous colors matched my complexion just fine. I was amazed until I remembered I'm in India... everyone here has my skin color and they've had thousands of years to figure out which fabric colors go well with it. On the other hand, in a country full of such exceptionally skinny people, the fit of the shirts was surprisingly loose. In all the clothing stores we went to, I consistently ended up getting the smallest size available -- I'm not smaller than the average Indian, but common practice here is to wear collared shirts baggy (and tucked in)... go figure.
  • Historical upkeep -- India does a depressingly poor job maintaining its cultural landmarks. When I visited Raj Ghat (Gandhi's memorial in Delhi) a few years ago, the lawns were dying, the fountains dry, and the pathways dirty. The best maintained sites are almost always World Heritage Sites (maintenance funded by UNESCO) or Buddhist sites (maintenance funded by the Japanese). The notable exception to this is a series of palaces maintained by the Taj Hotels company. This means that whenever you see a large, beautiful, well-maintained, historic building, it's almost always hotel.
  • Local trains -- Mumbai doesn't have a subway system (what they call "subway" we would call "pedestrian underpass") but it does of a simple system of above ground local trains. Riding the trains is considered quite scary but my experiences on this trip weren't so bad (I only went off-peak and always with someone more experienced). The train system is incredibly efficient, punctual, and dirty. It's the backbone of the dabbawallas who operate with "six sigma" precision. There are first class cars (10x more expensive), women-only cars, and general cars. The general cars are by far the most crowded and have people hanging out of the doorways (oh right, there are no doors) at all times.
  • Cricket -- I never realized this, but cricket is way more popular than soccer in India. I don't think I've seen a single pick-up game of soccer here, but I've seen countless groups of all ages playing cricket. According to my cousins, Indian television show cricket and soccer matches but no other sporting events (not even the Olympics).
  • Mustaches -- Something like 60% of Indian men have mustaches. I don't get it. Not beards, mustaches. Doesn't matter what your social status or occupation is, you probably have a mustache. The one exception is Bollywood actors who, for some reason, are generally clean-shaven.
  • Driving -- Driving is perhaps the most singly scary thing you can do in India. I'd always understood that lane markers were optional in Mumbai, but when we went to Bhopal, I quickly learned that the center divider is just a suggestion too. No one wears a seat belt and everyone has their side-view mirrors tucked in (otherwise the mirror would get nicked off). Horns are so integral for announcing where you are and what you intend to do that you'd probably be better off driving blind than deaf in this country.
  • My ignorance -- I don't speak Hindi or Marathi (just English and Java) so everyone (including my relatives) assumes I must know next to nothing about India and the Hinduism. My knowledge of Indian history is certainly lacking, but it gets very frustrating when people start describing to you, in simple terms, a dish that you've had since childhood. Especially annoying when people assume I know little about Hindu mythology. It's true that as a non-practicer, my familiarity with practical/daily details of Hinduism (why you do something x number of times, to always do y before z) is sketchy, but I've found that my knowledge of Hindu mythology is actually broader than most Indian people's. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that my sister and I were voracious readers when we were young and were fed piles upon piles of Amar Chitra Katha comics. At this point, I'm fairly sure my sister and I know more about Hindu mythology than both my parents and perhaps even more than my Grandfather and many of my cousins (incl. the ones living in India). Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to stop people from trying to explain to me who Ganesh is...
Alright; I have more to write about but this is the last stop... everyone off.

don't eat that...

As you might imagine, one of the best parts of visiting India is the Indian food. The one complication is that, as a foreigner, I can't eat a lot of it -- it makes me sick. It's not a problem of prejudice or strong distaste, it's a matter of microbes. "Don't drink the water" is as appropriate a warning in India as it is south of the border and the Maharajah's revenge is every bit as vicious as Montezuma's. Of course you can always build up an immunity if you want to... but by my dad's estimate it'd probably take you about three weeks to do so and it's been a long time since I've had a trip to India last longer than a month.

I learned first hand about these microbes the hard way when I came to India in 2002. My cousins run a fresh fruit juice stand in Mumbai and were positively insistent that I sample their offerings. Seeing as they were family and knew I wasn't from 'round these parts, my mother and I figured it was probably O.K. to try. Despite using filtered water when washing the fruit, some regular water presumably made its way into the mix and by the next day, I was running a fever as well as other.... physical discomforts. To make matters worse, this happened a day or two before my 32+ hour trip back to Boston... I think I spent most of my flight in line for or on the toilet.

Needless to say, many meals here are prefaced by a quick discussion as to which dishes are "safe." There are two major rules of thumb: anything uncooked containing water or sold uncovered off the street is off-limits. Water must be boiled or filtered (Aquaguard being the trusted brand name in filtering) before consumption and only up-scale restaurants bother to process all of the water used in the cooking process.

Of course the best food comes from the most questionable of origins. My friends and I are big fans of a type of Indian fast food known as kati rolls -- if someone we know doesn't like kati rolls, we tease them saying they "wouldn't last a day on the mean streets of Calcutta." The truth is, we probably wouldn't either. Proper street-side kati roll wallas use uncooked chutneys in their creations, so when I went out for some "authentic" kati rolls in Mumbai I had to settle for a more sanitary version from a proper food stand -- chutney on the side.
The unsatisfying verdict? I like the ones in NYC better... but without the sauce, it's not a fair fight.

Friday, November 09, 2007

in and on mumbai and bhopal

For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have lived in a part of Mumbai known as Santacruz West. Since we always stay with my grandparents when visiting, this area has come to define "India" for me and my sister -- through out numerous trips in our childhood, Santacruz West was the only part of India we were really exposed to.

In the local parlance, Santacruz West is a "suburb." It's considered a suburb since it is not part of downtown Mumbai and is mostly residential. In the U.S., the word "suburb" conjures up the mental image of low population density sprawl; large houses with clean, manicured lawns... nothing at all like Santacruz West.

Santacruz West is a crowded area choked with pollution. There is little green but lots of filthy cement. People don't use the sidewalks because they're pitted with large holes, exposing open storm drains below. You don't need to own a car because the streets are teaming with three-wheel rickshaws and taxis. The humid air traps the vehicle exhaust which eventually settles on city in a uniform layer of brown dust. Many people here to both chew paan and spit, resulting in splashes of dark red "paint" all over the place. It's almost intolerably hot for most of the year and much of the area floods during the monsoon season.

Given all this, it might be easy to imagine why my sister and I have spent most of our lives thinking poorly of India -- a country full of filth, wretched poor, and relatives we didn't recognize who chatted for hours in languages we couldn't understand. Finally, a few years ago, I put my foot down and told my mother that I'd only go to India on the condition that we traveled as tourists, not seldom seen family. Fewer relatives and more sight seeing. I was tired of hearing how beautiful and mystical India was from non-Indians when all my personal experience led me to believe otherwise. In the trips after this change in focus, I've finally seen many of India's most treasured gems, ranging from the Taj Mahal to the Ajanta Caves and Kailash Temple.

Most recently, my parents, grandparents, and I spent a few days in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Infamous in contemporary culture as the site of one of the world's worst industrial accidents in 1984, Bhopal is conveniently close to a number of historical sites and is also the home of my mom's cousin, currently serving as head of the state's police force.

Despite being a major city, Bhopal is still small enough to give a glimpse of why some people enjoy going to India. The population hasn't outgrown the latest round of city development ("New Bhopal" versus "Old Bhopal") so the streets aren't constantly clogged with traffic or littered with beggars. Bicycles are still a popular mode of transportation even though the roads are terrifying (I spent a lot of time being the only person in all of India wearing a seat belt and we were involved in a hit-and-run within hours of arriving). Just wandering through the city, you can't help but feel like the old men in Bhopal have lives full of poetic hardship etched into their faces.

Don't get me wrong -- Bhopal is still crowded, confusing, and polluted, but much less so than Mumbai (c.f. NYC). My view of the city may also be tinted by the fact that visiting family of the State Chief of Police are apparently to be treated like local VIPs. We stayed at the "Police Mess" and were given a lake side marble suite that cost us ~$10 / day (yes, this is ridiculously cheap, even in India), which included a bathroom the size of most studios in Manhattan as well as a 20-something guy who sat outside our rooms during the day to make sure we had everything we needed (and watch over our stuff when we were out). While on a day excursion to Udayagiri and Sanchi, the local police provided an escort as well as a lunch they had prepared for us... including the only cup of proper masala chai I've had so far this time in India (de facto chai doesn't include masala spices).

Pampering aside, Bhopal was an enjoyable trip, highlighted by visits to the Bhojeshwar temple and Bhimbetka paintings (photos forthcoming). Most importantly, it reminded me how much more I get out of India when I'm not just in Mumbai and not just spending time with relatives (not that I don't love you relatives! Hi Chimu and Baru!).

Anyways, now that I'm back in Mumbai, I'll hopefully pump out a few more light-hearted observational posts before I head back to the States. Mumbai might be destroying itself riding the rickety roller-coaster of industrialization, but it does have easy Internet access.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

bucket bathing

Oh, hi there. You just caught me finishing a bucket bath... "what's that!?" you ask? Bucket baths are how you bathe when your lodgings lack bath tubs or shower heads. Basically you fill a big bucket with water then use a smaller bucket to pour the water over yourself while trying to lather/rinse/rub at the same time. I've been working on my technique these last few days but I still have a number of problems with the process.

  • It's hard to get the temperature of the bucket water just right -- at any given time you can only add hot water or cold water to the bucket, so it's a delayed feedback system with a fixed deadline (the bucket edge). After a few days practice I'm now able to get a satisfactory temperature, but doing so requires diligence and sustained monitoring of bucket temperature.

  • Perhaps the greatest mystery in my mind about bucket bathing is how I'm supposed to wash my arms. I generally pour with one hand and rub with the other, but on the arms I can either pour with no rubbing or try to awkwardly pour onto the arm holding the bucket while rubbing the arm down gently so I don't splash water everywhere. It's very inefficient; I think I use 1/4 of the bucket water on just my arm & shoulder regions.

  • Finally, bucket bathing requires me to stand naked in the middle of a bathroom and pour water on myself. Standing in a running shower is mentally acceptable, but standing around naked without water constantly running over me is strangely unsettling. It's clearly a silly cultural thing, but I'm having trouble adjusting.

While we're on the matter of washroom cleansing, let me just answer the one question I know you've all been asking yourselves: No, they don't use toilet paper in India. They instead use, you guessed it, buckets of water. No, no, you don't sit in the bucket; you pour the water down your backside.
I'm fine with about 3/4ths of this method -- feel free to read an extended critique of toilet bucket system in my new book entitled OK, My Butt is Clean and Dripping Wet... Now What?.