Friday, December 30, 2011

Trivandrum is hot but reasonable

Right, so Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram, the biggest city in Kerala. It is pretty clean and reasonable. There were some things to do, so we did them:
a zoo (you can tell it's an owl because it has a face like a dosa)

The famous Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. This recently became the richest temple in the world, after they discovered secret underground rooms full of treasure a few months ago. We non-Hindus were not allowed in.

Also, a planetarium, a couple art museums, milkshakes named after Arabian cities, and movies. We saw Shahrukh Khan in and as "Don 2". It was exactly what we expected and hoped.

This may not sound particularly exciting, but Trivandrum has been the first city that's big enough to have these sorts of things to do, but not all full of people trying to take tourists' money. Besides trying to walk down the street (difficult anywhere in India), there has been a remarkably low amount of hassle. You might say the hassle has been very less.

Here is how reasonable Trivandrum is. I wanted to get a lightweight short-sleeved shirt for all the hot weather I'll be traveling through. I went to a Khadi (woven cotton) shop and found one on the rack. The salesman helped me find the right color and size. The prices were fixed, no haggling, and the shop had a 30% sale on everything. I wore it out of the shop, immediately ripped it on a trash can, then got it fixed by a kind tailor, who wouldn't even let me pay him.

On a train, wearing my new shirt. (The guys next to me were playing with my phone.)

I'll deal with all the perils of modernization (megamalls! Brahminization of tribal religions! face-whitening commercials!) later, and just say for now that Trivandrum was pretty nice.

Let's talk about Kerala food.

In Kerala there is some food that is popular throughout all of South India, and there is some food that is unique to Kerala.

For breakfast throughout South India, you can have:

  • Dosa. This might be the most popular thing. It is like a big crepe made of rice and lentil flour. One common type of dosa is "Masala Dosa". This is a dosa filled with a spicy vegetable-potato mix. Sometimes it's a flat triangle shape, and sometimes it looks like a giant burrito.
  • Dosa variation #1: Rava Dosa. This is made with wheat flour. It's not quite so flat.
  • Dosa variation #2: Paper Dosa. This is made with rice and lentil flour again, but it is very flat and therefore huge in diameter. If you were a small child, and very hungry, you might conceivably eat a dosa that is bigger than you.
  • Dosa variation #3: Butter Dosa. Also known as "ghee roast" (which sounds awful), this is just a plain dosa with butter. Surprisingly, it doesn't taste super greasy.
  • Idli. This is a steamed cake made of rice and lentil flour. The consistency is like a birthday cake but chewier. You usually get two or three of them.
  • Vada. This is a fried savory doughnut made of rice and lentil flour. You usually get one or two, with something else. Idli and vada is a good choice.
  • Uttapam. This is a big pancakey thing made of (surprise) rice and lentil flour. It's often mixed with vegetables or onions. Kind of reminds me of Japanese okonomiyaki, which is a great food.

All of the above are served with sambar (a spicy soup) and coconut chutney. You use your bready thing of choice to soak up the sambar and chutney.

For breakfast in Kerala, you can also have:

  • Appam. This is kind of a catch-all term for foods made with plain rice flour. If you order just "appam", though, you'll usually get a sort of pancakey thing that is thin and light, maybe with a fluffy chewy center. Often served with coconut milk and vegetable stew.
  • Idiappam. This is rice noodles made into a cake, and served like appam. Often served with "Tengapa", or coconut milk.

That is a lot of breakfast choices, isn't it? South Indian breakfast is the best. You can eat these things for other meals too.

For lunch, you can have a thali, also just called a "meal". You sit down, they bring you a big banana leaf, scoop a mountain of rice on it, and serve about 9 different things with it. Some of the ones I've had are:

  • sambar. You will probably get a lot of sambar; it's kind of the main thing you put on your rice.
  • dal (lentils)
  • rasam. This is a very thin spicy tangy soupy thing. It's often served after sambar. First you have rice and sambar, then rice and rasam. It is just like that only.
  • curd (yogurt), or a thin curd-based sauce
  • beans
  • vegetables
  • a mix of chopped coconut and stuff
  • Indian pickled something
  • papadum (a crispy cracker)
  • payasam, a sweet rice pudding like kheer

Other things you can eat for lunch or dinner:

  • Kothukozhi (the zh is pronounced like an r), a chicken dish in a thick dark sauce.
  • Fish masala or fish curry. I'd heard the fish was supposed to be awesome here, but it's not been particularly special. Perhaps I am spoiled after Bengal.
  • Porotta, which is kind of like Paratha, but less oily and more layered and therefore strictly better.
  • Biriyani, rice and things.
Most restaurants are about the same. This is a good thing; they're all great.

Maybe I should only travel goal-oriented

An interesting internet person I follow named Josh Whiton wrote a short bit about travel. He talks about his friend who loves to travel anywhere, just because it's new, while Josh likes to travel with a goal. It's a personality difference; she cares about new experiences and relationships, while he cares more about progressing towards goals.

"This doesn't mean getting in and out, all business no play, without stopping to take it all in, mix with locals, or let some current of life sweep him away. But it does mean all that happens against a backdrop of some mission, even if it changes along the way."

This resonates with me. Maybe I'm just not wired to enjoy anything just because it's new. (food is an exception.) I've thought it was a bit neurotic, like I can't "switch off" and relax, but maybe it's just a thing I need to learn to work with, and I ought to orient my travels, short and long, around certain goals.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas, and an update from Kerala

After Bangalore, I took my last overnight bus in India to Kochi, Kerala, to meet up with Ram and Nicole. Kerala is a skinny little state on the southwest coast of India. It feels kind of like Florida. There are some Dutch and Portuguese influences due to trade and colonization.
Dead Dutch people

Kerala food has lots of coconuts, which is great. Kerala is a pretty well-developed state, the most literate in India, the most English-speaking, and about evenly split between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
Christmas-decorated traffic circle

We saw some big Chinese fishing nets that work using physics:

We spent Christmas Eve at midnight at the cathedral. Then, for Christmas, we went to a Jain temple. There was a square with some pigeons. You could feed them. That was fun.

Then on Boxing Day, to finish off our Christmas experience, we also went to a synagogue, one of about three in all of India. The synagogue is in Jew Town. Which street is it on? Jew Street.

Now we're in Trivandrum, or Thiruvananthapuram if you prefer. We'll be here for about 4 days total. It seems like quite the modern city. But more about Trivandrum later.

This is my last week in India. I can't say I'm particularly glad or particularly upset. I can say that I'm having fun traveling this week, largely because Ram and Nicole are great fun to travel with.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I got it figured out, I got it figured out

"When a person says, in a foreign place, "I feel right at home here," he is making a statement about the nature of travel, not in the texture of the place he is in. I don't belittle this sort of travel, which I regard as Traveling As A Version Of Being At Home; but it is wrong to mistake it as the sort of travel that allows a person to make discoveries." - Paul Theroux

So travel may be a journey to "find a city, find myself a city to live in." I think a year ago I was bullish on this prospect; I thought there might be oases of urban prosperity like Seattle the whole world around. I pictured myself hunkering down in, I dunno, Amritsar, and trying to make some work as if I were at home. Hang out in 10 different homes over 10 months, make myself an insider in 10 different places, and thus broaden my life while keeping some depth.

Now I'm not so sure! I think there are a couple cities in India I could live in, and only with some stress. Dharamsala comes to mind first, Darjeeling second, and Bangalore third. The first two are romantic pipe dreams where I awaken to mountain vistas and Buddhist chants, churn out some code for a few hours, eat a delicious meal or three, and occasionally go for a hike. But I already get cranky when I can't work well; daily internet/power/water cuts, lack of computer parts within twelve hours' drive, and the slow Indian pace of life would drive me nuts. And let's not kid ourselves; there's not a big market for computer scientists in Dharamsala.

As another option, I could head for a tech hub like Bangalore. That'd bring a big IT job market and infrastructure, but I'd have to accept all the soul crushing of the Silicon Valley tech world times twelve. Suburban office megaplexes, huge commutes, and no walkability make Dan a dull boy.

We haven't even mentioned monsoons or cockroaches! I think India is not a place I want to live in.

Not the ultimate point of my trip (travel is about changing yourself in reaction to places, not molding places to fit you or discarding them otherwise), but nice to know.

Bangalore more

Continuing the string of people in Bangalore being awesome, I couchsurfed with an awesome Bangalorean (/Bihari) named Siddharth, who showed me even more all around the city, including this temple with a giant bull (Nandi, Shiva's ride) carved all out of one piece of rock.
you can kind of see him in the back there

Food in Bangalore is great, because they take the food from South India plus everywhere else. Siddharth kindly treated me to a Butter Dosa (or should I say, "Better Dosa", hey?), the best Biryani, and Idli/Vada, which I will eat all the time.

Drinks in Bangalore are great, because South India likes coffee. The standard is black coffee, brewed overnight into this super-concentrated coffee sludge, then diluted with milk and sugar, in a tiny shot glass. Yeah, it's a bastardization and tastes like a Starbucks concoction, but it's tasty and small. Also, Cafe Coffee Day started here, which means they have The Best CCD:
Single origin coffees! Single origin coffees from all over the world, including India! I had a french press from a plantation in Karnataka. Not life-changing, but if I paid $4 for it in Seattle, I'd be happy.

Bangalore is glitzy.

This is UB City, a shiny shopping mall. Why am I here?

Tech boom means there's lots of money here. Lots of money means shiny stores and status symbols; people wear brand name clothes and ogle cars. (Once, driving with Moin and driver Ram, we passed a Rolls Royce. Moin: "Wow, a Rolls Royce." Ram: "Yeah, that belongs to so-and-so, a friend of Vijay Mallya." Not just celebrity gossip, celebrity car gossip!) Sometimes prices creep up into American territory.

However, it also means it's a city I can understand how to spend time in. There are pubs (which close at 11:30 by law, but whatever) and coffeeshops, movie theaters and art galleries. Alternative weekly magazines. One microbrewery. There are almost even neighborhoods; most are plastered with malls, but there are hints of real new modern culture developing.

And there are a couple parks. Lalbagh botanical garden:

Not actually a lawn jockey, but a monkey wearing clothes. Is this racist?

Anyway. Bangalore is neat. I feel almost as much at home here as anywhere. Still impossibly unwalkable, and there are some cultural issues (like celebrity car gossip), but then, you have those anywhere. And besides, am I traveling in order to match up each city against some criteria and judge how good they are, or how much I'd like them, or how much I'd like to live there?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Finding home again in Bangalore

So after a train trip in which I didn't sleep, thanks to some coffee-fueled mania, I arrived in Bangalore at 7AM. Dawn must be the best time to be in Indian cities. There are so few people around, and those who are around are so friendly. (Not that I dislike people, but my ideal density is somewhat lower than that in most Indian metropolises.) There are even slightly fewer cars.
Sari shops at 7am

Coffee truck. Guys, coffee truck. How is this not everywhere in the pacific northwest? Coffee truck!

Famous parliament building blah blah
Big city park etc

Bike rental station: awesome. However, they should also work on the fact that cycling on Bangalore streets is a little suicidal. (Ironically, of course, more cycling would help.)

Speaking of dawn, I connected with Dawn Shaikh, a friend of a friend from Google. She, her husband Moin, and their daughters Aneesa and Amara have moved from Seattle to Bangalore for the year. (more on their adventures here.) It was so interesting to talk with them about life as a Googler in Google Bangalore, as American professionals in Bangalore, as IT professionals in India, as students in Indian international schools, as Americans in Bangalore, and as Americans in India. Interesting and refreshing; sometimes I feel like a crazyman here. (both among Indians and travelers.) Plus, they put me up at their place, made some great food, showed me around their town, the whole deal. Really made me feel at home.

The next day, I met up with Thierry (another Googler) and his wife Shika, who were kind enough to host me for a night also. Stuff happens late in this town, so after work (8ish) we went for dinner nearby.  Great talking with them too; in these two days, I've learned more about what it's like to live and work here than in the previous two months.

I saw my first Christmas tree at the Shaikhs' house, and my second at Google Bangalore. Lunch at the office was Christmas lunch, with a big roast bird, western salads and sides, and Christmasey desserts. (Plus Indian food for people who prefer it. Like me.) Santa Claus came around handing out little presents. So, a few dashes of Christmas: a little like home also. Even a few horrible Christmas songs! Friggin' "Last Christmas"...

And finally, and this is weird, I got a big jolt of being back in the mother ship at Google. I realized how much I miss the culture where everyone is brilliant, everyone is optimistic, everyone is techy, everyone is working on sort of the same thing, and everything runs pretty smoothly. Plus the insider feeling from talking about Google things with Googlers. So it goes! You cannot have your career and eat it too! It's a good feeling to have, though, to have left on good terms and to look forward to possibly working there again.

So thank you Google, thank you Christmasey things, but mostly thank you to the Shaikhs and Thierry and Shika. It's nice to feel a bit at home again.

Later I think I will wax philosophical on what it means to feel at home while you're traveling, but I am tired right now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What's the purpose of this trip?

That may be a silly question, like "what is the meaning of life?" What I'm trying to get at is, if I'm sick of sightseeing (and I am), how can I make this trip into the best trip that it can be? If my goal of "seeing a bunch of places" gets worn out, (and after the lovely interlude coming soon where I hang out with family and friends for about two months) what's next?

As with life in general, I think an easy way to answer this question is to find a purpose. So... what purpose can I find?

Some points I'm thinking about:
  • I think I'll be in Iran in February or March, and I'd like to end somewhere that is kind of close to home.
  • Some places in Europe might be nice to visit, because I know a few people there, but just touristing in Europe is not appealing.
  • I had this idea to go to Ukraine because I have a little bit of ancestry there maybe, but I don't actually know any people there, so it'd just be to sort of soak up a bit of ancestral culture.
  • Some places in South America might be nice to visit, because I can speak Spanish okay and speaking the language helps so much in allowing you to find something to do besides touristing.
  • Some other places like Central Asia might be nice to visit, but I don't really have any reason to go there.
  • I don't actually have much of an urge to go to the rest of the world right now! Feels strange.
So I'm thinking (and I am loath to say this because it might turn out to be silly) that a good purpose might be to bicycle across Europe. Start in Turkey in March, end in the Netherlands in June; about 90 days for 1600 miles is only 17 miles a day. Ride the warm weather back north. My primary task would be to get myself from point A to point B; touristing is secondary.

It sort of appeals to me. We'll see.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The only pun I can make out of boulders and hippies involves "getting stoned" so I'll skip that

Hampi is alternately amazing and just nice. The amazing parts are when you walk up a hill and are surrounded by Jurassic Parkesque (or Mordorian) piles of boulders everywhere, or when you're climbing on some rocks and see yet another 500-year-old building. Or when you rent scooters or bicycles to see these things. Two wheels, yes!
View from the Hanuman temple on the North (Virupapur Gaddi) side of the river. Go to this place; it is great.

It's not that I know or am deeply interested in the history of each individual temple; it's just the sort of otherworldly atmosphere here in general.

The nice parts are when it's dark and you retire to the tourist village of Virepapur Gaddi (across the river from the "main drag" of Hampi Bazaar). I guess Hampi is next on the hippie circuit after Goa, so there are lots of folks just hanging out. My guesthouse has no power between 11am and 6pm, or after 10pm, and right now it has no running water, but hey, no worries. There are lots of mosquitos, but on the plus side I get my first experience with Odomos and mosquito nets. (both are wonderful; I have no bites.)

This cute fellow kept my bathroom clean

Some guesthouses have movies or musicians or bonfires. It's a pretty nice environment to relax for a few days. I wonder what it's like for the people running these places.

The only distressing moment happened when I was talking to a diehard Ron Paul/Ayn Rand/uncontrolled-free-markets supporter, and I didn't know what to say. Guess I am way out of touch with politics.

Practical info: you can stay in Hampi Bazaar (maybe half Indian tourists, half white) or Virupapur Gaddi (aka the "other side" of the river, mostly white tourists, more hippie, more relaxed). Your choice will determine where you spend sunsets and evenings, as the ferry stops at 6pm. Both are good; I think there's more going on on the Virupapur Gaddi side. I stayed in the Sai Plaza guesthouse, which was low on amenities (no hot water, sometimes no water at all, sporadic electricity) and a bit high budget at Rs500, but clean and had a good atmosphere. But there are a ton of guesthouses on both sides. Every restaurant serves four hundred different types of food, none are that good. It's frustratingly difficult to find South Indian food here. There is no ATM (since they bulldozed the main street in 2011). You can rent bicycles/motor-scooters everywhere for 40/150 rupees.

It occurs to me that fewer things stand out now

So I got on the train in Jaipur, found out that 2AC is really just like 3AC with slightly fewer people, talked with my fellow passengers, played a game that involved singing a song that starts with the last letter of the last song, shared their dinner, tried an "almond milk" that was just cow milk with sugar and chunks of almond, got off the train 32 hours later in Guntakal, and took three buses to Hampi via Bellary and Hospet, stopping for an amazing breakfast of idlis and vadas. This trip segment feels like the kind of thing that would have absolutely fascinated me a while ago; now it's just another trip.

Sometimes I'll read an article about how traveling makes you feel like a child again. Maybe after you travel in the same country for a while, you're not like a child any more. Taking an overnight train used to involve a lot of mental effort: how do I find my seat? how do I make the bed? should I eat dinner before I get on? Now it involves only a couple thoughts: get to the station on time, get off on time. The rest is automatic.

This is fine. I guess it means there's less confusion and less wonder. I guess now is when the trip can deepen a little bit and one can get more in depth into... what?... instead of gawking at all the surface differences all the time. So I guess I'm not sure what to do with this. But it's fine.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jaipur! Argh!

What is wrong with this place! It has all the walkability of New Delhi, my hotel is a few km from everything, tuk-tuk drivers are incessant and awful, and the primary pastime seems to be shopping or spending a few bucks to see sights you don't care about. I guess there are some pretty buildings.

I mainly came to see this, the Jantar Mantar. It was an observatory. This thing you see here is the world's largest sundial.

A scattering of other observatorial implements.

The Albert Hall. I wonder how many holes it takes to fill it.

I don't know what this building is, but it's kind of cool.

Crowning moment:
Me: Do you know the Krishna Palace hotel?
Tuk-tuk driver: (reads card, realizes it's a few km away) Okay.
Me: How much?
Driver: Fifty dollars.
Me: Fifty rupees? Okay. (this journey is worth about 50-100 rupees.)
Driver: No. Fifty dollars.

Sir, screw you, and it's taking a bit of self restraint for me to avoid saying "and screw your city."

Well! I leave in a few hours on a long long trip to Hampi. Wish me luck!

Iran travel risks and Fan Death

Fan Death is a Korean idea. Some Koreans think that sleeping with a fan on can kill you, either through asphyxiation or hypothermia. I bring it up not because it's silly, but because it's something that some people fear (aided by the media), while others can't imagine it being scary.
EDIT: a much better example is skydiving. Statistically not risky, though it seems risky, because jumping out of a plane!

So here I'd like to address some of the possible fears associated with Iran travel, and either refute them or reduce them to a risk that I'm already taking. Instead of general fear of Iran, let's concentrate on what it is that we're afraid of.

What could go wrong?

  • Petty crime, getting my things stolen or whatever. I have no reason to believe this is more likely in Iran than in other places, like India.
  • Violent crime. Again, this is no more likely in Iran than elsewhere.
  • Getting caught up in a protest or something. Well, of course I won't be trying to find anything like this; the trouble would be if I stumble into one. Iran is the first place where I'll have a guide, who will know the situation on the ground and help me avoid stumbling into one. (compare to India where there are people protesting stuff all the time.)
  • Iranian government harassing me. I wouldn't be hearing so much "Iran is safe" if there were a possibility that the government would harass me. Unlike those hikers a few months ago, I won't be going near borders or away from my guide. I won't take photos of official things. And again, there's a guide whose job it is to keep me safe.
  • US government harassing me on re-entry; one two sites reporting no problems, or a little badgering but nothing serious.
  • US government harassing me somewhere down the road (e.g. on a "terrorist watch list"). The only reason I have to believe that this would happen is due to someone I haven't met, whose words I've heard only secondhand via a rather exaggerated email.
Other general fears:
Other things that might allay your fears:
Anyway, my point is that I'm not going on some daring trip on a calculated risk because it'll be awesome dude; I'm going on a non-risky trip.

And so I'm asking, if you can provide some evidence that travel to Iran is dangerous, please do. Tell me what I should be afraid of, and provide evidence as to why. The caveat is that this evidence must be fact-based, not vague warnings or what-if worries. If there's no evidence, we might just be arguing about fan death here. (EDIT: or skydiving.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't think too hard about "filling time"; or, I'm going to Hampi.

Honestly. When in your life do you have the problem of a few extra days with no obligations other than "get from resort town A to resort town B and keep yourself relatively entertained in the meantime"?

I'm going to Jaipur tomorrow night, arriving on the morning of December 13. On Dec 24 I meet Ram and Nicole in Cochin. Here is a map of how far that is. In a car, it's 2385 km; that's 1482 miles. Googling tells me that that is the same as the distance between Phoenix and Missouri, or between Kansas City and Calexico, California.
(ponder for a moment the weirdness of googling "2385 km" and getting "the distance between Kansas City, MO and Calexico, CA." It's like Jeopardy.)

Ages ago, I booked a ticket on the Jaipur-Bangalore express train on Dec 14. This still seems to be approximately the best route, and trains get booked far in advance (especially now with every single tourist going to Kerala), so this still seems to be my best chance to actually get south.

But of course I don't have to take it all the way to Bangalore, and indeed, I think I won't. See, if I get off 7 hours before Bangalore, in Guntakal, I can catch a bus for a few hours to Hampi. Hampi looks like a magical city of ruins that I had ignored because I didn't think I'd be bumming around in Karnataka state. I'll be there about Dec. 16-18.

And then I'll head on down to Bangalore for Dec 19-23, to experience big city life in India one more time. I'm excited about this too, after pretty good times in Kolkata. Big cities in India can be awful, but they also can offer opportunities to meet up with Couchsurfers and other actual people who aren't trying to sell you stuff. Plus, Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India, the "pub city" of India, and I guess they grow coffee nearby, so it's basically the Seattle of India, right? Right.

So. Time filled. Let's see some ruins and stuff.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My camel had a name (it was Papaya)

but that didn't stop us from singing this around a campfire.

One popular thing to do in Jaisalmer is to ride a camel in the desert. It is kinda the main thing to do in Jaisalmer. Everyone and his brother will take you in the desert on camels. I booked a trip through Ganesh Travels, which is listed in the Lonely Planet, but for good reason: they deliver honest quality tours for a good price and no BS. Seriously, at $13/day, going on a camel safari is cheaper than not going on a camel safari. Highly recommended.

Good things that were good:
Scrubby desert

Dunes! Did a couple of awesome dives and flips. Am still pulling sand out of my ears.

The other folks on my tour! This is me, Rob, and Joe, posing for our album cover. (we'd be named the Ambassadors of Morocco, but Joe's old band already has that name.) There were 8 people in our group, and I'm sorry to have missed the others in photos. Great mix of people from UK, France, Holland, Germany, and China. It's really the people who make the trip, and our group was no exception.
Also not pictured: our guides, Mr. Khan and Selim. They were wonderful too. Managing 8 tourists and 8 camels cannot be an easy task, especially when you're also setting up camp, cooking three meals, arranging mattresses and blankets, and building fires. And the language barrier was low enough that we could actually communicate sometimes as humans, not just customers.

Sunsets. Nights. All these things in nature, where I am not used to being. To quote the travel agent, Sebastian, at Ganesh Travels: "And you can sleep under the stars. Ohh, so beautiful!"

The camels! Riding was actually not bad, when we were walking. A little bouncy but you get used to it. Kind of calming, really. When we trotted a little bit, that's when it got tough. I don't know how camel riders ride fast for long distances. I really don't know how camel riders have children.

's about it for now. One of the better experiences I've had here in India. Otherwise I'm in Jaisalmer, which is pretty much a tourist town, with pretty heavy tourist-hustle, but it features this incredible fort.

Inside the fort, if you can get away from touts and find a nice place to watch the sunset, it's actually peaceful!

Practical tips about Jaisalmer: I stayed in the Artist Hotel, which was clean enough, had some plumbing issues, but friendly, and a ways north of the fort, for Rs300. Inside the fort, look for Kuku's Coffeeshop (near Hari Om Jewelers) and meet Deepu, as he is a friendly guy who can help you do whatever you need without getting conned. The Desert Eves Restaurant inside the fort is a nice place to sit for a while and use wi-fi on a rooftop.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Oh, one more thing: maybe not Iran

When I've been telling people about my route, they always comment on Bhutan (enthusiastically) and Iran (somewhat less so).

My reasons, it is now clear to me, were twofold: about 20% to get the word out that Iranians are normal reasonable good people too, and about 80% to have the satisfaction of "proving", to a few relatives, that Iranians are normal reasonable good people too. So I've got about 20% of a good reason to go. (also to see amazing buildings history food and all the other stuff; so 1.2 good reasons to go.)

Unfortunately, there are a number of good reasons for me not to go to Iran, and note that "terrorists will kill you" is not one of them.

  • It'd cost me about $1200, not counting airfare, for the group tour I picked (you have to go with a group or a guide)
  • It's a group tour
  • It's a sightseeing tour
  • A lot of shenanigans like "you can't bring laptops in the country" and "there are no ATMs" make planning a bit difficult
  • Recent embassy stormings are less than awesome for tourists I guess
  • And here is the new one: I heard that, apparently, going to Iran puts you directly on the US Terrorist Watch List? And your family too? For the record, our government is nuts. But while there's honor in organized civil disobedience, there's little honor in helping yourself get screwed by the system.
Thoughts? (I mean, besides my family; their thoughts I already know :)

And hello, and goodbye again

I'm going out to the desert. For a camel safari, tomorrow. Someone remind me, never talk to a travel agent when I'm high on caffeine. But seriously, though, should be cool. They seem like good guides, there's a good mix of folks going, and in a town full of camel safari operators, they advertise as "probably the best in town." I'm sold. See you in 3 days!

"A guest is like God"

or so the saying goes. My friends Hemant and Gaurav (each, independently) told me of this Indian saying, and indeed, they believe it. Again, their mom and they put me up for a couple days, attending to my every need, and then some. Plus, we saw some stuff around Delhi, had some whiskey, saw a dirty picture, watched some cricket, you know. Ate delicious food, thanks to Mrs. Mohan. Skyped with my family, after some hilarious MacGyvering the internet on both ends. (Many thanks to the Kumars for helping this happen.)

(okay, okay. it's a Hindi film called "Dirty Picture," about an actress in the 80's. Mildly scandalous by Bollywood standards, not scandalous by Hollywood standards. Mildly confusing by English-speaking standards. For some reason I thought Hindi films might sometimes have subtitles?)

I met up with Satti, a co-worker of my mother's who works in Noida. We had some delicious kebabs of all kinds.
Someday I will understand what "kebab" means, but that day is not today. Growing up, "kebab" was only used in "shish kebab", and it meant we put pieces of chicken and peppers on a skewer and grilled them. In Europe, "kebab" meant "doner kebab", a sandwich with slices of roasted meat. Beloved by us inexperienced foreigners, especially after some beers; I may or may not have memorably sang "K is for Kebab" in a Cookie Monster voice at one point. Today, at the Kebab Factory (a fine place, despite the fact that if your restaurant is named "factory", you're doing it wrong), we were served a very nicely soft textured patty of spiced meat, a chicken leg, a fried bit of fish, a piece of boneless chicken, and a sausage link. And they were all "kebab"?!
Anyway, he generously took me to lunch and then to see his office, despite the fact that he is surely a much busier man than I!

And then I bid a sad goodbye to Delhi. Rather, I bid a sad goodbye to the people I know in Delhi. I'm not all too choked up about the city itself; it must be the least walkable place on the planet, and the suburbs are worse. (and yes, walkability is the only thing that matters; discuss.) I got to the train station an hour early, so I decided to walk back to the famous Chandni Chowk, and I'll agree with William Dalrymple's assessment that it's become a rather crummy place.

But right, the people I know in Delhi. I am quite bowled over by their kindness. I can only hope to host them in the US someday and return the favor; a distant possibility perhaps, but the offer is indeed open!

Safety Nets

Back on the net! Here come all the blogs, starting with a thought I've been having:

I've got a lot of safety nets, right? Safety net 1 is my savings: if something bad happens, I can throw money at it until it goes away. Safety net 2 is also monetary, I guess: my job. Or, if I'm unemployed, like now, it's my ability to get a job. Tangled with that is safety net 3: people I know professionally who might know someone who knows someone who could help me get a job. I guess you could say my "network". Failing all that, there's safety net 4: my skills and resume. I could get a job writing software at any old place. And if all these fail, I have a lot of family and friends, who could probably help me out for a time if I really needed it.

So I was reading "Revolution 2020" by Chetan Bhagat. I guess he's a popular paperback author. The writing wasn't great, but as a window to parts of India, it was fascinating. He describes the life of Gopal, an average guy from Varanasi whose family has some problems. Gopal's mother died years ago, his father inherited some land but his uncle tried to legally wrangle it away, and his father is even having health problems too. So Gopal's father puts his hope in Gopal becoming an engineer.

There are two national exams for engineering schools: the AIEEE (to get into NIT, the National Institute of Technology), and IIT-JEE (to get into the world-famous India Institute of Technology). IIT is more prestigious, but even NIT is tough. After the one-shot exam, all >1 million aspiring engineering students are ranked, and if you get in the top 30k, you can get into NIT. So 3% "pass".

Gopal's rank is about 50k. So his father uses the last of his savings to send Gopal to a coaching school in Kota, where Gopal spends the next year studying, so he can take the one-shot exams again. This is like year-long full-time SAT classes, but more pressure. You have to get yourself into the top 3% of students; 97% of you are guaranteed to fail. Furthermore, there are varying levels of quality and prestige among the coaching schools, so the schools have entrance exams. There are even coaching classes for those.

Why go through all this? Because he has no safety nets. If he doesn't pass these exams, which 97% of students must fail, he's got no chance! At one point, he jokes about running through his options: exile to the mountains or a hard life of manual labor. (spoiler alert: he finds option 3, a life of shady business, and later has a moral crisis because of it. I said it's not a great book.)

Now, the safety nets come with a slight cost, while traveling: to quote Pulp, when I'm "lying in bed at night, watching roaches climb the walls, I can call my daddy and he can stop it all", and as a result, I can't really relate to most people. I can't understand why (for example) it'd be reasonable to keep trudging through a job you dislike, because I haven't felt the icy stomach flops from falling through all the safety nets. But nor do I desire to; having the essentials taken care of allows you to focus on the "better things" in life, whatever your definition of "better things" is.

And so I guess there is the crux of it. If you were looking for a Thanksgiving post, here it is. (it's not late, it's just, time zones, y'know?) I'm thankful for my safety nets. And traveling through India, a land of few safety nets, has made me more so.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I remember reading that it's impossible to like Kolkata; you must love it or hate it

Moment-to-moment, that's true. I've had very few moments of liking Kolkata. I've had a lot of love moments and a lot of hate moments.

The love moments:
- meeting up with the Kolkata Couchsurfing community. Even though I couldn't actually find any available hosts, I got a chance to talk with a bunch of cool people. A lot of young folks and a lot of men, although a few women and older people too. One, Avik, even invited me and another CSer to dinner (which was a great time, and delicious); another CSer, Ratnish, invited a bunch of us to his house for some board games, including Taboo. Now, Taboo is great, but kudos to the Indians, Germans, Austrians, and others there who had English as a second language! That would be tough. And I got to play chess with another, Prithvi. Good folks all.

- meeting a couple of Australian folks who run a travel business and just bought a house in north Kolkata. They've lived here for 16 years, but they go back to Australia for the summer and monsoon season. (Summer sounds awful: over 100 degrees and humid, constantly.) Then they come back to find mold on their walls. They have running water for a few hours a day; they store it in a tank that effectively gives them running water for the rest of the day. But this tank has a hose which they have to remove at night, because otherwise the rat will chew through it. Sometimes stores are closed (like today!) because of strikes. The most recent one is because of supermarkets: the government's making some deals to allow Wal-mart, Carrefour, etc to set up shops in India, and there is a complicated issue. (which I would love to talk about sometime, incidentally.)
Their business is Kali Travel Home at or traveleastindia at gmail. Highly recommended! They do walking tours and coordinate cooking classes with locals, as well as a bunch of other stuff on their website.

- seeing everything in one day, courtesy of a motorcycle tour by a guy named Sukant.
Park street cemetery: neat overgrown/crumbling atmosphere.

The Great Banyan! It is all one tree!

Flower market. Spices too.

"Now we are going to the Garbage Mountain! ... There is the start of it." "Where? There? No..." "Yes! It is five kilometers long!" This was actually fascinating. Fifty years' worth of garbage. I don't know if you can see any people in that photo for scale, but it is immense. Meanwhile, everything gets sorted out: glass bottles, plastic bags, scraps of foil, colored plastic, etc. As we rode past it, we saw all these little piles of one type of thing which would get recycled. I imagine every American city has multiple Garbage Mountains, but we never see them, and we recycle a lot less. What can we learn from Kolkata? Well, I don't know: all this recycling requires an army of people climbing on top of that mountain, picking through all the junk.

(again, more photos if you click the "photos" link above.)
If that's a thing you'd like to do, check out Tour de Sunderbans.

- Kolkata is nicely navigable and walkable, especially the central bits.

- Bengali food is so good all the time. Kathi rolls for snacks, delicious fish curries of pomfret and ilish for meals, shondesh and mishti doi for dessert. Anyone want to open up a Bengali/Nepali restaurant with me?

The hate moments:
- beggars. Well, now I know, ignore them all, just as you ignore all touts. You are even allowed to do such absurd things as hard-core shunning them, yelling "no" or "chalo!" ("go away!"), ditching them, or pretending not to speak English.

- on that note, Kolkata is terrifying! Not because I ever felt unsafe, really, but because you're surrounded by countless examples of "there but for the grace of God..." I guess a few roaches here and there is a fact of life. I can't imagine running a house, like those Australian folks.

- the tourism zone (including the internet cafes) is more soul-crushing than most. I trust a Kolkata tourist-businessman less than I can throw him.

- I am tired! My travel gumption is fading, and I cannot seem to recharge. Being in a big city is nice, but it's also tough in its own way. I was planning to spend next week in Delhi, but I think instead I will spend a few days and then go to Rajasthan. (in retrospect, I should have planned to stay a couple weeks, because meeting the same people a few times is nice.)

So yes, love and hate. If you take the average, though, I'd say overall I like Kolkata.