Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nubra Valley... Ladakhi Heaven

After a day acclimatizing in Leh (photos), and a 10-hour round trip jeep ride to Pangong Tso on the Ladakh-Tibetan border, we again commissioned a land cruiser for a two day trek into the North-Eastern corner of Ladakh. With permits on hand, we enter the Ladakhi paradise known as the Nubra Valley.

The Nubra Valley is linked by 150 km of road to Leh, and requires one to pass over the highest motorable highway in the world. At 18,380, the Khardung La pass offers one steaming garam chai, military handshakes, and prayer flag vistas toward peaks that tower above and below. Beyond the Nubra Valley is the Karakoram Pass which links Ladakh to Xinjiang province in Western China. This is not accessible even with a permit.

Descending over the Khardung Pass into the Nubra Valley, after snapping picts with a requesting Punjabi family, we came upon a desolately straight road. Always above 10,000 feet, even the bottom of the valley offers unprecedented topography. Glacial green rivers run clear over smooth stones, and the verdant banks provide food for wandering yaks. Hundreds of white and brown horses wade knee deep in a lush marsh at the banks of arid crags which descent thousands of feet from snow-capped knife-edged corners. The marsh is a verdant quiver for the arrowheads of granite which stretch, puncturing clouds, and slicing knife edges like obsidian into the deep blue sky.

On a solitary road that crosses the valley floor, we stop aside a moonscape of sand dunes untouched by humanity, only whipped by the Karakoram winds (photos). Ripples show in its silver surface. Beyond, visibility must be a hundred miles. The valley extends ad infinitum into a diminuendo of spikes, black, gray, silver, and green. The sky melts from a deep indigo above into a painted white canvas on the horizon. Giddy with discovery we attack the sand dunes, yell, pause, listen to the silence. We dive off the dunes, twirl and then stop in awe of our surroundings; Heaven.

We continue down the valley where we find a seated group of Bactrian Camels like those once used to cross the Silk Road. For $3 we commission rides across the dunes through a sand storm, before returning to the land cruiser for sunset at the Diskit Gompa hundreds of meters above the valley floor. The vista from the whitewashed buddhist gompa nestled into sheer rock walls is spectacular. Punctuated by the maroon robes of laughing children studying toward peace, we sit, breathless because of altitude and spectacle, feet dangling off the wall. The sun powers its way past a far off crag in straight rays which illuminate patches on the valley floor. Its yellow lines paint color into an already infinitely nuanced canvas, each hollow and line illuminated by the 5pm shadows, and called to attention by the angle of the light.

Pangong Tso... Ladakh and Tibet

A death-defying and dramatic five hour drive from Leh, Pangong Tso (Ladakhi for "Lake") glows spectacular aqua and indigo in the sunshine at 14,000 feet. Though permits are required to climb the desolate and snow-capped peaks that bring you dangerously close to the Indian-Tibetan border, we managed to expedite the process through veteran antics and a wink from a U.N. travel-mate. Cramming our diverse Bain, Google, U.N. and Fulbright, Detroit-to-Ireland crew into a land-cruiser, and we set off at 5am.

By 8am we took rest at the Changla Pass, the world's third-highest motorable mountain road. Though it was June 21, the first day of summer in the rugged Himalaya still comes with flurries of snow. A Nepali man who had served 23 years in the Indian army served me a complimentary cup of chai in his tented green military outpost. Two fatigued men with rifles laughed at my basic Hindi and Bollywood one-liners aside their burning furnace, faces half-shielded by bandanas to keep away the snow. Whereas overpriced coffee would accompany any Western tourist stop, Ladakh is still remote, inaccessible, and hidden behind the expectations of a dangerous Kashmir. As such, it's a world of immense and unparalleled rugged beauty, smiles and rifles, edgy moments and deep histories.

Descending from 17,300 at Changla Pass to 14,000 where Pangong Tso straddles the Indian-Tibetan border, we came upon a world not known as Earth. Infinitely complex patterned lines carved their way down thousands of feet of arid red-brown rock. Martian hills plunged toward an un-Earthly green and blue crystal lake, and above them towered the knife-edged Karakoram peaks of Tibet. Surrounded by flat shale, the pristine lake offers unparalleled rock-skipping. Overcome by elation, dizzy with altitude, whipped by crisp wind, we laughed as we dipped to skip perfectly-shaped bits of shale over the rippled reflection of Tibetan peaks.

The journey to Pangong Tso consisted of 10-hours of extreme-altitude driving over a bouldered pass often lacking pavement or even legitimate form. The road, though a snaking line carved into the brown of nearby peaks, was often little more than a clearing or flattening of natural elements. Forging streams of glacial run-off, passing flocks of high-altitude Dzo (Yak-cow hybrids), agile goats, and grizzly Yaks (16,000 feet plus), our tires were frequently inches from thousand-foot drops, and spit flecks of gravel into lush valleys below. As Greg Morteson notes in Three Cups of Tea, it's the roads that will kill you before terrorism.

Kashmir... Landing in Leh

Jammu and Kashmir is the north-western-most Indian state, known both for its immense beauty and its troubled past. J&K, as it's called, consists of diverse ethnic and religious regions. While Jammu, near the Pakistani border, is predominately Hindu, the Indus Valley and capital, Srinagar, is mostly Muslim. To the Northeast of Kashmir is a region known as "Little Tibet," and Ladakh (map). Ladakh is home to a buddhist community not so different from that in the nearby regions of Baltistan in Azad (free) Kashmir, neighboring Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Ladakhis have the features and stature of their Himalayan brethren, and visibly differ from their Hindu and Muslim Kashmiri counterparts.

After reading Three Cups of Tea, a book about a K2 climber-turned-activist who builds schools through out Pakistan's Baltistan region in the extremely rugged Northeast, I was keen on understanding Ladakh. Split by the Indian-Pakistani "Line of Control," running north of Kargil, Baltistan and Ladakh are ethnically, historically, and linguistically similar despite their split national status. The Silk Road once linked the region to Central Asia and the Sub-Continent. Today, political divides leave those in Pakistan isolated amidst spectacular but spartan Karakoram peaks. Leh is linked only by bouldered roads to Kargil and Srinigar, and Manali.

Landing in the Ladakhi capitol, Leh, on a Deccan Air flight out of Delhi, I was reminded of the antics of Maverick dropping below the hard-deck in Top Gun. Narrowly avoiding the arid ridges surrounding Leh, we made our descent, wings paralleling the razors of rock, only hundred of feet of sky between. Deftly sinking into the valley, we touched down in Leh at an altitude of 11,500 feet. My head spun for the first day, but during the course of acclimatizing I managed to finish a book on Ladakhi culture called Ancient Futures. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, we advanced up the final steps of the towering Leh Palace. Modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet's capitol of Lhasa, it offered a perfect sunset view over the valley below.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nepal 2.0

On Wednesday King Gyanendra of Nepal stepped down from the thrown. On Saturday the palace was occupied by those who had peacefully deposed him. Saturday was also the day we, a Tamilian, a Canadian, Georgian, Coloradan, and Californian, arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on Yak Airways.

We had spent one previous day slicing through the misty green hills of Pokhara atop motos, occasionally catching glimpses at nearby Fishhook, and the wall of the Annapurna Massif. We had hiked to an incredible vista over Pokhara Lake up an arbitrary trail through small Nepali villages. 8000 meter peaks are globally rare, but they frequently loom in Nepal, sentinels that stand broadly above the clouds. A day along the beautiful lake shores, and we were ready for a return to the diversity and pace of Kathmandu. Visiting a friend's former host family on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we found local hospitality warm, and smiles wide. We meandered through Pashupatinath Temple, where wafting ash in the monsoon sky told of passing lives on the burning ghats.

We toured Bhaktapur, a preserved city on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and ate plates of water buffalo momos (steamed meat dumplings) off the street for less than a quarter dollar. For fifty rupees we helped a weathered Nepali man spin a pot from clay on a slimy spinning wheel. And we cashed in Starwood points to spend a night at Le Meridien Gokarna Forest Resort and Spa, utilizing the innumerable amenities and smoking hookah into the rainy night on sheltered wicker chairs by candle-light in the King's forest.

On our final day, taxi strikes meant that we had to convince a private tourist taxi to return us to the airport. We set off cautiously, but within 3km of the international airport, perpendicular busses, abandoned cars, and loitering locals blocked our path. Our driver refused to go on, and with circumspection I discretely slipped a wad of Nepalese rupees into his hand amidst the protesting taxi drivers. With an hour until our flight we began running through the protest until we eventually found a pioneering and capitalistic taxi driver who, for double the price, agreed to drive us on the other side. In a confident push through airport logistics (entry, airport tax, boarding pass, baggage, customs, and security), we made our flight.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Real World: Gurgaon (Season 1)

The New York Times, on June 9, covered the duality of life that exists in Gurgaon in far more eloquent prose than me, though it failed to address the relationships that exist between residents and staff. Though we have six members of our own house staff cooking, cleaning, and managing various activities, we also watch cricket with them, practice Hindi, and learn about their homes and lives. They make chai; we make conversation. But the NYT article highlights the divided world of gated apartment and slum-life that's increasingly visible in Indian metropolises. In cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay, and Delhi NCR (Noida and Gurgaon) where the educated 0.7 percent of the 1.1 Billion people work predominately in outsourced IT jobs (Source: Edward Luce) bifurcated communities are certainly evident.

Cycle rickshaws still patrol the streets, curbsides are crumbled and littered with the tents of road-side slums. The vibrant colors of residents ornament the dusty scene as usually seen through tinted windows of honking vehicles. In Gurgaon I find smiles are common, though most of my co-workers complain of local crime. I realize that my reception as a foreigner on the street is perhaps different, my involvement in street life is usually novel, and novelty inspires smiles in otherwise sad and desperate lives. Those with whom some interact when leap-frogging between the shopping malls that moonlight as oases, are not bad, but they are desperately poor. Some cite visiting malls as the only activity in Gurgaon. As Rory Stewart would agree, it's only The Places In Between that matter. The ubiquity of the desperately poor does not impact the extent to which luxury in India is available and growing; however, the fact that Mercedes and Burberry exist does not mask the truth that India has egregious resource allocation issues with consequences of the highest magnitude.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dhaba... Dhaba

With evenings occupied by video conferences with California and Euro 2008 football matches, I've recently found that I don't remember dinner until late-night. Last night, under the buzzing lights of a nearby office building, I frequented a 24-hour Dhaba in Gurgaon with my Chennai friend. Dhabas are road-side restaurants. Steam and smoke mix under the glow of street lamps. Behind a tattered billboard, and on an uneven dirt patch, plastic chairs and tables are packed for midnight snacks. The waiter accosts us, and shouts our orders over 100 others to the kitchen. There are no menus. Men and women hunch over flat aluminum plates, their fingers drip with dal and ghee from their hot parathas. I order a chai, dal makhani and two parathas.

The experience costs me Hindi embarrassment and 60 rupees.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

CR Park Birthday

Over Kingfisher and Sula champaign, Saturday marked a night of celebration for a friend's birthday. It was here that I realize the amazing group of people that have converged on New Delhi. The scene is small, but the smiles wide, and the conversations deep. In the Facebook world in which we live, collaboration is close. I realize that though lives will part in Delhi, as the transient expat world in which we live is short-lived, lives will again converge thanks to technology. In New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, friends in the room will reunite. Between Harvard and Columbia, Wall Street and the Wall Street Journal, East Coast and West Coast, the gaps in contact are increasingly diminishing. Though thousands of miles exist in flight, when one's address is on the information superhighway, memories are a click away.

A Pile of Shoes

Many Saturdays in India I make my way through Old Delhi to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Asia. Atop the steps, as birds circle in silhouettes against the pale blue sky, the pink minarets tower above. Echoing over an expansive moving sea of bodies below, the muzzin performs the call to prayer. Beggars sit curled on the warm red sandstone steps, their withered skin telling a story of time passed. Men in white, beige, and green make their way slowly up the steps. Women in black slip from their sandals, and drop a few coins for the shoe patron. He tosses the coins below his rug for safekeeping. Aside the steps he piles the sandals and shoes in a neat pyramid. The Nike Air Zooms are on bottom as they provide stability for the others. The shoes tell a story of the men and women whose bare feet now shuffle over the textured standstone into prayer time. It's no longer an abstract concept, but a way of life. A man in a red and white gutra stares at me with penetrating eyes. His beard is worn long, and aside him a man stands in a lungee and chapan. Their faces are weathered, but their eyes kind. With a nod, there is mutual respect. A boy scampers to my side and asks in English if he can take a picture. His grinning father documents the moment on his Nokia, and when I respond with a "Shukriya," it prompts new conversation. The man behind me critiques the moment in Hindi, telling me that it was the boy who should have said thank you. I say it's ok, but he tells me of his life in Kashmir. My Hindi is basic, but I learn that he works in a Noida garment factory for 4500 rupees per month ($112). I tell him I'm American, and he buys me a chai. This is Saturday afternoon life on the steps of Jama Masjid, as the gulls dance to the Koranic call against a sky that dims into hues of color, and the night begins in India.

IndoChine and Mbeki

After two late-night movies in Gurgaon and Saket watching Owen Wilson in Darjeeling Express, a ridiculous American movie filmed in Rajasthan, and the Bachchan family reunion in Sarkar Raj, a Bollywood revenge story paralleling the underworld Bombay life of the Thackerys, Friday night involved the coordination of 25 plus friends in an outdoor tent reservation at a South Delhi club called IndoChine. Operated in the Singapore style of its predecessor and with the Laos touch of its founder, it boasts a great outdoor lounge for hot summer nights, despite its hidden locale near Qutab Institutional Area outside Saket in South Delhi. Friends from Google, BMW, the World Bank, United Nations, Wall Street Journal, and Fulbright joined together in an evening that migrated to Rick's at the Taj Mansingh Road, an after-hours Delhi hang-out that combines the nights of an unlikely group, old and young, in an overpriced 3am cocktail.

When we returned to the Taj Mansingh on Sunday morning for brunch, the security and clientele was slightly different at the latter half of the weekend. Seated aside a camera-man, and receiving a text from a World Bank friend, I determined that the newest addition metal detector was not so much decorative as it was preparation for Thabo Mbeki, the President of the Republic of South Africa. He's no Shane Warne like in Bombay, but exciting nonetheless.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Home Sweet Gurgaon

After work I typically board a cab that wedges its way into inching traffic. The bumpers of cars come surprisingly close, and deft motorcyclists somehow manage their way at speed through increasingly smaller gaps. With a ready hand at the horn, each driver is aggressively poised over his steering wheel. The free hand will gesticulate and frustration will become audible in the form of the word "yaar" (man).

Past the windows, men and women stand atop crumbled curbsides, longingly looking into the street. Bicyclists manage their way along the roadside edge, and vendors dole out dusty glasses of water for 50 paise (1 penny). Under a corner telephone wire, a local liquor shop stands surrounded by dozens of cycle rickshaw owners, each idly sprawled betwixt the metal bars of their livelihood in an uncomfortable collaboration of fabric and aluminum, legs and bike frame. Men in suits and women in saris travel to and from their BPO offices, some in AC cabs, others on dilapidated cycle rickshaws. It's a dusty anachronism on both the road and the road side. Brilliant edifices of glass are erected on a monthly basis, but surrounding them are piles of bricks, heaps of corrugated metal, spikes, tents that serve as the homes of those who labored 24-hours per day. The potholed road is littered with standing water, putrid in smell and green in color despite the fact that rain was weeks away. Tattered billboards with calls to action advertise products inaccessible to the majority of inhabitants.

Along the street side a family of three boys cooks corn atop a flame that spits out black smoke. It paints their faces darker, and only makes their smiles brighter. A woman draped in wrinkled skin holds her arms to me, and a bouffant-styled Bollywood look-alike fixes his Royal Einfield. Two boys feed sugar cane into a grinder that's powered by a sputtering generator which coughs deep black puffs into the air. Small children sit nearby. The sun dips on a dusty, crane crossed horizon, its brilliance dulled by pollution but its heat undiminished. Another day in Gurgaon.

Campai Mumbai

When I arrived into Mumbai on Friday evening, I was giddy with excitement, and in the dizzying heat I commissioned a taxi to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel & Towers for 300 Rs, a 90 minute ride that cost $8. Inching by Marine Drive in the back seat of a Bombay black and yellow non-AC taxi in 42 degree C 8pm heat, I could not have been happier. Bombay has become one of my favorite global cities. Watching the skyline inch higher over the past year, I can tell that this is a city of the future, if not the present. If I were to describe Bombay, it's the pace of New York, the glamour of Hollywood, and the immediate access to local cuisine, street food, and real-life that one finds in a back-alley neighborhood. Even the richest people seem to know the best place for 20 Rs street chaat. It's grit and urbanity, a kaleidoscope incarnate.

We decided to splurge. The Taj is perhaps the nicest hotel in which I've stayed, save for the KL Mandarin Oriental. Host to movie stars and innumerable presidents, it's waterfront location just before the Gate of India is spectacular. In appearance it's similar to the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Inside, a dip in the pool conjures notions of swimming in an Ivy league quad, with victorian balconies, lush greenery, and the sound of birds surrounding. This weekend there was an added benefit; The semi-final Indian Premier League cricket teams were also staying in the hotel. At the pool, at breakfast, and in the bar we were surrounded by Aussies like Shane Warne who, in the world of cricket, make guys like Kobe Bryant seem like nobodies. Flanked by beautiful women, and illuminated by the flash bulbs of paparazzi, their presence added wickets of fun.

Friday evening we ate at Wasabi in the Taj, an acclaimed Japanese restaurant run by Masaharo Morimoto, the Japanese iron chef. Over a sake bomb, in a private dining quarter in which we sat seated at a round table nested in a dome windowed alcove looking out over the India gate, we cheered Japanese style, "Campai, Mumbai!" Saturday night, after rooftop drinks at The Dome, an incredible glass-walled belvedere atop Marine Drive's Intercontinantal Hotel, we visited a restaurant called Khyber for delicious frontier style food, and Sunday brunch at Olive Bar was fitting for Bollywood. In the posh Pali Hills suburb of North Mumbai, we discreetly pulled up in our dilapidated non-AC taxi into the languid Prada-clad melange of Bombay's in-crowd. We were inside, but more obviously on the outs.

And in between our opulent culinary endeavors, which seemed to be the running theme of the weekend, I strolled the sweltering streets of Colaba and Fort, entertained the adventures of Shantaram in Colaba's famous Leopold's Cafe, and read the entirety of One Thousand Splendid Suns poolside on Saturday. Contrasts such as these make one appreciate moments.

Boarding our delayed flight from Bombay on Sunday evening, the runway end was crowded by hundreds of people sitting on rooftops and loitering outside a nearby mosque. As the plane rounded the tarmac, I realized that they were all onlookers. There was no cricket match, and there was no entertainment except us, those people fortunate enough to board planes to other worlds, far away from the poverty and squalor that exists for most of Mumbai's 12 million residents. As the engines roared, the rushing wind gave lift to our wings, and in our escape we became but the fleeting entertainment of a hapless mass, making ends meet in the shacks that line the runway's end. The activities of my two days were vacation, but fuel the perspective on opportunity and fortune that must impel us to be cognizant of the disparities that are globally ubiquitous. That which makes us content without also making us good is selfish.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Giacometti in Singapore

After a brief tryst with the West, a month-long journey during which time I ate reindeer steak in Finland and watched a dwarf sing karaoke on a ferry to Estonia, I've returned to India. True to form, in the last 10 days I've been between Philadelphia, DC, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Delhi, and Bombay. Life moves fast, but when the dust settles, not a whole lot has changed except my time zones. After spending a great day in Singapore, where I toured an Alberto Giacometti exhibit at the Singapore Art Museum, drank a Singapore Sling at the Raffles, walked the quay, and had a five-dollar shower in the airport (amazing!), I boarded my final flight to India. As I landed in New Delhi last night I smelled familiar smells, heard familiar sounds, and saw familiar sites. This has, after all, become my home. It is host to a year of my youth, and 4 percent of my life. It's a part of me, for better and for worse. The dialectic is powerful, and at every turn I find myself experiencing contradictory feelings of frustration, elation, resignation, and excitement.

India has taken part of my life away, and at the same time, made me a better person for having experienced something that so many other dare not embrace. As I looked over the serene Pacific from Highway 1 in Northern California, watching a perfect sunset, I knew it would appear different a week later over Marine Drive in Bombay. It would be accompanied not with serenity and sand, but with energy and vibrance, not with pensiveness, but with camaraderie, surrounded by eyes and smiles of scores of onlookers. As I squint through the hazy morning sky of Gurgaon, where a blanket of dust and smog obscures newly constructed glass edifices, I consider my health and the consequences of my location; As I step over the littered pieces of discarded lives, sandals, dusty cloth, paan wrappers and crumbled curbsides, I question the failures of a resource-rich country with gross governmental mismanagement; As I turn on the radio I realize I'm in touch with Indian, and not American pop culture, as I know the lyrics, gossip, and movies from which each song hails.

I will depart the sub-continent in July in person, but it has become part of me in practice. My relationship with her is complex. I love her virtues, but I despise her shortcomings. For every religious beauty there is a political fault; For each linguistic plurality there is a bureaucratic ultimatum; For each cultural purity there is a breath of carbon emission that makes one long for the clear skies of Los Angeles or Mexico City, and demand a better alternative than Kyoto; For each Bollywood ideal there is a system that cannot provide for its own people. I am Californian, and 4 percent Desi. That's a proud, and dismal truth.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Delhi to Helsinki

When I reflect on the last 14 days, I've been in 7 cities on 3 continents. Jet lag only begins to explain my state of mind. Our final days in Delhi pre-departure were replete with active days and nights, hot afternoons in CP, Bollywood hits, lunch coffees at Barista, a night of talking Harare politics over Tiger beers with two Zimbabwe friends, and fantastic steak dinner and drinks at Smokehouse Grill in South Ex. Before my departure, and hiatus in California, we organized a feast amongst friends at the apartment, and managed to convince three non-residents to make the trek to Gurgaon. As our conversations moved from the ethics of development to stupid humor, and as my house manager, Kapil, embraced me and apologized for any sins or troubles he had caused me, it only reaffirmed to me that bonds grow strong quickly in new worlds. I dismissed Kapil's appeal with my jocular nickname for him, "Sri Baba Kapil ji," but was moved by the extent to which relationships in India, despite their often disturbing stratification, are genuine, poignant, and resolute.

After a three-hour delay at the appalling Delhi International Airport (the worst capital city airport I have ever been to, except for perhaps San Salvador) I boarded my FinnAir flight to Helsinki at 4am. Despite months of joy, a few hours in Delhi International can affirm any seeded desire to return home, and leave you counting down the delayed minutes until departure.

But when I arrived in Helsinki, Finland, I immediately missed the chaos and color of India. I stepped into fresh, clean, Nordic air under a deep blue sky. Before me new C-class Mercedes passed one after the other as airport taxis, gliding over clean cobbled streets. Although with each breath into my lungs I felt as though I gained strength post-Delhi pollution, and although I could have eaten my lunch directly off the pavement it was so clean, I immediately missed the vibrance of India. I missed the camaraderie that is ubiquitous; I missed the smiles and the bobbles; I missed the momentary entertainment that is a rickshaw negotiation, a languid buffalo, a paan-wala tout, or a carefree shoeless child that protects a makeshift wicket with a stick. India is uniquely complex, and while riddled with problems, it retains an endearing quality that is deeper than the superficial foreign understanding of its squalor and crowds. India is alive.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

UP Nights... Films, Barat, and Kulfi

An afternoon by the Taj pool, and a fantastic book, "In Spite of the Gods" later, I embarked for a movie at the local cinema. The first Pakistani movie to show in India in many years, I chose to watch a well-rated film called "Khuda Ke Liye," or "In the name of God." Though the movie was in Urdu, its spoken form is remarkably similar to Hindi, and so I managed the basics that along with visual tips allow for decent understanding. Khuda Ke Liye was a fantastic movie that, while lacking in much acting prowess, articulated a complex modern Pakistani, and Muslim, dynamic in the post-9/11 world. A British Pakistani girl is married by her father, and against her will, to an extremist cousin in Waziristan, marooned in Western Pakistan to the chagrin of her feckless mother. Captive in a Pashto village, the protagonist battles between accepting a culture unknown to her, but her own, and squelching a hatred for her father. Her husband, a young musician turned rock-to-faith, joins in a battle alongside the Taliban as his progressive brother moves to Chicago to marry his American love. While one man lives free, another is persecuted as an extremist. All too familiarly, a World Bank friend explained the plight of a former Stanford classmate of ours who was deported, despite a fervid love of American opportunity, for having studied Chemical Engineering.

Exiting the theater, I used the local bathroom to don my Sherwani and I quickly made for my good friend's wedding. As I was escorted out the exit, half of the hotel staff offered a hand to shut the heavy door of my white Ambassador car, waving with smiles and compliments, and asking who my Indian bride was. At the residence, with photographs, marigolds, and bountiful traditions of puja and dance and incredibly loud band music, we began the wedding festivities. Though I've before been to Andhran, Keralan, and Maharashtran weddings, I hadn't yet been to one from Uttar Pradesh, or the North. The Barat, or procession, began from the groom's residence.

Fit with a white horse, twenty men to carry heavy lights atop their heads, a truck blasting the recent Bollywood hits like Darde Disco and Mauja hi Mauja, and even a small man pushing a generator, we danced for two hours down the streets. Snaking through the darkened streets, through air suffused with heavy heat, a lingering presence of the afternoon sun, we danced and danced as the white horse and my princely friend followed. Eventually reaching the wedding hall, Kushagra bribed his way inside, paying handsomely to the bride's sisters and family to make his entrance. As we tossed marigold petals atop their regal attire, and they exchanged flowers and furtive glances, they were slowly (quite) conjoined in marriage. To celebrate, after a liquor and contraceptive yatra for the newly interested parties at 4am, we celebrated by eating all of the remaining ice cream (kulfi) from the ceremony. An hour later I flew home and went to work, having only just changed from my Sherwani.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Now... Lucknow

After having been upgraded into a first-class sleeper, to my surprise and approval, I arrived in the capital of UP, Lucknow. I quickly hired an auto, and began site-seeing before the inevitable heat (105 F+) of the Gangetic Plain confined me to the shade. Though my morning bargaining skills were lacking, I secured a tour of various the sites of Lucknow, such as the Bara (Big) Imambara, a Shiite muslim shrine and the Chota (Small) Imambara. Within the Bara Imambara complex, there is an amazing bhulbhulayah, or labyrinth, that served as a protective surrounding to the Imambara. Nearly lost within its narrow stone passages, I contemplated climbing down a wall before I managed my way out. Like Theseus and the Minotaur, fortunately, my string and bred crumbs got out of the labyrinth, and back to the Taj.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By Elephant or Indian Rail

On Sunday, after having hired an elephant for the morning to walk across the Raj Ghat corner of New Delhi, and after a four-hour, Moet champagne brunch at the Oberoi hotel, I boarded a third-class train car from New Delhi train station. I was bound for Lucknow, the capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. UP, as it's shortened, has a population near 200 million people, and is one of the most complex regions of India to govern. It spans some of the most densely populated land on Earth, and combines a complex mix of topographic, linguistic, and religious differences. As I was dropped at the station by my driver, a man who explained to me last week how he had named his son after Saddam Hussein, the typical chaos ensued.

With a Moet-induced calm, I traversed a piling of bodies and bags outside the station, ducking my way under street lights buzzing with mosquitos, and shuffling past the burning metal of passing rickshaws and motorcycles. Once inside the station, having passed through a two-by-four 'metal detector,' I descended to the train platform upon which I was lifted and carried by an inching smash of human arms, bobbing heads, and fabrics. It was a festival weekend, and as a Bihari man explained to me on the concrete steps, everyone on the platform was bound for Patna for the long weekend. This man, the owner of a hot air balloon company explained to me how I could buy a second-hand Indian military helicopter, and then quizzed me in my minimal Hindi.

I was the only foreigner on the platform, but as I scampered over legs, past rice bags, under dupattas, between shoulders and through the heavy summer air that pinned me between bodies and a low ceiling, many helped me along my way. I managed to throw out a few high-fives before jumping onto my moving train, as my seats had inevitably changed and I boarded the wrong car. I eventually found that I had been upgraded, thanks to the Rail Minister Lalu Prasad's initiative at the helm of a million-person organization. Nine hours later I arrived in Lucknow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

College Tour 2008

Today I spent meandering the campus streets of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in South Delhi with a Bihari friend studying in a Ph.D Linguistics program. Founded in 1967, JNU is one of a few Delhi academic institutions including the more urban Delhi University, and the famous Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). It is a school named after a man with one of the strongest Indian political legacies. Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, and longest serving, held the first post-colonial post from 1947 until his death in 1964. The school that bears his name is, as was explained to me, fairly liberal in its academic flexibility, but hasn't yet moved as far in the direction of development as its eponymous namesake could have hoped. Whereas campuses in Hyderabad host wireless internet, the classrooms and library at JNU are, while palatable, not modern.

Over a dhaba lunch, and a five rupee coffee, I realized that despite different appearances India is home to a surprisingly strong cafe culture. Similar to a weekend afternoon in Europe, scores of students sat around makeshift chairs, crumbled concrete cubes atop a dusty hillside, nursing small chai and coffees over long conversations. It's Indian dhaba culture, and I've noticed it across UP, Punjab, and Haryana.

Despite the tranquility of our sunny afternoon, my friend explained to me issues that cause academic concerns. In the past five years government scholarships have grown to address Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) in funding, in addition to need-based funding for families who earn under 1 lakh rupees ($2500 per year). Preferential treatments, however, are controversial. Members of ST, and students who speak one of 24 specified languages, can take their pre-college exams in their mother tongue. Though locations change, some fundamental inequalities are issues that transgress international boundaries.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bollywood Politics

When asked by a DC friend how the China-Tibet issues were surfacing in India, I had to reply that I hadn't heard much about it recently, as the news has been dominated by far more important issues. Bizarrely, the quibbles between Bollywood and local regional politicians is more news-worthy than Chinese incursions and draconian actions against peace-loving people in Tibet. For example, in the past weeks, news has been drowned in the absurd dialogue between fringe-party Shiv Sena ("Shiva's army") and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackery of Bombay claims that the superstar, originally from Uttar Pradesh (UP) but made a star in Maharashtra, hasn't done enough for the state that brought him riches.

At the same time as Bachchan is derided by a xenophobic regional leader for his dismissal of Maharashtran issues, another Tollywood (not Bollywood) superstar from Karnataka, a ridiculous Sly Stone action hero named Rajinikanth, has been lionized by Thackery for his commitment to Tamil Nadu on issues related to local water. Despite his roots in Karnataka, Rajinikanth's siding with Tamil Nadu (TN) is precedent for Thackery's absurd public excoriation of Bachchan. It amazes me that this news eclipses neighboring China's aggressive measures just North of the Indian border. But when it comes to Bollywood and Cricket, the sub-continental notion is clearly "do not disturb."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Worlds Between

After three months in India in 2008, bringing my time on the sub-continent to 9 months, I realize a sad and awkward reality that I belong in two places. In the words of my Indian friend, I'm wedded to the country, and torn between two worlds. I miss California, yet I am at home in India. I am pulled between relationships on two continents, and I harbor an elusive status that precludes the depth that is sufficient to satisfy. As I dined in a pillow-adorned buggy in South Delhi with an edgy and charismatic girl, as I landed in Hyderabad and was greeted by my driver and friends, and as I encountered a high-school friend in a South Indian bar, I am reminded of my tryst with two worlds. My worlds are multiple, and my experiences have afforded me an ability to recognize and understand pride in Spain, Switzerland, Ecuador, and India. But with each understanding I have gained, I have left those behind who might have become great friends. In the perpetual and elusive change, I am both broadened and saddened by my global friendships.

Over the past week, as I walked alone through Old Delhi's Chowri Bazaar, my thoughts tumbled slowly through my mind as my body negotiated the surrounding chaos. The dichotomies envelope my every moment, thought, surrounding, and intention. As a dusty man sleeps atop crumbled concrete, I dismiss my haste with a claim that I am powerless to help one man, and that I will devote my efforts to affect broader change. But sometimes the demands of time and commitment and comfort deceive the good intentions of decent people. Intentions become excuses and then they become the fodder for champagne toasts; they become the stories of reflective prose; they become a lingering guilt that grows into indignation and questions what others have failed to achieve, and not what one's self has failed to demand.

But as I've vomited bile from the window of a cab, alone in Calcutta, I no longer desired the hard adventure that ostensibly broadens us, and defines us in youth. I craved comforts, and I had the audacity to desire them as I passed Kolkata slums. Moments in India challenge compassion and humanity; they challenge self-definition; moments make us question who we are and what we believe in. Some raise a glass, and others raise a fit. The truth is, many people do both, existing in the hypocritical world of dichotomies that appeases both our human desire for comfort, and our privileged but genuine philanthropic vanity.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

PVR "Bringing Smiles"

As is inevitable in India, one will encounter a set of arbitrary 'rules' for which no logic is sufficient for understanding. Pretenses are a favorite on the sub-continent, and enforcement and actual sense are less common. For example, each day I walk through a rectangle of two-by-fours which rifles off a loud beep to a man standing nearby who never looks up from his newspaper. Why then have the 'metal detector' if the goal and end of its positioning is not enhanced safety? Employment, I suppose.

The same illogical application of rules worms its way into diurnal activities. Today, as I attempted to enter PVR cinemas, a venue which prides itself on its 'bringing smiles' advertising campaign, I nearly thrust my fist through its colorful facade. After passing through a set of two-by-fours, being frisked by three separate men, and emptying the contents of my small backpack, my chewing gum box was confiscated and I was told I could not enter with my bag. Understanding the stupidity of nearly all Indian rules, and the flexibility with which they are typically enforced, I asked in a number of increasingly simplistic ways if I could both keep my gum and enter with my bag. Now, I understand the logic of no chewing gum in a theater, but why confiscate a stale pack at the bottom of my bag when the teenage girls around me chomp away on Trident? Wouldn't it make more sense to employ a dental agent at the door aside the two-by-fours prying gum from under each person's tongue? Ok, well perhaps it's no better. But to the second point, that bags are not allowed in the theater, my counter-argument was obvious: we're in a shopping mall.

Unyielding to even my most simplistic and sycophantic requests, I erupted into a slur of expletives, and leaned into the man's hollow face, shouting at him and excoriating his lemming-like dearth of purpose. I eventually gained entrance to the theater and watched a dreadfully bad movie that, as its highlight, featured Bipasha Basu dancing. Arbitrary rules, lack of context, and idiocy with which they are invariably enforced is painstaking across India, and affirms my desire to land on Finnish soil in three weeks. I hope that as I board my FinnAir flight, the tranquility promised bears more veracity than PVR's successfully well-orchestrated 'Bringing Smiles' campaign.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Another 'Real India' Poolside

In continuing tradition, Thursday night marked the start of our weekend, aside from early next-day meetings. Endeavoring to alter the standard GK-1 N Block fare, we opted for poolside at the Park Hotel's Aqua lounge. Combining a group from Bain, and celebrating the admission of a few friends' to HBS, our overzealous ordering showed its striking face in the form of Rupees on our bill. Bombay and Delhi host venues that rival the likes of Hong Kong, London, and New York in price. Though India is understood internationally for its population and poverty, it's also host to Asia's largest number of 55 billionaires and over 83,000 millionaires. It's a country of contrasts and challenges and one that is remarkably pluralistic and diverse culturally, geographically, topographically, linguistically, and economically. It's a country in which some things do not move, and others are world class. I realize these differences on a weekly basis as I learn phrases in Guju, Punjabi, and Hindi; I learn this each time I arrive in a new city; I learn this each week as I frequent a chic bar or restaurant with Indian friends from work, and then spend my Saturday traversing the frenetic streets of Old Delhi.

The 'real India' is a country that varies and is personally dependent. Last year I went searching for it on trains and in small villages. This year I find an equally 'real India' that exists in an efficient Kingfisher flight with brand new AirBus 320 aircraft; it exists in as high-heeled women make a morning trip to Barista for lattes; it exists in a villager with a mobile phone, and multi-million dollar Bollywood escapism; it exists with bamboo scaffolding to erect glass wonders; it exists with an S-Class Mercedes and a chauffeur, in a taxi, in an auto-rickshaw, on a cycle-rickshaw, and over bare feet. I can only try to understand that these worlds are not mutually exclusive, but are the various versions of India that those around me all know and love.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holi Weekend

This weekend marked the confluence of three holidays, one Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian. Mawlid, or the birth of the Prophet, coincides with Good Friday. Saturday is the Hindu Holi festival day, or the celebration of colors and of spring, while Sunday is Easter. It's a remarkable conjoining of traditions, and one that is quite apparent in India. On Friday, as I ventured into New Delhi, thousands made their way in traditional dress and skull caps toward the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in Asia. On Saturday, innumerable Hindus "Played Holi" throwing and smearing colored powder onto one another in celebration of Spring. On Sunday, as I walked the streets of Calcutta with a Christian friend, she reminded me of Easter tradition.

In the lingering post-Holi days (holidays), one can clearly identify Hindus from others, as their skin holds the lingering pink hue of indelible Holi inks. While I did not celebrate this year's Holi celebration, as I had enough of the dry powder in my face last Spring, I did celebrate with the small victory of setting my AirTel mobile ring back as the latest Atif Aslam song from the Bollywood film, Race.

Cali(fornia) to Cal(cutta)

As my plane touched down in Calcutta, I harbored innumerable expectations about a city I've wanted to visit for the past year. The capital of West Bengal, Calcutta, or Kolkata as it can now be called, is a sprawling mass of over 13 million people, most of them very poor. It's the home of Bengali sweets, of Tagore and other intellectuals who have defined Indian literature; it is the former British East India Company capital, and the site of Mother Theresa's tomb. It hosts the famous cricket ground Eden Gardens, the beautiful Victoria Memorial, and the posh Park Street.

Today it is a city that lags behind Delhi and Bombay, but also a city that quite resembles its ostensibly more developed counterparts. Upon arrival I expected images of destitution I hadn't yet seen across the sub-continent, as even my Indian friends warned me against going to Calcutta. I was told that traffic signals had only arrived a decade ago, and that infrastructure would be difficult.

In contrast to expectations set by Indian friends, what I found was a city that, to me, was unremarkably Indian. It was certainly no better than other Indian cities I have seen and experienced over the past year, but it was also certainly no worse. And despite its apparent status as a scapegoat city for many Indian natives, the challenges Calcutta has yet to overcome are the same as those extant elsewhere, yet it bears the sour reputation. While traffic signals may have only come in the past decade, Calcutta traffic was markedly better than Gurgaon, Hyderabad, and Bangalore, cities engineered in much more recent years.

Bubbles of developed infrastructure exist across India, but single stretches of highway in Delhi cannot assuage underlying problems in urban planning. In venturing into West Bengal's notorious capital, I was struck not by the penury, but by how remarkably similar it was to other purportedly developed Indian cities.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sufis and Sitars

Due to frequent visits, my driver now asks if I am going to Epicenter before he asks if I am going home. "Haan jee, mai Epicenter ja raha hoon," I replay. This week I attended a fantastic Sufi music performance by Rene Singh with a lecture on Sufism by an erudite Delhi University professor delivered in Hindi and English, all before my 10pm call with CA. Discussing Turkic Sufism from that of the Indus Valley and that of the Gangetic plain, I learned that in Sufi poetry the linguistic genders intimate as much about intention as the word meanings themselves. For example, reflective diction is nearly always in the feminine gender while assertions of power and authority are masculine.

Flanked by two friends on Thursday night, I attended again another Epicenter performance of Sitar and Tabla by a student of Ravi Shankar. In a fantastic display, the artist willed emotion from the strings with each poignant pull and pluck. The resonant timbre of the instrument echoed through the hollow hall with the undulating dip and drive of the tabla to accompany. As he created notes from the Sitar, it was difficult to discern if the physiognomy of his face influenced his fingers, or if the music inspired the physiognomy. Both performances brought to life more of the Indian classical music that I've grown to love.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Gone to Goa

After a hectic week of interviews and presentations, I boarded a SpiceJet flight from Delhi to the former Portuguese outpost of Goa. India is full of linguistic pockets, both local and foreign. Pondicherry hosts blue tile street signs listed in French and Tamil; Cochin boasts its Dutch heritage; Goa contains Catholic relics for the Portuguese presence, and it's one of the few places in India where Christiano Ronaldo is more popular than Sachin Tendulkar!

A bumpy hour north of Panjim, the Goan capital, we arrived in Anjuna and checked into our humble hotel which cost 600 Rs per night. For an extra 200 Rs, we reserved motorbikes. A few King's beers into the night, we walked slowly down the country roads under a canopy of stars and silhouetted palm frawns. Whitewashed churches watched dimly from aside the dirt roads.

The weekend commenced eventfully with me crashing my bike on a sandy stretch of road. Having watched a number of Shah Rukh Khan movies (SRK), I launched myself from the bike and managed to escape with but a scrape on my elbow and knee. Perhaps Maverick might be a better comparison. Nursing my wounds with sun, sea, and beach soccer with a dozen British kids and their coach, an expat New Yorker who graced the beach in a Knicks jersey, I recovered by weekend's end, and celebrated with a henna tattoo.

Goa is India in a crucible. It's all and nothing at once. What it retains in the constituent cultural elements of India, it loses in its pandering to tourists. To an undiscerning eye it's all just India. But beneath the puppets is Rajasthan; beneath the Kathikali is Kerala; beneath the laborer's story is Bihar. Judgement aside, it is a beautiful part of the world that is free and wild. It's a barefoot Royal Enfield motorcycle, a canopy of palms, a melange of nations, and a fish dinner. And who complains about that...