Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On the Road... without Jack

Throughout the past four weeks in India, it has been hard not to notice the highways, the cars, and the lifestyles that straddle the road. Roads in India are more ecosystem than transportation conduits, with families, settlements, and full lives lived out on their shoulders. In Chennai we saw countless families cuddled under blankets aside busy streets. We saw vendors covering their products with tarp for the night, and then settling down aside their goods for the night. The roads are never alone, and it's difficult, impossible really, to find a solitary moment irrespective of the time, day or night.

Despite the fact that 1 million new cars are being added to the roads each year, the total number of registered car owners is still less than one percent of India's population. Until a few years back the only cars available in India were Indian-made Ambassadors or Italian-made Fiats, though now virtually all models are available. Though Ambassadors are still ubiquitous, the India-made Tata Indica seems to be a rising star on the budget, but nicer-than-rickshaw level of personal car.

I spoke with an auto-rickshaw driver in Hospet, Karnataka who told me that he essentially rents his rickshaw for 140 rupees per day. He drives all night, and any money he makes above and beyond the 140 rupees he pays out is profit. He also has to pay for petrol, however.

Though there is a newly developing super-highway system in the works, linking Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, and Chennai in a giant rectangle of pavement, it has brought with it social and political issues. Rarely does the road allow pedestrians with animals to cross. Traffic is dangerous. With the construction has come a corresponding spread of HIV moving with the migrant workers across South India. While the highway's construction is a necessary improvement to inter-state infrastructure and concurrently facilitates auto sales by making car transport easier, it's also the harbinger of many less than salubrious externalities.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Republic Day in Pondicherry

We arrived into Chennai late on Thursday night and immediately booked a car for Pondicherry. "Pondy," as it's known, is a former French outpost that still retains its Francophone flavor. Streets feature blue Parisian-tile numbers, the only difference being that the Rues in Pondy also feature the street name in Tamil... surprise! Tamil is one of 16 official languages in India, each relatively unique to its home state, but generally Dravidian in linguistic origin (in the South).

The ride from Chennai to Pondy is about 120 km. A private black "Ambassador" ride, set of drivers, and guarantee of adventure set us back around 1800 rupees ($40). Half way to Pondy our drivers pulled off for dinner at a street-side shop. We, apparently, didn't really have a say in this so we ordered a chai, chicken, and chiapati on a banana leaf. The two locals from Tamil Nadu with whom we sat didn't speak much English, but told us we were their best friends after 20 minutes across us in plastic chairs, fingers dripping and arms smeared with curries.

Upon arrival we watched the sun rise out of the Bay, looking across the water towards the coast of Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra, and across the water that experienced the Tsunami two years back. The coastline appears relatively undamaged today, but locals warn of dangerous rip tides due to offshore sediment and sea-floor changes.

Aside from Francophone Indians and culinary melange of crepes and dosas, Pondy is also host to a few churches, the biggest of which features a colorful statue of Jesus and facade fit for a coastal Mediterranean post rather than aside the Bay of Bengal.

A stroll through the back alleyways of Pondy landed us amidst a local cricket match. We rounded a corner to find a scurry of seven year olds, and a stone wall that stood as the makeshift wicket. Until we arrived, the only spectators were two loitering goats and a cow in the same alleyway. The kids called us over, and we guarded the wicket through an hour of enthusiastic bowls. After a dozen short-films of our enthusiastic young friends reveling in the street, a risky handful of home-made samosas, and an exchange of emails, we attempted to leave the alley and bevy of young cricketers but were assured that we'd get a tour of the city.

Six boys between ages 11 to 16 began giving us the grand Pondy tour, ripe with junkets through back-alley homes, a shrine blessing, guided walk through the Botanical Gardens, and stroll along Pondy's tres-French promenade. Aside from the vibrant saris that unfurl across the path, the large Ghandi statue, and dearth of silver stones, strolling the Pondy promenade is not unlike being on the Cote d'Azur.

As we neared the beach we invited the boys to lunch. Eight sandwhiches, six grape juices, and three banana splits later, we'd given our crew of cricketing tour guides an unforgettable Indian Republic Day, and we'd gotten to know pure Pondy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Wedding Crashers

Tonight we crashed two weddings, and were invited to a third. It was an exceptional feat, really, to show up uninvited and actually make it inside two separate weddings. Our driver, the kind, beguiling Sayeed, unassumingly dropped us off at the first site of what we thought to be our friend's wedding reception. About 30 minutes into an awkward serenade and a room full of confused Indian eyes fixated on us, the wedding crashers, we received a call telling us we were in the wrong place... Wedding 1 consisted of multiple bands hailing the entrance of another participant, and the bride and groom atop gilded seats, sitting before the sparsely-populated auditorium.

When we showed up to wedding 2, we could not possibly conceive that the impossible would happen twice, but it did. Twenty minutes after piling food onto silver platters, aimlessly wandering and mingling with Indian guests, I again, received a call from Sayeed telling me that we had again arrived at, "the wrong wedding." The awkward impropriety to which we admitted during round one was becoming comical. The wedding director had approached me and asked how I was enjoying my food. Candidly, I told him that I was a bit lost, and he promised to have someone escort me around... and this was not even the right wedding! We surveyed the roti, curries, gravies and other delectable North Indian dishes, and escaped the less-than-innocuous paparazzi, making our way to wedding venue number 3... yes, 3.

Wedding 3 we half expected to be disasterous, but as we approached the table-covered knoll and thumping beat of music, we realized that our luck had finally converged with circumstance, and we'd found the right spot. Greg aptly likened our evening to Goldylocks... "The first wedding was too small. The second wedding was too big. But the third wedding was JUST right." We snapped a few photos with the groom and his girl, tipped back some Johnny on the rocks, bantered with the inlaws and their college cronies -- now behind the scenes in Hyderabad's finest uniforms -- and hit the dance floor.

Indian dancing is not something with which I have much experience, but even so, we proved ourselves to be the Michael Jacksons of the sub-continent, sans nose. Between the lightbulb dance, which consists of alternated, twisting wrists in the air, and rhythmic gyrations to thumping Hindi beats, we kept the cameras panning and helped incite a party. Indian dance is visceral elation... it doesn't get much better, especially when you get to do it at three weddings in one night, without provocation or consequence.

And to get a tase of what I'm talking about, YouTube a video by Shahrukh Kahn when you get the chance! In the words of my co-worker, this guy is so famous in India that, "He's like the Old Testament; He makes even athiests shake in their boots."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monkey Business in Hampi

This weekend we traveled to Hampi in Karnataka, about mid-way between Hyderabad and Bangalore. The site of Hampi is famous for its other-worldly topography and for its gorgeous temples and ancient ruins. The skyline in Hampi is a mix of Martian-red boulders littering the land, and the hazy tropical green foliage of banana and coconut palms that conjure Jurassic images. I half expected to see Taradactos.

When we arrived in Hospet, the gateway town to Hampi, it was 5 AM and the sun was not yet up. We piled into an autorickshaw and made our way, careening through the dark over bumps and jolts, riding a buzzing tin-can with axles, a giddy driver at the helm, far too enthusiastic for the hour. The journey was about 40 minutes, but time passed as in a dream, all at once and in slow motion, with gossamer figures in pale colors emerging from the dark, passing us in a whoosh of air. Through the clatter of bells on passing water buffalo, the barking of dogs, the buzz of other rickshaws humming their way toward Hospet, we made our way to Hampi and arrived before the sun had creasted the horizon.

When we arrived, sleep was only a contingency plan. We had to climb a pile of rocks to see the sunrise. Although weighed down by backpacks, and constrained by the darkness, with an agile, goat-like ability, we mounted the boulders by sunrise. The single headlamp was both our climbing necessity and our excuse for tresspassing, having scaled an 8-foot stone wall.

We rented bicycles and road the dirt paths through a banana plantation. We traversed a river and went bouldering for two hours, only to be rescued by a man in a giant basket after marooning ourselves on the far side of the creek. We received warnings of local crocodiles and bandits, but failed to heed warning in the marsh and were convinced that the only thieves were the monkeys that go after yellow bananas. And we survived. We saw old women shoot at pesky monkeys with sling-shots, and incited a James Brown dance party outside the Hospet trainstation with an iPod and speakers, and considered getting a jungle haircut until divine intervention showed itself in the form of a power blackout. After an exploding cup of yogurt on the inbound train sullied my evening, it was nice to know someone up above was on the lookout.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Outsourcing" Models

In speaking about Hyderabad work life, it's interesting that jobs here consist of two categories according to local workers. There are BPO, business position outsource, and KPO, knowledge position outsource, jobs.

BPO jobs are those that people in the US would typically think of as "outsourced jobs," as they're lower-end jobs that have moved downmarket to where a labor supply us cheaper than in the United States. These jobs are not as highly sought after as KPO jobs, and are typically open to those with a high school degree.

KPO jobs, in contrast, are knowledge specific, and do require specialization. These jobs are akin to financial overnighting (HSBC) in which CPA-level accountants and analysts do research around the clock for bankers in NYC. While some jobs in Hyderabad do bridge the BPO-KPO gap, with BPO positions evolving into more KPO roles, these two are fairly dichotomous and distinct. Highly qualified individuals with MBAs or BBAs may opt for an international post as opposed to a local KPO. These were the thoughts and tinkerings from a conversation that I had with an Indian girl who's worked here for about 5 years.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Golconda Lights

Last night we watched the lights & sound show at Golconda Fort, a former stronghold on the Deccan Plateau. It's an impressive fort that was built atop a hill strewn with boulders, and was fortified with ramparts that were impenetrable, and impervious to everything but treachery. Local betrayal allowed Mughals from Delhi (basically Indian muslims of Turkish or Persian origin) to eventually breach the walls and conquer the Andrah Pradesh hilltop.

The lights show, while very Disney and a bit histrionic with famous Bollywood voice-overs and rhetorical questions, was a fun way to learn the fort's history, and see its walls aglow. We attended with three work friends and coordinators of the ambassador social committee, and over a dinner of North Indian cuisine, Lassis (yogurt drinks), curries, nan, and a delectable array of goodies, we learned a bit more about India.

India's religious breakdown is roughly 85 percent Hindu, 7 percent Muslim, and 2.7 percent Christian. One girl in the car was Christian, so she quipped that we were seeing a rarity! Hyderabad, in contrast, is nearly 50 percent Muslim, with the bulk Sunni (according to drivers). This is curious to me, as much of the former influence was Persian (Shia). Of the Christians in India, the bulk reside in Kerala on the Southwest coast. There is actually a Jewish presence here as well, somewhere near Cochi.

Another guy in the car is originally from Rajistan (Northwest near Pakistan), but currently lives in Kalcutta. He said that Kalcutta is a much warmer city, in personal touch, than Hyderabad. There he lives with his extended family. The wives join the men's family, and soon the house grows large quickly. He explained that this is quite traditional. His father, mother, uncles and their wives and children all live together under one roof. Their home is nearly 30 people large, and they own land to expand the home when need be. In contrast to Rajistan where he said many marriages still occur at ages 13-15, with the girl coming to live with and grow up in the boy's home, his family is less traditional. Dating is not discussed, but he said that it's something that is inevitable and happens in his family. At his home, the women are the primary caretakers and homemakers, a tough job with a family crew of 30 eating from one fridge!

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Number of Challenges

As is true when visiting nearly any country, one must deal with the inevitable conversions that come with American hubris, and our non-adoption of the metric system. Why should we adopt the metric system? And, we'll call it soccer too while we're at it. I saw a relic in an Istanbul museum that confirmed that the "foot" and "inch" do have a historical foundation. What perplexes me more though, are the arbitrary and anachronistic comparisons that some nations still draw. Why does a stone weigh 14 pounds?

In India they have something called the "Lakh." A Lakh is 100,000, so a city of 10 lakh would be the population of 1 million. There, I did it... though it did take me a minute. Converting to lakh seems akin to revaluing currency. Or maybe a better analogy is that it's like putting the same amount of water in a short fat glass or a tall skinny glass... one glass makes you think there's less water when the volume never changes. When you have a population of 1.1 billion you've got to get creative. You can't measure your country in terms of people anymore because it sounds overcrowded and unappealing. Instead you have to invent new conceptions to group people to count them in smaller numbers... because India may be 1.1 billion people, but it's only 11,000 lakhs. China, in contrast, sounds appallingly crowded with 1.3 billion whole people!

This is not Indian logic, but I think that maybe it should be. Playing with numbers makes sense with lakh, but when you're at the gym curling 15 kilos you would appreciate if the dumbells listed 33 pounds. I know I would. It's the water in the glass again, but sometimes each glass just makes sense. Indians got it right with lakhs of population. Americans got it right with pound weights in the gym. Would you rather be the weakest strong person, or the strongest weak person? It's all perspective...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cricket and Samosas - Week 1

My first week living in Hyderabad has been one of extremes. On one hand there is the expat life, and on the other, the veritable but unfortunate contrast of local life. One life is the one from behind walls and tinted glass, the one with doffed caps and smiles, sirs and accomodation, the kind of world in which no matter how messy life gets in the morning, it comes back cleaned and starched by 6pm. It’s a world in which there exists a magic book wherein any request is almost instantly granted, the only stipulation of course being that one cannot wish for a second magic book! Darn... This life is beyond the any inveterate comfort, and, at times, beyond even comforts of predilection. It is not so much a spurious world as a world removed, detatched, and perhaps anachronistic, as technologies and possibilities that exist in our world are only far-off dreams in the world that exists within a stone’s throw of our apartment complex.

Tall walls and a road buzzing with the honks and motors of auto-rickshaws separate our world from the shanty tents that squat nearby. Shelter tenuously exists, held together by wire and hanging stones over a nearby wall, a pole anchoring the roof of the home. The smells are foreign and deep, striking and poignant, an uncomfortable tale of desperation, perhaps dispair and surely discomfort. It is not a contrast that is unique to this part of the world. It is a contrast that one can witness on any continent and at any point, but one that is equally striking the world over. I’ve been fortunate enough to bear witness to some of the contrasts that bring humility and appreciation to circumstance, images and memories that impel me to withold judgement or to offer explanation. I think that such images carry a gravitas and a responsibility. It’s clichĂ© to talk about making a difference, but if witnessing the extremes of life make you a more compassionate person, than that’s a difference enough.

This was an absolutely brilliant weekend, my first in Hyderabad. Saturday morning lent itself to a cricket match of 20 overs, and a final result that was a near draw. I even bowled and fielded during the intermission, a nice interlude from the plastic chair that I'd rode during the first 20 overs. During the afternoon we toured the Charminar area of central Hyderabad, a confluence of traffic, capitalism and Islamic heritage in Andrah Pradesh. With vibrant colored saris, a flurry of honks and jingle of bangles, we disembarked from our car into the real world of Urdu, Hindi, and Telugu that is AP in India. It’s a fast-paced, close-up world of hands and smiles, golds and pinks and blues and greens, piles of fruit and gritty yellow taxis, standing water and bare footed, big-eyed, kids enthusiastically hawking bangles and sunglasses while displaying impressive English. It’s a world of families, photographs, penetrating gazes and the occasional introduction. Although I was dubious of the introduction, it usually concluded not with a sale but with a smile. It would end with a soft handshake and a welcome.

Charminar means four minarets, or towers. It’s a building that dates from the 16th century and is known by some as the Arc de Triumph of India. We climed to its top for a cost twenty times more than for the local Indian – 5 rupees for a local, 100 rupees for a foreigner.

Upon exiting a cute bare-footed girl began to follow us, asking for bangles. When we stopped for a chai and cookie, we offered her one of the 4 rupee treats (10 cents). She refused near the store, so we thought it better to offer food away from the leering shopkeeper. She followed us, darting through and under fruit stands, around rickshaws, scampering without hesitation or regard for what lay underfoot, a damp, festering earth littered with ditritus without name or form, and not what you’d want between your toes. She eventually took the food, though she continued to follow us until we eventually boarded our car.

We also engaged two boys selling plastic bangles out of small cardboard boxes. They told us of their schooling and football skills. A woman naerby came to observe our interaction. Shielded by a burqa, but without the veil covering her face, she watched us. When a break in conversation presented itself I offered her a “salam,” to which we bantered the only two lines I know in Arabic. It was a short interaction wherein we both said hello, how are you, and good, but it was a small victory with spoils of smiles. She walked away immediately thereafter after extending her hand to me to shake.

Today after a brunch at the Novotel, a delectable pile of savory and sweet treats, we explored the Persian tombs and Golconda Fort that make Hyderabad famous, or at least known to some techies or India buffs. What Hyderabad is actually known for, however, are its diamonds and pearls. The Queen of England’s crown contains a diamond from the Golconda mines, and nearly 90 percent of all pearls pass through Hyderabad for polishing and setting before going on sale across the world. This information, of course, came from a reputable source: our driver.

An evening of crafts and samosas and Malaysian corn in a cup, we enjoyed our spicy street food atop a crumbling wall and beneath the gaze of a score of onlookers. Week one from the other side, two worlds away from California...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Abra... Dubai

My favorite place in Dubai was neither Ski Dubai nor the Burj al Arab, though both were impressive and unique. My favorite pastime was riding the local Abras (traditional boats) between Deira and Bur Dubai, two halves of the old and new quarters separated by Dubai Creek. While private boats will shuttle tourists for evening tours costing scores if not hundreds of dollars, the local Abras shuttle the Emiratis, Indians, and Iranians that comprise the majority of the population. For 50 fils, half of one dirham, and about $0.12 one can ride on a solid wooden abra with 19 others, plugging along the creek with a grisily motor spitting fumes and choking water in its drowning struggle under the weight.

The most impressive part of the Abra ride is not the boat, and though the drivers display an inveterate ability to navigate the creek with only their feet on the wheel, collecting and disbursing exact change with their hands, it’s not that either. The best part of riding the Abra is the natural efficiency with which a boat is chosen. As dozens of Abras line either side of the creek, each driver eager to pocket the profits from a full boat, the over-supply of boats puts the power of determination in the hands of the sailors, and makes collectivization an imperative.

A boat would not sail with fewer than 20 paying. As such, the take-off of an Abra would have made Malcom Gladwell proud... an instant demonstration of the “Tipping Point.” An arbitrary decision by one person would create a cascade that ultimately would determine which boat sailed. When a critical mass focused on an Abra, others nearby recognized the developing trend, rushed to the point of embarkation, and further incited the cascade. It was a frantic rush, but in an instant it'd be over, and would again repeat. As each boat was capped at 20 sailors, there were inevitably those who were left behind. A gruff hand would grip the turnstall, a shout in Hindi would send the driver to sea, and you'd have missed the boat, figuratively and literally. And then you'd crane to see where another crowd would gather, and rush to not miss the next.

With the over-supply of boats, and one arbitrary decision, it instantly appeared as though there was product differentiation (a better boat), and this in turn, caused indivuals to rush to the site of the gathering crowd and support the sailing of that particular Abra. The act of one individual, whether arbitrary or whether reasoned, caused others to follow, and ultimately caused that ship to sail. While I’m not a student of economics, I can’t help but assume that the pattern of cascading decisions is ubiquitous across more formal markets when value differentiation is negligible and trending begins from an arbitrary choice. I guess it boils down to, is the popular cafĂ© more crowded because it’s inherently better, or is it more crowded because it was crowded initially…

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Moving Against Time - West to East

After two weeks in transition between West and East, moving from Paris to Prague to Istanbul to Bahrain to Dubai, I've arrived in Hyderabad, India, a fast-growing city on the Deccan Plateau of Southern India. My trip was a truly amazing journey that facilitated the cultural shift from West to East as I prepare for my three months working in India. Each city offered a deeper immersion in foreign culture as I journed the 8404 miles distance from Palo Alto.

In Paris I stayed with my sister in an apartment near Hotel de Ville in the heart of Paris. It was amazing to see Paris through the familiar eyes of a student and resident. We watched an amazing Chopin concert in a 12th-century cathedral, attended class at the Sorbonne, went for an 8-mile Christmas morning run across Paris and under the Eiffel Tower, and indulged a bit in life on both sides of the Seine. After about a week in Paris we set off for Istanbul via Prague. Thanks to practicing Russian greetings with my iPod Shuffle Russian podcasts, I was able to offer the kindly "Zdravstvuite" to the man next to me on the plane. He smiled.

Istanbul is a decidedly Western city that, in many parts, feels quite European. While probably not a sufficiently deep perspective to comment on its EU candidacy, it was interesting to engage citizens on the topic and get their opinions. For those interested in a cultural biography, I would recommend reading about Ataturk, the father of modern secular Turkey. In the 1930s he instituted revolutionary changes including moving away from Arabic to Roman script, outlawing religious marriage for civil, banning the purdah and other forms of traditional Muslim dress, moving the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, and giving women the right to vote. He's lauded the city over, and has the role of a more-contemporary George Washington in Turkey. Istanbul's skyline is a melange of East and West, a mosaic of minarets and domes, towers from the crusades, and Roman walls to keep out the Huns. The city is host to the Blue Mosque (6 minarets, one short of the one in Mecca), and the Aya Sofia. The Aya (or Hagia) Sofia is a fascinating juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam, as it became a mosque in 1453, nearly 1000 years after its construction. It has both the mihrab, the prayer wall that faces Mecca, and mosaic pictures of Christian figures. One example of this is in a photo.

Dubai is a deeper mix of East and West. While Istanbul feels European with influence from the East, Dubai feels like the Middle East with influence from the West. Its shopping malls create startling mixes of women in purdah carrying Dior shopping bags, men in the Gutra (red/white Bedouin scarf) drinking Starbuck's lattes, while Aussies in shorts smoke Sheesha on the Persian Gulf. I took a desert safari with me and six Iranians who only spoke Farsi. Unfortunatly I did not know more than a dozen overlapping Arabic words that provided our only common tongue. My one week base in Turkish provided me the skill set to decipher transliterated Arabic menus and speak stupidly with my Iranian tour mates. A drive down the road to Oman followed by three hours over dunes left us in a Bedouin world of sand and camels, sheesha, kebabs and a lone bellydancer in the Arabian night.

Madinat Jameriah, Dubai
“Alone in Arabia”

A warren of shops
Narrow passages, good spilling luxurously into the walkway
Trays, brass camels, inlaid-wooden boxes
Arab men sail over tiles
Women in black veils next to Brits to the nines
Casual intersection of culture
East and West
West and East in a whirl of smoke
Sheesha puffs
In long bubbling inhalations
Minty plastic and throat tickles
A sip of tea and another round of hot coals
Smiles and crooked teeth
Melange of accents, Indian, Italian and British
Arabic chatter
Salaam meets ciao
Garmets unfurled to the tile
Gliding sandals over a tapestry
Persian or Turkish
And the belvedere that is now
Timeless views of eras juxtaposed
Traditional modernity
Golden windtowers afront the purplish glow of the Burj al Arab
Strike a pose
Strike the flash
Capture the glow of the night that is Arab
That is casual
Ephemeral as smoke
A transient minty mist that dissipates
Bursting bubbles on tea and in pipe
Reveals a starry sky
Glittering gulf
Persian and foreign
Yet a moon that hovers the same
An obsever
Silent in the Arabian night
Only one thousand more
Adventures to come


I've now arrived in Hyderabad and have settled into my apartment. The Hyderabad office is vertical, much like New York, with an interesting vista over a developing sub-tropical skyline. The weather is quite warm and balmy, and the roads are sheer insanity. The days are presenting themselves in small challenges. Showering, telephones, and internet are, unfortunately, still surprisingly difficult.