Tuesday, August 5, 2008

7 Hours in Helsinki

I woke up in time to take a look at my connecting flight ticket before we landed, and I realized that I had an 8 hour layover.  I’d never been to Finland, and I’ve been to many airports, so I figured I’d take the road less traveled.  I bought a day pass for the bus that cost nearly the same as three nights in a Mysore hotel and headed out on the town. 

My first new friend was a Portuguese guy who had just taken up the profession of a traveling salesman in the most literal sense.  He’d come back from India with plenty of cheap goods and was now heading west to sell them with a slight “import” markup.  Not a bad life really.  The friendship lasted a bus ride and a few city blocks.

Walking into one of the city’s many pretty pedestrian squares, my interest was piqued by a group of about a dozen singing drunkenly with a guitar, a few near-empty bottles, and many lit cigarettes.  I wandered over amused and I was immediately accepted as a new friend by Irish men in suits covered in mud, an Irish girl, two Finnish ladies, and a local drunk who desperately wanted to be part of the fun.  We sang a few songs, including a few lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a full rendition of “Mercedes Benz,” and, of course, U2.  Once the town drunk and an Irishman somehow managed to fall off a bench while dancing without shirts on, they decided to call it a night.  Besides, it was only 8:00am. 

I continued on and admired the city, which was beautiful and clean and quiet and so completely different from Delhi that it was as bewildering to the senses as jumping from the hot tub to an ice-cold pool. 

Then I made another friend.  She was on my flight from Delhi and was returning to New York and we started talking and walking.  She was born in India, but in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, everything was in turmoil and her family found asylum in Iraq for two years before moving to California.  Despite our contrasting histories, we had tons in common and we had a great time in Helsinki. 

We ate at a seaside café that looked out onto boats and islands in the harbor.  The food was delicious and every person with whom I interacted seemed to go out of her way to be perfectly lovely.  On the walk back, the town had woken up and I was struck by how profoundly nice it must be to live there.  Truly, I think anyone could be happy in Helsinki.  Life seemed so easy and clean and beautiful.  

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I am slouching in a hard plastic chair while being serenaded by constant announcements in English followed by Hindi.  I am enjoying my new aura of duty-free sample perfume.  I am wishing that instead of Subway and Nirula’s someone from South India had broken the chain-restaurant-only rule of airport holding pens and was serving Masala Dosas.  Oh, for one last dosa, I would unload every last Rupee in my possession.

I am terribly sleep deprived.  Perhaps that is why I can only seem to begin sentences by stating I am.  I’ve had about 7 hours of sleep in the past two days and I’m getting ready for a long road ahead.  I’ll be very happy to collapse into bed once I’m state-side.  I wish I could sneak onto the direct flight to NYC that is boarding right in front of me. 

Most of all, I am very sad to leave India.  So sad that I was nearly getting choked up as I stamped out my last cheap Indian cigarette before heading into the airport.  I feel that I even reconciled my differences with Delhi today.  This country is nothing short of amazing, in the true, non-hackneyed sense of the word.  Even as I came to view the once-bewildering occurrences as common place, there were still many complexities that unfolded and many new experiences that astounded. 

I’ve been making many comparisons in this blog—north vs. south, India vs. West, men vs. women.  But I’ve realized that my comparisons are inherently flawed.  They come from different vantages.  My perceptions three weeks ago are different from those of today and those of three weeks before.  I have changed in these six weeks.  Such a short time really.  But India is a powerful force.  Either you fight its abrasiveness and annoyances and nearly break under the onslaught or you become flexible and allow yourself to be stretched. 

In the one yoga class I managed to take while in Mysore, I learned many things about what I don’t know about yoga.  You want a downward facing dog?  Sure, no problem.  I’ll give you a downward facing dog.  Then the instructor came and pulled and pushed and posed my body in a way that felt completely foreign, somewhat painful, and yet somehow right.  Many of my experiences in India were just like that.  Just when I would think I had something figured out, my mind would be pushed and pulled into an uncomfortable stretch that felt strange and difficult, but more real and profound than what I had felt before.  

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bombings in Bangalore

This is just a quick entry to tell anyone who might be worried after hearing of the bombings in Bangalore that I am perfectly safe.  I am leaving the city in an hour to head to Delhi and then the Himalayas.  

Monday, July 21, 2008

Field Work

July 20, 2008

Finally today I have started the true “field work” component of my research.  Literally, I sat in fields and talked to farmers under the shade of palm or banyan trees.  And it was so much easier than I thought it would be.  I worried about how I would find farmers who would be willing to talk to me if they had no idea who I was or why I wanted information.  I thought about offering them money, I tried extensively to find organizations who worked with farmers, or lists of producers from sugar cane plants.  Turns out, if you just walk out into a field where someone is working and ask if you can talk to them about their farm, they are very happy to give you as much time as you like.  In fact, usually, you’ll get their attention and that of any other locals who happen to be around.  It is a curious thing to them, some white girl walking into a farm field and jotting notes about everything they say. 

More than just that, these are just such friendly and open people.  This is one thing I have truly come to love about India.  The people are really wonderful.  Here I am, an American who carries around a bag of electronics that are worth more than they will make in three years, and they do not ask for anything from me in return for their help.  The most anyone asked was that I go use my English to talk to the government, tell them how poor they are and that they should give them money to help. 

Granted, I did need a translator and a driver to facilitate this wandering about and conversing, but that wasn’t so hard either (especially with the oh so helpful connections of my dear friend Ari who has been here for a month already). 

So for the next week, I will be running around talking to as many farmers as possible about how they grow their crops, how they use their crop wastes, and what they use for cooking and heating water.  Turns out, the stories of the biomass power plant that uses crop residues to generate electricity are not true (not surprising…they have lied profusely about many things).  Even on their Clean Development Mechanism application, they say that all these materials are not used at all, they just get burnt or rot on the side of the fields.  But in this country, hardly anything gets wasted.  There is too much need and too many resourceful people for good things to lie by the wayside for long.  

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Mysore

July 16, 2008

Just so you don’t think too well of my ability to accept the inconveniences of loss of electricity and simply take on a philosophical approach, this morning I was at the same café but with one hour to leave to Bangalore for a meeting with the chairman of the power plant I’m studying and the person I have to convince to voluntarily disclose all sorts of data and help connect me with the communities from which they gather crop residues…  basically the guy who will either kill or resuscitate my project.  I needed to find a few reports online and the power was out again.  And then on for 10 minutes, then out halfway through my download.  Needless to say, my blood pressure peaked as I was waiting for my “lifeline” to resuscitate. 

Now I’m on the train back to Bangalore, I’m sick of going over reports and outlines and questions, so I’ll put the work aside for bit and tell you a bit about Mysore.

Mysore is a place where I could actually live.  I don’t know if it will make it into my often cited favorite cities of the world (San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Lawrence, Kansas), but it is a place that lets you breathe and stimulates at the same time. Mysore is a small city (by India’s standards) with less than a million people. I’m staying at a hotel in the center of the city, but I’ve spent much more time at the Yoga shala away from the bussle of the center.

As the world-renowned capital of Ashtanga Yoga, and there are hundreds of yoga students from Europe and the U.S. living here to practice yoga with the highly respected gurus.  The relief I feel when I am able to hang around with other Westerners makes me feel slightly ashamed at my inability to “integrate” with Indians, and it also makes me understand why I see foreigners, especially if they have a different language or skin color self-segregate in the States.  When you come from similar cultures, the level of effort of interaction just drops drastically.  Although, I must say that my most interesting conversations have been with those who are have grown up surrounded by the culture of India, but have become somewhat Westernized, which eases the cultural barriers. 

Granted, the inability to integrate is mostly just language barriers.  Less educated people here generally do not speak English unless they have a job as a shop keeper or auto-rickshaw driver, in which case they know either enough to get by or have a surprising command of the language.  Although you really cannot tell who is highly educated or not simply by their job; I hear there are surprising exceptions. 

People in high positions and with college or graduate-level educations usually speak English fluently.  Yet Indian English is very different from American English and often times the lack of comprehension goes both ways.  My problem has been that during interviews, I expend so much concentration translating the Indian English to American English in my head that I have far fewer brain cells left for actually processing what is being said and coming up with something intelligent to say in response.  So I end up coming across very dull-witted. 

Back to Mysore, where you can gain a dozen friends in an afternoon hanging out in the open air café behind the yoga shala, I could easily be happy for months.  Plus the locals are so nice and laid back.  Even when I get into arguments with a group of rickshaw drivers over the fare, it is more of a friendly banter than an aggressive exchange. 

The city is also quite clean.  The train station, which were always rather revolting in the North, is practically spotless.  There are trash cans (this may not sound significant to those of you back home, but a trash can in India can be exceedingly hard to come by).  My nose is rarely offended.  And it is very safe.  Oh did I mention the weather is amazing?  The monsoon is in full swing, so it rains every afternoon, but the temperature stays between 75 and 85 with a nice breeze. 

Yet, the most noteworthy thing about Mysore is the architecture.  There are some truly amazing buildings strewn all about the city.  The Maharaja’s Palace is quite magnificent.  But the ones I really love are the old buildings that once must have been rather glorious mansions for some very rich people who lived in Mysore long ago.  Most of them are now quite run down.  They look like they haven’t seen a can of paint in decades and that is likely the least of their troubles.  Some of them have been converted to auto parts stores or other such unexpected commercial pairing.  I am trying to think of how to describe them in words, but I think I will just post a few pictures in a few days. 

The thing I love about them is how their grandeur has been reduced to a shadow, yet the beauty is not gone, just transformed and worn in by a long, difficult life.  They’ve seen countless monsoons, layers of dirt and diesel, and have sheltered the lives of many.  It is the same sort of beauty that you see in a very old woman with deep lines, hollowed cheeks, and tired, but wise and exquisite eyes.  You can see that she was once gorgeous and now has worn her body to its limits.  Yet this beauty is in many ways more stunning than that of a girl of twenty. 



Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Me & The Taj

Because my momma wanted a picture with me in it, I post the obligatory stand awkwardly in front of the Taj Mahal shot.  :)

Lights out in Mysore

July 15, 2008

Mysore, Karnataka

I’m sitting at a café behind a Yoga shallah listening to the monsoon rains hammer down onto the city of Mysore.  I have a tiny orange kitten in my lap and his purr provides the undertones for the rain and the occasional clap of thunder. 

The electricity, today, has been out more than it has been on, and my frustration with the loss of wireless internet has dissipated as I have resigned to being still for awhile. 

The intermittent power has an unexpected side effect.  When the power goes out, work stops.  When work stops and electronics lay silent, then we turn instead to conversation, books, or simply to our own thoughts.  In Delhi, the best night we had together was when the power was out all night and we sat and delved through long enriching conversations by diffused flash lights instead of sitting behind 5 Macs and exchanging thoughts intermittently while multi-tasking on work and photos and blogs and emails. 

When the electricity goes out at the offices where Alyssa, Claudia, and Steph work, it becomes an excuse to sit and talk with your coworkers instead of staring at a computer screen.  Less work gets done, but are we really worse off?

It is somehow reassuring that when I am eating in restaurants or cafes and suddenly I find myself in the dark, no one skips a beat in their meals or conversations.  It is a perfectly normal occurrence.  There are no angry calls to the electricity company, or if there are, I have not heard them.  This is just a part of life.  And once you accept that these essential conveniences are not always going to be there, you realize that they often just block out the true essence of living. 

There is a bit of irony here, because I am working on a project to improve the availability of electricity (in an environmentally friendly manner) and I am currently staring at a computer screen by virtue of laptop battery…  

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bangalore Galore

Bangalore – Day 1

I’ve been spoiled by my accommodations thus far in India.  In South America, I thought a place was nice enough even though they had exposed wiring in the showers or sunken in beds.  Here, I am in my own room with a TV, private bathroom, and ceiling fan for about $13 a night, and I feel like I’m paying too much for a shithole. Okay, so it is a shithole (the shower consists of cold water taps and a bucket, the door hasn’t been cleaned for about 10 years, I have  “cohabitants,” and generally, its something that might be considered cozy if it were in a mental institution).  But really, what do I expect for $13 a night in a prime location in Bangalore, one of the most expensive cities in India?  I nearly checked into a different hotel that was half the price in a “lively market area” but my instincts were dead set against it.  Plus, even if it is somewhat obnoxious to be in an area that wishes it were Times Square, it seems much safer than the crowded and somewhat seedy city market.  (See Mom, I am being careful!)

My former traveling companions had slightly classier tastes (and perhaps more flexible budgets).  We stayed in lovely places in Rishikesh, Jaipur, and Agra.  Porches with comfy chairs and tables looking over the Himalayan foothills.  Delicately painted ceilings and a rooftop terrace outside our doors.  And a window in which the Taj Mahal was perfectly framed.  But I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort in a city and then be able to splurge a bit later when it matters more.

So here I am down South on my own to pursue the field work portion of my research.  It will be interesting to travel alone for awhile.  I always am so much more observant and reflective when I’m by myself.  I make many more random connections with people along the way.  Even my sense of direction improves markedly.  The downsides are there, of course.  I’m always on my guard and I have to be far more cautious with what I do and where I go.  Plus I’ll miss the company of my lovely friends. 

Large cities in India aren’t quite my cup of tea.  Not that they don’t have amazing things to see and discover, but the traffic and the pollution and the people can be a little too much.  And with the exception of the old and the possible exception of the very new and modern, Indian cities don’t seem to focus much on architectural ascetics.  I’ve been surprised by some of the very hot and trendy areas in Delhi.  They will have amazing and rather pricey restaurants that are gorgeous on the inside, but the outside looks more like a storage center with signs indicated with slot is a restaurant and which is a shop.  The trendy and very pricey areas that do look “nice” on the outside seem to have adopted their design directly from the American suburban shopping malls and movie complexes.  I know I’m being rather critical (I’m on three hours of sleep), but it is just sad to see a culture that has produced such incredible feats of architecture and design either completely ignore it or co-opt Generica.   

I have observed already what a difference some of the pollution control measures put into place in Delhi but not Bangalore have made.  Delhi required all auto-rickshaws and public buses to switch to cleaner burning compressed natural gas instead of diesel.  The roadway air can still get pretty bad, but it is a huge improvement over the air here in Bangalore where nearly everyone still uses diesel or gasoline.  It is so bad that I won’t smoke a cigarette near busy roads because I don’t want to inhale all of the incredibly toxic air too deeply into my lungs.  Yes, laugh if you will.  But I really think that someone could smoke a pack a day in Kansas and still have healthier lungs than someone who just lives in Bangalore. 

Bangalore Day 2 

Bangalore is truly a different kind of India.  The traffic is terrible, but it is a great place for young professionals (Bangalore is the center of the IT boom in India).  There are coffee shops everywhere, with real (aka non-Nescafe) coffee.  Some are very cool (I’m sitting in an outdoor café next to a tree that plunges through the roof).  I just passed one with hookahs!  But it looks like there is an epidemic sweeping the wi-fi services around town.  Everyone says, “not working.” 

And, as my friendly rickshaw driver told me as I asked him about safety and crime in Bangalore, women are respected here.  No one bothers anyone.  According to him, there is no crime and you can walk alone at night (I think I’ll not be following that advice!).  I have noticed a major drop in hassling.  And far less blatant staring.  And when I say, no I don’t want a rickshaw, they seem to actually believe that I mean no I don’t want a rickshaw.  It’s incredible.

But the biggest indicator that you’re not in Delhi anymore… no cows.  Where did they all go?  (I did eat beef at a restaurant last night… it felt kind of naughty.) 

Today I went to the Malavalli Power Plant about 3 hours outside of Bangalore.  It is powered entirely on crop residues (like palm fronds, sugar cane ‘trash,’ and rice husks) and serves as the poster child for a successful model that works symbiotically with the surrounding communities to supply these fuels.  It seems very promising as a way to put unused wastes to use to generate power.  And it provides many much-needed jobs for rural areas.  I am going to pursue it as a case study and try to verify its effectiveness as a way to provide electricity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote rural socioeconomic development.  I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow to get data and more information on other reports that have been done.  I hope to find out whether what I want to do is redundant or useful.  I’m also meeting with a UNDP sponsored initiative on rural biomass gasification, so that is another potential direction if this dead-ends.  I am just really antsy to get out and start talking with people in rural communities and see how this all really works.  And even though I like Bangalore, I’d love to base myself in a small town for a while. 

Bangalore – Day 4 

As my dearest Indian friend pointed out in my blog comments, India really isn’t a place you can stereotype.  Going from Delhi to Bangalore has shown me how unbelievably true that is.  The culture is so completely different here.  For one, in Delhi, I wore Indian clothes and blended in.  Even below the knee skirts looked a bit risqué. (Only for women, the vast majority of men have adopted Western fashion in its entirety.)  Here, when I where my Punjabi suit, I stick out among jeans and t-shirts, at least in the cafes and trendy districts.  There are saris and Punjabi suits, but mostly on older women.  Although it is somewhat ironic that in Bangalore, there are also many Muslim women who wear full black burkas that only reveal their eyes. 

Men still travel in packs, but they don’t act like dogs eyeing fresh bacon when girls walk by.  Women work in shops and restaurants.  They drive.  They seem to be in control of their lives. 

It feels very different to walk down the street.  I don’t feel like I must put on a stone face and trust no one.  I don’t feel like a target. 

And, I might add, that there is one area in which Americans should look upon their record with shame.  We like to fancy ourselves as a much more progressive, egalitarian, and free society, and we scorn many other countries for their oppression of women.  Yet, India has had a female prime minister.  Forty years ago.  Pakistan has had a female president.  So have Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.   And when a highly qualified women runs for office we devote months and stacks of newspaper space asking, “Is America ready for a female president?” 

The oppression of women is a very real phenomenon.  I wouldn’t change what I said about my experience in Rajasthan.  But I must qualify that and say that this problem is not uniform and there have been many advances in the position of women in many areas of India.   

Friday, July 4, 2008

Photos and Food

Its Friday again and I'm heading to Agra this weekend (i.e. the city in which the Taj Mahal resides).  Then on Monday, I'm flying South to Bangalore.  

I've been working all week with meetings scheduled every day with this official or that researcher.  And in between, I read.  Eventually, I'll tell you all about it.  Perhaps I'll just post my whole thesis.  It'll be a page turner, I'm sure.

The other thing I do in Delhi is eat.  To call it eating is really to completely bastardize the activity that actually takes place.  Amazing substances revel and frolic on my taste buds and in my stomach.  :)  Last night, Steph and I stumbled upon a crepes restaurant.  It was the alternative to Chinese, so we decided to check it out.  I cannot tell you the absurd amounts of pleasure that came about from that meal.  It is beyond words.  We've had at least three other blow your mind restaurant-going experiences.  North Indian, South Indian, and a Western-Indian fusion.   The few times I've risked my health for the street food, I have been heartily rewarded by amazing little fried puffs filled with various yummy sweet and spicy sauces.  And even food that is just regular Indian food, is really really tasty.  

I posted my photos on facebook, but if you are not facebook savy, just click the link below:

Oh, and Happy Independence Day!  Eat a big juicy steak for me and enjoy the explosives (carefully)!

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Minority Class

Riding in a car through the hills and plains of Rajasthan, I had a unique vantage point to observe rural Indian life.  The vibrant green fields were filled with crops, palm trees, goats, and flashes of fuscia, neon orange, and the brightest yellows.  These were the saris of the women of Rajasthan working the farms.  On the roadside I saw women carrying enormous loads on their heads, loads that would have been hard work with a wheel barrel but was unbelievable with the tools they had—nothing but their hands, body, and a large piece of burlap overstuffed with grass clippings or string tying together sugarcane.

From the same vantage, I also observed many men.  Most often, they were sitting around cafes or shops, chatting with one another and just hanging out.

I watched this over and over again for miles and miles.  Women working, men lounging.  Women working, men drinking tea.  Men sitting in chairs, women squatting or sitting on the ground.  And as I watched these scenes float past, my anger and frustration and resentment and pure sadness grew stronger and stronger. 

It seems that if you are a woman born poor in India, you are born into slavery. 

The injustice of this made my blood boil and engendered the most venomous thoughts towards North Indian men.  It’s not just the inequality of daily work.  It is so much more.  Traveling here for two weeks has shown me some truly repulsive aspects of human character gone unchecked.  It seems that men believe they are kings.  Any river, fountain, waterfall, even just a running spigot in a city is an opportunity for men to strip down to their underwear (or less) and splash about and play and just appear to have a ball.  And when white women walk by they do everything they can to get you to look over at them.  Instead, we have to shuffle quickly onwards, eyes on anything but, and keep sweating in our clothes that must cover our legs and shoulders to keep out of the category of harlots.  It is inconceivable to swim in any of the gorgeous and otherwise extremely tempting swimming holes.  When women do bathe in the rivers, they remain fully dressed. 

Men also feel it is their right to pee anywhere.  Rarely do you see a wall on the side of the road that does not have a man watering it.  I have spent some time wondering where women do their business, as public bathrooms are hard to come by.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, cars, and bicycles I’ve seen, I’ve seen three women on motorcycles, two on bikes, and two driving cars.  But I’ve seen thousands riding sidesaddle on the back, never wearing a helmet and often carrying babies and children. 

Men completely reserve the right to gape and gawk and yell out to any white woman walking or riding by.

I realized I was blind to a lot of it at first.  Like smoking.  I wondered why I would get such strange looks when I smoked because I saw many other Indians smoking.  Once I had a “conversation” with a woman in my neighborhood (with her speaking only Hindi, and me only English) when she approached me and gestured towards my cigarette, questioning.  I offered her one, wondering if that was what she was getting at.  It wasn’t.  She just seemed completely perplexed that I was smoking a cigarette.  Yesterday, as I was inhaling a smoke, a man passed me and mockingly noted, “How macho.”  I was confused as to whether it was my dorky “travel wear” but then realized it was the smoking.  It was only then that it occurred to me that I had only seen men smoking and it was taboo for a female to partake in such a habit.

If that were the worst of it, then it could be passed off partially as bad manners and unfortunate work allocation.  But then you hear the stories of female infanticide and the bride-burnings (and the skewed male-female ratios to prove it).  And the massive dowries that must be paid to send your daughter off to work her ass off for her husband’s family.  And girls who never go to school.  And more double standards than standards themselves. 

As this other world whirled past, I sat in the car fighting back tears first for the women who had such hard, unjust lives.  Then I had a new surge of emotion for the women who fought to bring the rights that I enjoy in my own culture.  I’ve felt appreciation for these amazing women before.  But I don’t think it has ever continually brought tears to my eyes when I’ve thought of it.  I want to build monuments in their honor.  I want to kiss their feet.  I want to thank them with every thing I have.  Because here, I realize, that I owe everything to the people who came before me and changed so much of our culture to allow women to thrive.  I see how life could be if I were born in the wrong country, in the wrong class, in the wrong gender, and it kills me. 

My own culture has come a long way towards equality and allowing both genders to simply live their full humanity, and we still have a long way to go.  But if you think that the women’s movement has won its major battles, just look around and you’ll find a billion or so women to show you how mistaken you are.


I feel like I went through the cycle of culture shock really quickly and now I'm already viewing the honking and crowds and trash and smells as rather normal.  The little kids though...  I'm a softy for street kids.  It is so hard to say no to these children or the young women toting babies still nursing.  You have so much and they have so little.

The other day I almost took a kid to eat at McDonalds, but I lost track of him after I went into a store.  He found me in time to get the sandwich I bought for him though (disclaimer: not McDonalds).  

It’s a big dilemma of how to deal with little kids begging for money.  They need money, but you’re not doing them any favors by giving it to them because it just perpetuates the cycle of keeping them out of school to ‘work’ and then condemning them to a life of certain poverty.  India actually passed a law making it illegal to give kids money because there were so many people who “pimp” kids as beggars.  

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving them food.  So I always carry around packets of peanuts with me.  Whenever a kid asks for money, I give them peanuts.  Sometimes they just keep asking for money, sometimes they seem pretty happy.  But either way, they need protein and its something that I know that its something from which they will be the ones to benefit.  

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Weekend in Rishikesh

To stop writing for one day is to miss a massive gamut of sights, activities, feelings, and observations.  Every day seems like a week.  Today, for example, I woke up with a stomach ache in the Himalayan foothills, threw up in a parking lot of a rancid train station (a cow happily trotted over afterwards…), walked up and down a packed moving train with three other white girls + luggage looking for a car that did not exist and seats that had been reassigned without notice, cooled off and got some work done in our air conditioned apartment, then ended the day in a gorgeous restaurant eating exquisite food. 

I had a truly amazing weekend away from Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas in Rishikesh, about 6 hours north.  Steph and I arrived in Haridwar early in the morning from an overnight train.  The station was, of course, packed even at 6am.  Many travelers were herding from here to there.  People were doing their laundry on the train platforms (perhaps they lived there).  And plenty of men were yelling out their various wares for sale.  And the smell… let’s just say that I often thank God that my sense of smell is rather dull.

So we successfully found a bus to Rishikesh by wandering around asking “Bus?” “Rishikesh?”  After a while, we made it to our hotel.  It was amazing.  The view was unbelievable.  The “foothills” of the Himalayas rose dramatically from the valley that held the Ganges, which was also in view from our favorite breakfast table. 

Steph and I spent our first day exploring the town, which was both delightful and overwhelming.  It is a popular tourist site, and since this is the season for Indian tourism, there were many Indians with their cameras.  Now, I mentioned before that I found it very strange to have people who wanted to have their pictures taken with them.  It turns out that this is seemingly commonplace.  There were times when we would have one person request a picture, then when others saw the photo opp, they wanted their pictures taken with us as well.  Eventually, we had to say no and just keep moving.  We saw a few other Western tourists who were having the same thing happen to them, so at least we didn’t feel abnormal.  It is very strange, but sometimes it feels that if you are white, you are automatically treated as a celebrity, for better or for worse.  I wonder if it is just the novelty of someone different or the fact that they value pale over dark skin or maybe just a side effect of Hollywood creeping into their culture. 

So to make a long story short, we went rafting on the Ganges, and I actually intentionally jumped in for a swim.  It was lovely (as long as I kept my mouth firmly closed).  We went hiking to a waterfall.  And we spent the evening at a light ceremony in the next town over Haridwar.  That was really fascinating.  It is a nightly ceremony that is an important pilgrimage for Hindus.  Thousands gather on the platforms that lead into the river and bathe and play in the water.  The scene of layers of colors of saris on the stairs was truly gorgeous.  People buy little boats made out of leaves filled with flowers and a candle with incense and float it down the Ganges as an offering to the sacred river.  Prayers are said as a group, section by section.  A beautiful little girl came around and painted quick little flames on everyone’s foreheads.  And then the thousands who had come left in a more orderly fashion than I have seen in any large event in the U.S. 

We reluctantly left the hills the next day, and I already said more than enough of our adventure home. 

Somehow, it is already Friday again and we will be leaving in the morning for another weekend trip.  This week has flown by in hours and hours of emails and reading and a few meetings.  In other words, I have been working in earnest on my research.  This has been interspersed with delicious meals out, an evening of fantastic conversation sparked by a power outage, and a surreal trip to the movies. 

I tried very hard to post a video I took in Rishikesh, but the internet here just wouldn’t cooperate.  You’ll have to settle for pictures.  (Which I will post very soon.)   Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

You Can't Escape Uncle Sam

I’m sitting in “The All-American Diner” complete with checkered floor tiles, Marilyn Monroe, all day breakfast, and ‘My Endless Love’ playing over the speakers.  They even have a “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” placard.  America, how can I miss you if you never go away?  Well, there is one thing they don’t have…  a big juicy beef burger.  

Friday, June 20, 2008

Delhi, India
Day 2 – June 19, 2008

Today, I ventured out into Delhi on my own and explored the Red Fort, an old Mughal palace that was converted to an army fort in the 20th century. Then I headed into Old Delhi, where I was expecting historic buildings and monuments but found the most overwhelming mass of people, cars, shops, wires—even the buildings appeared to have built by heaping one upon another. After the sun went down, I went out with another Indian friend of a friend who took us to an area so Westernized they had, not only a Pizza Hut, movie theater, 24 hour convenience store, but also a Ruby Tuesday and a Bennigans. And the phone number for McDonalds McDelivery ended with 666…coincidence? It was in this very street that I had my first authentic Indian food, which was swadishth (delicious).

There are so many stories within each of these seemingly simple activities its hard to know where to begin. So brace yourself, I may be here for awhile…

I’ll start by transcribing my journal entry I wrote while lolling about the palace gardens:

“I’m sitting at the Red Fort under the shade of a tree because the rain has begun. Yet the air has cooled and the breeze picked up, so it is not unwelcome.

In the distance, I hear what sounds like an Islamic call to prayer—a sound I’ve missed since I left Istanbul.

Here the Indian tourists outnumber Westerners by at least 400 to 1. And the young men with cell phone cameras seem to consider me to be more interesting photo material than the palaces that I am walking around. A woman, as well, wanted my photo with her two young children.

The people I’ve met are very friendly—the women as well as men. Everyone has cautioned against constant scams, so I am hesitant to be trusting, but I think its important to be open enough to experience the kindness and mutual curiosity that seems to arise.

* * *
There is a series of pools connecting three monument-like buildings. Well, they would be pools if there were any water. At the moment they are filled with dust. A red building stands in the middle of what would be a large square pool, maybe 4 feet deep. Then surrounding it are little outlets into delicately carved pools that would create a scalloped water edge on all sides. Long ‘reflective’ pools with little bridges lead to the white marble structures on both sides. I am enjoying imagining how exquisite this scene would be if the pools were filled with water and the white marble was clean and bright."

From the Red Fort, I walked over to the Old Delhi where I quickly gained a new friend. I’ve found that it is very easy to make friends here, but far more difficult to get rid of them. This very nice man seemed determined to become my tour guide even though I insisted that I had no money to give him. At first I was wondering if it was a bit sketchy as he was leading me through these narrow streets that a half crushed mini could not pass through. I stuck to public areas and soon I noticed how much less I was hassled by ubiquitous salesmen when they saw I was accompanied by a guide. He led around and told me about the buildings, pointed out the very old Mughal architecture that I may have missed by forgetting to look up. He was happy to help me find an ATM and then he seemed to decide that I needed to do some shopping. After stopping at a few places, I fell in love with a fine silk brocade and was measured for my first sari. I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the place and decided it was time to head back to a side of town where life did not scream its reality as so incredibly stark and grueling. He helped me into an auto rickshaw and I gladly tipped him (I imagine he also made a good commission off of my purchase).

It is hard to imagine not being able to leave such a place. Those who can find work are lucky, but usually you have to have something to begin with to be able to make a living. My rickshaw driver was 65 and had started driving rickshaws when he was 18. The shopkeepers and tailors have some sort of capital or skill. But many appear to have nothing. Truly nothing. I’m here to study carbon emissions and as I looked out on masses of people who built their houses out of trash, and wonder how on earth such a country could ever be expected to curb its impact.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Delhi - First Impressions

Delhi, India
Day 1 – June 18, 2008

I have been in Delhi for about 20 hours. Here are my first impressions:

Flying in with my nose to the plexiglass, one of the first things I noticed outside of Delhi were enormous houses that put our McMansions to shame. They looked like they belonged in Beverly Hills. But a second later (at flying speed), the crowded apartments of the middle class began, and structures which appeared at a few thousand feet to be slums.

On the ground, even at seven in the morning, many people were on the streets and, of course, cows. (Its not a unfounded stereotype, cows are everywhere.) Coming home after midnight, there were still many people on the streets, and yes, still cows. A friend from India observed that the one of the strangest things about the U.S. is that you don’t see any people. Now I fully understand the contrast.

I’m staying in one of those middle class apartments with three friends from school and a new friend who lives with them. Judging by the cars and the interior of the apartment, it seems firmly middle class. But from the outside, it far more resembles a slum you would see in the U.S. Yet it’s comfortable and quiet, which is hard to come by in this city.

I went out this evening to a posh garden restaurant/bar. It was beautiful, with wicker lanterns hanging from mango trees and mist sprinklers shooting out from the ground to fight the heat. There were tables that looked like beds surrounded by white gauzy chiffon curtains. A group of men waited outside next to BMWs and other shiny new cars. Good music and good company. A lovely first night out seeing how the well-heeled Indians and many ex-pats enjoy the city.

But once we stepped out of this little rich paradise, the reality of Delhi confronted us as we drove back across town. People sleep everywhere. Literally, I saw dozens sleeping on mats on the medians of the roads. Tent cities appeared here and there. Others just had mats and companions to share them. Stray dogs finally outnumbered the cows.

I can tell already that this trip will eliminate any remaining naivete about poverty and disparity in this world. But I am fairly certain I’ll fall in love with the place. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you updated. So stay tuned. ☺

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Sustainable Capitalism

There is something terribly wrong with the system we live in today. We call that system capitalism. However, it is more than just capitalism. It is the social, political and cultural environment in which capitalism resides. The only thing capitalism is supposed to dictate is that businesses own the means to production and use these assets to generate profit. Yet capitalism has come to mean much more than that—it has come to dictate our government, our culture, and our lives.

Once the realization hits, we each go through various phases of responses. From seeking government control of corporations through regulations to desiring a complete overthrow of the system, we are all reacting to the biting feeling that this system called capitalism has gone too far. It has infiltrated too much.

It is essential to put capitalism back into its place as an economic system. Additionally, it is essential to understand that the context of the economic system determines its direction and function. Once we make these distinctions, then we can begin to understand how to move forward and use capitalism to work for the good of society.

We should examine capitalism in two parts: the inside of business and the context of business. The inside of business is way in which corporations run themselves. It is important to understand this piece before we can understand how to redirect their drive. The context of business is the political, social, legal, and cultural system in which the business operates.

There are many things that can be done to revolutionize the way businesses operate. We should examine and develop these ideas and turn them into plans. We should look around at businesses out there that have already taken these steps and made these changes.

But in the short term, at least, and likely in the long run, it is foolish to take the most powerful tool in our society and throw it away because it is not being used properly. And that tool is the markets. Many environmentalists cringe at such language, but much of the distrust of markets is misdirected. Markets and businesses are very good at producing and distributing the services that society needs at the least cost to themselves. The political, social, and legal framework in which they operate dictates that task. The problem lies in the fact that the framework has not required them to produce and distribute goods at the least cost to society. This is the key to changing the capitalistic system that has overridden every part of our lives into a sustainable capitalism that improves our lives.

Yet to leave it at that, as many economists do, is grossly oversimplifying the issue. There is a huge chasm between the current status and the proposed solution. And we are all left asking how on earth could such a gap be bridged.

This is where we have to reexamine the system within which capitalism operates. The problem is that every aspect has been bought or brainwashed by free-market fundamentalism. Society has operated on the belief that if we just stand back and watch, capitalism will eventually solve all of our problems. And while we watched without touching, the markets did exactly what we told them to do: generate products at the least cost to the producers, thus generating profits for the fortunate owners. The reason why they also destroyed the planet, trampled on the rights of the poor and powerless, and undermined democracy is because they were never required to look out for these interests.

The good news is that we have many proven ideas to redirect capitalism. The bad news is that free-market ideology has such a strong hold on society that these ideas are exceedingly difficult to implement. And this is where the hard work must begin. In his book, Gus Speth lays out an excellent blueprint for this bridge. He talks about slowing down consumption, switching from hollow growth to real growth, shifting the value systems of society, and reclaiming the political process.