No, I Didn't Wander the Streets of Calcutta. I Survived. That's All.

Place: Delhi International Airport

Time: 11:30 PM (plane delayed)

Location: At the gate, sitting

Who: Me, three other Americans, and an Indian. We all happened to sit next to each other.

One of the other Americans was a theater professor at UC Riverside. The other two were a couple from…where else…San Francisco. Both had just finished their travels in India.

The professor spent 10 days in Calcutta, a week in Varanasi, and some other small villages. The San Francisco couple also spent two weeks in remote parts of India where “we didn’t see another foreigner.” They both loved their trips. They started telling stories.

“You think Delhi is intense?” the professor asked me, “You should go to Calcutta. I mean, that’s intense. There were times when, in the back alleys, I said to myself, what the fuck am I doing in Calcutta, but man, it was so worth it.” He proceeded to tell a variety of close-call stories, tender moments with local families, and ground breaking cultural experiences. Since he’s a theater guy, he over-dramatized everything and “performed” each phrase with tremendous energy (unintentionally). I tried to take notes on this conversation as it unfolded me but i was laughing too hard.

The San Francisco couple then talked about all their wild adventures, meeting Indian generals, not seeing another white person for weeks, etc. It’s their 6th time to India.

“So where did you go?” they asked. I told them I was in Mumbai and Delhi. They looked at me as if I was some kind of copout. “You should really stay out of the big cities,” she said with a “Oh how cute” smile, “the small places are much better.” So there I was, sitting in Delhi, happy that I’m even ALIVE and SANE after two weeks in this third world country, and I’m immediately out-done by the people sitting around me.

Finally the theater guy engaged the Indian sitting there quietly. The Indian, it turned out, worked for software outsourcing giant Wipro and as he described his work, the theater guy clearly didn’t understand a thing. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, there are two good paths. One is to smile and pretend to understand, the other is to ask what the person means. Never, ever, ever positively affirm a statement if you think you don’t understand.

“Companies are moving into India for their software work…” he said.

“Got it, so they’re finding other places than India to do their work,” theater guy responded genuinely.

“Investment is flowing into India AND China,” he said.

“Ok, so China is stealing the Indian investment dollars,” theater guy responds genuinely.

That’s when I started laughing. I felt bad for the Indian guy, who probably thought his English was just not good enough to communicate these basic ideas. Soon enough, the theater guy gave up trying to understand, and both he and I returned our focus to killing the mosquitos buzzing around us.

Somewhere along the way I learned the professor teaches at UC Riverside full-time but does adjunct work at Pomona College, too. I told him I’m going to Claremont McKenna. The Indian guy said, “Where?” Professor responds, “Oh wow, Claremont McKenna. There are these five colleges in LA, they’re like the Ivy league of the west coast, they’re very private schools, these small colleges. CMC is VERY conservative though. I mean way out there. So many right wing wackjobs. They are so…” At this point cut him off. I had to stop the theater professor whose carry-on reading, I noticed, was a book by Hugo Chavez. “CMC’s political balance is 50/50, for both profs and students. This makes it very conservative by higher ed standards, but balanced objectively.”

Finally, we boarded, I faced the disrepair that is an Air India airplane, and we jetted to Hong Kong on the red-eye. So long, India. More detailed reflections on all you gave me, forthcoming.

India's Airport Security Inspires Comfort

When you check a bag at an Indian airport you run it through the security screener before you check-in. So they screen it, paste a “security cleared” tag on it, and then give you back your bag. You walk around with it, check in to get your boarding pass, and then give your bag to the ticketing agent who rolls it down into the airplane.

In the States you give your bag as you check in and you don’t see it again. They screen it after you turn it in.

Doesn’t that make a lot more sense? After my bag got cleared by security in Delhi I walked around with it for 30 more minutes. It would have been easy to sneak an explosive in there or any other kind of dangerous item. Their only deterrent against this behavior is a weak, white band that wraps around your bag. All zippers are still accessible.

Scared yet?

How about this. My zipper on my backback got jammed as I waited at 12:05 AM for my flight to Hong Kong to leave. I was at the gate waiting to board the plane. I had already been cleared and searched by security. I consulted the guy sitting next to me in the terminal how I should un-jam my zipper. He said get a knife or scissors. I laughed. “Yeah, I’ll go up to a security guard and say, ‘Can I have a knife?'” He laughed. I got up, walked to a security guard, and asked if I could have a knife to un-jam my backpack. He didn’t blink. He grabbed some scissors, gave them to me, and let me do my business.

Thank goodness I’m not a terrorist.

Images I Won't Forget in India

The naked baby playing in trash.

Being the only person in the whole city of Mumbai wearing shorts on a hot, hot day. Apparently shorts show too much skin!

A random cow — yes, a cow — lying in front of a discount plumber on a city.

Two dogs facing opposite from one another, stapled together at the ass…unable to move.

The refugee camp tents…tons of tents and slums right next to a modern apartment building.

A city street taken over by 40-50 cows with no human in sight leading them.

Massive piles of bricks in the most random places. Hundreds of bricks. Also random piles of dirt in abandoned lots and mini-landfills in the middle of the city.

The Pressure on Indian Children

The pressure kids are under here is insane.

Some are in tutors or school classes all day long.

Some 200,000+ students apply to Indian Institute of Technolgoy and some 5,000 get in and all attend. All based on one standarized test.

Most Indians still have arranged marriages and there’s pressure on kids to marry while relatively young.

At the most destitute levels some parents mangle their children’s arms or legs to be more attractive beggars to the jaw-dropping western tourist.

I don’t want to seem too extreme. I met tons of happy kids and loving families, but some of the cultural practices around pressure on kids is scary.

I wouldn’t want to be a kid here!

Wanting to Hide Under My Bed – Delhi Day 1

Today was one of those days where you find yourself walking alone on a freeway overpass, looking out great landscape of landfill, inhaling the fresh aroma of trash, listening to the sweet voice of the tout who’s followed you for literally five minutes on bike…and you say to yourself, "Please, Lord, take me back to my hotel room and let me hide under my bed."

My first day in Delhi sucked. I had such a big vision: take a day trip to Agra (5:30 AM – 11:00 PM commitment) and see the Taj Mahal. That’s why I came to Delhi, after all, instead of doing software stuff in Bangalore and Hyderabad. I woke up at 5:30 AM this morning — ouch — and met an arranged taxi at 6 AM. We trekked from my hotel, which is out in concrete jungle suburbia (bad location but a good deal and quiet), to a remote train station probably built in the late 1800s.

I arrived at the train station and now know why tourists are supposed to avoid this means of tranist. Totally filthy, smelly, and like everywhere else in this country, jammed with people. I arrived at 7 AM and the train to Agra departed at 7:15 AM. I needed to buy a ticket. I went to the "ticket office" and was greeted by a total madhouse. I’m used to no queues, but this was a zoo. And the dirt and the smell! This may be wrong of me to say, but I felt like by merely breathing I was picking up some disease. After a few minutes of wondering whether I should go in and throw some elbows around like I do on the basketball floor, I figured I’d just try to board the train on my own.

Oops. The train’s been sold out for weeks. Why did I think I could buy a ticket on the same day? Maybe because Delhi was a last minute thing. The train — which looked old and terribly uncomfortable — took off without me.Img_2029

Totally screwed, I searched fruitlessly for a chair to sit and ponder what I should do. My hotel gave me a "map" that actually wasn’t a map so I had no idea where I was. I knew the moment I stepped outside the station I’d be harassed by touts. I tried to delay that reality as much as possible. I flipped through my guidebook and wondered whether I should try to take an 8 AM tour at the tourist office. I decided I’d try to find a taxi to go to the tour start location.

I stepped outside and, indeed, was harassed. It’s one thing for people to shout "Taxi, sir!!" It’s another thing for people to touch you in the process. Although I’m sure many of the rickshaws and taxis were legitimate, I didn’t want to risk it, so I left the station by foot. I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I were a small guy — seriously, I bet you 50% more people would harass you. The station’s neighborhood was an impoverished shithole that offered no good walking options. Undeterred, I continued to walk. No taxis. I was trailed by a tout on bike who, every 30 seconds said, "Good hotel, 50 rupees, ok?" I literally did not say one word to him and yet he followed me. Finally I started walking on a freeway — a common sight in India — and he gave up. I walked for 20 minutes and at one point had a mirage-like vision: Was that the hotel where the city tour started? How foolish. I must be losing my mind.

Poverty_delhi_india At last I gave up on my "walking tour" of terrible poverty and slums. I walked up to a rickshaw and said I wanted to go the domestic airport. My thought was to go to the airport and then go to the pre-paid taxi line where I could take the pre-paid back to my hotel. That way I wouldn’t be ripped off. I bargained a rate with the driver and ultimately got back to the hotel at 10 AM. I went to bed at 11 AM – 12:30 PM — pretty astonishing that I could actually sleep at this hour, indicates how low on energy I am — and then worked the rest of the afternoon, did a workout, and had dinner. In this concrete jungle there’s only one restaurant — the one at the hotel — so I feel like best buddies with the waiters there.


At dinner I saw other hotel guests for the first time. One American guy was sitting at the "bar" holding a bear and watching cricket on TV, clearly not understanding a thing. All but one party were solo travelers. All were wondering how the fuck we ended up at the Citrus Cafe in New Delhi, India.


(NB: I grabbed two of these photos off Google Images because I couldn’t muster the energy to take photos of the poverty myself. They look exactly like what I saw on the ground.)

P.J. O'Rourke on India – Hilarious Observations

PJ O’Rourke, one of the funniest writers alive (excerpts from Holidays in Hell), surprised me with a contribution in The Best American Travel Writing of 2000 on…India! I laughed out loud many a time while reading this essay in the Mumbai airport. I’ve seen all of this — not kidding. So I’ll let a more talented writer take over:

The road is straight and level and would be almost two lanes wide if there were such things as lanes in India. The asphalt paving — where it isn’t absent — isn’t bad. As roads go in the developing world, this is a good one. But Indians have their own uses for the main thoroughfare spanning their nation. It’s a place where friends and family can meet, where they can set up charpoy beds and have a nap and let the kids run around unsupervised. It’s a roadside cafe with no side — or tables, or chairs — where the street food is smack-dab on the street. It’s a rent-free function room for every local fete….

The road is also convenient for bullock cars, donkey gigs, horse wagons, pack camels, and the occasional laden elephant — not convenient for taking them anywhere, just convenient. There they stand, along with sheep, goats, water buffalo, and the innumerable cows sent to graze on the Grand Trunk. I watched several cows gobbling cardboard boxes and chewing plastic bags. There may be reasons besides sanctity that the Indians don’t eat them…

India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people? They can’t. Jeeps bust scooters, scooters plow into bicycles, bicycles cover the hoods of jeeps. Cars run into trees. Buses run into ditches, rolling over their old-fashioned rounded tops until they’re mashed into chapatis of carnage. And everyone runs into pedestrians. A speed bump is called a “sleeping policeman” in England. I don’t know what it’s called in India. “Dead person lying in the road” is a guess. The animals get clobbered, too, including the sacred cows, in accidents notable for the unswerving behavior of all participants. Late in our trip, in Bihar state, the car in front of us hit a cow — no change in speed or direction from the car, no change in posture or expression from the cow….

In one day of travel, going about 265 miles from Varanasi to the border of west Bengal, I recorded 25 horrendous Tata wrecks. And I was scrupulous in my tallying. Fender benders didn’t score; neither did old, abandoned wrecks or broken-down Tatas. Probable loss of life was needed to make the list. If you saw one of these pile-ups on I-95, you’d pull into the next rest stop — clutch foot shivering, hand palsied upon the shift knob — saying, “Next time, we fly.” In India, you shout to your car-mates, “That’s number nineteen! I’m winning the truck-wreck pool for today!” …

Getting out of Pakistan was a normal THird World procedure. A customs official explained the entire system of Pakistani tariff regulation and passport control by running his thumb against his forefinger. “Fifty dollars,” he said. I opened my wallet, foolishly revealing two fifty-dollar bills. “One hundred dollars,” he said.

Experiencing Bollywood Up Close

Bollywood is the world’s largest film industry — larger than hollywood.

If you’re not familiar with Bollywood you haven’t visited your local video store recently. It’s huge. A Bollywood film’s distinguishing characteristic is a lot of song or dance. There will be drama, drama, dialogue, action, and then suddenly, a three minute music video. All the characters will start singing and dancing. And then they return to the plot development.

It’s a hoot.

Bombay is Bollywood. One afternoon I went to see the big Bollywood hit "Don" with a blog reader. I really liked it, even though 75% of the lines were in Hindi. Good music, good action, and a twists and turns plot that reminded me of the tv show 24.

The most interesting part of being in Bollywood while watching a Bollywood hit:

a) Old and New — Globalization and the export of promiscuous western culture is affecting keep-your-clothes on societies like India. Don had a lot of raunchy images with women showing way more skin than is generally accepted in Indian society. And yet there were 60+ years old men and women in the theater watching it. When I asked my blog reader companion how they reconciled the value clash in the movie and their own practices she said people just watch the stuff and then automatically bounce back to the old-style culture. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure. You watch in the darkness of the theater and then forget about it.

b) Tech vs Poverty — Nice, nice theater in the middle of a mall. Huge screen, sound, seats, etc. Posh mall. You step outside the air conditioned mall and you face once again the dire poverty. What a clash.

Days 30+: Bombay, India

My four nights in Bombay (Mumbai) introduced me to the developing world is a most real way. I did not stay in a five star hotel, or even any hotel at all. I stayed with a reader of my blog and lived with his family. They showed enormous kindness and hospitality in an inspiring kind of way. For example, they gave me one whole bedroom, leaving three others to make do in the living room. I felt guilty for assuming such a presence but I knew they genuinely wanted to show me the warmest environment they could.Img_streetsss_copy

Almost every single one of my hosts overseas apologizes for something not being as big as it is in America. "I know this car isn’t as big as the cars you drive in America" or "I’m sure this house isn’t as big as your houses in America." Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter.

I feel proud that in Mumbai I think I got an authentic Indian experience. My bathroom didn’t have toilet paper. The power in the house went out once or twice a day as part of rotating brownouts. I gained some experience eating with my hands. I saw a mini-altar for Ganesh in the kitchen. I watched the kids outside play cricket in the dusty heat. I saw glimpses of the technology wealth and had some meetings in an incredible five star hotel, but more often saw depressing poverty. (The rich getting richer / poor getting poorer trend seems ubiquitous around the world.)Img_2003

On my first full day in Bombay I walked the streets a bit with my host, and then via a combination of auto-rickshaw, taxi, and train, made ourselves to Bombay city limits (I lived in the suburbs). Riding an Indian train is an experience in itself. Like all public transit in Bombay, it’s always packed. Packed to the brink. No room to move. The trains are old and rickety. I rode the line that blew up three months in the Mumbai train bombings. After we arrived in Bombay we wandered around the beautiful victorian buildings built when the British occupied India. Then we took a 1.5 hr boat to Elephanta Island, the only getaway destination from Bombay. Some amazing caves and carvings into rock which are thousands of years old. The tranquil island is home to hundreds of monkeys. They don’t harm humans — unless you’re holding a water bottle in whic case they’ll snatch it out of your hands, open the top, and start drinking.Img_1999Img_2006

After Elephanta Island I snuck into a super nice hotel to use their johnson and requisite toilet paper, but constipation from initial repulsion at using my hands to wipe the ass prevented me from a complete bowel movement.

Then I had my first of many excellent dinners. My host’s wife returned home early from work each night to cook something special and low in spices (since I’m really sensitive to spicy food). They asked me, repeatedly, if I liked the food and each time I answered a genuine yes. Most Indians are vegetarian but it’s much more creative than American vegetarianism.

My second full day was devoted to business. I met two interesting young entrepreneurs at the JW Mariott Hotel (incredible luxury amidst utter poverty), bought a power adapter, and snuck into the Mariott’s hotel gym and spa to workout and take a shower (I also stole their toilet paper from the bathroom to keep in my stash). I hired a driver to take me around — a change of pace from the rickshaw the day before. I’m glad I had a driver. It took 2 hours to get home after my workout. The traffic here is atrocious at all hours of the day. Car lanes don’t seem to exist, the roads have tons of potholes, and the mix of motorcycles, cars, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional bike, produce havoc. My air conditioned car proved a nice reprise from the madness, though I must admit some guilt as I looked out my window up to the bus next to us and all the people squished so tightly looking so miserable.Img_2011

Bombay is a cosmopolitan city that supposedly generates the most pride from its residents. It’s not free of poverty, even though it’s one of the most urban settings. It has its share of basic tourist places and mega hotels, so if you want to visit India in luxury you can do it in Bombay. I didn’t. I stayed with a family and had multi hour conversations with my hosts on topics ranging from politics to America’s role in the world to religion to culture to parenting styles to software outsourcing. Keeping such close quarters provided a rich glimpse into Indian life.


Thanks KM and family for such wonderful hospitality in Bombay!

India's Democracy Prevents It from Doing What China Can

China displaced more than a million people to build three gorges dam. The government basically said, “Get up. Move. We’re destroying your villages and local culture because this is a national interest.”

In India a politician proposed to move a slum out from beside a freeway and try to develop the area a little bit. Outrage ensued and the people exercised their voice and vote. The slums remain. The freeway is still a joke.

China wanted to develop Shanghai at the cost of moving some current residents. Residents protested. Government: “Fuck you.” 10 years later Shanghai is one the most developed skylines in the world.

China’s authoritarian rule allows it to affect change quickly. One reason they’ve been growing so much.

In India, a democracy of a billion people slows decision making to a crawl. Meanwhile, the infrastructure here is still a joke.

In the long run India’s political system is more sustainable, I think, but in the short term — if you view people as numbers and GDP as God — it’s clear which system is working better.

When the Head Rocks Back and Forth

At first I thought the guy was mocking me or laughing at me.

He rocked his head back left to right on a vertical axis. It wasn’t a nod up/down or a shake left/right, it was rocking the head back and forth on vertical axis.

Then I realized that’s the head signal for understanding and affirmation in India. They don’t have “yes” or “no” head signals. It’s this ambiguous confirmation thing.

So many cultural nuggets. You think someone is being kind and they’re laughing at you. You think they’re an asshole and they’re really showing the utmost respect.