Sunday, January 31, 2010


I promised to pass on the story told to me on the beach of the Bay of Bengal by the postdoc from Orissa. First of all it's worth noting that Orissa is one of the least-developed regions of India and that to encounter a PhD scientist from Orissa, especially from the rural areas as was this man, is a rare event, representing a striking example of social mobility that would at one time have been unheard of in India.

Along the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, the coastal regions of Burma, Bangladesh, West Bengal, and Orissa form a continuous strip of very similar, heavily populated land, some tens of km wide. much of it no more than ten meters in elevation above high tide. The land is intensively cultivated, and in many regions there is little by way of forest or other buffer zone to protect a village from whatever cyclones the Bay of Bengal should brew up. I know very little by way of meteorology, so BadMom should jump in with a correction, but a cyclone is very much like a hurricane. My understanding is that cyclones are huge, circular tropical storms, and that hurricanes are a subset of cyclones -- if a cyclone is large enough, and has the good fortune to have been born in the gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, or the waters off the eastern coast of the Americas, then it gets to call itself a hurricane. The cyclones that roar up out of the Bay of Bengal are by definition, then, not hurricanes, but the largest of the Bengal cyclones can put to shame even a Class V hurricane (think Katrina, Rita, Mitch, Gilbert, or if you're old enough, Camille).

View Larger Map

Half a million people died in the 1970 cyclone that hit what is now Bangladesh. Cyclones that kill 10,000 or more happen several times per decade. In a later post I'll talk about what makes cyclones so lethal in these parts, but for now, here is what the postdoc told me:

The 1999 Orissa cyclone had sustained winds over 250 km/hr, gusts to 300 km/hr. The winds and the low-pressure eye drove a storm surge (increase in sea level height) estimated to be in excess of 8 m. Storm surges are not like a momentary big wave that can be blocked by a a few rows of trees. They are a sustained increase in the depth of the water along the coast line. In the event of an 8 m surge, if you are taking shelter in a single-story house built on ground 5 meters above sea level (as could be true even if you live even 20 km or more from the coast) and if the tallest sturdy piece of furniture in your house is 1 m tall, and if you yourself are 1.5 m tall, then (5+1+1.5<8) either you drown or you take your chances on your open roof, in 250 km/h winds (if your roof hasn't blown off).

The postdoc was a teenager in 1999, and with his family was fortunate to live in a house on higher ground, so that at its peak the water rose only to the height of one meter above the floor of their single-story house. He and his family spent in total 36 hours in water. They had the foresight to bring the family cow inside as the storm arose. Unsheltered cows mostly died, as did birds by the millions. The postdoc spoke of how, as the storm came in, it was frightening but also thrilling to see the power of the winds, with birds slamming into the walls of their house and falling instantly dead. It was exciting to peek out the window and see trees topple. First the power went out, but still their battery-powered radio brought weather updates until (as they learned only later) the transmission towers blew over. When the water came in, he got very cold and the storm became less interesting. When the winds calmed and the waters receded, the family went outside and were astonished to have clear lines of sight in every direction, it seemed like forever. The winds had simply flattened many smaller trees, and most of the houses. Their neighbors lived mostly in bamboo-framed, thatch-roofed dwellings, and many of his neighbors had been killed. There was no way to cook rice, and the rest of their food had been spoiled by the filthy water, liquid cholera. But with the coconut trees blown down, there were coconuts by the tens of thousands lying around everywhere you looked. Tightly sealed against impurity, the coconuts' wholesome milk and delicate flesh was all the family had to eat or drink for three days, until at last the helicopters arrived to drop emergency supplies.

The postdoc said that he had had a relatively easy time of it compared to his friend who was earning his living as a fisherman, living some kilometers closer to the coast. His friend heard the warnings a day or so in advance, and knew of the risk, but was tired of evacuating for false alarms and so he and a number of other young men decided to stay put and ride it out. But this was no false alarm, and the waters in this village rose to much deeper than one meter, covering (or knocking over) all the buildings in the village. The friend with eight other men climbed trees to escape the rising water. The wind blew the leaves off the trees, and then it blew the clothes off the men. Some of the men lost their strength, fell into the water, and drowned. When the winds eased, there were only three men left, but the waters were still too deep to stand. The other two men, tired of clinging to branches, climbed down into the waters, but there they eventually drowned. Our postdoc's friend was the only remaining man, and he was determined to wait until the waters fully receded. Eventually they did, but when he tried to climb down, he fainted. (I speculate it was the effect of blood rushing back into his long-cramped limbs). He fell to the ground, breaking his leg. He lay there naked in the mud for some uncertain length of time. He was rescued by some returning villagers who set out to collect and dispose of corpses, but found one man alive. His leg eventually healed, according to my Orissan narrator.

All Politics Is Local

Many of our posts have emphasized the novel aspects of India, but there are plenty of examples of how India is just like home. Here we are in Bangalore, a big city anticipating municipal elections in a month. And what happens in big cities a month before elections? Yep, all week long there's been a work crew filling potholes in the lane outside our apartment building. I for one am so grateful that I just might vote for the incumbents after all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Scissors Are a Cook's Best Friend

We bought lots of containers in our first few days here. MANY food items (e.g. oil, spices, milk, ghee, laundry detergent) come in plastic bags. You open a plastic bag of food and need to store the contents in a container. Fortunately, our service apartment comes with daily housekeeping because we spill a lot of milk and other food when opening plastic bags. Indians just seem much more skilled at pouring things. I read The Toss of a Lemon in which the author mentions several times how the characters would pour from a jug straight into their mouths without touching the jug with their mouths. I was excited when I saw a lady perform this feat at a street stall in Bangalore. It wasn’t a real performance. She was just getting a drink, and I was watching.

We have a three-step process for turning on the stove. First open the valve on the gas cylinder on our balcony, then turn on a switch on the wall, then turn the burner knob. If the fire doesn’t light (which is most of the time), use the little ignition tool to create a spark to make the burner light. When you are done with the gas, turn off the gas switch inside and close the valve on the gas cylinder.

Sometimes we have power in the apartment, but the washing machine stops prematurely or the microwave oven doesn’t turn on. Evidently there are two electrical systems in the apartment. (See Eric’s “Retrofit Technology” post.) The power will go out for the outlets connected to the heavy-duty appliances: fridge, microwave, kettle, toaster, iron, and washing machine. These outlets have a different configuration from the normal electrical outlets for plugging in lamps, laptops, etc.

Every morning after the girls head off to school, I eat breakfast in the dining hall operated by our apartment manager. There is always “bread” such as paratha, idly or dosa [picture of a dosa maker below] with a sambhar (spicy sauce) and a chutney (usually coconut sauce). These are eaten with one’s fingers, the fingers of one’s right hand. Often people put the sambhar, chutney and yogurt (to cut the spice) in separate bowls. Sometimes there will be another grain such as flavored noodles or couscous. We can also order eggs. Chai and coffee are available. Toast, butter and jam are always offered too. I’m used to the breakfasts now and quite like the paratha and sambhar. In the dining hall I read the paper every morning cover to cover. The reading is going faster now that I am more familiar with the context of the Indian soap opera – oops, I meant politics and Bollywood. I also check out the English-language movie selections in case there is anything I want to see.

Lunch and dinner are also available in the dining hall. Eric took advantage of these meals when we went to Delhi, and the family eats there when I’m playing bridge and therefore not cooking or we have some afternoon outing like going to see Avatar at the movie theater. The girls’s school offers breakfast and lunch though Sophia prefers to eat breakfast at home. The school food is pretty simple, often daal (lentils). The girls give mixed reviews of the food. In our apartment I sometimes cook Indian food, but I think the girls appreciate an “American” dinner after an Indian breakfast and lunch. Today a neighbor in our complex is going to help me perfect my saag recipe.

I made chapattis once. They were a big hit. We used them like tortillas to wrap up burrito fixings. Standard kitchen equipment includes a rolling pin and a very flat pan for cooking the chapattis.

A word often used in India is “pulse.” It means “edible seeds of various pod-bearing plants (peas or beans or lentils).” The price of pulses is discussed in the newspaper, but I have never seen the price of meat mentioned. It is difficult to find meat in grocery stores here though it is not so hard to order it in restaurants. McDonald’s here offers chicken and vegetarian options, but no beef. I did find chicken in a store two bus rides away. I’ve only bought meat once in a grocery store here. I sort of felt like I was committing a sin by buying chicken. That grocery store also carries Sophia’s favorite breakfast cereal -- we bought out their stock – and salsa and soy sauce.

A Day Off From School

Today is Republic Day, the anniversary of India signing their constitution and officially becoming a republic. We have the day off school, and they are showing patriotic movies on TV. Also, while I was eating breakfast I heard shouting from outside in the courtyard, but not angry shouting. It was almost like chanting. It went like this:

Single person: “Mahatma Gandhi!”
Crowd: “Ya!”
Single person: “Mahatma Gandhi!”
Crowd: “Ya!

Sophia had already finished her breakfast. She was down in the courtyard, and later she told me about something else that happened before the shouting. It was a sort of flag unfurling ceremony. She said they hoisted the Indian national flag up to the top of the pole while it was still furled up. Once it was up, they pulled the string that was holding it together off and as it opened, flowers fell out. Flowers are a pretty big thing here. There is a whole garland-making industry and people will hang garlands on anything from their hair to rear-view mirrors to cows’ horns.

On another topic I’ve noticed almost everybody in my class is very neat. Their handwriting is gorgeous and they always take notes in full sentences. Whenever they have to draw a line, be it for a final project or a quick t-chart, they use a ruler. They use copious amounts of white-out.

Also, I’ve noticed that sometimes the assignments are very vague, like the teacher will say, “Please compare the case studies in Chapter 9 of your textbook and turn it in on Friday.” I’ll be left scratching my head and thinking ‘What? Should I write an essay? A t-chart? A Venn diagram? Brief notes?’ I’ve found that the best answer in those situations is to write in whichever format I feel best fits the topic. The teacher doesn’t usually care.

In response to the comment from Anne (see comment under School), I’d say in English my sister and I are slightly ahead of some kids and at the same level as other kids, because a few kids in my class are “native” speakers, but the rest aren’t. My sister now says the word “very” with a slight Indian accent. The yoga class seems to be mostly stretching and exercise, although I have only had two classes so I haven’t had a lot of time to observe. Thanks for commenting.

Sorry everybody for not posting in such a long time. I've had a lot of homework.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Retrofit Technology

A friend asked me how modern-day high-tech India works in an infrastructure which remains kind of shaky. The key to the coexistence of these worlds is a strategy of local patches to fill gaps in the infrastructure.

The result is a sort of retrofit technology, that seems to work, at least for some people. Cellphones are the perfect example, of course. Cell phone coverage here in India is excellent. In the US, when the population density is too low, cell phone companies don't bother providing coverage. Of course, the residences and businesses in those areas have excellent landlines, put in place long before cell phones were invented. Here in India, cell phone coverage extends to regions of much lower population density, and provides coverage to regions that never had thorough landline coverage (and now, in all likelihood, never will have it). Prepaid cellphone plans are ubiquitous and cheap: you don't need to have credit to have a cell phone. To my mind, this is a particularly successful application of retrofit technology. Other aspects of RT work less well.

Take, for example, drinking water. The retrofit solution to problem of the drinking water not being pure enough for drinking is that most middle-class kitchens have a big water-cooler type jug of filtered water balanced on a dispenser on the kitchen counter. That's great, if you are middle-class.

How about power outages? Five-minute-long failures occur multiple times per day, and are symptoms of supply not being able to keep up with minor local peaks in demand. How can you do business, or research, in an environment like that? The main work-around is the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). Basically, a UPS is a rechargeable battery, with a dc-ac inverter built in. Plug something into a UPS, and it can ride out a power failure, at least if it doesn't last more than a few minutes. In the US, a UPS is a ultra-high-tech talisman, a pricey little bauble you buy only to hang around the neck of some awesomely important gadget. Here in India, UPS's are ubiquitous. Our apartment complex boasts a small gym with two electrically powered treadmills. Imagine jogging along on a treadmill and suddenly being plunged into blackness at the same time as the motor on the treadmill ground to a halt. No problem where we live: each treadmill is plugged into its very own UPS box. The other main retrofit work-around is the diesel "genset", a small diesel motor mounted together with a generator and a power conditioner on a pallet for easy transport. The electricity produced this way is very expensive per kwh, and generates a lot of emissions, but it is considerably more reliable than utility electricity.

The village fair I walked through in West Bengal remained open late into the night. It was lit by fluorescent lights temporarily hung from trees surrounding the field that served as a fairground and those lights as well as the PA system were all wired to a diesel genset, although utility power was available. At the meeting I was attending, dinner was served each night on tables set up on the lawn in front of the hotel. On several occasions, the power went out, and we sat in complete darkness except for the glow coming through the trees from the fairground. If anything, the music blaring from the PA systems (a mixture of devotional music specific to the Goddess to whom the fair was dedicated and dance numbers from Hindi musical movies) seemed to get louder during the power outages.

Big hightech companies in Bangalore will have two completely separate sets of power wiring in their buildings. One is an ordinary circuit, connected directly to the city utility lines, and one is the UPS circuits, backed up by batteries for the first few seconds of a power failure and by a many kW diesel generator that kicks in soon after. Computer infrastructure, telephone switchoards, and all fragile electronics are plugged into the UPS sockets. Of the office lighting in the ceiling, about one lamp in twenty is wired to the UPS, so it gets darker but not really black when the power goes out. One can basically work right through a power outage. OK, you can't make xerox copies, and over time you start to notice the lack of ventilation and AC, but failures rarely last long enough for there to be much inconvenience. I've yet to find out if the elevators are UPS wired.

The problem as I see it with all these work-around retro-fixes is that once someone or some company has made the investment, bought the UPS, the cell phone, the filtered water, those people stop providing the political pressure to get central infrastructure improved. If you can't afford a big bottle of water for your kitchen counter, or if you can't afford a kitchen counter -- many people live in shacks and get their water from public taps located here and there -- then you are out of luck.

I'll close this piece with a description of the single piece of technology I've found most striking since we came to India. In the Bengal village there is a long, low warehouse build along the river just before it reaches the sea. The fishing fleet offloads its catch here. Some of the catch is dried (odiferously) on racks by the beach, but some of of is stored under refrigeration in the warehouse. Out behind the warehouse is an enormous set of evaporator coils, open to the air, perhaps ten meters on a side and almost as tall. A circulating pump draws water out of the river and sprays it across the top layer of tubes in the evaporator. The water trickles down in a sort of 3-d waterfall, splattering noisly down, bouncing off and thoroughly wetting the outside of tube in the extensive network of coils, and cascades out the bottom to collect in a little pond there then flows back into river. Basically, it's a wet cooling tower, except without the tower (without the concrete shell around the outside). The rack supporting the condenser coils look homemade, in some cases reinforced with diagonal braces made of bamboo. The whole effect reminded me a little of the technology in the movie Mad Max.

Eric in Bengal

First a geography lesson for those who know as little of the geography of India as I do. "Bengal" sounds a lot to me like "Bangalore", and one might think these two places are related. In fact, Bengal is a large region in the east of India, adjacent to the boarder of Bangladesh, unrelated to and located quite far from the city of Bangalore. The metropolis of Calcutta is located in the state of West Bengal. I have just returned from a a week spent attending a professional meeting in West Bengal. From the Calcutta airport, it was a five-hour ride in a van, traveling 200 km southwest, to the meeting venue, a beach hotel in a village on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The village economy rests on fishing year round, and on beach tourism during the few months when it is neither too hot nor too cold to go to the beach. January is held to be cold for the beach but for the first few days of our meeting the village bustled with visitors from the nearby towns to the village's once-a-year fair, partly religious and partly commercial. Our conference overlapped with the last few days of this boisterous event. The weather was pleasant: dry, cool, and sunny. The beach hotel is actually located about 1.5 km inland from the beach to gain some protection from the cyclones that roar in from the Bay of Bengal (more about which in a future post.)

After the fair ended, the village emptied out. I went for a walk down to the beach along with a young scientist, a native of the nearby state of Orissa, who was back in the region to attend the meeting.

The village boasts an active boat yard, and there were four or five wooden fishing boats in various stages of construction, being worked on by perhaps a dozen men: one is a mere wooden skeleton, one has the planking complete along one side of the boat; one is completely planked and with a wheelhouse being erected on the deck; one is painted white and looking tidy, seaworthy, and ready to launch. The boats are larger than the lobster boats but smaller than the sea-going trawlers of the fishing fleets of my own home region. These boats looked like they might be manned by perhaps three or four fishermen. Looking at the boatyard as an economic enterprize, I noted that its owners apparently do not believe in tying up their capital in unnecessary infrastructure or inventory. There is no warehouse, no shed, no enclosing fence, not even a dock. Just a smallish pile of lumber, a few hand tools, and some saw horses. Each unfinished boat frame is held upright with a minimal, jerry-rigged wooden cradle, and there are some winches, perhaps for dragging the finished boats across a short stretch of mudflat to a tidal estuary that at high tide would be maybe deep enough to float the boats out to sea. I believe the boats are to be propelled by an inboard motor, but I saw no trace of that equipment. I wonder if those are installed elsewhere*.

*After writing this, I went and had a look at the boatyard on Google. In the "satellite" image, you can see what looks like four boats under construction, with an empty "slip" among them, although I think the slip is just a dent in the mud. When I visited, the river was much lower than in this image, and the surf much lower as well. I did not see the docks shown in this photo as I walked along BenFish Beach Rd. down to the beach. When I was there, the docks must have been partially disassembled or hidden behind the long low refrigerated warehouse you can see just south of the boatyard.

View Larger Map

The beach in the depth of the Bengal winter was all but deserted. The beach slopes very gently and at low tide it is hundreds of meters wide, and stretches for many kilometers into the distant haze in both directions. Scrubbed afresh by the tide every twelve hours, it was quieter, emptier and cleaner than any other place I've seen in India.

Thousands of tiny beach crabs dig their holes all along the beach. These crabs are nature's obsessive-compulsives. Each time they emerge from a hole with a freshly excavated lump of sand, they dont't toss it willy-nilly in a heap, but instead arrange the successive lumps in long rows running radially out from their hole. They carry the lumps on their hind legs, I think, and after several hours' of fussy labor, a crab may have eight or nine rows of sand lumps, each consisting of dozens of tiny lumps evenly spaced about every five millimeters, with the rows stretching out like the radial strands of a spider's web from the central hole. Then the tide comes in and washes the whole thing away, and the crab starts fresh.

When my colleague and I got back from our stroll along the beach, I stopped at a little stall set up just where the village's main street ends at the beach.

Ever since I got to India I have been working up my courage to buy a coconut (see photo at bottom of Celeste's post for the Bangalore version of the coconut experience) from a street-side vendor, and this stall in the shade of what was in fact a heavy-laden coconut tree seemed as good a place as any to try it. What followed was a ritual I have seen enacted all over Bangalore as well. The vendor selects a coconut from his pyramidal stockpile. Holding the coconut firmly in his hand, he grabs his knife (a machete-like blade, very sharp, hooked inward at the point) and, thwack, thwack, thwack, he cuts off slices from the tip of the coconut's fibrous hull, with each thwack going a little deeper until he opens just a penny-sized hole in the spherical hollow interior. He puts a new plastic straw in the opening and hands it to you, the customer. In coconuts I've bought from supermarkets, the milk has largely dried up, leaving only a few spoonfuls of thickened, sweetish fluid. In a fresh coconut, harvested young, the milk fills the whole interior, perhaps 300 cc in all. Sometimes the milk is even slightly pressurized, so that a little spritzes out when the nut is opened. The sweetness is only barely perceptible -- a really refreshing drink.

After you slurp the last of the milk, you hand the coconut back to the vendor. He holds the coconut in the palm of his hand and hacks with seeming abandon with his blade, right down through the center of the coconut, towards his palm. Were the coconut to split apart faster than he planned, the sinews and bone of his finger would surely offer less resistance to his blade than the tough fibrous hull. From one edge of the hull, he slices a chip, maybe five cm in diameter and just a few mm thick. This is your "spoon." He prises the split halves of the coconut apart, and uses your spoon to scoop the flesh from the interior of one half and add it to the other half. Then he hands you the half shell and the spoon. I'm accustomed to the flesh of coconuts being dryish, woody, and with a pronounced coconut flavor. The flesh of these street-side coconuts is instead silky in texture, like thick yoghurt or thin ricotta, with a very delicate taste.

When you are done, you toss the empty hull and spoon onto a towering pyramid of "empties." Of various street-side food and drink experiences you can have in India, a coconut consumed this way is one almost certain to be hygienic.

My colleague the Orrisan postdoc did not join me in a coconut cocktail that evening but instead told me the harrowing story of a time when the naturally sanitary nature of fresh coconuts helped save the lives of his family. I'll transcribe that story to this blog, in a few days.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Our school is from grades preschool-12th. The really little kids don’t even go to school a full day; they leave after lunch. The smaller grades are Montessori, but Eliza and my grades don’t do that. You have eight classes a day plus lunch. Each class is taught by a different teacher but instead of moving to different teacher’s classrooms, the different teachers come to you.

The school campus is divided by a small dirt (mud) road. On one side of the road are the little kids’ classes, the squash court and the outdoor amphitheater. On the other side is 5th grade through 12th grade, the cafeteria, (called the canteen), the library, the basketball courts and the tennis courts. It also has the computer lab, labs for bio, physics, chemistry and math, and the yoga room. The younger kids’ side is lush and green while our side is pretty much cement.

Every morning, before our eight periods of classes, we go to the amphitheater for assembly. The four houses[1] sit separately. Here we say a couple prayers, sing this one song (in Hindi?) for reasons I can’t understand, and sing the school song. On Monday we sing the school song in English, on Tuesday Hindi, on Wednesday Kannada,[2] on Thursday English, and on Friday Hindi. If we have school on Saturday, which happens every other week, then we sing the school song in Kannada.[3] After singing, students will come up and perform skits or poetry recitation. The music teacher will come to the stage and lead us in yet another song. The principal will remind us of rules and make announcements, and then sometimes there will be competitions between houses and the winners will be awarded points. Then we cross back over to the other side of the campus and school begins.

At our school we don’t have every class every day because there are so many. Instead of just having English, there is English Literature and Whole Language as well as English class. Although you may not take “English” every day, you will always have one or two English-y classes. It is the same with science. We have biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental education. You can’t choose any electives because there is only one class per grade, but we do have yoga, chess, computers, and games (PE) spread out over the week. The classes are taught in English, but you also take French and either Hindi or Kannada. Because we will only be here for three months, I do not have to take Hindi, Kannada, or French. During these periods I just go to the library and do my homework, but again I don’t have these classes every day so don’t think that I have two free periods a day.

This is off topic but I have noticed that when we are touring sites like the red fort in Agra or even the Lalbagh gardens here in Bangalore, random people want to take pictures with us, especially me and Eliza. At first I just assumed it was because of our charming good looks,[4] but Mom says these people have probably lived in more rural India and have barely ever seen foreigners so they want a picture to prove to their friends back home that they have seen us.

[1] Every student is assigned to one house. There are four houses.
[2] Kannada is the local language here.
[3] It is going to take me forever to memorize all of these songs!
[4] Hee hee.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bangalore is Unique

We had spotty internet access over the weekend, and then it went down entirely until a technician fixed the problem on Tuesday afternoon. I was asked to confirm with his supervisor over the phone that the “good man” had indeed fixed the problem. I love the way Indians say “good man” and “good name.”

Friday was eclipse day. I found it markedly cooler during the eclipse, and the interplay of light and shadow through bushes made interesting crescent patterns. Eric was on the roof at work looking through a pinhole with the Muslims and non-superstitious Hindus. Work was noticeably quiet with many Hindus absent. Hindus consider eclipses inauspicious and tend to stay inside. Restaurants in town suffered from lack of business. Busy streets were deserted.

I played duplicate bridge last week and have plans to play again this week. The community is very welcoming but quite small considering the size of Bangalore. Many of the players started off playing chess but never looked back once they started playing bridge. Chess is a mandatory subject at the girls’ school.

I’m learning some interesting facts about Bangalore. More than half the foreigners in India live in Bangalore. I’m not sure if that statistic includes foreigners from neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal or not. Living on the outskirts of town, I can go for days without meeting any discernable foreigners.

A related fact is that more than half the multinational corporation (MNC) talent – not sure how that is defined – is in Bangalore. This statistic is from the newspaper, I think the Times of India, which also reported that the workplace gender ratio in India is 80:20, men to women. A few years ago it was 95:5 so changes are happening rapidly. Women tend to quit the workforce once they get married and have children. MNCs are offering bonuses to search firms that help their companies hire women.

The traditional big four cities in India are Mumbai (Bombay), Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Chennai (Madras). They are all coastal cities except for the capital, Delhi. Bangalore is one of Asia’s fastest growing cities and will pass Chennai’s population soon if it hasn’t already. The issues in the upcoming municipal elections bring home that point. Residents want access to clean water, regular trash pick-up and safe, well-maintained roads (as well as an end to corruption). A metro is being constructed downtown, but basic infrastructure seems to be a more pressing concern.

In addition to being India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore is known as the Garden City. Think nice weather, in particular a small temperature range throughout the year. A bridge player compared Bangalore to Florida, noting that Florida is well-known for its retirees who appreciate the mild climate. And, yes, there are lots of palm trees here. There are also coconuts for sale every fifty meters or so along the sides of roads. First, you drink the coconut milk through a straw, and then you eat the meat inside.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Trip to Delhi and Agra – Part 2

It turned out that until you are 15 years old you have free entry to the Taj Mahal and all the other tombs/monuments. Agra was nice; the hotel had a revolving restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant didn’t turn like I hoped, which was that it would spin so wildly it knocked the silverware off the table. Instead, it turned slowly and continuously. The restaurant had glass walls on all sides so the view changed after time. We left late the second day for the train ride back, and didn’t have the best trip: (see Where is Eliza?).

Now I have made up lyrics for yet another version of On the First Day of Christmas:
On the first day in Delhi my own eyes did see a dead rat lying in the mud
On the second day in Delhi my own eyes did see…2 pinkish pigs
On the third day in Delhi my own eyes did see...3 billy goats
On the fourth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…4 horses pulling
On the fifth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…5 deer like creatures
On the sixth day in Delhi my own eyes did see… 6 monkeys playing
On the seventh day in Delhi my own eyes did see…7 water buffalo
On the eighth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…8 camels snorting
On the ninth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…9 crushed mosquitoes On the tenth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…10 peacocks preening
On the eleventh day in Delhi my own eyes did see…11 pigeons strolling
On the twelfth day in Delhi my own eyes did see…12 stray dogs

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Best Moment of the Day

If I had to pick my favorite time of day here in Bangalore, it would be weekdays at 7:25 a.m. By that time, most of the dozens and dozens of children living in our apartment complex have collected by the front gate to participate in the colorful Loading of the School Buses ceremony. The children, including Eliza and Sophia, are variously decked out in the uniforms of at least seven different schools. White dress shirts, vee-neck sweaters in various primary colors, blue or red blazers, pants or skirts in navies, greys or earth tones. For some schools, both boys and girls wear striped neckties. One school's uniform is very similar to the one I wore during my one-year stint as a schoolboy in a British-run school in the 1970s. The uniforms are not the same every day (some schools have a "tee-shirt Wednesday", or a "track-suit Friday".)

The younger children have a parent, usually a mother, waiting with them, while children Sophia's age and older make their own way down from their apartments. I like to come along to participate in this community event, even if our girls are embarrassed to have a minder. The small yellow school buses pull up one by one, each with the name of a particular school painted in bold black letters along its side. Each bus has, in addition to a driver, a sort of conductor or kid-wrangler, who jumps out as the bus pulls up and stands by the door. A corresponding group of children breaks loose from the pack waiting just inside the gate and heads out onto their bus. If a smaller child dawdles climbing the steep steps, the wrangler bodily lifts him and more or less tosses him up into the bus. Then the wrangler runs to the back of the bus and helps the driver negotiate a difficult three-point u-turn in our mud lane which is not as wide as the bus is long. The wrangler hustles back to the front of the bus and jumps in as it rolls away. The whole cycle takes about 45 seconds. At the peak of the rush, the next bus arrives just as the previous one departs. Occasionally a kid comes sprinting out of a stairway and across the courtyard towards us in a panic, with a parent calling from a balcony several floors up, presumably saying something like "Hurry up, Vijay, I can see your bus coming already, and I'm not driving you to school."

I like the cool morning air and the sense of participating with our neighbors in a daily routine. The first morning, Celeste and I met the mother of a young boy who goes to the same school as Eliza and Sophia.

The Bangalore Barnyard

The variety of animals just wandering around on the street is really quite amazing. Everyone has heard about there being cows on the street in India – it’s practically a cliché by now. It’s true that cows are often seen, but in the two weeks that we’ve been here, we’ve also seen the following animals:

-water buffaloes
-horses pulling carts
-stray dogs (more on this later)
-monkeys (especially around the Taj Mahal (see “Where is Eliza?”))
-a herd of goats being driven by a small boy and also several lone goats trotting the side of the road or tied up next to people’s houses
-a sheep
-donkeys pulling carts
-camels (they’re bigger than they look in the movies, although I’ve never made it through Lawrence of Arabia so how should I know.)
-a snake
-deer-like creatures (possibly related to antelopes) in the vast gardens around Akbar’s tomb
-birds (including pigeons, peacocks (near the cremation sites – see the last paragraph of “Where is Eliza"), chickens, geese, and some non-descript, unidentifiable fowl)
-a pig
-lots and lots of mosquitoes
-lots and lots of fruit flies (Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.)
-and a dead rat

Everywhere you look you see stray dogs. (See “Trip to Delhi and Agra – Part 1”) They seem to survive just fine on the trash on the street although they are all skinny, but the people are skinny too. There is basically nobody overweight in India.

I can’t speak for my sister, but I have been rather disappointed that I haven’t seen any elephants yet. My parents saw elephants in temples when they went to Bangalore and Madurai in September. One elephant would “bless” you by touching your forehead with its trunk when you gave its owner a few rupees.

Many people here are vegetarian or part-vegetarian because the Hindus don’t eat meat or at least don’t eat beef and the Muslims don’t eat pork.
There is also a religion called Jainism where not only do you not eat meat, but you don’t eat onions or garlic, either for fear of eating small insects that live in soil and have crawled into the vegetable or for fear of killing those same small insects in the act of pulling it; I’m not sure which.

In Hinduism, there are many gods in the shape of animals. Some examples are the elephant-head god Ganesha, god of beginnings and remover of obstacles (see “Beginnings and Political News”) and the monkey-head god Hanuman, who lead an army of monkeys against the evil demon King Ravana in the famous Indian epic, Ramayana.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Where Is Eliza?

Eliza has to make up the homework from the 4 days that she missed while we were up north so she isn’t blogging these days. There is no school on Thursday due to a Tamil harvest festival holiday – Pongal. [Correction to previous post: Republic Day to commemorate India becoming a republic in 1950 (2½ years after India became independent) is January 26.] Surprise! The girls came home from school today with a note that there also won’t be school on Friday or Saturday due to the annular solar eclipse. The girls are not in the mood to go on another trip so we will hang around Bangalore. Maybe we will go to the planetarium to see the eclipse. The girls are also arranging get-togethers with school friends. Maybe Eliza will get in a blog entry this weekend.

Eliza is studying computer programming in school -- not too surprising given that we are in Bangalore, India, but not an experience many American youth get these days. In addition to the standard classes, the girls have a chess class, yoga, and civics. PE is called games. The school doesn’t have art, dance, instrumental music, or choir.

Agra was really nice. We could walk to the Taj from our hotel, and we were READY to walk after sitting so long on the bus. Sophia was disappointed that the Taj was basically empty except for the two marble caskets of the beloved wife and her husband. The monkeys lolling around the courtyard helped entertain the girls though.

The train back to Delhi was, in fact, canceled, and we ended up on a train which turned out to take 12 hours to travel the 200 kilometers. Our three tickets on the slow train cost about US $3, but I would have preferred to spend more money and less time on the train. Sophia was suffering from Delhi belly and threw up 3 times on the train.

We didn’t have much time in Delhi since Sophia wasn’t feeling great and we caught up on some sleep after the long train ride. We did see the Red Fort constructed by Shah Jahan who also had the Taj Mahal built. Every Independence Day (August 15), the prime minister raises the Indian flag at the main gate to the fort. We managed to escape the Delhi crowds and noise by visiting the cremation sites of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her sons Rajiv and Sanjay.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Trip to Delhi and Agra – Part 1

Delhi seems poorer than Bangalore. On our first day there, we walked to the metro station and noticed this. There are thousands of stray dogs and trash on every surface. You’d think that the Indian government would hire people off the streets to work making trash cans, delivering them, installing them, and enforcing that they are used. The people who are already working cleaning up this trash could have first dibs at the jobs. Then Delhi would be so much cleaner and would attract more tourists.

We only stayed in Delhi for a night before going to the train station to catch the express train to Agra at 5 in the morning. The train was delayed but a guy at the government booking office said it was canceled, probably so we would buy a much more expensive bus ticket from him. Although Eliza had her heart set on taking a train, we got on the bus. The bus didn’t seem that unpleasant to me because I didn’t feel sick like usual, but Mom disliked it. The bus made it to Agra in six hours¹ and although the bus was going to the Taj Mahal and other landmarks in Agra, we decided to go with a rickshaw driver on his “tuk tuk” to our hotel. The rickshaw is shown above with Eliza in it. This turned out to be a very good move because not only did we get to relax in Agra and take our time looking at the landmarks, but we also befriended the rickshaw driver. His name was Nati. The next day we toured Agra with Nati taking us to see the sights.

¹ We were told it would take four hours.

Monday, January 4, 2010


It turns out that school for the girls is not canceled this week after all. We already bought plane tickets to Delhi so Eliza and Sophia will be excused from school. I could try to explain the change from no school to school, but, after a day of broken promises and contradicting information, I can’t guarantee that I understand it myself.

On Saturday many flights to Delhi were canceled due to dense winter fog. There were also some fatal train accidents blamed on the fog. Despite these problems we are forging ahead. We plan to take a train from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and other Mughal sites.

The Mughal Empire was an Islamic dynasty in power in India from 1526 to 1857. Just before we left Colorado, we watched the movie Jodhaa Akbar about the mixed marriage between Akbar, generally considered the greatest Mughal emperor, and his Hindu wife. It was a good movie but has been accused of inaccuracies. Akbar is buried at Agra. His grandson built the Taj.

It was reported in the papers today that India-born Salman Rushdie was at the Taj on Tuesday. This event provoked some Islamists to fax the prime minister over the weekend asking that Rushdie’s visa be revoked. The Islamists considered his presence at the Taj to be sacrilegious to Islam saying that the fatwa over his head has not been withdrawn.

The girls love to go swimming. On Sunday we went to the apartment complex pool to go for a swim, but we were told that the pool was closed for repairs. Since the pool is closed on Mondays for regular maintenance, I thought to present the girls with a hotel with a swimming pool, but I’m told, “It’s too cold to go swimming in Delhi.” Later I’m told by the same person, “It’s too hot to see the Taj Mahal in the middle of the day.”

December and January are supposed to be very dry months in Bangalore with a total average rainfall of 2 centimeters, but on December 31 there were monsoon-type rains that easily dumped more than the typical 2-month amount in one afternoon. No doubt the rain contributes to our apartment courtyard's beautiful foliage. One tree that I really like is the gulmohar tree or “Flame Tree.” I'm told that it grows in Florida, parts of Texas, the Caribbean and China, but I associate it with India. The tree is crowned with flowers. You can see one here:

Sunday, January 3, 2010


There are three main languages here in Bengaluru (aka Bangalore); English, Hindi and Kannada. Kannada is the local language of Karnataka, Bengaluru’s home state. Almost everybody speaks English (for an exception see “Motorcycles and Hot Water”) which makes our life easier but sometimes they have such a strong accent you can only understand every third word. Most signs have just one or two languages although we found an example with three.

To tell the difference between Kannada and Hindi look at the top of the writing. Hindi has a line over every word. If you can’t tell which one is English then you shouldn’t be reading this blog.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Blackouts here are really common; there have been at least seven ones since we got here three days ago. The lights will flash off randomly and pop back on just as quickly; so far we have been in a blackout in a grocery store, restaurant, our apartment, and other places that you would think would have decent electricity. The people living here practically ignore them, it just looks like someone hit pause on a remote and froze us. Then the lights come back and everyone resumes shopping, walking, talking and doing whatever they were doing before. I wonder what would happen if for just one day, there were that many blackouts in Colorado. Usually, if we had a blackout there, people would talk about it into the next day: “Did you have the blackout too?” “Ours was out for an hour!” and so on.

Our apartment building has elevators but we never really use them. We are on the 3rd floor here and sometimes after walking around all day, carrying bags and feeling car sick from the bumpy roads; you really are not excited about walking up the steep, long stairs to go to your apartment. The risk of a power outage, however, discourages us from taking the simple way up, except when carrying vast amounts of our luggage up like on the first day we were here.

I have never done as much shopping in my life as I have done in these last three days. When moving into a furnished, but unstocked, apartment you really notice how much you need in an average house. Yesterday, as well as buying books which were amazingly cheap from a bookstore in downtown Bangalore, which is about 45 minutes from where we are living, we bought some traditional Indian clothes, two salwar kamises, one for Eliza and one for me. Salwar kamises are long sleeveless (or with sleeves²) shirts over tight or baggy pants with a scarf called a dupatta that usually matches the salwar (the pants). They are less formal than a sari.

¹ The 3rd floor is really four floors up because there is also a ground floor, which is what Americans call the 1st floor.
² Some girls do not show their shoulders or legs so the salwar kamise comes with attachable sleeves that you can sew on.

Beginnings and Political News

Arriving at an airport in India doesn't mean that I FEEL like I have arrived in India, but when we passed the HUGE statue of Ganesha (the popular elephant-headed god) that I remember from my previous time, I felt like I was in India again. It was dark, but I think this photo that I found on the web is the same statue. Ironically, Ganesha is the god of “beginnings” and invoked at the beginning of rituals and ceremonies (or long stays in India).

The biggest political news around here is that the neighboring state of Andra Pradesh will likely be split into two states. The new state will be called Telangana. Supporters of Telangana have wanted a separate state since Indian independence. Hyderabad, the current capital of Andra Pradesh, will be the capital of Telangana. The big question is which city will be the capital of the new, smaller Andra Pradesh. Bangalore is the capital of the state of Karnataka which borders the Telangana area. The US State Department has a travel advisory for Andra Pradesh so we may not spend much time there. Here is a link to a map of India.

On Jan 1 we went to register the girls at their school and heard that the government is suddenly closing the schools from Tuesday to Friday for a census. The girls will have 6 days of vacation -- probably the only 6 vacation days the whole time that we are here. The girls and I are going to Delhi and Agra – Taj Mahal, here we come – and probably won’t post during our trip. Eric will work because the government isn’t closing the companies for the census. Maybe he will post on the blog while we are gone.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Motorcycles and Hot Water

The ratio of cars to motorcycles in Colorado is about 100:1. In Bangalore it is about 1:2. In Colorado you can go a whole day without hearing anybody honk. In Bangalore on the big streets there is almost constant honking. After having been here for two days I have already seen two cows just wandering around on the streets.

There is a completely different culture here, and I love it. Most people speak English but we just went to a store where nobody spoke it. We managed very well just by pointing and sign language. Then they brought their English-speaking friend in and he translated from there.

Since our hot water heater can’t heat up enough water at one time to have a real shower, we instead have sponge baths. We fill up a bucket with hot water and pour the water over ourselves with a measuring cup. It’s much more efficient than a shower.

Visiting Our School

January is supposed to be the coldest month in Bangalore but it was about 80 degrees here both today and yesterday. A lot of people here think that 60 degrees is freezing and shudder as we describe the snow in Colorado to them. Bangalore is so different from Colorado because of the amount of people who are really poor. Also there will be glossy high rises next to piles of trash; there is a huge difference in between the income of the rich and the poor but very little difference geographically.

Today we went shopping in the morning, returned to our apartment, and then visited the school we are going to go to. Our school has uniforms, which are made up of the regular uniform, your typical beige skirt and beige shirt deal, a school t-shirt, school jeans, and a school tracksuit! You also get school paper notepads. They are going to teach us challenging science at my new school, a fact that was proven when I took a pre-exam¹ and was mystified by all the science questions. The English, however, is pretty simple.

¹ You see how I used exam instead of test? Am I picking up the kind of British English that most people speak here or what?