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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Travelling #1: Music woes on the sleeper bus

I’ve wrecked the LCD on my ipod. It actually had already been partially damaged from some unknown event in Vancouver, but now it is totally toast. I’ve woken up to find that I’ve rolled onto it while tossing about in my tiny bunk on the overnight sleeper bus from Bangalore to Goa.

Highlighting my playlist these days is some good mainstream 2006 releases: The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ excellent latest Stadium Arcadium, Billy Talent’s II and Nelly Furtado’s Loose; some good indie and electronica: Nouvelle Vague, Tosca and Bloc Party; to remind me of home, I’ve thrown in some classic Canadiana, Barenaked Ladies and The Tragically Hip greatest hits. I’ve got some Britney Spears (thanks Caley) to remind me not to be too serious, but have balanced that out with the Gorillaz and the excellent recent K-os album.

It looks like without a screen I’m stuck playing it on random from now on. At least it works and I still have tunes to dull the nightingale lullaby of grinding gears and groaning engine. The brakes squeal too, which is good from a noise point of view, but of course the lack of braking around corners and the resulting g-forces is what is mostly responsible for the crushing of my tiny sanity checker. But I’m in easy-going, adaptable travel mode now so I shrug it off.

Food #3: The cup overfloweth…

“Ow!” I curse as I burn my fingers and spill some of my coffee. This is harder than it looks. As it is in many places here, my coffee has been served in 2 little stainless steel cups, a small thinner one and a wide, low one. The method is to pour one into the other in quick succession to cool it. I have two problems with this: 1) it is something of an art doing this without spilling, especially pouring from the wide into the narrow and 2) the metal quickly gets hot so doing this burns my fingers. Hence the occasional dropping. I think everyone here must have long ago burned all feeling from their fingertips. I know they have their mouths as, to a person, everyone here drinks their coffee and tea blistering hot. I have on more than one occasion come close to offending hosts worried I didn’t like the coffee simply because I wasn’t (couldn’t) pouring it back like a bar shot like the rest of them. Oh well, I still spill occasionally and sometimes circumspectly blow on it to speed the cooling process. Can’t be tough all the time. ;-)

The other local trick to drinking I’m learning is pouring water into your mouth without touching the lip. It isn’t done universally, but for any container to be shared or if you are suspect of the cleanliness of the kitchen, Indians pour the water into their mouths rather than sip, swig or slosh. Like the coffee pouring, it takes a little practice to not a) miss or b) pour more than you can gulp. Unsurprisingly early on this got a few friendly laughs as I fumbled at things any 5 year old can do. I wish I had practiced more drinking out of the slurpie machine as a kid. Standard water bottles are easiest & pretty much universally drunk that way. The technique makes a lot of sense actually. In a region with a higher incidence of transmittable diseases, it is far safer than each person slobbering over the rim and as a foreigner you don’t have to horde your own water bottle against your friends and colleagues.

You can see where this is going, but the problematic intersection of these is when you need to use this new technique to pour the awkwardly hot stainless-steel-cupped coffee into your mouth. Oh the horror. After a couple less than stellar attempts I usually just put the coffee cups to my lips (burning them, of course, but lesser of the several evils in this process). Thankfully most people do drink it that way so it is not socially unacceptable. And beside, I figure that any microbes that can survive the inferno temperatures of the damn coffee deserve to kill me. Thank goodness the coffee and chai are good enough to make them worth the trouble... :-)

Culture #4: My Lens on the World

Now as most of you understand only too well, you can take the person out of Engineering, but you can’t take the Engineering out of the person. No matter how much I try to disguise it with a grounding in development theory or attempts at literary prose, there is a certain critical and technical mindset that underlies everything I observe and report. Trust be told, it long proceeded my University schooling, so I can’t really blame that.

Cases in point:

1) I see a woman at a construction site, moving bricks from a pile in the front to inside by stacking 5 at a time on her head. My first thought was, “that’s impressive that she can do that.” My second, however, quickly followed, was, “why doesn’t she just get a wheelbarrow?”

2) I pass a shanty area of rough thatched huts haphazardly propped up against a series of buildings. I sadly note the tragic juxtaposition of the destitute urban poor against the more affluent, a common site even back home in parts of Vancouver. My second thought is, “where do they get the palm thatch in the middle of town here? Is it imported?”

3) My rick comes up to a public bus, tilted crazily to one side as a host of commuters hold precariously to the outside. The inside is already packed to the gills. It is such a bizarre and quintessential Indian sight, at once a sign of gross overcrowding and of the cheerful crush and adaptability of life that is India. My next thought is to wonder what the tilt does ot the shocks and whether it would make sense to simply build the buses to drive tilted that way permanently.

4) I see concrete building going up all over the place. And while the walls are being put up, each floor is braced with a forest of wooden poles. I appreciate the uniqueness of the image, but then I wonder, they are building the walls with bricks, which do not appear to be load bearing, or build with enough care to be trusted in such a role. But then, if the outer walls are not load bearing (the inner concrete columns should do that I would expect), what are the poles for? Or conversely, if they are holding the ceiling now, what is holding it once they are removed and people move in?

Traffic #1: Driving on a hope and a prayer

Drivers in Chennai can best be characterised as both very brave and very optimistic.

We’re sitting in traffic in a deep underpass, stuck between a bus and the concrete wall. The bus is angled in so that it forms a narrowing corridor against the wall in front of us. Buses it should be understood are the rulers of the urban roads here. Wide, green hulking behemoths, like Sherman tanks they slowly but inexorbitantly wander the streets on their own path and everyone else has to skittle around them accordingly. But despite the potential for being crushed by this pitiless giant beside us and despite the impossibility of fitting an auto through the 2 foot wide front gap, the auto driver nudges in. As I said, optimistic. I feel like a jet ski trying to pass a tanker in the Panama Canal.

He eventually decides that he can’t fit (I am wondering what he was seeing originally) and backs out. Immediately a motorcycle makes its own failed bid. Finally a bicycle has snaked up to us and sneaks through. If this was the Panama Canal, he would be the passing swimmer. Brave. But then again, the same bus has a gaggle of people hanging off its side as it drives and other vehicles speed past and we all walk shoulder-to-metal along the sides of the road being as there are nearly no sidewalks. So if you are going to set the bar of insanity in Chennai traffic, you’d better set it pretty high lest we all be committed. Chennai is a city where this small scene is normal and regular. In fact, I only share the story because we were stopped long enough and with enough light for me to write it down.

As much of the time I have to think and look is in traffic, this will not be my last post on the subject.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Food #2: A day in the life...

So as I write this, I am eating dinner. Yeah, I know you’re not supposed to work at the table, but I’m not at the table. Of course you’re not supposed to eat in your room either. But my hosts have retired to watch TV in their room with their meals, so house rules and I can do what I want. :-)

I thought you might be interested in what a typical day of meals is here:

In the morning, after showering and dressing, I sit down at the table. The cook has already set out breakfast. Today we are having Iddli, which is basically steamed rice flour cakes served with sambar (a dhal-type lentil stew if you recall) and a coconut chutney.

With my breakfast is traditional Indian tea, which is black tea, often with some spices, half milk, half-water and plenty of sugar. I rather like it, preferring it over English tea style any day. Coffee is made the same way, which again, I rather like better than the bitter dark Starbucks style.

Lunch today I order masala dosa, which is basically dosa (recall, a thin crispy rice-crepe) with stuff inside it (the masala), in this case a saffron potato filling. It comes, as all South Indian dishes do, with a variety of condiments, including sambar, a spicy red paste, a white paste and a green paste. The white paste is a different variation of the coconut chutney I had for breakfast. The red I don’t know the name of & the green I can’t identify. They’re all good. My colleague is taking a call on his cell and I forget to ask what they are by the time he gets off.

That has been one of my early little challenges. I had to explain to my housemates that I was asking what everything was not because my eating of the yellow mixed stuff or the red mixed stuff was dependent on the answer, but because I really wanted to know what things were called. I’ve learned it is simpler to wait until I had eaten half before asking...

During the day, the office has a few half-cups of tea or sometimes coffee and usually a snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon of nuts, snack mix, sweets or samosas. The samosas remind me of summer Ultimate where we used to buy them from a local lady between games Monday nights. These are probably better, but those were gold at the time. ;-)

Dinner tonight is rice with a dish of some pickled mini okra-shaped green vegetable. It probably is a type of okra. It’s tasty, regardless, kind of tangy, a bit spicy. For the rice there is this lip-tingling hot oil concoction and some curd, a watery yoghurt. Wryly I note that even the curd has chillies in it. The South Indians love their spice and use it liberally in everything, even apparently in the yoghurt traditionally meant as an offset...

To the meal I’ve added two pieces of KFC chicken strips Sonya picked up for me on her way home. I feel like it is cheating, but they were left for me and you know guilty pleasures… As I munch on the greasy finger I try to think of the last time I had KFC. I remember why I don’t tend to eat it. It just isn’t good. I hope the chain doesn’t get as big here as they did in China.

I put the leftovers in the fridge and the dishes in the sink and start to think about the tasty things we’ll have tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Culture #3: A Bit of Civilization

We are sitting around the table enjoying a leisurely Sunday evening (yes, I know the posting date is not Sunday, but this is a narrative so don’t bother with such minor details). Three of the boys next door are over. We’re drinking a bit of Grey Goose vodka, watching football on mute and shooting the shit. We’re talking about girls, of course. Us boys are comparing notes and Sonya is providing advice to their love lives (I stay quite, wanting to avoid said advising). One is the boys is letting Sonya SMS a girl he is seeing. I think he is very brave or perhaps naive. My laptop is providing background, set on random. On the TV Chelsea is playing Arsenal. One of the boys vocally prefers Arsenal. John (jokingly, but only semi) revokes his drink and asks him to leave. :-) I am taught the Kerala way of drinking vodka: you take a finger of South Indian pickle (a very spicy, sweet pickled something, quite excellent) with each sip of your vodka cut with water. Ironically, I have to report that the pickle addition is great, but I don’t fancy the water. I really don’t have a taste for alcohol without mix. The boys drop home and come back producing sprite and orange soda for me and themselves, which vastly improves things. I feel slightly bad as Grey Goose is excellent vodka, but other than a little sip to confirm its smoothness, neat is not for me. Sorry to all the connoisseurs! The game is 1-1 when I go to bed. The boys are mad about football. I should diverge here to clarify that Indians are not necessarily crazy about everything as it may seem from my reports, but my housemate Sonya often peppers her descriptions of people with the adjective “mad” and I appear to have picked up the habit… ;-) So Indians aren’t mad. And they are. If you want to know for sure, you’ll just have to come and see for yourself...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Food #1: It’s like being a kid all over again...Or Eating With One's Hands

Today we’ve gone for a “meals” lunch and this seems like a perfect opportunity to introduce you to the joys of food here. As many of you know, much of my travel stories from China read like a food guide and I expect that India will no different, especially once I get on the road. Just as customs and dress and language varies considerably across the continent, so apparently does the food. Yum.

A “Meals” lunch is a particular type of meal, but one that is quite representative of South Indian (or more so Tamil Nadu) cuisine. At a Meals place you sit down in a general mess and get a palm-leaf placemat put in front of you. Rice is slopped down in the centre and the waiters continuously rotate around with a variety of curries, chutneys and dhals. Each saucy dish is summarily dumped on the rice and mixed about with ones fingers. The goal appears to be a consistency ideal for matting into a sticky ball capable of popping into one’s mouth. It seems to be a subtle thing that comes from experience. I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it yet but the learning curve appears quicker than mastering chopsticks. ;-) So you cycle through these various sauces and dishes, and they keep slopping more onto your plate until you firmly signal no, usually 1 or more helpings past what you really needed. You’ll get a papudam, some pickled vegetables and maybe some fried banana chips on the side. When done, you simple fold the palm placemat in half, leaving it easy to clear and dispose of by the staff. No fuss, no muss, no dishes.

This style of food is typical of South Indian food, generally simple, but tasty and well spiced. Even at home or in standard menu-type restaurants, the food almost always comes in separate little dishes that you then add to one pile on your plate and mix into a multi-hued mess. It is not a place for those who like their foods in separate places TV-dinner style or those averse to keeping one’s hands clean. Food in India is an inherently messy, tactile affair, but a well enjoyable one.

Now, eating with one’s hands, let me tell you, is not as hard as the guidebooks lead on. I had some trepidation pre-arrival about eating with my hands, having read warnings and complex descriptions about how one is supposed to eat, what one should and shouldn’t do and how hard it is to master. Perhaps other parts or other strata of Indian culture have more rules – quite probably as the upper class have been know in all cultures to invent ways of differentiating themselves and excluding others via complex customs – but where I’ve been so far, it was not a big deal. First, eating with only one’s right hand is the only firm and golden rule. The left hand is considered impure and therefore rude to use. You quickly notice that most Indians eat with their left arm across in front of them, elbow on the table, or tucked in their lap. It is like a guard against temptation, and it works. If you lean on it, you quickly remove any chance of inadvertently and embarrassingly bringing your left hand into play. The other method, again often used, is simply to use your left hand to talk with. :-)

The real lessons useful for 99% of us are simple ones: dive in with relish, use only your right hand and watch what the locals do. It is fun and not that hard – after all, we’ve all done it, if not recently (and really, you should from time to time) certainly as kids. So my simplified travel guide can be reduced as follows: channel your inner kid, pull off or wad up bite sized pieces and don’t be shy to get your hands a little dirty.

Of course where things seem a bit more blurry is which hand to grab the spoon to scoop further helpings of food, to pass food or to hold your glass. I have read that for similar “unclean/impure” reasons, the left hand is also be mostly out for these activities, but then you’ve got food all over your right hand, so that doesn’t work either. From a purely non-greasy perspective, I use my left to hold most anything other than food, but can’t say if that is correct. It seems one of those little things you discover with time. So my report is that eating with ones hands took 10 seconds to pick up on arrival, but like any new activity, will take some time before I’m wadding rice mixtures like the locals.

In terms of what is on the menus here, many people are vegetarian and as such most restaurants advertise whether they are “veg” or non-veg” and often will not serve both. Personally, I’m happy with both. Most Indians being Hindu do not eat beef, but of course the Muslims and Christians will so it is readily available. Most South Indian dishes are served with rice, although Northern chapattis and rotis are also popular. The quintessential South India and in particular Tamil Nadu starch though is the dosa. Dosa is basically a big rice flour crepe, served with 2 or 3 chutneys and sambar, which is a soupier version of dhal (lentils) favoured in the South.

I should note some terminology. It doesn’t seem to be standard or even in the application of English translations of Indian dishes, but for my purposes, the following definitions can be used. “Curry” is an anglicize term and there is no actual “curry” spice in India. However, “curry” has come to generally mean any saucy, gravy-type dish of meat or vegetables. So it is a category or type of dish, not a specific dish. A similar English term might be a casserole. There is not one casserole and your mom’s might be as different from my mom’s as chicken is from cabbage. So you get the idea. Now “chutney” seems to be an equally hazily defined term, but seems to be used to describe any side or dipping sauce, or again matching the American similarity, a condiment. It can be coconut or tamarind, spicy, sweet, red or green. Ketchup could be called chutney in the right context. Next, a “dhal” or “sambar” is any lentil soup/stew/sauce side dish. Finally, “masala” is any mix of spice and also interestingly and conveniently is also used in conversation here to mean adding anything “interesting” into the mix, as in “you write the key points of the letter and give it to me and I’ll add some masala to it before sending to the Minister.” And that is the basics of Indian cooking, and Indian business actually, which share more than a passing similarity.

So (and again, this may not be completely correct, in which case I will correct later) I will generally use curries and chutneys to refer to the type of dish for most all Indian meals regardless of content. Each will of course have a particular, unique name, as all things do, but I will probably not know it, can’t remember it, or can’t hope to spell it even if I did. But assume I find it tasty. Such is life here. So for example a few nights ago I had an excellent spicy prawn curry, yesterday was a spicy chicken curry – one was more like soup, quite similar to Thai green curry, the other more like chicken in gravy. Those advising me on the names of things generally refer to things in this way. The Indian food found in curry joints and restaurants in the West basically serve conglomerates of the most popular and exportable dishes from across India. So North American-style Indian dishes do certainly exist in reality here – you’ll find vindaloo in Goa, korma in Hyderabad and Tandoori (a Northern-inspired style), pretty much everywhere – but you certainly won’t find them anywhere in one place and there are many, many others never featured. So many meals, so few days...

So there you go, a quick and very dirty guide based not on any reputable source, but a workable system for one immersed in a culture.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Culture #2: Challenging Expectations

I sit here writing on the roof of my building, a rare luxury back home. I really think all building should have access to the roof. It is a place to relax, a place to suntan perhaps and a place to barbeque. It is a place to grow vegetables. Here though, there is no BBQ, no garden, no deck chairs, not even any drying laundry although there is a tired looking line. There is just some wiring, some sort of piping snaking around the space and me. It is a place to be outside though, to feel the air and to look out over my home on a lazy Sunday.

There is a nice warm breeze and the traffic noise is nicely muted. The early morning rain has cleaned the air some, but it looks like it is clearing off. There are quite a few people on their roofs, there a group of friends hanging and chatting, there a women hanging her laundry, there a man puttering about something or other. The construction across the street continues unabated despite it being Sunday, but since they appear to building it at the pace of glaciers, I suppose they cannot afford the time off. That is something odd I’ve noticed: I’ve seen many buildings being build in my trips across the city and have seen many piles of dirt, sand, bricks and cement being hauled from the outside to the inside, one load at a time, carried on the head, but I have never seen anyone ever using those materials. Not once have I passed to see someone building a wall, or a stair or a door. Do they only do those at night? Do aliens come and do it, using the Indians simply to provide them the tools? I don’t know! It is one of those mysteries of mysteries they don’t dare mention in the guidebooks lest is scare the tourists.

Another building across the street has a lovely garden. Wish I was sitting there. I suppose I could just walk over and walk up; it is quite likely that the day watchman wouldn’t give me any hassle if I nodded at him and looked I was meant to be there.

I have found that I can get away with a lot by being a foreigner. I am not sure whether it is the relative rareness in Chennai or a vestige of colonialism or simply because they assume all foreigners are very wealthy and therefore require special treatment. Regardless of the reason, without asking or pressing, I find myself getting special treatment. It can sometimes be quite funny: when visiting the state government offices the other week to talk to one of the ministries about our project, the security at the gate did not want to frisk me, despite having padded down every entrant in front. I was just ushered inside almost apologetically or perhaps embarrassedly. Or another example: I went to see this excellent Korean cultural performance. My housemates had gotten me a ticket. I was meeting them there direct from work. I was supposed to meet them out front, but they weren’t there. Not knowing yet they had simply been delayed, I figured there must be a lobby inside, and they would be there instead. I joined the line of people, walked inside the theatre. My housemates were surprised to arrive to find me already seated with fine seats, without a ticket. Not that this always happens of course. Most people don’t particularly gawk, stare, bother or otherwise treat me special. Mostly I am just ignored as people go through their day, which suits me fine.

Switching topics, last night reminded me that you are always challenged to shed your assumptions when you visit another place and that is a warm, good feeling. So last night my housemates had a good friend over and invited the neighbours, a group of 5 boys, over for a few drinks. It turned into a nice little house party. Talk was loud, the music cycled through various rock, pop and dance tunes. The coffee table was moved out of the way and some dancing was had. Fun for all. It was nice to see how the locals let loose and to get to know my housemates better. Nothing particularly revelatory here. But then John puts on some Iron Maiden and Dream Theatre and he and his friend (a girl) start singing emphatically along. It turns out she and John are Metal Heads. Of course I really shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, why wouldn’t there be Indians who grew up banging to heavy metal, wearing black T-shirts with blood-and-thorn laden album logos on it and doing latent neck damage by swinging their hair about. It’s just that that is not an image we’ve ever been shown of India and certainly not part of their cultural export of the likes of yoga, meditation or Bollywood. Now in my defence, John no longer looks like a Rocker, being clean cut, generally presentable and harbouring no obvious tendencies towards drawing pentagram symbols on the walls. But he says he used to have hair down his back, be a drummer in a band and has a complete collection of all the metal albums of the 80’s. I revel in the discovery, like I’ve learned a secret side to India, and for the simple fun we are having and at the end of the night go to bed smiling.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Life in Chennai #3: The Office

Sorry for all the posts crammed in today. I've been writing them all week, but haven't had the chance to post them until today...

Being a little cooler means we can leave the air conditioner off longer each day. Mornings we usually have the doors & window wide to catch the breeze. I like that. Our office is small, one main room, an adjoining office, a bathroom and a lunch room/balcony. Quite simple. There are 5 of us in the main office, my boss and his secretary in the adjoining one. We have tea (done Indian style, made with milk and lots of sugar) in the morning and again in the afternoon, delivered in a thermos from a tea stand just down the street. Being a small, focused office, there is a strong communal spirit and my other colleagues often want to know the details of this meeting or that on our project. There is a strong sense that we’re all working together, which of course is great. Problems and issues, personal or professional are dealt with as a group and successes and occasions get wide discussion. I’m only partly integrated into this all of course, still being an outsider and have cultural differences. But I’m gaining ground.

The main language in the office is English, which of course makes it easy on me. Actually, it makes it easy on everyone because English is the only shared language between them as well as with me. Of the 4 others in my part of the office, two pairs cannot speak each other’s languages. Two speak Tamil, the local tongue, but not Hindi and the other two are from the NE, speaking Bengalese and Hindi, but not Tamil. It is quite interesting to see this dynamic as others beyond me request a pair to switch back to English so we can get in on the conversation. So meetings are always in English, ourselves or with clients and partners, writing is always in English (although India has its own particular way and style of business writing) and phone calls seem to be entirely in English. So it helps to be useful for work, but alternatively, it is harder for me to pick up any Tamil as many of the people I interact with and hear regularly (including my housemates) don’t speak it regularly or at all. So having my Indian colleague explain his similar trouble with auto-rickshaws, restaurants and local service because he too doesn’t speak the language is one of those “obvious once you know it” understandings of the diversity of India.

And that is where I work.

Life in Chennai #2: Seasons change

Winter has arrived here in Chennai. Temperatures have dropped and as in Canada, it is time to don your toque against the chill of 28 degrees. I’m actually being serious. The night watchmen at my building, and he is not alone, now comes to work wearing a thin fleece balaclava. And let me be clear this is 28 degrees C above zero, not below zero like Calgary & Vancouver were getting last week. Some things defy understanding, but I fully assume the night watchmen will be happily comfortable come July’s 45 degrees in the shade when I’m lying with my head in the refrigerator in order to get any sleep. In the mean time perhaps I should offer him my down jacket...

With the coming of winter, the rains have ended and the streets have dried up. I’m hoping they will invest in repairing some of the monster potholes and washboard pavement as most of the autos have only marginal shocks at best. Honestly, it is worse than the Squamish Main gravel after the spring thaw. Without the rains to keep the smog at bay, the pollution index has steadily climbed. I really dislike seeing the dirt that comes out when I blow my nose in the evenings. I’ve been spoiled in Vancouver. I am thinking it isn’t much worse (currently at least) than Toronto in the summer, but it has been too long since I lived in the city to know if this is a fair comparison and I also have never commuted down the Don Valley Parkway in an open-air glorified 3-wheeled golf cart that is likely the direct source for any local particulates I am breathing in. So perhaps it isn’t. Either way, spending an hour and a half in smoggy traffic each day isn’t the most beautiful part of the experience.

But smog or no, there is colour everywhere and it is never boring to watch the world pass by. And right now, India is travelled past me at 30 km/h from the back of an open-air auto-rickshaw. It is a gritty view, like a bad home movie: full of bumps, hard to hear and slight dingy.

The view today is new and unknown. My auto driver appears to know an alternate route around the worst of the traffic, a windy and creative route full of switchbacks and twists through narrow alleys, market streets and illegal scoots up one-way streets. It is just as well – the main roads are congested, polluted and coated in a smothering veneer of advertising large and small. I’m not convinced this route is actually faster, but I’m happy for the diversion and trust that we’ll pop out somewhere I recognize eventually.

Generally, I have found the drivers to be trustworthy, getting me to my destination eventually, if sometimes circuitously, and only occasionally trying to renegotiate the fare once we arrive. They will fully try to milk you with an outrageous opening bid for the fare, especially if you don’t know how much it should be (and the tourist areas are worse for this), but the locals get the same treatment and if you’re willing to do as the locals do and let a few autos go if they are unwilling to negotiate a reasonable fare, then you generally do fine.

So by women garbed in bright yellow, green or purple, by slums and by glass-clad office towers, by shops that spill out onto the road and by people going about their morning routine, I jostle and chatter along and soak in where I am.

Musings #1: Technology: freedom or crutch?

This is my first post with my shiny, new laptop. I’m very excited. Now I’ve got full access to the network at work, direct access to the printer and my favourite, access to the Internet on a consistent basis. This is something of a minor miracle actually as I’ve been having technology issues. My cell phone provider had some administrative glitch in setting up my account (address verification) and cancelled my ability to make outgoing calls for nearly a week. My credit cards had too low a flag on them for India (I understand why, it being apparently a high fraud region), so I couldn’t buy my laptop in one go. And my bank card stripe crapped out rendering me without access to cash. But, all things taken in stride and several unmentionable strings of phrases later, I’ve pulled out my backup bank card (a big thank you to whoever suggested the tip to bring a spare), fixed my credit card local limit (my issue was my ability to buy an emergency plane ticket on short notice if something ever came up) and after a couple more days wait, I got my new laptop. So I’m back plugged into the drug of modern society, cell phone in pocket, ipod in my ears and carting my laptop to & from work – just like half the folks I see in traffic every morning. Although it is obviously not pervasive everywhere or applied exactly in the way we see in the West, you cannot say the developing world has not embraced technology in a big way.

It is an interesting juxtaposition and one I have at times struggled with here. I’ve left the West to do development work and as such, expect I should also leave the technology trappings and connectedness behind, but find myself still fully integrated with it and expected to be. Partly it is a romantic vision of what development should be like or perhaps the vision simply hasn’t caught up with the realities of the modern world. Once upon a time, those doing development really were far out of touch with those back home and where communication took weeks or even months. But today that notion is antiquated. In today’s world, every auto-rickshaw driver has a cell phone, those kids playing cricket barefoot will have seen James Bond and heard the latest pop icon and internet cafes and wireless access is available in shops by the dozen.

The other part is that I am not living in a village in the middle of nowhere. I am living in a city, working with other professionals and living with people who are similarly of the middle class. So fitting in means similar things to home: I’d be some weird hippy if I didn’t have a phone; I need a good computer to do my work; and half the people I see on my commute have earphones in their ears.

Still, it does give me pause to question sometime. Here I am, supposedly worlds away, but I can talk to anyone in the world, carry my music and enjoy the comforts of civilisation. Or I can lock my stuff up and go wandering. Sometimes I fear that we are getting to afraid of being alone, others I love the shrinking of the world and the cultural exchange it allows. I’m sure there will be more to write as I think about it. This, more than most of my posts, is very much a raw thought, a ramble and a work in progress.

Idle Thoughts #1: When different is not necessarily foreign

I am jotting this (shakily) in the back of an auto on my morning commute, Jack Johnson’s “Holes to Heaven” playing on my ipod. It keeps me occupied for the 45 minutes of bumping and weaving. I look up from my notebook to a truck 2 inches in front of the auto’s front wheel. As this driving tactic is more or less normal, I go back to what I was doing. I skip back and play the song again. I really like the song and not just because it is about driving around looking for surf. It is about being in a far away place, a place where “bulls are running wild, because they’re big and mean and sacred and the kids are playing cricket with no shoes.” I am in a far away place like that and those distinctive elements constantly make me smile.

That is quintessential India, its irrepressible spirit. I might see a young boy of 8 or 9 clearing tables at the restaurants where I am having lunch and struggle with the pervasiveness of child labour (which is supposed to be illegal now) but then see a gaggle of kids cheering as they play a game of cricket on the street – without shoes obviously (that is like clarifying that they are indeed also wearing pants). Perhaps I should teach them Ultimate Frisbee, assuming I can find some Frisbees. They might get a kick out of it and I would save a fortune on cleats.

They are mad about cricket here. When there is a game on, people will stack up 10 deep in front of any shop with a TV in the window to watch. And if you sell electronics, by social contract (and perhaps safety) you put the games on. For big games, the city grinds to a halt. It is like Commercial Drive when the World Cup was on this summer, but all the time. And perhaps that is another noticeable difference from home – it doesn’t take a major international sporting event or play-offs to get people out on the street en-mass. I’ve always admired people and places where they were not afraid to rub shoulders.

But back to the bulls, to answer a question I have been asked, yes, that is one of the mythologies of India that is true. Chennai may be a big city, but it is still normal to see cows wandering unattended along the street or lounging at the side of the road (or sometimes in the middle). In fact there is a bull pulling a cart of coconuts waiting at traffic light beside me. I nod at him and hope his commute is going well.

This morning’s breakfast was chapatti and a potato-onion masala (quite like a warm curried potato salad actually and equally tasty). The normal Indian way of eating this is to break off pieces of the flatbread (using one’s right hand) and scoop the sauce bite-by-bite. While I am fully integrated into eating with my hands by now (the subject of an upcoming entry, I promise), I temporarily forgo this method and dollop the potato into the centre, roll it and eat it like a tortilla. The maid looks at me a bit funny, but I just grin at her over my inventiveness and carry on. I’ll all into the “when in Rome...” concept, absorbing my host country’s customs, fitting in and all that, but I also feel that in today’s global world, it is not just products and labour that should cross borders. There are great and wonderful (and useful) ways to eat food the world over and so I share this one with the maid, despite the custom not even being my home country’s (originally at least, the profusion of burrito joints notwithstanding). I think the Mexicans (and their neighbours to the South) nailed the whole wrap thing, the Chinese really understand how to eat noodles (sorry to all the Italians) and the fork is an altogether useful invention. Everything has its place. And much of the time, I am satisfied to eat with my hands. :-)

On the whole cultural exchange idea, we introduced some new friends to crepes the other night. The girls had a few of us over for an early Christmas dinner...

Whoops, I need to back up – being behind with this blog, my stories are out of order. OK, a quick backtrack: there is a group of other Canadian Interns here in Chennai, 4 girls, living together, that I have met up with in the last week or so. One of them saw the posting for my position and thoughtfully got in touch. They are all on different projects although they have been sent from the same Canadian organisation through CIDA grants. They’ve been here ranging from 3 months to just longer than me. I’ll write more on that all later though. For now back to my story...

...Anyway, one of the girls is leaving for the North and will be gone until the New Year so this was the last evening they were all together before Christmas, hence the dinner. We made crepes for dissert (they did actually, I only managed to assist briefly, risking nail and knuckle, grating the coconut) with nutella, banana and coconut filling. The two boys (who are from Bangalore) bravely tried this Western concoction and deemed them like sweet Tamil Nadu dosas with Kerela-style filling (the neighbouring state of Kerela is a lush growing region and apparently heavily features banana and coconut in its cooking). So worlds are not so different after all. Perhaps we should set up a crepe shop here. It could be a big hit.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Conversations #1: yellow-card for tripping: 5 yard penalty, still first down

So my colleague and I are getting to know each other over lunch one day and the topic of sports comes up. Here is what ensues…

Him: What is the national sport of Canada?
Me: Hockey.
Him: Really? So is India’s!
Me: That seems odd given the weather here. Oh wait, you mean field hockey. Not the same sport. In Canada it is ice hockey that is played.
Him: Oh.
[Strike one for common ground. He's never seen ice hockey, I've never seen field hockey played, although I know the girls play it in school]

Him: So what sports did you play as a kid or in school?
Me: Um, baseball, running, soccer–
Him: Soccer?
Me: Oh yeah…it is actually football.
Him: OK…?
Me: [shrugs sheepishly] Don’t ask me…
Him: I saw a movie recently about baseball, ‘A League of Their Own’
Me: I liked that one.
Him: Me too. It had Madonna in it.
Me: Yeah, the Americans make a lot of movies about baseball. The sport seem to make for good dramas. That and football.
Him: Soccer?
Me: [shit, walked into that one….]
Me: No, not soccer, American Football. It isn’t ‘foot’ football, but more like Rugby, you know: throw and catch.
[He is looking at me rather puzzled. This isn’t going well.]
Him: So soccer is like Rugby?
Me: No football is like Rugby. Soccer is like your football.
Him: I don’t understand. Explain to me the difference between soccer, football and rugby.
Me: [Oh, dear! Fair question, but how to explain this so that it makes sense, which in all honesty, it doesn’t really…]
Me: OK, soccer is the game where you dribble the ball with you feet, your football
[he’s still looking not quite sure, which is fair given my less than picture-is-a-thousand-words description]
…It is the sport of the FIFA World Cup
[he wags. Thank God for global televised sports].
Me: So let’s keep that one. Soccer is what the rest of the world calls football. Got it?
[wags side-to-side, I take that as close enough to a yes]
Me: Now Rugby, you know: they play with an oblong ball, pointy at the ends, throw it underhand to each other…?
[He wags, knowing the game and thankfully ending my terrible butchering of the game. Given the usual size and temperament of Rugby players, my sincere apologies. It was not my finest hour.]
Me: OK, so what North Americans call “football” is more similar to Rugby, but is a totally different game. It is played with a smaller ball, with more throwing (overhand), set plays, touchdowns…The Superbowl?
[Score one again for thinking of major sporting events. I think he has heard of the Superbowl].

[I start to go down the road of explaining the difference between American football and Canadian football, but realise that is an even worse idea and quickly leave that topic alone...]

Him: So which did you play as a kid?
Me: So I played soccer as a kid, not American Football.
Him: With the feet.
Me: Yeah, with the feet.
Him: [brightly] Me too!

[And we’ve finally come full circle to conclude that he too played football in University, but hasn’t played since as there is a lack of pitches (fields) around town. He still plays cricket. “I know nothing about cricket,” I say. He says it is sort of like baseball…”Uh oh”, I think, here we go again…]

Life in Chennai #1: Home sweet (new) home

My hat is currently hanging at N 013º 05.798' E 080º 12.033' - that’s the new centre of my Universe, the new chimney for Santa, the new base for my operations or, more specifically, the roof of my apartment. According to my GPS (I brought it along hoping to get some trekking in after my contract), my new apartment is 12,728 km from my last. The number itself isn’t important – I already know I'm far from home – but it is kind of fun to see in little black numerals just how far.

Home for me is a nice little 3-bedroom apartment, with a nice young couple. I’ve got my own room about twice the size of my last, a bed, a ceiling fan that currently keeps the room liveable, an A/C unit if something stronger is needed, a metal wardrobe to hang my stuff and currently, a little gecko clinging to the outside of my window. Ooop, he’s gone now. I wonder if geckos eat mosquitoes? I silently hope so. I have access to the roof, hence the GPS reading. It’s not a bad view. I should think about bringing a chair up here…

My building is at the dead-end of my street, which makes it fairly easily to give directions to in the autos-rickshaws (autos). My street has seen better days though. It has not survived the season’s rains well and there is currently a couple buildings being re-built so there are some serious potholes and piles of sand, gravel and bricks. My street is shared with 3 cats, probably a dozen stray dogs and a pair of chickens. The free-roaming chickens are actually not normal where I live. My housemate was surprised when I pointed them out the other day. But this being Chennai & India, they are not unexpected either. I smile and say hello to them when I pass in the mornings.

Chennai itself is not a particularly lovely city. It is rather gritty due to the 100% humidity every day of the year and the ever-worsening air pollution. It is a fast-growing city, which means it has all the usual issues: too much traffic, no infrastructure, housing prices that are getting out of hand and most people are from somewhere else. There are no skyscrapers and very few tall buildings. It is rare to see one over 8 stories. None of the streets go even moderately straight. Within an area the streets might be numbered, but it is unlikely for them to be numbered consecutively or according to a direction. But then again, very few streets have any sort of sign, so it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. Most drivers seem to navigate by landmark. So it is quite challenging learning where things are and next to hopeless to know how to get someplace you’ve never been.

The weather currently is quite nice: warm to slightly hot 30-33 deg C, but muggy during the day, pleasant in the evenings. The monsoon rains have just about stopped. I’ll take what I can get now as it supposedly gets unbearably hot come May (and this is from the locals!). I suppose it is another incentive to get my project done on time & get the hell out of dodge and northward.

Culture #1: Yes, no, maybe so – the vagaries of the Indian head wagging

The Indian head waggle is probably the most immediate, distinctive and confusing aspect of Indian culture encountered by a new arrival. You’ll encounter it in the shops; you’ll encounter it in the auto-rickshaws; you’ll probably encounter it getting off the plane in the airport. The motion itself is hard to describe. It is not a back and forth shake as in the Western “no” motion, but a fluid side-to-side tipping-rolling combo. It is like there is a ball bearing in the neck.

In any event, take my word on it, but it is definitely one of the most challenging communication issues I’ve faced. I will ask an auto-rickshaw driver if he knows where my destination is and he will wag his head. Does this mean yes? Does it mean OK? Does it mean he even understood what I just said? There doesn’t appear to be any sure-fire way of telling. What I’ve gleaned after 3 weeks is that it is meant to convey the full spectrum of “yes”, “OK” or “maybe”. It may mean “Thanks”. It may mean “sure, sure” or “got it”. Or it may only mean “I am listening, considering what you are saying, but neither particularly agree or disagree”. It may mean “I am only agreeing with you until I can conveniently slip away”. Whatever it means, it is definitely noncommittal. But then again, if someone around here verbally says “yes”, it should be taken as equally noncommittal. That’s just the way things are.

But monkey see, monkey do (and I’m a good monkey) - I find myself starting to mimic the motion on occasion, so even if I cannot describe properly what it means, I'm already subconsciously starting to pick up the habit. And as I get used to it, it does seemed to be useful. Even in North America the word “OK” has a similarly varied meaning from “Yes, Sir”, to “I tentatively agree, but am very dubious”, to “I am acknowledging that you just spoke because you appear to be wanting reassurance that I am listening, even if marginally” down to “you’re 2 loads short of a biscuit”. So, OK…maybe it’s not so different after all… [wag, wag]

Saturday, December 02, 2006

India, from Sea to Shining Sea

What strikes you as soon as you get off the plane is that India is a very big and very diverse country, a continent of innumerable cultures, skin tones, languages and dress, and who all appear to have arrived to greet the same flight. And that is India. It is the sea of Humanity, the humbling, inspiring, crushing, chaotic mass of it. I’m used to living in diverse cities, but Toronto or Vancouver, for all their colour, don’t wash over you like India does. It is like Indian turned up the human dial to 11 (and the volume to match). India is human life distilled to 100-proof and it hits you just as strong. But if you are open and can withstand the onslaught that should by all rights sweep you away, it somehow manages to connect you to your humanity instead. And that makes life here interesting – sometimes exhausting, sometimes indescribable, sometimes just ludicrous, but always interesting.

For those perhaps still struggling to grasp the diversity of India from places where Indian food restaurants all serve the same set of dishes, think of India like Europe: from across the Pond we lump them together as Europeans, but go from Germany to Spain or even London to Paris and you can get an idea of how much India changes from place to place. People from one region dress different, look different and cook different from the next. They will speak different languages (India recognizes 18 official languages) and have different customs. They will mark their religions differently.

So therefore, it needs to be noted clearly for the record:

my observations are for SE India only and mostly only for the city of Chennai.

I have not yet seen any other places and anything I remark on should be taken with several lumps of salt (due to the high humidity here, it is next to impossible to find individual grains) before applying it to broader India. I will try to make my language clear, but in case I slip into “India this” or “India that” generalizations, take this caveat with you.

Drum roll please...

Welcome to my shiny new blog! I hope to bring you along for my adventures, share the stories that enliven my travels and show the world through my eyes. I hope to amuse and to enlighten, but mostly I hope simply to entertain. Hopefully, if nothing else, it will whet your appetite for adventures of your own.

So a little background… I’ve uprooted from Vancouver to work in Chennai, India for 6 months on a rural development project. This is an exciting opportunity and hopefully the first step of a new career. At the very least it will be an interesting experience. This is mostly written for friends and family back home and scattered across the globe so they don't have to suffer through my email list. And that is basically what you need to know to understand what I am writing, but more importantly why I am writing.

So after a 20-hour flight to Singapore and another 4 to Chennai, this is where the adventure begins...