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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life in Chennai #21: Pirates in Madras!

Avast me hearties! Haul out th’ 10 pounders! Hoist the jolly roger! Shore the rigging and drop anchor! There be riches in this here exotic port, landlubbers ripe for the pillage. Smartly ya scalleywags and show em yer mettle!

Arrr! T’is be Cap’n Morgan “Savage” Roberts to tell ye it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

My pirate name is:

Captain Morgan "Savage" Roberts

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. You've got style and swagger. And if they don't like your singing, keelhaul the bile rats! Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

'ass rye, there do be an International Talk Like a Pirate Day! And it’d be today. Me don’ like repeatin’ me self ya bilge rat! Everyone be in on the bit o’ the high spirit – and the spirits – today, cursin’ and hollerin’ and leerin’ with our good eye. Even Flickr has the jolly roger on its logo today.

Seeing as we old salts and sea dogs are marooned in this here Eastern port of call, we’re in need a proper saloon to sing our shanties and trade our coin and toast our brethr’n across the oceans wide.

And begad! there be such a place! And it be called “Pirates”, fitting for sea dogs like us. Ah, they’ve merried it up nice. Take a gander. Brings a tear to me good eye, a place called “Pirates” in Madras do. And a smile to me face.
Pirate's Bar in Chennai
Photo credit: J.A.

There we’ll be with a mug o’ rum singing tales of monsters o’ the deep, mateys on the account, and lads and lasses fine. Join us for a drink we’re ye may be. Arrrr!
The Pirate costumes of the staff

Photo credit: J.A.

And one more ARRRR! for good measure.

Life in Chennai #20: Jumbled Thoughts & Experiences

I am not sleeping well. My room is stuffy and thick, the heat of the afternoon still trapped in its walls, the fan just swirling warmth onto my face. I get up and do a pooja of sorts on my bed, vigorously shaking droplets of poured water out of my cupped hand onto my sheets, floor and pillow and lie back down. Momentarily cooled, I drift back to troubled dreams and sweat once more.

But I have so many thoughts jumbled and swirling in my head that I cannot sleep.

Crowded bus rides through humid air. I love that. Not having a plan. The friendliness and helpfulness of Indians. Feeling the local expert. Laughing at how far off that is. Girls. New friends and old. Reconnections. Walking darkened streets. Quitting my job for good reasons. The excitement, fear, relief and anxiety of that decision. The poetry of my friends, in person and in print. The joys of Indian food, but also of Domino’s pizza. A bar called Pirates. India beats Pakistan in the Twenty20 match. The annoyance 2 nights of power outages in the last 4. Being seriously sleep deprived. Dancing. Monsoon thunderstorms. Fitting in. The smiles and laughs of bright-eyed children. Never taking enough pictures. New ideas. Home? Home. Girls. Unexpected changes. People I care for. Frustrated tears. Giving up. Trying again. Yoga and Swimming and Motorcycles (not at the same time). Ganesh Jayanthi in clay and blinking neon. The Mylapore Temple. Hare Krishnas. Having 6 missed calls on a Saturday evening. Meeting friends randomly in the street. Beginnings. Endings. Transitions. Possibilities.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sidebar #4: More Random Thoughts from TV

Justifying my laziness, my descriptions of life here in India would not be complete without a post on what I watch and catch on TV. Like anywhere, there are good programs and bad and plenty of commercials. Personally, I mostly watch movies and the Dicovery Channel.

Here are some random things that have occured to me in those deadened hours.


The old grunt-and-shoot action movie Predator produced a remarkable 2 State Governors: Jesse Ventura for Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenegger for California. I'd say that must be a record if there was any rational reason to regularly count and compare how many futures Governors have appeared in any action movies in the first place. Makes you wonder what poor dialogue, flimsy plots and pyrotechnics has in common with politics doesn’t it...

Catching part of the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic (only worthy because it is based on stories by the excellent future-noir writer William Gibson), I had to laugh at how dated its projection of future technology was already. Johnny is special because he can store a whopping 80GB in his brain as a secret courier. 80 gigs? Wow. Today you can get the same storage in an ipod for a few hundred bucks. I certainly hope my brain hold more than Johnny’s, or my ipod. Just goes to show though how fast technology can outpace fiction.

I thought it was funny that they play Shakespeare in Love here with subtitles for the English accents. No joke. I didn’t pay attention though to see if they were the same. They aren’t always, although I’d hope those on TV would be better than most. Most of the ones on the pirated DVDs that dominate the video scene here are so bad to as to be funny. Watching the first 5 minutes of The Last King of Scotland without sound but with subtitles and I could not figure out what was going on. They were not even close.

Discovery Channel Programs:

What is it about Discovery Channel programs that suck you in?

Tonight I was watching a program about the big cats of Africa. Did you know that when a lioness is in heat, in order to get pregnant she may have to mate 100s of times (and not always with the same male) and will mate twice an hour for up to 4 days. Often several females of the pride will go into heat at the same time with the alpha male mating with all of them until he tires and one of the lower males gets a chance. Social little kitties. And we joke about rabbits! (likely because it is less a good idea to poke fun at lions) But being slightly serious, the program also estimates that each lion will mate 3000 times for each cub that will survive its first year. Beyond our technology (and opposable thumbs), it is certain that our much superior ability to procreate (and again, we make fun of rabbits...yeah Kettle...) is at least as important a factor in our dominance of this planet.

I don’t know why the lion was ever considered the king of beasts though. The tiger is way bigger, meaner and tougher.

But whatever the lion’s position on the savannah and the tiger in the jungle, cheetah cubs are definitely the cutest – fuzzy furballs with big eyes and all the curiosity of domestic kittens. Cheetahs are amazing creatures to watch running, so fast and sleek and efficient. The adolescent cubs though, like all young, are far less agile and funny to see learning to stalk.

Now, the leopard however is smaller than the lion and slower than the cheetah, but is the most adaptable of the three. It will eat most anything from beetles to antelope far larger than itself. It will live in any climate across Asia from the savannah to the jungle to the snowy mountains, is excellent climber and doesn’t mind water. I think if I was a cat then I’d definitely be a leopard.

Now wasn’t that interesting and educational!

I caught a program today about base jumping from the top of Angel Falls. Oh my God, so cool. Sorry mom and dad, but I have to say I’d love to do that if I got the chance.

I caught a cooking program the other day where a UK chef was showing us the wonders of Indian cuisine and this week focusing on Tamil and South Indian regional dishes. It was great fun to see Chennai in the backdrop (as an aside, it is actually quite easy to pick out the major Indian metropolises on TV due to architectural styles and even more so, the colour scheme of the auto rickshaws. As one program coverage switched its stock background shots, I could easily differentiate Chennai from Bangalore from Delhi based on the ricks).

He did a great job showing how simple much of the cuisine is to cook and which wonderfully colourful spices form the core of all Tamil cooking (especially turmeric, chilli & curry leaves). He kept calling the city Madras though, which is a bit colonial considering the city is now named Chennai and most people use the new name.

But then he explained the venerable, but simple masala dosa and showed his total lack of local savvy. He goes to Saravanna Bhavan, a popular and recommended chain and then proceeds to explain how you break off chunks of the crispy dosa, spoon some masala onto the piece and eat it like a taco or brochetta...using both hands! I really wanted to reach into the TV and slap him. Anywhere in India, one of the most basic and first rules everyone learns is that you only eat with your right hand. No using your left hand. No using both to cup the dosa. Just no OK.


I've written some about this before, but again for the record: 1 in 4 commercials on all channels are for age and beauty products. Ponds, Olay, Dove and a dozen others local and international compete to make you believe you are ugly, unsuccessful and un-marriable unless you improve your skin and hair using their products. Age spots, glow, shine, smoothness, miracles and above all lightening all get pushed with campaigns tailored to hit every fear, insecurity and societal weakness. It’s disgusting and a plague on ourselves. And India’s caught the virus as firmly as any country.

Indian car commercials are even more outrageous in the romantic driving image than North American ones. Wide, empty highways, smooth roads, fast speeds. Here in India? Where? Trying to sell these images and roads as anything realistic in India is a seriously tall tale.

Based on the image they are trying to project and strong brand message of “High performance. Delivered”, Tiger Woods for Accenture has got to be the most ideally suited spokes-person I’ve ever seen. He just oozes clearly recognizable brand on his own that conveys hard work, perseverance, detail and reinvention as the source of excellence. Of reaching the top then starting again. And of course Accenture wants to convey that exact message that even the top companies need to retool, reinvent and research-based insight. “Having the right information. Making the right decision. Looking for ways to improve.” One of the cleanest current brand images I can think of. And what is remarkable is that it is for consulting services that are not easily differentiable and far tougher to package than a product. Tiger Woods is bar none the best sports hero to come out since Michael Jordan. Wonder how long it is before he starts doing movies with Looney Toons too.

McDonalds on the other hand though has a terrible current set of commercials here and ones that I can only assume are culturally tuned only to India. Their tag line is “call for happiness” somehow trying to connect their brand of food with euphoric giddiness and exuberance, that if you call for McD’s delivery, your life and arguments with your girlfriend will be solved. I have yet to see such an over-the-top image. I mean come on! No legal substance possibly can be believed to make such a turn-around in your evening. Indians are not ignorant consumers, but perhaps they find it funny-stupid not just stupid. Maybe McD’s just got snowed by the ad people. I don’t know, but it is not even annoying, just embarrassing. Making it even worse, their call number is 66-000-666. Not such a good number I figure for the Christian population, particularly when you’re going for associations with happiness.

You know when commercials are forced to say a “conditions apply” statement and say it really fast and in one breath at the end of the commercial, like “closed course, professional driver. If you’re a dumb ass and try this you cannot sue us” or one they use seem to have to use here, “mutual funds are subject to market risk. Read the offer statement closely”?

Yeah, well you should hear them do that in Tamil. Holy shit can they get those statements out quickly!

And that’s entirely enough TV for one article...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Culture #11: The Wine Shop Revisited

See my earlier post on learning the value of things at the wine shop the hard way. Here is an update on a recent purchase.

I am buying 2 Kingfisher beer. I give him Rs 500.

He gives me Rs 270 back. I look at it briefly, call him back over and point out it isn’t enough change.

He tells me the price is Rs 220.

Of course 500 minus 220 is not actually 270, but I let that one go and focus on the bigger problem: that the beers are in fact only Rs 60 each so the price is only Rs 120.

He nods OK, OK. Takes the money and remakes change.

This time he gives me back Rs 290 with a smile. We're getting closer, but still short.

I patiently do the math for him one more time: 60 Rupee (pointing at one), 60 Rupee (at the other). 120 Rupee vilai. Rs 380 michapanam kudunga Boss ("change please give") I say smiling, but firmly, looking at him . We’re both pretending it is simply a mistake of math.

He takes the money one more time, does some fancy money swapping at his till box and proffers Rs 380 this time. Finally!

So an updated warning: you really have to keep your eye on what you should get back because in the speed of the exchange, the busy counter and their hope you don't know the cost, they will definitely screw you. But they’re not usually bothered if you call them on it. Funny guys.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sidebar #3: The Legend of the Greasepole Game

A big shout-out to Rob Burke who made this all happen!

I am deliriously giddy as I relive all the fun and memories of my university experience.

The Legend of the GreasepoleSo back in University, one of my good friends Rob decided it would be a great idea to make a video game based on one our orientation rituals, the Climbing of the Greasepole. I think we were drinking. But good idea or bad idea, the idea eventually came to fruition and our Class has an actual video game built around it and containing all the friends, faces and voices that made my 4 years (ahem…5 years) there wonderful. It even has our year song (More Human Than Human by White Zombie).

Of course in the age of Facebook, as the story goes, it was only so long before someone said, “Hey Rob, so when are you going to release the game for Xbox360?” And because he is just far too bright and keen for anyone’s good, he did, and hot off the presses I’ve got myself a copy and am happily, grinningly demoing it on my laptop (is “demoing” a word? It is a conversational word, but Word doesn’t seem to like the word so maybe it isn’t a word, at least according to Word…OK, I’ll stop now. Random jolts of joy just jar me jumpy).

Greasepole 2005So what is this game about? Really hard to explain, or to explain remotely well, but basically…at the culmination of Frosh Week at Queen’s Engineering, the first years – aka Frosh, as they shall for ever known by their upper years – are summarily dumped in a muddy pit of cold water and told to climb a well-greased goalpost. Only once they retrieve the tam (Scottish headgear) well nailed to the top, will they be considered a year. If it takes all day, so be it. As the upper years say, “We’ve got plenty of beer and no where else to be.”

Greasepole 2It started back way back in the mid 50’s and has been the centrepiece of orientation ever since. Classes boast of the fastest time or laugh at the slowest (one year in the 70s had to come back a second day, the clock ticking the whole time). Eras are marked by when girls were first allowed to join in or when they switched from axle grease to lanolin due to changing environmental regulations. The pole has been stolen by rival faculties, upper years (including ours) and schools and ransomed back. It has been a lightning rod (to use the pun) for Administration criticism and rallying point of change. It is extremely important to the Society. The climbing is about teamwork and bonding and despite some heavy taunting by the upper years, everyone wants your year to succeed, eventually. Nothing like the thrill of achieving something pointless, but coveted and having your new classmates and all the upper years celebrating as one.

But to really understand it and see the whack of pictures from its many decades, you should delve into the detailed companion compendium for the game, now hosted online here. I highly recommend it as a fun and in-depth insight into who the hell these crazy purple-clad engineering students are and what damage 4 years of conditioning have done to my psyche. But then, I wrote it as a contribution to the game (I’m also one of the crowd voices, how fun is that!). I had a lot of fun digging into the archives and old papers for the history, stories and photos. It was my first attempt at writing anything public, a long-ago prelude to this blog come to think of it. It’s got some good stuff in it and some of the only archival records online (the Queen’s archives are, I hear, way behind the times and still resisting digitazation). I’m mildly embarrassed that it also contains record of some my early and feeble attempts at poetry. Poetry, I’ve learned, is not my format. I had forgotten Rob had posted it. But oh well, points for bravery I suppose. :-) Mercifully, I’ll stick to blog writing and story telling.

Game SreenshotSo the game version puts you in charge of a spectator with the task of stopping the Frosh from climbing. Like lemmings (and like real Frosh, come to think about it) the AI Frosh aren’t so bright, but they are persistent little monkeys and get better with time, building successive pyramid layers towards the top. In your arsenal, you’ve got an array of wacky and odd-seeming items mined from our dubious traditions to distract, disrupt, weaken or pick off the frosh like the happy, little targets they are. It is a game against the clock and you hold them off as long as you can and get a few laughs along the way.

The game is just plain fun and silly all its own, full of frivolous elements and inside jokes, but what really has me giddy it is how perfectly it captures and brings me back to my time there. The game simplifies life back into the things we most cherished (pizza and beer), the things we most coveted (our jackets and iron rings) and the things we most feared (physics exams), where we belonged (discipline) and our stereotyped rivalries (other faculties).

But deepest of all, it brings back the people. The characters are actual digital representations of my friends and classmates, their faces and voices bringing a stream of good memories, funny stories and questionable adventures. I had many really good times at these events and with these people. And to be reminded in full-motion glory was a treat.

I remember our day in the sound studio recording the effects, laughing at the script, “You want us to say what?” Every voice in the game pulls a name and a smile. It is like we were all back there for a moment. It’s like nearly being famous, but without the paparazzi. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and one memory. So how many words and how many memories is a whole game worth?

Once the game is out of beta, I’ll post a link to it for anyone who wants to know what this is all about (don’t download the game from the LegendWeb site as it is the original version). You may get it, you may not, but it is a fun diversion either way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Life in Chennai # 19: Massages Good and Bad

The vast industry of hair salons, products and marketing is the reverse here in Chennai than in North America in that it is all geared predominantly for men rather than women. Supply and demand of course. Here boys and men coif their hair, spent hours in the salon, strut about town with dramatic moustaches and, ala 1950’s Hollywood, carry combs in their back pocket. Women on the other hand wear their hair long and straight and held back pretty much as is. So 180 degrees to the trends at home. So here there are hundreds of men’s salons (or saloons as they are variously signed, I’m unsure if this is a purposeful marketing ploy or merely a poor spelling), but my female expat friends consistently complain about the inability to get a decent haircut (and risk of trying).

This of course is mostly all wasted on me given my current (and unfortunately permanent) hair style of clipped short, but on the plus, it does mean finding a place is convenient. I’ve become a regular at one just around the corner from me and I usually drop in on my way home. They don’t speak a whole lot of English, but the demands of what I want are pretty simple so we have sorted it all out.

So in I go the other day, sitting down for my usual cut using the clippers with a 1 guard. At most places, the hair cut comes with a 20 minute “relaxation” head massage. I typically skip this to for getting home to dinner a little sooner, but today I decided to give it a go.

And it was...interesting... I really like having my head and face massaged. But I can’t say this was so much a massage as more a vigorous beating. I can’t say it was particularly relaxing either. My guy appeared to be new to the salon (saloon?) and it at first seemed they were just letting him go and do his own thing on me and see what he did. But I later revised his skill level or at least my appraisal of his musical background when he kept excellent rhythm drumming my head in sync to the music video playing on the TV down the row. Realising this made me have to stifle a giggle, which may have just encouraged him. Oh dear. His technique in the end was probably quite good for what it was. It just wasn’t the kind of “relaxing” head massage I was expecting and it left my scalp feeling if not sore, certainly very invigorated.

So I suppose I need to revise my statement and qualify it as I usually like my head and face massaged.

So my massage goes on for quite a while, far longer than 20 minutes. No one bothers to stop him I suppose and I don’t have a watch on. I do actually feel more uplifted and relaxed at the end, but I question how much that has to do with the massage, how much is the aromatic oil he’s used, how much is because I found the whole experience humorous and how much is simply because sitting, closing your eyes and doing nothing for 20 minutes is calming in its own right. I tend to think the actual massage was the least contributor of the four! But whatever, I suppose the results speak for themselves...

For the grand finale of the massage though, he strapped this giant, clunky metal motor thing to the back of his hand. It looked like some oversized ray gun out of a cheesy ancient sci-fi flick. It looked serious bizarre and like a good, heavy weapon in case of a fight, like if the other guy pulls out brass knuckles, you just smile and put this bad boy on and watch his eyes go wide! He turns it on and magic: it turns his head into a vibrator. Killer idea and this, I have to report, is relaxing and very nice on the scalp, face and ears. I’ll keep things PG and will let you make your own obvious leap of imagination to other uses for such an item. If it wasn’t so bulky and didn’t appear to draw enough power to dim the lights for half a block, it would make next year’s Christmas gift craze for sure. I can’t imagine it is that good for the user long term (carpal tunnel syndrome anyone?), but this at least met the promised muscle relaxant. Just glad he didn’t cuff me with his gauntleted backhand for laughing again... :-)

This is not my first experience with notable massages here in Asia though...

Being in India, one cannot go without trying a proper Ayurvedic massage. Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system practiced here in India. Part of “alternative medicine” from the perspective of the West, it has proved effective when done properly and is very scientific and systematic in its approach. Like most traditional medicines, it focuses on holistic health and cures over targeted and kill-the-bad-bugs Western style. But proper health care aside, it has entered mainstream and mass marketing most fluidly as a questionably effective subset: massage and essential oils – things easily packaged and sold and most importantly things easiest to pretend expertise and credentials of. So proper Ayurvedic clinics are common enough, but everyone and their brother is adding “Ayurvedic” treatments to their spas, soaps, room fresheners, skin creams and you know the drill. It fits bang on into the world’s current obsession with herbal and essential oil additions to everything (many of which probably do have valid therapeutic effects, just not in the uncontrolled or miniscule doses that are in most of the products hawking them). If Ayurveda has not hit North America yet, don’t worry, it will, guaranteed, certainly on the west coast.

Anyway, back to my story, when I was in Mahabilapuram some months back, an area with a lot of tourist influence, I figured my back and neck were tight and I should try ones of the Ayurvedic massages that was being advertised up and down the street. So I made an appointment and later that day found myself on a table, literally drenched in aromatic oils and absolutely naked being worked on by a Keralan guy who claimed extensive credentials. No bothered by Western modesty, many Asian massages are done completely without clothes. Good thing I’m not shy about such things as I had not had warning going in.

Now maybe I’ve got too vivid an imagination or maybe I’m just too into touch (and am mildly ticklish besides), but I find full-body massage – and doubly worse here being oiled and naked – as entirely too much stimulation to ever fully relax. I mean come on! I may not be turned on by this mildly homoerotic fantasy, but seriously how does anyone handle these things without having to concentrate on igloos and icebergs?

Oh well, the massage goes well enough after a spell. I stop alternating between wanting to squirm and giggling at myself for it and the work on my tight shoulders and neck did what I had hoped to ease tension from bad ergonomics at work and too little exercise. I don’t have any background or prior experience in Ayurveda so I can’t vouch for its authenticity or whether it did anything more than a regular massage, but for a good deep massage, it was worth the paltry cash outlay. After, he gives me a bucket of mud stuff to get all the oil off with and a place to shower and I leave feeling slightly like I should want a cigarette or something. ;-)

A couple months later I get another massage, this time at the fancy spa in my 5-star hotel in Udaipur, with the usual little towel and a pretty Filipino masseuse, and I decide that I am just not wired for the full body massage thing as a relaxation tool. Just too much for me. The only exception maybe being Thai massages because in my experience there is just no way to feel sexy once you are doused in tiger balm and the slight woman has tied you into a pretzel and dug into deep muscles you didn’t know existed.

And that, I’m sure, is far more information than you needed to know about me, but I figured it was worth sharing for the story! ;-)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Photoblog #2: Vancouver's Playground

Telling stories of my adventures to a friend the other day I suddenly really missed my crew in Vancouver and just how much and how well we took advantage of Vancouver’s incredible recreation potential. So I thought I’d do a quick photo blog of some of my favourite memories and what fun looks like back home.

But rather than the best shots, I thought I’d pull up some of my best and humorous memories of these trips.

Normal is a highly subjective term and adventures are what you make them. Vancouver’s rugged and varied playgrounds, while close-by, aren’t necessarily convenient to get to. Long hikes in through deep forest, steep slopes. Conditions challenging enough for one of my friends to have inventing a bushwhacking scale (B1=trail to B5=you have to use roots and bush to physically pull yourself upwards). And the weather sucks half the time (and the other half it’s raining). But some of my happiest times have been spent with these people, whether at ocean-side campfire or alpine cook stove, under the stars or a tarp, following trail or temporarily unsure of our exact whereabouts (aka absolutely lost). Whatever the situation, we’re having fun, or if not exactly then, well, we laugh about it later. :-)

1) Cold, what cold?
The boys unjustifiably happy in their lovely matching size XXL down jackets. Where Tim finds these things is beyond me. This is us winter camping and ski touring. Yes, those parkas are necessary. Yes, those are shots of whiskey they are drinking. Yes, it is breakfast time. Things you do when it is 40 below zero. All for the chance of some great turns and fresh, light powder (a rarity on the wet West Coast).

This weekend was one adventure after another. We came in at night after a week of cold, light snow. No one had been in for a while and making fresh tracks with our skins skiing into camp was magical and moving was fine despite the cold, the night air crisp and stars vivid. No having a destination in mind, we had skied a hour further along the trail above this field before turning back and camping here. It was a chilly night in the sleeping bags and all our warm clothes on, but restful...until our friend Wilson inexplicably tramps into our campsite at 3 am. Where the Hell did he come from?

So earlier that evening Wilson had forgotten his poles and had returned, angry, to Vancouver to get them with plans to follow us in and meet up with us in the morning. But unbeknown to us, upon retrieving his poles he had turned right around and followed our tracks up, alone except for his 2 dogs, at 1am. Skiing by headlight, he didn’t see our camp and followed our tracks all the way up the trail…to where they suddenly stopped dead in the middle of nowhere. You see, when we had turned around, we had simply turned our skis 180 degrees where we stood and glided back down. But to Wilson, tired and in the middle of the night, it appeared they just ended. With much swearing that can be imagined, he dug himself a snow cave and crawled in to get a nap. It was well below -40. After an hour he figured what we had done and came back down to find us. More swearing and yelling and some shifting around in the tents and another par for the course.

2) Trips '05 - Olympic Park - 02When the trail isn’t hardcore enough, just add weight.
Hiking in to Olympic Park, Washington early in the season over the Canadian May long weekend. No, you don’t have to hike with such huge packs. We were only going in for 3 days, but as this was not a strenuous trek, we were determined to replace that by living it up. You see we were hiking into a site with natural hotsprings. Mmmnn, hot springs! Campsite comforts carried included a giant 25 ft square tarp to build our own little world out of the rain (you can see me carrying it), 2 boxes of wine to pass the evening in the hotsprings, gourmet food for dinners and plenty of warm and cozy clothes. We did go for a hike one day, but otherwise spent lost of time either dry in camp or wet in the sulphur-smelling steam.

3) They call this skiing? The Great White North...Trips '05 - Mt Baker - 05Sally and Ros carrying their skis up to the snowline at Mt Baker. Yes, you can ski in June in Washington State. But as you can see, the snow doesn’t start exactly at the base...But the work is worth it and hey, it certainly keeps down the crowds.

But if it all seems utter folly, here is all the nice snow looking the other way:
Trips '05 - Mt Baker - 04No we didn’t ski the icefield in the foreground. But we did play in it on a previous trip to practice our crevasse rescue skills – like a big 3-D puzzle. We didn’t make the summit of Baker this day, but I had been up there before. Skis are definitely the way to go though, way easier going up and way faster coming down.

4) Trips '05 - Sechelt Inlet - 04 - Paul's UmbrellaCan laziness and a sense of humour be said to be the mother of invention?
Why open an umbrella when in the spray a foot off the ocean? Why not? He’s trying to use it as a sail. He brought it all the way from Vancouver just to try this. And even funnier, no one else commented when we packed it in the boat. Actually, it worked quite well, at least in one direction. The good thing about sea kayaking is the weight and form factor are not as much issues as with backpacking. So if you want a jug of juice or cans of peaches, or an umbrella, got ahead and stuff them in.

5) Trips '04 - Tetrahedron - 34Sloped roof + snow = ski run. Duh, obviously!
Skiing and snowshoeing in Tetrahedron Park, we stayed in the great cabins maintained by the Tetrahedron ski club. There are 4 in the park, this being the furthest. It hadn’t been used in a while and we had to dig out the bottom storey (it is the second storey balcony you see in the shot) before embarking on some play trying to ski jump off the roof.

Nothing beats staying in an alpine cabin with a group of friends, playing cards, drinking lots of tea and shooting the shit by candlelight.

This little adventure was livened with Tim lit the counter on fire and Sally, being a “safety first” kind of guy, emptied the fire extinguisher over half the cabin. Let me tell you, fire retardant, while working well, makes one hell of a mess. Took us a couple hours to get the place clean and involved wrangling anything that wasn’t bolted down outside into the snow. We mailed the club a nice donation when we got home...

Other adventures included Binty (the dog) falling through the ice in the lake, Binty falling into a deep hole in the snow, Caleb getting caught in his harness and sliding down half the hill on his back, very creative and ambitious (but successful, more or less) route-making.

6) Trips '06 - Tofino in June - 02 - Wilson taking a breakHardcore surfing in Tofino.
Wilson showing us how it is done. In all seriousness though, this is really the life. We’ve got these surfing weekends down to a fine art. We spend our days on the beach, one surf in the morning, a nap and lunch, then another surf or 2 as the day and waves progress. Then dinner of fresh seafood over the fire and Coleman stoves. The campsite has hot showers to take off and put on your wetsuit and fire pits to keep you warm. Eat plenty of good food and drink cheap canned beer. Invite your friends. Repeat as necessary.

We’ll surf summer or winter. Winter is better waves, sometimes snow, always rain, no crowds and really, once you’ve got the wetsuit on, you’re fine.

7) No, I’m not scared of heightsTrips '06 - Climbing the CamelThis was a great day climbing. What more can I say?

8) And you thought being voted off the island was bad!Trips '04 - Mt Wedge - 15The behind-the-scenes they don’t show you in the hardcore magsTrips '04 - Mt Wedge - 21Route? What route? Sally trying to make out where we came through this maze on the way up. He doesn’t exactly inspire confidence up front there does he... ;-)

Climbing Mt Wedge north of Vancouver in a late season October day, the lower glacier was bare and a maze of route-finding. You’d have to go 40 feet sideways and back in order to move 10 feet forward. It was great fun. And you can’t beat the beauty of the area. Wedgemount Lake below is a popular hiking and camping spot, reachable in a long daytrip on a solid trail.

9) Trips '06 - Currie-Wedge Traverse - 19 - Tim and dogs towards Lesser WedgeDogs don’t go in straight lines.
The pups are a regular feature of many of our trips. This trip we had three, nearly one per person. Missy (short for Mischief), the little runt Siberian Husky in the foreground is the most trouble. She’s fine as long as she’s pointed the way you want to go, but if she gets behind you and going back, it can take an hour to catch her. Taz, a wolf-sheppard cross, is her older brother up ahead. He’s great, loyal and strong. But he is absolutely chicken with water deeper than his knees and is nearly as stubborn as his owner, Willy. Caleb (out of frame) on the other hand will plough through anything – snow, water, sand – and will happily even jump cliffs if Tim calls him to. He’s only balked at descending a slope once and to be honest, I wasn’t so keen on it either.

I make fun of them, but I love the pups. They can come on any trips that don’t involve crevasses or vertical terrain. They usually carry their own food and water. Now if only we could get them to bring us liquor like the St.Bernards...

10) Trips '04 - Mt Rainier - 64Truthfully, we only climb mountains so we can glissade down...
Tim boot-skiing down Mt. Rainer. Yes, we climbed Mt. Rainier and I am showing you a blurry pic of boot skiing…these are the fun moments I remember!

Climbing Rainer is a funny venture: you basically climb at night and sleep in the afternoon. We’d get up ungodly early, have a quick breakfast and then climb until noon, have lunch then nap. We’d get up, have dinner, arrange gear and go back to bed. We’d then get up at midnight or 1am and do this again. Friday AM to low camp, Sat AM to high camp. Sun AM to the summit and back to high camp. I remember it being really hard to sleep during the day with the sun on the tent, the wind rattling the door and you’re at altitude (we live at sea level remember) suddenly.

Another funny story from Rainier. So the group next to us gets up an hour earlier and leaves and we find it strange they’ve taken their tent, but figure maybe they wanted the safety. When we arrive back at camp later that morning, we see them all huddled over a large crevasse. We watch them for a while as we unpack our gear. Suddenly one guy appears out of the crevasse towing their tent! It had been extremely windy that night and between when they left and we got up the whole tent, gear and all, had been pulled off its stakes and blown down the slope, thankfully into a reachable crevasse. Funnier still is this was not the first tent rescue we saw that weekend.

Glissading by the way is the technical mountaineering jargon for sliding down the hill on your butt. It is nearly as fun as boot skiing (and easier) except your bum usually gets wet unless you’ve got really good waterproof pants.

OK, so these are the fun, the humorous and the slightly crazed. If you were hoping for the sweeping shots, I’ve put together some sets from my Flickr photos you can browse (, but since my mom at least doesn’t have the bandwidth to browse Flickr, here is a sample of a few of my favourite shots and memories of the adventure part of our trips:Trips '04 - Mt Rainier - Camp 2High camp, Mt.Rainier. One of the most stunning locations I’ve made camp.

Trips '04 - Mt Rainier - 27Mt. Rainer. You don’t have to go to Alaska or the Himalayas to find big glaciers

Trips '05 - Garibaldi - 21 - Todd & our playgroundTodd surveying the route ahead, deep in Garibaldi Park. One of my favourite shots. Garibaldi is a wilderness playground of glaciers within an hour or two of Vancouver.

Trips '05 - Garibaldi - 31 - climbing ParapetSummitting Parapet in Garibaldi Park. It is not as long as it looks, we came down off Isosceles to the right. Actually, the day was longer than it looks, but amazing.

Trips '06 - Tantalus - 18 - snow ridge on Tantalus N ridgeSnow ridge on Tantalus

Trips '04 - Joffre Group - 27The sun setting the ice-crystal clouds glowing above Joffre and Matier

Trips '04 - Joffre Group - 36Coming back down onto the aqua coloured Joffre Lakes.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Life in Chennai # 18: Sleep well, eat well

You just have to laugh. Good thing I can generally sleep through anything.

I happen to live a couple buildings down from a temple. OK, rewind that. In Chennai, that is like saying you live a couple buildings down from a Starbucks on the West Coast (if you can throw a rock in Vancouver and not hit a coffee shop, a sushi joint and a yoga studio, then you’re inside). Here, as a function of the diverse and personalized nature of Hindu worship and a simple matter of population, there are temples pretty much every few blocks, from tiny roadside shrines to sky-reaching monuments.

So, anyway, the good-sized temple I live beside started marking an auspicious time and started doing pooja (worship of the Deities of the Hindu religion). At 4am. Over the loudspeaker. 5 days ago. From 4am to 10pm, solid. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I think they skipped parts of Monday for some reason, although maybe I just stopped noticing. Which is remarkable, because we’re talking loud. But break or my imagination, they were back at it again this morning for day #5, (although with a later 6am start). So hearing and experiencing what their pooja is cool and I have absolute respect for the varied Hindu traditions, but to be perfectly frank, I am not sure why it has to be done over the loudspeaker where I cannot turn it off. I assume everyone at the temple can hear just fine (although maybe not anymore), but over the speakers, it projects like they are piping the broadcast directly into my flat. And of course not being a morning person myself, I cannot fathom why anyone or any god would require anything at 4am. It is simply wrong, wrong, wrong! Not better black and white you’ll ever get out of me! ;-)

Truly, I wish I could share it with you though! My parents caught a piece over the phone the other night, but it is hard to convey with words. It is actually louder inside than out on the street, maybe some weird acoustic thing. I tried making a recording on my camera’s video mode, but it didn’t do it justice. But to give you an idea, it is like waking up on the couch with the TV on super loud because you fell asleep watching it drunk. Or for those who perhaps that example doesn’t resonate, it is like going about your day with a really loud stereo going, always. We actually had to shout over breakfast!

Ahh, India. The first morning, being unexpected, it was a bit annoying, but mostly, I find it just another amusing example of the hundreds of little things you just cannot take for granted here. On the plus side though, I was a real keener getting to work early on Friday. I wish I understood more of what was going on. My housemates and close colleague at work all coincidentally being Christian, they haven’t been much help and what little they’ve explained I’ll withhold so as to not make myself even more ignorant than I already am. Actually, now knowing a little Tamil, I expected to understand more of what was being said, but it was either too esoteric or most likely just too garbled by the low quality amplification. There have been sections of leading prayer and reciting verse, sections of rhythmic chanting and many sections of various kinds of music (no hip hop though unless I missed that set while at work on Friday). I’m not a super fan of traditional carnatic music, it takes a certain appreciation, but much of it was nice; some I noted would have been great with a nice funky base line. I liked the drum sets though. I suppose I shouldn’t really call them sets – it isn’t like they were down there with a DJ spinning (of course I shouldn’t assume…) – but the term works so bear with me.

As I started with, thank God I can sleep with pretty much anything going on. But one side effect was that I had some seriously fucked up dreams as my brain tried to incorporate the external stimulus, especially the chanting segments. I wish I could remember them better, but they always fade, just leaving that slightly disturbing residue of memory that my brain had been just mixing things that ought not be mixed, like coming in to find your 6-year old trying to bake cookies for the first time (does anyone else remember that horrid game show “just like Mom” that was on when we were growing up?).

Of course living with noise and inconveniences is a common adaptation for the most of us who now live in cities and apartment buildings the world over. Chennai is no different in this respect than Chicago or Calgary or Copenhagen. Perhaps garbage trucks bang bins (surely on purpose) in the back alley at 5:30am, maybe trucks grind gears along the nearby thoroughfare, or you have one of those neighbours (I’ve been one of those neighbours) who’s stereo base pounds through the walls 24-7. Dogs bark all night at whatever dumb-ass things dogs bark at, police sirens carry for miles and some jerk’s car alarm is going off, again, but we all somehow get along with the babble of cooking, shrieking and different tastes in music and TV programs carrying through the walls.

Here is no different, although of course we’ve got our own unique quirks. The newspaper wallah and a host of others I cannot identify by their distorted cries carries through the windows as soon as the sun is up. Traffic here produces a wider range of racket with the constant cacophony of beeps, squeaks and horns. The custom (requirement?) here is to have an audible reversing sound on your vehicle, which is usually some blaring, repetitive ring-tone like song. Everyone has ring-tones. But on the plus side, almost no one has car alarms, so major score on that one; the reversing sounds, which I despise, only last a minute (or 2 depending on the ability of the parker and the sketchiness of the space they are attempting). There are different urban bird and animal sounds, but not any more of them and nothing exotic. No monkeys or anything cool, although the peacocks made quite a raucous when I was staying in Jaipur last month. But all in all, I actually live on a quieter street than I have in times past: the concrete walls are much more soundproof than Western construction and I usually sleep with the overhead fan which does a good job in dulling most into its white noise.

Actually, being woken up repeatedly at early hours to singing and chanting reminds me (other than residence at University, of course) of a funny story of living in Vancouver during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I was living with my girlfriend at the time just a couple blocks from a major downtown intersection, high up on the 15th floor. The World Cup was in Korea and Japan that year and games therefore were at crazy hours of the night Vancouver time. And every day for 2 weeks straight we were woken up at 4, maybe 5 in the morning to the sound of some group or other having an impromptu parade down Robson Street cheering and honking and waving their flags wildly. The honking would start and I’d blearily get up and lean my head out the window above the bed. “Who won?” she’d ask sleepily. “Italy, I think”; “Brazil today”; “Korea again” (they did particularly well that year and have a sizable population in the city). It didn’t matter who won – such is the diversity of the city – every morning without fail the nationals and supporters of the winner would suddenly sweep out from wherever they were managing to watch the game at that hour and parade down the street. It was like it was choreographed. On the plus side, we kept up on the standings. It is a fond and fun memory, no less in the telling. Such is city life, in all its randomness and bother. So I suppose I can be easy on the temple.

But there are other funny noises to deal with this week. We’ve got a cricket holed up in our kitchen and he’s been going solid for a couple hours now. I’ve gone in there to see if I can find him, to tell him, “sorry little guy, but I can pretty much guarantee there are no girl crickets living in our kitchen. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I appreciate your commitment and all to being the coolest, suavist, cricket in the yard, but man to man: they aren’t coming dude. Give it up.” Of course I couldn’t find the bugger so he’s still there. I hope he finds a way out. We had one living there for a couple weeks back in January and never could find where he was hiding.

Bugs and creatures are another thing you mostly have to get used to here in India. I suppose it is the climate as well as the fact that we’re rarely living in a sealed environment (our apartment actually has an open-air window to a central shaft running down the middle of the building, a peculiar, but common design element here so all the apartments are open to each other, though grated, and to the outside). So things find their way in pretty regularly and many just decide to stay and set up shop. I’m generally unfazed by it, although I do admit I jumped and shrieked like a kid trying to capture a giant cockroach that flew into my room one night. I know they are more scared of me and can’t do me any harm, but it is all their fast skittering and flying about! Leslie thought it all very funny, but she’s about as resilient as anyone I’ve met with this stuff. You get used to all sorts of things though and very few of the bugs are actually a bother (except mosquitoes of course).

We’ve got geckos. They’re cute. I talk to them. We have a new little one scurrying around that I sometimes surprise when I come out to go to the bathroom. I try to shoe him out of my room, but figure he is fine living under the fridge if he wants. Not like we can do anything about it anyway. They just wander in and out. And I figure they eat bugs so points to them.

We go through phases of having ant problems in the place, again coming in from the outside. They are mini ones, very common here. I don’t mind them except when they occasionally get into my dinner left out on the table. I don’t figure they’ll harm me though. You have to compromise some. Several of us living here have concurred on there being an ant quota. So if I open my dinner and there’s, say, less than 5 ants checking it out, fair game; above that it gets dicey. On the other hand though, there is no “5-second rule” for dropped food here. With nasty microbes and general grime here, if it hits the floor, it’s DOA.

And that’s the basics of shared living here. It isn’t the most pristine place I’ve lived long term and it isn’t the quietest, but it isn’t the sketchiest or loudest either. At university our decrepit place had mice and millipedes and at one place or another I’ve had the excitement of having a squirrel or bird or bat make its way inside and freak out (my cat particularly enjoyed having the bird around…and around and around). I’ve lived near a fire station with neighbours who had a rock band, the one living there being the drummer. And unlike good friends of mine, I haven’t had bed bugs or fleas. Everyone’s got their horror stories.

So give a cheery hello to whatever critters share your space with you while you eat your cornflakes and give your shared wall, floor or ceiling a couple good bangs just for a chummy “nice to know ya” to your neighbours. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

What are the posts?

I'm exited! I'm heading up to Rajasthan for 5 days to see my family who has just arrived in India (this time my father and step-mother), and I am joining them up North tonight. Way too short, but I couldn’t get any more time off work and they couldn’t make it down to Chennai, so it is a lot of flying in a short period, 4 hops, but worth it to see them. They’re in Delhi now. Hope they’re liking it and are getting over any jetlag.

But in the mean time, where have my blogs gone? I've been delinquent in posting this last month. Sorry folks, I just can’t seem to get my blog entries finished and up these days. Lots of ideas, musing and stories, but it is a combination of time and energy constraints.

So while you wait, what is going on with me these days? Well, for starters I am a month in on taking daily Tamil lessons. I’ve got a lot I want to write about all that, but the short version is that this is making for happy for several reasons. First, I am simply really liking the challenge and feeling of learning a language again. I feel smart and empowered. This leads to reason 2: I have long harboured a belief that I am not good at languages and didn’t like the experience. Thirdly, and also importantly, I am excited for the window into the Tamil culture and the improved opportunity to interact with people here.

But the lessons, an extra hour and a half a day after work, are burning me out a little. By the time I get home, eat dinner and clear my head from actively thinking about Tamil, it is time for bed. With work being busier again, little time for writing.

Actually, it isn’t so much that I don’t have time at all for writing, it is more that this newer schedule is highlight weaknesses in my writing style: I write my blog entries best when I can sit down in the moment, when the idea, rant or glee at something strikes me and get it out. And I need the energy to write buoyantly. If I don’t I have trouble getting entries finished. I have more than a dozen posts partially written and a dozen more notes of ideas I wanted to write about. I’ve got trips and weekends away to share and tons of stories from Nepal I’ve got written in my journal to transcribe. But busy and tired, I never seem to get them done, polished or to my liking.

Anyway, enough on that. Suffice to say more posts in the works. You’ll just have to be patient for a bit.

What else is going on, well, as those who note my status updates on Facebook know, I’ve managed to get out trekking last weekend in a wilderness area north of the city. No great mountains scaled or anything, but it was a great exploratory foray to the area and even better the area has climbing potential if I can get a rope and a second harness for a partner. I’m excited to try that out. I’m slowly, slowly building a new social circle here, meeting new people from all sorts of random angles (even through this blog, cool enough), connections and events.

So I’m out for a bit, but promise to clean up some of my half-done entries…before I think of more things I want to share, jot down or capture… ;-)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Life in Chennai #17: Why We Have Bars

The strangest, oddest fucking thing happened to me last night. It was surreal. I’m still shaking my head about it, trying to resolve the details.

So it’s 3am and I’m sleeping. I’m not sleeping that soundly actually. I was up late reading, my brain is still spinning and I can’t seem to get comfortable. So I’m rolling a lot. But I’m mostly asleep listening to the washing patter of rain through the nearby trees. Every once in a while it is punctuated by a snap and thud as the ripe mangos in the tree outside my window get heavy with water, break and fall heavily and satisfyingly to the pavement below. Occasionally a squirrel makes a racket, a vehicle passes along a nearby street, or a truck honks its horn, at who this time of night God only knows.

With all that, I am a little surprised I heard it. Perhaps it was simply the closeness or perhaps it was just a sound that was distinctly out of place, our brains adapted through the eons to pick out discrepancies in the background. Whatever the reason, the odd soft, scrape and knock stirred me.

You know when you’re in a sleepy state, your mind not quite awake and you’re not sure if you’re really awake. That was me. And even fuzzier without my glasses or contacts in.

But I swear I thought I saw a large dark shadow drift down out of sight outside my window. Now that is a very odd thing to see. I wasn’t sure I saw it. There was no sound, just movement of dark in front of the city-warmed night sky and building across the yard. Sleepy as I was, I was having trouble processing what I thought I saw. I thought, “monkey?” but it was too large to be a monkey. Bird? It didn’t move like a bird. It kind of just looked like it sunk. It had human size, but I’m on the 3rd floor (that’s 4 storeys off the ground for those in North America. India counts the ground floor always as 0). And last I recalled, although admittedly I was quite tired and still very fuzzy, people didn’t sink silently and smoothly through the air.

Truth be told, I’m a little fuzzy about all that as I was not fully awake. I was starting to wonder if I had picked up a half-dream from having watched part of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and an episode of “Heroes” earlier than night. That combo will fuck up your dreams if anything does.

But something still wasn’t right. You know the feeling. Humans are very, very good at picking up subtle queues, even when you can’t put your finger on it. The dark swath shadow of the curtain bunched to the side of my window kept my eye. It didn’t move right as a curtain does and I was thinking it was too big. Don’t ask me how I decided this at 3am. But then it moved and resolved into a man-shape.

Holy shit. There was a man outside my barred, but open window four storeys up at 3am! I can’t say the adrenaline hit me and I leaped to action. I think it was the silence of it all. There was no sound other than the rain. But I swiftly got out of bed and moved to the window as the man slipped silently and smoothly up over the deep overhang and to the roof just above. I gave a quick yell, but didn’t run out of the flat to catch them coming down the stairs. I’m in India, I don’t know how many people are up there and I don’t have any sort of weapon I can grab before they’d be down and gone. Simply not a good idea. Let them go. They didn’t harm me.

But mostly, I stood there because I didn’t feel any fear since they weren’t going to get through the bars on the window and without that fear (and it being 3am), there wasn’t really anger either. Just puzzlement. I stood at the window trying to sort out what I had seen and how it had worked, thinking, “What the Fuck. Did I really just see that?”

How the Hell did he get there and move around so quietly? He was obviously making some noise that woke me. But the roof overhang is at least 2 feet from the wall, the open window panes form a narrow outward barrier to reaching through the bars. And funnily enough I actually have personal experience of how slippery the walls and ledges are from the grime and dirt – and that’s when it is dry, let alone tonight when it is pouring rain. Being a climber, I know how hard it is to pull oneself up over a ledge or even up a rope, let alone quietly and in the rain. I didn’t see a rope hanging. What is this guy, Spiderman, Batman or some sort of circus freak? He moved so smoothly and quietly. I was left with respect for his acrobatics and boldness for what he had to know was a low and uncertain payoff, just whatever was in reach.

I can’t be certain, by a long stretch, whether the first shadow I saw was a second man who dropped down or if it was just one guy who dropped below my window panes and back up to the wall beside them where I finally made him. If there was a rope, I didn’t see it although without my glasses, expert witness I am not. Was there someone hauling him up from the roof? Or did he climb like the geckos that sometimes look at me curiously from the ceiling?

To be honest, so completely odd, even for India, that it was, I’m not sure I would have been sure I saw it at all except that he left his reaching device stuck through the window bars and leaning up on my desk. So I had physical proof of the short affair, but it still left me to sort out puzzle of the unlikelihood of the events.

What he had been doing was trying to steal the stuff from my pockets that I drop messily on my desk – cell phone, ipod, wallet, keys, coins, pen. I don’t know of course what, if anything, he could make out in the dark was there versus how much he was just hoping. He was reaching through with a strip of plastic. It was one of those flat wall panels meant to hide wires and the like – about 1 inch wide, ridges forming a wide “C” along the sides to give it some rigidity. Considering my presumed sophistication of his Spiderman routine, I kind of thought he would use something more specialized to grab things, but who knows. I suppose if you could get the strip under the cell phone, you could tilt it up and slide it smoothly down between the side ridges. And I suppose you could hook it in the fold of the wallet and lift it out too. But all that presents a degree of dexterity and smoothness not anticipated by a person clinging outside a window and trying not to make any noise. It was obviously the nearby soft scraping of the plastic against my desk that was the out of place sound that pinged my sleeping brain.

My next line of questioning was whether I had been targeted as a foreigner who presumably has more value lying around. It is possible as I’ve never been good with closing the curtains. Maybe someone saw from across the next building. But one has to be careful assuming you’re special in India with a billion people and when so much happens at random. Perhaps they just saw me reading tonight. Perhaps it was totally random. Who knows.

As to how they got to the roof, well, that part I know: the watchman, as nearly all watchmen uselessly do, sleeps like the dead all night and the roof is open from the stairwell. I’ve come home several times late on a Saturday night and had to jump the chained gate, tromp past the sleeping watchmen and up the stairs. I’ve no doubt a group of would-be petty thieves could wander in and out dragging furniture and the elephants from their escaped circus and no one would notice. Ah well, such is the way of things here: all watchmen of all buildings seem to sleep so there is no use firing him.

So the whole affair of 2 minutes and then several more questioning the sanity of the universe was over. Nothing taken. A stupid plastic strip as a souvenir. A little bothered because of how close someone had been, only 10 feet or so, but no risk to my person and I was not particularly shaken. What does one do, but go back to bed. Just a weird, surreal story that I had to share or risk starting to wonder if I was crazy.

I’ve always lamented and questioned the bars on the windows and balconies and double locks and deadbolts on all the doors. I hate feeling like a prisoner and not being able to lean out. I haven’t heard of Chennai having a particular petty theft problem, not like Vancouver where having your car or even your apartment broken into has become almost not worth commenting on. And I’ve always thought, come on, 3rd floor? What are they going to do, drop down with a rope and come through the windows? Yeah, that is what they are going to do. There is always one more surprise living here.

So that I now see is why we have bars on our windows. Utter madness, but there it is.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Life in Chennai #16: Rain, rain, come again

We’ve been having rain. Actual water falling from the sky (that isn’t coming from a bucket off someone’s balcony). I’m excited.

Now my friends in Vancouver, who are en masse reporting giddiness on their Facebook profiles for their current sunny spell, are surely dumbstruck and sputtering about such a comment. It is raining. And you’re happy about it? Yup.

It isn’t so weird really. We haven’t had much rain yet this calendar year. I certainly have had no complaints that the weather forecast nearly every day has been sunny and lovely, but the rain, beyond just being a nice change of pace, does bring some benefit.

First of all and most importantly, it has knocked the temperature down 10 degrees from a month ago, which is positively wonderful. As I reported, I was getting used to the heat, but the ability of sleeping without a fan and its constant white noise, with a nice cool breeze through the window and rhythmic patter of rain on the trees and roof is a rare luxury. I’ve had to start sleeping with a top sheet again, which is novel.

So after a bit of a dig, I’ve pulled my rain shell from my pack, gone back to closed-toed shoes for the week and enjoyed being wet from the outside for once.

Of course with the rain, comes puddles, giant, street-spanning puddles and traffic is slowed and jostled even more than usual. I didn’t miss that from last year’s monsoon season. With less street space, especially along the pedestrian sides, walking the streets to lunch and elsewhere becomes a fresh new extreme sport again. I didn’t really miss that either although I’m more steely about rubbing shoulders with moving traffic since Nov.

The only real negative is that the mosquitoes are also back with all the lovely new standing water to breed in, but they're still small and slow-moving so are easy to kill so far. I guess I’ll have to go back to using the plug-in repellent.

Mostly we’ve been having the occasional afternoon thunderstorms, but this week a big system moved in and stuck and we’ve actually had rain all day and night, quite rare for here where most parts of South Asia are used to getting their rain in short, drenching buckets. My colleagues all commented on its unusualness. So it’s all about a change of scenery. For Vancouver, it is much deserved sun after a long, wet winter, but for us, a little water from the sky is a nice cool break, as long as it doesn’t last more than a week!

So rain, rain, go away and come again another day. :-)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Culture #10: Prayer Flags

Nepal - Kathmandu - Boudhanath Stupa

Prayer flags are one of my favourite religious observances and a sight I’ve come to cherish and love in the Tibetan and Nepali world. Strung from every place, structure or object of height or significance, their 5-coloured squares of fabric are always fluttering in the wind. Big, small, vertical poles (Darchor) or long, sweeping strands (Lung Ta), alone or by the hundred, no scene in the Himalayan and Tibetan world is complete without them. The 5 colours are: blue, white, red, green and yellow, always in that order (left to right), the blue symbolizes sky, the white wind, the red fire, the green water and the yellow earth.

Nepal - Flags on a rooftopI love them for several reasons. Romantically and piously, I love the idea of prayers floating off the fabric in the wind to God (Buddha) and their deities. It is a supremely simple idea. The many mantras and prayers written on the fabric are blown upwards and promote peace, prosperity and wisdom to all who the wind reaches. As the images and flags themselves deteriorate with the elements, they become permanent part of the universe and are renewed by the Tibetans by hanging new ones alongside the old.

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - Translucent flagsThey also tickle my practical side for their supreme efficiency: Buddhism, without a doubt, has the greatest concentration of prayers per person than any other religion. How do we get even more prayers to the gods with our monks already reciting mantras and clicking of prayer beads 24-7? Simple, get the wind to do the work for us! (And enterprising as they are, they’ve also hooked up prayer wheels to streams for continuous water-driven prayers! What genius!). It does help that Nepal and particularly Tibet are very windy places.

Hundred of flags in TibetBut I think I love them most for their aesthetic beauty. On stupas and Chorten, their fluttering colour contrasts beautifully with the clean, simple lines and clean, white surface of the monuments. Placed on bridges, passes, peaks and even special trees, their human element contrasts, but somehow pleasantly, with the striking, but often stark landscape they are set in. Whether in front of barren, alpine valleys, gleaming white peaks or lush green forest, their translucent colour catches the sun and the eye, complimenting the scene. They would welcome you into town. They would welcome you to the monasteries. They would let you know you’d reached the top of the pass or peak.

Nepal - Prayer flag pole in front of Lhotse and EverestPerhaps because of their simplicity and colour, it is not like a “Kilroy was here” graffiti scrawl or the discovery of a candy bar wrapper on a pristine beach, but rather a more subtle sign that, yes, humans were here and they found this place to be special and beautiful and went to the trouble of leaving an offering for it. You too can share this spot.

Although I am not about to turn Buddhist, I wanted a strand ever since being in Tibet last year and regretting not coming back with one. So this time I made sure to pick one up and now have it strung across 2 walls of my room. My room needed some colour. I turn the ever-present ceiling fan back on and they flutter satisfactory. It is not a mountaintop of course – any prayers freed are likely trapped swirling around my room like the moth that struggled chaotically about last night, but I hope, like the moth, eventually that some make it out of the windows and are taken up by the warm breeze.
Nepal - Summit prayer flags on Gokyo Ri in front of 8000m Cho Oyu

Friday, June 15, 2007

Life in Chennai #15: The New Helmet Law

So Chennai finally decided to make wearing a helmet mandatory for all 2-wheelers (motorcycles and scooters). No, they weren’t before. Sorry mom and dad. On the plus side, traffic rarely goes more than 30 km an hour during the day. But despite a public disinterest, a court order prompted the government to finally decide to make it mandatory in the name of public safety. June 1, last Friday, was the enforcement date (for the major urban centres, with the rest of the State July 1). It gives a fascinating and telling picture of how politics works here.

Here is how it went.

Pre-law helmet use: maybe 5%.
All last week suddenly roadside stands and wallahs stocking tall pyramids of boxed helmets appear everywhere. They do a killer business. My colleague told me helmets run from Rs 500 to Rs 1500 for proper ones, but although some premiums appeared that week most were kept reasonable by intense competition. Like anything else in India, a need was created and entrepreneurs filled it immediately from who know what supply chain. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the ones sold on the street, the North American equivalent of being sold out of the back of a van, are not up to standards and are of no use in an accident, but rather only to comply with the law and can be hand for under Rs 500.

So we haven’t even started the law yet and this doesn’t seem like it is having the intending effect...

Thursday, May 31, 1 day before: helmet use still 5%
No one seems to be warming up, practicing for the big day. They gave people a pretty good amount of time to get ready from the Feb 22 law passing, but everyone just waited to the last moment and then complained. I wonder how this is all going to go tomorrow. The local paper reports a mix of malaise and malign against the new law coming into force tomorrow.

Friday, June 1: helmet use 95%
Amazingly, out of closets, cupboards or just under their shirt everyone suddenly has a helmet on. If you don’t you’re getting in trouble.

Police are out in force on nearly every corner handing out tickets to those who were foolish to forget. Apparently fines are Rs 300 with a receipt and Rs 100 without. Ah yes... Without the receipt, you pay less and the policeman pockets it. This is very normal and I question if they even bother paying their traffic police for the “tips” they make. However on a day like this, without a receipt you are just going to get stopped again 2 blocks down and then again and again. With low-end helmets costing not much more than a ticket and policemen saving for their kids’ college and dowry funds, there is a strong financial reason to follow the law.

Typical of how these sorts of decisions are made and implemented here, the politicians decided that it was a good idea, set a date and that was that. They’re going with the stick approach, sorry Bugs Bunny. On June 1, if you don’t have a helmet, you get fined, simple as that.

So tough love, but at least it works, or so you would think: they’ve just successfully got everyone to buy, carry and wear their helmets.

But wait, this is India – things don’t go smooth like that, even when instigated in such a heavy-handed way. Nothing in India can ever be called simple and inertia reigns supreme.

Saturday, June 2: helmet use steady at 95%
Police still out in force. The government congratulates itself in the local papers.

Sunday, June 3: government flip-flops
Despite their law being by court order, the government panders to popular discontent and issues a decree for police to not “harass 2-wheeler riders” for not wearing helmets. So it is still mandatory, but not enforceable, sort of? Brilliant.

Monday, June 4: helmet use maybe 70%
It’s only been 3 days and already the enthusiasm has waned. I’m seeing more and more people driving without helmets. Without the enforcement, the stick, and with the politicians waffling things are sliding back downhill quickly and people are back to doing what they can get away with. I think the only reason that the rates are not dropping off faster is that with all the confusion, some people have yet to hear what the situation is. And of course police can still selectively target people as they do with every other law, to pocket the fee.

Admittedly, I partially understand why people prefer not to wear one: they are hot and uncomfortable and you suddenly need one for all 6 family members you cart around on your bike. According to one article, surveys of Indian drivers also cite, “discomfort, fear of hair-loss, headache, neck pain, and some other reasons,” as why they don’t wear one. So many reasons why the drivers don’t want it, some perhaps fair, some ridiculous, but I’m still stuck on why the government gung-ho has fizzled so quickly. I’m quizzing my colleague to try to understand how the various levels of government relate and how laws are getting passed and upheld.

But it goes on...

Tuesday, June 5: helmet use 50% and falling
Backpedal, backpedal...

So apparently, after weathering petitions and a court challenge that upheld the new law, suddenly the politicians had a change of heart, decided they wanted to be the men of the people and on Tuesday revoked the law for women and children. Yes, that is correct, women and children are now exempt again from having to wear helmets while driving. Now, there are some given reasons: for women including the effects on the important cultural practice of putting flowers in hair and excessive sweatiness in the helmet; for children, a concern with the weight of the helmet on their developing necks. All fine and good, sort of, but no crash helmets for women and children? Really?

And more over, if these are such needed exemptions, how did no one think of this just a teeny bit earlier... like last Thursday before everyone had to go out and buy one?

This is one of those things that I’ve learned enough to get that it happens, see some how it happens, but not yet enough to understand the underlying why it happens.

Friday, June 7: helmet use back to 5%
So after a brief excitement period of doing something, it appears the whole deal has simply been forgotten and everything gone back to normal. Oh, helmets still have officially changed from optional to mandatory for men – laws can be changed – but chalk up another example of failing to change cultural practices and of politicians choosing to be popular rather than any sort of leader. But this isn’t simply an Indian inertia thing. Who would ever expect to change people’s practices with so little effort? In order to get Canadians to wear bicycle helmets took years of sustained and multi-pronged effort. Yeah, “sustained” and “multi-pronged” don’t exactly come to mind here.

It reminds me of the auto rickshaw rate enforcement and their fizzled attempts to enforce meter use back in March. Yeah, like where did that all go? It was heralded as such a big deal, the government congratulating themselves all over the papers. But I’ve still only ever used a meter twice and was shocked both times. Oh, the papers would report 15 autos this day with licences revoked for not having running meters or a hundred that day fined for not having the new fare rates programmed in, but it is a feel-good promotion for the government. On the street nothing has changed with the 100,000 auto drivers in the city. You absorb the same through the media news about plans and actions of slum clearance, environmental improvement or following traffic rules – talk is made, money is spent, paper is set a-flying, but a day, a week, a month later, very little changes. You can’t really expect things to change overnight of course, so the sanest solution, true everywhere, is to mostly ignore the politicians making names for themselves and be patient; real change takes longer to take root.

Why do things happen this way? “It’s India”, said with a shrug, the equivalent of the French “c’est la vie”. That is the answer to most questions of “why?” we encounter here. It comes up all the time. To attempt a fuller answer usually doesn’t make it any clearer without a much deeper understanding of their complex socio-political history, of which I am certainly not qualified.

So, a week of excitement, confusion and field-days for the cops and the newspapers and everyone now has a nice shiny new helmet in their closet. Beyond that, not sure what we’ve accomplished: another law on the books that isn’t enforced effectively or consistently, another chance for politicians to play the heroes of the people and a week for me to confusingly quiz my colleague at lunch over WTF is going on today?

Sometimes, much of the time I think, India is like watching TV on fast forward and 8 channels on picture-in-picture. *Shrug* It’s India...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Life in Chennai #14: Beating the Heat Part 2 - Adapting

Friends and family have all been asking me how I am doing with the heat, with the summer and the answer, very truthfully and surprisingly, is, “I’m doing fine with it”. I’m glad it’s summer, happy it is here and enjoying the days, not pining for cooler climes or a change of season. And that surprises me as much as anyone.

I’ve got a few close friends here and talking this past weekend, we all noticed the same thing: somewhere along the way, we’ve actually gotten used to the heat. Oh, the days it hits 44 degrees C are not days you feel particularly motivated to go for a jog or run errands around town all afternoon, but they’re not days we wish we were dead either. We’ve found tricks and tactics (like in my last post) to deal, but it goes beyond that. We’re actually physically and mentally adapting to the new range.

It is weird to notice that and funny too. This past weekend was cooler than it’s been, lovely and pleasant, nice at night. We were happy and giddy over the comfort and freedom and spent lots of time outside…it was 38 degrees. We’ve completely adjusted our range of what is normal, what is nice, what is hot and what is cool. I first really noticed we had adapted when I caught myself using “only” to describe anything under 40 degrees and not meaning it in jest. Similarly, you stop noticing being sweaty and sticky. You stop describing it as “gross” and, really, just stop describing it at all. You get along with it psychologically so that you do not feeling trapped inside or unable to live life.

I seem to be physically adapting also. The first week back from Nepal was definitely like getting smacked by a truck and I definitely felt my body struggling with the heat and worried about the months of summer left. Sweaty and damp, I didn’t sleep well those first few nights. But that seems to have gone away and I feel fine now, normal. I’m actually sweating less and being bothered less than when I first arrived in India despite it now being much hotter. I’ve even kept my beard and find it OK, maybe because the short hair aids evaporation? Beats me, but it isn’t any more itchy, annoying or damp than the rest of me. I am feeling OK without a/c at home and even no longer feel the need to turn on the fans all the time (although I am thankful we have a/c at work as without any airflow and catching the mid-day sun, the office is truly unbearable without some form of cooling). I am really jazzed about this, all the more because I wasn’t sure how I would do. I do well in the cold – my body generates a lot of heat – but was never as good with wilting heat, so this is a new trick for me.

A year ago, I would have described 38 degrees as killer hot and dreaded a day out in it and today I find it pleasantly cool and a nice respite. I now have a high of 44 degrees in my spread of acceptable temperatures I know I can handle. How cool is that? It is really amazing what you can get used to and how you can redefine your range of comfort.

Life in Chennai #13: Beating the Heat

When I discovered that it was now impossible to get cold or even room-temperature water out of the taps (even the “cold” tap only gives very warm water) I realised that India’s summer, is an entirely unique animal. With temperatures rising weekly well into the 40’s, the summer heat, like everything in India, is not something to be fought and overcome; instead you adapt yourself to it, surrender to it.

Which makes the title actually a bit of a misnomer: because, in truth, there is no way to actually beat the heat in Chennai. It is like the Star Trek Borg: Resistance is Futile. Even the refrigerators have given up and are claiming rights under the Geneva Convention. The only option is to adjust to it and find a way to learn to love it, or at least grin and bear it. And failing, that, make light of it all, ‘cause it ain’t gonna change.

It is a bunch of little changes, new rules of life you have to get used to, that make it funny. Like for example having now to plan to get chocolate – you can no longer just pick one up any ol’ where. If you want to get a chocolate bar to eat at home, you now have to arrange to get it from a store within a few blocks of your house or else it will literally melt into a puddle before you get home and you really have to buy it from a proper supermarket with a/c to even get one that is still solid enough to eat without a straw at all. It is accepting new inconveniences like that the power goes out twice as often these days and that you can really no longer get or buy anything “cold”. The best refrigerators can do is “cool” and with the frequent power cuts, you cannot rely on even that (a major consideration for buying anything perishable). So your chocolate is goo, your juice warm and your shower hot. I don’t even want to talk about ice cream…

So with these funny little things in mind, I’ve been pulling together a list of how to adapt, how you have to adapt to the summer heat in India. Enjoy!

  • Have 3 showers a day. Enjoy your free hot water. I haven’t used the water heater since I’ve been back and don’t expect to for months. On the down side, after a day of work, sweaty and grimy, a solar-heated hot shower isn’t exactly what you were looking for, but that’s just the way it is.

  • Be one with the fishes. The hardest I think to get used to, but the most important to mentally deal with, is that you are wet and dripping with sweat all the time. Day, night, at work, at home. It is truly amazing how much water can come out of your skin with so little work. You’re never dry. I’m about to grow gills. Hopefully it’ll help. I’ll report back.

  • Walk slower. I understand fully now why people move slower in the tropics.
    Drink lots of water. Lots and lots and lots of water. My God! I can’t believe how much water I’m drinking. We’re thirsty all the time, putting back glasses like we’re doing shots.

  • The IV drip backpack. That is the perfect solution to the water and salt intake challenge – just carry around your own personal, portable IV plugged into your arm. This is my grand idea, admittedly potentially born of fever, but I’m convinced it could make me millions on the convenience factor!

  • Get well acquainted with your pharmacist. Talcum powder, prickly heat, fungal cream, rashes, antiseptic ointment, skin care, and things you never had or needed before become everyday occurrences.

  • Dance in the afternoon thunderstorms.

  • Get used to living your entire indoor life under a fan. Sleep under it, eat under it, work under it; it becomes your little column of relative comfort. What is really funny is that I finally understand what paperweights and all those stupid corporate desk objects are actually for and finally find them useful. Everyone at out office needs 3 or 4 or risks losing any paper you inadvertently set down to a jumble throughout the room.

  • Half the expiry date. I don’t care if the milk says “best before” a month from now. Expect that it has been un-refrigerated without power at some point and play it safe. Buy fresh and finish everything in your fridge within the week. It is actually a healthier lifestyle anyway.

  • Wear as little as possible. This is where the Indian custom of modesty and working in an office gets in the way, but at least you can sleep naked.
    Be thankful they don’t report the humidex “with the humidity, it actually feels like…” here. It feels like soup, that is what it feels like. Hot mulligatawny soup. ;-)

  • Be pre-emptive about your body getting worn down. Understand that living and processing is taking more energy than before so minimize how much you stress it. It means being more careful again, considering avoiding street food, juice vendors, tap water and snacks from the wallahs again because the chance of them making you sick is just so much higher these days. I hate this one. I’ve never been good with my own advice and still break this regularly, if perhaps not quite with as much abandon as before.

  • Accept that no matter what you do, you will get sick at some point. It doesn’t matter if you have an iron gut, super immune system or take acidophilus. You are not Superman. The bugs here are stronger and come in so many nice varieties. So accept your mortality.

  • Sit up straight. Seats make your back sticky and wet.

  • Remember that people pay a lot of money at gyms and spas for thing you experience by just going outside. Steam bath, sauna, hot name it. I’ll even buy you a cucumber from the stall down the street to wear on your eyes.
    As it is said in the movie Dogma, “No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater... than central air.” I hate a/c, but it is a very necessary evil.

  • Go on vacation. This is why the British and Moghuls before them built the hill stations. They were onto something. Join the masses of anyone who has the means to get their ass up some elevation. Sadly, I had accomplished this for April, but stupidly came back. Damn do-gooding... ;-)

  • Pray for the cooling monsoon rains to come. Oh, that’s right. Tamil Nadu doesn’t get the summer monsoons. It’ll stay hot through Aug. Oh well. For everyone else in the country, monsoon just started in Kerala. Enjoy the cool…and the floods. Whoever said you could win?

But in all seriousness, know that everyone goes through it with you. Everyone looks a little wilted on those really hot days, everyone crowds around the fans at the restaurant, everyone is damp. So stop whining and learn to love it, or at least laugh at how many silly situations this presents.

For those others that have or are living here, post your tips and your own observations of the silly ridiculous things you have to do to deal. ;-)