Twitter Updates

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Life in Chennai # 10: Visiting The Emporiums

I’m playing the tourist today in Chennai. I’ve even got my camera slung across my shoulder, an obvious give-away. I’m down at Spencer’s Plaza, one of the man Chennai malls, picking up a couple things. I don’t really like Spencer’s; beyond its derision for being a mall, it gets enough foreigners & tourists to have a thriving gauntlet of hawkers each one proclaiming, “Hello Sir! Look in my Shop! Very Good Prices, Sir!” I’m being the tourist though and am in a good mood, so I walk through with less force and smile politely at their endless propositions. I treat myself to a nice lunch (nice being equivalent to $2) lunch at a noodle shop, enjoying the rare chance to use chopsticks again. The food is passable and reminds me vaguely of the vegetarian delights I shared at the Qingyang Gong Daoist Temple, Chengdu in Chengdu, China nearly a year ago.

Being a touristy place, the stands of autos out the front door are extremely affable, but ridiculously over priced. If you come to Chennai, in these areas, start well below half their opening offer, keep light-hearted and be firm on knowing how much things should cost. They’ll relent eventually, but you may have to fight a little harder. Of course you can always walk away down the street and hail one too.

The other trick they’ll use with great abandon here is saying that they concede against their better judgement to your price if, “you visit my friend’s shop on the way. 5 minutes look only!” I usually laugh at this one or sigh at their persistence and just say no. Don’t feel bad in any way to just say no and remain at your price point. There is no need to go by a shop somewhere. You’ve got places to be and things to do.

But today I didn’t so much have places to see and things to do. I was spending a poky afternoon and the idea for some reason tickled me. So I spontaneously decided, “Sure, why not. Take me to your shop!” I’ve long been curious to see what kind of scam or go on in these ubiquitous shop tours. Are they the same emporium shops around where I work that I see autos sometimes dropping tourists off at or are they sketchy hole-in-the-walls? Perhaps I partly did it for the story, the capturing of which has been the soundtrack of my adventures. Partly I just thought it might be fun. Either way, I had some free time, so figured why not? The driver had gleaned that I live here and grinned appreciating the commission he would get out of this. He introduced his Good Name as Litiana. So deal struck, off we zipped into the strong, moist breeze of the afternoon.

My adventure is quickly waylaid however when the auto broke down 4 blocks on. Normally I would have abandoned him for another. I did not sign up to be twiddling my thumbs in the sun in some alley while the auto gets worked on at an on-the-spot repair shop – that seems a little generous – but I’m in a relaxed mood and have my book besides so I shrug off my impatience and stick around. At the end of the day, if I get home faster, I’m just going to sit somewhere else reading so no reason to make a fuss over principle. The repairs take 15 minutes, which is quite good I think considering they seem to be doing major engine work. Puts those “quicky” lube places to shame!

So detour completed, we’re now off to the emporium. I’m a little less keen now after our stop, but am still determined to see this now that I’ve got my mind on it. Arriving, the driver helpfully recommends, “high prices, just look. 5 minutes!” Interesting. He seems serious about me just looking and escaping there money intact. Wasn’t expecting that. I like him.

The emporium shop is quiet. Dead might be a more apt description. The 4 or 5 salespeople look like they’ve been recently napping. One still is. Lining the walls are the expected silk shawls, rosewood elephants, sandalwood carvings, rugs and jewellery. All of it is fine, but not spectacular examples of the art, but all appears to be highly marked up anyway. One salesperson leads me around haphazardly and without much enthusiasm. He slightly pleadingly tells me I am his first customer of the day. Slick they are not. I was expecting slick; seasoned guys who know how to put you at ease, know how to warm you to the idea that this or that are perfect gifts for my mom, family or myself and apply the usual psychological tools. I could probably do the patter myself after being subjected to so many examples in my own travels. I walk out slightly embarrassed for them. No wonder they have to pay autos to bring us in – the only reason someone might by something is if they are desperate to complete their shopping before catching their flight or because we feel bad for them. But they didn’t even manage that emotional appeal well. Maybe it is busier on other days.

I hop back in the waiting auto, Litiana nodding happy that I didn’t come out with something, but as we pull away he informs me I have to stop at a second shop for him to get his commission. Now I really hate these bait and switch routines, changing the deal and ask after we’re part way through. It is very disrespectful, appealing manipulatively on my sense of goodness that I won’t leave him hanging after having gotten this far. And I generally am very sceptical that he is really the victim of an all-or-nothing scheme or that it is my problem if he is. His fault for not being up-front or forcing the owners of the stores, who are really on the line if no one will do their bidding, to make it a one-shop, one-commission deal. But practicing my easy-going attitude once more and since I still don’t really have any place I have to be, I sigh, “Lead on, Boss! Last stop!”

True to his word, the second emporium is literally just around the corner. I recognize the shop front of this one – it is only a few blocks from my work so I pass by often. This second shop is a little slicker and livelier, which helps relieve the tedium of pretending to browse the same identical goods. I look for the mass-produced “made in China” labels on them, not as crazy as it sounds. Yet again, most of the salespeople show little aptitude for the job, remarkable given the fine art most Indians have elevated sales to. Along with me there is a young German guy and a Korean girl half-heartedly wandering the same package tour. I smile at them for our shared entrapment, feeling the whole idea rather humorous. The manager does show some potential in his warm introduction and inquiries and made a light hearted urge for me to not leave without buying at least something small, but didn’t press when I explained I worked for an NGO nearby. I find that that does have some currency and I’m more than willing to use it to help my position in getting out of hard sells. In this case though I had brought it up mostly for the friendly conversation. I liked him. I would come back when I do want to buy souvenirs if the prices weren’t so outrageous. I tell him to join me for lunch at the Suriyas Hotel down the road (TTK Rd) from the shop, where I eat most days.

I leave the two emporiums feeling slightly disappointed. I signed up for this plan partly because I thought it might be a kick to see how I fared against the city’s best tourist trappers so when that flopped, I felt cheated. Funny how it all comes down to expectations!

With a couple hours of daylight left, I have the driver drop me off at a Coffee Day in my area. Coffee Day is Chennai’s only upscale coffee chain. For reading travellers, other, more atmospheric, places to chill include Amethyst, Mocha and Euro Café (name?). The cappuccinos and lattes cost Rs 38, which is 4-6 times the price of regular coffee at the wallahs and restaurants, but the filter coffee is nice and smooth and they do those fancy swirl patterns on the foam. Despite the nod to the globally standardized upscale look, my latte cup has a couple chips in it, which I kind of like.

The main reason I stop though is that it has a nice shaded patio to chill on. I miss café culture, the pace and places to sit and watch the world. It is not foreign in all India I’m told, but it is not common at all in Chennai. Sad really, everyone is always moving on the streets, hovering standing around the wallahs at corners, but never sitting and relaxing. The one disadvantage of the little wallah stands is that they permeate an air of being temporary, hurried and afterthoughts, which does give a less relaxed and planned feel than a streetscape of cafés and slow shops, invoking feelings that relaxing is what we are supposed to be doing. But I understand it is more a function of how people here still most socialise and the heightened importance of family. If being home and surrounded by family is more important than other places, hanging out on the street will naturally be less valued, plus the still strong barriers to socialising freely between the sexes dampens the demand – after alcohol, coffee must the worlds second most chosen social lubricant of choice.

It is nice to play the tourist and see your city in a different way and I got a little adventure out of it. So for any other travellers, don’t worry about the autos trying to get you to see the emporiums, but don’t bother accepting either. Their not worth the time or browse so give them a pass and just laugh and tell the drivers you’re don’t want any stops and stick to your price. They’ll give in eventually. The good side actually, thinking about it is that Chennai doesn’t get so many tourists that the autos actually do far less double duty as salesmen for tours, attractions, curious and other junk, but perhaps it is worse in the tourist haunts. I have to be wary of making generalisations on a city bigger than LA that I swim in local circles mostly different than those passing through as travellers. If people have different experiences, I’d love to hear them.

Amethyst is at Sundar Mahal, 14 Padmavathi Road (off Llyods Road), Jeyapore Colony, Gopalapuram
Mocha & Euro Café (name?) are on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Nungambakkam

Life in Chennai #9: Survival Skills I Learned in the Last Couple Weeks

1) How to send letters by air mail at the post office
The elaborate, exotic process: it is exactly the same as sending regular mail, just with more stamps. So it wasn’t really that exhilarating. To be honest, I’m a little suspicious that it is that easy as handwriting “airmail” on the top of the letter and adding some more stamps, but that is what they assured me at the post office. The mail wasn’t from me though, so I’ll count this one as “learned” when I have proof it arrived and by air mail.

2) Why people walk slower in the tropics
Because it is hot and sticky. All the time. I still retain much of my Northeaster stride never really losing it despite many years in Vancouver. Summer is coming though, so that might finally kill the habit!

3) How to buy things from the chemists
I know what you’re thinking. “Oooh, the chemist, you intrepid world traveller, you!” But this is a more daunting task that it first sounds. You see, chemists (aka pharmacies aka druggists as they are variously signed) in Chennai don’t have nice aisles to browse searching for what you might want, maybe check the packages, compare “extra strength” vs. “long lasting” brands. Instead they consist of a small street-facing room crammed top to bottom with boxes and haphazard products and a counter barring the front that you approach (this incidentally is the same format for the magazine shop, the snack shop, the bootleg DVD shop, etc.). You can’t look and pick something out – you have to ask the guy (or as is usual, the small army of guys crammed in the tiny space) what you want and have him dig about and produce it for you. So there is an obvious need to get over any vestiges of embarrassment or privacy (because also like everywhere else in India, you will never be the only person at the small counter shopping at the moment so your neighbours will also all know. That’s life here for everything). Man, you thought it was bad buying tampons or cold sore medication at home! It also basically means you need to know what exactly you want, what it is called, and failing that, what the underlying active ingredient is. Now, I know the generic names for the basic painkillers (I play sports), but everything else I only know by brand names non-existent here. And if you don’t know the name, you rhyme off your list of symptoms and hope they have sufficient basic medical training or at least have been working there for more than a week. I’m sure the whole system works for the locals, but as I said, it is one of the most daunting of lifestyle elements to tackle as a foreigner living overseas.

I was asked to pick up something for a colleague who was feeling ill. I was originally hopeful, as I had the actual name of a possible product to buy. Great, easy errand on my way back from lunch. Of course, they didn’t have it. Course not. I never really expected them to, because that would be actually helpful. So I explain (and have to mime) symptoms of fever, chills and tiredness/weakness. It is like medical charades, but with happy pills for the winner! My goodness, I am not sure I am comfortable with being responsible for this! But in the end a foil pack of gel-cap pills is produced that is allegedly (one of my favourite words, BTW) equivalent to what I had wanted. I might have worried about the lack of original packaging if I hadn’t been here for several months already. I pay the asked Rs 21 ($0.54 for those counting) to assuring head wags and slightly worriedly return back to work with the pack. But Hema seems happy with my choice, accepts the proffered change and takes one of the pills with a glass of water. She’s still alive and looking fine this week so I supposed they helped her get through whatever she was fighting.

A few days later, when I myself need something, I drag my housemate John down around the corner with me to help. I needed some antibacterial ointment cream and didn’t want to come back with, well, cold sore cream or anything.

4) That the price of packaged goods in India are listed on the packages.
See my previous post for details on how I discovered this useful lesson.

5) That hot glass looks exactly like cold glass.
OK, no, I didn’t actually learn this one last week here in India. I learned this one way back in chemistry lab at school, but it has always been one of my favourite all-purpose tidbits of advice, so I thought I’d share it.

6) That batting a Square Leg to the boundary for a four with 2 balls on the over is a good thing...I think...

The Cricket World Cup is on! The Caribbean nations of the West Indies are hosting 16 teams for the sports top honour. Yes, it’s cricket fever and I’m getting enough of it to finally gain an appreciation for the sport. And I’m finally learning the rules and scoring, perhaps one of the greatest survival skills here.

I was actually somewhat disappointed that because of the time zone difference to the West Indies, matches are all at night so I haven’t had the chance to see the city truly come to a grinding halt for matches. But with matches running to 2am or later in the evenings, that at least explains why people have been looking tired in the last few weeks. Traffic was noticeably light going home yesterday (Mar 23) as people settled in for the 7pm start of the critical match against Sri Lanka. It was a do-or-die elimination match so was very important. Shops were shutting their doors and people hurrying home as I passed. Sadly, the home team India lost and are out of the tournament, a major disappointment for one of the major cricket nations.

A few specific things I’ve recently picked up:
- “Innings” is singular. This makes no sense to me considering the English are the founders of both the sport and the English language. The Americans sorted it out much smarter with a baseball “inning”. Silly English.
- Getting someone out is called a “wicket” regardless of whether it involved the wicket being knocked off. It took me a while to catch onto that.
- I don’t have the attention span to watch the full 6+ hours of a One-Day International (ODI) match. But what is funny is that ODIs are considered “short” since proper Test matches usually last 5 days.
- Canada has a cricket team. We’re not that good, but we showed well in our match against England last week. Completely unsurprisingly, most of our players herald from the Caribbean.

And I have to admit, now that I’m getting the hang of the rules, arcane statistics and subtle strategy (true of a lot of major sports really), it is an interesting and exciting game. But proving I still have much to learn, I still have no idea what for example this report in the newspaper The Hindu is talking about...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Life in Chennai #8: Inconveniences and Outages

The power has gone out again, throwing us into darkness in the office. The UPS backup, a necessity and normal appliance for businesses and any homes that can afford one, has just run out so computers are out.

When the UPS is drained it makes a terribly annoying high-pitch whine, obstinately to warn you to shut down your computers properly before it dies, but it seems more a headache-causing inconvenience than a useful function (I suspect they are designed to carry sound through Western-style IT closets rather than out in the open in the corner of our room). It does make one scurry though.

Being on a laptop, I’ve got a couple hours of buffer to keep working, unlike my colleagues who are more or less shut down now. Of course, I’m not the lone soldier enough to feel compelled to be the only one working so I’ll take the chance to write this instead!

Power outages are a fact of life here. Usually the power goes out a few times a week from a few minutes to an hour. Sometimes also the lights flicker or dim from more limited brown-outs or when we lose a phase (electric power is 3-phase and technically lights and some electronics can run on just 1. This sort of power splitting is quite common in villages since in a work-around-way it triples the supply of a given unit of power). Varying throughout the city, they happen at home too at random hours. It is funny that I’ve gotten so used to the constant staccato of the overhead fan that the sudden silence of an outage instantly wakes me. The water gets cut about as frequently, compensated in every office and household bathroom by at-the-ready filled (and brightly coloured) plastic vessels to bath and flush the toilets with. It reminds me of the recommendations of all the pamphlets and community trainings they push in Vancouver on earthquake emergency preparedness (that very few get around to following) and reminds me how societies will adapt to inconsistency and reliability of service and simply carry on around it. I even recall a particularly dramatic performance at a play in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario where the theatre suddenly went pitch black during a thunderstorm and the actors continued on in the darkness without missing a beat and demonstrating what people here know well: the show must go on. But equally it reminds me just how less robust and more fragile our modern society is: our modern businesses and offices, with computers, electronic files, emails and faxes, cannot operate without absolute, constant power; water maybe, but not power. We lose the ability to roll with the disruption. Like the power and the water, the Internet goes out regularly (and isn’t great even when it is on) and when it does, our office is nearly as crippled. We’ve built this wonderful global system, but it is a fragile one.

At least the trains always run on time…
(Ha, just kidding, where do you think this is, Japan?)

The power outages usually don’t last longer than an hour thankfully, but a couple weeks ago, the power was out at the office the whole day and I got a taste for what it was like working prior to modern infrastructure. It is stuffy, sticky, sapping heat: no air conditioning and worse, no fan to compensate. You start to really understand the reason and value of siesta (actually, I’ve always been a firm backer of the idea, and who wouldn’t, just can’t seem to convince employers to go for it!). In fact it is probably worse than historically because the buildings today are not designed with cooling or airflow considerations at all. The power companies inoffensively call the outage “load shedding” since their problem is that too much demand load is threatening their systems. So from their operational perspective, they solve their problem by shedding load, which happens to be us...They kept saying another couple hours, then stopped answering the phone. Twiddling our thumbs and shooting the shit grew tedious and eventually even my laptop battery depleted. We went home early.

Today thankfully there is a nice breeze passing through the opened French doors (one of the many little differences in Indian architecture), although paperweights have had to be frantically added to any pile of documents on our desks as you snatched your recent meeting notes or report from its escape for freedom. We order an extra afternoon tea from the chai wallah and I catch up on my writing (been caught up in evenings in a book, will share that later). It’s a quarter to 5. If it goes another hour, there is no point staying. I’d rather be writing or reading or talking with my colleagues around a nice open-air café. There is a lovely one nearby. I think I’ll suggest it...

...5:30. Drat, the power just came back on, just as we were thinking we could make a break for it. Oh well, back to work! ;-) These ups and downs are just the way of life and commerce here. You adapt.

Life in Chennai #7: Merry Christmas Redux!

Merry Christmas everyone!

OK, I know, this is kind of out of season, but I can’t help sharing my giddiness. I’m excited because I apparently have an actual, real Christmas present to open when I get home tonight! It is like Christmas all over again...Actually, it is more like Christmas proper since I kinda skipped it the first time.

Yes, my Mom’s Christmas care package finally arrived today. Completely unexpected. It is March 21 today. She posted it November 27. That’s 4 months after she mailed it and 3 months late for Christmas but hey, just in time for Spring! Call it a Solstice present.

I suppose the “better late than never” theory applies here, but I would kill to know where has it possibly been in those missing months? Did it travel the world? Did the Customs people open and eat the toffee my mom apparently included (perhaps not the best idea on that one Mom and definitely not edible now...) and then forgot it behind the couch? Did my mailperson just keep forgetting to grab it, saying, “I’ll delivery that heavy one tomorrow”? I long to know. Just a couple weeks ago I had told my mom, “Sorry, but no way is this coming at this point. By now, it must be lost, destroyed, or waylaid to some dark corner.” But turns out I gave up too soon (my threshold for hope was 2 months extra). From whatever corner, warehouse or circuitous route, it came.

Funny enough another couple weeks and she could have hand-delivered it to me herself (my mom and sister are coming to visit in April, YEAH!). Perhaps that is the cosmic reason for its now arrival.

Ah, but situations like this are among what I count as the joy that comes with India. Never ceases to amaze, but never really surprises in its wonderful consistent inconsistency.

So, Merry Christmas again! I just had to share that kid-in-a-Pure-Ghee-Sweets-Shop feeling! Might just have to skip out a little early from work, you know, like getting up early Christmas morn (minus the frosted windows)! :-)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Culture # 9: Now They Tell Me…Tips on Getting Ripped Off

It is part of the charm of the place that prices and sales are interactions and conversations between people, not just transactions. I talk all about it of course in the Personal Touch.

But talking about buying stuff in India could not be complete without a story of getting ripped off. Getting beaten in bargaining, over-charged or generally ripped off is a rite of passage for India (and most travel destinations) and part of the experience.

Before I delve into the story though, I would like to stake out my stance briefly that despite Western ire and distaste at such practices, getting taken in when paying for something isn’t really a question of honesty or goodwill on the part of the salesperson. It comes from a different value and perspective on the transaction of selling stuff and one that takes the “buyer beware” caveat and the global economic principles of “what the market will bear” to its natural conclusion. If they can get away with a price or sell you something lower quality, they can, and it is just as much your responsibility as it was theirs. If you are willing to pay the price, then that was fair market value at that moment. The idea of being “ripped off” is based on the idea that you are a victim rather than a full player, which is not really valid here. You are expected to hold up your end by knowing what you want and asking questions. It is a consistent system that just goes against you if you don’t know all the rules.

A simple example of the consistency of the system that might be easiest to visualize is actually from the shoulder-to-shoulder diversity found in Vancouver and other major North American cities. If you shop in Chinatown on Main Street in Vancouver, the produce shops are known for selling produce cheaply. But, in a departure from the glitzier supermarket stores a few streets over, the quality of the produce will also vary more widely. Sure enough, in concert with this, is the common stereotype sight of the old Chinese women poring intently (and slowly) over every cantaloupe and tomato, picking out the good ones one by one. Next door, other shopkeepers loudly hawk their wares and services and the same old women fire questions (also loudly) of where this comes from or the quality of that, pushing the hawkers back on exactly what they are offering. Taken together the system is consistent and works and patterns how much of the world shops. Conversely, North American standard has become the (dare I say lazy) want of being able to grab a basket full of tomatoes (or whatever) without looking and without asking questions and therefore demanding the store quality is good and consistent enough to support this convenience of not needing to pay attention. See, again consistent.

The problem with travellers and expats is that the systems don’t match up. We get charged more and ripped off because we can be and because we don’t know the price and worth of things or how to ask. We get hassled and pushed by aggressive touts more because we don’t have a strong understanding of the area and value and lack understanding of the language and/or cultural differences to ask the right questions. It is made worse that in most Western cultures we are not used to asking a dozen of questions before buying anything. Here we are expected to be sophisticated in bargaining – it is just what is expected – and since we aren’t, we lose sometimes (OK, a lot of the time). It is admittedly somewhat taking advantage our ignorance for gain and it can be galling when you, yourself, get taken, but it really isn’t personal. In the end, it is a simply a scaled-up version of what goes on with everyone and exaggerated because we can afford it and like annoying advertising or spam, perpetuates because, like it or not, it must works enough of the time.

So I’m not immune of course and have many examples of “now they tell me...” I recall for example getting caught by the common “art student scam” in Beijing the first day, much to my later embarrassment. I recall getting great prices for bracelets in Lhasa, but marked up prices for sandals in Bangkok. But being in India, I thought I’d share a recent story from here. It is amusing and even has a lesson at the end.

So having been here 4 months now and, having been travelling before, I have actually done quite well with avoiding getting taken by unscrupulous vendors. Sure, there may be an occasional foreigner mark-up (being charged an extra 10 or 20 rupees for something), but I don’t totally disagree with that as long as it is not unreasonable, the foreign currency buying power being so dramatic. And whether I agree with it or not, if you are not a local and speak Tamil (meaning from-away Indians also get similar treatment) it is nearly impossible to bargain down to the local price for auto rickshaws, even if you know what that price should be. Those are just the rules of the game. But generally I have done well in holding my own and holding onto my cash.

But I ruined my whole streak in one fell swoop in one a bad day last week.

I got out of the auto coming home after work, picked up some rum at the wine shop (what they call all liquor stores) and then picked up some new razor blades and shaving cream at another shop. Nothing unusual.

At the checkout for the shaving stuff, the computer tallies everything, I go to pay and then realise I don’t have enough cash. A little embarrassing, but I’m only a couple blocks from home so it isn’t really that big a deal. I drop home and back to get some. But what the problem is, is that I should have had enough cash. I know I should have had two Rs 500 notes in there, one of which I just used at the wine shop. I was sure of that.

I knew then what I had done: I had given the wrong bill to the auto driver, who pocketed it without batting an eye, losing Rs 400 in the process. That is what I had done. I had had a tough day at work, was distracted by that, traffic had been heavy and I was antsy to get home. It is dark when I get out & I inadvertently handed him a Rs 500 note rather than a Rs 100, which is my standard fare. In my defence, it isn’t that impossible to do. Some of the Rs 500 notes are a bluish colour similar to the Rs 100 notes. In the dark, like it always is on the unlit street where I get off at home, it is possible to mix them up if you don’t look too closely (they are slightly different lengths too. Yes, I know). I usually hold the bill to a light to be sure, paranoid of this very mistake, but obviously I hadn’t today. I had whipped it out and handed it to him. It is about like giving a cab driver a $20 by mistake for a $5 fare. I actually thought I had done it a couple times before, which is why I usually check, but those other times, upon balancing my expenses, I found that no, I had just spent it; that slightly disheartening discovery we are all familiar with when we find we’ve dripped away cash a bit here or there on coffee or snacks or drinks or whatever. So this was bound to happen eventually. I still felt like an idiot and a rube though, especially after being here for so long. Oh well, I don’t blame the driver for not telling me. Call it a nice, if unintentional, tip for him and his family and a Rs 400 loss for me.

After running back to the store, I then got home properly, a bit disgruntled, groceries and toiletries in hand, and sat down with my housemate John for a drink of my rum. This is where I discovered my luck was indeed poor today. In telling the story about the auto and how I knew how I had lost the Rs 500 note, John stopped me, “how much did you pay for the rum?” … “Why?” I ask... Shit.

Back at the wine shop I had asked for Old Monk rum, “full size” (meaning 0.75L, they use the terms “full”, “half” here to denote a 26-er vs a mickey). The guy hands it to me and asks for Rs 521. It didn’t occur to me to question this. I knew it was premium liquor and I knew liquors have a ridiculous tax on them in Chennai. And the specific price of twenty-one rupees gave it an air of legitimacy. But apparently this wasn’t the price. It wasn’t close to the price. I can normally spot a scam, but this guy was quick.

It apparently should have been Rs 219, perhaps Rs 10 more. So I paid more than double. Whoops. What is even more remarkable was that John then tells me that all products sold in India are required to have the sale price marked on them. Sure enough the Rs 219 is printed right there on the side of the label. (BTW, Old Monk rum is one of the IMFL – Indian Made Foreign Liquors – available here, true foreign made imported is horrendously expensive, but usually higher quality).

Now they tell me.

Why didn’t someone point this out before? Why didn’t I notice before? Somehow it simply didn’t come up. Anything bought in bulk is either negotiated or only costs small change, but packaged products usually have set prices and I obviously came to trust those prices. For one, I realise that when I’ve bought the occasional odds and ends at the grocery store, the stuff goes through the register so the prices are regulated. For two, I long ago learned the prices of the basics from the shops, like pop, chocolate and snacks...although, you that I think about it, maybe I should check those chocolate bar wrappers next time I buy one...

It can also be tough because prices for things are skewed in different ratios than I am used to in North America. So a 0.75L of alcohol may be an incredibly cheap $5 to $6 (Rs 200-240) but the 2L of pop you are using for mix will still be $1.50 to $2 (Rs 60-80), the same as it is in Canada. And then the half chicken take-out you pick up might cost that same $1.50. So it can be hard to guess what one product should be based on other products. Hence being ripe for being taken.

Oh well. One ill-luck evening and I’m down Rs 700, which is rather a lot here. Chalk it up to being distracted and not paying attention. So I got fleeced. And all I had wanted was a quiet end to a tough day. Oh well, I could pretend my drink was some super-premium, special-stock liquor and be thankful I can still mostly use the exchange rate to soften the blow to my ego. No real harm done. I’ve lost more on stupid stuff. ;-)

So here is my lesson to anyone ready: in India all packaged goods are marked with the price printed directly on the packaging, even a bottle of alcohol, so it is easy to check that before forking over cash. It has to have it and the price will always be close to that so don’t let the shop person tell you otherwise.

See, now we’ve both learned something. ;-)

Traffic # 8: Pedal Power

India - Sights & Culture - 008 - A view from my auto-rickshawAlthough there isn’t the flood of bicycles dominating the streets here as was a customary sight in China, they are still very much a major part of street life here. Rickety, single-geared and heavy, they perilously weave through the petrol-choked streets. The bikes are in no way fast or agile – there is no similarity to the quick popping in and out by the nimble, aggressive bike commuters in North America (and who would want to in this heat) – but they hold their own. Of course during much of the day, they seem to be walking their bikes, there being no space or speed to move, simply being another vehicle staking their own niche among the motorized 4-wheelers, 3-wheelers and 2-wheelers crawling along. Other times they weave slowly along the side dodging (sometimes) the pedestrians. Weaving really is the description though as they appear to be impossible to ride in a straight line. Gearing and construction play a role, but in my observation this seems to also be because they are very often carrying an impractically large and precariously balanced bundle of stuff.

It is truly remarkable what people will transport by bike, because they have to or simply because it is normal to do so. Odd shaped parcels are somehow firmly lashed on, sometimes additionally balanced with one arm held behind. Chai wallahs wander the streets with urns of tea or coffee strapped to their racks. I’ve even seen long strips of rebar tied to the bike crossbar and thoughtfully with little red ribbon tied to each end that extended out dangerously in front and behind. How he managed to avoid impaling the usual crowd of pedestrians I don’t know (and whether he actually managed falls into the “I don’t really want to know” category). Last week I saw a bicycle carrying what seemed to be half a florist’s shop worth of bouquets. It looked like a parade float, so packed with colours that I didn’t immediately spot the second guy riding double behind, tucked among all the shrubbery. The same transport practice extends to motorcycles and scooters, but the necessity to pedal and overall rickety-ness of the bikes makes it the more remarkable and funny sights.

My favourite wish-I-had-my-camera sight though for sheer carrying capacity was actually from China where I spotted a man slowly pedalling his ubiquitous tricycle (at least he had the extra wheel for balance) carrying a whole living room worth of furniture somehow piled high above his back rack. He had, I kid you not, a sofa, plush chair, desk, desk chair, side table and coffee table at somehow tied and stacked, if not safely or securely at least mostly stably. It was like 6 feet high above him. I think all he was missing was the chandelier, but who knows, maybe it was tucked inside where I couldn’t see it...

Not content to simply carry their furniture around and with the population density, it is unsurprising to see the cyclists often doubling another passenger straddling the rack behind (and sometimes even a third squished in up front). At each stop or intersection the passenger deftly slips off the back and hops back on with a quick running start. The balance and move of it are harder than they look though as Leslie and I discovered when we tried it one evening on a quiet back-street. So it might be a while yet before we are ready to tackle rush hour (cycling against traffic, of course), carrying PVC piping, boxes of consumer goods, or our furniture. ;-)

Hats off though to the valiant 2-wheelers who are a vital part of the colourful blender passed off as traffic here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sidebar #2: Random Thoughts and Tidbits

I've got a few good and more meaty entries in progress, but in the mean time here is another smattering of odds and ends to keep ya' entertained; things that cross my busy mind, things I see in the autos, and the little things that just make me shake my head in wonder.

Since the autos appear to be running on sewing machine engines, why don’t they install actual sewing machines? Doing double duty while they ferry passengers around, they could make extra money producing fine textiles and they have built-in transportation of the completed goods to collection points. Perfect!

The elderly groundskeeper of our compound at work plays golf in the courtyard. It’s not that big a yard, but he chips the balls around the square and grass, bouncing them off walls. He’s not that good to be honest. Last month he broke a window. When I see him playing I have to make sure he sees me (and stops chipping) before I exit the door. My boss hates it; he keeps threatening to report it to the police. I just think it is funny and harmless. He mostly now plays when he sees my boss is out of the office. We don’t tell on him.

I really like population names that end in “I”. Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi. They have a nice ring to them. No particularly reason, I just like them. I’ve also always been partial to Canuck over Canadian though maybe that’s because it alliterates better with “Crazy”...

It is funny the little biases you hold on to. We’re stopped at an intersection on my morning commute. In the traffic column beside me I see a man riding a scooter and another with a bandana over his nose and mouth. Regular sights, nothing remarkable, but despite their obvious practical usefulness, to me I can’t help still thinking:
Man on a scooter = dorky
Man with bandana = bandit
Man with a bandana on a scooter = really needs to be tied down and forced to watch 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' for a few lessons...

Sorry to all the dorky bandits out there. It is nothing personal. I know it is my own bias. Please don’t run me over with your scooter next time I try to cross the street...

A few months ago the latest Bollywood fluff ‘Dhoom 2’ was dominating every media space in advance of its release. The theme song was playing in all the dance clubs and 15 times hourly on all the commercials. The pure commercials (those that were just for the movie rather than for products like Coke and Speed petrol) showed a guy doing cool stunts flying down the highways on rollerblades. It made me miss rollerblading with memories of gliding down smooth, fresh blacktop on blades (sans impressive stunts involving 18-wheelers), tape walkman blaring (this was well pre-ipod days). I wish I had rollerblades here for the entirely literary hook that the experience of trying to blade down Chennai’s packed and potholed streets would make for a really, really funny story...

I’ve come to really like SMS. Messaging friends often gets me through the long, boring auto rides home when I’ve got time to kill and it’s too dark to write or read or sightsee. Motorola predictive text sucks ass though.

One should not text and walk however (I realise this is obvious to just about everyone). I am careful about traffic, but I nearly ran into a low-hanging tree branch the other day while tapping a quick reply. Oops...

There are quite a few water trucks plying the streets here, partial compensation for the city water system sucking and being completely inadequate. They meander awkwardly down the streets, blocking them like linebackers. All of them, without exception, leak profusely. Now maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem to be a good characteristic for water transport trucks to have. But it is so quintessential India. Thar’s a hole in me bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza…

Friday, March 02, 2007

Musings #6: Around the world of blogging

Come on Argentina! Come on Brazil...

Many of you may have noticed I've added a fun little locator to the sidebar of my blog that tracks where readers are from. It is fun. And it is addictive.

It is exciting to come in and see that someone has discovered and read your blog from Paris, France or Shenzhen, China. I have no idea how my banter translates into French or Mandarin or Cantonese, but, "Welcome to my site!" all the same. I've now had site visits from every continent save South America. Hence the eagerness.

Each of those dots is a story. What was that person searching for when they hit my site? Dosas? Auto-rickshaws? Did someone refer them? Are they planning a trip? Were they just bored? I've no idea, but I'd love to know. I think it is the idea that gets me: in a tiny way, seeing this massive global network move, all the people and connections sprouting and spreading. Did they enjoy my tales? Did they take them and re-tell them? It is fascinating to wonder of the wanders of others. And I, in my own wanders have stumbled on sites I have intimately enjoyed, blogs I now read with zeal.

I like blogs, I've discovered. I never really had the time before to explore the new media. I enjoy it. I've never been one much for online forums and set communities around a rigid concept - they require too much time to maintain and devolve too quickly into banality. Forums are like moving to a small town: everyone already knows each other, there are established rules and the conversation is always the same. I like the softer, flexible networks of the blogosphere and social networking sites. It is one connection at a time and your network grows a piece here, an hour spent there and each connection can be for widely different reasons. I am not joining an existing community, I am finding my own. I am not by any means alone of course. This isn't profound, just some musings. It is immediately obvious from the immense popularity of modern social networking concepts that hundreds of millions similarly agree with the preference.

I think I like it because you get to know someone through their stories, their passions, their pictures and their struggles. They can show their lens on the world, a little one, a broad one or a deep one. And blogs in particular are a modern re-growth of the most ancient art of story-telling. I tend to believe the art had been waning over the recent decades as we trapped ourselves into a rigid system where only stories that could be sold would be told. But no longer. Without the money backing the system, the tale and the teller are back in prominence. I've seen much dismissal and jaded critique of the growth of the blogoshere and social networking. Junk they say, 10 million authors and nothing to say. Blah! What an utter lack of imagination. What is missed in those dismissals is the freedom and change in paradigm the ease of publishing, sharing and finding stories means. How people feel and reach out now that they can is proof enough of its value. Popularity and readership is again about connections, community, sharing and the stories. Are the blogs I read ever going to make the best seller lists? Don't know and don't care. They touch me and they mean something to the writers. Isn't that enough?

To share, here are some of the sites I am currently reading:
Trek Feet
The diary of an International Super Hero
The Eyes Have It
Itchy Feet
Painted Stork India Travel Blog

May our connections dots grow to fill the world. Heck, maybe they can even change it. Naive? Perhaps. But then again, I'll never apologize for not being jaded.

Until then, venido en Chile y Perú!

P.S. if you want a little addictive visitor widget of your own, click on the image and the host site will walk you through instructions.