Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The morning of November 5th (election eve in the US) found me up at 5:30am, glued to the BBC and CNN IN in rural Orissa, while my friends massed in groups of multiple hundreds throughout India to watch the returns. By 8:30am, when Ohio was called for Obama, the race was over and a rush of excitement left me cheering and crying in my room. The TV commentary highlighted for me the incredible significance of Obama’s election for India. The nightly news (and that morning’s news) has been flooded with minute analysis of every way in which an Obama presidency may impact India.

Interspersed with this commentary were glowing reviews of the “only in America” story of Obama’s election, given his biography. This we have all heard, but I can assure you these emotions are very real here in India. There is a genuine, new admiration for Americans, spurred by his election, and India is not a “US-hating” country, in general. This is particularly poignant, as India is readying for federal elections and there is a strong desire to reduce the influence of corrupt, criminal politicians (literally. A dismayingly large percentage of Indian politicians, both aspiring and empowered, are criminals, whether convicted or not). So, Indian stations were already asking who would be India’s Barack Obama. No answer to this query, yet, but I hope that India finds a similar, inspirational leader.

A few days after the election, I headed back to Hyderabad, buoyed by that sense of optimism that was painfully absent on November 5th, 2004. I had spent some time, while awaiting a rescheduling of my flight, befriending a few folks from the Deccan Chronicle cricket team. Our flight eventually gets called and I part ways with Hyderabad’s cricket gods.

I trundle towards Indian airport security. The only excitement in this line is how daring a game of chicken the CSF officer (India’s TSA, though these guys have guns) will play with me during the thorough frisking required to pass unto the pre-boarding, waiting area #2. Fortunately, his are unadventurous hands, so my plastic explosives and switch blade get through.

As I step up to his pat-down platform, CSF officer Raj Kumar asks, “what country?” Being habituated to regular recognition of my foreigner status by these friendly sleuths, I am ready with a clearly enunciated “USA.” I leave out my usual proof of “Real American” citizenship through the traditional patriotic blusters: “Don’t mess with Tejas,” “I’ll invade your backwater country,” and “Did you know that we invented your freedom?”

He completes a cursory molestation and, just as I am about to step off the platform, Officer Kumar leans forward displaying a slightly concealed mustached smile and says, “Best wishes to President Obama. I am proud.” I react with at least half of the excitement of a “My Super Sweet 16”-star receiving a gold-plated Porsche. In contrast, my enthusiasm is genuine, though lacking the energetic expletives of “OMG” and “I’m the richest girl ever.” Raj is a bit surprised that his two sentences elicit such a reaction. I respond, “Thank you, sir. I’m happy you are happy. He will be a great president for the US and better to the rest of the world.” This is probably a bit much, but Raj smiles, nods, and reciprocates my handshake. I head off to collect my bags. As my smile widens while reflecting on the exchange, I decide to return to Officer Kumar. Tapping him on the shoulder, to his evident surprise, I expand, “Thank you so much for your well wishes, sir,” perhaps ignoring that he sent his best wishes to Obama and not me.


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I’ve now experienced what I had only heard about from friends: extortion by transvestites. Armed with two first hand experiences (one in Delhi and one in Bombay), I can confirm that these were two of the less expected encounters I’ve had here. While I’ve already had to pay a number of bribes to the entrepreneurial police officer or government employee, I wasn’t expecting to encounter this extortion racket during a nice brunch in Bombay.

Let me first open with a caveat. The plight of sexual minorities in India is terrible. Discrimination is aggressive and overt. Transvestites (or Hirja / Aravani) are not respected in Indian society, by and large, and are generally viewed as harbingers of bad omens. Fortunately, some groups are working to reduce this stigma and provide health care resources.

So, while my story is light-hearted, I understand the underlying desperation that might make someone go to these lengths. A few Aravani have found ways to celebrate their identity and advocated for change. Now, my empathy for societal outcasts does not extend to the small number of people within these groups that extort others. One of my friends had an experience where two transvestites threatened to forcibly shut down the opening of her maternal health care hospital for poor urban women and cast hexes on the facility, unless they were not paid an outrageous sum of money (in the multiple lakh (a lakh being 100,000 ruppees or now, sadly, USD 2,000 at the current exchange rates)). That is outrageous, selfish, and terrible. Fortunately, my friend and her colleagues managed to defuse the situation, before it went nuclear.

Here’s my tale:

I was sitting having brunch with a few friends in Mumbai last month. Our tranquil, upper-class dining adventure was abruptly shattered. Two very masculine looking women had strode into the restaurant and were shouting at the unassuming European owner. The owner’s hostess immediately got up and started pushing these women back to the door. At this point, I broke out laughing. It finally had become obvious that these were two transvestites and this seemed hysterically out of place in prudish, “cover-up-your-goddamn-ankles” India. My friends shot me glances that suggested I should loose the sense of humor. I obliged. They quietly explained to me that new establishments in this area get shaken down by these transvestites. Apparently, Indians are very superstitious about transvestites and always give them money, if demanded, because otherwise they risk having a hex put on them. And you know what happened to the last person who had a transvestite put a hex on them – theft, deviance, and kidnapping.

Just as the Sicilians start breaking knee-caps and skulls, if people don’t respond to verbal shake downs, these transvestite extorters had their own “nucular” option. I wasn’t quite prepared for this twist in the plot.

As the hostess forcibly pushed one of the transvestites out the door (which is a no-no from the more superstitious Indian’s perspective), their life-partner-in-crime sprung out the “nucular” button and hit detonate…

BBBBOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM….OUT IT COMES. It’s flying around outside of the 2mm of fabric that had protected us from nuclear war. My friends explained that this was the extortionists back up option, if more direct argumentation fails. Though, the absurdity of seeing two people debate over paying this bribe reminded me of high school debate hypotheticals that seem unmoored from reality.

There is really no other way to make a crepe, covered in sugary sauce, look so unappetizing as when a transvestite’s business is in full view (I suspect this would apply to any one’s business flying around while I am trying to enjoy what should have been a fantastic crepe).

Sadly, the owner pushed this “business person” out of our line of vision, before I could see if he ended up paying off these entrepreneurs.

Looks like I’ve got a backup career of shaking down new establishments, if this microfinance thing gets crushed underneath the implosion of the world banking system. There’s few better ways to ensure a livelihood then preying upon people’s superstitions and unfounded fears.

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I spent the past five days in Orissa repairing a project that had nearly jack-knifed off the rails. In the process, I learned my first words of Oriya, participated in my first Ganesh Puja, got chased away by an irate father, and saw some of the most breath taking scenery I’ve spied thus far (which, as of now, isn’t saying much, because I’ve spent most of my time around Hyderabad and Bombay).

Geography lesson time: Head north-east from my adopted state of Andhra Pradesh to the neighboring area of Orissa. Orissa’s capital is Bhubaneswar. It’s from here that we are preparing the pilot.

We’re working to crack the code on whether solar-powered lighting, through the use of micro-loans, meets the short-term electrification needs of our members and, by extension, the poor. So far, the results are mixed. In particular, a number of the areas that we had hoped would be promising candidates for the pilot are more electrified than originally thought. Nevertheless, many of our members have demonstrated intense interest in having an affordable way to obtain reliable, clean energy. And so, we are working on tightening up the model, reducing cost to our customers, and preparing for launch in the next month or so. Until then, I do not have too much that I can share about the program specifics.

What I can say is that I am convinced that this is an important first step in allowing our members to provide their families with a key resource to improve their lives. In Udala, when nature’s light goes out our members rest. After sundown, children cannot do homework, mothers cannot develop their businesses, and husbands cannot complete their work. Kerosene lanterns are polluting, dangerous, and expensive (over the long-term) and flashlights are totally inadequate for lighting a living space.The solar lights that we are currently testing will lift these constraints on our member. I am sure we’ll also learn of many creative uses that we could not have anticipated.

My hope is to work with some highly innovative, but realistic, product design and engineering companies that are creating flexible home energy solutions for off-grid households. In essence, the challenge for our members is that they need an affordable, reliable method for storing energy (i.e. – a battery) and a method for reliably accessing power (i.e. – AC grid power, solar, micro-hydro). The most expensive piece of that equation is the battery, currently. But, battery costs are declining and energy-efficient lighting units (LED lights, for example) are extending usage time and increasing lumens.

I am working on slightly more nuanced posts about Orissa, the gender divide, differences between developed and developing states within India, communal politics and violence, and my developing perspective on the value and constraints of microfinance. I suspect this will take a bit longer than I hope, but…

In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos from our field work and from our travels around Orissa over the past five days. We are pushing forward on our pilot, so I hope that I will soon be able to spend a couple additional weeks working to better understand these communities’ needs and what we can do.

Our assistant Sangam leader- beautiful and captivating.

Roadside friends.

Tanvi practicing her best Vikram Akula.

This kid was born to perform.

The 8th wonder of Orissa: The Rice Paddies

Northeastern Orissa’s main coal-fired power plant. 30 km from one of our sites, but electrification is years away. This was jarring when we came around a curve and this blight was smack dab on the horizon. I’m a bit conflicted, because ultimately this plant can drive huge quality of life improvements for our customers. That is unless, of course, we get our solar panels covering the countryside. Then our customers are in charge!

The harmony that rose from this group in the paddies was beautiful. While I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the sound was powerful. We stopped for a while and traded “ap kaise ho”s (hellos) and then attempted to stroll into the paddy. That proved a bad idea, so we stuck to the road and soon departed.

Just back from fishing. Tanvi and I decided that she carried the crown of Ms. Orissa 1958 proudly. There was no posing necessary for this photo.

A reflective moment. I found this boy’s manner to be wonderfully relaxed and self-assured.

The Cart that was put before the horse. We didn’t see any horses or water buffalo in this family compound, so I’m not quite sure which adage to mangle.

Unfortunately, the lighting was quite low in this room. I was trying to capture these fascinating, quizzical looks this young girl was giving me. A slightly blurry image will have to suffice.

GOATS. Nothing says rural India like a goat blocking a bridge.

A Sangam Meeting in a schoolhouse.

The lonely cement industry. This guy had just loaded up a huge dump truck full of sand and was waiting for round two. As we drove over this river, I caught this scene out of the corner of my eye. I could write a separate post about the construction industry in Orissa. I won’t, but for 10 KM before and after this river bed we saw families sitting in stone breaking camps preparing rocks for road surfacing. The price of manual labor is so astoundingly low that I saw rock crushing machines sitting idle next to these manual rock breaking sites.

To market.

The following are all shots of the children of our members, who (mostly) patiently waited for all this lending to get out of the way:

This girl kept peering out from behind the door frame. Her mother is in the lower left. Her shirt has a huge Chicago Bulls logo on the chest. We chatted for a while about the upcoming season, she’s bullish on Paxon’s ability to pull the team together and prefered Beasley as our first draft pick.

She spent the meeting hitting a boy in the head and eating sweets. Seems like a pretty good day’s work. This captured a moment of passivity.

Preparing to seed a rice paddy.

Beats Coppertone’s UVA/UVB protection every day.

Ingenious. Apparently cows don’t like to put too much effort into their foraging. This bundle blocked there path and made rolls of barbed wire that you might see in Wisconsin look a bit excessive.

He was knocking off the top of this wall, one carefully balanced swing at at time.

Another shot of the paddies.

You get the picture. We’re trying to create more of these scenes.

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Let me first apologize for the formatting of this photo set. I am just learning WordPress and their hosted platform offers little flexibility in dealing with images and customizing photo galleries. I’ll hopefully learn a bit more about how to manage this over the next few days. In the meantime, when you click on an image, it will take you to a “full-size” shot.

Bits of Bombay, in a few pictures:

Bombay has grown to envelop its airport (Chhatrapati Shivaji Intrl). Consequently, there are all sorts of specialized businesses that have grown to take advantage of the flow of goods from the airport. This man was running the most efficient, one-person logistics company around.

On a separate note, and to get a bit into the weeds, the aviation industry in India is fascinating. Public-Private partnerships have been introduced to help execute an epic game of infrastructure catch up. In the case of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, GVK (this is an Indian national company that has focused on hospitality and manufacturing) has come in to fund its revitalization and run operations. While I was at BVP, I learned quite a bit about the buzz around infrastructure catchup in India. This is an example of where private sector motivations and public needs have dovetailed nicely. The government has neither the funds, nor the experience to execute this on their own.

The disruption that low-cost carriers introduced into the US has hit India hard. Old stalwarts, like Air India and Deccan, are crumbling, by new, nimble airlines like Indigo (I think they owe JetBlue a dollar or two for ripping off their entire branding and design strategy), SpiceJet, and Kingfisher. If you have to fly, Indigo and Kingfisher are my go-to airlines, with Kingfisher being the best. Kingfisher is another interesting study. The founder of the Airline, Vijay Mallya, is the Richard Branson of India. He’s built a conglomerate from his father’s industrial company, which has come to encompass an airline, brewery group (read the title of the page. Mallya has quite the zeal for self-promotion. Incidentally, his McDowell’s rum is pretty good), Formula 1 racing team, among other businesses.

If you have a few dollars to spend on your hotel, the Taj Palace is your place. Whereas there is no sense of history in the areas of Hyderabad where I work, we spent a lot of time right at the center of historic Bombay and the Taj Palace is the most visually arresting building in this area (which is called Colaba).

Bombay beaches have a decidedly different look and feel to what we are used to in the US. I think the best comparison would be to call this a sand-based boardwalk. You will see very few people actually “dressed for the beach.” Instead, people head to the beaches to walk around, socialize, and take advantage of the local goods:

PEANUTS! I’ve never seen a man more distressed by an order (open the enlarged photo and look at his eyes). You would expect he had heard it all by now, but apparently we threw him a variable he was not ready to handle.

Flying Monkey Balloons. Superfluous, you say? Certainly not. Your beach strolling experience wouldn’t be complete without one.

Sorry for the heavy-handed visual metaphor, but… “New India” is growing on top of “Old India” in visually arresting ways. You see this intersection of development (modernity) and the historical components of Bombay that make it so charming all over the city. Unfortunately, the need for growth and the heavy-handed intervention of government bureaucracy and regulations conspire to ensure that zoning regulations are either not created or not enforced. The positive aspect of bureaucracy is that it also means you will fight for years to get a permit to tear down a historic building.

The Gateway of India is akin to our Ellis Island. Though much of it was covered in scaffolding, the Gate is quite arresting, particularly as it sits out on a miniature peninsula and, unlike most structures, doesn’t need to compete for visual space with other buildings.

As we were walking to the Churchgate train station (see below), we encountered beautiful examples of public sculpture and monuments. Unfortunately, as you can see here, resources are not being allocated to protect and maintain these treasures (there are more pressing needs, obviously). Consequently, this fountain structure has seen a few thefts of body parts and is covered in soot and mildew.

Churchgate Station. When you visit Bombay, go there. Get on a train. Ride the line that takes you to Bandra. We did it mid-day, so we didn’t have to jump on with 6,000 of our closest friends packed into 8-10 cars. I will go during rush hour at some point and hopefully get a video of the insanity. In the meantime, check out the videos I linked to above. All I’m saying is this – the Metro-North / 6 train, Metra (Chicago), PATH, etc now seem rather spacious.

Mount Mary Church (The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, to be correct). The Jesuits were busy in India (though this is a Dominican church). Bandra is one of the ritzier neighborhoods in Bombay with great views of the Sea. It is also the heavily Catholic neighborhood of Bombay. Mount Mary is a beautiful example of the melding of European and Indian architectural and artistic elements. I’d suggest a visit, though your rickshaw might not make it up to the top of the hill. Those motorbikes apparently were not built for three large guys.

Arresting. This reinforces the pain of the Cruxificion.

This is an example (though the focus is poor, as I didn’t want to use a flash inside) of some of the wonderful colors of the interior paintings.

Like many other buildings in Bombay, areas of the church compound displayed some improvised construction / troubleshooting techniques.

Sisyphus ain’t got nothing on efforts to clean the public spaces of Bombay. After I saw the 20th man peeing on the side of the road and piles of garbage streaking past my cab’s windows, I knew that this exhortation just wasn’t going to work. On that note though, I am going to try and keep a catalog of interesting public service signs throughout my travels. I love the phrasing of this sign. Let’s keep Mumbai clean, but let’s make sure to do it using awkward language. Anyway, pick up your trash.

There are a lot of young folks without supervision. Where are the nuns of St. Francis (my grade school) when you need them? This boy was having lunch under an underpass near the airport with rickshaws (seen on the right of the frame) racing past within a foot’s distance to him.

If you know Alp, you miss him. I was thrilled to find out that he opened a rival to Acapulco’s Palladium in Bombay. It’s a modest restaurant now, but I suspect he already has his expansion strategy laid out.

Sweet kicks, right? Kanye, watch out. Thanks, GVK and Kingfisher, for making my flying experience efficient. I hope that WiFi and a CoffeeDay (India’s Starbucks equivalent, though CoffeeDay currently carries the cache that Starbucks has lost) are next in line for the renovation.

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When I arrived in Hyderabad, I didn’t realize that a huge holiday (Independence Day, August 15th 1947) and festival (Raksha Bandhan, August 17th, which is an interesting festival where the men of a family commit themselves to protect their sisters and female cousins. This is symbolized by the women tying a bracelet onto their male relatives.) were right around the corner. I quickly scrambled to make plans for the long weekend. My friend, Ab Gupta, offered me a place to stay in Bombay and we kicked off my stay in India with some late nights in Bombay.

Some photos of Bombay and my first week are forthcoming…

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