Sunday, November 25, 2007

With apologies to Emily Ku, I have a new best friend:

Alternative trite title: "I've always depended upon the kindness of strangers"

Tessa's friend Dave Sears turned me onto a great web site: It's a network for travelers around the world to hook up with local people in a new city and stay at their place. I signed up for it in Amritsar to try to find places in Mumbai. I emailed about ten people and I think almost all of them got back to me within a day or two, mostly with "I wish I could but I'm out of town". However, two people came through: Hemdeep Singh said he could take me for the weekend while Pratsut Subba said he would take care of us starting Sunday night. It fit our schedules perfectly and both looked like cool guys. We set up the details and headed to Hemdeep's house after our first day in Mumbai.
We took the commuter train north about 45 minutes. It resembles Metro North except that everything's metal and wood inside, there's no doors and they crammed on so many people that some hung outside with just one hand on a rail while the more adventuresome traveled on top. We caught an autorickshaw (glad to have them back after the cabs of the city) and found his place in some funky cool looking apartments on Film City Road, close to a lot of the Bollywood studios. Even this far from the center of the city, the area maintains a density similar to Brooklyn. If you took the train this far in NYC, you'd find giant suburban houses with big yards. Here you are still surrounded by high rise apartments, lots of people wandering around at all hours of the night and the ubiquitous food stalls selling things I have yet to identify but are usually tastier than they appear.
His sister let us into an apartment filled with magazines, newspapers and a great hanging chair in front of an amazing view. Our beloved host (pictured) came back from his work in Pune soon after with his cousin Depender (sp?). They immediately broke out the liquor and that suited me fine because I had a gift of Punjab whisky for them even though observant Sikhs do not drink alcohol and I was worried I might have gotten the wrong thing. Luckily, they liked the gift, more because it came from the heart of Sikh country than for its quality. We started sampling spirits, arguing politics, telling stories and swapping lies. In spite of my dog tiredness, they gave me a second wind and we stayed up until 2:30 talking loudly and interrupting each other often.
We spent the next day sleeping late and resting while Tessa fought off her flu. I watched some of a key cricket test match (5 days long) against Pakistan but still could not bring myself to enjoy it all that much. However, I do want to try playing it because I feel I would be a natural at it. Luckily, I often think this and my astounding memory seems to easily fuzz over all the times I proved myself wrong. That night we all went to the beach.
We arrived after dark and I really enjoyed the scene. Hundreds of people milled around the dozens of small stands selling food, men shot glowing blue parachutes up into the night sky and these crazy lit up robots that read your future by playing a prerecorded tape. Unfortunately, some bug started hitting me hard there and I couldn't enjoy the people watching as much because of some nausea, lethargy and an annoying headache. We eventually wandered off the beach to a seafood restaurant so Depender could try some crab for the first time. Tessa and I kept it light and just had some excellent hot and sour soup but this big old Sikh packed away a ton of food. They told me this is how Punjabis get so big and strong because they eat and drink like this all the time. Most importantly, I will forever be indebted to Depender for giving me my Sikh name: Lexsinder Singh (all Sikhs are called Singh but not all Singhs are Sikhs, it's not often rules are so lyrical).

And for the crazy Indian pic of the day: some guys working on scaffolding by Hemdeep's building. It's just bamboo tied together by rope in a one dimensional lattice. If you know anyone in OSHA, please send this to them. For extra fun, tell them you took it at Trump's new building in Manhattan.

New slang

Exciting times, exciting times. I just started one of my key Indian milestones: Montezuma's Revenge or as the Brits called it during their colonial heyday, Dehli Belly.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movies and Doctors

Liked the first. Had a crush on the second.

Tessa and I got off the night train in Bombay after a pleasant night with a french couple (who also ate next to us at a Pizza Hut earlier in the day) and a nice older indian couple. Trains rides can be interesting because nobody has anything to do. Therefore, whenever you do anything, everyone around you watches. If you get ready for bed, kick Tessa's butt in rummy, charge your electronics or make any kind of motion, you can feel everyone's eyes on you. I like it. Anything that puts me at the center of attention has to be a good thing.
We took a cab down to the University of Mumbai. The city banned my beloved autorickshaws from Mumbai proper so they have these groovy looking 50's style cabs everywhere (and I mean everywhere, I think Bombay's sea of black is larger than NYC's sea of yellow). I plan to post a picture next time I grab the pics off my camera.
Anyway, that cab ride through the city turned into love at first sight. It felt like I had come back to NYC. I have to admit that Dehli made me nervous about this whole venture. The city seemed dirty, small, heavily segregated by sex, lacking in cultural events and full of rude people. It turns out that is the exact description most people have of it. In contrast, Bombay seemed better in every respect. On the cab ride and during the day, I noticed that in contrast to Dehli, the cleaner streets , sexes that interacted like friends, better maintained roads, prettier girls, guys that stared less often and seemed embarrassed when caught (the Dehli men often stared at Tessa unabashedly until she left sight) and a prevailing general air of friendliness. Hell, even the dogs seemed smarter and in better shape (secret dream: to ride around India in a motorcycle with a sidecar containing one dog and one orphaned indian child, both intelligent, loyal and picked up off the street. I thought about naming them both Sancho but my Don Quixote similarities are a little too true for my liking). In conclusion, I loved this city from the first few minutes. It got me excited to get back here and start a life.
We wandered around the University in awe of the beautiful French Gothic buildings. I talked to some people in the office only to discover that the other campus north of the city houses the biotech department. That disappointed me because I really like the area around the school. It had a giant open area filled with kids playing cricket, many museums and a slew of restaurants.
We sat down on a bench at the school and watched some students interacting. It reminded us both of middle school: girls and guys sitting at separate benches and yelling, joking, posturing and flirting across the gap. We wandered into the park and laid down for a few hour nap. As we continued our walk, Tessa started felling sick and couldn't hold down our lunch. I could barely hold it down either but that's because I don't think I've ever tasted worse pizza. We got her to a homeopathic doctor that we noticed.
After a short wait for the doctor (in a waiting room that smelled of kerosene, I've been to two doctors in India and both had the slight odor of kerosene), she ushered us into her tiny office. She was the cutest little thing with these giant glistening eyes. She did a great job. She patiently listened to all of Tessa's symptoms and then gave her a long lists of do's and dont's plus a prescription of some unknown substance. When she found out how long we had been in Mumbai, she gave us a flood of advice about the city including great places to see theater, near and dear to my heart. When she found out that I am a scientist, she mentioned her brother's involvement with a program getting internships for people abroad and in turn, getting them internships here. I got the information from her and am curious to learn more about this. It could be that this turns out to be a fortuitous meeting for me.
After the doctor, we decided to take it easy for the next few hours while we waited for our friend from to get home (will explain in next post). We got two tickets (80 Rs or 2 USD for both) for "Jab We Met" at the Eros Theater. Luckily, our first movie in India turned out to be typical Bollywood fluff: Sugary, silly and filled with weird random dance scenes (my favorite being the song that started with them driving in the mountains on a road surrounded by eight feet of snow and ending up a fashion show in a tiny chinese village in the middle of nowhere). It also happened to be in Hindi but this turned out to be a good thing because I didn't like the lead girl very much and I think if knew what she was saying, I would have liked her even less.
Even more than the movie, we enjoyed the movie experience. The assigned seating placed everyone in the quarter full theater right next to each other. I had two little Sikh boys next to me who adored me for my Nintendo DS Lite. I had to keep playing in the theater before the movie, I had almost beaten the game. Whenever I stopped playing to watch the funny advertisements or theater notices, they would poke me to remind me to concentrate on what really mattered here. They spent the rest of the movie alternatively watching the screen, sleeping and watching me makes smart ass comments to Tessa. Right before the movie started, we all had to stand for the national anthem and I heard it being sung by a number of people throughout the audience. During the movie, people spent a lot of time laughing and talking while a big group of male hyenas in the back would make their own jokes and howl. I liked the more relaxed atmosphere. It may arise because these movies apparently tend to be so formulaic that you don't need to pay that much attention.
Overall, a good start in my new city.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Doctors and Banks

Love the first. Hate the second.

My right foot has been putting me in quite a bit of pain. I'm even limping in front of Sikhs which is quite embarrassing. They make me feel like a little weenie girl. Anyway, I injured my left knee on a bike trip to chicago a few months ago and started favoring my other leg. It threw off my gait for the next few weeks it took for the knee to heal and my foot started hurting then from the extra strain. That went away after a bit more time but it started acting up as we spent a few days walking around Dehli nonstop. By the time I got Amritsar, it was pretty bad.
I tried to find the medical clinic listed in my Lonely Planet Bible but I eventually just wandered into a little medical clinic run by a family of Sikhs. He listened to my problem and sent Tessa across the street to the pharmacy (I wonder what kind of kickback they get from him, everything in India is more complicated than it seems on the surface). While I waited, he told me that he gave me lower dosages because I am not as (he made flexing strong man motions) as we are. Tessa came back and he put some of the ointment on my foot and then wrapped it. Then he started on another patient who had been there before me. It turned out to be a man with a sizable cut on his chest. He had to wait to get stitched up while I got my swollen foot wrapped. There's something about being white. As we left, I looked at the medicine he instructed me to take. I started to laugh and laugh. I had been given ibuprofen and B12. Low dosages, of course, because we are not as (insert flexing strong man motions).

That brings me to the newest entry on my enemies list: IDBI bank of Amritsar. I did a stupid thing and left my bank card in an ATM machine. I decided to go to the bank the next day because I assumed the machine sucked it back in and getting a new card would be a pain. After many wrong turns and questions to stranger by the rickshaw driver (there's a curious custom here: the word no is seen as rude so if you ask anyone if they where something is, they will invariably say yes and take off), I get to the bank. It doesn't open for another hour but a Sikh clerk came after we had waited only five minutes. He took us into the waiting room, got chai for us and we sat and talked for the better part of an hour. I love this about India. People take their time and love to just sit and talk and talk and talk. Karan was a smart guy and I learned more about Sikhism from him although I think I impressed with what I already knew. We discussed religion in general, Indian political affairs, our families and goals in life. He threw out some eyebrow raising assertions as scientific which I am starting to realize is quite common. He told me that vegetable oil and honey, when mixed in equal proportions, acts as a poison and that the red dot that people have on their forehead is the nexus of three larges nerves. Other than that, I found him to be knowledgeable and engaging. Eventually, he recommended a great place to get breakfast and that we should return at 2 to pick up the card.
We hang out at the temple for awhile and return to the bank. It turns out that they waited for me so they could destroy my card in front of me. I got shuttled to a few different people and I kept protesting vehemently (and not quite honestly) that this card is my only source of money other than what I have in my pocket. I need it to live. They told me that they couldn't give me my card because they did not issue it. I still have a nervous tic whenever I hear the phrase "It's bank policy." By the end, I had been facing one girl for over an hour and she just simply refused. I am still kicking myself for not just grabbing the card and running but one thing kept me in check: the giant Sikh guard at the door with a shotgun. So now I am in India with $90 in my pocket. Luckily, I used to land free places to stay in Mumbai, our most expensive stop. Now I just have to figure out how to get my new card to me or how to make enough money to live on by blackmailing Bollywood stars.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Temple, new friends and hilarious posturing

We dawdled (me on the internet) getting to our first ever train and just made it. Tessa also received her first butt grab but was in too much of a rush to do anything about it. We sat down in our 3AC (bench seats facing each other during the day, three tiers sleeping pads at night) with two fellow backpackers. From Portugal, they had just came from Nepal and Varanasi and planned to see the Golden Temple as well. We started chatting with Nuno and Vasco and enjoyed hearing about their travels. We also met their friend in another compartment who bore a striking resemblance to Richard Branson (sorry Luis, it's true). We all ordered food, which was quite good, but not included with the ticket like we expected. After dinner, we bedded down for the night with Tessa on the highest berth and me on the lowest. I slept well except for this damn cold and once jerking awake when a little scamp rubbed my foot, presumably to check to see how heavily I slept though he could just like nice feet that had twice gone to the communal train bathroom barefoot. He disappeared as soon as I moved.

All five of us hopped a put-put to the Golden Temple. We removed our shoes and donned head scarves to cover ourselves. We walked through a shallow trough of warm water to enter the temple and purify us. We walked in just as the sun rose over the white walls surrounding one of the most striking sights I have ever witnessed. This picture does it no justice. Covered with over 1,500 pounds (750 kg) of gold, it sits like an inverted lotus flower and symbolizes the Sikh's devotion to a pure life. Four priests inside this temple keep up a continuous chant in Gurmukhi from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh's holy book. It made it magical. See Lex's Religion Corner at the end of the post for more info on Sikhism.

And now an aside for Sikhs in general. I have to confess: I love Sikhs. I have always loved Sikhs. I wanted to come here first because Sikhs are awesome. Most have giant uncut but well maintained beards with turbans and an imposing physical presence. They make excellent soldiers and the Temple has plaques to many fighting regiments. However, I have rarely found them to be anything but exceedingly friendly and honest. They always feel like people you can simply trust. My walks around the temple strengthened my faith in them as we kept getting stopped by men with giant smiles asking us where we live. Often, that's as far as the conversation could go because of language barriers but we would just both grin enormously and namaste (the hello and goodbye of India, said with hands in front of you like in prayer). We also received almost no rude stares in contrast to the annoying peep show of Dehli where many men would simply try to win a staring contest with Tessa's breasts.

Anyway, we went to the guest house facing the Golden Temple. Never forget: when traveling in India, you can always stay at a Sikh gundwara. You'll recognize it by the giant flagpole flying a green triangular flag. As soon as we walked in looking lost, a friendly man with a giant beard and turban pointed us to another man who pointed us to another man with a lance taller than I am who led us to a room with three beds and dirty sheets. Hey, you can't have everything and it's free. I grabbed my first warm bucket shower in the country while Tessa got hot chocolate with the boys. The Portuguese went for breakfast and the Pelgers walked across the pool on the Guru's bridge. In the small room in the temple, the four singers sat with instruments, reciting from the holy book in wonderful voices amidst the most beautiful gold relief work I have ever seen. Pilgrims slowly jostled through the doorway, touching it with their hands or heads in reverence and then bowed in front of the singers and left small amounts of money.

When we left the temple, we sat by the edge of the pool listening until the man to my right encouraged us to go upstairs and then cross back to the bridge and get food from the communal kitchen which feeds over 20,000 people a day in accordance with the Sikh's dedication to service. We went upstairs and sat above the singers on thick red carpet and admired the
richly decorated interior, a nice contrast to the austerity of many Hindu temples. We stayed quite awhile listening until Tessa's back started bothering her. I will return tomorrow for a longer time.

We went back to the room and found the boys. By this time, we were all ready for lunch. Unfortunately, Luis had some sort of bad allergic reaction to a food (which has never happened before) and had to start taking cortisone. His medical doctor dad told him he couldn't eat any spice so we had a little goose chase until we finally tracked down a pizza joint we heard about it. The best thing about cheap western style restaurants in India is that you rarely know exactly what you are getting. At food stalls you can look at what you want and nice restaurants have good descriptions in English that make it fairly clear. These cheap places only have names that give no clue. This is what we ordered and this what we got:

special fries = regular fries

golden fries = fried little ears of corn

tomato pizza = decent personal pan pizza with a piece of cottage cheese on each tomato slice

and my order which made me mad:

salad and tomato burger = a burger bun with mayo, lettuce, and two slices of tomato

NO MEAT. IT SAID BURGER BUT THE ONLY BURGER PART OF IT WAS THE BUN. Sorry. I guess I didn't get all of the bile from that out of my system yet.

I grabbed a nap at the hostel and then we hopped in a taxi with our new friends. The first night they told us they were going to the Pakistan border to see the nightly ceremony. I heard it's a pretty neat thing to see. In fact, it's one of the 12 things highlighted on the inside page of my current bible: Lonely Planet India. However, I didn't realize it was so close until they told me about it. They invited us to share the ride and we piled into the taxi with a Sikh (hooray!) driving us about 45 minutes to the border.

I am so glad we went. It's one of the funniest things I've witnessed on my trip so far. Pakistan and India (who are always tense if not hostile) have an elaborate thirty minute border closing every night. Except for the quickest handshake you'll ever see, they pretend to completely ignore each as they flourish march around the field and lower their flags in exact unison. In addition to ridiculously elaborate costumes, they even wear taps on their shoes to enhance the theater of it.
I got my cute shot of the day: this flirty little guy wouldn't stop smiling at the pretty girl his own age in front of us.
A large number of stadium style seats ring the only road border crossing between the countries and they fill up every night so people can cheer for their respective country. In the cheering competition, I think Pakistan won everything but the numbers. They had cool black costumes, a fan base (though small) that cheered like they had electrified seats and elaborate flag wavers dancing around in front of their crowds. India let women and girls come to run the flag in front of the seats. To the everlasting shame of the family, Tessa refused to go down and run with the flag. For some reason, foreigners got the best seats in the house so we saw everything quite well. I spent most of the time giggling and enjoyed myself immensely. I'm going to attempt to embed a youtube video of it in this post.Let me know if it works.

We got a ride back to Amritsar in the cab and got dropped off at the train station while the boys continued up north to Dharmasala, home of the Dali Lama. We agreed to meet in Goa by the 28th. I am glad that we made this trip. I love this temple and will spend all day tomorrow sitting here enjoying it. I'm also happy we got to make some new friends and have someone to hang out with when we hit the beaches.

Lex's Religion Corner:

Sikhism broke away from Hinduism in the 15th century when Guru Nanak Dev rejected the caste system and declared an inclusive religion focused on family and hard work. A belief in equality lies at the heart of Sikhism and is shown in all aspects including their acceptance of all, regardless of caste or creed. Sikhs believe in one God, rebirth and karma but reject the worship of idols. The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh's holy book, contains hymns from the ten founding Gurus among others. The last Guru, Gobindh Singh, instructed the people to treat this book as the eleventh and last of the Gurus.
Sikhs believe in the concept of Khalsa, a chosen race of soldier-saints. They observe strict moral conduct including abstention from alcohol and tobacco and engage in a crusade for dharmayudha, righteousness. They have five kadars (emblems) you can use to recognize an observant Sikh:
kesh - unshaven beard and uncut hair (that's lifetime no cutting any hair) symbolizing saintliness
kangha - comb to maintain the hair
kaccha - loose underwear symbolizing modesty
kirpan - sabre or sword symbolizing power and dignity (yes, they always have a weapon if possible, I wish I had a religious reason for a weapon, does survival of the fittest count as a religion?)
karra - steel bangle around the wrist symbolizing fearlessness

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Day of Firsts

It's our last day in Dehli for this trip. We went to the train station and got tickets to Amritsar (home of the Sikh's Golden Temple) and then onto Mumbai. With no regular tickets available, we went to the International Tourist Bureau Office and got train tickets set aside for foreigners. It's a lifesaver. The staff could not have been more helpful and Tessa saw her first hot hippie Australian. Unfortunately, she was too chicken to chase him down and give him our email address even though we'll probably both be in Goa at the same time.

Then we took our first rickshaw (non-motorized) down to Connaught Place. As you can see to the left, the Sherpina fulfilled her duty and carried all the bags. We decided to check out the undergound bazaar that our host warned us against. Filled with bootleg movies, weird game systems, cheap saris, belts on every corner and the pushiest salesman yet, we enjoyed it alot. After we picked up some needed converters, we hung out on the grass above the bazaar. I went to take a piss (which can be done anywhere, a lovely thing) and came back to find Tessa shaking hands with various girls who disappeared as I approached and one friednly old man with a book full of recommendations. He did massages and his book contained heaps of praise from toursists worldwide. My neck had been hurting and I think he was sent from heaven. My first public massage was fifteen minutes of pure bliss. A bunch of similar cohorts surrounded us during the process including the ubiquitous ear cleaners (a first I will try soon) but we just stuck with our masseuse.

After that, we sat in the park and read until some polite policeman kicked us out at dusk. We took the first autorickshaw that used the meter without asking over to the train staion. Then I got my first shave with a straight razor from my new friend who was as excited about his upcoming wedding as his friends were about watching Tessa apply makeup. My face feels great. Now I better run because I have to catch my first train in India and get ready for my first night's sleep aboard one.

A Zoo Story or "If there's anything skinnier than an Indian teenage boy, I'd hate to see it" - Eat, Pray and Love

On our second trip to New Dehli, we both wanted to hit the zoo and took an autorickshaw there. It's amazing how the meter never seems to work until you switch it on and then threaten to walk away. Anyway, we enjoyed the zoo but I can't say the same for the animals. Small cages and empty pens spread across a lot of open land gave the place a forlorn feel. A beautiful large bird in a cage had a plaque that said "This bird stays with its mate and family for life." It was alone in the cage. The highlight came when a little (comparatively) indian elephant almost scored with a big momma. However, he only got one chance and missed his target. Disappointment for all (except maybe her).

Teenage boys caused the most irritation of the visit. They wouldn't stop walking right behind us, taking pictures of Tessa (even when I got threatening) or talking to us in their high pitched annoying voices. No matter how irritable and unitnerested I got, I couldn't shake these little pains in the butt. I eventually just started answering nonsensically or rudely which amused Tessa and I for awhile but only went so far to lessen the pain. By the end, it was a relief to be out of there.

In conclusion, teenagers everywhere suck.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hoisted by my own petard

As we sat in Connaught Place waiting for our ride, I heard a tinkle of metal hitting the ground. I looked around, ready to be pissed. A guy across the street smiled mischievously. Then I realized that a 50 paise coin lay on the street near us and he threw the coin to us like beggars. We both laugh as I dart into the street to get the coin and wave for him to throw more. He laughs again and wanders off chuckling.

Then, the first two guys who weren't annoying teenage boys or touts started talking to us. Both art students at Dehli U, we made good jokes and learned a little about student life there. They told me there's no way I'd get a train to the giant Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan that I am so excited about. I told them I'd hitchhike instead. They said that didn't happen here and the gesture I just made only means good luck. Knowing I had a car on the way, I bet them 50 Rs ($1.25) that I would get picked up in 20 minutes. We spend the next twenty minutes joking, talking and showing off our legs to increase the chance of a pickup (just me actually). So excited for my clever trick, I could barely contain myself. With time up, he took my money, laughed at the Americans and headed to a bar. Just as he went out of sight, my friend pulled up and apologized for the delay. Hoisted by my own petard.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

first trip to New Dehli

We are staying in a wonderful house on the outskirts of New Dehli in Uttar Pradesh (that's actually in a different state than Dehli proper, the city is on the state border). It's the home of Alex who founded this branch of the Pocket Testament League over twenty years ago. His son Ashish picked us up at the airport at 4 in the morning our first night. His wife has been providing us with wonderful meals and they have a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood. I couldn't have imagined a better start to my India experience.

Alex brought up a large team from Kerala ("the Indian Massachsettes" - most educated people and best run state in India) when he founded PTL. Every morning they car pool into the city from this suburb so we caught a ride on Friday.

I have been struggling to come up with a description of driving in India. I'd say, imagine a flock of owls, sparrows, mosquitoes and turtles flying at high speeds (that world be a Lewis Carrol turtle) navigating with the agility and sonar enhanced close range of bats and the noise of a tree full of grumpy crows. It's a wonderful thing to see. I don't know how it works but it does. People navigate within an inch or two of each other at high speeds with the right of way going to the largest. The horn gets used for various phrases such as "I'm here", "I'm coming by", "You're in my way", "I know, get off my back", "My fare is a stupid tourist who's paying way too much" and "cow, you are a wonderful and holy being but get out of the way". The best part: nobody gets angry (that I've seen yet) and I feel safe but fascinated the whole time.

They dropped us off at a New Dehli metro stop. Now, I've seen many of the public transportation systems from around the world:
LA's crappy excuse for a system,
Rome's confusing buses,
Boston's woefully inadequate T,
SF's well done BART and annoying Muni,
NYC's fairly reliable and wide spread subway,
Moscow's deep underground bunkers with stations rightfully called the Jewels of Stalin,
London's wonderful Tube,
Washington DC's pleasure ride, and
Germany's system in any city - unparalleled

I would rank Dehli's up with the best of them: easy to use, clean and efficient. If I lived here, I'm sure I would complain that it has far too few stops for such a gigantic city but it's being extended in many directions. Everything works on radio tags. You either have a card or buy a blue token and press them to entrance gates. The gate tells you how much money you have left and then you deposit the token at your destination so it will let you out. We only took it one stop more so we could see how it worked. All I have to say is: "well done, dehli metro, well done"

We wandered aimlessly around Old Dehli. The first thing to get used to is being stared at constantly. My first time in Germany, the guys I passed would stare me in the eyes the entire time we were in sight. I thought they wanted a fight. Turns out, it means nothing. It's just a little body language difference and the same is true here. Just stare back or look around. They mean nothing by it. It's just what you do.

We got to the Red Fort, one of Dehli's biggest tourist attractions. Shah Jahan, the great Mughal emperor and builder of the Taj Mahal, constructed this beautiful red sandstone fort. During the First Indian War of Independence (or the Sepoy Mutiny depending on your perspective), this became the rebel headquarters and received heavy damage during the brutal British reprisals. Having an Indian flag flying over the Red Fort became a point of pride during the Independence movement. Now, the Prime Minister holds his address to the nation here on Independence Day.

We put in to practice my newest trick: whenever you're in a new (and especially touristy) spot, sit and watch for awhile. It helps you figure out what's going on and even to spot operators in the area. As we sat and watched, we saw Indians would get waved through the front gate while obvious tourists got pointed to the ticket booth. Technically, Indians do need a ticket but it only costs them a few rupees while foreigners get charged several dollars. However, it made me mad to realize that native Muslims and Buddhists also got turned back. Only, Hindus got waved through for free. I will probably see this quite a lot but this was my first time and I didn't like it. We decided to boycott entering the fort (though I should mention we weren’t that interested and the ticket line was long).
We headed through slums to the Jama Masjid, the beautiful mosque also built by Shah Jahan. I love Muslim architecture and this did not disappoint. We removed our shoes and wandered around inside the huge courtyard in front of the main building. This mosque and the Red Fort were the only places we witnessed a large number of foreigners. This corresponded to the only places that people harassed us or begged for money. Just like anywhere in the world, the tourist spots have the worst people.

We spent most of the day away from tourist spots and had a wonderful time. After the mosque, I headed in the direction of a major shopping area to try to find a present for our gracious hosts. We ended up in tiny, twisting little back streets with shops smaller than a closet and textile factories the size of my college dorm room. Random people made small jokes with us and it just felt like a perfect little area. It got me excited to stop traveling and settle down somewhere that I can get to know all the people in a neighborhood like this one.

Eventually, we ended up by some large roads with no people or houses nearby. I had gotten cranky (as I often do when hungry) and lost. Luckily, I got over my pride and hailed an autorickshaw to take us to the shopping area. The young kid driving told me it would be 80 Rs. I said I know the law and you have to turn on the meter. He said it was broken. So I pushed the on button and not surprisingly, it turned on. He switched it off and said it was still broken. I said I'm not getting in this thing without a meter. He dropped the price to 30 Rs. I should have bartered for less but he was the only empty one for a long time so I took it. It was my first time in an autorickshaw and I got quite taken by it. The breeze felt great and the scenery rushed by along with the almost head on collisions. I followed along on the map until he told us we arrived. I told him this was not the right metro stop. He disagreed but finally asked another driver how to get there. I still had to point him in the right direction but we finally got there. I get out my 30 rupees and he says there's a 50 rupee tax. I laugh and hand him the fare. He keeps insisting, more and more faintly, that we need to pay another 50 rupees. As we walk away, I hear him forlornly repeating "50 rupees" over and over again to himself.

The shopping area is called Connaught Place and I hated every inch of it. Our host tried to steer us away from spots we had to barter because he figured that street merchants would take advantage of us. However, I like to barter. It's a fun game. I probably still get taken for a ride but I usually get them to drop the price to a third of their asking price. Connaught Place had lots of expensive stores with set prices. It felt a little like 5th Avenue in NYC, the bane of my existence. Instead, we sat in a beautiful little park to read and sleep before going back to Kashmere Gate by Metro to be taken home.

So ended our first foray into an Indian city by ourselves. I loved everything except the touristy areas. That’s a good sign for things to come.

Pride (though I doubt it cometh before a fall)

It seems like Indians often feel a competition with China. They like to denigrate China as much as Americans like to denigrate the French (but seriously, how can you not make fun of a bunch of lazy frog eaters). You see little digs against China all over literature and the news.

This tendency seems to spawn partially from the Sino-Indian War of 1962. After Independence, Nehru extended an olive branch to China and started discussing a great China-India alliance. In 1962, China unexpectedly invaded India to recapture two small and rather unimportant states on the northeast border. It seemed to be more of a power play and nose snub than any real concern about the territories. Nehru took a lot heat politically for not anticipating the attacks but he did not expect one Socialist power to attack another. After this incident, Nehru's health began to decline and he died two years later. China made it clear that it's interest was being the big dog in Asia and it didn't need any help.

In that vein, the Hindustan Times ran an article about Forbes newest list of billionaires. Within the first three paragraphs, they pointed out that the top 4 Indians on the list have more than the top 40 Chinese on the list.
link to article

Friday, November 16, 2007

Aunt Patty and the curse of the monkey

The last voice mail I received in America came from Aunt Patty. She told me about a news story involving monkeys in India attacking and biting people. Her final word of advice: stay away from monkeys.

First full day in India: After buying a dozen bananas for 10 rupees (25 cents) with Ashish, the guy my age, we see a big angry looking monkey with giant old floppy balls on the way home. He says "uh oh" and gets very nervous. He hides the bananas and we get out of there as fast as we can. He says that they sometimes attack with no reason and get much more aggressive around food.

So my request to Aunt Patty, because your warnings seem to come true after you make them (this is not the first time), please only warn me about good things like finding the girl of my dreams, becoming an international cricket sensation (if I could stay awake through the game) or starring in a Bollywood movie.

It's five in the morning here (still not adjusted right) and the call to prayer just started from the local mosque. If I didn't know what it was, I would swear that it's a bevy of ghosts wailing on Halloween. It is truly a haunting sound.

Lex's Science Corner: Testicles, Muscles and Your Love Life
In the animal kingdom (and our own), males compete for copulation in various ways. Seals have large harems and exhibit some of the most vicious fighting in the animal kingdom. Similarly, gorillas have one older male who dominates the other males and impregnates all of the female of the troop. Chimpanzees mate indiscriminately while gibbons remain monogamous.

As you can imagine, this affects many parts of the phenotype (external characteristics) of the species. Animals who win females by fighting tend to have a large physical sexual dimorphism (difference between the sexes). The males get large in order to fight the other males while the females get only as big as needed to bear and raise their young. Chimpanzees grow giant testicles because whoever puts the most sperm in the female, tends to have the most children. Gibbon's exhibit little physical sexual dimorphism. They have more children if they are good providers who make sure their babies live to adulthood. Therefore, a more polygamous culture tends to lead to bigger muscles or balls.

Humans also display a small physical sexual dimorphism but that's a tale for another day.

Ideas lovingly stolen from Richard Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aerosvit Airlines (motto: fly with us and sit next to religous guys with beards and cool hats)

alternative motto: the stewardesses may be mean but at least the food and beer is cold

Tessa and I had a picture perfect departure from NYC to Kiev. My friend Wen-jay made us pancakes and pouted that I was leaving her. We got to the airport right on time and got on the plane early enough to stow our carry on bags. We were surrounded by Orthodox Jews on their way to Tel Aviv who completely ignored our existence in the Orthodox way. Instead, they talked to each other alot. This appeared to mostly consist of complimenting each other on their awesome beards.

Sitting behind me was a nice older Ukrainian man living in New Jersey driving trucks and complaining about his lazy kids. His seat mate was the one who made me sad. He really only talked about one thing the entire flight: how much he hates Jews. No reasons, just like a bully in a school yard. Putting someone else down to make yourself better. The large amount of free vodka and beer did little to silence his tongue though he never did work up the courage to tell Tessa his true feelings for her which he had shared with me.

We got to Kiev to find out our flight was three hours late. The promised food vouchers never arrived and I got some sandwiches from the first Irish pub I have ever seen that didn't have Irish people working there. We met a nice kid from Brooklyn who is going to UP (Uttar Pradesh, the largest and most populous state and the one I'm in now) to teach English. Unfortunately, his first stop in India is the hospital so he can have an operation on his newly formed hernia. Well, he couldn't have chosen a better place to do it. Medical tourism is booming here.

The flight to New Dehli contained a large population of Candian Sikhs on their way to Punjab, the location of the most holy site in Sikhism, the Golden Temple. The man to my sister's right bore a striking resemblance to a brown David the Gnome with the kindness to match. He didn't speak any English but he was grateful when my sister opened all of the food packages that he couldn't with his arthritic hands.

The couples to my left started asking me questions about the customs form and then we managed to talk about our plans through their broken English. You could they were warm people who you could simply trust. It seems that the Sikhs have a reputation for that in the country: Hard working and honest people. If you don't have a place to stay in India, just find a Sikh gudwara and they will put you up for the night.

It took awhile to get off the plane because of all the kids but we didn't mind. The children here are like the women in Russia: they're all so beautiful that its bewildering how it's possible. Our ride was waiting for us at the exit of the terminal with our names on a sign (my first time for this, I feel a little bit more like a man). It was a pleasant young man named Ashish who just finished his business degree in Bangalore and wants to get an MBA at Penn State next year. He didn't complain about the extra hours of waiting and wouldn't even let me pay for the parking fees. I met his dad at a fund raising dinner and he immediately offered to let me stay at his place when I arrived at Dehli. The Indian hospitality knows no bounds.

Now I'm staying in their beautiful house on the outskirts of Dehli in the UP. There's 11 in the house tonight: Ashish, his mother, the maid, me, Tessa, 2 pugs and 4 new puppies. And now, I should sleep instead of write. It's 5 in the morning and all I'm doing now is making it harder to adjust myself.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Shades of Gray

I just got back from my first scientific conference in San Francisco with the American Society of Nephrology. I presented my last year's worth of research on a poster and stood there while much smarter people quizzed me about it. I thought there would be a post about this whole experience but nothing really grabbed me there. The most impressive thing to me was the amount of free junk being offered to all of the medical doctors by the big pharma and health care technology companies. Doctors love free crap.

Instead, I'm posting this essay I wrote tonight with my little sister, Anna, about the ethics of genetic engineering:

Shades of Gray

The rise of biotechnology brings us into a new age of ethical debate. In every technological upheaval from the Industrial Revolution to the rise of Silicon Valley, debates arose over new ethical dilemmas brought about by these technologies such as workers rights, privacy concerns and copyright law. In the coming Biotech Revolution, these ethical debates will get much thornier and the shades of gray will flummox us like never before.

Public opinion over the genetic engineering of embryos would probably fall into three main categories: outrage over any genetic tinkering, those willing to change genes to remove disease and finally to people who embrace all possible enhancements. In my opinion, most people would probably fall into the middle category and would agree to use genetic engineering to remove diseases from embryos. Unfortunately, that brings the undesirable job of choosing to define what constitutes a disease.

Obvious genetic diseases include Huntington’s disease, Downs syndrome, cystic fibrosis and predispositions to cancer or diabetes. However, some conditions ignite controversy over their designation. Sandals, in The Case Against Perfection, brings up a hypothetical case of two women who want to engineer their child to share their deafness. Does being deaf constitute a disease that needs a cure? Obesity carries many unhealthy side effects and can be a major impediment to advancement in our society. Can that be considered a disease that needs rectified? Being ugly as a warthog closes many doors and makes life harder in almost every way. If legislation approves genetic engineering for disease reduction only, a good case could be made for the inclusion of gross physical appearance on that list. Where can the line be drawn for a disease that needs a genetic cure?

The issue gets even cloudier in the realm of the brain. Currently, research has a very incomplete picture of the genetic basis of psychological disorders and abnormal neuronal development. However, there will be a corollary to Moore’s Law in biotechnology and this research will make vast bounds as gene sequencing and protein imaging technology (Freeman Dyson claims these are the two most important breakthroughs we need) prices drop dramatically. If scientists discover a number of genes that lead to bipolar disorder or autism, do we have the right to remove those genes from an unborn child to be replaced with “normal” versions? I’m sure many parents would demand to do just that but we might also be throwing away the traits necessary to make another Van Gogh or Einstein. If genes are found for antisocial or criminal behavior, parents might be tempted to make the teenage years easier but we could also breed ourselves into sheep. Then where would we be when the aliens invaded? A “gay” gene was recently discovered in fruit flies. If this gene was deleted, the male fruit fly would completely ignore female flies and would only do the mating dance for male flies. A religious fundamentalist might argue that they have the right to remove this “sinful behavior” from their children but can we allow a parent to make that decision? Genetically engineering behavior possesses such frightening overtones but many people will insist on this for their children. How far can we let them go?

Even the straightforward position of using genetic engineering to only fight disease leads to many troublesome questions in defining disease. I don’t want to even get into the crazy possibilities and scary Brave New World aspects of unlimited genetic engineering and enhancement. The debate on these issues will be fierce. I’m excited to see where society draws the line in the shades of gray.