My first day in India

January 6, 2008

My flight from Dubai (DXB) to Trivandrum, India (TRV) was uneventful. I couldn’t go to sleep but an excellent grilled lamb dish helped pass the time. Eventually I wound up getting into a heated discussion over the cognitive deficiencies in user interfaces with John. We were in the middle of this when the pilot announced we were landing in Trivandrum.

It was dark as we stepped out onto the runway and was ushered into a queue for passport/inoculation inspections (did I mention I had to get 6 shots for this trip?).

Tired from 20+ hours of traveling, I didn’t really understand what was happening but apparently I passed the inspection because they stamped my passport and handed me a slip of paper. By the time I got through John had already passed and was waiting for me on the other side of immigration.

I followed John as we passed by some armed guards and surrendered the slips we’d just been given. …That was a big mistake, but I was clueless.

A few steps down the next hall John stopped at the currency exchange I asked where I should pickup my bags. John looked at me with a curious expression and told me I was supposed to do that on the other side of the armed guards. Apparently that’s what my slip was for. …Ops!

Now I needed to find a way to convince the guards with machine guns to let me back into the receiving area, and then back out with my bags. I didn’t think this would be easy, but I assumed the airport manager and/or guards would at least speak English. They didn’t, but I managed to convince them to let me break the rules anyways.

Exiting the airport, this time with my bags, I entered a large crowd of busy people and tracked down John. I found him waiting with our car and a few moments later we were off for the hotel.

It’s difficult to describe the apparent chaos of driving in India; I flinched the first few times we veered into the wrong lane facing oncoming traffic with headlights flashing and horns blaring, eventually I got used to it.

We arrived at the hotel late and tired. I had been told this was a posh traditional Indian hotel, the best of its kind in the area, but I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised.

After checking in I headed up to my room for some R&R. I stayed awake just long enough to unpack, snap a few photos of the accommodations and enjoy some fruit that had been left for me.

I awoke the next morning around 8am (without an alarm clock) feeling very rested. Apparently staying up all night the day had worked as planned, I was already somewhat adjusted to the time zone. After brushing my teeth in bottled water I threw on some clothes and headed upstairs to the roof for breakfast.

I made a quick stop on the way and snapped this photo of the hotel and our doorman. I’ve been told the flowers adorning the entrance were brought down from the nearby mountains early in the morning.

My breakfast was an authentic traditional Kerala buffet. I piled on some Puttu-Kadala, Appam and Idli Sambar then headed to my table.

Spicy food wasn’t exactly what I was craving, but the view was wonderful. In the distance I could see the occasional building or cell tower rising through the thick canopy of palm trees (coconut, banana, etc).

During breakfast I met up with John and after our meal we set out to see the city.

Our first stop was East Fort, an old fort that surrounds the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple pictured below…

We were permitted to approach the temple but, since neither of us are Hindi, we weren’t permitted inside. Needless to say that was a little disappointing.

Since I couldn’t see the interior in person I went on Wikipedia for the second-hand view. Apparently the sanctum sanctorum (holy of holies) inside contains a statue of Vishnu reclining over the Adi Sesha, who is revered as the king of primal beings in the Hindi religion.

The statue of Vishnu is made up of 10,008 Saligrams. Saligrams are stones containing fossilized ammonites. They’re only found in the Gandaki river of Nepal. Those 10,008 fossils were not only imported from Nepal, they were brought to the temple by elephant in a lavish caravan a long, long time ago.

Adi Sesha is usually represented as a serpent with many heads, sometimes wearing ornate crowns (though he, like so many Hindi gods, can take many forms). In this temple Shesha’s nose is pointed at a blue lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). Interestingly the word for the blue lotus in Hindi is Kamal (written कमल), which is also a very popular word for man.

The pose of Shesh and Vishnu seems very similar to that of seven headed serpent in the Bible (see Revelation 12), I would have loved to see it with my own eyes. They probably would have let me if they knew I was a scholar; pity the people at the door don’t speak English well enough for me to convey that.

Exiting East Fort we passed through Mahadma Gandi park and entered the Chalai Bazzar. The street was littered with shops and carts selling gold, flowers, veggies, fruit, clothing, etc. We strolled the market for a while then wondered off the street into a quiet alleyway.

The narrow alley twisted and turned between buildings. I heard the sounds of children as we crept passed a local school. The school was a meager rectangle of tall concrete walls that housed a roof, elevated about 30ft off the ground with steel pipes. Under these conditions Kerala has attained a 91% literacy rate. Maybe American schools should fly out here and take notes instead of whining about funding.

Eventually our alley poured out onto a street big enough for motorized traffic. Wondering down this road I saw a variety of homes and businesses, some more run-down than others.

The almost every wall here is covered in Malayalam or plastered with posters for Bollywood movies, advertisements for Kingfisher Premium (the local beer of choice), even promotions for the local Marxist communist party.

Indian’s perspective on communism has a lot to do with their history. Hitler is considered to have been one of India’s biggest allies because of Nazi support during their struggle for independence from the British. Some Indians, and Indian history books, still have great things to say about Hitler, others even glorify him. It’s amazing that everyone doesn’t see that relationship for what it was. The enemy of my enemy is my friend by consequence only; Hitler wasn’t a real friend.

…Hopping off my soap box and getting back to my hike, a little further down the road we passed a bridge overlooking a busy train station. In the distance I could see hundreds of people packed into train cars with no windows.

Right as I was thinking, “Wow, that looks dirty” John says, “I’d really like to ride a train while I’m here”. I decided it’d be a good idea to get a picture of John while he was still happy and healthy, so I quickly snapped the picture below and we resumed our walk.

Over the next few hours I enjoyed the thrills of unfamiliar scenes; some beautiful, others tragic, many were a little of both. I hadn’t expected India to be this beautiful, or this dirty.

Passing over a bridge in a dingy part of town revealed a spectacular topical view of some “backwater” (rivers that are impacted by the tide of the ocean). As is so often the case, the picture doesn’t do the view justice…

The picture below reminded me of something I recently learned studying the mathematics of music. Believe it or not, an imperfect blend of notes creates a much more pleasant sound than perfectly equal notes. I think there is something objectively beautiful about imperfection.

An interesting demographic on Kerala (the area I’m visiting) is that 1/3rd of them are Muslim, another 1/3rd of them are Christian and the remaining 1/3rd are Hindi. Considering the peaceful history of the area this seems like a good mix, but the Hindi’s defiantly have more visible representation. Almost every block has its own Hindi temple.

Many of the Hindi temples here are devoted to specific gods while others (like the one below) are universal temples. It was very common to see believers, like the man below, stopping during their busy day to offer a quick prayer or offering.

A few miles down the road we ran into a large dirt field filled with young people playing Cricket on a dirt ‘cricket patch’. I don’t understand the game, but I’d love to play a match before I leave.

So we walked, and walked and walked. My clothes were dripping with sweating from the humid air and hot sun had already turned my white skin red by the time John suggested taking a taxi.

We hired a rickshaw (a three wheeled go-cart like taxi) for about $5 for a ride to nearby Kovalam beach for some cold drinks.

The rickshaw dropped us off at the top of a hill overlooking the beach, we hoofed it the rest of the way.

Kovalam greeted us with a cool Indian Ocean breeze and a herd of white people. For a minute I forgot where I was, but the annoying street venders brought me back to reality. Regardless of what you say, if they think you’re interested they won’t leave you alone.

After roaming the boardwalk we stopped by the Coconut Bay Restaurant. I ordered a rum-n-coke and some dish I couldn’t pronounce, John had the Kerala seafood platter and a Kingfisher Premium. The restaurant must not have a liquor license because they poured John a coffee mug of beer and told him the bottle needed to stay under the table. …Obviously my drink didn’t need any masking.

After our meal we left the beach and headed back to the hotel on another rickshaw. A few hours after returning to the hotel an employee of the company we’re working with met up with us in the lobby. Our host took us out for a nice dinner at a posh restaurant a few kilometers from our hotel.

After our meal we headed back to the hotel. A few blocks down the road I noticed something odd on the window. It looked like a leaf, only it was moving.

Leaning in for a closer look I realized, to my horror and amazement, we had a gigantic spider on our window!

I relaxed a little when I realized it was on the outside of the car. At least I was safe for now.

For those who don’t know me; I’m very comfortable around most creatures, I even lived with a pet rattlesnake for many years, but I am not comfortable around of huge spiders.

Calmly I informed our driver that there was a huge freakin’ spider on the outside of our windshield (emphasizing outside in a reassuring tone).

The pause in her response telegraphed that we shared similar feelings for spiders. In what sounded like a controlled tone she said spiders were common and that there was nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t worried. At this point I knew the spider was outside and I was inside. I would start worrying when I had to get outside. The spider must have been reading my mind because as I was plotting my escape he crawled onto the roof where I couldn’t track him.

We arrived at our hotel before I could formulate a proper tactical strategy, so I went with plan C; I told John to get out first. J

Quickly John ducked out the door. Once he had cleared the vehicle I asked where the spider was. He said it was still lurching on the roof so I leapt out the door and made a b-line for the hotel entrance. Walking in an urgent stride, but not running.

I know this sounds unbelievable, but that spider ran around the car following me. I was starting to wonder if he was going to jump from the car when it vroomed away.

I didn’t have my camera with me so I didn’t get a picture, but I went online back in my hotel room and found this video on YouTube.

By the way, if you view this video on YouTube in full-screen you can read the text for it. Apparently this creepy-crawler was in the guy’s hotel room.

I went to bed after watching the video. I decided further research was defiantly unnecessary. 😉

Three Hours in Dubai

January 5, 2008

The first leg of my trip to India was a flight from NYC (JFK) to Dubai (DXB). This was scheduled with Emirates Airlines as 14 hours in the air, but a nice tail wind pushed us there in just under 11.

My luck didn’t stop there. I also sat next to the ONLY open seat on the plane. …And this was a big plane. The A345 (aka Airbus 340-500) seats 313 passengers + crew. …What were the odds the guy next to me would lose his passport in JFK? Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened.

Knowing this flight would be a long one I forced myself not to sleep the night before, so I was ready for some serious slumber. I fell asleep before takeoff.

I remember waking up a few times during the flight, once long enough to watch a movie. The plane had an excellent selection of films, maybe a few hundred movies and shows? …The 7″ touch-screens also offered seat-to-seat communications, video games, cameras that give passengers a view from the nose and belly of the plane. …IMHO, Emirates Airlines sets a new standard for in-flight entertainment.

After 10 minutes of browsing videos I chose The Man from Snowy River. The movie is based on poem written by Banjo Paterson, an Australian bush poet from the 1800’s. …I love bush poets. You really should watch it if you haven’t, the soundtrack alone is worth your time. …But I digress. At the films conclusion I promptly fell asleep again. The next time I opened my eyes we were landing in Dubai. That’s what I call a great flight!

Exiting the airport in Dubai John (my co-worker and traveling companion) made short-work of tracking down a “tour guide”. He chartered a 3hr tour of the city for something like 150 dirham ($40). …We would have liked to spend more time, but we had to catch our next flight to Trivandrum, India.

Our tour guide was in plain clothing and his car was decal free. For a moment I wondered if he was “really a tour guide” and half expected him to drive us down some dark narrow alley. …Fortunately that’s not what happened.

The first place we stopped was Al-Fahidi Fort museum. The fort was allegedly built in 1787, it’s believed to be the oldest building in Dubai.

Before we went in I realized I was leaving my laptop/life with a complete stranger. Quickly I snapped a picture of his license plate and told myself that would have to suffice.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum. …But long enough to get the distinct impression that the king doesn’t really like museums. Most the exhibits looked like they were thrown together and it smelled bad. I was curious and wanted to learn about their history, but there wasn’t much of an explanation for many artifacts (like the boats pictured below)…

That’s John in the distance on the left. He seemed just as eager to get through this museum as I was.

Pulling away from the museum I caught a glimpse of two locals relaxing on a cart. It looked like a nice relaxing lunch break to me.

Something about this scene brought back good memories. Watching these guys chat reminded me of all the times my buddy Erik I used to meet-up for lunch. Every day we used to act out the same routine.

We’d meet at a nearby grocery store, usually within range of a Starbucks. I’d score a muffin and a Starbucks or Sobe Cranberry Grapefruit Elixir, Erik would grab a bagel and a Sobe Green tea or something exotic. Then we’d sit under the sun and I’d listen to Erik complained about the price of bagels while I sipped my $4 Starbucks and plotted world conquest. Great times, but I digress…

We were now in an older, somewhat rundown part of Dubai. These pictures really don’t do justice to the smell and dirt that tarnished the area. …Though, I’m sure you get used to it after a while.

I was a little surprised to see laundry hanging from windows (pictured below), but I know from experience that high humidity can cause clothing to go moldy. Besides, hanging clothes like this eliminates the need to iron. I figure the eye-sore is worth having clothes that don’t smell musky.

Drying clothes outside is actually a very eco-friendly thing to do, but you try this at home please remember, “Tops by the bottoms, bottoms by the tops” …You’ll understand what I mean if you don’t figure that out.

Back to my trip, my family has done quite a bit of house-boating over the years. These have been some of my favorite family vacations. Naturally I thought of them when I saw this posh houseboat along the riverside. Talk about posh…

As our car moved down the river towards the beach it was hard to tell if I was in Dubai or California. Even the haze seemed to fit the bill…

A few miles down the road we pulled into what looked like another museum. Turns out it was an art gallery, filled with mass-produced art and knock-off carpets. …I guess our tour guide was a villain; no wonder the ride was so cheap.

Take the bird below for example, that’s cast metal (poured not pounded). It made a shallow plinking sound when I flicked it with my finger.

I enjoyed the gallery a lot more than the museum, but I took off when the proprietors started pushing rugs.

Back in the car we headed down the coast towards a more modern and developed area of Dubai. Several miles of the trip looked a lot like Newport Beach’s balboa peninsula.

Eventually we ended up at some hotels that are apparently owned by the king of Dubai. Judging by the building’s he owns, king loves symmetry. The hotels on the Palm Island are a great example. …Not that symmetry is a bad thing, everybody has their own style.

My favorite part about this hotel was actually the courtyard, moat and surrounding vacation homes (presumably rentals)…

This stage area also looked like a fun place to watch a concert at night (minus the xmas tree), I really wish I’d have had time to do that.

Notice the building in the distance on the picture above on the left? As we drew near that skyscraper our tour guide caught site of a helicopter that was just about to land. It was a very hazy day, so you can barely make it out in the picture below in the upper left corner…

A little further down the beach we ran into those Palm Islands we’ve all seen online. I was especially excited about visiting this site.

In case you’re not in the know, Dubai has been building islands in shapes. Some look like the world, with islands in the shapes of countries. Others look like Palms, crescents, etc. You can read more about these on Wikipedia, they’re really quite amazing.

The model above should help you get an idea of where the shot below was taken. It’s still under construction, but they’re building fast. Checkout all those cranes!

Leaving the Palms we headed past the city of Burj, Dubai (picture below). As you can see, there were cranes were everywhere. Apparently Dubai has over 30,000 of them, just over 33% of the cranes in the world.

In the distance below on the left you can see the largest building in the world. That’s still under construction, it’s going to be a must-visit 7-star resort when completed. …I’m looking forward to it!

Next we visited the mall. …Aside from the indoor skiing facility, I wasn’t impressed. But the indoor skiing facility is something to behold. It’s an amazing achievement and very cool attraction (though it can’t hold a candle to my local Mount Hood). Below are some stock photos mixed with those of my own, unfortunately we didn’t have time to try out the slopes.

About this time our guide informed us that we only had 45 minutes left before boarding. That was a problem because we weren’t ready to leave. John and I wanted to try some of the local food. I wasn’t sure if we had the time, but John assured me we did and the tour guide agreed so I went along with it.

Briskly walking from the mall we climbed into our car and raced off. The tour guide wanted to take us to an authentic restaurant that was near the airport. Everything was going perfectly according to schedule, until we placed our order. …20 minutes passed before we were finally given our food.

Now we had 25 minutes before boarding. We raced to the airport but by the time we got there our plane was already boarding. Even knowing this John wanted to stop and eat. I insisted we find our flight first, a few moments later they announced our final boarding call on the overhead. Reluctantly John agreed and we raced off.

Somehow we made it through all three security checkpoints WITH OUR FOOD and still made the flight, but it wasn’t easy. We had to run through the entire airport and, go figure, our plane was at the very end of one of the furthest concourses. Fortunately there were several other tardy passengers so we didn’t miss the flight. …I guess John was right, why did I ever doubt him?

India Bound

January 3, 2008

I woke up on the wrong side of the country again this morning, Stamford Connecticut to be exact. I flew out here a few days ago to prepare for a business trip to India, this morning I was headed into The City (New York) to pickup my Visa. It’s an understatement to say that I regretted leaving my winter coat as I strolled out the front door of my hotel and was embraced by the consequences of my indiscretion.

Outside I was greeted by a cold gust of wind that chilled me to the bone. …Somehow I’d forgotten how cold the east coast was in January at 6am. My Hurley hoodie wasn’t made for this weather but it would need to suffice.

Putting the thought of the cold out of my mind I flagged down a taxi and whispered something about going to the train station between my jittering teeth.

You’d think people on the east coast would demand train platforms that protected them from the elements. Apparently they’re too cheap to install those wonderful outdoor umbrella heaters.

To make matters worse, it was just my luck that all the trains to Grand Central were running late. Fortunately I’d remembered to bring a pair of full-sized/real headphones. Slapping those on over my hoodie doubled my warmth and the Metallica pounding between my ears helped distracted me while I wanted for the tardy train (emphasis on the tard in tardy, pun intended…with malice).

Arriving at Grand Central I found a warm taxi on the curb and pointed him in the direction of the Indian embassy. Have I ever mention how much I enjoy NYC taxis? I’d love to see a Nascar driver race a NYC cabbie. …But I digress.

A few miles later I was at the embassy. Exiting the cab I took a deep breath of the freezing air and reassured myself that this ordeal was almost over. …If only this had been true.

Posted on the door of the Indian embassy was a notice. Composed using a sloppy default Word 5.0 format, the notice informed me that India has outsourced their Visa processing service to an Indian firm on the other side of the city. …Fighting back the disappointment that almost consumed me I laughed at the irony and frantically started looking for a taxi.

By this time I was starting to get worried. It isn’t recommended that you wait until the day before your transatlantic voyage to apply for a visa. I knew I needed to be there before they opened if I wanted a decent chance of getting one. …Somehow I’d presumed this was already taken care of, my bad for not following up on it. This was something I could have easily done sooner. Owning my situation I resolved to make the best of things, took another chilling deep breath and pushed on.

Eventually my eye caught a cab and I bolted for it with one arm in the air. The cab was empty, but would you believe this taxi didn’t know where 316 East 53rd ST was? Fortunately I had my “smartphone” with me. I pulled up directions using Micro$oft Live Search and passed the pda to the driver. Minutes later I was at the outsourced Visa processing center.

But of course there was one final thing I needed to do before applying; get a passport photo. …Yep, the outsourced Visa processing center is too cheap to buy a digital camera and/or support it. Fortunately the Walgreens around the corner had one, $6 and 5mins later I had my photos.

I have to admit, I was impressed with the service at the outsourced Visa processing center. I was greeted warmly, treated respectfully and promptly. There was a long line, but it moved fast. A few forms and questions later I was relieved of my passport and told to return for it (and my Visa) between 5:30 and 6pm.

Back on the street I walked with a confident step and earned feeling of accomplishment. I procrastinated again, things almost blew up in my face, but somehow it all worked out in the end.

Adding to my fortune I ran into a Starbucks a few blocks down the road. I ordered an extra-large green tea with honey, grabbed a table and whipped out my laptop to write this post.

Well, I should get back to my regularly scheduled life now. I think it’s going to be a great day. I have plans to meet a friend in the city, we’re going to stroll through grand central and catch some authentic NY pizza.

-Brien

PS: I wrote this on my laptop and uploaded it using my cellular broadband connection. This is the first time I have ever had 100% reception, my bandwidth is rated at 41Mbps. …Not bad!