22 July 2009

The Unfortunately Named Mysore

This past Saturday found me hopping on a bus for  Mysore, a former royal capital of these parts that is about 3 hours south of Bangalore. While I initially had my doubts about the Indian bus system (in this case the Karnataka State Road Transportation Company - a brand only a government could love), I was thoroughly impressed. The central bus station was pretty organized, the employees were really helpful, the bus was clean, comfortable and conditioned (air that is), I got a printed receipt for my $3 fare, the bus left pretty close to on time and, it being a non-stop, only stopped about 5 times. Way better than Greyhound (not that I've ever ridden Greyhound) and certainly cheaper than Vamoose.

PICT0052-1 PICT0013
IMG_0024-1 IMG_0030-1
IMG_0031-1 IMG_0034-1
Mysore is a pretty small town centered around a palace built in the mid 19th century by the dude who ruled this part of India. After the palace burned down, it was rebuilt in the early 1900s in a weird mix of hindu, english and islamic styles, so it is a pretty interesting building on the outside. On the inside it is like walking into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory without all the candy, which is to say it is over the top with lots of little dancing people everywhere. Huge reception halls in bright colors, giant stained glass roofs, intricately carved teak ceilings, marble floors peppered with jewels, rosewood doors inlaid with ivory, silver chandeliers, thrones made of glass and a fun house mirror (which must have caused great amusement according to my audio guide). It alternated between garish and awe inspiring but either way you look at it, it was impressive. Unfortunately no pictures in the palace, but they did light it up at night which was  nice.  

The palace puts Mysore pretty solidly on the south India tourist route which had some plusses and minuses. On the up side, I met some interesting other travelers and the locals were pretty friendly and interested in tourists. On the down side, the locals generally wanted you to either buy their pot, buy oils from their auyervedic / witch doctor friend, or see some women making incense sticks. Not sure about the last one, but probably fifteen people thought my visit to Mysore would not be complete until they had taken me to see this. 

I also checked out the local market which turned out to be awesome. There were probably three hundred people all trying to sell heaps and heaps (literally giant piles) of all sorts of fruits, vegetables and flowers. From  the supper pungent durians to huge cucumbers to scary dried peppers, there was something for everyone. And apparently someone had told everyone that white people like mangoes because that is all anyone tried to sell me, it was like I was in a weird Chris Rock routine.

In the end I grabbed a pomegranate, snapped a few photos and headed back to B'lore just in time to grab some Sunday drinks at the 13th Floor lounge which is actually located on the 14th floor (they start with G, not 1).




P.S. If you think Mysore is a bad name, check this out.

17 July 2009

The economics of shaving, surviving the escalator and other random musings

I've had about ten days in this "town of boiled beans" (aka Bangalore aka Bengaluru) and while things continue to go well, there are more than a handful of "interesting" things I've experienced:

  • If you factor in the cost of shaving cream and assume that you use a new razor blade every 7 shaves, it costs the same amount for me to go to my friendly barber, have him lather me up and give me a ridiculously close straight razor shave (this actually gets done twice in each sitting) for 41 cents than it does for me to shave myself. I also happen to love wet shaves.

  • As anyone who has talked to an Indian call center can attest, they have their own special version of Ingles. My favorite new phrase out here is "please do the needful" which I've seen in no less than 8 emails and is probably the most roundabout way of saying "get this done".

  • I would rank Bangalore as a 4 on the SSDI, the Steve's Sidewalk Development Index which I'll argue is as good a method of measuring development as anything else. That puts it strongly ahead of Nairobi and its meandering dirt trails, but well behind Berlin with its bike lanes and ramps.

  • They say necessity is the mother of all invention, so during a recent bout of Delhi Belly (or a new allergy to Vodka, not sure, only more Vodka will tell), I have developed perhaps the most amazing drug cocktail known to man. 250mg ciproflaxin, 440mg alleve, 500mg pepto, 1000mg vitamin c and then the magical part, if it is day time about 5000mg of chunky peanut butter, if it is night time about 5mg of sleeping pills. If that doesn't make you feel better, you're a goner.

  • I saw two camels all decked out for princely riders in the middle of the street today. I'm not sure what else to say about that, other than it proves I should always, always carry my camera with me.

  • I guess the camels shouldn't  be surprising, India was described to me as the original melting pot and it is amazing all the different people I see on a ten minute walk to work. Religious hindus with their hair stained orange from mehndi, business men with ties and briefcases, Syrian nuns wearing the full frock, beggars in rags, women in floral print saris and muslims decked out with the most fashionable burkas (black is the new black).

  • So far I think the most amazing thing about India is not the mystical spirituality, but that there are adults here who cannot ride escalators. I can sympathize that the first time on an escalator can be a discomforting experience, but come on, they are not a giant man crunching machine of Satan and you know that because you just watched eight thousand people ride the moving stairs. The approach seems to be, wait at the edge for 45 seconds trying understand the complex timing of the stairs (think Sean Connery in The Rock) then either step out with one foot while leaving the other foot on solid ground (causing you to fall backwards) or break out your iron grip on the handrail while leaving both feet on solid ground (causing you to fall forward). Seriously, I've already seen this like 4 times.

  • Lastly, the worst part of Bangalore are the tons of stray dogs everywhere. They  are heartbreaking.

On the way home from work

12 July 2009

Zen and the Art of Driving in Bangalore

Hey, at least the tuktuks have meters! Meet Munish. Munish is a guy in his late 20s from a town just outside Bangalore. His job is to help "mobilize" teams of Indians to perform outsourcing work and also includes coordinating / entertaining the silly Americans that decide to come stop by. Over a beer or two last Friday, after a ride on the back of his motorbike to a bar, he laid out for me his philosophy that "Driving in Bangalore is like Zen." Now its true, a zen master I am not, but if you asked me to describe the exact opposite of Zen, driving in Bangalore would be pretty high on the list. The first thing that hits you is the cacophony (1) of horns, all of which seem to have the same meaning of "get the fuck out my way, I'm not stopping". The next is the mix of 'vehicles' on the streets: hulking fifty year old busses, belching Tata trucks, fleets of three wheeled tuktuks / rickshaws, motorbikes carrying at least two people, dudes pushing carts of fruits and your usual smattering of dogs, goats, chickens and (of course) cows. Finally, there is the driving style: a combination of kamikaze swerving, aggressive honking and obeying traffic signals (which is without a doubt the strangest part). "No," Munish agreed, "driving in Bangalore is not a state of Zen, it requires a state of Zen." And that seems like a pretty good intro to India.

PICT0003I arrived here last Wednesday after a tumultuous (2) flight and things have been going really well. Outside of the traffic, Bangalore is a pretty decent city. The weather is great for India, a very comfortable 60-70 degrees with minimal monsooning (knock on wood). There's a lot of hustle and bustle with tons of little shops selling everything from chips to walkmans to ironing (done with an actual block of iron). There is a dizzying array of food places to try (from street stalls to serious 5 star tasting menus) and the central area sports a number of bars and pubs (which for all the night owls out there, are open till a whopping 11:30pm). The place I'm staying is a pretty nice serviced apartment featuring something approaching high speed internet, something approaching a shower and best of all its only about a 15 minute walk to one of our six palatial (3) offices here.

Had a few good days in the office here and am trying to come up with a coping mechanism for these 11pm conference calls (smart money is on booze). Wandered around Bangalore this past weekend, checked out some decent temples which were cool, though the Hindus' idea of what to do with cows and my ideas are starkly, starkly different. Also visited a few cool parks which featured both cricket and an Indian wine tasting (what's that? haven't heard of Indian wine? there's a reason for that). Had drinks at a 5-star hotel on Mahatma Gandhi road which was a pleasant, if expensive, affair. But most importantly, got an Indian cell phone (+91 974 019 9983) so fire up Skype, Google Voice or your work phone and give me a call.

PICT0071  PICT0036 PICT0074
Its like baseball, but not The whole family: Timmy, Papa Mike, Susie and Buster* "Government work is God's work"


*My mistake, that's actually Ganesh, Shiva, Parvati and Nandi

07 July 2009

29 hours in Dubai, or, You're hot then you're cold (then you're hot), or, We built this city on air conditioning and imported labor

I've had some interesting layovers, from sleeping on the floor in Atlanta to a Facebook spree in Seoul to the Lustparade in Geneva, but the 13 hours (plus a few last night) I just spent hitting the pavement (and slopes) in Dubai (in the middle of their 110 degree summer) has got to take the cake.

IMG_0032I think coming into Dubai from anywhere is pretty impressive, but coming in from Nairobi it is doubly so. Not only does it have metered taxis, four lane paved highways and a humongous LED / water feature in the airport, its actually safe to walk around in the dark. It is also, incredibly, ridiculously, sweat through my shirt at 1am, hot. But ventured out anyways, checked out the Dubai Creek which is much closer to a river and is pretty cool to see the old dark boats against a very modern lit up skyline.  At least I thought they were old boats. In all likelyhood they were newly constructed boats that had been built to look old. Dubai doesn't seem to have a lot to offer in the historical / authentic / cultural departments but what they do (building shit and giving you ways to spend money), they do well.

IMG_0037After a nice cold shower and a night in my lowly 4-star hotel, I headed back up to the creek and took a little abra, a 30 cent boat to the other side. Once there I went to the gold souk to peruse some authentic Chinese plastic markets, have an authentic breakfast of omelette, french fries and ketchup in a hot dog bun and try to keep from melting. Then hopped on a nice air conditioned bus (in fact, even the little bus stations you wait in were air conditioned) down to the Jumeirah area and the self appointed 7-star Burj al Arab. I got within 1000 feet and was told that I'd need a reservation to have the privilege of spending $100 on a drink, which I actually considered until I was ever so politely informed that I also did not meet their dress code of "elegant attire" (I probably also didn't smell particularly nice). So I snapped a photo, wringed out some sweat and headed off to the Atlantis.

The Atlantis is modeled off the one in the Bahamas, except this one is at the top of a giant fucking man made palm tree island (The Palm). It is amazing driving out there, the streets are named "Frond A" - "Frond R" and the whole thing is one big construction site (including the monorail). The Palm is either the most amazing or most atrocious, or both, thing ever built. Got into the Atlantis, walked around a bit, had a great moment where 5 Islamic women in full burkahs and 3 ugly British chicks in bikinis were staring into the same window of the giant aquarium and then had a delicious crepe. Seemed right.

IMG_0066From there headed off to the Mall of the Emirates which is a mall about the size of the United Arab Emirates. It has a ton of stores and pretty much every chain you can think off: McDonalds, Starbucks, Cinnabun, Cosi, Krispy Kreme, Cold Stone, Seattle's Best Coffee (everything except Chipotle which is naturally what I wanted). It also has a giant indoor ski slope where $40 bucks gets your three hours plus all your rental gear. Hit it up and was actually pretty impressed, the snow was decent, there were some fast parts and this big ass jump into an airbag. The runs lasted about 25 seconds, but all in all I would say it was better than east coast skiing.

Skipped the apres-ski and jumped into a big ole landcruiser for some dune bashing fun. Dune bashing consists of driving about 30 minutes outside of Dubai to the desert and holding on while a fair maniacal Indian guy barrels up 40 foot dunes, jumps the car over the top of them, slides down the other side, guns it to 100kph and turns as hard as he can to kick up sand. Good fun, doesn't quite top the ATVs in Namib but it was great to see the desert and get a feel for what Dubai is authentically like. And the desert sheesha / shwarma they served us didn't hurt either.

IMG_0084 IMG_0090  IMG_0097

Then it was back to the hotel, a much needed shower and off to the airport for my lovely 3:30am flight to Bangalore. So there it is, a taste of the old Arabian souk, a view of some of the most opulent hotels in the world, some quick runs down a ski slope and a bit of off roading in the endless desert, all in 12 hours, all in Dubai.

05 July 2009

Heri ya Siku kuu America!

IMG_0021 Edit There were two things I learned this past weekend. First, Africa has no shortage of Jello or Jello knockoffs. Second, Bill Cosby and the gang have not yet figured out a way to make white Jello. I tried vanilla (brown), peach (peach) and pineapple (yellow), but could not find a flavor to round out my red, white and blue jello shots. In fact, the blue turned out to be more purple so the bad news was I had red, purple and red jello shots, but the good news was that in the middle of east Africa, 15,000 miles from the US, I had jello shots to help celebrate the fourth.

The jello shots were for a barbeque being thrown by an ex-ADP guy who now works directly for an NGO and lives in Nairobi. There was a good mix of thirty to forty folks, NGO workers from Nairobi and Juba, embassy employees, journalists and a smattering of Kenyans. There was an equally good mix of food: burgers, sausages, kebabs and ribs (goat ribs, but still) that were a nice match to the copious amounts of beer (and jello shots). Capped off the party with some dodgy Indian fireworks, a bit of Wii and a game of Kings. If I hadn't known better, I'd have thought I was back in the US.

Otherwise it was a pretty low-key weekend here. Watched the British Lions beat South Africa in their last test (but lose the series!), watched Federrer beat Roddick in 8 sets and watched a super bootleg version of The Hangover. Planned to go to the horse races today, but the jello (or the later tequila) shots, put a stop to that idea, so instead got all packed up and ready to head out for Dubai tomorrow.

America, fuck yeah!