A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

India on the Rise

I found this week's Newsweek article about India coming into its own (again) very interesting. Having just spent the last month there, and living in China, how could I not be interested?

You can check it out at India Rising.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Is it normal…

Is it normal to have your life feel like a TV drama? Usually, I feel like my life is too boring to really have anybody but me and a maybe a few close friends care about. But somehow, Kunming in the last few months has managed to pull my normally hum-drum life into something deserving of a spectacle.

In my last (substantive) post, I believe I was somewhere in India—roaming around the spice plantations of Goa sounds about right. After that Chesa and I went down to Bangalore, which qualifies as the IT capital of India. Chances are good that if you’ve ever called customer service within the last five years that you’ve placed a call here. Unfortunately, beyond being a liberal bastion of a conservative state, and there being lots of conspicuous wealth, there did not seem to be much of substance in the city. What’s worse, due to train schedules, we were stuck there for several days more than we had originally planned.

To be fair to Bangalore, I kind of lost my motivation to explore when we discovered the TV in our hotel had cable with access to BBC World, CNN, and StarWorld. I haven’t seen such open media since I was back in the US, and being able to turn on the tele and watch real news was fun. Though, I had happily forgotten how the US media runs takes one story and runs it into the ground. All we could hear about was cartoon controversy this, cartoon controversy that. I swear there was more news on their ticker bar than in the actual program itself!

We did have a wonderful time meeting with a friend of mine from the states who is living in Bangalore—her husband is currently a visiting professor at the Tata Institute, a very famous graduate institution in India located in Bangalore. She showed us around campus, and we even got to swim in their newly cleaned pool. The sheer amount of shrubbery and wildness amazed me in comparison to the neat, controlled, and heavily cemented Chinese campuses. We also met up with an Indian friend of Chesa’s who showed us a bit of the local nightlife.

Though we were there longer than planned, it turned out well that we were stuck in Bangalore for so long. The night before we were to leave at just about 9:45PM we decided that since it had been a couple of days we should check our e-mail. We finally found an internet place, and, with fifteen minutes to close, discovered that one of the other foreign teachers, and a close friend at that, was severely ill in hospital. She had eaten something bad and had refused to go to the hospital (because me, Chinese hospitals are to be avoided at all costs). Finally her boyfriend (who is a Chinese doctor) convinced her to go. Unfortunately, by that point she was horribly dehydrated and went into septic shock. That is to say, she lost heart, lung, and kidney function and was in a coma.

Chesa and I were stunned, then paralyzed. The internet café shut down, and though we were able to make a quick phone call back to Kunming to hear the most recent update, we were unable to do anything because EVERYTHING was closed in the damn town (and it was a Friday night!). We went home and tried to distract ourselves from feeling helpless.

The next day was spent making decisions and arrangements. We still had almost two weeks left of our trip in India, and we weren’t sure how effective we’d be back in Kunming. Chesa, whose whole point in going to India was to visit Madurai (our next destination) decided to keep on with the trip, while I decided I needed to be back to help in whatever way I could. I think it was the right decision, and because of that, the universe stepped in to help.

After discovering that Cathay Pacific had no available seats until our reserved date two weeks later, I decided to drop the return portion of that trip and see what else I could find. Things weren’t looking good until Chesa casually suggested I try JetStarAsia, a discount Asian carrier based in Singapore. As it turned out, one of their two ports of call in India was Bangalore. I booked the way cheap 4:30AM flight for the next morning, and thus started the fun adventure of getting home.

I dropped Chesa off at the train station at nine that night, and dawdled there reading until I was chased away by people with big hoses getting ready to clean the platform. Then I waited for forever in the airport (one of the nicer ones in India from what I can tell, though it’s nothing to write home about), until I squeezed onto the plane and sat down in front of a screaming baby. Luckily, the baby scared off the other passengers from my row and I was able to stretch out for my trip to Singapore.

The problem was, I had no confirmed onward booking from there. I couldn’t get in touch with Singapore’s China Eastern office, so I couldn’t check the price of the direct flight back from Singapore to Kunming. I, therefore, hedged my bets and bolted that afternoon to Hong Kong, again on JetStar. I spent the night in Kowloon, hopped the ferry the next morning to ShenZhen, and successfully changed my flight back to Kunming. It was a long trip.

I arrived that night to find my friend’s boyfriend at a bar in quite the state of despair. I’m generally a good listener, but I frankly don’t know what to tell this man when he says that he doesn’t want to be a doctor anymore because he can’t do anything to save the person he loves. I know less what to say when he insists that he wants to “go with her.”

The next day I went to the hospital to visit her for the first time. She was still in a coma, her face swollen from a buildup of bodily fluids due to her non-functioning kidneys. Her eyes were crusty and half open. Her head jerked the respirator tube every time she breathed. It was a hard sight, and the other friend I was with who was also just back in town broke down in tears. She, or so we were told, was looking much better.

Now, Chinese hospitals are different from American hospitals. Though she has had a team of three American doctors working on her in addition to another three Chinese doctors, things just never seem quite right. As one of the American doctors assessed the situation, “the nurses are doing the big things, but there is more that could be done to make her more comfortable.”

The docs didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly what infection she had, but they were hoping to run blood tests while she got her first dialysis. The hospital kindly refused to perform the tests Sunday night at 10PM until the money that the university had promised they would give them THE NEXT MORNING when the banks opened was in their possession.

When walking into the ICU, visitors are required to don slippers and scrubs. Of course, everyone must share the limited selection of jackets (that the Chinese toss casually on the floor), and given the number of stains on them, I’d guess they haven’t been washed in years. Great germ protection I feel. Maybe I shouldn’t mention the blood-stained bed cum waiting room seats that we must wait on before going to the ICU as it’s the only thing available to sit on in the wind-tunnel (I keep trying to figure out how to say ‘vestibule’ in Chinese so I can suggest it to the doctors there…) of an entrance hall.

Right now our friend is doing better. She actually woke up last week, and has been able to since respond to yes/no questions, but she still has a long way to come. Today she seemed to relapse a bit, but we’re still hopeful.

And this, my friends, is but one of the many sub-plots of my current life.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Where in the World?

My friend Thothmuffin did it, so I thought I would too. It's kind of nice having a visual representation of all the places I've been too, though I am amazed at how much silly lines on maps mean. Because I've crossed the border into Mexico it makes it seem as though I've made it all the way to the Yucatan Pennisula or something. As they say in Thailand, same same, but different!

create your own personalized map of the USA.

create your own visited country map.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Spice Facts

I realized last night during our train ride to Bangalore (the city of beans, there is apparently a long story about how it was given this name), I realized that I forgot to post my promised trivia about spice that we learned during our visit to an organic spice farm in Goa. Well, let me rectify that now!

The top five most expensive spices by weight are (in order of most expensive)
1. Saffron (the "gold" of spices)
2. Vanilla (the "silver" of spices)
3. Green cardamom
4. Cloves
5. Cinnamon (yeah, that one surprised me too!)

Almost all vanilla beans are exported to either the United States or the United Kingdom as they have refined methods of extracting the vanilla oil from the been. They have maximized it to about 90% of the oil, whereas developing industries in India can still only get about 10% (or less, can't remember exactly).

30% of the vanilla exported to the US goes directly to the Coca Cola company, as vanilla is a key ingredient in their secret formula!

Green, red, white, and black pepper actually all come from the same pepper--it all depends on how the pepper is dried and cured.

Bananas are the second largest grass (after bamboo) in the world. They are not trees.

There are both male and female pineapples. The juicy delicious yellow ones tend to be female, whereas the whiter and and not so succulent ones are male.

Now you know!

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Goin' Goan

Well, I'm now officially a beach bum! I realized while I was with Chesa that I had never had a proper beach vacation before (don't get me wrong, I have been to the beach before in France, but only once or twice, and never in a place with warm water), so she took it upon herself to drag me (let me assure you, I was kicking and screaming) to some lovely Goan beaches where we have lounged for the past couple of days. Goa is actually pretty much paradise though (apart from the constant, and rather aggressive, sarong and jewellery sellers), so I can't complain too much. I did manage to get a sun burn (whoops), but that's just because I'm not accustomed to actually being in the sun it seems. We really just sat there and read, and laid in the sand, and went into the Arabian Sea (which was surprisingly clear). I think I made the mistake of actually doing a few laps, but other than that, Chesa has certified me as a beach bum!

Besides lazing on the beach though, we took the opportunity of being in Goa to rent a motor scooter and go scooting about all of yesterday. As Chesa had a somewhat traumatic experience with motor bikes last year in Thailand, we opted for only one bike, and I drove us around most of the day. I was, however, impressed as Chesa did get some practice in on some deserted roads. I'm sure she'll be a moped expert any day now...of course this was an automatic, so it was cheating a bit, but baby steps, baby steps. We had fun taking random roads, getting lost, and seeing the beautiful scenery, but we also saw a Portuguese-style Hindu temple and an organic spice farm where I learned lots about spices. Not that I'm obsessed with food, but it was one of my favorite parts of the day. We even got to (try to) climb a betel tree (looks a bit like a palm). Of course, since I have like zero upper body strength, I didn't get very high, but it was fun trying. Look below for fun spice facts!

Now, this was Goa (which we're leaving tonight due to a shortage of trains to our next destination, Bangalore), but I have yet to talk about Mumbai (AKA Bombay. For all of you not in the know, the name was changed back in 1997 during an anti-anglo push there at that time). Whereas Delhi can't hold a candle to Beijing, Mumbai was at least in the same league as Shanghai (though Shanghai is still MUCH more developed). Of course, the first images we got of Mumbai were the never-ending slums that border the railroad tracks coming into town. Having just read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (a book I would highly recommend for those of you looking for a new book to add to the reading list), I was prepared for the contrast between the British-style architecture of Colaba (the central district of Mumbai) and the corrugated tin shanties of the suburbs. The image that will forever remain in my head though, is the sight of a group of young boys who used a small clearing next to the train tracks to play cricket with cheap little plastic bats and balls. Sometimes it's easy to forget that no matter one's situation, life still goes on. These boys were living in stark poverty, but that didn't stop them from enjoying themselves!

Besides being astonished by the British-style architecture in Mumbai, and how different of a city it was from Delhi, there were three significant events that took place there: visiting McDonald's (no I'm not kidding), going to a barbershop, and seeing a Bollywood movie.

First, McDonald's. Now, I know that some of you are saying right now "I can't believe he went to McDo's while he was in the land of epicurean delight that India is." But, in my defense, McDo's is so different in each country, I like going in once during my trip just to see, and in this case, it was particularly interesting. As the cow is sacred in India, McDo's had to give up on most of its staple dishes and opt for chicken or vegetarian versions so as not to offend the Hindus. So, no, you can't get a Big Mac, but there was the Chicken Maharajah Mac which was basically the same idea. I opted for the McAloo Tikka (a potato patty with a spicy tikka sauce), which was surprisingly good. They also had such delights as Paneer Shahi (a flat bread filled with the local "cottage cheese" and sauce, and a Crispy Chinese (no, I have no idea what that was, but it was vegetarian, and thus decidedly not Chinese. They were also playing MTV which I enjoyed to no end.

As for the barbershop, I'm not sure that I can do the experience justice, but I will try. As the long-haired hippie look doesn't particularly suit either Chesa or me, we decided that our time in the uber-trendy Mumbai should be taken advantage of, and that we should get haircuts. We had seen plenty of pavement barbers, but nothing that looked much like a salon. After taking a walking tour of one of the neighborhoods though, we stumbled across a salon. We checked it out, and it seemed nice, but it was only for "ladies." Chesa went in for her coconut oil scalp massage and trim, and I was sent across the street to a barber's. India is just into gender segregation like that, something that has really surprised me actually!

Stepping into the barbershop was like stepping into fifty years ago. It had the art-deco decor, the faded leather chairs, and the smell of old men. I ordered a cut, a shave (as I had been told that it was an experience men should not miss in Mumbai), and a face and head massage. The cut started with a fifties-style automatic razor (something to which I was somewhat accustomed having gotten haircuts in China) and was pretty standard for a barbershop. I couldn't convince him that I liked my hair up, so he oiled it and slicked it down for the "nice boy" look.

Then it was onto the shave. It was my first shave with a straight-edge razor like that, but that's why I opted for the experience. It seemed fairly standard for fifty years ago, but two things surprised me: the fact that the shaving cream was indeed just that, cream. I had only ever used foam or foaming gel before, so I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen with this lotion-type cream. He rubbed it on my face, dipped a shaving brush in warm water and worked the cream into a lather. Who knew that's what those brushes were actually for! The other slightly bizarre thing was that he rubbed my face with a wet stone (or was it a whet stone...maybe he wanted me to look sharp. Apologies for bad pun, but I had to do it) after having applied the after shave. I'm not quite sure what that was about, but it didn't hurt or anything, so I was okay with it.

Then it came time for the massages. The barber's hands were a bit rough as he started in on the face, but it wasn't until he strapped a strange device onto his hands that I began to worry. Now, I usually try to make my blog PGish, but I can't find any other way to describe this contraption. For those of you who have ever seen a vibrator, you know that what makes them vibrate is a thumb-sized metallic pellet. Well, imagine an ostrich-egg sized one of those strapped to the back of his hand, and you start to get the idea! There were also two plastic pads that capped his index and middle fingers.

Let's just say that the massage was more invigorating than relaxing, especially when he focused on putting as much vibrating pressure on my sinuses as he could, and when he stuck his fingers in my ears to give my brain a good little giggle. I do not understand why anybody would want this kind of a massage, but I guess it must work for some people, or they wouldn't have it. A little frazzled, I walked back across the street and recovered Chesa (who had been burned twice) and mossied across another street to the Eros movie theatre.

We went in to see our first Bollywood epic (with an average of like three hours each, they're all epic), Rang de Basanthi (note, the 'h' is aspiration, not a 'th' sound). From what we could tell (most of it was in Hindi), it was a story about a British woman who came to India to make a documentary about one of the revolts against her British grandfather. She gets to India only to find that the college students she tries to recruit for her film are indifferent to her film and Indian politics in general. Of course, she gets the rag-a-muffin group to change their ways and the filming of the documentary inspires them to fight a fight of their own against corrupt Indian-government officials.

Though I didn't understand a few key things about the movie, I thought it was fascinating for the messages it seemed to espouse. It was generally jingoistic, touting Indian pride and a uniting belief in democracy. At the same time, it seemed to encourage violence (though the end seems to counterdict that), which would not be typical of an American "anybody can make changes happen" film. Anyway, it's a new film, but if you see it in your local blockbuster, it'd be worth seeing (especially if you have the English subtitles).

But now I gotta run catch my train to Bangalore! Woot, 14 hours this time!

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I've made it to Mumbai and her fast Internet connections, so I wanted to share a few photos of our trip so far. Mostly they are just buildings, but we've got a nice one of me and Chesa at the Taj Mahal. Check it out at Fun FoToS for wHeNeVeR!

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