Saturday, March 3, 2007


I cut my thumb yesterday morning while opening a box of milk. This is definitely an injury I would not have sustained back home, as opening milk rarely requires a knife, or any other tool for that matter.

In India, milk is not sold in plastic jugs or cartons or even the glass bottles my parents claim their milk came in growing up. Instead, you can buy milk here either in a box or in a bag. I haven’t tried the bag approach, because frankly, getting two uses out of bagged milk sounds messy.

Whether boxed or bagged, milk is sold at room temperature, as are eggs. Though this seems a peculiar and possibly dangerous way to store and sell milk, there appears to be no harm in storing milk at room temperature. In fact, the milk here lasts longer than in the States. Everyone is familiar with shuffling through the milk cartons in the grocery store to find the one elusive carton with an expiration date more than a week away. Not so with milk here. Instead of an expiration date, there’s a manufacture date stamped on the box. The box then advises that the milk is best if consumed within a 120 days of manufacture. The milk I cut my thumb opening was manufactured on November 7, so despite the absence of refrigeration, it still has two months of shelf life, far longer than you’re ever likely to find in the United States.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The barber

A few days ago I got a haircut at the barbershop to the right of the motor works in the picture above. The barber looked at me when I walked in and asked just one question: “Medium or short?” He didn't say another word to me until he was done cutting my hair.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Getting around

When I lived in Costa Rica, I had to wade across a waist-deep river each morning to get to the school where I was teaching. Roads spared from the seasonal inundation had their own hazards, namely intermittent paving and potholes large enough for a child to hide in. But this was to be expected; I was living in a small coastal town better known for its its migrant surfers than, well, that's all it was known for.

Were I now living in a similarly rural area, I would expect to find roadways likewise in need of upkeep. But I'm not living in a rural area; I'm in Bangalore, the “Silicon Valley of India,” a city more populous than all of South Carolina and with a GDP twice that of North Dakota. The roads here should be a pure dream, right? Far from it.

I've heard it said that whereas the rest of India drives on the left side of the road, Bangaloreons drive on what's left of the road. I've traveled on roads not far outside central Bangalore that abruptly turn from paved road to dirt, as if the street paving crew ran out of asphalt one day and never bothered to return. And where the paving stops, the rocks take over, so numerous and large that one could ride down train tracks in more comfort.

In all candor, however, I've never been preoccupied with my comfort while riding on Bangalore's streets; I'm far more concerned with mere survival. It's hard to think of anything else while riding as passenger in the three-wheeled death boxes known as autorickshaws. As autorickshaws have no doors, yellow canvas is the sole form of side-impact protection, a bumper sticker of Ganesh protects the rear. Invariably, the driver drives as if being chased—perhaps by the rickshaw's rightful owner—so my sense of bodily security is usually lingering at depths previously unexplored. Stepping into an autorickshaw feels like being the first out of the trench at Galipoli.

This is all to say that transportation here is completely different. Around half of the vehicles on the streets are motorcycles and mopeds, though they often have as many passengers as do the cars. I've seen many a moped carrying a families of four. It's no different on buses where passengers find space like kids cramming into a phone booth, sometimes with enough riders hanging from the side that the bus runs at a tilt.

Drivers mostly treat traffic laws as a blind child does the lines in a coloring book. Traffic signals aren't so much obeyed as they are briefly acknowledge. And on most roads there's no clear rule—and certainly no center line—to allocate how much of the road belongs to each direction of traffic. As a consequence, there's a constantly shifting zone of imminent peril where traffic is going both directions.

Throw into the mix a healthy dose of ox-drawn carts and wandering cows with a profound sense of entitlement, and it's a wonder that anyone ever gets anywhere. Yet they do. I've seen congestion, but it always resolves itself within a minute or two. I've never seen gridlock. Somehow people always make it from A to B, usually without serious injury. And that's something I marvel at everyday.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas canoe trip

This past weekend, as a Christmas gift to myself, I left Bangalore for the first time. Along with six others and two guides, I went canoeing on the Supa reservoir, a vast lake created by a hydroelectric dam in the Kali River. For three days we made camp on an island covered in tall bamboo. At the end of each day we paddled out from the island’s alcove to watch a double sunset as the show in the sky met its reflection in the water. We returned to a bonfire each night and dinner cooked on open flame. At night as the bamboo swayed under the breeze, the whole island creaked with the sound of hundreds of old wooden doors slowly opening and closing.

For three days my entire world was perfectly serene, except for the torturous snoring coming from the other half of my shared tent. Each night, the quiet calm of our island camp was hewn by what sounded like the shrieks of a pig drowning in mayonnaise. Crows picking over our cooking area scattered at the sound of the snoring. Droves of small furry animals -- the big-eyed Disney type -- drowned themselves as they fled the island in terror. But even something this loathsome I could get past. Here’s how: Whenever faced with a snorer, clap your hands together a single time as loudly as you can. The snorer will wake up, but will have no idea why, as there will be no conscious recollection of having heard the clap. Meanwhile, feign sleep. Repeat as necessary. The snorer won’t have a clue.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


This Friday I’m leaving Bangalore for the first time since I arrived. I’m taking advantage of the long holiday weekend (yes, Christmas is a holiday in India) for a 3-day canoeing trip on the Supa Reservoir. To prepare for the trip, I went from store to store yesterday trying to find things I knew I would need, such as a sewing kit to patch my backpack, industrial-grade insect repellant, and a dry bag to keep my camera safe.

My last stop was visit to a pharmacist to pick up iodine in case I needed to treat the reservoir water for drinking. As happens every time I need to buy something that I can’t point at, the pharmacist and I went through the usual custom of me saying one word over and over again, each time adding a slightly different inflection -- “Iodine? . . . iodine? . . . iodine?. . . . iodine? . . . you know . . . brown . . . *cough*, *cough* . . . ack!” as I tried to recreate the horribly painful childhood experience of having the back of my throat painted by a Q-tip dripping with iodine.

The pharmacist went to the back of the store and returned with something I didn’t recognize, but was definitely not iodine. I pointed at the brand name on the box and reemphasized that it was iodine I was looking for. He then insisted that it was iodine in the box, it just had a different name here. I looked back at the box. There was a drawing of a sleeping frog on the back. “Iodine is an element. The name doesn’t change.” He considered the point, then shuffled off to the back of the store again. When he returned to the counter, he smiled confidently, said “iodine!” as if to convey that we were finally on the same page, and then presented me with three boxes of Viagra.

Monday, December 18, 2006

In re burned buses

I’m afraid I may have been a bit misleading in a previous post when I suggested that angry mobs tend to burn buses following traffic accidents. What I failed to mention is that a traffic accident is in no way a prerequisite to a bus burning. Buses get burned for any number of reasons, most having nothing to do with the bus. Yesterday, for example, a bus was set on fire while its driver was sleeping in the back, and on November 30 a bus was burned to protest the vandalism of a statue. Both are obviously not traffic-related offenses.

The burning of buses is far too fascinating to ignore, so I’m going to keep a running tally of how many buses are set on fire during my stay here.

Buses Burned: 2

Friday, December 15, 2006

A day at the races

I met a couple from South Africa two weeks ago when I crashed a charity fundraising event put on by the Bangalore Expat Club. They were new to Bangalore, having just arrived from Vietnam three weeks prior, but it was clear they were already at ease in the place they’d be calling home for the next two years. They’re both the savvy traveling type that can relocate from one country to another more effortlessly than I can move from my kitchen to my couch. With such sophistication about them, I was naturally surprised when they invited me to join them at the Bangalore Turf Club for a day of horse races.

When we met at the racecourse the following weekend, we noticed new televisions being installed throughout the club’s ground level. The new televisions were not being installed to upgrade the facilities, but on account of an incident that occurred during a race the day before. After opening with a big lead over the competition, the race’s second favorite horse slowed during the straight before the finish line, apparently after its jockey made several furtive glances back at the distance he had put between himself and the competition. As the lead horse slowed, Hidalgo, a 33-to-1 outsider, passed for the win.

Enraged by the apparent throwing, the crowd reacted by smashing all of the ground floor’s 30 televisions. When they ran out of televisions, the mob went after the jockeys, who had locked themselves in the room for weighing horses. In the 45 minutes before the police arrived, the mob ransacked the jockey room, destroyed betting windows, and generally made a mess of things.

And so here I was walking into the Turf Club the very next day, and it was as if nothing had happened. It was business as usual; the events of the day before had been shrugged off like poor weather. But given the keenness for mob action in Bangalore, I suppose it wasn’t all that unusual either. When buses are involved in traffic accidents, they tend to be set ablaze by angry mobs long before the police arrive. This has happened four times since June; it seems to be something of a civic duty.

Though there were no televisions broken or vehicles burned during my day at the races, I did spill my drink after losing on a horse named Jedi Knight. Hardly newsworthy, but tragic nonetheless.

Friday, December 1, 2006

A monkey

I walked out of my apartment last week to find a monkey going through my garbage. I tried to get close to take a picture, but he hissed at me as if to encourage me to think otherwise. When I considered that my younger sister was both born and married since my last rabies vaccination, I quickly saw the wisdom in the monkey’s notion of keeping a safe distance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Just below the roof of the world

Walking home from work last night, I came across a Free Tibet demonstration on MG Road, the commercial heart of Bangalore. In the United States the term “Tibetan freedom” is more closely associated with Beastie Boys concerts than an actual political movement; the Tibetan flag is less a symbol of sovereignty than it is a fashion statement. Not so in India.

India is host to the Central Tibetan Administration, the government that has been in exile since it fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. India is also home to the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 other members of the Tibetan exile community. The participants in last night's vigil complained that ever since the People's Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1950 and asserted Chinese control, Tibet's lands have been despoiled, its people killed. With so many people here directly affected by the events to India's north, the push for Tibetan freedom is far from academic, and it's certainly not entertainment.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Television and books

Allow me to describe every single music video in India. First a guy sings while an entourage of guys stands behind him. Then a girl sings, and she too is supported by an entourage of ladies behind her. Then the guy sings, but this time he and his posse are dancing in synchronization, always looking directly into the camera. The the girls do the same thing. Then the guys. Then the girls. And over and over again until you change the channel, only you have no way of telling whether or not your remote is working, because from all appearances, you're watching the same music video, except this time one of the guys in the background is wearing a blue jacket. Click the remote again and--tada!--the same thing except this time the singing girl is holding a banana and her backup dancers are all wearing leg warmers.

This is every music video in India, I swear. I know this not because I've become some loathsome video addict, but because they're inescapable here. At least one-third of the television channels here are dedicated to music videos. Maybe more. Of the remaining channels, only a handful are in English, and those are mostly news channels (i.e., hopelessly boring unless reporting on celebrity shark attacks).

Having given up on television, I picked up a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the British edition. Now consider this: To go from British edition to the American edition, the publisher has paid someone to translate the book from English to, well, English. That's someone's job! Someone is getting paid to add dots behind every “Mr and Mrs” and to make sure characters ask for a pay raise instead of a pay rise. This must be someone's job because it's sure not the author doing it, and even if they have software to make most of the changes, I'm sure the publisher retains an expert in English-to-English translations to check behind the software. What an incredibly cush job. Who does this stuff and how much to they get paid?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The post office

Though I pass Bangalore's central post office everyday on the way to work, I've never had a reason to go inside the massive building until today. After today's experience, I hope I never again have to send a letter through the mail. I’m sticking with email.

First of all, people don't form lines here. They jostle. Crowding around each service window, everyone competes for attention, posturing for position and waiving money as if trying to get a drink at a crowded bar. Imagine a shoes-optional version of the NYSE trading floor and you've got a good picture of what it's like to buy stamps here.

But before I could buy my stamp, I had to first buy an official stamped envelope. Then I had to go to another window (and another crowd) to have my envelope and letter weighed. Then it was back to the first window to buy the appropriate stamp. And the appropriate stamp, I am sad to report, is not self-adhesive. Not even a little bit. Instead, after buying my stamp I was directed to a mug-sized container of viscous brown goo. Because the post office supplies the goo but no tool for applying it, I had to try to dip the back of my stamp into it. It was like dipping into the world's nastiest maple syrup. Thick brown strands of stickiness ended up all over the countertop, my fingers, and most of the envelope. I’m fairly certain my letter will arrive with several other people’s mail stuck firmly to it.

The whole process took the better part of an hour and was frustrating and probably unsanitary. But it sure goes a long way for explaining why it was someone from Bangalore who invented Hotmail, doesn’t it? He obviously understood the need for an alternative to the postal system.