Monday, October 30, 2006


This is a special message for all those eligible to vote in the US. I just got back from the post office where I sent in my absentee ballot. If you've read either this or this, you might realize that here, this is no simple task. If I can navigate the bureaucracy of India to vote in this election, you have no excuse not to.

The day is November 7th. If you have not registered to vote, do so now. If you have registered, make sure you know exactly where your polling place is, and/or make sure that you receive (and send) an absentee ballot. It's not just a choice, it's your civic duty.


Friday, October 27, 2006


For whatever reason I've never liked the idea of being a tourist. But on Sunday when I was checking out my new room at a seaside hotel with fresh sheets and towels, a nice bathroom, and even a comfortable front porch, I had to admit that I was right smack in the middle of a tourist zone, had just arrived a month before high tourist season, and was more or less a tourist here myself, complete with overloaded suitcase and camcorder.

But, I felt good. Happy. Relaxed. The place was nice and I was looking forward to a good time here. I found myself thinking maybe I'd given this tourism thing a bad rap. I was comfortable in what I'd been told would be a gorgeous area of a foreign country. Really, what was so wrong about tourism anyway?

I answered that particular question about five minutes later when I walked to the cliffs overlooking the Arabian Sea. The view of the horizon broken only by the waves and a few scattered clouds was stunning. The view of the gift shops, cheesy restaurants, and resort hotels broken only by the people hawking souvenirs and the paths to more of the same was not. I walked north along the cliff's edge, trying to escape, but thee cliffs ended before the cheap internet and plastic Ganesh statuettes did.

Still, there was a nice stretch of beach and what appeared to be a small fishing settlement up ahead with a thatch house and several large wooden boats. As I walked up, an old man greeted me with the usual “hello!” reserved for obvious foreigners. I said “hi” and waved back.

“Want some gank?” he asked.

“Do I want... what?”

“...ganke!” He tried again, re-pronouncing the word, “Gang! Gange! Ganja!”

The old man was trying to offer me marijuana.

There I was, trying to enjoy a relaxing walk by the beach away from the (other) tourists and this guy thinks the only reason I'm here is to buy drugs. Fantastic.

When the second guy I met offered me weed, I started getting irritated. So when the third, even older man who was missing a few teeth said “hello,” I ignored him completely. Then he said two words which took me completely by surprise.

“Help me?”

That stopped me. He pointed at some logs, then one of the big boats on the shore covered with thatch. This was unlike anything I'd ever encountered in India. I'd been asked for money before, I'd had people try to scam me with fake offers to be in bollywood films, I'd had people forcibly try to “assist” me in some manner and then demand money, but I'd never met anybody who genuinely wanted a hand.

I helped him carry the logs over and position them so that they propped the boat up. He didn't speak much English beyond “yes and “no” and I didn't even yet know the name of the language he spoke so most of our communication involved pointing and grunting, but we got the job done. After we finished, he invited me to sit next to him on a log.

We just sat there, looking at the horizon. I pointed to some other tourists playing in the water, asked “they help?”, the pointed to the boats. The man shook his head emphatically.

He then signaled to a friend, said something to him and motioned me to follow him. I looked at him questioningly.

“Coconut.” He said.

Two minutes later, the second man had shimmied up a coconut tree, tossed down several human-head-sized green pods, cracked two open on a rock, ripped white fiber away with his teeth, cracked them open again and handed one to me, filled to the brim with coconut milk.

“Fresh coconut!” He declared triumphantly.

I took a sip from my first fresh coconut and grinned. You really can do better than just being a tourist.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I'm white. Very white. So much so that a former girlfriend used to call me, among other things “Whitey McWhiteWhite”, “Translucent” and “Glow-in-the-dark.” (for my reaction, note my emphasis on the word 'former'). Even after a month in India has given me a faint tan tinge on my forearms and face, I'm still pretty darn white.

My usual strategy for safe and smart travel is to blend in with the locals. Frankly put, here, this is absolutely impossible. There may be all types and colors of Americans in the US, but there are almost no white Indians in India. By virtue of skin tone alone, I am about as inconspicuous here as a circus clown in a monastery.

As such, I tend to attract a certain amount of attention everywhere I go, especially when I'm carrying my camcorder. Open-mouthed stares have become the norm as have the questions “What is your good name?”, “Which is your country?” and “How do you find India?”

Mostly though I just get one word yelled at me, especially from kids: “HELLO!” No matter where I am or what I'm doing, people will yell it from the streets, doorways, scaffolding, moving vehicles, or anywhere you can find people. Multiple times every day I've had to stop in my tracks to play the Where's-Waldo-like game of 'who just greeted me' and found two giggling kids sticking their head out of a doorway across the field waving at me from behind two goats.

I don't know if it's the novelty of interacting with a native English speaker, a general friendliness shared by the whole country or just the curiosity about what happens when you poke a white boy. Whatever it is, it follows me wherever I go. It leads to crowds of schoolboys on bikes coming to talk to me whenever I stop on a corner and more friendly greetings from strangers than I can count.

So much for blending in with the locals.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Indian Environmentalism

I was standing in the open doorway of a moving train. I was going to be on the thing for about 40 hours so I figured the more chances to stretch my legs the better. Besides, the doorway offered a much better view than the heavily tinted and scratched window of the four-bunk compartment I was in.

I was sharing the compartment with part of a family of four, the father and son having the bunks opposite mine and the mother and daughter having a pair one car down. The son was a telemarketer about my age who was employed by Dell as part of their outsourcing program. He usually worked in the middle of the night, when the US is awake. He was a fun guy to talk to and a helpful and informative companion.

In the afternoon, while chatting we we were standing next to the wide open door of the train, enjoying the view while he smoked a cigarette (which wasn't permitted in the car itself).

Out of curiosity I asked him something I had been wondering about for a while: whether India had any sort of recycling program.

“Of course!” he replied. “We recycle the poly bags [plastic grocery bags]. There is groups that come to your home and collect your bags so that they will not be a danger to animals in the wild.”

He speech was uncharacteristically dry, almost scripted. He continued, “We know this is very important, it is important to preserve and protect our environment because India is famous for it's beautiful forests and it is very important that we protect them. It is for that that we are having these groups.”

“So are these private organizations or government groups?” I asked.

“They are with the government.” He replied.

At that moment, his mother, who had been busy trying to stuff me full of free food for most of the ride, stepped out of the car next to us. She walked behind her son, tossed a plastic bag full of garbage out the open doorway, and went back into the car without a word.

“But,” her son continued, smiling, “I do not trust the Indian government.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

National Capital: New Dehli; National Language: Hindi, English; National Sport: Bureaucracy.

I was hoping to show this particular episode rather than tell it. It actually occurred about three weeks ago, at the very beginning of October. However two of the critical locations to the story do not permit video recording because of national security concerns. I think even photography might get me in trouble. So I'll have to rely on text for this.

Here's what happened:

Thanks to friends' advice, my research, and viewer input (thanks again, it was a great help), I had decided that I wanted to go to Kerala for a week. I'd also decided that since India has the biggest rail system in the world, I should experience it first hand.

So, October 3rd, I walked down to a nearby travel agency and asked to buy a train ticket to Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala. I was told they were sold out all the way through the end of the month, and that if I wanted I could put myself on the waiting list (I'd have been 22nd in line). I went back to my hotel and asked for advice from our program assistant. She looked up train tickets for the dates I wanted and found that while the main quota was full, there were two openings in a special reserve quota the government keeps open for foreign tourists. So I went back to the travel agent and informed them. They confirmed this, called the station, chatted for a bit, then told me I had to go to the station itself to buy the tickets.

I was warned that buying tickets at the train station would be a long, laborious and frustrating process, but I figured I was a pretty patient guy and really after the phone episode, it couldn't be that bad...

...could it?

I hailed an autorickshaw to take me to the train station after class the next day. As he pulled up to the parking lot, it started to drizzle. Having no rain gear, I hurried into one of the worn brick buildings dodging stray dogs and touts.

One thing I should explain before I go further is that after this point I “go to” several windows. This is not as simple a process as it might sound. In India, the idea of waiting in line is relatively new and hasn't yet caught on with the mainstream population. So to “go to" a window you have to shove, prod, tackle, and elbow your way to the front of a small mob and get the employee's attention. Also this means that if the person behind the window doesn't understand you, they will ignore you and move onto someone else they understand who has knocked you over and taken your place. After doing this a few times you start to realize why professional wrestling is so popular here.

Anyway, I “went to” my first window and after some effort was told to “go to” a forms window and pick up a foreign tourist quota application. The forms window had no such form. So I “went to” an enquiries window who told me that I had to go to the “DCM Office”. I asked where the office was, they said in another building and pointed in a vague direction. I tried to get more specific directions and was ignored and shoved out of the way.

I walked back into what had gone from a drizzle into a post-monsoon downpour and after a search for an entrance that was chained shut, entered the next closest building in the station. I asked security guards inside for the DCM office and was pointed to, in order, a latrine, a computerized train information window, an on-site barbershop, and finally another ticket office altogether who told me I had to go back to the first building I'd been in.

I jogged back through the rain to the inquiries window who this time told me to fill out a normal “reservation form” from the forms window. I went to that window, argued with someone to refill empty the box with forms, grabbed one, filled it out, and took it to the very first window where I was told that the train I had requested was booked through the end of the month and that if I wanted I could put myself on the waiting list.

I was tired, wet and pissed off. Usually when somebody goes through the ordeal and comes to the point when they say they were tired, wet, and pissed off it means that they are about to have the final blowing up and screaming or breaking down and crying or going nuts and hitting someone event that would finally get results and end the story.

Sorry folks, there's a lot more to go.

I argued for about ten minutes with two different government officials who spoke varying degrees of English who finally convinced me that the way to get a ticket on the foreign tourist quota was to buy a ticket on the waiting list and take it to the “DCM Office”. I filled out more of another form, bought the wait list ticket, and asked once again for directions to the mythical office. They pointed in the same direction and the inquiries window man had, and this time told me the key fact that it was past the train platform.

After another ten-minute search, I found my way onto the platform and walked to the end, passed the cargo area with people loading crates onto carts, and found myself back out into the pouring rain. I picked my way around the rapidly rising lakes in the roadway, walked into a nearby government building and asked for the DCM office. They pointed further down the street. I walked further and walked into the next office, asked again and was told the same thing. I did this four more times before being told that it was not only down the road ten minutes walk but on the other side of the train tracks. I was told to go to the other side of the third platform.

I don't know how I didn't manage to get lost at this point. Maybe I just got lucky, but after making my way through the downpour and flooded streets across the tracks, I just kept walking. After 15 minutes, I got to what looked like an abandoned warehouse. I peeked on the other side and found doorways with signs over them. I stepped into one, asked for directions one last time, and was pointed to the second office from the far end with “CM Off” written on it. The rest had been worn off.

I entered and was pointed to an empty desk. I plopped myself down in front of it and briefly considered taking my shirt off and wringing the water out in spite of cultural taboos, but dismissed the idea. I'd come this far, I wasn't going to get turned back for public indecency.

After five minutes, a beefy, mustached man came down and asked what I wanted. I showed him my (wet) wait list ticket and explained that I wanted a foreign tourist quota spot on the train. He chatted briefly with somebody else in Marathi, reached down and handed me a small form that said “Emergency Quota Application Form.” I said that I had asked for foreign tourist quota, not emergency quota, and he replied that he understood, but that I should use this form and put my passport number in the “emergency reason” field. I filled it out and handed it to him.

He took it, wrote something on it, then told me that if I came back to his office and talked to him after 1:00pm the day of departure, I would have a 99% chance of getting on the train.

I blinked once or twice then asked, “Is there anything I can do to make that 100%?”

He looked at me over his glasses. “Pray to God.”

I left a couple minutes later feeling somewhat less than 99% at ease. I walked back out as the rain slowed to a trickle, and hailed a rickshaw to my hotel.

But, amazingly it worked. 7:45 pm the day of departure, I got on my train. It did involve returning to the DCM office right after class, waiting half an hour, filling out another form, waiting another half an hour, briefly being told by the guy while he was on his cell that I was going to get on the train, waiting a little longer and finally being asked why I was still there, me asking for my ticket, and being told I would get it at the main ticketing window when I boarded the train. But it all worked out in the end.

That's how it all ended and how it all began.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mission Accomplished.

I set out on this trip to pop the U(c) bubble. When I found myself four days ago around midnight in an abandoned coir factory in the village of Alleppy singing with the locals by candlelight and arguing over the advantages and disadvantages of communism with the increasingly drunk friend of a man who was letting me in a tree house for about two bucks a night, I decided I’d pulled it off.

Right now though, I’m taking it easy in Kochi. The sun is setting and I’m sitting outside a restaurant on the seashore washing down a plate of aloo gobi and rice with a sweet lassi. Sitar and drums of a traditional kathakali performance swim across from a small thatch-walled theater next door.

When I transfer this from my notebook to a web browser, I will be in an internet cafĂ© and my time will be limited. On Sunday, when I get back to Pune and my laptop with wireless internet, I will have a good few stories to tell from this week and a gazillion pictures to go with them. I won’t write up everything—Episode 5 will be all about my week in Kerala. But I’ll be sure to post a few things you won’t find on the video.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Busting the Bubble

I have few complaints about being here in India on the University of Chicago Pune Civ-Abroad program. Here's one of them:

My day consists of waking up in my hotel, eating breakfast with my American classmates, going to class with my American classmates, having a free afternoon, then eating dinner with my American classmates, and going to sleep in my hotel. Usually on the weekends and sometimes during the week I will go out on trips organized by the program... with my American classmates.

Don't get me wrong. I like my American classmates. They're a really fun and interesting group. We've got all types in and they've all been interesting and fun to talk to and hang out with so far. Not only that, but some of the organized activities we've done have been nothing short of incredible.

...but it's still me in a little University of Chicago bubble with my American classmates.

I've been working a busting the bubble as much as possible; getting out when I can and meeting other people. I got to meet some of the students at Ferguson College and hang out with them some, (mostly watching hindi movies and playing video games). I've struck out and gotten a few extra opportunities to explore things like the “theives' bazaar” and even got a peek at a bhakti drumming ceremony with the local grandmaster pakawaj drummer (You'll see it in Episode 3 coming on Oct. 17).

But I still feel like I'm in the bubble.

Until tomorrow.

Remember the break I told you about with the “Special Request” entry a few weeks back? It starts tomorrow. The votes are in, and I am headed to Kerala. I hope. After a three-hour bureaucratic marathon in the pouring rain at the Pune train station, (I'll try to give a recap in episode 5, which will be all about this trip) I have the the stationmaster's promise of 99% chance of me getting on the train if I present myself to him again around 1:00 pm tomorrow. After that...

Well, I won't spoil the surprise of everything I have in store for this trip but if it all turns out as planned, you can kiss the bubble goodbye.

Wish me luck,


Monday, October 9, 2006

An Excerpt from my Saturday Night in Mumbai.

Under normal circumstances, there is no way in heck I could be coerced into riding a 20-ft ferris wheel powered by teenage boys climbing the up sides and swinging themselves out into thin air pulling the wheel down with them. Especially when it's clocking in with a rotation or two per second. Especially when the safety devices holding the riders in place amount to a metal strip a foot in front of their chests with a width of two inches and the thickness and strength of a kleenex. At least not while sober. In fact, probably not while drunk, brainwashed, and/or under hypnosis either.

But while enjoying a moonlit beach with my friends on the last night of our class's weekend trip to Bombay? Hey, why not?

Alive, uninjured, and having a blast--


Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Special delivery from a stupid person. Me.

In order for JYA to make video episodes; I have to send video from India to New York. NBC pays to do that via FedEx and DHL. After a three-day fiasco with the FedEx office in Pune when I tried to mail in episode two, I decided to go with DHL. It worked out fine, they even came directly to the hotel to pick it up, despite the fact that NBC had given me the number for an office in Mumbai rather than Pune.

By today, I have episode 3 wrapped up and ready to roll. And this time; I figured I'd save some time a trouble by calling the Pune office directly instead.

Silly me.

Here's what happened:

I look up the Pune DHL office on their website and get not one, but two phone numbers. I go to the hotel front desk and ask if they will call DHL for me. The front desk tells me to go call from my room. Our program administrators have given us some very basic instructions regarding smart conduct here. One of them is do not call out from your hotel room. The hotel apparently charges exorbitant fees for outgoing phone calls, including toll-free numbers.

So I grab my stuff and head out to an STD booth instead--

--quick clarification: STD stands for Subscriber Trunk Dialing. It's a telephone service. It has absolutely nothing to do with venereal diseases; I am not trying to contact DHL by contracting herpes, I'm trying to make a phone call. STD/ISD/PCO booths are usually quick, cheap and easy ways to make calls.


--anyway, I go to the booth and ask to make a local phone call. The guy behind the counter checks my one rupee coin and passes over the phone. I dial the first number.

There was a beep. A pause. Another beep.

“Hello! Please check the number you have dialed!”

I try again. And again. I try the second number. Same result. I hand the phone to the guy behind the counter (henceforth to be known as Phone-man). He tries both numbers. No luck. He pulls out a second phone. Still no luck.

I spot two phone books on the counter and flip through them looking for DHL. The first one didn't have anything under 'package', 'mail', 'delivery', or 'courier', but the second one had a toll-free number in the first section I tried. I pointed it out, Phone-man dialed, and handed me the receiver.

The person on the other side couldn't quite understand my American accent. I was halfway through explaining to him that my name was Joel and the company's name was NBC and not the other way around when I heard five beeps. Then nothing.

I told Phone-man what happened, and he dialed again. This time I got a woman who understood my accent perfectly. It wasn't until I was spelling out the street address that I heard the five beeps. I looked up.

“Why does it keep cutting me off?”
“Toll free number sir” Phone-man replied, as if that explained everything.
“What? Does STD not work with toll-free numbers?”

He didn't answer or even seem to understand that I had just asked him a question. He dialed the number a third time and handed me the receiver once more.

This time, instead of trying to arrange a pickup from my hotel, I asked for the number of the Pune DHL office. They asked why I wanted it. I told them I had a package to be delivered. They asked what it was and where it was going. I said I just wanted the number for the Pune office so I could tell them that information. They asked for my account number. I repeated that I wanted the Pune phone number first. They said they couldn't do that. I asked why not.

Five beeps.

Since I did not own the phone myself I did not violently slam it down on the cradle. Instead I gently put it down and looked up at Phone-man. I asked him again why the toll-free number kept getting cut off. He said they are cutting it off from their end. “They is paying for it, sir. It is not cheap. The time is limited.” Then he reached for the phone directory again.

After about five minutes of more searching, he called what must have been an information line and asked, in Marathi, for the number of DHL. There was a long pause. He said “hello”. Another long pause. He tried again, “hello?” After the third time, he hung up and dialed information again. This time he grabbed an envelope and a pen and wrote down a number. He hung up and dialed it. Then he hung up again.

“Out of service.”

He called information again, and got a completely different number. He tried that. It was disconnected. He called information, started writing down the first number, then said in Marathi that he'd already gotten that number and it didn't work. A pause. He writes down a third, brand-new number and tries it. He hangs up, and says it doesn't work either. He calls information again. He gets yet another new phone number and tries it. He waits, hangs up, and hits the redial button. Then he does it again. And again. He does this three more times before finally hanging up, turning the envelope 90 degrees and rewriting every faulty phone number he has gotten so far in a list. He dials information yet again. He then rejects two numbers, and writes down a brand new number. He hangs up and dials it.

When he said hello and handed me the receiver, you could've knocked me over with a feather.

“Hello?”I asked.
“Yes this is DHL please? How can I help you please?”
A big grin spread across my face. Finally!
“I'd like to arrange a pickup for a package to the US.”
“Ah for that you will please call our toll-free number; we do not arrange pickups at this office.”
That wiped the grin off my face in short order.
“...excuse me?”
“You will be please calling our toll free number.”
“I can't do that, it keeps cutting me off.”
“Where are you calling from please?”
“I'm at an STD booth.”
“Ah then you will be please calling this toll-free number,” He gave me a completely different number, said 'please' about five more times in as many seconds and then 'thank you', 'goodbye' and hung up.

I handed the number to Phone-man. He looked at it. “This is not toll free number. This is in Mumbai.”

I stared at him blankly. “You would like to call?” he asked.

I paused, shook my head, got out the very first number in Mumbai that I had gotten from NBC, and dialed that instead.

The pickup was arranged within minutes. I thanked Phone-man profusely, paid for the call, and went back to my hotel. DHL was there in half an hour, and took the package without a hitch.

So the moral of the story is: the next time you are in a web-based reality TV show with a major broadcasting network, and the show involves travel, and you are getting the raw footage yourself, and you have to send in tapes from India to New York, and the broadcasting company gives you a number for a courier service they can pay for, and it happens to be an office located in another city... yourself a favor and just call the number anyway.