Sunday, September 28, 2008

Escape to New York

While I had a good trip to Delhi, I was happy to return to New York. One thing I missed about New York is how people are able to make something simple into something complicated.

The driver who picked me up from the airport was driving a car that would make a sound if the driver didn't have his seat belt buckled. My driver, instead of just buckling his seat belt, took the seat belt from the passenger-side and connected it to the buckle on the driver-side.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The journey from Delhi to Agra

Agra is the city in India where the Taj Mahal was built. I went there with Gopi (a student from my class), Nagib (a collegue from Australia), and Susmita (Nagib's girlfriend). We hired a driver to take us from Delhi to Agra for the day.

My trip to Agra was incredible, but not for the reasons I expected. The Taj Mahal was terrific, and definitely worth the trip. It's just that getting there and back presented the possibility for large blocks of time to be wasted, and those opportunities were realized to their full potential.

I woke up at 3:45 am to be ready for a 4:30 am pickup. The driver didn't know where he was going, so it wasn't until 6:15 am that I was finally picked up.

There was all sorts of traffic on the road to Agra.

When we got within a mile or two of the Taj Mahal, some sort of street festival slowed traffic to a trickle. People on the road were estimating it would take 2 hours to clear the offending intersection. This was incredible to me considering this is the only road from Delhi to Agra. The Taj Mahal is one of - if not the - most popular tourist destinations in the country. That a street festival could close this road was shocking to me.

Enveloped by the sight, sound and smell of traffic, we decided to abandon our car.

At 12:00 pm we got out of the car and told the driver to continue to the Taj Mahal without us, figuring that, even if the delay turned out to be 2 hours, it wouldn't matter. The driver was going to be waiting one way or another.

Riding around in a rickshaw, trying to get to the Taj Mahal.

So we crossed the road and hopped in an auto rickshaw for a harrowing ride through the narrow and crowded streets that approach the Taj Mahal.

The journey was well worth the hassle.

By around 1:00 pm we finally made it to the monument.

Monkey business

About halfway to Agra we stopped for lunch. There were two men with four animals in the parking lot.

I thought snakes only did this in cartoons.

First were the snakes. One of the men did the snake-charmer thing from the cartoons. It was a little disappointing that the tune he played wasn't the usual snake-charmer song. (If you want to hear the tune he was playing, you can watch a video I took.)

The other snake was available for photo ops. I didn't really want to hold the snake, but nobody else in my group wanted to, so I did.

I don't know what the monkey on the stick was supposed to be doing.

Then came the two monkeys. One was naked and had what I think was supposed to be a fancy mustache drawn on his face. The other was dressed in girl's clothes and had what I guess was supposed to look like makeup. It really looked like an ugly baby who had gotten into her mom's makeup. Or maybe a really low-rent drag queen.

Seeing the monkeys was fun, but I felt sorry for them for being on display for the amusement of tourists.

The man had the monkey jump up on my shoulders. It was a strange feeling to have a wild animal crawling around on me, but I must admit it wasn't an altogether unpleasant one. The downside was that I smelled like a monkey for the rest of the day.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Spiritual and material shopping

After work my driver took me to the Lotus Temple, which is a Baha'i house of worship. It was a beautiful building. Inside was a space for 2,000 or 3,000 people to be able to sit and pray. All religions are welcome here.

Despite my insistence that my god requires I praise him through photography, the staff refused to allow me to take pictures inside the temple.

The nicest part of the template was that it was situated on grounds that were large enough that, by the time I reached the template itself, the sound of the surrounding traffic was almost completely drowned out.

After we left the Lotus Temple, I assumed Rahul knew I wanted to return to the hotel, because I was reluctant to even go to the Lotus Temple in the first place. I was really annoyed when I noticed we were pulling into a parking lot, and it wasn't the hotel's.

I told Rahul that I wanted to return to the hotel. He said I should go inside and take a quick look. He had taken me to Delhi Haat Craft Cottage Industries, a tourist trap of a market.

Since we were already there, I figured that I might as well go inside. Reluctantly I left the car, hoping I could find something to bring back for Kelley.

As I entered the store I was assaulted by a man named Naresh. He explained that I arrived late and that usually his store is filled with tourists and shoppers. Then he explained to me some important rules I must follow in order to take advantage of the unique opportunity offered by his store.

I was to walk to the back of the store and work my way to the front, being sure to stop at every single section. I wouldn't want to miss any of the quality products for sale, would I? Everyone pays the same price at the store (no haggling). Everything is high quality. Naresh told me all of this in a certain way that also told me "just do as I say so I don't have to repeat this to you over and over until you finally relent."

You can make shirts, you say?

Just as I had started tuning him out, Naresh mentioned that he can make shirts, pants and suits. I was actually hoping to get some custom-tailored shirts made when I was in India.

Naresh asked me if he wanted to get fitted or if he should take the measurements from the shirt I was wearing. The shirt I was wearing happened to be a shirt that fits me well, so I had him measure the shirt I had on.

He looked at my shirt and said it was made in India, that he could tell by the stitching. I showed him the "Made in China" label on the collar. He said "Oh, they have started sewing the Indian way now."

The shirts weren't as cheap as I had expected ($24/shirt), but they were still much less expensive than any shirt I could get back home. Hopefully they will fit properly and won't fall apart on first washing.

Breaking up with Rahul

Early in my relationship with Rahul he asked if I had plans to visit any attractions in Delhi. At the time I thought this was genuine curiosity, so I answered honestly and told him I was planning to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal on Saturday with some colleagues.

From that point on, Rahul would ask me at least twice per day if I had made travel plans yet. He repeatedly asked me to use his company and to request his services. While I was a little apprehensive about that - he did get us lost on the first day - I didn't know any other drivers, and I liked him, so I agreed.

Well, during the week I mentioned to Gopi (a student in my class) that I was going to Agra. He lives in Bangalore (in southern India) and had never been to see the Taj Mahal. I invited him, and he decided to come along.

Hiring someone who would drive safely was important to Gopi. He knew of a safe driver and wanted to use this driver. I had my own driver I wanted to use, but Gopi insisted on his driver. Since the only argument I had for my driver was that I didn't want to hurt his feelings, and since he had already proven himself able to get lost, we agreed that we should use Gopi's driver.

On Thursday afternoon Gopi tracked down a travel agent at the office where we were working. The 3 of us were discussing the plans for Agra in front of the office, when I looked across the street and notice Rahul smiling and waiving excitedly at me. That made me really uncomfortable. I was cheating on my friend, right under his nose.

I had to break the news to Rahul that I wouldn't need him on Saturday, and I wasn't looking forward to it. I actually was a little stressed about having to do that. I liked Rahul, and I had told him I would have him drive us to Agra. One evening he told me it would make him "very happy" if he could take me to Agra, and "very not happy" if he couldn't.

Fortunately, Rahul gave me an easy out. This morning he asked me if I would need him on Saturday. I told him no, and that was the end of it. Um, and I also gave him a big tip as I prepared to leave his car at the end of the day. As we said good bye, he said that meeting me had made him "very happy". We shook hands, then I returned to my room - alone.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A lesson on not being a beef-burger bigot

My hotel is located in the East Delhi Mall, and there is a McDonald's on the ground floor. I decided to try it for dinner tonight.

If you are looking at the prices, 45 rupees equal 1 dollar US.

I stared at the menu for about 10 minutes, trying to figure out what to get. Nothing really sounded all that appealing to me. But I decided on a McVeggie, a McChicken and an order of fries. I ordered my meal to go and returned to my hotel room to eat.

In clockwise order starting in the top-left, McVeggie, McChicken, fries.

I was pleasantly surprised by the taste, especially of the McVeggie. It was a good Indian approximation of a McDonald's hamburger. The McChicken sandwich was also good. The only part of the meal that was awful were the fries, which tasted like regular McDonald's fries, but they had been sitting around for too long, making them soggy and cold.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's complicated, my relationship with Rahul

After Monday's debacle, Rahul wasn't brazen enough to ask for a tip. But soon thereafter he started hinting. He started subtly on Tuesday morning: Do drivers in your country make a lot of money? We don't in India. By Tuesday afternoon he became more direct: Are you happy with the service?

I didn't think I was supposed to tip the driver. I was told by someone at the office where I was working that I shouldn't tip the driver. I started tipping him, but then his behavior took a change in a direction that continues to baffle me.

Due to restrictions on photography, this is the closest picture of the Akshardham temple I could get.

He started really encouraging me to visit tourist spots. I can understand his willingness to take me anywhere if I asked, but he was suggesting. On Wednesday he took me to the Akshardham temple, and then to a restaurant for dinner.

Half of the restaurant was dedicated to Indian sweets.

At the restaurant he insisted on paying for my food. We argued back and forth on this matter for a while, before I finally communicated to him that I was going to pay for my own food.

When I told my class about my night, they explained the first part (his eagerness to take me places) as he was likely being paid based on the mileage he drove each day. The only explanation for the second part (his eagerness to buy me dinner) was that he liked me. Gopi asked if we had a romantic dinner.

I dismissed this theory based on the fact that one of the first things we talked about when we met was his family. Then again, that could have been a ruse, and not even a very well concocted one at that. He did claim to have a 1 year-old child and a 6 month-old child.

Rakhi Sawant wants to show you her jigs

I took this photo from today's Times of India. I just can't imagine this woman, with her sexy posing and glamorous clothes, dancing a jig. I thought only drunks and leprechauns did that.

The quote reads "I can't wait to don my Zeebra outfit and break into a jig every time someone hits a six."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Accomodations

When I visited Chennai, I stayed at a fancy hotel. Even the most simple tasks, such as getting into an elevator, seemed to require the assistance of hotel staff. By the time I left I was looking forward to returning to the US just so I could open doors for myself again.

My hotel is on the upper floors of the East Delhi Mall, fun for all ages!

The hotel I am staying at in Delhi is very different. It is called the Lemon Tree Hotel. The one I am staying at is located in the East Delhi Mall. It is a decent, European-style hotel. Service is friendly without being effusive. I have no complaints on the hotel. Well, maybe I have one.

The hotel staff looks like villains from the old Batman television show.

Lemon Tree's gimmick is a lemon-and-lime theme. Their hotel stationary, pencils, bathroom amenities, etc are a shocking shade of yellow and green. Unfortunately, their reception staff's uniforms are also subject to this theme. It is perhaps the most hideous hotel attire I've ever seen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Getting lost with Rahul

There is no way I'd ever drive in India. Nobody wants tourists driving here, so companies hire drivers for their visitors. My driver, Rahul, picked me up at the international airport in Delhi very early this morning, and is supposed to take me to and from work each day.

Rahul seems to be a very nice and friendly man. I will never know if his friendliness is sincere, or just a tactic to get a better tip, but I think he is a genuinely nice man. He has a warm smile that not everyone is able to pull off. The various security guards who smile as they open the door for hotel guests are examples.

Almost immediately Rahul asked me about my wife and kids and told me about his. He has been married for 6 years and has 2 kids, ages 1 year and 6 months. I'm not sure how that's biologically possible.

Rahul got me to my hotel efficiently, but the rush-hour ride from the hotel to work didn't go as smoothly. What should have been a 30 minute ride became a 90 minute ride because Rahul didn't know where he was going.

This was the view from the office where I was working. I'm not sure why I was in such a hurry to get there.

We found ourselves driving on unpaved side-streets lined with poor people, trash and cows. Rahul asked each pedestrian we passed for help. The answers he received were short, so I think he was asking if he was headed in the right direction.

That approach could eventually result in success, but actually asking for directions would probably be more efficient.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Purple dog

We saw this at the dog run at Union Square. I think it's a dog.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Arthur Szyk

Today the New York Times ran an article titled A Caricaturist, but No Funny Stuff Here about an Arthur Szyk exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

I love the description of his caricature work as being like "Mad magazine in the heyday of Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman but without any sense of humor."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Attention to Detail

When it comes to getting things repaired in New York, my experience is that most people will do the bare minimum required to complete a task. I have hired people to remodel a kitchen and bathroom in New York. I have stories. But here is a recent example.

The faucets in the men's restroom in my office are push-controlled. One of them was repaired a couple of weeks ago. The plumber couldn't be bothered to put the cold water button back on the right and the hot water button on the left.

Blue used to be on the right and red on the left.

Actually, I'm only complaining because I keep pushing the wrong button.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Delightful Night in the ER

We spent last night in the ER waiting room at New York Methodist Hospital. Mostly it was a very long and boring night of waiting, but, this being New York at night and all, there was some drama to disrupt the monotony.

The waiting room was packed with people. All of the chairs were taken and several people were standing. We had seats near the center of the room. I was reading a book when I heard the sound of something splashing on the ground. About 4 feet away I saw a man with a tired look on his face, a large cup of tea in his hand and vomit flying from his mouth.

Come an' get it!

The people seated next to him got up and moved immediately. Those of us in the vicinity stayed put as we processed what had just happened, but only for a moment. The man started throwing up in rapid but regular intervals, like he had a strange case of hiccups that ended in a spray of barf. As if on cue, everyone within 10 feet of the man stood up and walked away.

The man continued puking for a couple of minutes. His expression never changed. He didn't make any attempt to find a trash can or to make his way to the restroom. Nobody working at the hospital seemed willing to do anything more than make an announcement over the PA system, "Environmental to the ER waiting room. Environmental."

At this point about a quarter of the seats in the waiting room were empty. From time to time, new arrivals would take some of the seats that were vacated. Then they would quickly realize why those seats were empty as they noticed their feet in the vomit.

I watched this happen 3 or 4 times, but I'm a little surprised that New Yorkers fell for this so easily. One of the shared experiences that New Yorkers have is that of the suspiciously empty subway car. Sometimes you're waiting a long time for a train to arrive. The platform is crowded with people. When the train arrives you notice that all of the cars on the train are packed with people.

Except for one car. If you're not paying attention you might think this is your lucky day and make your way to that car. You enter the car and the door closes. Then you realize why the car is empty. If your luck continues, the reason is the air conditioning is broken. If your luck has run out, there is a homeless man passed out in his own feces. Yes, this has happened to me. Not the "passing out in my own feces" part.

Anyway, my point is that I'd expect New Yorkers to be paying more attention to their surroundings. But apparently some people are not bothered in the least by such filth. One man decided to eat his dinner amidst it (see picture).

Monday, September 1, 2008

Not to be Outdone

CNN HD will not be out-mapped by Fox News HD! This afternoon, CNN was broadcasting 5 weather maps simultaneously.

Finally, a network with the guts to broadcast the Dvorak (hurricane intensity) map.

As I write this, CNN HD has 13 separate boxes with video in addition to a "breaking news" label at the bottom of the screen and a scrolling news ticker below that. CNN is totally out of control.

Pretty Rainbow-Swirl Weather Maps

During major news events CNN HD channel keeps a ticker at the bottom and side of the screen, even during commercials. This meant that political convention junkies could enjoy completely uninterrupted viewing of the sound-level meter they placed on the floor of the Democratic convention last week. Captivating.

Rainbow-swirl weather maps get lonely too.

Now that hurricane Gustav is bearing down on New Orleans, the ticker is dedicated to weather coverage, including GPS tracking. Not even an interview with Laura Bush is worthy of a full-screen picture when EXTREME WEATHER hits.

These rainbow-swirl weather maps insist that they are "just friends".

Fox News HD, not to be outdone by CNN's hurricane coverage, goes with 2 rainbow-swirl maps.