Friday, May 3, 2013

One adventure closed, new ones abound

This is my blog from when I lived in India for 6 months in 2007. It was an awesome time, full of craziness and adventure on so many levels.

Since this trip I've been back to India several times and to many other countries, but this initial experience diving into living on the opposite side of the world with such wide-eyed innocence will always hold a special place in my heart.

My favorite entries in this blog map to three experiences that remain some of the most interesting of my life:

1) Wearing a burkha to the souk at Charminar, escorted by my Muslim friends from the Google office, Parveen and Nazia, who wanted me to "experience real India."

This is me

2) Traveling to Chennai with my friend, Ramya, and staying with her family in their home. I slept without air-conditioning when it was 100 degrees with 100% humidity, rode side-saddle on a moped in a saree to the Hindu temple, and went to a real Brahmin fortune-teller.

Me and Ramya (I didn't actually drive the scooter....I rode side-saddle on the back...)

3) Visiting the school in Baroda, Gujarat that my great aunt May Needham founded in the early 20th century under the auspices of the British Raj and the Maharaja of Baroda. Despite the complicated and unpleasant politics of colonialism, one human truth is that one woman, out of the kindness of her heart, moved across the world to create educational opportunities for girls. She succeeded and the school and students are some of the most successful in India almost 100 years after she started it (pictures in a separate post).

Maharani girls' school in Baroda - providing the best english girls' education in Gujarat for almost 100 years. While working at Google in Hyderabad I met numerous women who had gone to this school. Baroda continues to have a reputation as one of the top educational opportunities in India and is open to students from all backgrounds.

These three experiences were my strongest glimpses into real India. A world away from tourist activities, these experiences were about normal people going out of their way to cross cultures and build deep, empathetic understanding with someone from across the world. I had the unusual privilege to experience the culture as only a local can, and as only a woman can, thanks to the kind openness and curiosity of others.

These experiences set a standard for my travel expectations that continue to drive me to go beyond the obvious and to appreciate the vivid color that cultural similarities and differences provide to this world.

This trip is now history, but my adventures continue!

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Friday, September 28, 2007

California Beaches with Padma and Hayley

Moonrise in Carmel

Me and Padma at the beach right after sunset

Sunset in Carmel

The PCH played it's role on this clear, fog-free day

Hayley, me and Padma in Monterey

Hayley and Padma have the California experience in my car at the beach

Bringing India to California - Indian myth says that if you write Rama's name on the beach, the sea will wash it away - it took about 10 minutes before the sea could find his name this far from home ;)

At the beach

Hayley's first feel of the Pacific Ocean - first impression "So cooold!"

Me and Padma - after 5 months in India, I'm still so pale that I wash out in pictures ;)

Full Indian Dinner

Yummy Indian Desserts

After using every utensil in my kitchen, we had to resort to some creative measures for dessert, such as:

Lexi and Annie - measuring spoon and chopsticks

Paula - butterknife = spoon

Yev - measuring spoon

Abe - Fondue fork

Linnea - Chopsticks

Resorting to more creative measures - my american kitchen lacked a chai strainer, so tissue served as a creative substitute - mmmmmmmmmmmm

Chowing Down on Indian Dinner

More creative cooking - Padma cuts a potato with scissors

Hayley, Me, and Padma with our full Indian dinner from scratch

Abe took charge to make the Pooris

The table - mid cooking, with tubs of spices

Hayley chops onions

Padma chops something

Our first victim/guest - Brent arrived early and got assigned to onion duty - lucky for him, we had some "safety goggles" for him ;) He gets a shout out for being such a good sport!

You Can Take The Girl Out of Hyderabad But You Can't Take Hyderabad Out of The Girl

Alas, I may have lost my audience, seeing as I've returned from India and don't have more adventures to recount. I never got around to writing about Hong Kong, and here we are.

Hong Kong was awesome and Shuo was the perfect host. Hong Kong is the most clean, efficient city I've ever been to, and I'm not just saying that because I was just in India - it's way more clean and efficient that any American city. I was able to check my bags into the airline at the subway station in central hong kong - a 45 minute train ride from the airport. The station looks like an airport, with each airline having a check in counter, except after you check in your bags, you get on the train instead of walking to your gate. It was truly awesome, and more cities should try it.

Hong Kong also didn't have bad traffic - nothing compared to New York or SF. There is so much accessible, clean, easy public transportation that people don't even want to take taxis that much. For $2 you can get from Hong Kong to Kowloon on the subway, and it's certainly faster than taking a taxi. Shuo and I gorged for 3 days, and then I came down with my final bout of Maharaja's revenge, which I will need to re-name last emperor's revenge, since I'm pretty sure I got it in Hong Kong. I went crazy eating all sorts of lettuce and ice - tsk, tsk - alas, 5 months in India did not give me any extra immunity.

But Shuo showed me all the scenes and I went to Macau for a day, which, in case you were planning a trip, is considered a different country from Hong Kong, and you WILL need your passport. Macau is like a Portuguese city in Asia. It was much more similar to Southern Europe than the Portuguese colony in Kerala, which is what I can compare it to. There were actually Portuguese people living there, and the entire architecture of the city was white washed buildings and cobblestone streets. It's the only place close to China were gambling is allowed; it is actually now a "special economic zone" of China, the same as Hong Kong, but considered a different "country" with its own immigration and currency - the Macau Paceta (thank you, portuguese imperialists...). Macau was the last western colony in Asia, and was considered a part of Portugal until 1999, when China took it over. Now when you arrive there are cheesey casinos there to greet you and free shuttle buses to every casino there, including the new Venetian. After walking around Macau and seeing the actual historical stuff, I figured I should see where Macau is going these days, so I made my way to the Venetian.

The Venetian in Macau is so big that it's creepy. You go inside, and like any casino, immediately they make it impossible to tell what time of day it is. It is about 500 million times the size of the Venetian in Las Vegas, and the gambling floor that I saw (there are probably many) was so big that you couldn't see the other end of the room. It was so stark and fake and void of real life that I got creeped out and took the next free shuttle back to the ferry terminal.

The next day I came down with my emperor's revenge, and spent the day lying on the floor of Shuo's apartment, anticipating my 13 hour flight.

My flight allowed me one last good-bye to India when I was seated next to a large Sikh man, who saw my henna and tried to talk to me in Hindi for the rest of the flight. He was a nice man, and whenever he paged the stewardess to get something (they were apparently out of water on the flight), he would page her again to get me something.

In retrospect, what I miss most about India was the openness of the people, it doesn't take much to become someone's best friend, and when you are best friends, you are loyal for life. I miss the sense of optimism, which is particularly striking given the constant problems facing you every day. How it is possible to be optimistic when the overpass in the middle of town collapses due to corruption and incompetence, and there are 3 bombings in 4 months, is something that I would like to learn, and to apply to my life in America.

Talking with another ex-pat who was visiting Mountain View for the week, we agreed that the main difference between the attitudes in India and the US, is that in India everyone is looking down. They look at the beggars on the streets and the auto-rickshaw drivers who make 100 rupees a month, and they think "wow, I'm so lucky I'm not them. I have this amazing apartment with running water and marble floors, and it's all mine! My whole family can live here cozily, and we even have a lovely view with some trees!" In the US, we look up. We see Britney Spears and Tom Cruise and think "Wow, look at all they have, and all I have is this lousy apartment. Why can't I have a mansion and fame and fortune? They don't even deserve it." I want to hold onto that Indian optimism and gratitude, and every day that I walk arounf Palo Alto, I feel it slipping away, and I feel myself slipping into the old American attitude of always wanting more.

Always wanting more isn't exactly a bad thing, it has driven the US to become the successful first world nation that it is. The idea that anyone could become a millionaire (although that isn't enough these days either, so we'll have to adjust the term for inflation) - billionaire - is exciting and spurs innovation. But it also grows a cultural mindset that the grass is always greener somewhere else, and that we must find that grass and own it - which is not the attitude in India. In India it would be more like "wow, there's grass! Let's have a picnic there on Sunday with our family!"

What is really intriguing to me is that in Hong Kong, which brings materialism to a level I didn't know possible - where temples have been replaced by Louis Vuitton, and where a "family outing" consists of waiting in line for the next Armani store to open- there doesn't appear to be the sense of pessimism that there is in America. I think that the main difference is that in Hong Kong people know what they want - money and designer goods - and they know exactly how to get it - work hard, save money, buy your purse, feel like a "somebody." In America there is always this sense that there is something bigger, something better out there that prevents us from appreciating what we have - but we don't even know what that bigger and better thing is. And the longer I stay here, the more this old mentality consumes me, as much as I try to fight it.

So, in an effort to combat the immediate loss of everything I loved in India, I planned an Indian cooking party with Padma and Hayley who were visiting from the Hyderabad office. Within a week of returning and moving into my apartment, my small gathering of friends exploded like a high school beer bash until 18 people eventually came. We cooked an Indian feast all night, and didn't finish until midnight - the kitchen took a week to clean! But it was great fun, and Padma and Hayley felt at home helping me host the party - and I am now the proud owner of tubs of spices that I can't identify and a pound of fresh curry leaves (check on craigslist any day for my listing - "Palo Alto, California: Free, slightly dated curry leaves - you pick up.").

The next day I took Padma and Hayley to Monterey and Carmel in my red convertible to give them a taste for the best that California has to offer - and it didn't disappoint. The weather was awesomely sunny and we walked on the beach, watched the sunset in Carmel from the soft white sand beach, and drove on PCH with the top down (and coats on ;). But alas, Padma and Hayley have now returned to Hyderabad, and I feel my last connection to it fading as they fly into the sunset.

It is an incredibly odd phenomenon that it is possible to feel more content in India, a place where you struggle for necessities daily, than when you are in the US, a place where your basic needs are a given and where you have family and friends. I suppose figuring out how to combine the best aspects of both would make life too easy, and then I would complain about being bored. Alas, maybe there is no entirely green grass.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Leaving India

My last week in Hyderabad was bittersweet. I was glad to be going home but sad to be leaving everyone that I had come to depend on. I felt like it was the last week of school, and it was hard to think that I might never see some people again.

My last days were spent trying to stuff everything into my suitcases (which didn’t happen because I bought so much stuff that I had to leave a pile for Jitu, the Q4 ambassador to MV to bring with him when he comes in October). Most of the festivities were cancelled because of the bombings, and for a few days we didn’t go out. But, as always in India, after a few days, things calmed down and everyone ventured out again.

I bought the last of the necessary souvenirs and gifts, and spent an hour schmoozing with the owner of Saga to get myself 40% off my cashmere stoles at the fixed price store. He was very amused when he said “I’ll give you a good price” and I said “Asli ki math kya hai? Hindustani math, nahi firangi math” (“What’s the real price? Indian price, not foreigner price”). He laughed and laughed and then tried to teach me more Hindi. He also insisted on making me Kashmiri tea (which I only agreed to drink when I watched them make it with a new bottle of Bisleri mineral water), and I got to try on all of the 40,000 Rs scarves ($1,000).

On my last night a small group went to a bar, and I went home early to get some sleep. I had coffee at Barista with Peter in the afternoon, and lamented the fact that there would be no more evenings of Kingfisher and Seinfeld with my roomies, who were definitely the best roomies I’ve ever had (the fact that we had maid service to clean up our messes didn’t hurt). On my last day I tried to stuff my suitcase closed and watched DVDs of ‘Heroes’ from Bangkok.

Finally, with my suitcases very heavy and barely closed, Sayed took me to the airport and I said Phir milenge to Hyderabad. Check-in and customs was a breeze (I had been stressing for weeks in anticipation of my battle over over-sized baggage fees), and the guy who checked me in recognized me from my trip to Australia and asked me how my project was going (and if I normally wore glasses, since I was wearing glasses the last time I was there).

I sat next to a guy who had never flown before and who couldn’t figure out how to buckle his seatbelt. It was a final glimpse at India, and a reminder that there are places in the world where most adults have never been on an airplane.

When I landed in Singapore, I was excited about eating salad, but was sad to think that I don’t know when I will return to India. I watched Indian couples walking around the airport, and realized that in 3 weeks when my henna is gone, there will be no visible connection between us, they will assume that I don’t have the slightest clue about their culture, and who knows whether I’ll even notice them in America?

Luckily the answer to those last questions has been answered, and so far I have managed to remain connected to my second home – through Padma and Hayley and all the beautiful things I brought back and the photos and the chaat houses – so far I have managed to incorporate India into my American life.

Friday, September 14, 2007

We're not done yet! Rewind to My Last Weekend In India

Faithful readers, never fear, I have not forsaken you! Not yet, at least.

It has been a crazy month, with a crazy journey between totally different worlds. I have returned from Neverland, but I still don’t want to grow up. But before I get into the analysis of my reverse culture shock, let’s start at the beginning, with tales of my last weeks in India – Suffice it to say, India said good-bye with a bang.

The over-arching theme of my last week in India was that everything seemed to go wrong time and time again, and yet, things could have gone so much more wrong, that I was extremely grateful to escape unscathed. One thing that I can credit India with, is that it really gives you perspective about how things could be, that makes you really fucking grateful for how things are – even when they aren’t great.

I don't want this to sound as if I don't love India - because in fact, I love it very much. There are many things about India that I will miss immensely, and indeed, I already am. It is vibrant, honest, and a constant adventure, with warm, open, hospitable people. India is real. Every detail of life in India feels real at a different level than life anywhere else. Life is a challenge that forces to you appreciate what you have, and to fight for what you want. India forces you to live, because if you don't try, there are 1 billion other people ready to take your place.

India makes me tired. India infuriates me. India kicks me down and helps me up. India makes me feel alive. India makes me appreciate life.


My second to last week in India was spent in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi. This you know, because I already wrote about it. This trip was interesting because Delhi is a totally different city from Hyderabad, with a very different ambience. Many things about Delhi are nicer than Hyderabad, it is truly an international city, full of diplomats and expensive restaurants. We went to a sushi restaurant that flew their sushi in from Japan every day (I still didn’t eat it though, and my stomach thanks me…). Yet, Delhi is also worse than Hyderabad in many ways. It is more crowded, the people are poorer, and it doesn’t have that sense of excitement and hope that the developing city of Hyderabad has, despite its political and social uncertainty. Delhi is hot and the people are generally not there to help you. It is much more of a “big” city, even though it doesn’t have any big buildings.

The first thing to go wrong in my last weeks happened when, due to a misunderstanding, the police arrived at my guest house and told everyone they had to leave (the misunderstanding was resolved within a few days). The house staff packed my stuff, losing two pairs of my shoes and several earrings in the process. Yet, I was very grateful that I wasn’t there when they came - I was having dinner at the sushi restaurant and discussing hinduism and reiki with another expat, Anna, and her Indian Bollywood producer friend who went to Vanderbilt (yes, I’m referring to the school in Tennessee. One of the things I love about traveling is the totally random experiences you can stumble upon, such as this one). I managed to avoid what must have been a very frightening situation, and all I lost in the process were two pairs of shoes – not so bad, not so bad…


For my last weekend I went with some American ex-pats, Scott, Anna, and Molly, to Veranasi, the holiest city in Hinduism where Hindus go to die and to bathe in the holy, and extremely polluted waters of the Ganges ( .

We flew from Delhi to Veranasi in on a short one-hour flight from Delhi. When we arrived we took a taxi to the only western hotel in the area, the Taj Ghat (an Indian chain), where we stealthily snuck 4 people into a room with a maximum capacity of 3. This resulted in us sneaking around to avoid suspicion, including me hiding in the bathtub when the bellboy dropped off the roller bed. The Taj is supposed to be a luxury hotel chain, but that roller bed was THE most disgusting thing any of us had ever seen – covered in stains from many, many different bodily fluids. So Scott ended up sleeping on a concoction of chairs, while Molly, Anna, and I all squeezed into the king sized bed. We all burst out laughing at about midnight when Scott moved an inch and his chair concoction fell over. Generally, it was a great time.

Before our snuggly bedtime we took the most harrowing auto-rickshaw ride of my time in India to get from the Taj Ghat, which is, FYI, no where near any Ghat’s (the stairs down to the Ganges) to the actual ghats to watch the puja, or evening prayers. Our rickshaw drivers dropped us off about a mile from the river, and we walked with tons of tourists and pilgrims past manure, livestock, hawkers and congested traffic to the main ghat. I was very proud of myself for having developed the uber stink-eye to the point that while I was walking down the street a few feet ahead of the other ex-pats, the hawkers saw me, evaluated me, and kept walking, honing in on the rest of the ex-pats. Muahahaha – I have become so unapproachable that they didn’t even bother with me!

When we got to the ghats, priests (possibly Brahmins?) were doing a ceremony with fire on a platform over the river. Tourists were sitting in boats on the water watching and setting floating candles in the water, and we joined the group of pilgrims watching from the ghat. We lasted about 30 minutes before we got bored and decided to head out. I realized that I had reached my limit for travel – it was really cool, but I just didn’t care anymore.

We walked out of the maze of small streets, people everywhere (even more people than normal because Monday was a big festival day), livestock, traffic, manure, hawkers, and crap stands selling crap, and eventually found our way to where the auto-rickshaws were parked. A word to the wise – never, ever agree to go with any driver in India if they are very persistent, because there is a reason they need to be persistent – because they suck! So we split up, and Scott and I and Molly and Anna went in two rickshaws, who were apparently having a contest about who could die first.

The blur that was the drive home was defined by me yelling “Nahi Geldi, Nahiii!” (“Not Fast!”). We were playing chicken with on-coming traffic and were centimeters away from being hit head on by a teetering bus. We were so close to hitting a man walking across the street that Scott and I were scratching our heads in between holding on to the sides of the rickshaw for dear life, trying to figure out how the man survived.

After that we went to dinner at the Taj restaurant and nursed Kingfishers, anticipating our snuggly 4-person room and our 4am wake-up call to get to the Ganges before sunrise for a boat ride.

4 am came quickly and we tumbled out of bed, and dragged ourselves downstairs to a lobby packed full of Italian tourists. Apparently everyone who comes to Veranasi wants to take a boat ride at sunrise. But, everyone wants to do it because it made the trip worth the effort. We got onto a boat (as I prayed and prayed to anyone who would listen that the boat not turn over and that I wouldn’t need to touch the disgusting water on the monsoon-swollen river. We paddled close to shore, to avoide being swept into the main current of the overflowing river, and our hotel-provided tour guide told us about what we were seeing.

Pilgrims everywhere were bathing and drinking the water as naughty monkeys climbed around all the buildings, looking to make trouble. Men sat on pillars that are normally part of the ghats, but because of the flooding, they were covered in water, so it looked like the men were sitting on top of the water. We paddled up the river to the crematoriums where thousands of people are cremated daily, and saw human ash floating on top of the water. We also saw a full dead body, wrapped, and strapped to a boat. Hindus generally cremate their dead, but there are certain people who they won’t cremate, including children, pregnant women, and people who died from snake bites (the idea being that they might not actually be dead). We were lucky that these were the most morbid things we saw, because many other ex-pats have returned from Varanasi with more morbid imagery to describe.

After this, our tour guide took us up into the small streets of the ancient city (one of the most ancient in the world), and we visited an Ashram (Hindu Monastery). The streets were full of manure and livestock and the smell was overwhelming. There were soldiers everywhere with guns because there had been a terrorist attack a few years ago, and because, although we didn’t know it yet, there was a terror high alert because of bombings in Hyderabad on Saturday night.

Varinasi was frustrating to me, because if the water weren’t so polluted, and people took care to not leave the small streets full of garbage and manure, it could have an ambience similar to Venice, with small historical walking streets and a fascinating, ancient culture. But instead, no one cares. The city is collapsing and rotting away, and no one is willing to do anything to prevent it. The river is dying. It is so polluted that it is septic, which means that there is no oxygen in the water so that no aquatic life can live. No fish, no plants, nothing. If this is how people treat the holiest of cities, there isn’t much hope for those places that are less revered. And this is a crying shame, not just for India, but for the world.

Somehow the combination of soldiers with guns, the polluted water, and the overwhelming sewage smells prevented me from appreciating the “holy” atmosphere that other travelers to Varanasi describe, and all any of us wanted to do was escape to our dark, air-conditioned, quiet hotel room.

When we got back to the room we saw the news of the Hyderabad bombings, and we lay in our room for hours watching the news, as I called Rupa and Shyam to make sure everyone was alright, and the other ex-pats napped.

Luckily, no one that I knew was hurt by the bombings, but they have made the subsequent weeks very tense, because no one is sure who the specific target was (they targeted a busy restaurant and an outdoor carnival), or what the bomber’s motivations were other than promoting general civil unrest. We ended up cancelling all of our good-bye activities, and my last week was tense, yet, I was still grateful that I hadn’t been in Hyderabad during the bombings, and that no one I knew was affected.

If one attitude summarized my time in India it was: please just don’t let it happen to me. This is the attitude that one must adopt when in India, because if you were to contemplate the chances of something dangerous happening to you, you would be so scared that you wouldn’t leave your hotel or house (and even then, there is always the chance that with the common shoddy construction and corruption in public and private works, that your house or hotel will fall down upon you as you hide under your bed – I’ll get to the Hyderabad flyover collapse later in my blog).

But, back to adventures in Veranasi. After a morning of napping and enjoying the silence of our hotel room, we headed to the airport to head back to Hyderabad. Anna, Molly, and I were on a SpiceJet flight to Delhi and Scott was on an Air Sahara/JetLite flight. As the Air Sahara plane landed on the tiny runway (which was clearly not designed for large planes to land on), it slammed on its breaks and it’s wheels popped, stranding the plane on the runway.

The following 3 hours demonstrated why it is shocking and lucky that shit doesn’t hit the fan more often than it does in India. For 3 hours the SpiceJet flight circled while the airport staff and everyone they’d ever met tried to figure out how to get a 737 off the runway without any equipment (the airport was so small that the planes would land and park and people would walk down the steps, so there wasn’t any equipment capable of hauling a plane anywhere).

In the meantime, they wouldn’t admit what was wrong with the plane for about an hour, and then wouldn’t admit that the plane wouldn’t be taking off again soon so the tiny, cramped, over-crowded airport was full of angry, confused, growingly disgruntled people who were starving for any information and weren’t getting it. Just in the nick of time, before my in-coming SpiceJet flight was about to be diverted to Lucknow because it was out of fuel from circling for 3 hours, the airport staff was able to haul the plane off the runway with the help of a tractor from a local farmer. I was hovering around the staff when the news came in over the walkie-talkie that the plane was making it off the runway, and I ended up being the messenger of good tidings for the next 15 minutes to hippie German students, Indian families, American MBA interns, and everyone else in the airport as I reported the info and more people came over to hear the details and ask me to repeat the story for their travel groups and/or families (no one officially announced the news for another 20 minutes).

After the plane got off the runway, the SpiceJet flight was finally able to land and we got out of Varanasi (and not a second to late). Even with having planned a 3 hour layover in Delhi, I missed my outgoing flight (also on JetLite/Air Sahara), but I managed to get on the last flight into Hyderabad with seconds to spare, on Air Deccan – the worst Indian airline. Air Deccan was actually not that bad since the plane was about to leave and there wasn’t the opportunity for them to delay it/cancel it like the usually do, and I managed to get JetLite to refund my non-refundable ticket since it was their plane that caused me to miss my connecting flight (I was VERY proud of the negotiating skills that I’d developed while in India, to be able to negotiate them to refund my non-refundable ticket and find me another flight – not something they wanted to do). Yet, with all of this stress and these things going wrong, I was so immensely grateful that things weren’t worse.

First of all, Scott, who was supposed to be on the outgoing flight on the plane that broke, was trapped in the Varanasi airport all night and most of the following day. I could have been on his flight, and I would have been totally screwed. I was grateful that I wasn’t on the SpiceJet flight that had to circle for 3 hours – a 4 hour flight with 3 hours making tight circles that would make the blue angels queasy would have been total torture. I was so grateful that I got on the Air Deccan flight seconds before it left, or else I would have been stuck in Delhi overnight. And I was sooo grateful that all of the flights I was on, including Air Deccan, landed safely. All in all, the stars were aligned in my favor, and I didn’t take it for granted for one mili-second.

Thank you, India, for helping me appreciate the small things.

To be continued…

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hong Kong with Shuo

Drinks in Kowloon, overlooking the Hong Kong skyline

Drinks at Fong with Andy and Shuo

The New Hong Kong Temple - Louis Vuitton, a store shaped like a suitcase

MMMM Octopus on a Stick!

Shuo swears this arrow was unintentional ;)

Shuo with our authentic Boba

Shuo gets Free Hugs!

The city from the Peak

Me at the Peak

Me and Shuo at the Peak

View from the other side of the Peak

Shuo attacks his Dim Sum

Eating Dim Sum with Chopsticks

Sau Paulo Cathedral, Macau