Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Rule of Necessity

It's true that I've only been in India for about a week, but already I feel that I'm making headway in terms of understanding the lifestyle and rhythm here. In Shantaram, the novel set in India that I'm currently reading, the author/protagonist describes Indian life as dictated by necessity, and I'm beginning to like that definition more and more.



A perfect example of this phenomenon is the traffic in the cities. The laws and standard conventions that dictate driving habits back home are alien to the whole enterprise here. In fact I think that the American philosophy of driving, if used here, would put a driver at considerable danger. Even the most hectic of U.S. roadways, found in places like Manhattan, Jersey City, and Californian interstates never approach the madness of Indian cities. Buses cars, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, ox-driven carts and pedestrians all converge into a maddening heap. Lanes, if painted on the roads at all, only seem to invite the mockery of the auto-rickshaw drivers as they straddle them in an attempt to circumnavigate obstacles. It truly seems as if the only rule is that they are no rules and that arriving at one's destination by the quickest route justifies the means by which it was done. However, in truth there are unwritten, unspoken rules of the road.

Probably the most glaring example of this paradox is the usage of horns here. I'm certain that my intitial response to the cacophany of honking upon arrival in India was similar to that of most Americans. Despite what our driving school instructors teach us, in the US horns are used almost exclusively in a reactionary, usually emotional manner. Now, they certainly used this way in India, but the vast majority of the time horns actually serve as a warning or caution to others. It's actually a curtousy to other travelers, an aid to help them avoid accidents. This conclusion is reinforced by ubiquitous signs of the backs of autos reading "Horn Please." It's a necessary measure to avoid accidents in a situation where every driver is constantly maneuvering to optomize his position. Without enforced driving rules, and with the understanding that every driver will do what he must to get by whatever is in front of him, Indians have developed this etiquette in everyone's interest.



At first, these honks evoked the same unsettling reactions they would in the US: fear of an impending collision, reactionary anger and/or annoyance. However I'm beginning to learn to take it as the courtesy it is meant to be and use it to make informed navigational decisions. At the same time I'm trying to use this discovery to become more comfortable with the idea that although many of the laws of this country are not followed, this is not a lawless country. Formality is replaced with informality, and the rule of necessity trumps written statutes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

India

Well, we've finally made it to India. After 25 straight hours in the Bangkok airport, one 25+ hour flight delay, one missed train and a total of 50+ hours from the time we left our hostel we landed in New Delhi at around 9:30 yesterday evening. Almost immediately after we got on the Air India flight the transition we were making hit us like a punch to the face. India is very different from the places we've traveled so far, even Bangkok with its incredible sprawling metropolis. One example: thus far we've primarily used public transportation, in part because it has been cheap and very easily available in the places we have been. Not so in New Delhi. Everything it seems requires a taxi ride, which in turn requires the effort of getting a fair deal from whatever taxi drivers are harrassing you at that moment (and almost all other moments on the street). I think we spent half our day today negotiating or traveling to destinations on the clogged Delhi streets. Anyway, more to come soon. Delhi is amazing but also crazy. Everything is hectic right now, and hopefully things will calm down a little once we've got our feet squarely on the ground.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Guide to Spending the Night in Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) Airport (or I Forgot to Look at the Date on My Ticket)

The following will shortly be submitted to www.sleepinginairports.com

15:10
Arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok two hours before 17:20 non-stop flight to New Delhi, India.

15:16
Locate Air India ticket counter for check-in.

15:17
Ticket counter agent informs us that our tickets state that our flight will be leaving at 17:20 the following day.

15:18- 15:30
Curse our travel agent (for not following directions), the ticket agent (for being the messenger), and ourselves (for being idiots and messing up our departure date).

15:30
After a little research, come to the consensus that the trip back to Bangkok is too long/expensive/troublesome. Local hotels (and airport rooms) place themselves out of our budget (tip: Don’t necessarily believe someone just because they say they are an airport official and have a badge/card, they undoubtedly get commissions for the overpriced hotels/transportation “deals” they offer to get for you). Spending the night in the airport terminal, while daunting, also seems the most adventurous out of all the available options.

15:45
Set about exploring the arrival/departure terminal. Locate: potential places to sleep (3rd floor, on the ends of the hallway, near the toilets), power outlets (everywhere, including near sleeping spots), food (cheaper “local” spots on bottom floor towards the end of the terminal), cheap beer (same), massage parlor (300 Baht massage may very well become necessary), a Muslim prayer room (???), baggage hold room (24hrs, so very key) and two huge, excellently manicured gardens (to frolic in).



16:15
Head to baggage hold room and stow three bags at 100 Baht/24hrs each (about $9 altogether). Keep two small backpacks with: laptop, laptop lock, cameras, coats (LOTS of warm clothing needed), bandana (sleeping blindfold), reading material, pack of cards, toiletries, and other assorted tidbits.

16: 25
Wander aimlessly, discuss boredom-fighting strategies, and reassure each other of decision made. Explore gardens, discover Buddhist shrine and odd pyramid-shaped “local” (read: airport employee) hangout spot. Buy beer at “local” grocery store and imbibe. Skype family members, etc., etc.



20:00
Feel a bit peckish. Set out to find a place hospitable to vegetarians. Shortly come to the conclusion that Suvarnabhumi is not very hospitable to vegetarians. Eat a very greasy “almost” vegetarian meal at one establishment and watch half of Transporter II (seems much cheesier without sound). Move on to dessert next door. Play cards (Texas Hold’em, War, King’s Corners).

0:30
Move to “sleeping” area (near the end of 3rd floor) to set up camp alongside the other airport squatters (motley crew). Check email, diddle on the Internet, begin writing “A Guide to Spending the Night in Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) Airport.”

2:30
Begin the long and arduous attempt to sleep. Get up countless times to readjust positions, reallocate clothes, and complain about the artificially created freezing temperatures (tip: CARRY LOTS OF CLOTHES. Also, consider newspaper as bedding or utilize sleeping bag like person next to us). Use computer lock to secure bags and computer to terminal seat bed (doesn’t seem to be necessary with all the security, but why not be safe).

6:00
After a short bathroom break, finally decide to search for a warmer, more habitable environment somewhere else in the terminal. Find said warmer, more habitable environment directly above on level 4: cushioned seats, more distant air conditioning. Fall directly back to sleep for another three hours.

9:20
Get up, allow girlfriend lying space since she spent three hours of “sleeping time” not sleeping, work on uploading trip photos.

11:30
Search for something to eat. Hopes for a better dining experience dashed as the lunch place turns out to be similar to the dinner spot the night before.

14:30
Retrieve bags from baggage hold room. Head to Air India counter.

14:35
Morale completely smashed as we learn that our flight has been delayed an entire day. Raise the truce flag and accept the free night at the local 5 star hotel.

Currently at the airport stealing free internet (hotel charges a whopping 500 Baht/12 hrs). Wish me better luck tomorrow.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hot and Wet in Ayutthaya (and Bankok, and Hong Kong, and...)

It’s what I’m getting used to being: Hot and Wet. From Hong Kong, to Singapore, to here in Bangkok, from morning to evening, and even sometimes continuing on through the night. The constant struggle to stay hydrated, stay in the shade, find the air-conditioned shop or metro never strays far from my mind. The overhead fan in our room remains constantly twirling from the second we enter to moment we leave. Without it I can’t imagine what sleep I would be able to find.
Yesterday was the worse so far. We left for Ayutthaya, the ancient Thai capital, located two hours by train north of Bangkok. Walking down the underground tunnel to the train station I was already sweating profusely, and by the time we stopped for a snack after buying our tickets I had already wiped away most of the bug spray I’d meticulously applied at the hostel. Amazingly, Sarah’s dependence on her morning cup of coffee endured the heat, although it was more than an hour later before it cooled down enough for her to enjoy it.

One-third of the electricity used in Singapore goes towards air-conditioning. In Hong Kong even the banged up 70s era busses that take you to and from the New Territories are air-conditioned. While these places have taught me to (literally) appreciate the lengths to which these cities have gone to, I think it was during the train ride to Ayutthaya that I realized the uncomfortable lack of this convenience. Those two hours of purgatory allowed me enough time to temporarily sweat away, along with my deodorant, all my environmentally conscious opposition to those energy suckers.

The trip to Ayutthaya was definitely worth it, if only for our first glimpse of the Wat Chai Wattanaram, one of the major Buddhist temples that stand half ruined around the city. My previous anger at being ripped off by the tuk-tuk driver who got us there melted away as I took in the temple’s grandeur. What a civilization that could have conceived of such a thing! Over two centuries after it was looted and burned and left to fall to pieces it still stands as a testament to Lewis Mumford’s Megamachine.



The trip back to Bangkok was, due to the setting of the sun and a subtle nighttime breeze, considerably less sweaty. Nonetheless, by the time we got back to the Baan Hua Lampong Guest House I had no problem with once again feeling wet, this time by taking a cold (compulsory because there is no hot option) shower. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get really comfortable with being hot and wet, but the trip to Ayutthaya definitely taught me that I’m just going to have to deal with it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Modernity in Singapore's Little India



I’m not sure what it is about vending machines that interest me so much. I think it has to do with the way it represents an attempt to completely automate, mechanize, etc., society. It’s the epitome of desocialized consumer interaction. This example is a soda cup machine found in Little India, complete with ice! These machines are more interesting than ours; they fill a cup up, rather than simply popping a bottle out.

Little India was one of the more interesting spots in Singapore, and got me very excited about the two weeks we'll soon be spending in Delhi and Chennai. This area is one of the few in the city that seems even a little bit grubby. Singapore's "strict" government doesn't allow much riff-raff in its city: $1,000 (US$ 666) fines for spitting and littering or eating in inappropriate places. Vandalism carries a lashing punishment. Drug dealing? The death penalty. Singapore takes its security and hygiene pretty seriously, which makes it nice to visit.

The "wet" market we went to in Little India this morning also highlights another trend in modern society: globalisation. Sarah's uncle prefers to visit these types of open-air markets to get his produce, meat cuts, etc. He says the prices are better and the food fresher. He's also keen enough to point out however just how global much of the produce is. His tip was to look at the boxes and crates lying around to see where they originated.



I wonder if there is any Slow Foods movement here as there is in the U.S. Then again, Singapore doesn't really have much of a choice about importing its food (or most other things), given how little room there is already on this island.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Week One: Hong Kong

I don’t think there is a better place anywhere in the world for a US citizen to experience a comfortable transition to not-North America than Hong Kong. The clich├ęd idea of East and West enmeshing cannot help but capture this city precisely. Everything- signs, menus, warning labels- is displayed in English and Chinese (often both Manderin and Cantonese). By my uninformed estimate I’d say about 95+% of the population speaks passable English (and a good portion fluently). The public transportation is (with good reason) ranked one of the best in the world. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an easier time navigating a subway system. Additionally, while there are certainly tabooed cultural mannerisms and superstitions (for instance, the apartment we are staying in doesn’t have a 4ht, 14th, or 24th floor, due to the association between the number four and bad luck), the combination of the politeness of the local residents and the sufficiently international and multicultural composition of the city make for a place where no American need to pay heed to local etiquette.

Sarah and I arrived in Hong Kong late Tuesday evening, and have ended up staying with a German fellow named Fabian for most of our time here. We found Fabian through the site couchsurfing.com, which, based on my very limited experience with it, now ranks among facebook and craigslist in my book as one of the most impressive and useful utilizations of the Internet for networking purposes. Fabian has been nothing less than an extraordinary host, giving us tips and taking us out to local spots and interesting places.

It was Fabian’s brilliant idea that Hong Kong would be the ideal place to pick up some cheap mobile phones to donate in Africa. I contacted Bruhan Mubiru, the director of the organization I’ll be working with in Kampala, and he said that there was definitely a need for mobile phones. Apparently twelve of his staffers are using a single phone. I hope that these Nokias will be able to serve TASAAGA well.



In case spending charity money on mobile phones seems frivolous, read why "the mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide."

Monday, October 1, 2007

G94, San Francisco Airport

Well, since I have about a billion year lay-over in San Francisco, I guess this will be my first travelblog post. And how fitting that so far I've found a couple of items that fit right in to my technic-oriented blog. First, I encountered a pretty awesome exhibit walking through the SF Airport. It's all about several dozen recent inventions by bay-area companies. The exhibit displays the "product" (they're mostly all gimmicky things to buy) as well as various prototypes and designs for it, along with descriptions. And look!



Ok, you might not be as excited as I was. In (the likely) case you didn't read my previous post about the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, this is what's pictured here. It looks very small in real life. Too bad you can't order them in batches smaller than 250,000, otherwise I'd be using some donation money to bring a couple over with me to Africa.

Shortly afterwards, I ran into one of these: a iPod vending machine. Man, Apple really has made it. My question is, does it really fall to the bottom after you buy it like a snack machine? I couldn't tell.