Thursday, July 24, 2008

god's own country

I am determined to have this blog up to date before I leave for Bombay in 5 hours.

Last weekend was the trip we'd been waiting for for weeks . . . the Infosys-sponsored trip to Cochin, Kerala. For those of you who don't know, the Indian state of Kerala is known for its incredible scenic beauty and tranquil atmosphere (and its seafood!) We left Infosys campus at about 6:30pm (which, on Indian Standard Time, translated to about 7:15. From there we took two full buses to the central city railway station, where all sixty of us boarded a train bound for Cochin.

Indian trains are famous for being crowded, dirty, and smelly (what people call "a real cultural experience"), but except for a healthy dose of cockroaches ours was okay. There were so many interns and InStep staff that we had reserved an entire train car just for ourselves. We traveled in 3-AC, meaning air-conditioned cars with 3 tiers of bunks that folded down into seats. Each compartment had eight bunks, but we fit about fifteen people at one point since no one seemed to want to sleep (although the train ride was thirteen hours long). We were relieved to arrive at Ernakulam Town station at 10:30 the next morning, where more AC buses waited to take us to our hotel.

Our hotel. Wow. The hotel was absolutely amazing. Infosys put us up in the Taj Malabar, a 5-star resort that was right on the harbor. It was kind of a big deal-- think waiters in turbans offering you glasses of papaya juice and jasmine flowers as soon as you walk into the lobby. My friend Nasheeta and I had a room on the top floor, with a great view of the harbor, and of course the furnishing etc was exquisite. We relaxed in our rooms for a few minutes and headed down for brunch (included as part of the conference package Infosys had gotten for us). Delicious food-- Indian food, Western food, and specialties of Kerala-- was served all weekend in a special private dining room.

After lunch we went on a sightseeing tour of the historic parts of Cochin, including an old church, some Chinese fishing nets, and my favorite: Jewtown. There's actually a district in Cochin that's legitimately called Jewtown, which is renowned for its commission-free shopping and a really old synagogue (we weren't allowed in the synagogue because it was Saturday). But still, you don't get to look around and see signs that say "Two Minutes to Jew Town!" in the U.S.

After the sightseeing tour we relaxed at the hotel (or rather, the bar in the hotel lobby) until the "Sunset Cruise," which we turned into a complete dance party on the boat. We sailed around the harbor until dark (it gets dark at about 7pm here in India, have I mentioned that?), waving to fishermen who then danced with us from their boats. A good time was had by all.

From the cruise there was a demonstration on the traditional dance/theater style of Kerala, which I had heard from other interns was quite dull (the other sixty interns went last weekend). So, my friends and I decided to go swimming instead! The pool at the Taj is beautiful and ends only about 10 feet from the water; it actually looks like it feeds directly into the ocean. Two of my Indian friends didn't even know how to swim, but we got them into the water, and by the end of the weekend they were racing each other for short stretches.

Dinner was served in the hotel once more, after which the interns split up. Some people went to go find a club in Cochin, and others decided to try to crash a private wedding party at the hotel. It was apparently going pretty well-- they were pretending to be Australian-- until they got to the bar, at which point they were firmly denied. I preferred to enjoy my five-star penthouse room, watching a movie with some friends, and then hung out in the 24-hour restaurant in the lobby until I was too tired to continue.

After an unwanted 5am wakeup call, courtesy of my friends Madhav and Madhav, we woke up bright and early (not THAT early though) for a journey into the backwaters of Kerala. The backwaters are the most famous part of Kerala-- basically the entire state is a huge delta and there are tons of waterways running in and out of everywhere. You're supposed to take a houseboat and just float along for a few days, relaxing and soaking everything in. However, we took five small canoes through very overgrown, small-channel backwaters. It was beautiful, in a wild sort of way-- the trees seemed almost as if they were choking the small creek, the banks overgrown with bramble bushes, and snakes slithering through the water alongside the boats. It was peaceful, to be sure, but very undeveloped and . . . real, I guess.

Midway through the boat tour we stopped for coconut water-- but this time we actually saw the man climb the tree, pull down the coconut, hack it open with a machete and hand us a straw. Delicious. We also got to see some spice trees growing, and try to climb the coconut trees ourselves (it's harder than it looks!). It was a cool experience.

After the backwaters tour, it was time to say goodbye to our dear Taj. We took another round of swimming and a giant lunch, and then headed to the train station for our 13-hour overnight journey home: just in time for work Monday morning. It was a fun, relaxing, and memorable weekend, and I really appreciate Infosys doing it for us.

Train on the way to Kerala

Cochin harbor, as viewed from our room

Jew town and some jews

Friends on board the sunset cruise

The backwaters of Kerala

Me attempting to climb the coconut tree

mmmm coconut!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Buses, Biryani, Bibles, Bargaining, and Babies-- a weekend in Hyderabad

I’m apologizing in advance for the unforgivable length of this entry.

After a ten-hour, overnight journey (punctuated by one 3am crash that wasn't serious enough to stop for, although we found later that it had spidered the windshield pretty good) on a semi-sleeper bus--seats that recline up to 45 degrees, but no beds--we arrived at the bustling Mahatma Gandhi bus station, where we were immediately accosted by taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers. They wouldn’t let us go easily, especially when they figured out we were having trouble connecting with our taxi driver. We walked around the bus station several times, passing the same shops full of junk, unhygienic food stalls where we feared to stop despite our unhappily empty stomachs, and the crowd of now-predatory-looking taxi drivers.

We eventually located our driver after several calls to the taxi dispatch center, only to discover that he spoke almost no English—an ironic thing to happen on my first weekend trip without someone who spoke Hindi. Trial by fire, I guess—with his tiny bit of English, Faisal’s and my bits of Hindi (mostly Faisal), and the Hindi-English dictionary I’ve taken to carrying almost everywhere, we managed to get where we were going without any major disasters (although the driver did keep attempting to take us back to Infosys campus rather than the palaces, forts and monuments we had planned to see for the morning). Our first stop was the Charminar, Hyderabad’s most famous monument. It literally means Four (char) Minarets (minar), a random structure in a kind of town square that was topped with four towers. It was thoroughly overrated, but worth a look (especially since it’s the figure that goes on most of Hyderabad’s postcards).

After our driver had been driving for a good half hour, we realized that we probably weren’t heading for Chowmahalla palace, the location we had requested. “Infosys?” he said with a puzzled look on his face. No, we explained, Chowmahalla Palace (careful to articulate each syllable because he had somehow gotten “Infosys” out of it the first time). The palace was about 100 yards from the Charminar, and we could have walked rather than taken 45 minutes in a cab. Ah well, such is life.

Chowmahalla Palace was basically a museum and testament to the history of the Nizams, the old rulers of Hyderabad. It was quite interesting, as are many of the historical places I’ve visited, but I can’t help wishing for a better grasp on Indian history in general, as my knowledge is woefully inadequate. It makes it quite difficult to fit together the many different facts that have been crammed into my head over the past 5 weeks—the British, the Moguls, the native tribes, sultans, rajs, all kinds of people and places and invasions and cities.

Lunch was at the famed Paradise Hotel, recommended by all our friends native to Hyderabad plus a good many others. Hyderabad is famous for its biryani (a dish of steamed rice with vegetables or meat), so that’s what I had for lunch. Delicious, as always, but I have a message for the people of Andhra Pradesh: your food is too spicy. end of story.

Finally, we instructed our driver to take us back to Infosys Campus, where we planned to drop our stuff and freshen up before the evening’s activities. However, our streak of bad luck with cabs (which wasn’t going to die anytime soon) continued and the car broke down twice on the way there. Too hot and tired to do anything active, we waited passively until the driver called one of his buddies to come and pick us up. The whole thing made me really wish I actually spoke Hindi, and although I won’t come anything close to proficient by the time I leave, I’m determined to learn as much as I can.

After being initially denied rooms at the ECC, then finagling our way into an incredibly huge and luxurious room, we set off for my favorite site of the weekend—Golconda Fort. Escaping from a coalition of insistent tour guides, we scrambled up the fort face, eschewing paved sidewalks in favor of dirt paths and old, crumbling rock walls. The fort was huge and definitely the best monument out of the weekend. After we had scaled the fort in less than an hour and made fun of the Moguls who took eight months to do the same thing, we headed down (through a cave full of bats!!!!!!) to an amphitheater-arena-type thing (from which you could see most of the fort) for the “Sound and Lights Show.” It was pretty cool—a well-done (English!) narration of the history of Golconda and its rulers, with different parts of the fort lit up in different colors to emphasize parts of the story. Although it lasted an hour, it was worth it to hear some of the stories behind the vast structure.

Our bad luck with taxis continued as we had to repeatedly call the dispatch to get them to send someone to pick us up at Golconda. Note that all the taxis had been prearranged and booked several days in advance, and should have arrived as scheduled. We finally headed off for dinner with Vignan’s family—Vignan, an intern from Hyderabad, planned out our whole itinerary and invited us to his home in the city (although he wasn’t able to be there that weekend). Vignan’s mother cooked enough for about twenty people, and it was all the four of us could do to try everything on the table. She filled the table with delicious dishes like paneer tikka masala, sambar, coconut rice, vada and curd, mint chutney, papad, and best of all a huge plate of freshly sliced mango. We also got to meet and talk to Vignan’s uncle and grandparents, who shared stories of Hyderabad and India in general.

We retired to the ECC with no further cab mishaps, but of course the next morning’s cab showed up at 7am rather than 8:30. Breakfast was peanut butter sandwiches in the hotel, and from there we went to a church we’d found on the Internet (always the best source for these things . . .) called the Hyderabad Apostolic Christian Assembly. It was actually held in a YWCA (!) in downtown Hyderabad. We were greeted with quizzical looks and warm welcomes from the pastor and worship team, and the service began at precisely 10am (that’s when the power goes on). It was an incredible joy for me—the band, the singers, and familiar songs like How Great is Our God, Here I am to Worship, and even Days of Elijah were heartbreakingly familiar and a comforting reminder of home. Even side-by-side with songs in Tamil, Telegu, and Hindi, those familiar songs of praise were all I needed. The rest of the service was not unlike an African-American Southern Baptist church—endless singing, prayers, testimonies, enthusiastic prayers, and a fiery sermon took the service to about 2 and a half hours. It was quite an experience, and a good reminder that the Church is alive and growing here in India.

We spent the early afternoon at various parks around Hussein Sagar, the big lake in the middle of the city, taking a boat ride to see the giant monolithic Buddha in the center and waiting unsuccessfully for Indian children to vacate the playground swings. A final bout of cab distress led to the agency just letting us keep our cab for the rest of the day, since they were so tired of dealing with us. We took our hard-won cab to Salar Jung Museum, a huge museum full of everything from ancient swords to Italian marble sculptures. We had time only to explore a fraction of the museum before it closed, but I would really like to go back someday as the works it contained were really incredible. Also, on the way into of the museum a lady actually pushed her baby into my arms and asked if I would take a picture with her child. A little weird, but the baby was adorable :)

The remainder of the evening was spent on dinner at the wonderful (NOT!) Hotel Shadab (Lonely Planet, you have failed.) and wandering around pretending to be interested in buying things. In one particularly notable shop, I asked the price (I’m getting quite good at doing that in Hindi these days) of a dupatta that I mildly liked, and the shopkeeper responded with 150. As expected, I immediately shook my head no, so the proprietor countered with “Two hundred.” Double take. I think he sensed my confusion, so he attempted to appease me by offering 250. As the other three shopkeepers started cracking up around us, I gently said “uhh . . . I think you’re going the wrong way.” Perplexed, he said "tell me the right way, I don't know the right way." I shook my head and said "...I'm gonna go find my friends now," leaving the confused man to figure out his failure.

After several other photo requests and aggressive shopkeepers, we headed to the bus station to find our A/C semisleeper, complete with scratchy blankets and an outrageous south Indian movie (movies produced in the south tend to have crazier dancing, more intense fight scenes, impossible stunts, and apparently superhuman actors). After an exhausting day, I fell straight to sleep, and the bus arrived with no crashes or unusual events to Bangalore the next morning. Our bad luck with cabs was finally over-- we found our driver and he took us to Infosys, just in time for work this morning!

Stay tuned, I feel that a very interesting entry is coming later this week.

View from the top of the Charminar

Golconda Fort

The Way to Up.


Shane and Buddha

into the wild

I know I'm hopelessly behind on this blog. Bear with me.

So two weekends ago (July 4-6) a small group of interns decided it'd be a good idea to go visit all those animals India is so famous for. We decided to take a safari into Bandipur National Park, one of India's largest tiger reserves. Since it was close to the major city of Mysore, we bookended our safari journey with some sightseeing there.

My first experience on an Indian train wasn't bad (although it WAS an A/C chair car rather than a famed sleeper car, and I WAS traveling with a majority of South Asians, most of whom knew their way around a train station). The three-hour train ride past with a minimum of delays and we arrived in Mysore on Friday night. After dinner at a nice hotel (that's where the reputable restaurants are in India, it seems), we drove to the famed Mysore DC.

The Infosys campus in Mysore is enormous, since it's where the training of all new employees occurs. Each Infosys employee spends about 5 months in Mysore, staying in the vast ECC (hostel/guesthouse) there. The campus contains state-of-the-art classroom facilities (and is building more) and several health clubs, food courts, spacious green lawns, a 4-screen multiplex, and even a bowling alley. It's pretty ridiculous. It kind of makes me want to work full time for Infosys.

Anyway, we spent the night at the Mysore ECC and spent the next morning relaxing over tea and a delicious breakfast at the floating restaurant in the center of campus before the 2-hour drive into the hills to Bandipur (stopping along the way for coconut milk, out of a real coconut whose top was hacked off with a machete before our eyes), where we checked into 4 quaint two-person cottages, complete with hammocks outside. The package we had purchased included several meals, so we took our lunch at the Ghol Ghar (= round circular dining area). The food was humble but good, and we ate our fill before retiring for napping, reading, and chilling in our rooms or hammocks. Tea was served promptly at 4pm, and at 4:30 we all crowded into a single open-topped Jeep for a three-hour safari.

Riding in the jeep was thrilling from the start, as Indian driving habits apparently don't change in the jungle. But the real excitement began once we got into the park. Over the course of three hours, we saw elephants (herds of them! with babies!), deer, peacocks, gaur (indian bull), kingfisher, woodpecker, monkeys, and even heard a leopard growling in the bushes. Although we waited for quite some time, he wouldn't come out (and sadly, we saw no big predators. Tough luck). On the whole, it was quite a cool experience.

After we returned to the camp, we snacked and were shown a truly amazing (cough) wildlife film called "the leopard that changed its spots," about a leopard named Henrietta (!) raised by some guy, and detailing her subsequent return to the wild (and birth of cubs, of which there was plenty of disgustingly cute footage). Whatever. The best part of it was definitely the music, which was an 80s midi soundtrack that sounded like a middle school oboe choir. Dinner at the Ghol Ghar, and then a campfire.

The next day we woke before dawn for tea (or at least, the girls did. The boys wouldn't get up till we pounded on the doors several times) and a trek into the forest. By the way, it's not called "hiking" here, but rather "trekking". good to know. The guide showed us some birds' nests and what were supposed to be leopard prints, but they apparently do that for everyone so I don't think they were real leopard prints. We scaled one of the surrounding mountains (okay, hills) for a spectacular view of the surrounding area, then returned to the campsite to check out and leave our relaxing weekend paradise.

Before we checked out, we did manage to fit in an elephant ride. The elephant's name was Jaiprakash, and I almost didn't ride him but they assured me he was well treated. I really hate stuff like this normally, and probably wouldn't have done it but for the thought of what would happen if I return from India and my friends and family find out that I did not ride an elephant. So I did, although I spent the whole time thinking how boring it must be to go around in circles and get yelled at and kicked in the head by a skinny Indian dude all day.

We took the cabs back to Mysore and lunched on campus, but many found the food unsatisfactory so we pledged to find food somewhere in the city. Our first (and, as it turned out, only) tourist site was the famed Mysore palace. My opinion: gaudy and overrated. However, the exciting part was being able to practice my Hindi. To retrieve our cameras from the lockers where we'd had to deposit them, I approached the clerk and timidly said "tiin camera, bhaiya" (roughly "three cameras, brother/sir"). He looked puzzled for a moment, and I repeated "va tiin camera hai" ("there are three cameras"). His face broke into a wide grin (although I'm sure the hindi was imperfect) and he returned the three cameras to me. I responded with a "shukriya, bhaiya" ("thank you sir") and was on my way, immensely pleased with myself.

I then proceeded to bargain for something I didn't really want, half in Hindi and half in English, and ended up buying it as a souvenir of my triumph (from 75 rupees of junk down to 25, about 50 cents). Fairly skipping with joy, my Indian friends treated me to bhutta, which is a cob of corn that gets peeled, cooked in hot coals, and rubbed with lemon and chili pepper (all in front of you, so you know it's safe)-- delicious. We then went questing for more snacks, especially the famed Mysore Pak (recipe provided at the wiki link) and settled on a somewhat sketchy street food place. My Indian friends assured me it was safe, so I sampled delicious chaat and samosas. In hindsight-- a bad, bad, bad decision. Poor choice. Last week I spent about 36 consecutive hours in my room and couldn't eat anything for about 3 days. Although the source of the food poisoning may have been the even-sketchier place we went to for dinner, which I think had the second-sketchiest toilet I'd seen in India (trust me, I've seen some pretty sketchtastic toilets here).

We had just enough time to see the Mysore Palace lit (the most famous thing in Mysore-- the palace is lit up with thousands of electric lights on Sunday nights from 7-8pm) before catching a train back to Bangalore (this time on the infamous non-AC sleeper). A great weekend, and one of the best I've had so far.

Steve and his coconut

Herd of elephants


Peacock and Peahen

Gaur (Indian Bull). These things are HUGE.

Sunrise from the mountaintop

A glimpse of the lit Mysore Palace

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

All on the 4th (3rd) of July . . .

While I'm laid up in my room with a pretty bad case of food poisoning, I thought, "what better to do than to update my much-neglected blog?" So here you go-- proof that my link to the outside world is still functioning.

The 4th of July comes early in India . . . since so many of us travel on the weekends, we decided to celebrate the 4th of July (Friday) on the 3rd of July (Thursday). One of the American interns, Shane, went all-out to ensure that we had an amazing day. It began with the two of us giving a presentation on American culture and the history of Independence Day (I put together a powerpoint presentation on "American Stereotypes," proving with verifiable statistics that Americans are not generally dumb, fat, ignorant, and eat only ketchup). From there we went to the cricket fields owned by Infosys, where we attempted to play a modified version of baseball with a cricket bat and a tennis ball. Some highlights of the questions/comments while we attempted to explain the differences between cricket and baseball:

"No, you can only run around the bases once. Run in a square."
"Amit, no! Drop the bat and THEN run!"

It was quite entertaining, and a lot of press showed up actually. There was a reporter from InfyTV, the internal news/features show of Infosys, and a couple of photographers from some local newspapers. I'll have to send out the articles they wrote-- they're pretty hilarious and not at all accurate depictions of the day's events.

From there we went to La Terrace, the restaurant in the ECC (the hostel where all the interns live), which had prepared an American spread complete with hamburgers (and veggie burgers :) ), corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, pasta salad, and ice cream. Then it was back to the cricket fields to set off some small fireworks. All in all, a great day and one of the best 4th/3rd of July celebrations I've ever had.

Sorry there are no pictures! I'll write about last weekend (a safari trip into a tiger reserve!) as soon as my stomach gets a little happier with me . . .