Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Chennai

Happy Independence Day! While I didn’t grill anything today, I just finished watching “Independence Day” the movie, and let me tell you, there is nothing quite like watching Will Smith kick alien ass to fire me up about my nation’s birth. Today was a nice relaxed day of tennis (anyone see the Wimbledon final last night?), swimming, video game playing, and movie watching, but I did celebrate in the more traditional sense on Friday, when I helped to put on the 4th of July event for the Consulate. It went well, with distinguished guests, wine, and even fireworks!

As I mentioned earlier, I recently spent a week in Chennai. I wanted to briefly post up some thoughts on my trip.

I liked Chennai, but after a week there, I have to admit that I like Hyderabad better. Somehow, Chennai finds a way to be even hotter than Hyderabad. The roads are a bit wider, and have lots of vegetation on the sides, but the drawback is that I think there are more bicycles there. They also seem to have a lot more one-way roads than Hyderabad does, which can make it seem like you’re driving in circles when you’re trying to get somewhere.

Chennai, like Hyderabad, is a very conservative place. However, Chennai has some strange rules about alcohol. The only places you can serve drinks are in hotels with more than 40 beds. This means that there aren’t really that many places to get a drink, and furthermore, the ones there are close down at 10:30! Plus, these hotels can be pretty nice, and that means the bars and clubs inside are pretentious and exclusive. Saturday night, I tried to go to one club with some friends and they refused admittance because our guy to girl ratio of 1:3 (in our group of 4) was not sufficient. It was infuriating. On the flip side, they seem to have a lot more ex-pats there and I went to a house-party hosted by a French guy that was a lot of fun. Apart from Microsoft Steve, I don’t know too many expats here in Hyderabad.

I’m an idiot and I forgot to bring my camera on my trip, so I don’t have any pictures to share. Most of the trip was spent in the Consulate anyway.

As for their consulate team, its totally different that the one we have in Hyderabad. Roughly 2x as big as we are, It feels like nearly every one of them is married with children. Going to a consulate event there is like going to a day-care. That’s a dynamic that we don’t really have in Hyderabad. Though I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing them, they are really nice folks and have excellent cook-outs! Its just I hadn’t spent that much time around children in a while. It helped that my batch-mate Maureen’s child Noah turned 2 years old and was absolutely adorable.

I also hear they have some good restaurants (including a nice korean place?) but I only manged to make it to a nice Thai restaurant during my trip, so I can’t give too many recommendations.

So I apologize that this post wasn’t terribly inspired, but that pretty much sums up what I saw in Chennai. All in all, it has a lot of similarities to Hyderabad which didn’t make too much stand out. I think I’m planning a big trip at the end of August somewhere up North, so stay tuned for those updates.

 

 

Pondicherry

These past few weeks at work we have had a few temporary duty workers shipped in from the Consulate in Chennai. We enjoy these exchanges because we get to make new friends and they get to see how things work at other consulates and hopefully share and adopt some best practices. Recently, Jeremy and I were selected to go do temporary duty assignments in Chennai.

Jeremy had been sent down to Chennai the week before, and I was there last week, so for our overlapping weekend we decided to head down to Pondicherry. We also had a co-worker stationed in Chennai who said that she still hadn’t been to Pondicherry yet, so she and her husband and adorable 2 year old son gave me a ride to the old French colonial village located about an hour south of Chennai.

Pondicherry is unlike any other Indian town I have ever been to. You can actually walk on most of the streets without any fear. The roads are wide and mostly free of traffic. Tourists and locals alike ride bicycles along the coastline. The French influence can be seen in more than just the road names and the local Alliance Francois, the town also has bakeries and even a nice public park (if a little dilapidated). It’s a sleepy town that doesn’t have a raging night life, but still has a charm to it. I succeeded in checking off one of my chief tasks whilst in India – getting a blessing from an elephant.

While you can vaguely see the corners of my grin, the picture doesn’t quite display the jubilation that I experienced from receiving this blessing. Located just outside of the local temple, the elephant takes money out of your hand with its trunk and then bonks you gently on the head. The elephant can even take coins! Its amazing how much control they have over their trunks. After the elephant (Lakshmi) collected a sufficient amount of money, it deftly deposited its payload into the awaiting hands of its trainer. It was also pretty entertaining to watch the reactions of other Indians there. Probably tourists as well, lots of people wanted the blessing but feared the beast so much that they screamed when its trunk came near. Even better was the non-reactions of some of the locals, elderly women doing their grocery stopping walked right by the elephant without batting an eye, only to turn around and yell at the elephant when they noticed that its trunk was snooping around in their shopping bags when they walked by.

To give our trip to Pondicherry a storybook finish, I should note that we also ran into a group of three french girls at a bar called “le Club” . The waiter was doing his best to get me and Jeremy to take a smaller table or leave entirely, so we decided to ask this table of three beauties if they minded sharing. A few drinks later, we had discovered that they were aimless, having recently quit their volunteer jobs at an orphanage in a nearby podunk village. To show them the nicer side of India, we invited them to the hotel pool the next day and encouraged them to take a rest stop in Hyderabad. Both invitations were accepted.

The weekend in Pondicherry was both laid back and exciting at the same time because of how different it was from my usual environs. I recommend any tourist who is milling around South India to spend a day there, but trust me when I say you can skip the museum. Pondicherry was just the first few days of my week-long visit to Chennai, and more blog-posts are forthcoming about my time in Chennai itself. Stay tuned for more updates.

MUMBAI!!!

Two ‘apology for not writing’ posts in a row is tacky, but in my defense, I just moved and I had no internet until yesterday.

A couple of weekends ago I accepted my friend Jeremy’s invitation to accompany his friends to Mumbai for the three day weekend. Good move. Mumbai is unlike anywhere I have ever been in India (that list being Hyderabad and Delhi). To keep some organization to my observations, I’m going to divide this into digestible chunks, like what my mom tells me to do to steak (as I scoff).

My Travel Companions Jeremy, Vanessa, and Nick at the India Gate

1. Size -For starters, the place is HUGE. As one of the mega-cities of the world, Mumbai is home to over 12.5 million people. Its the biggest city in India and from the moment the airplane starts its descent you will be glued to your window trying to see where the city ends. You also will be glued to your window wondering how the hundreds of shacks adjacent to the landing strip don’t get blown over by the plane, but that’s another story. I spent pretty much the whole weekend in the part of town called Colaba and after two full days in the city I still have tons to see during my next trip. I didn’t even make it out to the taco bell (a travesty for which I have no defense and I will  surely be judged in the afterlife).

2. The Hawkers- One thing I like about Hyderabad is that, apart from stares, the locals don’t make much of an attempt to bother me when I walk around town. Not the case in Mumbai. The people of Mumbai have had enough exposure to tourists that they long ago realized that we don’t bite, and annoying us enough can sometimes result in getting us to shell out some greenbacks to buy the overpriced tchotchkes they are trying to unload (money is various colors here but gandhi-backs just didn’t sound respectful).  The tourist industry’s bottom-feeders line the sidewalks with their stalls, creating a narrow tunnel of a sidewalk that forces tourists trying to walk down a street to make a choice; walk on the road and risk your life, or walk on the sidewalk and risk your sanity. Since I have been in India for four months now, the latter doesn’t seem like such a risk anymore since I feel my sanity is daily slipping away. Of the hawkers, there are two kinds, the ones tethered to their stalls, who employ their tricks as you pass to catch your attention, and then there are the more nefarious kind of hawkers, those whose wares are light enough that they can take their show on the road. Unlike the stall-bound variety, these hawkers can’t be avoided with a quick pace and an adverted gaze, these hawkers are persistent and can follow you for a whole block. The worst of this batch is by far the ‘drum man’. This one thinks he can sell drums to tourists without even bothering to learn a good tune first. He patters on the drum rythmlessly (new word) as you pass by, and unlike the shoe-shiners,  you are constantly reminded he is chasing you because you hear his drum pitter pattering behind you like some phonic version of Chinese water torture. Admittedly, we were staying in a very touristy area. The abundance of tourists does have its upsides, but don’t stand still for too long lest the hawkers become more akin to vultures. They sense fatigue and will quickly swoop in. Before long you are encircled by a crowd of them.

One of the funnier stories that came out of the weekend involved one of the shoe-shiners, well at least that’s what we thought he was. While we were strolling along the waterfront after a nice meal at a pizzeria (am I writing about India right now?), a ragged looking teenage boy (oh, there we are) starts trailing us and quickly identifies Jeremy as being in need of a shoe-shine. Before long Jeremy acquiesces and we find ourselves waiting while Jeremy gets his shoes shined. Part of this trade, I think I’ve figured out, is to utilize the time you spend shining their shoes by filling the silence with sob stories that will encourage the customer to open their wallets. This kid’s story, and if its true i’m going to feel like a jerk, involved him losing his father, being the eldest son and needing to get money to pay for his public school because after 7th grade it is no longer free. Sure enough Jeremy’s heart melted and he forked over a few extra rupees. This is where the story gets good. The next day as I was walking along the street, we see the exact same kid, but instead of offering shoe shinings with his shoe-shining kit, he is selling maps! Where the heck did that kid get the maps from? And what happened to his shoe-shining stuff? I’m pretty sure some beggar-master has these kids on a rotation and the entire story was fraud.

3. Shorts – yup, people wear them there. Yes, even Indian people. It was a pretty liberating sight. I think I even saw some tank-tops. Unfortunately, still no shorts in clubs, Mumbai isn’t quite that far ahead of the curve.

4. The beach –
While we didn’t go swimming, and if I lived there I still probably wouldn’t attempt it, I did enjoy seeing the beach. It wasn’t as crowded as I expected it to be, but there were plenty of people sitting around in the sand and a few brave enough to play in the water. The coolest thing we saw on the beach was a crew prepping for some sort of event that was going to happen later that evening. They had a couple of giant fake elephants that they had yet to set up, but whose pieces were strewn about like the elephant had just been exploded on the beach (like this whale).

5. Colonialism – Blame the Brits for a lot of things, but at least give them credit for knowing how to plan a city. The streets of Mumbai (in the Colaba area) are a smooth cobbleston that oozes style, and the roads are matched by the sweet retro cabs.

From the giant cricket oval to the India Gate, from the Victoria train station to the Mumbai Museum. everywhere you look you can see the effect the British had on making this city feel downright European at times. Because of the Nizam, Hyderabad never had a strong British presence, so while we kept the culture somewhat purer, we lost out on cobblestone roads, glamorous train stations, and oh yeah, doughnut shops!?! 

In the interest of posting something now rather than later. I’m going to stop writing and post this up. A few things I could write about later: we took the train; we went to India Gate; we went to a doughnut shop; we danced at a bar; the list goes on. Long story short, come to India, visit me, then visit Mumbai. Enjoy the slideshow.

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Sorry some pics are sideways, this is acting finicky when I upright them, check the link below for better upright versions.

High Quality Version of Mumbai Slideshow

My trip to Delhi

Last week I got the opportunity to go to Delhi for additional training and consultations. Since my last visit to Delhi had me confined to the airport at 1 in the morning until 6 am, I readily accepted this chance to go back and see the rest of the city. Jeremy and I also decided to stay the whole weekend and do some additional exploring. Don’t worry taxpayers, we paid for our own lodging.

This blog won’t get into the details of my work, but I think its within my rights to say that the embassy was pretty decked out. I came in through a side entrance (yes, there is more than one), and was a bit confused as to where to go for my training as the only places I could see were 1) a swimming pool, 2) a baseball diamond, 3) a day care, 4) a restaurant, 5) a bookstore. The restaurant had glowing floors which gave the place a Billie Jean-Michael Jackson effect (see a theme in my posts yet?).

Delhi also has a commissary, which is essentially a somewhat dingy American  grocery store. After wandering through an Indian grocery store and having no idea what to buy, I found myself craving things I wouldn’t even  touch in an American store (exhibit A: spam). In Hyderabad, since we don’t have a commissary, we are allowed to order food and drinks from the commissary every month, unfortunately this kills any impulse purchases because you then have to wait a month to get your order. That tater tot craving that I had last month is still waiting to be appeased.  The commissary didn’t disappoint in showcasing the junk American food that I missed so much. Unfortunately, I don’t have a membership yet, so I wasn’t able to buy anything.

damn, i just wrote a paragraph about the commissary, nobody cares about that, how about I just show some pretty pictures?

Most of my pictures are of Jeremy in front of nice buildings, since we traveled together. When he sends me the pictures he took, i’ll dump a few into my flickr account which you should be able to access through the toolbar on the right. Enjoy the slideshow!

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Well I hope that was illuminating. In Delhi I saw the Qutb Minar, the Jamma Masjid, the Red Fort, the India Gate, the old city, and the Presidents Building from afar at night. There was some gorgeous architecture. Most of all, it was neat to be walking around a city that has existed for hundreds of years in some form. Ancient ruins are sprawled around the area and if you drive anywhere on the outskirts of town you can see remnants from buildings built a long time ago. Oh and a couple of those photos of the ornate stone lattices are from the Paigah Tombs in Hyderabad. Future picture dumps will be more focused, I promise.