Sunday, March 27, 2011

India Impressions

What can I say now that I am back from India and Nepal? Many people knew I was going so upon returning I was asked the question many times, “What did you think?”, some curious because they had been there and wanted to know my perspective, some because they were planning to go someday.
I never really wanted to go to India. I always had the impression that it was a crowded, dirty place and that I would not be comfortable. However, Aya wanted to go for our honeymoon and since she deferred to me and let me take us to Australia for our honeymoon I owed her the next trip. So we went to India.
Over the past year I had grown on the idea and actually became somewhat anxious to go. I read a lot about the various places in India and it just so happened that my 6th grade classes studied the area and made history projects about India right before I went. I watched a number of movies as well and finally decided that it might actually be interesting to go. India does in fact have a long history, full of interesting adventures, and really is currently in the midst of another adventure as its population begins to surpass that of China and becomes the highest in the world as well as having one of the fastest growing economies.
When we arrived my first impression was, “dirty”. We arrived at night and the haze was like a blanket. I thought living in Shanghai was bad for air pollution, and if you look at a map of air quality you will see that it is, but its nothing compared to New Delhi. My second impression was, “cheats”. Within the first hour of landing someone had ripped me off. We paid 400 rupees for a driver to get us from the airport (it should have been 250 or so) and when we arrived at the hotel he asked for a tip (he shouldn’t have) and when I gave him a 100 and asked for change he claimed he didn’t have any (I saw later that he did). We were also cheated again right after that by our hotel, but that is another story. My third impression of India was, “damn crowded”. The next day as we began to walk around it became clear just how crowded India is. There are people everywhere.
It was for those reasons that I really didn’t like India. I felt like I was constantly on guard, I could not relax. I had to always watch my bag, be skeptical of anyone who approached me (because people would appear to be helping you when in fact they were trying to cheat you), and always bargain bargain bargain. I hate bargaining. I always lose. Even if I get “a good deal” its not a good deal because the vendor would certainly take less if my skin was a different color. Everyday was more about planning how to see what sites we were interested in while minimizing getting cheated than they were about relaxing and having a good time. There were people everywhere which made it very difficult to enjoy any peace or any moment alone with my wife. It is also the crowded condition that leads to the filth that permeated India. Trash was everywhere, just about everything had a layer of dust on it, and people pissed and shat everywhere along with all manner of beasts on the street. Pollution choked the air and garbage choked the rivers. One thing pictures and movies never convey is the smell which was generally acrid with a tinge something smelted.
This is also why it was a relief to get to Nepal. Nepal shared a lot of those characteristics. It was dirty, touts everywhere, very crowded, but there was something a bit more relaxed about Nepal. When you said no to touts the people backed off. In Indian people grabbed you. People bargained, but there were not as many people trying to cheat us and there were places were you could buy as a local buys. It wasn’t hard to pick out people who were genuinely trying to help us from those who were just out to get us. There was a lot of filth in Kathmandu, but not as much in the countryside and that was also different.
I also don’t mean to say that we never met people we liked. We met a lot of people we liked. Our tour guide in Nepal was especially nice and the man whose family we had a homestay with was really sweet. We met nice travelers and store owners along the way, had some great conversations on the trains, and some of the best food I ever ate (besides the food that made me ill for a week). There were enjoyable things, but if I were to answer, “What did you think” I would say, “Dirty, crowded, full of cheats. Don’t go there. Your money is better spent seeing somewhere else in the world.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Back in India we raced against the clock. Because our flight had been delayed 4 hours catching our train was going to be cutting it close. When we finally landed we literally ran through the terminals to customs, ran to the money changer and ran out the door to the taxi stand. We had about one hour to get across town in rush hour traffic. Keep in mind this was New Delhi we had to cross, not Sturgeon Bay. A few times I have been in these situations and each time I have kept a positive attitude. Like much of life, there is no use fretting, set aside the fretting and get moving to make things better, right?

About half way across town I started to fret as we hit the Delhi wall of traffic. Our driver was quite aggressive; we had explained to him our situation so perhaps he was trying to help us. Then again he could just be another crazy Delhi driver. He was cutting in and out of traffic and making not a few enemies along the way. Our train left the station at 4pm and as we pulled up to the station at 3:56 it was almost certain we would make it as long as we could find what platform our train was on. We jumped out of the taxi, swept through security, and ran to our train, jogging alongside it to find our carriage. Mere moments after we boarded the train began to pull away. We just made it.

Arriving in Agra after dark was not pleasant and we were not happy to have to trust a rickshaw driver to get us there, rightly so. We paid for a pre-paid taxi which as it turned out was two guys who were trying to run a tourist operation doing tours around the area. We listened to 20 minutes of touting and finally got dropped off at the Hotel Clark, this was not our hotel. Our homestay family had told us that they were just behind the Hotel Clark, but left no further instructions. Unfortunately the Hotel Clark was really big, it was dark, and we weren’t sure what direction “behind” referred to. We marched off into the darkness, a rickshaw driver following us asking if we needed a ride. After a few minutes we saw what we thought might be the place and stopped to check. Another rickshaw driver pulled up and asked if we needed a ride. We figured out that it was the wrong building and started off in another direction and were approached by another driver. By this point I was furious with drivers and I yelled at him to get away from us. This upset him, he pointed to a wall nearby with some writing on it, then drove away. Turns out this guy was pointing to our home stay. We felt frustrated.

Arriving at the home stay was a little awkward at first. There was another couple seated at the dinner table when we arrived. We were led to our room then sat down for dinner. We made some quick introductions and then chatted about our India experiences. Nice to know that we weren’t the only ones. We registered with the master of the house, a very nice older Indian man (with a beautiful beard!), and arranged for a driver to come pick us up the next morning early to take us to the Taj Mahal. We woke up early and took the rickshaw that was waiting for us. We arrived at the Taj around 645, which as it turns out was a bit later than we wanted because the sun was already breaking the horizon. As we stood in line the couple from the previous night showed up, a bit upset, apparently we had taken their cab and so they were not able to get to the Taj as early as they wished. We bought tickets for them, so in the grand scheme they did not actually lose any time, but I don’t think they forgave us because they were a bit less than friendly the rest of the time we saw them.

The Taj, even early in the morning, was pretty crowded with people, or so I thought. Later that day we would see the Taj from the other bank of the river and the amount of people there was like ants swarming over a dropped popsicle in the summertime. The Taj itself was beautiful and although it cost 700 rupees each to get in I believe it was worth it. Despite how many times I had seen the structure in photographs seeing the real thing was not diminished in its capacity to awe. As the morning sun began its climb the white marble shone softly at the end of a long pool. There were many people milling about and taking photographs and even a few people who had already made their way to the structure itself, but because of the sheer splendor of the site none of those things could take away from the beauty and power the building exuded.
In order to walk around the Taj itself we had to either removed our shoes or wear protective booties. We opted for the booties, which were free and a lovely bright red. We spent about an hour at the sight and then decided there were only so many times we could look around. Before leaving we went to the bathroom which had a suggested donation to enter. I donated 10 rupees for the both of us and the guy gave me a dirty look. Why suggest a donation when you actually want a payment of more than 10 rupees? I hate it when people pretend to be philanthropists, but are really gold diggers.

We went back to our home stay for some breakfast and then were out again to the red fort. The red fort was nice, but this was getting towards the end of our trip and we had gotten up around 530 to make it to the Taj early so we were dragging our way through the fort. I don’t know how many times we sat down to rest. We decided it would be best to take a rest and went back to the home stay for a nap.Our driver seemed to be hurt that we preferred sleeping to seeing the city he lived in, but willing to take us back all the same. A few hours later we were back up again, this time to get some eats and then to go to the baby taj. The baby taj was beautiful and it was especially nice because we got there right at closing time so not many people were there. However, there was a man handing out "shoe baggies" to wear over your shoes as you walked around the building. We gave him 10 rupees and he scoffed. I hate when people do nothing and expect something.
We snapped a few pictures and then were taken to a place to view the “big” Taj for sunset. It was then that we saw how many people could crowd around it. After we went back to the homestay for a great dinner and conversation with the house master and an early night to bed. The next day we were off at 6 in the morning, heading back for our last night in Delhi and our flight out. We didn’t do much in Delhi besides going to the National Museum, which was pretty good. We were really exhausted and decided to get to the airport early for our flight. We took the subway for as far as we could and then a rickshaw to a bus stand. At the subway station we ran into a German man who shared the rickshaw and bus with us. As we started to get off the free bus the ticket boy demanded 25 rupees each. When I said no he said, ok, 20 each. I still refused. The German guy paid and left and we did not pay and left a minute later. I hate it when people try to cheat you because they assume you won't confront them.

A few hours waiting and we were streaming back to Shanghai, glad to be going "home".

Monday, March 14, 2011


As the world now knows last week at 2:46 on Friday in Japan an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 struck off the coast of Miyagi ken. Though the earthquake was the strongest since records had begun being kept 140 years ago Japan was in better shape than ever to meet such an instance of the earth’s power. In the nations of the world Japan is likely the most quake prepared. From birth Japanese people enter a land of quakes and are drilled and reminded often on what to do in case of a major quake. Building codes ensure that most structures are on the cutting edge of quake resistance technology. On top of that the Japanese people’s strict adherence to rules and deep community concern ensures that when disaster hits order, not chaos, ensues.
When the quake hit I was in Beijing on the subway returning to my hotel. I had taken a group of students to Beijing to participate in the Model United Nations there, BEIMUN. I received a text from my wife, who was in Shanghai, that Japan had been hit by a “big earthquake”. While I knew that it must be quite a powerful quake for my Japanese wife to refer to it as “big” I was not terribly concerned because of the afore mentioned reasons. Certainly things would be shaken up, but Japan was a nation fit to stand such shake ups. Naturally when I got back to my hotel room about 45 minutes later I switched on the TV to see if any of the networks were carrying the story.
They were, all 10 news channels had images of Japan across the screen and I was shocked to learn that the quake was indeed big. That shock soon turned to horror as images of reporters in studios turned to waves of sea, debris, houses, cars, and fire rolled across what was clearly Japanese countryside, eating everything in its path. No doubt people were in that wave and cars attempting to race away from the destruction could clearly be seen in the footage. They likely never got away. I soon learned that a tsunami had followed the quake and the eastern coast of Japan was being hit by a wave that in some places was 10 meters tall (30 feet!) and traveling around 500 mph. I called my wife, to learn that she could not contact her parents in Japan, and the next few hours were spent using whatever means I could to try to contact her parents. A few hours later I received word that she had contacted them and they were ok. Slowly other reports started to trickle in from friends that they too were ok, but as I watched the images on the television the rest of the night I realized that Japan would not be able to stand up from this blow anytime soon.
That’s part of the story that I have to tell and it is probably the one that most of you know about and can see in the news. As I sit here in Shanghai, in my comfortable apartment I don’t have any elaborate story about how this led me to some pearl of wisdom, or how I found something new and interesting, or how the world is a better place. Nor do I really have advice on what to do. I can’t really do anything. You can’t really do anything. We can sit here and feel bad and we can try to donate some money for relief, which is about it, but I can’t help feeling awful all the same.
However, I do have another part of the story to tell. Japan and specifically Fukushima ken is a second home for me. When I think of the happiest moments of my life many of them occurred there. When I moved to Japan 4 years ago I know that my mother was a bit worried about me and to be honest I was a bit worried myself. Traveling in a foreign country can be a bit nerve racking let alone moving to one, but I soon found that I was not only ok, I was coddled. Over a few years I came to really love where I was living.

While my mom worried and wondered I was secure in my community. I know also that when she visited me a few years later she was relieved to see that I was in a country that was safe and filled with friendly and polite people. In a recent email about Japan she said,

“The reporter (on TV) said she knew something was wrong when she heard screaming, because Japanese people are very polite and self controlled. It reminded me of the subways when I was there too. No pushing and shoving; even though tons of people and of course I had to hang on to your sleeve!”

So our cup runneth over; I married a Japanese girl, learned Japanese, and became engrained in “Japan”. I am forever connected. When I think about the disaster all I get are alternate images of matchstick houses and Japanese smiles. I see my in laws laughing and buildings on fire. I see a roomful of teachers and students bowing to each other in unison and then see a 30 foot wall of water. I see my home and then I see… my home, but I know that everything will be ok. Besides being very polite and friendly the Japanese are incredibly hard working and resilient. When I first heard the news that the quake happened I was sure Japan could weather the storm, looking at Japan now amid the rubble I am sure that Japan will recover and eventually thrive again.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Kathmandu in the Daylight

As we entered Kathmandu we hit the rush hour wall of traffic and it took a very long time for us to get to a point where we could be dropped off. When we finally did get off there was a swarm of taxi drivers waiting. We quickly got our bags and started walking south with no real idea of where we were, just that Thamel was south of where we were and that it must be somewhat close. Needless to say we had to ask about 5 different people to get where we were going, but we finally arrived at the Kathmandu Guest House. Ariel and Johnny had recommended the place so we thought we could give it a try. When we arrived we were quite impressed with the outside and lobby of the building. The front gate was large and guarded (though we walked right in) and outside the front door was a very nice café and bar. Inside there was marble and dark wood. It seemed promising. I asked about a room and was shown a list of options and prices, about 10 in all. I chose the cheapest room with a television and made sure that the room did indeed have a television as it had been a week or so since I watched and in China the TV shows are terrible so I like watching TV when I am abroad. Content with the knowledge that I would have a TV, and heater, we proceeded to our room. This was around 6pm. The room was nice enough; a bit disappointing for what we paid, but not so much that we were mad about it. I turned on the TV to make sure it worked and then we headed out for dinner.
About an hour later we returned, me with beer in hand, for a quiet evening watching news shows and movies on the television. Some of you may empathize with my disappointment when I realized that the power in Kathmandu had gone out, as it does every 6 hours or so, and neither the TV nor the heater was able to be turned on. I went to the front desk to inquire as to when the power would be back on. After consulting a schedule the desk man, the same who checked me in, told me 1am. Crestfallen I asked when I might expect it to go off again and he informed me sometime around 7am. I was upset that basically the only time the power would be on, and hence I could watch TV, would be when I and any normal person would be sleeping. When I explained that to him he was unmoved. I asked to then change rooms, since I had no use for a room with a TV and heater that would not function. He was unmoved. In fact he said, “You asked for a room with a television, it has a television.” Which didn’t work! He could have easily told me that when I checked in, but failed to do so. I felt cheated.

The next day we got up late, enjoyed a very warm shower and headed back to our original hotel, the Shangri-La, where we had stayed earlier. After staying at the Guest House we figure Shangri-La was reasonably priced for what we got. We checked in and then headed over to Pilgrims Bookstore/café for breakfast. While there I noticed that the bar had a locally brewed traditional beer. I was looking forward to coming back that night to try it, but unfortunately it was out of stock. Afterwards we moved around to a few bookstores, lazed around at the hotel and then went to the Swayambhunath Temple (monkey temple). It has a magnificent stupa crowning the hill. There were quite a few monkeys and I must admit that the temples were beautiful. It was a very unique place despite the hordes of people that were there and the touts. Afterwards we thought we would use the fact that we were away from Thamel to go to Durbar Square. When we arrived we tried to walk into Durbar Square only to be stopped by a guard. He wanted 300 rupees each for us to enter. We decided it was too expensive. In retrospect maybe it wasn’t since that is about 4 US dollars each, but we were pretty sick of being jerked around and decided that rather than pay to go in we would go to the rooftop restaurant nearby and get a good view of the square while having lunch, no charge for entry. It was pretty nice. By this point we thought we were pretty far from Thamel. On the map it seemed awfully far so we flagged down a bicycle taxi to bring us back. As I was flagging down one guy a really scrawny looking guy cut in front of him and swooped over to us. We figured, why not and away we went. Turns out we grossly overpaid because it took our driver about 10 minutes to get back to Thamel and we easily could have walked, but there you have it. We felt so bad for our driver that we gave him an apple and a bag of chips along with our fee and then I took a picture of his feet. I wanted a keepsake of the scrawniest man who carried us in his rickshaw. By this time it was getting a bit late so we decided to have some dinner at a local Italian place and then pack it in for the night in order to enjoy the electricity that on until 9pm.

Our last full day in Kathmandu we woke late and went to find a laundry service. We were at the end of our fresh undies and I hadn’t washed my pants in about 10 days so I was ready to get those cleaned. Unfortunately I only had shorts and long underwear as an alternative so while our clothes were being laundered I wore those around town. After we had gotten our laundry we set off to the National Museum. Since yesterday’s rickshaw ride proved much shorter than we expected we took a glance at the map and decided the museum was close enough to walk to. After about 1 ½ hours we arrived at the museum.
It was interesting to say the least. The grounds and buildings were fairly well dilapidated. We entered the main building of historical items containing mounted animals, coins, panoramas, paintings, and memorabilia. Some items were quite interesting, but the general feeling of the museum was that Nepal did not have enough items to fill a museum and any thing was put in a display case to fill up the building. It was funny, but also sad and really I felt bad for the Nepalese people who certainly had an interesting and rich history, but could not afford to upkeep a museum of national quality. We visited a few more buildings on the grounds and then began our walk back. Eventually we flagged down a taxi and got back into Thamel around evening. We had dinner at a lovely little place that served Nepalese cuisine and went back early to pack and get ready for an early flight the next day.
We got up at the crack of dawn and took a taxi to the airport where we again waited for hours as our flight was delayed due to haze. After a security guard made sure I wasn’t able to stab anyone with my nail clippers by taking it away we were off into the blue skies and back to India. While I was disappointed to be leaving Nepal I was very excited to finally be seeing the Himalayas albeit from an airplane window.