31 July 2012


The news from India this week (Monday and Tuesday, July 30 and 31) suggests, demands even, a comment about electrical power.

One week after our return home, what we experienced in Varanasi as a seemingly random and local expectation that each day (several times a day) we would lose electrical power, is shown to be truly a minor inconvenience. This week the whole northern part of the country has twice gone without power, affecting more people than the entire populations of the US and Canada.

Read about it here or see it here.

Our own experience made us American suburbanites annoyed, then resigned, and finally amused. Our guest house kept a generator in the street outside the entry gate, and our host was quick to fire it up as needed. It was often needed. Brad and I began to predict when we would lose power, as a building behind ours, across the little Assi River, also had a generator, and we realized that within 10 minutes of hearing that one, we would lose electricity. Then our generator would go on.

When the grid power went out, our guest house rooms were variously affected. Not all the rooms were equally served by the generator. In our room (2 adult males), only a single light fixture was active. No fan, no bathroom light, no A/C. However, some of the rooms would get A/C with the generator. None of this mattered at all during the days, when we were out and about in Varanasi. It was at night, in the warm, humid, windless nights, that we "suffered."

Complicating the comfort factor were our glassless, shuttered windows. Hard to keep the shutters open, with the building behind challenging our American sense of privacy. Not to mention, bugs? Without a fan and without A/C, that room got a little thick. But we had come expecting to sleep in the heat, so all in all it proved bearable. And, as I say, once we accepted temporary power outages as a fact of life, we could roll with it.

But now this news from India has a human face to it. The areas affected include the 2 cities we were in. Delhi's fabulous Metro (it really is a fine, fine system) shut down. And all over the region, generators small (homes and small businesses) and large (office buildings, hospitals) are firing up to make life happen for hundreds of millions of people, at the height of summer heat and at the start of monsoon season.

Nothing like travel to make one aware of the human impact of global news.

30 July 2012


OK, so from the outset let me make clear that a 2-week visit in India qualifies me in no way to speak knowledgably about India. These posts represent my experience and are a way of processing that experience. If (when) my comments seem to suggest that I actually know anything about India, take them with a grain of salt.

Like, traffic, for instance.

One of our expat friends there told me that he had a college prof who had lived in India, and wrote a paper contrasting driving in the U.S. and in India. Here, driving is rules-based; in India, relationship-based. That seems to explain a lot, and gave me some perspective on the madness and even the din of the streets we experienced.

Picture: our 2nd day in Delhi, we piled into taxis and headed to the airport, to fly to Varanasi. On the street, in the vicinity of the major railway hub, New Delhi Station, in one short stretch of road there were: bicycles, motorcycles, taxis, auto rickshaws, cargo vehicles of at least 2 sizes, and . . . wait for it . . . 2 ox carts.

But I get ahead of myself. The drive in from the airport to our hotel introduced us to the whir, the din, the adventure of traffic in India. 2 lanes in one direction? Well, yes, there was in fact a center line dividing the lanes. For any readers familiar with Chicago, picture Lake Shore Drive - not with the lake, but for the narrow shoulders, the press of traffic, and as a divided 4-lane highway. Now, place yourself in the northbound traffic. Take away the traffic lights. Add bicycles (after dark) and auto-rickshaws, small and large cargo vehicles. Ignore the line dividing the 2 north-bound lanes - you may as well, everyone else is! - and assume that the larger vehicles have right of way over smaller vehicles. Honk if you're driving, and pay attention to the honking of everyone else who is driving. [More on this below.]

Often when my Karen and I are driving, she will say, "I don't think this would be a very safe road on a bicycle." And I will usually reply - "no, I think you're right. I would never ride my bike on this road." (Sometimes, I am being completely honest.) Karen - I have to tell you, I really would not ride my bike on these roads, at any time, day or night.

It was a stunning introduction to urban traffic, and personally I rather enjoyed it. But that's because I was a passenger and am a bit of a thrill seeker. It probably would have been even more fun if I had been there without responsibility for others.

Now, our ride from Varanasi International into the city of Varanasi, that was a bit of a different story. It was fast, furious, noisy, packed (we had one taxi too few for the team, so we were pretty cramped) and sort of scary. Delhi is not a western city, and Varanasi is no Delhi. This is a theme I'll explore in successive posts, I'm sure. As regards the drive, what that meant was that our furious taxis (not angry, mind you, but as in the musical term furioso) moved from the open semi-rural highway exiting the airport, into crowded streets of shops, along the ghats that characterize the heart of the city, up into narrow winding alleys, and finally had to stop about 300 metres from our guest house. How they got that far is still unclear to me; and when we left 9 days later that was where we had to drag our luggage to on our way out.

We eschewed the auto-rickshaws [autos] in Delhi, but they were necessarily the primary means of vehicular transport in Varanasi. If we weren't afoot, we were in the autos. Up to 5 people in each, we always had to have 3 vehicles to accommodate our team of 14. In each, an adult male, and a Hindi/English speaker. (Two of our team qualified as both, so that helped. And we had 2 female Hindi speakers to pair up with the 2 non-Hindi speaking adult males.) It was here in Varanasi, then, that we had opportunity to see Indian traffic up close, and begin to make sense out of it.

In Chicago, honking means, generally: "Hey stupid, you're in my way and I'm angry at you." In India, it means everything but that. Oh, I'm sure the drivers get angry and impatient. We saw a bit of that. But that elicits more of a personal confrontation, more verbal. (And, unlike me in my metal box, it is more personal; because most traffic is more exposed and people can actually hear each other.) But all that honking means something: I'm passing you; I'm waiting; look out; follow me; go around me. In this sense, it is an effective form of communication.

The traffic is some complicated. But there are means of sorting out the complexity. Right of way is determined by size of vehicle. Whether from in front or behind, you (very practically) give way to the larger vehicle. So, a bicyclist gives way to a motorcycle, who gives way to an auto, who gives way to a car, etc. But how can you tell what is what in the chaos? Each type of vehicle has its unique type of "horn" - from the ching of a solo bicycle, to the ching-a-ling of the bicycle rickshaw; and the autos have a different horn from motorcycles. Car horns are different from cargo vehicles. And pretty much, each category of vehicle has a consistent "voice."

Of course, people are people, wherever you go. And we heard about motorcyclists, for example, who changed up their horn to sound like a truck. Why? So that when someone hears behind them, they will give way. Imagine their annoyance to find they've been snookered by the wrong horn!

Lanes: well, forget about lanes. I was on some rides where the driver never left straddling the center line. And I do mean, the line "separating" opposing directions of traffic. A 2-lane, 2-way street commonly has up to 5 moving lanes of traffic. This is possible because of the various sizes of vehicles (bikes to buses) and their relative nimbleness (bikes, again). I saw cyclists headed in the opposite direction from my auto, get moved all the way across both directions of traffic, to end up continuing in their same direction, but now on the outside of the lane supposedly designated for my direction.

The problem isn't that their driving is different from ours. The problem would be if I tried to drive in their traffic. Or, when someone from another driving culture drives in ours. (Yes, some urban taxi drivers in U.S. cities probably need to learn better our "rules based driving culture" before getting their license.)

Finally, though there is a great deal more that might be said - Sidewalks. There are some, but even counting those that are torn up or otherwise inaccessible, there really aren't many where we were. Not in Varanasi, not in Delhi. If at this point you are the parent of a young person who went on this trip . . . you may stop reading here. Otherwise, I will just say that if you need to walk from point A to point B, and there isn't a sidwalk, then you must - necessarily - walk in the street. Add that to the mix, and then stand in wonder that there aren't bodies along the road. But as already noted, traffic is relational, and my final observation is that drivers seemed to be aware of everything all the time.

And some of our expat workers, accustomed as they are to these cities, wondered why we adult leaders were a bit uptight as we got used to conditions on the ground. To be fair, we did get used to it. But I am pretty sure if the parents saw video, they wouldn't!

27 July 2012


A 14-hour non-stop flight is no small deal. I guess it's not the longest non-stop in this world, but it's plenty long. For our team, this leg was preceded on the way out by the trip from O'Hare to Newark International; it was followed a couple of days later by a 1-hour jump from Delhi to Varanasi. Our return followed in reverse order.

Except, our journey to India included a 7-hour layover in Newark.

Here are a couple of things to appreciate about the Newark airport:
1) from it, you can see the New York City skyline. That's impressive, and it's nice. With a different group, or a group with different purposes, or just on one's own, a 7-hour layover should be enough time for a quick trip into NYC. Me? I'd totally do that.But seeing the skyline at least is a nice feature of hanging out.
2) say what you will about New Jersey. All I know is that at O'Hare, the people-moving carts move fast and annoyingly beep at pedestrians. At Newark, the cart drivers don't drive as fast, and actually say "beep beep." Sorry, Chicago, on this count at least, you lose.

Dr. Laurel quickly saw that we'd have to do something to keep students busy for a long layover, and the 3 adults put together a camera scavenger hunt, divided them into 2 teams, then relaxed while they set out to explore and photograph. Of course, this didn't take the 90 minutes we gave them, but it did establish that this long wait could be fun. Most of the rest of the time was filled with card-playing and napping.

The New Delhi International Airport (Indira Gandhi) surprised me by being essentially deserted when we deplaned. Where were all the people? Why was it so easy to get through this place in a city purportetdly so crowded with people? Oh, right - there they are, just outside. And so from a quiet, clean, spacious world-class airport, we walked into the heat, humidity, press and smell of India.

And dogs. Just, dogs, at the International Airport. Not on leashes, just hanging around. (Was that dog sleeping, as we entered the parking garage where the taxis picked us up . . . or dead? We are not agreed on that. Some say he was only mostly dead. Others, stunned or pining for the fjords.)

Two days later we went back through Delhi International, in the domestic terminal, and again were struck with how bright and fresh it is. Nice public art. Good services. Dark chocolates and Hersheys hugs all around: we were on to stage 2, the main destination of our trip.

Arriving in Varanasi was like walking into an abandoned movie set airport terminal. It was clean, bare of any amenities or services, and absolutely empty of people. A little eerie, actually. But quick to move through. The trip into Varanasi is a whole other post. 9 days later we were back in this aiport and found that it was as good and busy as any regional airport anywhere. (It is, in fact, an international airport; though hardly world class, as this photo may testify.)

On our way home, we arrived back at Delhi International and were met by service personnel (airport or airline? I'm not sure) who ushered our group through all the lines and processes we had to get through. From the front door, through check in and customs, to the security lanes - someone made sure we were taken care of and knew what to do next. [In another post I'll comment more about the service in India; it is surprising, welcome, and plentiful.] Thanking our "usher," we assured her we would not be treated so well back in the States!

Newark on the journey home required a shorter stay, and at 4:30 in the morning, showed a seamier side as well. But there is this going for it: from Customs through Security, personnel were unfailingly polite and some actually cheerful. A public note to the Chicago TSA: I've always been offended by your attitude at both airports, and have to say, "Jersey does it better." Granted, O'Hare, your public washrooms are cleaner, and your halls shinier. But give me a smile over those fixable details, any day.

Still, home sweet home and all that. There is nothing like returning to the local airport after a trip like this. Be it ever so humble. "Beep beep" and all.

26 July 2012


Nothing I have done, no where I have been, has been more adventurous than going to India.

I've just returned from a 2-week trip with some high school students from Wheaton. We visited 3 American workers in India, each living in different cities, but who came together to welcome us and give us this introduction to an amazing country and culture.

James was our primary host. He works in Varanasi, hosting a website that connects western tourists with city businesses. He showed us around the city, introduced us to businesses and people and the customs/religion. He arranged for us to meet with a language and culture teacher. Through him we had the chance to do some teaching at a local school. James's friend Rahul was our guide, go-to guy, and often our rescuer.

Philip was our Delhi host. He helps westerners learn Hindi and navigate the culture. He has "gone native" in the best possible sense of that term, and when we were with him people assumed we had a local guide and friend. Philip took some of us to old Delhi, and there I bought the only souvenir I wanted of this trip: a drum.

Through James and Philip we met actual, real Indians whose lives are closely entwined with theirs. They both have excellent fluency in Hindi, which was a constant source of confidence for us, and always seemed to surprise Indians who did not already know them.

Jane works in Jaipur, helping women gain financial security through development and sales of local crafts. She traveled to Delhi to meet us, and spent most of our Varanasi days with us. She is the most recent arrival to India, of our three hosts. Her Hindi is very good, which was obvious by the conversations she engaged in on our behalf or just with curious Indians. Imagine their surprise to find a tall, white, blonde woman speaking not words and phrases, but actual conversational Hindi. It was fun to see the delight when local people figured that out.

Our trip was a total of 15 days, 13 in country and 2 in transit. It's a long flight to Delhi, and if you go don't let yourself try to do it too quickly. It took us 3 days just to get used to the vast, strange, wonderful differences between our countries and cultures.

This languished blog is usually about sport and family travel. A truly "Awesome Adventure" inspires my return to it now. I'll try to process this trip here. Stay tuned!