Workplace gods

The new temple under construction in the office park where I work is nearing completion…. Maybe having a holy place so nearby will bring good vibes?


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Best Public Service Announcement Ever

Like in the US, local TV in India has PSA announcements, too. This seat-belt campaign commercial is AWESOME on so many levels. It features Hijra (transgendered people, aka the Third Gender) dressed as flight attendants, giving drivers at a traffic light safety instructions in a manner similar to what is done on airplanes before take-off. LOVE IT. The commercial starts at the 0:54 mark, before that the you tube clip offers some context about the filming of the commercial. See:

It’s great to see the Hijra –who are often alienated by families and denied meaningful employment (their “touched by god”status notwithstanding) — featured with such dignity. Although not mentioned explicitly in the background info, many are reduced to begging –e,g., trading blessings for cash at traffic stops or from shop owners. Whilst their blessing are considered powerful (hence the reason for having them at weddings & births), their curses are also thought to be extraordinarily powerful. It’s often fear of their curse rather than desire for blessings that motivates people and business to offer them money. This further serves to alienate them from mainstream society.

Go seatbelt crew!


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At 7AM Sunday, there typically isn’t much happening in the city of Bangalore; even the infamous traffic is notably quiet. However, today my neighbourhood was permeated by the sounds of hammering or banging…. construction at this hour? No, some…um… Tree trimming at my neighbours, the old fashion way:


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Tips for Attending Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races

We had tons of questions about the Snake Boat races as we planned our trip and we never really got clear answers. Thus, this is my public service post in the hope of helping others. Note this is based solely on attending the 2014 races, but I hope it can answer for others the questions we had.

1. Get tickets in advance of arriving in-site race day, but know that they won’t go on sale until about 2 weeks before the event. We were never able to find a seating chart/map in advance of our arrival at the event, but the map in the photo above was posted on-site and it will give you a good idea of where the seats are. We worked with a friend of a friend’s brother-in-law, who happened to be a local travel agent, to secure tickets. (Typical way of getting things done in India — if you tell enough people what you need, someone will provide a hook up!) He delivered the tickets to our hotel for us. As we drove through Alleppey, there were several official-looking kiosks/shops selling tickets, too — they had large banners stating as much & seemed easy to find — so that appears to be a viable option if you don’t have local connections. We had gold seats and they were good for seeing the boats in the final stretch, but the judges pavilion blocked our view of finish line. Silver & Rose were more crowded & rowdy (lots of local fans in that crowd, many of whom jumped from the stands into the water and watched the races from there). It’s said that the organisers oversell the pavilions, so you need to get there early to secure your seat; that did not appear to be the case in gold, but silver & rose seemed packed.

2. Arrive early, it’s chaos and it’s very hard to get clear directions on how to reach the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions. We asked numerous people (event organisers, police, vendors, locals) in vain for directions. Note that the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions are only accessible by boat. I honestly still cannot explain the official way to get the boat that officially ferries you out (but keep reading for the work-around). Of course getting seats up front is great for photos, but note that as the afternoon wears on & the sun shifts, the first 2-3 rows in the outer pavilions are no longer shaded. Bring hats & sunscreen if you want front row seats!

3. There is a “public jetty” under a pedestrian bridge in-land from the race course along the small Vadai Canal that leads to the lake. The jetty is merely 3 steps leading to the water that make it easy to board/disembark, built into the foundation of the pedestrian bridge. It’s literally like a stair well to access a canoe, nothing more –don’t be expecting some grand dock or marina. Rumor is that perhaps one can catch the ferry to the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions from there; however, we never saw the “ferry” — a regular cabin-cruiser-like boat with a painted sign reading “Gold”– there. (We did see the ferry trolling around, but never saw it docking at mainland…)

4. Be comfortable — and wear suitable footwear –for walking from boat to boat if you plan to be in the outer Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions. There isn’t much room to dock, so to get on/off the pavilions (think of them as an island) you will likely need to walk thru 3 or so other boats. Your boat will pull up along side the ones already there and you’ll have to step from boat to boat. Reconsider flip-flops for something more secure. Do not even think of heels or fancy sandals.

5. Along the Vadai Canal that leads to the lake, you will see several of the traditional canoe-like boats (powered by combination of motor & pole) tied up rather haphazardly to saplings, stumps, power poles, etc. (Frankly I could not tell, but perhaps some of these are “jetties,” too.) If you arrive early enough and are willing to pay a small fee (₹50-100 per person –less than $2– was the going rate for tourist), those canoes will take you out to the pavilions. The pavilion ticket is supposed to include transport, but when you cannot find the darn official boat, you do what you have to do. Note that the pavilions are well guarded so you’ll likely have to wave your ticket at the police to convince them to let the canoe dock (or more accurately, to allow the canoe to saddle up along side the other boats docked). To get off the pavilions/island, you do the reverse.

Tourist awareness alert(I cannot call it a “scam” per se, as there is a service provided): the canoe operators will tell each tourist that the fee is ₹50-100 per person (you can negotiate) & try to insist that you pay them mid-stream, literally in the middle of the water. It’s pretty obvious that the locals aren’t being similarly charged. As a rule, I refuse to pay in full for any service until it’s completely rendered , so I negotiated my price and committed to paying it only upon arrival; this was not taken well by the capital, who was clearly disappointed but resigned. (As we were already underway, he didn’t have a great negotiating position — what was he going to do, push me overboard?) As we pulled up to shore, where the police were ubiquitous, I realised why the payment was requested mid-steam: it was away from police oversight. As I disembarked, I tried to make the agreed upon payment and the captain made a very loud & public refusal of my money — clearly a show for the policewoman within earshot. I negotiated in good faith and was happy for the service provided, so felt obliged (even if this was tourist only charge) to make payment. I made a loud comment that this was merely a tip, an early gift for Ganesha’s birthday later this month…. With that cover the captain smiled & accepted my payment. Some other tourist took advantage and jumped off without paying as agreed. {Really people? You’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience and you can’t throw a local fisherman a bone on the one day/year he can make a little bonus? Don’t go spending the $1.50 you saved all in one place, now…. Yes, I’m judging you, Bad Tourists. You give all us white people a bad reputation. }

6. The good news is that there are bathrooms at the outer pavilions… For men. Ladies who need to use the facilities cause great confusion. One alternative presented by younger police officer was that a lady could wait until all the men were done, then go in; however, that was promptly & emphatically overruled by a more senior police man who said the men’s rooms were wholly unsuitable for a lady. He escorted the female bathroom seeker across several boats to use the head in a nicer boat, waited for her to finish, then escorted her back to the pavilion. This was in the gold section, and I don’t know how it was handled elsewhere.

7. Bring ear plugs. There is a running dialogue –even before the races start– occasionally punctuated by a cappello songs (crowd favourites which trigger sing-alongs) broadcast via the sound system. This are very loud, headache-inducing loud. Especially since you’ve arrived early to reach your seat… The only time this unrelenting high volume chatter ceases is when the VVIPs are giving speeches, also at extraordinary loud volumes.

8. Later in the afternoon, the sun shifts and it’s hard to get photos pointed at the race course. However, if you go around to the back of the island (e.g., the side not facing the race course) you can get some nice photos of the snake boats with the whole lake behind them. You also get to see them bailing out –some boats take on lots of water– and other post race drama. Do check it out as there is lots of activity other than the races themselves.

9. Water and some food appears to be available at the pavilions. I saw people handing out water (free), but I never did find the source of the food. We brought a backpack with snacks, as did everyone around us. There is a strict no alcohol rule at the event –none on sale and a BYO prohibition, too.

10. Don’t expect your hotel to be helpful. We booked a well rated, highly reviewed hotel which was on the official Nehru Cup website and we trusted that they could advise us appropriately. After all, they are local, in the hospitality business and this is their biggest annual tourist event, by far. However, almost everything they told us about where/how to go when was inaccurate. Once we made peace with the fact that all their suggestions were bad, and decided to just make our own way, we had much more fun. That said, the hotel did provide us yummy snacks & fruit for the day.

It is a terrific event and I highly recommend it. You need to embrace your sense of adventure, be prepared for chaos and be willing to find your own way. Even with the “high end” gold tickets, no one is pampered (except perhaps those VVIPs!) — Nehru would approve 😉


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Good morning, Alleppey

A & I are in the backwater of Kerala for the Nehru Cup Snake Boat races. Our hotel faces the Race Course, far across Vembanadu Lake. We won’t get a good view of the boat race from our terrace (the viewing pavilions block our view & it’s rather far) but we secured grand stand tickets near the finish line. In the meantime, we can see lots of activity. This is our hotel:
IMG_3367.JPG This is the race course & pavilions across the lake (the red roof pavilion to the left of the multi-story hotel is where we will be this afternoon):

Our view this morning was a man in a local style canoe & fishing net casting about 30 feet from our terrace. It was a nice change of pace to greet the morning with a fisherman rather than bumper-to-bumper traffic! A got some great photos…




More posts from the race soon!


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India has this concept of a public strike or “bandh” that was, well, foreign to me. Unlike a factory or construction site strike in the US, which typically involves unions with a grievance and other unions that throw in their support and which is limited to the subject workplace, the whole community will strike in protest city-wide for a general notion or to raise awareness of a certain societal or political issue.

Businesses and malls often close proactively — in part due to concerns about employee safety/transportation, in part to protect the business in case things turn violent. Schools & government offices may or may not close for the same reason, but they seem to make last minute call about it which drives greater confusion (who knows if the public bus or metro will run, whether the courts or post office will be open). A peaceful protest is generally the goal, but mobs can turn unruly and violent. In the past, bandh observers have violently expressed their displeasure with business/commuters/others who did not honour the bandh; hence, caution is generally advised. People either engage in the bandh or hide from it– cancel business meetings, change travel plans (often because transport to/from the airport becomes challenging), etc.

Today in Bangalore, there is a bandh to protest rape. There have been a couple of recent rape cases that have gotten great media attention (one involving the gang rape of a 6-year old victim, a rape of a 7-year old victim and another where a 15-year old nun was raped). I’m not clear how a bandh will deter future rapists, but protecting women & children from sexual violence is something that can be improved (here & most places on Earth, as far as I can tell).

My office (in a private business park with security at the parameter & within each building) remained open; however, we have a work from home option so many people (including me) opted to do that. I took a walk around at lunchtime a noted significantly less traffic (notably fewer auto rickshaws) as well as closed shops & restaurants, but the metro is running and the Polo Lounge restaurant at the nearby posh hotel was open for lunch. Malls are closed until 6PM. More police are out patrolling. The media is reporting no incidents thus far (they seem disappointed).

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Carnatic Music Concert

My friend R & I attended a concert of Carnatic Music celebrating the monsoon season. This concert series is happening at various venues across India, featuring different maestros. The concert we attended was in Bangalore’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall — it’s the Lincoln Center of B’lore. The building is in the shape of a violin, with the main entrance under the scroll, and it was built as a tribute to the late violin maestro, T. Chowdiah. Our maestros for the monsoon performance were Abhishek Raghuram (vocalist) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (flutist).

Carnatic music is based on swara (single notes) that are relative to each other, rather than at specific frequencies. The swara are said to be rooted in natural sounds from birds & animals. Throughout a song there is a droning tone in the background, made with a tambura. The tambura’s strings are continuously plucked to maintain a consistent hum — it reminded me of the buzz of locus or cicada in the summertime. This is the backbone of all the songs, vocal or instrumental. The vocal performances start with a series of scale-like swara, then move into narrative lyrics sung in ragas (series of swara in a specific order, like the melody). The tambura and violin play accompaniment throughout vocal & instrumental performances. The drummer joins the performance only after the lead (vocalist/flutist) has warned up the audience.

I was told that the lyrics of one of the songs thanked Lord Krinshna for the rain, which made sense given the monsoon theme. I appreciated the new experience of listening to the vocal performance, but I confess that I enjoyed the performance of flutist more than the vocalist. I couldn’t shake my western sense that most of the vocal notes sounded a little flat. (For a less charitable bit of music criticism, a friend made this quip when I told her about my evening plans: “Enjoy the dying cat sounds!”)

Aside from the music, I noted some differences from performances in the US: artists perform seated on the floor of the stage; violins are played like upside cellos resting on the musician’s lap, not lifted shoulder high; house lights get dimmed slightly but never go dark; audience members come & go freely throughout the performance (not just between pieces or at intermission — which may explain why the house lights stay on throughout); and there is no overpriced bar in the lobby (just a very reasonable tea stand in the garden).

I enjoyed the evening and got two CDs by Hariprasad Chaurasia. (I know, so old school in the age of mp3 !) I liked the Chowdiah Memorial Hall as a venue –the acoustics seemed good and there isn’t really a bad seat in the house. I will look for more performances there. Plus, I had a lot of fun hanging with my friend R.

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Out of Order Elevator

By the time I got on this elevator to my 2nd floor hotel room in Pune, India, I’d been on airplanes 5 of the prior 6 days (not business class), in 4 cities in 3 countries and 3 time zones. Maybe I wasn’t at my sharpest.

But, seriously: who would think to put the button for the second floor THERE? I stared at that control panel for an embarrassingly long time before I found the 2nd floor button. I did have enough dignity to focus until I found it — because I knew what an idiot I would sound like if I had to ask for assistance.

“Excuse me, but I’ve seemed to have misplaced the second floor….Oh, just below the 8th floor penthouse? Well, of course! Silly me, I though it would be somewhere towards the bottom….”

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Nothing new under the sun

Of course, others before me have documented their time in India.
These “selfies” from 1966 (before the term was even coined) are totally groovy:

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Xmas in July

I’m back home in New York for a short visit. My god daughters (& their folks) drove down to spend the weekend & catch up. Previously, I’ve sent them goodies that I collected for them on my travels…but this is the first time I was with them when they got their gifts and I got to see their faces. And they couldn’t have been more gracious, creative, funny and adorable.

M, 5 years old, “but I’m quite tall for my age”, modeling ALL the scarves for her various traditional Indian outfits.


A, almost 2 years old & full of character, determining the best use for a purse: pope’s hat.




M, sporting a chikan (hand stitching) dress from Lucknow, but working various scraves to style her desired look.




A is rocking her Bangladeshi outfit, with the pope’s hat.


M in a blinged out bangle:


A’s new monkey toy:


M doing her reclining Buddha pose in her new dress, accessorized with Frozen sticker book. (Okay ‘rents, I feel your pain re: Frozen. I’ve seen the obsessive behavior first hand and after less than 48 hours with the girls have That Song seared into my brain.)


A with a new bag:




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