Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Typical Day in Preixan

Wake up in a cozy log cabin at Sidsmums, meander into the kitchen, brew some coffee, eat some breakfast, remember what time it is, and most importantly, give George, our fearless protector, a scratch on the way out.

Realize we are late for the bus. Very late. Then run, run, run.

Past the beautiful house with the colored pots.

To the bus stop. Then wait. Wait. And wait some more.

Later, find something spectacular to look at, like a 13th century castle.

Then, while meandering through narrow ancient alleyways, notice something, anything, perhaps even a bottle of olive oil resting on a shelf, and remember... that lunch is required.

Stroll to the nearest market and get distracted by color. Lots of color.

Then pick up a baguette, some brie, some olives, and even, some anchovies... and walk. And walk. Until a place appears.

Like along the river. Cool down. Swim. Lie. Read. Chat.

Then, finally, as the sun sets, stroll back to Sidsmums, and share stories of the day with fellow travelers.

Friday, August 06, 2010

You Get Me Stamp Fical

I was lounging on a bench at Luxemburg Park here in sunny Paris watching the kids play. A rather twitchy South Asian looking fellow walks toward me and the following conversation ensues:

Twitchie fellow (TF): "I just got out of jail man, I just got out of jail."
Me: "Really. That must have been terrible."
TF: "No, no. Definitely it was not terrible. Most definitely not. It was very nice. Very very nice. These policemen of France are very pleasant people."
Me: "Uh, wow. I'm glad you enjoyed prison."
TF: "You know I just come from Sri Lanka. Look, look at me, just look!"

I look over and see his arms covered in what look like deep knife slash wounds.

Me: "What happened to your arms?"
TF: "I was the prisoner. The Sri Lankans... You know Sri Lanka, you know them? I was in prison for two years, two years, can you believe it, two years..."
Me: "Are you a Tamil?"
TF: "Yes."
Me: "Is it bad over there? Is the war really over?"
TF: "Yes, yes. Very bad. It is very very bad. Look at me, I was in prison for two years. Look what they did to me. Are you Sikh? You look Sikh? Do you speak the Sikh language?"
Me: "Yes. I speak Punjabi."
TF: "You know Sikhs, you Sikhs, you are very good peoples, you are very very good peoples. You'll help me. I know today is my lucky day. This is my most lucky day, my most lucky day. I have met you. You are very good person. You know I have been sleeping in this park for 5 days. 5 days, can you believe it? It is a nice park, I like France, they are nice people. These France police were very nice people. I need stamp fical. You know stamp fical, you know?"
Me: "No. I don't know what a stamp fical is. What is it?"
TF: "I came on a boat, you know I came on a boat just 10 days back. I came very long journey, very long, very very long. So much ocean. So much water. So much."
Me: "How did you get out of prison, did you escape?"

TF nervously looks over his shoulder, then he looks up at the sweeping tree canopy hovering over us, then back over his shoulder, than at me.

TF: "Yes I escaped. I escaped. I ran away. I found the boat. Today you have helped me so much. I am so happy today. Today is the very best day. My best day. You have made me very happy today. Very very happy. Come, lets go."
Me: "Where?"
TF: "You come with me, we get stamp fical. Come lets go, you'll help me. Lets hurry. Come."
Me: "But I don't understand. What is a stamp fical?"
TF: "Yes yes. I know what is stamp fical. I know what it is. Today is the best day. You are very good man."
Me: "I'm afraid I can't help you if you don't tell me what stamp fical is."
TF: "You are very good good man. I know what is stamp fical. We go now."

After going around in circles for some time on the stamp fical issue, I stand up and slowly start walking away.

Me: "Its been a pleasure meeting you. I have to go now. Good luck getting your stamp fical."

TF looks defeated, and walks away slowly, as I call out to my kids.

Addendum: So for those of you wondering what a stamp fical is, I don't really know, but I have a theory. After writing this post, I started searching around. I think TF perhaps meant to stay "stamp fiscal" or "fiscal stamp" which might refer to a fee for an EU asylum application.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

La Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires

I started making this video back in February when we were in Buenos Aires. I had basically given up on making videos for the web because its difficult to secure license rights for a decent soundtrack. But then, thanks to my friend Amanda, I found out about Moby's very cool policy of making some of his music available for budding filmmakers on I'm not really a budding filmmaker, more just a guy with a cheap video camera that wants to share stuff with the world who really really really requires a sharp soundtrack. In any event, I got approval from Moby to use his great song titled Papa in this short. All footage was shot in La Recoleta Cemetaria which is an amazing place chock full of glycerine embalmed Argentines and funky tombs galore. Needless to say: great imagery to sketch and paint from -- you might recognize some of our hands and work flashing by. So, crank up your headphones, expand to view on a full screen, and enjoy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Holy Bat Trees Batman

One of our regular past times here in Chandigarh is to sit on our veranda at night and watch bats fly over our house. There is a steady, graceful procession of very large bats ( each about the size of a healthy ground squirrel ) every night from around 8PM until 9PM. They always fly from the west over our coti to the east, with one bat departing every minute or so. So for the past few months we've wondered where they are coming from, where they are going, and why they always fly east, and when, if ever, they fly back. While all of our questions remain questions, we recently stopped by Pinjore Gardens on our way home, and found an even more odd piece of information. I always assumed bats lived in caves and other dark places. Take a look at the photo below though. There were far too many to count -- relaxing, hanging from nearly every branch in a large, very exposed tree. These, at least to my untrained eyes, look just like the bats flying over our house. Any bat-ologists out there that can shed some light?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Make Your Business Different

As I travel, I rarely find a small business which is market differentiated. Wherever I find one restaurant that offers: Indian, Chinese, Israeli, Tibetan, and German food, I'll find another ten or fifty with a sign out front, virtually identical to the last, that also offers Indian, Chinese, Tibetan and German food. On occasion, I do find folks in the middle of nowhere who do offer a differentiated service.

This Sardarji below sharpens knives using this rather clever eco-friendly home rigged device. He didn't seem to have much trouble finding business in Dharamsala.

This fine gentleman served us an amazing wood fired pizza in the remote nether reaches of South Africa. While wood fired pizza is hardly novel in traveler locales, in this particular town, it was the only offering. Also, he had a unique pay-what-you-want approach to the wine, and exceptional ambience using recycled cans cut into floral patterns for lamps.

The owner of a brewpub in eclectic Nieu Bethesda, South Africa, clearly differentiated his business. He was, to my knowledge, the only brewpub for hours and hours in any direction. I asked him how business was, and he said, "Great. Obviously we don't move hours out on a lonely dirt road to get rich, but we get by. People know about the brewpub, they get tired of wine tasting." We were in another town, over 5 hours away, in "the other" brewpub, which coincidentally, the owner of the brewpub below helped establish, when the owner told me how he was called "totally crazy" for opening a brew pub in what was obviously wine country.

This particular business might suffer from other problems, nonetheless, it is differentiated. I have to say, I've never before seen someone haul magic expansion moss out of the woods and plop it into pretty bottles before.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Trip to the Bazaar

First weave your way through winding narrow alleyways toward the nearest entrance.

Then chat with the official Nike spokesman to find the best place to purchase goods.

Next, visit this fortune telling robot to discover whether your trip will be a successful shopping venture.

Don't forget to select just the right spices for your tea.

Wave to the parking attendant on your way out.

And finally, hop on the bus and enjoy your ride home.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Anatomy of a Bribe

So last night we were with a friend driving to an Italian restaurant for dinner. She makes an illegal U-turn, and we get pulled over by the cops. Our friend says, "oh great, here we go. Watch and learn."

Cop: "License."
Friend: "Sorry Sahib. I wasn't paying attention."
Cop: "License."
Friend: "There were so many cars, Sahib, I got confused for a moment. It won't happen again."
Cop: "License."
Friend: "My brother, please let me go. I wont make the mistake again."
Cop: "Madam, please come outside and bring your license."
Friend: "Sahib, I don't have much time, can't we just be done now. Lets just finish the bill now."
Cop: "Madam, please come."

Our friend steps out of the car, walks over to a shack filled with cops. In this city, the cops set up a special booth on the side of a given roundabout. A cop stands outside and points at drivers, indicating they need to pull over. The "processing center" is where a few other cops formalize the tickets, or gather whiskey money, depending on the time of month.

Friend returns to the car a few minutes later. "Okay, just waiting for my change. All I had was a 500 note."

Cop taps on my window. I roll down the window.

Cop: "Sir, please remember to have your seat belt fastened at all times."
Me: "But I do have my seat belt on."

Cop, annoyed at my ignorance, with closed fist, reaches into the car and plops some notes onto the seat, then says, "yes, please remember safety at all times." He walks off.

We drive away. My friend starts laughing, "my change please. Gosh I wish I would have had a 100 note, would have saved me 100 rupees. I had to bargain down to 200 for a couple minutes. Its tough, you know, they see this huge car, and the rate quadruples."

I ask, "so what are the rates?"

Friend: "10 for a bike, 20 for a rickshaw, 50 for a scooter, 100 for a nice motorcycle or tiny car, 200 for a big car."

I say, "And what if you actually paid the ticket?"

Friend: "300. But I have to go across town to pay the ticket. Would have taken me an hour."

Me: "And why all the sneakiness?"

Friend: "Well they are really careful since a lot of journalists set up anti-corruption sting operations, with mobile phone videos and the like. Technically, with this entire transaction, we have no idea if we paid a bribe, or a reduced ticket on the spot. And also, whenever they are fund raising for the police department, there is nothing you can do, you have to pay the ticket. That's when their superior officers are present and watching."

Me: "And by your guess, what percentage of folks pay the bribe?"

Friend: "Maybe 1 in a hundred does not."

And on a final note, if you enjoyed this post, you should check out these recent NPR podcasts on corruption in India:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Norbulingka Institute Preserves Tibetan Culture

We spent a wonderful afternoon at the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala. It feels amazing to escape the hot, dusty, chaotic horn honking streets of India into the peaceful and incredibly colorful temple complex. We particularly enjoyed watching the Tibetan craftsmen making huge Buddha statues. On our next trip we will definitely have to stay a few nights in the guest house.

And a few words from the Dalai Lama on the Norbulinka Institute: "Buddhism changed the whole Tibetan way of life, giving rise to a more compassionate community, in which there is a more peaceful attitude towards ourselves, towards our fellow human beings, towards animals and towards the environment. In today's world there’s a lot of talk about peace and non-violence, but the real factor in creating genuine peace is compassion, not just education and technology. Where there is compassion, a sense of community, a sense of respect for others' rights is automatic. In order to promote compassion, it is not sufficient just to talk; it needs to be spread through example. I believe that our peaceful and compassionate Tibetan society is such an example; that’s why it is worth preserving, and I am pleased to see that in its work to keep Tibetan culture alive, the Norbulingka Institute is actively contributing to that task."

Don't miss the lovely doll museum. This blue one below is about 3 apples tall.

A lively exchange of ideas amongst a group of female monks.

A monk listens in to glean a few enlightening words from Princess Leia and her wise brother.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tossed to the Facebook Backshelf

Last night, at dinner here in a small village high above Dharamsala, with our new friends from Sweden and Austria, someone mentioned their grandparents just had their 60th anniversary. I said, "That's so wonderful, to enjoy such a long marriage. Unfortunately, perhaps the last generation to stay married. Since then, we've all learned to throw away our spoons, plates, and cameras, why not out marriages too." A bit cynical, unfortunately, and I'm not sure how the thought popped into my head, but I fear there is some truth to it.

100 years ago, even something as simple as a spoon was considered a permanent heirloom, to be washed, polished, reused, and ultimately handed down to a subsequent generation. Nowadays, not only do we presume plastic spoons are to be tossed, even our formalware might get a Martha Stewart inspired overhaul every few years, just to keep us current on the latest designs. With rapid advances in electronics, we know ahead of time our new iPhone 4 will be uncool, and fit for the tossing a mere couple few years after its purchase. Its a rare first generation Indian immigrants' child that can't remember vinyl runners winding down hallways, up stairs, sprawling over chairs, and wrapped around the sofa. That generation, born in an impoverished pre-partition agrarian India, cherished their goods, and made great efforts to preserve them well into the future. Not only did that generation cherish their goods, but also their social relationships.

I remember throughout my childhood, whenever my parents announced we were leaving for a vacation, to a place like California, we kids would get really excited; we presumed our time would be spent at Disneyland, or wandering the glammy streets of Beverly Hills. We'd be so annoyed to find the reality of us sitting in a dark house in a no name suburb for weeks in the relatively uncool (literally and figuratively) climes of Yuba City. Few of us in the modern generation can envision "sacrificing" our hard earned 2 weeks of vacation to visit second cousins in a non-descript locale, but this was normal for my parents, as these relationships were cherished in the old country, more generally, in pre-industrial society.

We of the modern world were raised early on to know that social connections, like spoons, were to be disposed of when the economic need had arisen. I recall being 8 years old, and extremely anxious about moving across the country, primarily because I was leaving my friend network behind. I of course thought I would return to visit, in the summers, or on holidays, but alas, that was never to be. They are friends whose names I can't recall enough to even locate them on Facebook. In the modern world, we know we have to pack up and move; we move for jobs, for college, for graduate school, for fun, for a change. Sometimes we return, but often we don't. I recall being 17 years old, 2000 miles away from home, and clinging to the phone, calling friends and family alike, in an attempt to keep these links real, alive, and relevant. Over time I learned that most folks loved the chats to keep up, some would even return calls, but a very rare few would actually initiate such communication. And then we face a great paradox of our time. Ancient eastern wisdom says, "be in the here and now, focus on the moment you are in, do not live in the past, or in the future, live now." And ultimately, when faced with this, the friends of where we are become more important than those of where we were. And indeed, like spoons, plates and cameras, even our friends, become disposable. I suppose there has been some improvement, for in recent years, we don't need to fully toss out friends, we can downgrade "real" friends to "just Facebook" friends.

I read somewhere that 100 years ago, the average person had 50 social contacts in their entire lives. This was because most existed in an agricultural economy, lived in a village, socialized primarily with fellow villagers, and only rarely ventured beyond the village. Now, its a truly uncool Facebook or Twitteroid that has a mere 50 "friends." We live in multiple cities, we vacation in multiple countries, we interact with humans we've never met, all of which means we have far more than 50 social contacts. Its significantly easier today to meet new people, and we do, so I suppose it is only inevitable that some we've met from before, disappear from our lives.

As we travel, on some level it makes me sad to know my kids have gotten used to entering a new place, playing for weeks with some local kids, and then leaving abruptly, never to see the kids again. My son, when he was 3, and we were spending time in Norway, became fond of our dear friend's nephews. He actually only spent perhaps 5 hours with them, but Nayan shrieked for over a week about wanting to see them again. I wonder if we aren't hardwired for longevity in social contacts, especially when we form an emotional bond, and if our modern world's new found fondness for "social disposability" isn't, well, unnatural.

Its become a ritual of ours, and most travelers nowadays, to exchange Facebook info, on departure. It makes saying goodbye easier, and it leaves future interaction possible. Facebook interaction is definitely lame while compared to real interaction, nonetheless, it does seem like a slight improvement over utterly disposable friends.

I'll leave you now with a slightly related, but nice little "Goodness, Gracious Me" clip.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Babas and Waterfalls in the Parvati Valley

The kids got out of school last week, and are off until the 15th of July, so we packed up, and ran for the hills. When we left Chandigarh, it was 46C and searing hot. 8 long and nauseous hours later, when we arrived outside Manikaran, it was a cool 25. Life is so much better when you can open the door, walk outside, and not immediately break out into a sweat. We spent a week outside Manikaran Sahib, and its nearest town called Kasol, in a fairly secluded cottage above a raging river in the spectacular Parvati Valley. Our hosts at Parvati Kuteer treated us well. We especially enjoyed the many local hikes we did in the valley. A short walk from our cabin is a mundir. I can't remember much about the history of the temple, other than this baba below from Rajasthan bought the place and told me he makes money off it now; also, the tree is 500 years old and marks the location of the original temple.

Nayan, my 8 year old son, and I were descending from a hike when Nayan said, "wow Papa, this place is just like hiking near Seattle." Right then the guy in the orange outfit below walked by asking me if I had seen his goat wander by. I said to Nayan, "just like hiking in the Cascades, except usually dread-locked sadhus don't wander by asking about their lost animals."

We spent much of our week in Kasol hiking and lounging near these pristine pools and waterfalls.

Guided hikes in India come with multiple gentlemen that carry your whiny kids. Its really great, as Ananya will certainly tell you.

Many of the areas we went to have little or no trails. Nayan is demonstrating the proper facial expressions to use when hacking through the jungle with a nice long machete.

One of the most beautiful waterfalls I've seen. Our guides hacked a trail through the jungle to get to this fall. The journey was a bit more adventurous then we normally take with the kids, but was well worth it.

A cool shot of a Ganeshji image outside the Babas place.

Father and daughter modeling fancy glasses.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Amazing Sikhya School

I've recently become quite interested in the non-profit sector's work in combating the crushing poverty here in India. My aunt suggested I check out an old friend of her's school. So my wife and I spent some time with the principal, my aunt's friend, and toured the school. Sikhya is a non-profit school providing a high quality education and nurturing environment exclusively to slum dwellers and other extremely poor children for free.

While the government offers an almost free education, the quality is significantly below that of the education offered at myriad private schools. Many of the government school's are grossly underfunded and mismanaged. There are an amazing number of stories about teachers that never show up to class, standardized test scores that are simply manufactured, or the answers are distributed to the kids by corrupt principals ahead of time so school incompetence cannot be effectively measured. I'll save chatting in more depth about the public schools, as, despite all of this, there has been some improvement the past few years in Punjab, in part due to private money from the west arriving most often in the form of NRI (Non-Resident Indians) money given directly to school projects.

Sikhya strives to match the standards of the elite private schools in the city. Sikhya also provides a nurturing and loving environment for these kids who come from extremely difficult backgrounds. All schoolwork is performed in school; this is because, according to the school teachers I chatted with, it is simply impractical for the kids to do work at home -- most do not have electricity in the slums and many are required to work long hours. Another challenge is abuse; many kids are abused at home, and tragically, there simply is not an effective social service system in India which can help. Despite all these difficulties, it is obvious from the photos below, that the kids are thriving.

The computer labs are quite extensive at Sikhya, complete with broadband Internet connectivity.

When Slumdog Millionaire came out, many friends of mine asked me if the slums are really like that in India. I said, well yeah, in fact, they're even worse. Its tough to convey just how stinking hot it is here on the big screen, not to mention, how stinking stinky it can be. I also hear from friends and family traveling or living here that everyone is corrupt, and there's not much anyone can do. This is patently false, Sikhya school was set up by one man who simply wanted to do some good.
There is no doubt corruption is rampant in India, but it is also true that everywhere you look there are examples of honest, caring locals striving to improve the situation.

We were so inspired with the Sikhya school that we started volunteering a few days a week. Our first assignment was to paint murals. The school is broken into 5 groups, one for each of the basic "elements," which according to eastern philosophy and religions, are the base materials from which the universe is made.

It costs 200 US$ to educate one child for one year at Sikhya. The school can arrange for you to sponsor a specific child, or children, and track their progress through school and life.

My favorite part of working on the murals was meeting the curious kids wandering about.

If you wish to donate to Sikhya school, please drop an email to: and mention you are friends of Deep and Ameen. Unfortunately they don't have PayPal set up, but you can either wire money to the school's bank or send some along with a relative visiting India.

Drop me a note if you are interested in setting up a letter writing exchange with students of a particular grade.

Drop me a note if you have any trouble donating or volunteering.

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