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On the Road

Note: I am typing this update from my mobile phone so please excuse typos/sentences that don’t make sense. Also in the three minutes that I’ve been using it, I’m not too ‘gung ho’ on the WordPress iPhone app (it’s terrible – they basically put the website, as it is, into the app store) so don’t expect any pictures. I’m terribly sorry about this. I know most of you were looking forward to seeing photos of me – I promise to remedy this in a week when I’m home.

Great, lets begin.

My last weekend in Mumbeezy was incredible (I do have one more weekend in Mumbai but that will consist entirely of eating food that I will miss and packing). Things we did – day trip to Nashik the wine capital of India, celebrate Katie’s 30th birthday with flare and finally see a play at the Prithvi in Juhu.

First Nashik, which is about a three to four hour drive northeast of Mumbai – ok so Nashik is pretty (but growing up in California spoils a person). It’s has the optimal climate for growing grapes in India. There are a few popular vineyards in Nashik, two of which we visited. Sula is the most well known of the two, and in recent years has built a resort on their property. They also apparently host a music festival. Honestly where isn’t there a music fest these days? For 250INR you are able to get a tasting of six wines + a lovely tour. First comes the tour which lasted about five minutes and couldn’t have been more pathetic in terms of content. We basically looked at some tanks and were given a high level summary of the wine making process. Most of the vineyard was off limits for ‘hygenic reasons.’ Well, when Indians feel like they are being taken for a ride, you can be sure they will ask for their money back. What followed the tour then was what I like to call ‘Sula vs. the people.’ Basically a yelling match between a group of men and two Sula employees. Actually it was mostly one-sided yelling about how the tour was a waste of time and not worth a single rupee. I ended up backing away as it looked and felt as crowded and commotional as the trading floor at the NYSE. I can’t be sure but I would bet ‘the people’ won. Once the animation subsided it was tasting time. The wines weren’t bad actually but most of the wines were sweeter than average to adjust for the Indian palette. With each wine that was presented came a new lesson on how to taste wine, swirl your glass, etc. usually accompanied with a silly Hindi drinking joke. Random, hilarious and all around good times in Nashik.

Katie’s birthday was a hoot! – it included delicious dinner, a cake fight and retro night at Shiros.

The play I saw the next night at the Prithvi was entitled “Hamlet the Clown Prince.” Hilarious. It was basically about a clown troupe that was putting on a production of Hamlet and including their commentary. I wouldn’t have thought it possible but they really made Hamlet funny. I was thoroughly entertained and the space was as cute and cozy as advertised. Not a bad seat in the house. OH and Kalki Koechlin (sp?) was in it (the friend who got married in the movie YJHD) so that was a fun bonus.

Now I’m in Nepal and have spent the last three days exploring the Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately because of monsoon it’s hard to get a clear view of the Himalayas but, also because of monsoon, the valleys are that much more green and lush. It’s idyllic. The temple and palace squares are really peaceful and the surroundings define beautiful.

I’m going to share a more detailed account of my Nepalese adventure when I have a keyboard and can add pictures. For now I’m off to Pokhara! Toodles.

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Do the (Kathman)DU

I have left a two week buffer at the end of my scheduled fellowship to travel. This has proven to be a tad difficult to properly plan for. In hindsight I should have planned a trip on my own, and invited others to join if they felt so inclined. Instead I focused more on finding a fun group of people who would want to travel in India, and then just figured I’d go with the flow. It seemed like the right strategy. India is seriously a fabulous country for travel – full of natural beauty, history and culture – that I really wasn’t too picky about where I went.

Initially it was easy (too easy) to find people to travel with. Many of the people that I’ve befriended in India are entrepreneurs or headed to business school (or both) thus there is some flexibility in schedules and a desire to travel. The initial plan was to do a two week trek in the Himalayan foothills in Uttarkhand starting with a drive from Rishikesh to Joshimath. The area is known for its stunning beauty (especially the Valley of Flowers which is especially striking during monsoon) and temples (these treks are frequented by many Hindu pilgrims). In a twist of fate, that exact region has been tragically affected by the monsoon rains and subsequent landslides. Below is a powerful photo (taken from a Reuters article) of the famous Lord Shiva statue in Rishikesh submerged in the flood waters:

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The casualty count, three weeks after the occurrence, is hovering around 15,000 and thousands more were stranded and moved to safer areas. Relief planning is still underway – sidenote: a good friend of mine will be helping with the relief and rebuilding effort in August once the rains subside (it turns out that a number of folks in the bschool/entrepreneur scene are working in social impact/development and are incredibly inspirational).

At this point however, our travel plans and group had fallen apart. Everyone has competing priorities, a different schedule, and we’ve all just met each other so no one is terribly accountable to one another. Ultimately I’ve opted to continue traveling in the Himalayan foothills, with my current roommate Katie, but in Nepal instead of India. Booked my tickets yesterday so it’s a real thing. Yay! Kathmandu Kitchen was my second favorite restaurant in Davis so this must be the right decision. I’m actually really excited about the way things ended up working out.

The past two weeks have otherwise been a bit of a whirlwind. Last week was actually my last week of work so I’ve had to cope with saying good-bye to a lot of people that I’m going to miss (I’m not great at this). I’ve also been checking a few last minute things off of my Mumbai to-do list; namely Jahangir Art Gallery and Cafe Madras (honestly Cafe Madras is on another level of deliciousness – BEST South Indian food in Mumbai). I’ll be turning in my laptop today (thus commences part 2 of my tech cleanse), and visiting with some family before heading to Nepal this weekend.

The adventure begins JULY 7th…

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Monsoon Mayhem

I got food poisoning last Tuesday. This was bound to happen at some point – especially during monsoon.

Quick photo of the monsoon rains from my balcony (not to be mistaken for fog or smog). As I had said – it rains so hard that you can’t see in front of you:

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Back to Tuesday – what was surprising was that I got ill from the food at Cafe Zoe – a super hipster (I’m talking, the interior has been almost entirely furnished from the funky antique pieces found at Chor Bazaar) restaurant/cafe/bar that caters to foreigners. Not to worry – I’m better.

Our Cafe Zoe excursion wasn’t a complete bust. Since Kishore is roomies with one of the restaurant’s owners, we were able to procure a package of plastic cups (of red Solo cup quality) that the restaurant uses for takeaway cold beverages. I previously mentioned how difficult it is to find a drinking-game-quality plastic cup in India so we were VERY excited about this acquisition – especially because we had been unsuccessful at convincing Starbucks to sell us their grande cups and were fresh out of options. (We were told that using Sbux cups for purposes other than serving their beverages would introduce some branding issues. As an act of charity, Sbux did scratch their logo off of a few cups before giving them to us. The Sbux cups also have “Starbucks” written on them, but no matter. Apparently only the logo needed to be scratched off?)

The second house party, hosted by Mumbai’s favorite expats (Katie, Kevin and I) took place this past Thursday and Beirut, among other games (Mafia included), was in full effect. There was also a crew of folks stationed on the balcony playing antakshari / having general sing-along time (not a joke). We plan to have one more party before I leave Mumbai. You’re all invited.

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Where History is on Display

– BRUAH! –

You guessed it – I did just return from a weekend in Punjab. Amritsar to be exact.

The best way to travel in and out of Amritsar is to fly to either Chandigarh or Delhi and take a train – it gives you the most flexibility in terms of timing and also allows you to explore one or more additional destinations. Since we didn’t know this (and we’re divas), Kevin, Katie and I figured out a way to fly directly to Amritsar – unfortunately this required a 5am, Saturday morning, departure from Mumbai. Friday night wasn’t exactly tame. I had a Wharton/HBS/LBS mixer to attend (you can just imagine b-school kids, PRE-b-school) + we had scored invites to the Willingdon Club’s monthly “party” (an old and exclusive sports club/gymkhana) so getting approx 30 minutes of sleep that night added a special element to our journey.

There are exactly five things to see/do in Amritsar: Wagah border ceremony, Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, Eat, Shop. Upon landing, we lazed around and did the latter two – ate and shopped. Punjab is famous for insanely delicious stuffed kulchas and parathas with extra ghee, lassis with extra malai, and chole with extra spice. I thought it best to have all three of those things in my first meal. This was a bad choice. I was so stuffed I basically couldn’t eat anything the rest of the trip. I didn’t get sick exactly, but the combination of lack of sleep and 7,000 calories in one meal did me in – my stomach seemed to be churning/digesting what I had eaten for the rest of the day. The lassi was overrated in my mind, but the breaddss (THE BREADS!!) were to die for!

Next on the docket was the Wagah border ceremony. Wagah is a town about 45 minutes outside of Amritsar that sits on the border of India and Pakistan (this town was split in half when the boundary demarcation line was drawn between the two countries). During the day, flags of both countries fly high at the border. Since 1960, every day, at the approach of sunset, a flag-lowering ceremony is conducted. The program was expected to start around 7:30pm so we thought we’d get there early to snag a great seat. At 5pm it was us and thousands of other people…

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Getting these people seated proved to be nightmarish. On the India side, there were three seating types that I could identify; Regular (free seating for Indian nationals), VIP (this requires purchasing a ticket in advance and provides slightly closer seating), and Foreigners (for some inexplicable reason the free foreigner seating is better than the regular seating and situated right next to the VIP section – yes, this did feel wrong). We immediately began looking for signs to figure out where we should be waiting. Nothing of the sort existed. We tried asking people where to go and received some unconvincing pointing and waving. Finally we resorted to searching for white people. Success – kind of. It turned out that this exercise was useless as there was a common security checkpoint before we could all be seated in our respective sections – what a bottleneck this was. After about an hour of standing around, gates are opened, and the entire crowd pours into the event grounds. We were expected to self divide into male and female lines. Of course there were zero signs requesting this so Katie, Kevin and I ended up in the boys line (there are five-ish other women as well). Gender separation occurs everywhere in this country (security lines at the airport, security lines to enter a hotel, seating in temples, and so on) so we should have predicted that we would have to split up at some point. A woman from the Border Security Force (BSF) started to hysterically yell at us in Hindi saying we needed to stand on the women’s side for check-in. There were only two BSF women that were processing a very long female check-in line (I use “line” very loosely here – in actuality we’re talking about a herd of people). Once on the other side we finally figure out where to go and take our seats but the process could have been 90% less stressful with some signage. Just offering some constructive feedback…

A guy in a white BSF jumpsuit was waving Indian flags around as we were entering. As far as I can tell, white-jumpsuit-guy (WJG) is supposed to rile up the crowd similar to at a sporting event (I was on the lookout for some Indian flag tube socks). He then invited Indians from the regular and VIP sections to come down onto the road and arranged them in a single file line. The first few folks take the flags form WJG and run up to the border laughing and waving the Indian flag before passing it off to the next patriot. This is literally the only time that I have seen a line of people work as expected in India. After the flag-running segment came a dance party segment. Oh I should mention that patriotic songs were playing this entire time. WJG invites only women to come to the road to dance. There may have been a few other fun such activities that allowed for audience participation before the Jawans (soldiers) came out. At this point it becomes a little unclear what exactly is happening at the border but from what I understand, the Jawans on both the Indian and Pakistani side aggressively march, one by one, towards the border. When the border gates open, the Jawans shake hands and proceed to, with exact precision, slightly lower the flags until both India’s and Pakistan’s flags are taken down and taken back to their respective home turfs. All the while there is a lot of cheering and chanting from the crowds – Pakistan: “Jive Jive Pakistan” and other things I couldn’t quite make out – India: “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram.”

Border

I can’t quite describe how I feel about this ceremony, mostly because I haven’t decided how to feel. On the one hand, as someone who is Indian (and also because there was a giant portrait of Mahatma staring at me), you can’t help but feel a swell of emotion and patriotism. This is my history. On the other hand, with WJG especially, it felt very staged, almost as if it was meant to be a tourist attraction more than an act of duty or symbolism. That said, the Indian nationals seemed to be full of pride and excitement. Maybe it’s OK to be both?

Most everything else happening in Amritsar is centered around the iconic Golden Temple – the holiest of Sikh Gurdwaras. The water surrounding the Golden Temple is known as the immortal nectar and is how Amritsar got its name – Amrit meaning nectar. More than 100,000 people visit this temple everyday making it a more popular destination than the Taj Mahal (learn a little something everyday). Leading up to the Golden Temple there is such a cluster of street stalls, motor rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, vendors, etc. It’s almost shocking to go from the commotion outside to the peace inside the fort walls. The building itself is magnificent. The fort walls surrounding the temple are also very ornate. Everything is made of marble, gold and precious stones. Inside the fort area a four person band was playing religious music in one corner. A prasad station was open. People were bathing, or at least dipping their feet, in the holy water. Some folks were eating and chatting. Others were sleeping (apparently pilgrims are allowed to stay for free at the temple). So much activity and yet the divinity and spirituality within was palpable.

Golden Temple

Our final stop in Amritsar (in addition to more eating, shopping, and a second visit to the Golden Temple) was to see Jallianwala Bagh – a massacre site, turned memorial, near the Golden Temple. In 1919, at this site, there was a gathering of townspeople who were peacefully protesting the passing of the Rowlatt Act which would allow the government to arrest, without trial, anyone they wanted (the law was created because the British were afraid there were native conspirators planning a revolt against the government). General Dyer and his men (80+ people) surrounded the site and began to shoot at the people, brutally killing over 1,500.

I had only learned of this massacre after researching Amritsar. Standing at that memorial was another moment on this trip that made me appreciate the horrors and struggles borne by those who came before me and helped me further appreciate how privileged my life is.

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Food Fight

When I started here over a month ago, our office canteen (cafeteria / kitchen) was being serviced by three different vendors: Group A makes the most variety: sandwiches, maggi noodles, some rotating Indian snack, other packaged snacks, chai, chass, lassi, etc. Group B takes care of the veg + non-veg thali options. Group C is all Frankies all day (why isn’t there a Tibbs Frankies food truck in the states? That would kill it).

The building we work in, Indiabulls Finance Center also owns a separate canteen on the ground floor of the towers named Hungrybulls (Clever name huh? Ok, well it makes me chuckle). While Hungrybulls offers more variety by way of international cuisine, we’re usually too lazy to go downstairs to that one. Also it gets crowded and people don’t wait in lines – one time I was standing in a checkout line at Hungrybulls, waiting patiently to order, when two different people stuck their money out in front of me and paid for their food first. A third person attempted to do this, at which point I snapped and said, “DO YOU NOT SEE ME STANDING HERE?” – Oh, Mumbai. Everyone has been hypnotized into believing that they’re in some permanent, all-important, rush.

This is now fine because in the last two weeks, new competition has been introduced on the 29th floor which is making lunch time evermore exciting. We have a Group D now doing Parsi and Guj meals and snacks and a Group E making sandwiches, rolls, burgers and momos. Group A in response to all the new options has opened a dosa and uttapam section as well.

As you can imagine, there are a few new people working in the canteen that I haven’t yet met. SO my story (sorry for the superfluous intro). Today, I was ordering from Group E using my elementary level Hindi, and the new guy responds to me, “Madam, your accent is sounding funny. You’ve been talking to too many foreign clients.”

BOOM! It was the first time that someone hasn’t, VERY quickly, figured out that I’m American. This is mostly exciting because it makes me feel like maybe, MAYBE, my Hindi is getting better.

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Mumbai Socialites

About five of my coworkers, including my roommate Kevin, have started swimming in the mornings at a public pool in Dadar. I’ve purchased a swimming cap (bright pink) and a tasteful swimsuit (the pool scene is rather conservative here so I was told to get a swimsuit with a skirt – it looks like a tennis dress). Now I just need to work on actually waking up to swim (Ceci, I have no idea how you did this everyday for four years).

Kevin has been chummin’ it up in the locker room with some of the older Indian men, one of whom invited Kevin to coffee last week and proceeded to share some rather personal details about his life. Katie and I have been teasing Kevin about this as the encounter seemed a little odd and almost flirtatious but now he and Sanjay are homies. Well, yesterday they see each other again at the pool and Sanjay invites Kevin to a Russian party at the Trident on Nariman Point.

Kevin: “Sounds interesting. Can I bring my roommates?”
Sanjay: [Jokingly] “Only if they’re girls”
Kevin: “Actually they are…”
Sanjay: “Great. Wear a suit.

This is how we got roped into attending a “Russian party” last night. Leading up to the event we tried to use our collective Googling prowess to figure out what exactly this event was – but to no avail. All we knew was that this thing was happening in one of the swankiest hotels in Mumbai, so the food would be delightful (and we would be safe).

Upon arrival we were ushered to a private ballroom where Sanjay was waiting for us. He escorted us inside and to the bar with zero hassle. No check-in, no nothing. Hundreds of people were mingling, passed hors d’oeuvres were going around the room and dancers/singers in traditional Russian garb were performing.

Some signage and flyers helped us figure out what we were celebrating. Two things: 1. in 1613, the Romanov family came into power in Russia so this year marks the 400th anniversary of the ascension of the Romanov dynasty. 2. June 12 is Russia Day (sort of an independence day for Russia following the collapse of USSR – June 12th, 1990 is the day when a declaration was signed to move towards democratic reforms). The Russian Consulate was hosting a party to acknowledge these two occasions but also celebrate the successful relationship between Russia and India.

With a glass of wine in hand Katie and I begin mingling. Kevin had already been approached by a number of businessmen, all of whom shared their business cards (some of these people have packed so much information onto their business cards that they actually fold). It becomes clear that the women in the room, Katie and I included, are looked at as arm candy – fine by us. We’re enjoying the food and the people-watching.

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I have brought with me to India one nice-ish dress (yellow, structured, pleats, work-cum-cocktail dress) but it was definitely not nice enough for this party. We didn’t look out of place exactly but I felt under-dressed next to these women in floor length gowns and heavy anarkali suits.

About twenty minutes into the party the paneer tikka plate passes us, and a man, maybe in his forties, standing nearby motions toward me and says “Ladies first.” Aditya turned out to be a very jovial, life-of-the-party, type and after a few jokes about party etiquette he hands each of us his business card. The card tells us that he owns a cotton company. Neither of us had a business card to offer to him which prompted a new set of rules on party etiquette.

“Ladies, the first rule of parties is to never come to an event without 100 business cards. The second rule is you must hand out all of the business cards you’ve brought before you leave. And the most important rule is to take 100 business cards back with you.”

Approx 237 business cards of my initial 250 have been sitting in some box somewhere for the last six years. Should have brought them to Mumbai. I guess no one uses Bump here.

Aditya took us under his wing for the night, introducing us to business leaders and government officials. We chatted with the Australian Counsel General and a movie producer. We met with a chemical business tycoon and his wife who we were told we could expect to see on Page 3 the next day. Aditya seemed to know most everyone that walked by. I had asked if he attends a lot of similar events. The answer was “yes.” Apparently there were three events on his calendar for that night alone. He said he could have our calendars filled with parties for the rest of our time in Mumbai if we wanted – including invitations to the Star Channel Film Awards that are being held this Saturday. We begrudgingly had to decline that invitation since we’re traveling to North India this weekend. The American in me is pretty skeptical about that being a real thing we could have gone to though. It seemed a little too easy. BUT when Kevin asked Aditya if he has met any Bollywood celebrities, Aditya said – “What to meet? I’ve met so many times! Now there’s nothing to meet.” – He then showed us photos of him and the Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani stars at the GQ “Best Dressed” party last week. So I guess this guy is legit?

At some point a formal dinner buffet was set out that was absolutely delectable. The kothu paratha made with paneer and the chocolate mud cake were two notable items. Nom! We stayed for a few hours and continued to rub shoulders with the upper echelon of Bombay society. I’d say our spontaneous night out was quite a success.

Happy Russia Day!

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Technically Speaking

I’ve read at least five different articles in the last six months about how technology is making us lonely. The latest is a short op-ed that was adapted from a commencement address given at Middlebury College this year. While it offers zero new information on the topic the piece encourages you to be more aware, attentive and empathetic toward the people around you. It’s a very quick and quotable read – “We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich.”

The piece made me reflect on the communication styles that I’ve encountered in India – mostly email, text messages, WhatsApp and Facebook messages (Caveat: I’m living in a bit of a bubble in that the people that I hang out with all have some form of smart phone(s) and regular internet access which isn’t representative of the population at large.)

I very quickly noticed that the shorthand used by everyone here (males and females alike), in all of the above listed forms of written communication, looks as if it belongs to a teenage girl. An example text message sent to me from my thirty-five year old cousin.

“Hw r thgs wid u. M free on fri n sat. Let’s c v cn catch up. Do call to mk a plan.”

It took me at least a full minute to decode that. The abbreviations, misspellings and disregard for vowels are most likely a function of two things: 1. Because it was most economical, SMS was/is the primary way of communicating with one another (part of the reason India was one of Blackberry’s largest markets was due to BBM), 2. The initial phones that were used when SMS took off didn’t have QWERTY keyboards or autocorrect. And thus, however annoying it may be to read, a new texting language was born.

The NYT article poses the question of what to do when you see a person clearly in distress. Do you bury your face in your phone and walk away or do you stop and try to comfort and help? The answer to that question is much more nuanced in Mumbai given the areas of poverty embedded in every nice community. The point however is well taken and to that end I feel that people in this country with devices, who have the resources to be constantly connected, have done so in ways that keep them just as close if not closer families, friends and even acquaintances. I’ve written previously about the familial culture and giving nature in India. It’s those culture values that drive “how not to be alone.” Of what I’ve experienced in this country so far, Mumbai has struck that right balance between online and offline.