Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stuff Indian People Like #4: Inopportune Phone Calls

Back home in the U.S., it's a party foul if your phone rings in a movie theater, during a meeting, a speech, or other gatherings of people who are listening or watching something. You get a lot of annoyed looks and over-zealous shushing. But in India, phones routinely go off in all of these situations with no social repercussions. It's not that interruptions are accepted; it's more that in India the concept of an interruption doesn't really exist.

But the kicker is that not only do the phones go off, but people take the call! In movie theaters it is all right to pick up your phone and have a conversation right there. Or if you are attending a presentation and your phone goes off while the presenter is talking, by all means you can go ahead and take the call, and no one in the audience around you will blink an eye. Even when you are having an intimate or official discussion in a small group or just with another person, people do not hesitate to shove you into the back seat by taking a call. It doesn't even have to be important.

I have seen some pretty ridiculous disruptive phone calls in my day, but I was slayed by the woman in the picture above. She wasn't in the audience for the panel, she was a panelist herself!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Street Medicine

This week I got my first, first-hand taste of the Indian medical system. I'll start with the story of how I came to require medical treatment.

I was at the bus stop near my office waiting to catch a bus home. I was on the phone conducting some business for work when the bus came. The next few moments are harder to piece together. I remember climbing onto the first step of the bus entrance, with one hand gripping the rail and the other still holding my phone. Then a guy comes flying in from behind and crams into the entrance before I had fully gotten in. And of course the bus has already started moving because "bus stop" is a very loosely interpreted concept in India.

Anyway the guy somehow wedges in such a way that I lose my grip of the rail and go tumbling out of the bus and crash onto the dusty pavement. My right chapal goes flying off. Without much hesitation I pick myself up, get my chapal, and walk back to the bus, which had stopped a little ways ahead. I get on and between trying to gather my bearings, dust myself off (I was covered), and trying to ask the guy what the hell he was thinking, I didn't notice a bloody, dirty clot of blood which had formed on my right elbow. I reached in my bag to find a napkin, but the best I had was a pair of boxer shorts I had packed in case I would be staying over at Ba's that night. After cleaning up the wound a little I notice that the there was a sizable indentation in my arm, a hole, like a big chunk of skin had been bitten off. At about that point it started to pain.

I went home and after Uncleji did some first aid he drove me to a local doctor. Dr. Oza, M.B.B.S.'s office was in a strip mall type location typical of small businesses in Indian metros . Next door were a vegetable stand, bakery, tailor, and a grocery store. Dr.Oza's place had a waiting area in front and then an office behind a glass wall. Dr. Oza led me to the back of the office where there was a shoebox of an examining room. The original idea was to get the wound cleaned and bandaged, and to get a tetanus shot. But after looking at the wound Doctor sahib declared that I needed stitches.

Thus began the series of events that lucidly illustrated to me what made medical care in India so different than in the States. Back home, everything is official, there are appointments, insurance cards, forms, charts with medical histories, more forms, thermometers that the nurse sticks in your ear, butcher paper over cushioned examining tables in private well-light examining rooms, and all the rest. Here there was a doctor in a small office with no staff. He had no stethoscope, not even a white lab coat. His equipment was all in an old-school hardshell suitcase which he popped open and worked straight out of. When he said I needed stitches, I was thrown off because there were so many steps that according to my sense of the world had been skipped. I was never asked my name; I filled out no form. I wasn't asked about medical insurance, or about my medical history. I was not called in from the waiting area by a nurse and my height and weight and blood pressure were not taken. It was all so raw, so street.

I paused and asked him how much the stitches were going to cost. He thought for a half second and then said Rs.150. I was mind-boggled. Three dollars! He told me that if I went to a hospital, it would be 3-4K, so I'd be getting a good deal with him. Ya think? I told doctor sahib to do his thing. He pulls out a thick black thread and some scissors and tells me to lay down and just stick out my arm in the air. He is not wearing gloves, and he administers no anesthesia (he didn't offer). He then proceeds to put two stitches into my wound. I was calm, though of course it hurt because he did not numb me. I didn't even know it was possible to get stitches without anesthesia. I look away for most of it with my handkerchief over my eyes, but get a glimpse of the dark gray metal hook-like apparatus he apparently used to make the holes. It reminded me of the torture implements in that part in Braveheart where that clergyman lifts a cloth and shows Wallace what he's about to use on him.

After the stitches Doctor sahib tells me to take down my trousers and administers a tetanus shot in the ass. We then sit at his desk where he writes out a prescription. Hand written on custom
stationary . He writes for 3 days supply of antibiotics, painkillers, and anti-acid to combat the side-effect of the antibiotics. I pay him Rs.250 cash for the stitches and shot. He gives me change from a wad of cash in his shirt pocket.

Uncleji drives me to another street-side strip mall where there is a chemist's shop to pick up my
drugs. The shop sells shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, and prescription medication. The guy at the counter takes my hand-written prescription and goes to a shelf in the back to fetch my drugs. He didn't question the authenticity of the paper. I didn't have to prove my name was the one on the paper, nor was I given any instructions on using the medication. It was like ordering a burger and fries at a Burger King counter. After telling me they didn't have any of the anti acid drug in stock, they said not to worry; I'd be fine without it. Needless to say these guys were not doctors nor pharmacists. I paid Rs.300 for my drugs. And that was that.

This was an eye-opening experience for me. The process was both smooth and disconcerting. It felt too easy, though I'm pretty sure I got everything I needed. Cost-wise, I had the cheapest medical experience an American can ever possibly hope to have (about 12 bucks all in). And coincidentally all this while a health care debate rages back home in which an important component is (or at least should be) the exponentially-rising cost of health care for ordinary folks. I just finished listening to a pair of radio programs that wonderfully break down the problem in vintage TAL-storytelling style. Are the rising costs due to doctors who are incentivized to use expensive procedures? Or patients who believe more treatment is always better and/or pressure doctors with malpractice threats? Or insurance companies that charge exorbitant premiums and then use rescission to not pay out? Or medical facilities that use dominance in local markets to exploit the emotions of patients and demand high fees and cost-shift private insurers? Whatever the root of the problem, I now know that in India there is a model that somehow results in cheap, accessible medical care: street medicine.

A few days before the bus incident I was walking near my place and a woman on a scooter stopped me to ask how to get to the Anandniketan school. Remarkably, I actually knew where it was. I proceeded to casually give her the directions and soon she was on her way. I walked off in my direction with head held high, smiling to myself. I had finally made it; I was officially a local in this foreign land. There was a visible spring in my step. But after falling out of a city bus and busting my elbow, there is no longer any spring. Rest assured I've humbly re-assumed my role as an outsider, confused foreigner in Ahmedabad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Flowery Glory: Awards

Editor's Note: Also see this post's trailer and a bonus photo album with commentary!

I’ve covered most of the stories from my trip in the previous posts, but to finish off the telling I will borrow a device from my favorite writer Bill Simmons and hand out some awards:

Nobel Laureate Barack Obama Award for "Biggest Surprise of the Trip"
To the difficulties of traveling to remote places in India. It took us over an hour and a half to travel the 1000 KM from Gujarat to Delhi. It took us another 2.5 days to travel the 100KM or so between Delhi and Joshimath where we started walking. But the traveling process itself was an adventure. Once you get out far enough from big cities, vehicles traveling to any destination become varied and unpredictable. Samir believed in a greedy algorithm: always take the first thing moving roughly in the direction you need to go. This meant that not staying too long in one place was more important than where exactly you will end up and how much closer it gets you to your eventual destination. Just keep moving. The strategy worked remarkably well. It also resulted in a patchwork of different vehicles and intermediate destinations. From Delhi, we took a luxury bus to Dehradun, then a public bus to Haridwar which took us to a fork in the road where we picked up a small charter bus to Rishikesh. The next day we took a bus to Srinagar, then the next morning a jeep to Chamoli, then another jeep to Joshimath.

Indian Broadband Connectivity Memorial Award for “Most Frustrating Aspect of the Trip”
To losing stuff while traveling. Call me a green traveler, but I lost an embarrassingly large number of things. It started off with my wristwatch (sorry Dad!) which inexplicably fell off my hand while I slept in the bus to Dehradun. I also lost sunglasses in a river, water bottles at restaurant tables, gloves at a clothing shop(re-found), and hand sanitizer bottles (lost, re-found, lost, bought new, lost). Of all of these I think losing the watch was the most impactful. It was near the beginning of the trip, and from there on Samir and I pretty much stopped keeping track of time. For someone as anal as me, this was uncomfortable at first, and I never got completely used to it. But it was a fun exercise. At one point Samir and I were in Ghangaria and we realized we needed to plan when to start making the descent back to civilization in order to make our flight from Delhi. We had no idea what day it was, or the date. When we finally found out the actual date, we discovered that our best guess was off by 2 days.

Honorable mention for this award goes to my backpack, borrowed from the uncle I’m staying with in Ahmedabad. The bag was old, and developed rips at both the shoulder straps while walking. It was a burden to mind as I walked each step, wondering whether this would be the step when a strap finally gives, and I’m screwed with 20lbs of stuff in the middle of nowhere with no way to carry it. Luckily there were mochis (cobblers) at some of the places we stopped at on the way to Ghangaria (last city before Valley of Flowers) to mend the bag. Had to get it mended two separate times.

Sex in the City Award for “Most Overrated Part of the Trip”
To Rishikesh, a popular destination for wanderer-types from around the world who come to India for trekking adventures. A beautiful city scenically on the banks of the holy Ganges (this part of the river is also quite clean), but the place was overrun by foreigners. There was a large contingent from Israel, where a lot of youth fresh out of military duty come from to unwind. So much so that some menus etc. were written in Hebrew. But there are foreigners from all over.

I found it disorienting and for some reason annoying. It felt like the environment was cheapened; the city seemed to have sold out from a meaningful, holy place and degraded to catering to foreigners and their peculiar desires. The place offered an ideally packaged experience for any foreigner making a “pilgrimage” to India to live a spiritual cliché, all the while enjoying the comforts of a European resort. The main roads were lined with a rotation of quaint restaurants with names like “Freedom Café” and “Namaste Café”, cybercafés, convenience stores selling Garnier Fructis shampoo and hand sanitizer, schools for yoga and massage, and stores selling knock-off North Face gear and books on tantra and Kama Sutra. I liked Samir’s remark that Rishikesh is “Spiritual Las Vegas”, where people come for debauchery in the guise of a spiritual experience.

John Muir Award for “Best Hike”
Definitely to The Valley of Flowers. Although it was off-season so the flowers weren’t in bloom, I loved this hike for its killer combination of beauty and isolation. I made the ~6km trek through the valley alone, as Samir hung back to sit and write in his journal. Because it was off-season, there weren’t a lot of people in the Valley, so I was literally by myself as I walked through. After being in the world’s densest urban areas for 3 months, this was a very welcomed change of pace. My favorite part was stopping to look around and feeling I had the whole beautiful place to myself.

Indian Toilets Memorial Award for “Most Underrated Aspect of the Trip”
To moleskin, which Samir kept in his first-aid pack for blisters. I never get blisters, but I developed two on my right foot possibly from the hiking shoes I had bought just before leaving for the trip. The moleskin really helped ease the pain. When you are walking for so long, even a small annoyance in your feet can develop into severe pain. I slowly observed how the sensations from my blisters came to dominate every step I took during the trip. The lesson, as always, is to take care of your feet.

Honorable mention to black tea, which was our drink of choice during the cold mornings in Ghangaria. I never drink tea, but I must admit that I was hooked on it while on the trip. Best way to warm up.

Jayeshbhai “Most Memorable Personality” Award
To Rajnish, the expeditioner, tour guide, botanist, bird watcher, and photographer I befriended in Ghangaria. I first encountered him on the trails, when he flew by me up from Govindghat. I took notice because I am a fast hiker myself and I’m rarely passed. Later on I met him in his little shop in Ghangaria and we got to talking. He showed me his amazing collection of photographs of all kinds of wild animals, birds, and flowers of the area. He’s led Discovery Channel expeditions in the area as a local expert. A real mountain man.

Honorable mention goes to two local women we met between Joshimath and Govindghat carrying huge bales of hay. They were stopped over resting on the side of the road as we walked by, and they offered Samir and I cucumbers. So nice! We gave them a Kit-Kat in return for their generosity. Or maybe they were hitting on us.

Steven Gerrard Award for “Best All-Around Aspect of the Trip”
To the natural landscape of the Himalayan foothills. Being cooped up in Ahmedabad, a hectic urban environment for the past 3 months, I was dying to get to some clean, open space. And this trip didn’t disappoint. I loved the cold air, just the feeling of being cold. I loved the sound and the feel of the rivers. My favorite hikes are those near rivers; in this trip it was great to get near their rush and violent power. I loved the severely steep mountains, which stood out to me as the biggest difference between the Himalayan landscape and Yosemite, which I have been going to since I was a little tike. I couldn’t remember craning my neck in Yosemite as much as I did here to see the top of a mountain. That’s the best way I can describe the difference, the pictures don’t really reflect it.

An innovation to the trekking experience in India is that the trails are lined with shacks where people sell water, soda, snacks, and even cook full meals. So you are hiking along on a rugged trail and then suddenly pull over to a table and chair where you can enjoy roti and daal (as I did). At first I was thrown off and against it because I am a nature purist and don’t like human alteration of natural places, but I eventually made some place in my heart for the mountain snack shacks. And of course if we brought this concept to California trails, Choks wouldn't need to worry about being out a Safeway deli sandwich with olive spread in the middle of nowhere again. But the main drawback of the shacks is the amount of garbage they create on the trails. It was appalling. How remote do I have to travel in India to escape from the eyesore of littered walkways? At one point I was walking and saw a girl in the act of throwing an empty chips bag. I walked up to her and in my broken Hindi told her to pick up the trash, and asked her to please not throw trash on the trails. Her boyfriend, standing next to her, went stiff with disbelief, managing to utter "Yeah, sure." I don't think they got it.

Chris McCandless “Most Valuable Trekker” Award
To Samir Patel, a hall-of-fame travel companion. Samir definitely knows what he’s doing on treks. It’s one of the things he takes real seriously. He is super prepared with all the best equipment which he very generously shared with me. He has gotten packing the essentials down to an art (family members will not be surprised to know he doesn’t emphasize packing a lot of underwear). He also has a great sense of balancing what you need to plan ahead and what you don’t. He left just enough open-ended to make the trip both smooth and adventurous. We had good communication, marked by our unspoken commitment to not over-communicate. On the trails or when planning we talked when we needed to, and kept silent when we didn’t. Of course during meals we stayed silent. We were busy. The one exception was to discuss The Black Swan, which we were both reading simultaneously. Pretty soon we were seeing black swans everywhere.

It was great spending time with Samir to catch up in a real deep way. There’s no bonding like mountain bonding. Thanks for everything Sam.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Almost Famous

The closest I've ever gotten to feeling like a celebrity is during the times I've gone into or out of the international terminal of a small Indian Airport. Like the one in Ahmedabad. For airports like it, there is often just one or two flights pending departure or arrival at a time. On top of that people here make the arrival or departure of a loved one to/from America or Australia or Europe an extended family event. There are balloons and flowers. People even come early with food and have picnics in the grassy areas outside the terminal as they wait.

My mom flew in from California earlier this week and me, Shiven, and Masi et. al. (who were coming as a surprise to mom) went to pick her up. Flight arrived at 11pm at night, and it was the only flight arriving. But you wouldn't have guessed it by the crowd, which was swarming around the terminal exit. Like our contingent, there was a posse of people to greet every passenger. The crowd excitedly gathered around the terminal's single exit door, anxiously waiting for their special guy or gal to appear from amongst the gauntlet of bag claims and security checks. Two metal railings kept a walkway, almost like a catwalk, leading out from the exit. Dramatically, passengers mostly appeared one at a time. Everyone had their own time to shine.

I will admit it was an exciting atmosphere. With each set of whoops and hollers my anticipation for the next person to be my mom grew. At the same time I was growing annoyed by the crowd, which seemed to intensify and start invading my space no matter how far away I stood. I kept trying to position myself in a place where no one could possibly bump me in the back or graze my chest, but the crowd was like a spreading disease that I couldn't escape. My Masi, on the other hand, had found a choice spot right on the railing from which to greet her sister. Masi wanted to make sure the first face my mom saw was hers.

Mom came out and made a beeline, head down, through the crowd toward open space. She didn't even acknowledge her 15 seconds of fame! But of course we gave her a royal welcome with hugs and smiles. Welcome to India Mom!

Flowery Glory: An Album

Enjoy a visual recap (with captions!) of the trip:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Flowery Glory: The Trailer

Diligent readers of this blog will have noticed that I've been conspicuously silent about my trip to the Valley of Flowers earlier this month. Well, the reason is that I was walking the inspired path between Govindghat to Ghangaria, on my way to some of the most beautiful open land I have ever seen, when I had a vision. It dawned on me that this story had to be told in a blockbuster fashion. I conceived of doing a series of blog posts about the trip, and I needed time to prepare. Now, finally, we are ready to begin:

Friends, we all know what a movie trailer is. But what about a trailer for a blog post? Absurd. Preposterous. Unheard of.

Until now.

For the first time in the history of the blogosphere, I present to you the trailer for "Flowery Glory", a post I will write sometime in the near future about my trip to the Valley of Flowers. We are all witnesses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Navratri Naach

Before heading for my trip with Samir to the Himalayas, we had a few days in Baroda. The night before we left from there we went to a Navaratri garba. Baroda is known for having the biggest and best garbas in Gujarat. And the most glorious of them all is the annual United Way Garba.

Getting tickets to get into this particular garba is shockingly difficult. You have to buy an expensive pass at the beginning of Navaratri, and they issue you an ID card with a chip that stores your photo digitally. In order to enter the grounds each person passes their card through a scanner and your picture shows up on TV screens, which security checks before letting you in. Yes folks, this is for entering a garba. The picture thing means you can't use someone else's card. Also, sneaking in is hard because security is swarming and apparently you will get severely beaten if you're caught without a card.

In our first night in Baroda Samir and I didn't have passes so we bought tickets to the bleachers section to just watch the garba. As soon as I walked in and saw the scale, the colors, and the energy, I was mesmerized. It was like an event from another world. Planet Garba. Compared to the garbas I went to in the Bay growing up, this was like the Super Bowl and those were like exhibitions. I came to the realization that to die happy, I had to experience it at least once.

Unfortunately everyone we talked to told us it would be impossible to get in because we had to have bought our pass well in advance. All kinds of scenarios were discussed with local friends; I even emailed Raj, Sam, and Choks back home to see if they knew anyone who could hook us up at the last minute. No luck. But I absolutely had to go to this garba, this and no other. During the day we were busy running errands for our trip so we only got back to the grounds an hour or so before the garba to see if we could buy tickets. My stomach dropped when the guy at the ticket window said there was no way we could buy a pass for that night; their system was shut down and no longer issuing new passes.

But I would not be denied. It was abundantly clear that the only way in was by talking our way in. Luckily my resume for sneaking into restricted events is long and storied. I even co-founded a fake institution, Sneaking-In University, when I was in college for schooling others on the tricks of the trade. My prized pupil, Amit Sura, M.D., is currently Dean in SIU's School of Rhetoric. God Amit, you would have been so proud if you saw me in action this night.

The key is getting someone, anyone, behind the window sympathetic to your cause. First things first, I went heavy on my California accent. I made the case to the window guy that we were from the U.S. and we only had one night to garba. What can you do for us? Then large doses of confidence, patience, and persistence. Eventually the window guy goes and gets the head organizer of the event. At that point I knew it was in the bag. I repeat our case to her, and she grills us to make sure we aren't lying about our story. We stand our ground. And with a few instructions to the peons at the computers, that was that. We had our passes.

Riding high from defying the odds to get tickets, Samir and I walk into the grounds with all the enthusiasm in the world. I really felt like I was going to a Kings playoff game or something. I remember walking in and thinking that this must be the largest gathering of Gujus I've ever been a part of. I loved the colors of everyone's dress, which went with the beautiful multi-colored lamp decorations of the outdoor venue. I liked the soft, fine brown soil of the grounds; I imagined that this had been determined as the optimal garba turf after years of experimentation. Before things got started I crouched down and rubbed a handful in my palms and put it to my nose, like Maximus in Gladiator. OK I didn't, but that would have been tremendous.

Once the music started it was a blur of adrenaline-charged dancing. The music was world-class, performed by some of Gujarat's best. The music starts out at an inviting pace, but ends in a dizzying sprint. At one point the music was so incredibly fast, I forgot where I was because all I was doing was moving as fast as I could. If I stopped concentrating on just dancing for even a second to look up and soak the scene, I would get smoked. And just as I thought the music couldn't possibly go anywhere else but back down, it kicked into yet another hidden gear, thrusting the whole crowd to a frenzied new height. The garba was at least 10 circles thick, and everyone was all business. No messing around, strictly dancing. The lines were so tight that once you were in the inner circles you couldn't get to the outside until intermission. Made me feel like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuha.

There were a lot of innovative steps that I had never seen before at Cal St. Hayward garbas. My favorite was a step I coined the 'Baroda Gangsta Lean' where for three beats your line struts forward with chest out in a diagonal march before turning a shoulder and going the other direction. Kids these days. Another thing I loved about the crowd was their interaction with the singers. They would scream in delight when they heard their favorite songs come on, and during the choicest, climatic lyrics.

And there was sweat. Buckets of sweat. I was absolutely drenched by the end, my kurta had fully turned a darker shade. Luckily there was easy access to water. Not to mention a great selection of food booths. All-in-all a phenomenally managed event. For something so large scale, it was a wonder it worked as well as it did. Made me wonder whether United Way was really a garba-organizing firm that did charity work on the side.

There's really no point in going into more superlatives to describe the night, maybe my single most favorite thing I've done in India for the past three summers. Lifetime experience. Afterward I decided that it is absolutely necessary that the Bay crew, and I mean all of us together, come out for garba in Baroda once before we die. Maybe for Choks' bachelor party?