Friday, December 16, 2011

Filming Elephants at an Indian Wedding

A Short Documentary: Day Two

Okay, the second day of this little production went a bit more smoothly.  A friend of a friend connected our small crew with "Tony". Tony is a wedding planner who happens to specialize in Royal Weddings.  These are not weddings for Lords and Ladies or Indian Princes. No, these are just really big, very expensive, and over-the-top weddings. Think Vegas meets Jaipur.
Tony told us to meet him in a North Delhi neighborhood called Pitam Pura no later than 6pm. Delhi traffic was heavy that evening, but we managed to get there only thirty minutes late. We called Tony, who was actually not on location yet... "stuck in traffic." The wedding pavilion did not disappoint. It was massive. We passed several other pavilions before finding our destination. There is a lot of money being spent on weddings in Indnia. One of these pavillions actually had a one-third-scale Eiffel Tower in the entrance. Vegas.
Tony showed by 6:45 and gave us the drill:  two elephants, eight horses, three bands, twelve guys with mobile chandeliers (connected to a car battery and, oh yes, not to worry: 'completely safe'). There were easily over one thousand guests. The parking lot was filled with German engineering: Mercedes, BMW, Audi. The happy couple were gifted two brand new cars - a big white Ford SUV, and a white Honda sedan.
We had a great time.  Interviewed the Mahouts, filmed a huge fireworks display. The wedding goers danced in the street. The elephants who took money from well-wishers (Long trunks grasped each 100 rupee bill and gently passed them up to the mahout.  Each elephant-driver waggled his head, gave a polite "danyavad," and deftly pocketed bill after bill as they flowed upward).
Many rupees were spent on this wedding night, and although it was crazy and loud, it was full of joy.  Without a doubt, this bash was the largest wedding celebration I have ever attended. And its on film.

Day Three is scheduled for late January... so stay tuned.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Short Documentary, Part One

I kept seeing elephants and chatting with their drivers (mahouts). I researched where the urban elephants lived, what they ate, who actually owned them. We went to see Asian elephants in the wild in both south India and Sri Lanka. I became familiar enough with some of the drivers to arrange rides for visiting friends and family... There is a sadness about these animals. They are treated very inconsistently by their keepers, and must live by and swim in one of the worlds dirtiest rivers. But inspite of it all, they remain beautiful, intelligent, majestic animals.

When I found out their numbers were rapidly disappearing from New Delhi's urban landscape, I wondered if there was a way I could document what I was experiencing. Something that could be shared with others before the elephants disappeared completely from the streets of Delhi.

I floated the idea of making a short film with two friends of mine: a Croatian director, and a Nepali cameraman. I know absolutely nothing about producing a documentary film, but my friends were experienced (and liked the idea).  We scouted locations and found out where to hire an HD camera and digital sound equipment. Once we sketched out a probable shooting schedule of three or four good days of filming.
The camera we use for all footage is a Sony digital EX-3 High Definition system.

Our first day turned out to be a bit of a mess.  We had four locations lined up. Two fell through within the first hour of the day.  A family who owns six elephants in the village of Wazirabad skipped out on us. At 8am we were standing in a dirty village street. No promised elephants on location and no family members to interview.
 "Where is everyone?" we asked. "Sleeping... call Farukh after 11am."  We stood empty handed and looking at one another in the street. We rushed off to a back up location. There'd be elephants if we arrived before 9am.
The second location, at the edge of the Yamuna river proved to be much better.  Elephants and mahouts. We managed to record some great interviews, got footage of a Mahout giving his elephant a bath in one of the worlds dirties rivers and then filmed him painting a beautiful design on the face of his elephant, Champa
By 11am we rushed off to a third location. One of the Mahouts (elephant keeper-driver) gave us a lead on some tourists who had hired Champa for an "urban safari." More great near Delhi's famous Raj ghat Park.
By late afternoon we finally got in touch with 'Farukh', our contact for that evening's wedding location.  In a gruff voice he told us the wedding would a no-go unless we forked over 8,000 rupees... It was late and we had a strict budget. So we decided to eat instead. The day ended with a some good, home-cooked Indian food at the director's house and a review of our first day of footage Day one ended at 10:15pm

Stay tuned for episode two..."Filming Elephants at an Indian Wedding..."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Polo Match

We were invited by a friend to attend a polo match yesterday at the nearby Jaipur Polo Club. These Delhi polo grounds have been in existence since around 1900 (older than the city of New Delhi, which was established in 1911). As most know, polo was popularized by the British in the 19th Century and is now played throughout the world. But the game actually originates from right here in India. The first official Polo Club was established in India in 1834. None of us had ever gone to a formal match before, so we were excited to attend.
The grounds were beautiful and well-maintained. They are largely a product of the Indian Army. Because we weren't VIPs we didn't get a chance to see the inside of the clubhouse. But we did get to sit in very nice, covered seating. The crowd included quite a collection of expats, wealthy socialites and Delhi personalities.

The match was the 2011 Army Championship, so it was quite an affair. We walked along a red carpet to enter the pavilion. Many of the attendees were formally dressed. A few men wore dinner jackets with their Jodhpurs and riding boots. Some of the wives were adorned in pearls and high heels. The players were all current or retired Army officers and the game was face-paced. Audrey and Evan enjoyed watching the horses race by as the players whacked the ball up and down the lush, green field.
At the halfway mark it is a tradition for everyone to walk out onto the field for "divot stamping" (called the "tread-in" here in Delhi). Wine or champagne is served and the spectators socialize while everyone helps to smooth out the playing field by stomping on torn patches in the turf.
Can't help but love these moments...  attending this polo game was another unexpected opportunity and new experience for the SayerRanch... Such a lovely way to spend an Autumn Sunday afternoon with friends and family.

Monday, November 14, 2011

November 2011 Campout

Evan, Audrey and I went on an overnight camp out with Cub Scout troop 3060.  Lesa and her Mom were off to Kathmandu for the weekend so the timing was perfect! This was our second trip out to Camp Wild! near the Haryana village of Dhauj. The camp is about two hours drive from Delhi.
November is a beautiful time of year to camp or trek in India. There is little rain and the chilly enough at night to enjoy a warm campfire. I can tell you Indian's don't fool around when they ignite a bonfire.
Although we were not really that far from the bustle and crowds of Delhi, Haryana seemed like we had traveled to some far off land... Camp wild is nestled in the ancient (700 million) Aravali Mountains. The peaks there have been worn down from centuries of wind and seasonal monsoon rains. The landscape is desert. Cattle and goat herders wander across broad, dusty valleys and the rocky hillsides found throughout this region.
The kids and I were able to do a little hiking, rock climbing and Evan was able to complete parts of several steps for some of his Outdoorsman and Fitness badges.
Our little adventure gave kids and I had a nice break from the traffic and crowds of Delhi... plenty of exercise, great traditional Indian food and time shared with good friends.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Nizamuddin Dargah

This is the mausoleum of one of the most famous Sufi Saints, Nizamuddin Auliya (or Hazrat Nizamuddin). (1238-1325).  He is the man our neighborhood here in Delhi is named for. He believed that you came closer to God through the renunciation of the world and by giving yourself over to the service of humanity. For him, his love of mankind represented his love for God. Sufism is one of the many "flavors" of the Muslim faith. I've come to admire many of the beliefs of the Sufis. Their faith, similar to the Faith of Christianity, focuses on Love. Their music is wonderful. Worshipers often represent love through art, music and song.
We took the kids and their Grandma to see this famous Dargah last night in neighboring Nizamuddin West. Every Thursday evening there is a small concert of Sufi music for followers, Sufi music aficionados, and the curious. It's free to the public and usually starts sometime after 6pm. Last night, I would guess at least 10% of the listeners were Westerners. If you go, men should wear long pants, and women should be covered - long pants, and a scarf.

The Dargah is the focus of the local mosque in our neighborhood. The mosque has been there at least since the 12th Century. The Dargah itself is from the 13th Century.
Many Pilgrims travel to the Dargah from very distant parts of India as well as the world because it is so famous in the Muslim community. There are special areas for prayers devoted to the sick, the demented, and a special Mosque for women. Ladies are not allowed inside Nizamuddin's Mausoleum, but can bring offerings, and may pray outside. 
All are welcomed here and are encouraged to listen to the music. The musicians and singers are from families who have made this music for generations. The songs are passed down from grandfather to father to son and have probably been played in this way since before the time of Hazrat Nizamuddin.

The evening was yet again, another wonderful and unique India-experience for all of us!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why are the Streets so Filthy in India?

I just came back from Sri Lanka after an enjoyable family trip.  As soon as I stepped out of the impressive, new Indira Gandhi Airport Terminal I was immediately struck by the contrast India presents to its visitors. Sri Lanka is obviously much smaller and probably considerably easier to manage that India ever will be.  But I have to be honest. My observations of Lanka gave me a clear impression that life is cleaner, safer, and more efficient there. And if these things are all true, Why?  Could it be just because Sri Lanka is smaller and less crowded?
I love living in India. But like any place you chose to live there are things you like and admire and some things that really bug you. For me it's the mess. Why are most of the streets here so filthy? After living here for nearly three years, I believe population and caste are probably the two biggest factors that contribute to the litter and garbage that is almost everywhere. 
In Sri Lanka the population (20 million) is only a fraction of India's (1.2 Billion). It's just not much of an issue there. But over-population obviously fuels India's ongoing struggles with infrastructure (stable electricity, clean drinking water, road maintenance and modernization). India is working hard to modernize and improve, but has yet to seriously address the issue of population. There's just a lot of people here and they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Sri Lankans have essentially rejected the notion of Caste. Probably because that country is predominantly Buddhist. I have witnessed few beggars, and after traveling through many small towns and villages, I have seen very few desperately poor Lankans. But is this why Sri Lanka is visibly cleaner?  It's not that there seem to be less poor people in Sri Lanka. I believe its about personal responsibility.  I think India's willingness to accept caste conveniently simplifies what people perceive to be as their personal responsibility.
Litter is the easiest example of this. And the topic of litter gets me back to the thing that really bugs me about India. In Sri Lanka I have never witnessed someone drop trash on the ground. Sri Lanka is not without litter, but Lankan streets and public spaces are generally much cleaner, better groomed and more well-maintained than India's. 

Here in India I have seen hundreds and hundreds of people drop trash on the ground without any hesitation or care. Personal drivers have littered right in front of me. Wealthy Indians on safari (right inside India's beautiful National Wildlife Preserves) have tossed empty plastic bottles and snack wrappers while standing next to me. Policeman, college students, businessmen and women, even Catholic nuns -- they have all been active participants in dumping personal trash on the ground in front of me. Often I confront them on the spot, but 1.2 billion people can generate a lot of curb-side garbage. I know not all Indians believe or value this age-old idea of caste, but I blame your mess squarely on your society's anachronistic belief that some people are above certain duties. Tell me, is it really someone else's responsibility to deal with the litter you or your organisation has discarded? (What do you think?) 

Every place I have ever been (with the possible exception of Singapore) has its own share of pollution, and litter... Americans sadly still litter, and we certainly need to drive less, buy less and use less packaging. But our streets, neighborhoods and public spaces, like Sri Lanka's, are generally cleaner. Europeans certainly need to smoke less, and the Chinese have had a knack for quickly adopting many of the West's bad behaviors. India wants its rightful place on the worlds stage - as it should have. But she will never be an equal partner in the eyes of outsiders until the population here acknowledges the visual mess it presents to the world.

I believe it's not a problem for your government to solve. Government can help though public awareness, but to actually eliminate the waste - the trash that is just about everywhere... That is all about acknowledging personal responsibility. If there is a dustbin, please use it. If there isn't one, hold on to your garbage until you find one. Take charge. Don't just clean up your yard, clean the street in front of your house (or if you can afford it, pay someone to do it for you).  Organize your neighbors to clean up and maintain your block, your neighborhood park. If you think it looks messy, I REALLY think it looks messy. And above all, if you see someone else litter, give them a hard time about it. It's not someone else's role to do it for you.
Like it or not, until these habits improve, I believe places like Sri Lanka will always look brighter and cleaner to her visitors. Lankans may even be a little happier despite their own share of the world's problems.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's What?

Okay, We've been living in India for nearly three years... and buying milk here all of that time. For the first few months we were nervous about almost everything, so when it came to milk we bought the safest alternative - milk in a processed box with a shelf-life of 12 months. But milk in this form is about three times the cost of local milk and it really doesn't taste very good.

 As with most things, we got over our milk-anxiety and started buying it the way most people get it here - in little plastic pouches from the neighborhood Mother Dairy stand. Their milk is delivered fresh each morning and it comes in a variety of forms - slim, creamy (double toned), really creamy (toned), and full cream. Three years, right?...
photo credit: C. Hildreth

Cows are everywhere in India, so of course I assumed what we were drinking was, well... cow's milk. Nope. Yesterday we found out what we've actually been drinking is buffalo milk.  That's right, Water Buffalo.
Hmmmm... I suppose that does explain that oddly musky flavor.

Namaste, y'all.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Suburban Camping

Evan and I had an overnight camping experience with his Webelos Den... It was a good trip for the boys, but also a new experience for me... the first time I had witnessed a truly "Suburban" lifestyle in India.

The "camp" was in one of the scouts' backyards - graciously offered up to us by his parents. It was located in a neighborhood called Sultanpur. It's a residential area in SW Delhi where there are multiple residential developments with properties quaintly referred to as "Farm Houses" here. I was expecting a few cows, horses, a barn... at least maybe some chickens wandering about the place.


A "farm house" is essentially an American or European-style home on a plot of land that has 1-3 acres of yard... suburbia.

Granted these are very nice suburban neighborhoods. The streets are swept and manicured (no piles of garbage or wandering livestock) Many are gated, and all of the properties within these developments are walled compounds with guardhouses and multiple forms of security. Our space had a nice California-style home, gardens, an in-ground pool and a cottage in the back for staff.  Oh, and it takes a lot of staff... These "farmhouses" have multiple guards (at least 4 to cover 2 twelve hour shifts), 2-3 gardeners to manage the landscaping, housekeepers, 1-2 drivers, a cook and typically an ayah (nanny) if there are small children at home. That's quite a payroll!
Once I recovered from the "Farmhouse" reality, the campout was a whole lot of fun. Our hosts provided a lovely yard to pitch the tents in, we had access to a poolhouse for toilets, and washroom. There was clean drinking water, Tang, coffee and hot cocoa and the gardeners had collected plenty of wood for our campfire/cookfire. The weather was perfect... warm during daylight, cool and pleasant at night. The night-sky was clear and the moon was bright! After the boys settled down to sleep, the Dads had a few moments to relax a bit.. We sipped red wine, and had a taste of scotch and smoked cuban cigars by the glow of the campfire.

Webelos are responsible for learning how to pitch and take down their own tents, cook and clean up at mealtimes and maintain campfire safety. So the campout was a good learning experience for Evan and his friends. Of course it also showed me there is still much to learn about all of the possibilities associated with life and living here in India.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rooftop Bakery

A friend and I decided to explore the streets of Old Delhi with our cameras the other day. We'd both been there many times before, but this historic area is a place that always manages to offer the unexpected. The neighborhood is full of narrow alleyways, crowded market streets, and an odd assortment of shops, cafes and places of worship. If you know where you're going and are comfortable diving into the crowds, Old Delhi is best to explore on foot.
For some reason that morning we wound up on a rooftop five stories above the street level. We wanted a "bird's-eye" view and quickly found one above the spice market district in Chandni Chowk.
Our eyes first drifted to the horizon.
The massive Jama Masjid Mosque could be seen through the haze in the distance. It's very impressive and draws crowds of pilgrims from all across India (and the world) each day.
Our interest was next drawn below to the crowded market streets. These are almost always busy, each filled with sellers, buyers, shippers and shoppers. Scores of hand carts, day laborers and stockpiles of canvass-covered bales make the scene look like something from a much earlier era.
While observing the controlled chaos of the street below we heard an oddly repetitive sound. Not quite a banging, more of a repeated "bump, bump, bump - slap!"  We worked our way around the edge of the roof until we discovered the source of the noise. A young man was working, perhaps two stories below on a neighboring rooftop. He was hunched underneath an improvised bamboo shelter, pushing, rolling and slapping dough with his hands. We had discovered a bakery!
The baker was very strong, his back was glistening with sweat from the motion of his hard work. He moved in a constant rhythm and was surrounded by hundreds of dough-balls and scores of flat disks called papad. The results of his efforts were neatly laid out in many rows across large flats of bamboo where they baked in the midday sun.
Papad is a thin, crispy disk (roti) made of besan flour (chick pea), black pepper and other spices. Traditionally eaten with biryani, they are also served as an appetiser or snack (namkeen) before, during and even after meals.
I've eaten and enjoyed papad many times, but it never once occurred to me that these crispy treats were baked beneath the hot, Indian sun on a rooftop in the middle of Old Delhi.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gardening in India

I've managed to kill every household plant. No amount of water, fertilizer, fresh soil, or TLC has helped. I've tried three times... changing plants, talking with local nursers.  The sun is too intense in summer, the monsoons are too wet. It's too dry in fall. I'd all but given up.

"If you want little garden, why don't you just hire a gardener?" a friend suggested. Did I really want someone else knocking at the door each week?  But our balcony was ugly and empty and the weather is slowly getting cooler. I knew it would be really nice to be surrounded by a little greenery while sipping a hot cup of chai on a cool, fall morning...

I relented. The "mali"charges me $4 a month. A mali is a local gardener and essentially a plant expert. He went with me to a nearby nursery. It was nestled in the shade down on the steamy banks of the Yamuna River. After selecting some hardy-sun tolerant plants and a little price-haggling, we bought six for about $12 (including a bag of mulch).  Lord knows what was actually in the mulch.  The nurser threw in a seventh plant (Tulsi) for good luck - supposedly because he liked me...  I figured he probably just a felt a little guilty because I'd already paid too much...

We returned to the apartment. My mali carried the plants up and immediately set himself up to work.  (I already had the pots from our previous flat in Noida, so didn't need to purchase any.)  First the mali poured the existing soil from my pots into a pile. Then he did the same with mulch from a burlap sack. Two neat piles were standing in the middle of the marble floor of our front balcony. He mixed these together using a flat, metal tool and wonderful circular motions with his hands.

Next the mali used bits of broken pots and small stones to create a layer for drainage in the base of my seven pots. A plant was gently set into the center of each. His soil mixture was then expertly tilled around the young plants. He swept up and told me not to water my new plants for two days. He would return in three to check on them. He would trim them after a week.

True to his word, in three days there was a soft knock at our door. It was my mali. He quietly entered, watered each plant and then re-tilled the soil in each pot. Four days later he returned again and did the same. He trimmed the ficus and my basil.

Finally, with a satisfied look on his face the mali told me I'd done a good job: "Hanjee, Acha, acha." (Yes. Good, good).

What he really meant was, "thank you for not over watering the plants..."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Riding Bare-back

I've told you how much I love elephants. My interactions with them include some of my favorite memories of life here in India. Although it is admittedly controversial, there is something magical about mixing an elephant with the urban landscape. Seeing an elephant squeeze between a city bus and a line of bicycle rickshaws... there just aren't many places in the world where you can witness such a scene.
My fascination with these giant mammals recently led me on a little investigation. How many of them were kept in New Delhi? Where did they live and who took care of them? Pachyderms are not easy to keep healthy. What did they eat and how did the get enough water? 

Here are some quick facts about my Asian elephant friends... They are an endangered species. There is an estimated 26,000 of them currently living in south Asia. They weigh up to five tons and can be 3 meters tall and 6 meters long. Asian elephants spend about 16 hours each and every day eating. They eat 200-300 kilos of fodder a day and drink as much as 100 liters (that's 25 gallons) of water per day. Did I mention baths?  They need to bathe at least twice a day. (I have a few friends in that category)...

Champa, who was gracious enough to let me ride her bare-back, is 35 years old. She's a sweetheart who weighs about 3 tons and will probably live to be between 60 and 70 years, provided her Mahout (driver & keeper) takes good care of her.

There are two big problems for the few elephants who remain in the city of New Delhi. Finding enough water that is actually safe to drink, and mistreatment by the men who care for them. There's evidence of  repeated beatings, and malnutrition. The Mahouts care for their elephants in ways that have been passed down to them by previous generations. Many of the same families have been caring for elephants since the time of the Mughal Emperors. It's a cultural phenomenon. And elephants are expensive to keep. It costs a lot rupees for mahouts to provide a proper diet and routine medical care.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately) the business is booming. Elephants are all the rage at weddings, birthday parties, and even baby showers. Elephants are the living manifestation of the Hindu god, Ganesha. He's the remover of obstacles and a bringer of good luck. Definitely in demand these days.

With education and the support from NGO's like the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Protection Society of India, and to a lesser degree, the Indian government, there is some hope. Despite some abuse and neglect, the seven elephants I've had the fortune to observe, work hard, but seem happy. They are able to roam freely when "off duty" and have access, during monsoon, to cleaner waters.

Indians love their elephants at least as much as I do - for both the religious and cultural legacies they represent. The government needs to work harder to create a safer urban haven and allow the animals access to cleaner, more abundant water during the drier summer and winter seasons.
I recently took some friends on a bareback, urban safari... It's definitely a unique experience to be around them in such an odd, natural setting. For me, elephants are a joy to be near. But this won't last long unless something is done so they can more safely co-exist in the concrete world that surrounds them. Based on a recent census, there are now probably less than twenty elephants living and working in the National Capital Region. That's apparently down from forty just a few short years ago...

Namaste, Y'all.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Life in Two Worlds

Sorry for my two-month lapse in posts... I needed to step away from the blog for a time to get some new perspective on our lives here in India. We've now extended our stay for a second time. Although we miss many things about life at home, we're obviously comfortable with what our lives have become in India. A summer trip home to visit friends and family helped us reflect on the two very distinct worlds our family enjoys.

During the trip we covered about 4,000 miles by car (leaving an enormous carbon footprint in our wake). The miles gave us a lot of time together as a family. Soaking up the American culture all around us, we had many conversations about the differences between our lives in India and our lives in the US. Some of these differences are a little difficult to explain unless actually experienced, but I'll try to share some recent observations.

Peach Cobbler

We made cobbler at my Dad's in the mountains of North Georgia. The peaches were large, juicy and freshly picked. They reminded me a little of the large, juicy mangoes we can get in Delhi. The experience sparked a kitchen conversation - couldn't we make the cobbler in India, my Dad asked? We explained there aren't really great peaches there... you can get them, but they are typically scrawny, not juicy and either under-ripe or mushy from sitting in the sun too long.

"Can't you just buy some frozen ones in the supermarket?" my stepmother asked.
Supermarkets? Not really. Just a few over-priced, air conditioned stores (think Delhi's Khan Market) that cater to Expats and wealthy locals. Frozen food is often unreliable because there is no constant source of power. Our neighborhood grocery shop is a 12'x30' stall that is open to the street. There's no air con, one freezer case for the ice cream and 2 upright cases for cold drinks and dairy products. The shop has pretty much everything we need, but no frozen peaches. We usually buy fruits and veggies each day from our street-corner cart-vendor.

There are some highways in India. A few are actually quite modern - the connector road Lesa takes each morning from Delhi to Noida for work is one such example. But the roadside surroundings are vastly different.
In the US, highways typically wander through open country side. Tall forests grow along their sides, wild flowers fill the medians. There is very little trash to be seen strewn on the side of the highway. Road repairs and construction are well-marked. The roadway is well-defined.
India's major routes are lined with villages and towns one after another. With few exceptions, trash is strewn everywhere the eye can see. Flyovers are slowly being retro-fitted in some areas ,but highways go right through town-centers. Travel quickly comes to a halt because of heavy pedestrian and animal traffic across the roadway (think NH2 to Agra, and NH8 to Jaipur). There is little signage about construction. A neat row of rocks or a few green branches laid out across torn pavement may be your only warning. Driving in India is challenging, rarely picturesque, but always entertaining.

In terms of food preparation (remember, HouseBoy is the family cook) the outdoor grill is one thing I miss. There just aren't any to be found easily for home use. It's a man thing at home. In India men don't cook. Most middle class women don't either - they have a servant do it.
Cooking is done strictly on a stove top - unless you are wealthy enough to have an oven. I would guess less than 1% of Indians actually own an oven. I make do with a 2 burner CNG stove (think Coleman camping stove) and a small electric oven (think big toaster oven). We eat meals that are healthy, fresh and in season, but if you asked the kids, they'd probably say our menu gets a bit repetitive sometimes. I'm working on it.

Indoor Climate-control
I see this as maybe one of the biggest failures of the west - particularly in the US. In India, unless you've got a lot of money to burn, or live on a large Embassy compound, there just is no central air con in the home. There's no heat in the winter either. (Of course winter only lasts about 5 weeks in Delhi anyway.)
We use room A/Cs in summer, space heaters when it's chilly. Our building's power system can only handle 2 units running at once, so no more than two rooms are ever cooled at any given moment. The kitchen, our bathrooms, and the stairwell do not have AC. Because it's so hot in the summer months, we don't turn on our water heaters. Cold showers only. The bathroom is 90 - 100 degrees and has the humidity of a tropical jungle. The kitchen, with the stove or the oven going can easily reach 120 degrees - I drink a lot of water when I cook. In the winter we wear warm socks and sweaters and drink a lot of hot tea.

Some of these challenges actually make a lot of sense. In Texas we routinely cool down 5,000 sq ft. homes - every room in the house gets chilled whether it's occupied or not. We love hot showers in the summer too - because our bathrooms are chilled with A/C. In the winter it's the same - everything is heated whether we use each room or not. My guess is a lot of this is changing out of necessity. After all, necessity is really what drives many of the differences we've learned to adapt to in India.

Water Use
There is not a lot of clean water here in India. Something I definitely take for granted at home. My wife said to me while we were staying at her mom's - she loved taking a long hot shower. Letting the water run over her, warming the bathroom and filling it with steam. I smiled at the thought, because I'd just enjoyed a similar experience earlier that morning...
We'd never do that in India:
Rinse, switch off, lather, switch on, rinse. Done.
You never know when the tank will run dry...
Namaste, Y'all.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Museum of Toilets

I know it sounds strange, but today we visited the International Museum of Toilets located here in New Delhi. Really.
Audrey's Canadian friend, Alexis joined us for this adventure... The museum is managed by an India-based NGO called, Sulabh International. The organization's mission is to develop low-cost, reusable, disposal systems for human waste. The systems actually pretty interesting. They are designed to range in cost from about $20-200 per unit.

The designs use local materials like wood, brick, stone, or even concrete made from bacteria-free, recycled human waste. Sublabh's proven concept eliminates the escape of greenhouse gases, and removes the need and cost of transporting waste. The majority of the waste is recycled locally into 99.9% bacteria-free fertilizer. Units have also been designed and successfully built to capture and distribute bio-gas for local use in cooking, lighting and heating.
The museum provides a guided summary of the 4,500 year old history of toilets. (beginning with the Indus Valley civilizations and winding its way through Egypt, Rome, Europe, England and the Americas) The history toilets culminates with NASA's high-tech vacuum systems used by astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station. The staff and scientists at Sulabh shared their ideas about the future of simple, yet proven biodegradable and sustainable technologies.
In the past 25 years, Sulabh International has constructed some 650,000 twin "pour-flush" toilet systems in India and the developing world. Within India alone, it is still estimated that over 600 million people continue do their "business" outside because of cultural habit or because they do not have access to sanitary, functional facilities.
Human waste is huge issue for public health and safety, and continues to be one of the main contamination sources of public drinking water. The problem persists throughout other parts of the world including Africa, many parts of South Asia, Central & South America and throughout rural Pacific island nations..
For more info on Sulabh Interational and their innovative sanitation, power and human service initiatives, go to:

It may be toilets, but its important, and curiously fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Video Shoot

My Canadian friend, Mark and I got to do a video shoot last week. The phone rang and a voice asked: "Can you play a part in a "Scratch Video?"
I'm sure there was a long pause before I gave the voice an answer.
It turned out to be Priyam. She works at a company that I had done voice-overs for in the past.
So I said: "Sure, I guess so."

Then Priyam asked: "Do you have a friend who can do it with you?" There must have been another long pause.
"What exactly is a scratch video?"
"A demo. This is a video of a talk show we're planning. You'll be the person being interviewed and your friend will be the Interviewer."

"You know I'm not an actor," was all I could say. "I do voice-overs."
"Do you have a friend who can do it?" I thought of Mark. He's been in India for 6 years. He speaks Hindi and has even done a scene in a Bollywood movie. Poor Mark.

"Yeah." I said, fumbling for his number, still confused.
"Have him call me and I'll send you the script."
Another long pause.
"We shoot tomorrow at 12:30. It'll only take 20 minutes." Priyam hung up.

I got the script and it was longer than I had imagined. Mark's character asked a few questions, but my part was the "Criminology Expert." My character was an ex-cop and had lengthy responses to Mark's one-liners about correctional facilities, recidivism rates and judicial procedures.
Recidivism? I had to look that up on Wikipedia.

In the morning I was a nervous wreck. I'm not an actor. I'd gotten to be pretty good with audio, but video... I look like a middle-aged hack with bad posture, caught in on-coming headlights. I was sure Priyam just wanted to meet her requirement to have two western looking guys sitting in the studio chairs.

I called her.
"You'll be fine," she said. "I'll make sure we have a teleprompter. See you at 12:30."There was no teleprompter.
The studio was in the basement of someone's house in South Delhi. Everyone there was nice. Priyam gave us each a glass of water and a script. The font was slightly larger than the one she'd emailed me. But the text was grayed out as if the script had been highlighted in yellow, but printed out on a black and white printer.

"Can you make the font larger so we can read it? Maybe get rid of the gray?"
The crew wagged their heads from side to side - Priyam, the sound man, the camera man and the project coordinator. Beads of sweat were forming on my forehead despite the AC chilling the room.

"Here, just put it on the table." Priyam said. "It will be close there."
"But I told you, I'm not an actor. I'm not very good at memorizing lines."
Everyone wagged their heads again. I looked at Mark. I was afraid he was going to wag his head from side to side.

"Let's do it."

It took the crew about 15 minutes to realize what we really needed were cue cards. The project leader wanted the lines read exactly as printed. A second script appeared for me. The font was in a larger size and Priyam offered to hold it up for me. But then she kept getting in the frame. Finally an old microphone boom was dragged out onto the set to act as a "teleprompter." My script was clipped to the boom and we were ready for business.They filmed me for 30 minutes and then it was Mark's turn. Of course he had tried to memorize his lines, but the crew wanted precise dialog.
"Do you think you could do the same for me?" he asked. I could hear the frustration growing in Mark's voice. There was another chorus of wagging heads. And a long pause.
He sighed: "Same deal. Bigger font. Hang it on the boom."

The crew filmed reaction-shots and then Mark's new, bigger, whiter script appeared. We were almost done.

The experience ended with us all sitting in a circle of chairs surrounded by video and sound equipment sipping masala chai and munching on biscuits."We'll call you if something else pops up," Priyam said smiling.
I shook hands with her and wagged my head:
"Why not?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Escaping the Heat

It's been really hot in Delhi... topping 100 F degrees for several weeks now. Today was a particularly ugly 111 F. When you are used to the convenience of central air conditioning these temperatures are certainly manageable... No such luck here. Only room air con and unpredictable power outages.
Thankfully, We managed to escape the heat for three days this past weekend by taking the train to Dehradun and a taxi up to the town of Mussoorie. The temperatures were 3o degrees cooler, the sky was fresh and clear and the mornings were cool and crisp!
Lesa's cousin, Hannah was along for the ride, enjoying a two week visit and also happy to get out of the heat. This was the second time we visited Mussoorie - such a great place to relax. Walking the Victorian paths, seeing the snow-covered Himalayan mountains in the distance, eating fresh momos (Tibetan dumplings) and chicken soup

Mussoorie is a bit of a remnant of the British Raj era, choc full of flower gardens, Victorian wrought iron railings, gates and cute mountainside cottages. Wish I was still there...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter near Rishikesh

The Beatles went there for spiritual enlightenment... why not the Sayer family? Rishikesh is famous for Hindu Sadus wearing saffron colored robes and its many ghats and temples lining the edge of the holy river Ganga.
The town's narrow alleys are full of the smells of incense and cow manure.
There are crowds of pilgrims from all corners of India. Scores of earthy, western travelers who can be seen toting bpa-free water bottles and expensive yoga mats while longing for inner peace and the discovery of a cheap, organic veg meal.
This part of the Ganga (Ganges) river passes through the state of Uttarakhand.
The river descends through the lower foothills of the Himalayas making the area famous for whitewater rafting and trekking. We traveled with another family by air-conditioned train to the city of Haridwar - the "gate of Heaven." From Haridwar we went on by car through Rishikesh and up into the Ganga River valley northeast for three days of rafting, kayaking and camping. Our outfitters provided all of the equipment, meals and local transportation for this weekend. Over two days we traveled a total of over 30 km on the Ganga River by raft - where the largest rapid (at this time of year) was rated a 3+ on the scale of difficulty. The company was pretty good - using kayak safety spotters and providing a guide in each of the nine boats in our group. For safety, the children had to get out of the raft twice to avoid the worst sections of rapids. We all enjoyed the sometimes wild ride and jumped in the water between rapids to cool down in the river's icy, glacial waters.
Easter morning was celebrated with the kids - Audrey, Kunchen, Evan and Siddhi, searching for chocolate eggs amongst the rocks in our riverside camp. We rafted and swam during three hot sunny days. We ate traditional Indian dishes and freshly made Roti under a large tent. And for two cool, starlit evenings we roasted marshmellows and drank wine and cocoa by the bonfire.
It worked for us... just north of the tangled alleyways and hubub of Rishikesh, we found a touch of inner peace and the joy of Easter while keeping our toes dipped into the holy mountain waters of the Ganga.

Monday, April 18, 2011


It was the kids' Spring Break from school so we decided to escape India for the week and explore a new place. Vietnam had been on our list of 'must do' trips after so many positive reports from friends. Geographically, it is a very long country, so we decided to just head to the northern part via Hanoi. We pulled Audrey and Evan out of school for a couple of days to make the event a full 12 day journey. Our adventures started almost immediately. Our carrier, AirAsia missed our connection in Bangkok (the plane departed Delhi 1 hour late) so we wound up with a "bonus day" overnight in that lovely city. We had to reschedule for the next morning's flight to Hanoi. It worked out fine, since we already knew of a hotel (Lamphu Tree) and had a destination in mind to fill our unexpected day.

We took 2 water taxis from our hotel to Wat Arun a large Buddhist Temple complex we didn't have time to see on our 2010 visit to Thailand. Of course we made the most of out 24 hours and sampled grilled meats, local foods and re-explored some of Bangkok's many outdoor markets...

The adventure continued when we arrived in Hanoi. I had my visa on arrival paperwork, but managed to forget our passport-sized photos - one of the requirements for American entry into Vietnam. The line was long and the green-uniformed Vietnamese looked decidedly Stalinesque. The uniformed woman who listened to our plight just smiled and took us to the front of the line. She grabbed a digital camera and took the photos right there in the immigration terminal in front of a crowd of 3o other international visitors. Thankfully, forgetting our passport photos only cost an extra US$2 and got us to the front of a long line.

Our time in Hanoi was cut a little short due to the connection mishap, but we still managed to tuck in a little sightseeing.

The highlights included the famous water puppet theater near Hoan Kiem Lake, and the ancient (1075 AD) cloister of buildings now called the Temple of Literature. This was Vietnam's first University.

From Hanoi we traveled 14 hours south by sleeper train through the old 'DMZ' to Danang and out farther post south on this trip, the sea-side town of Hoi An. We had our own cabin and 4 berths. It was clean and the trip was decidedly smoother than our similar experiences on Indian and Sri Lankan trains.

Hoi An old city has become an UNESCO World Heritage site. There are quite a few tourist (mainly French, Australians and Americans) here. The town is being very developed for tourism, but is still a perfect place to relax, have a beer (bia), a bowl of pho (traditional noodle soup) or baguette sandwich.

The beach is only 5km away - a 15 minute bike ride. We rented bicycles on 3 of our six days and spent late afternoons in the sand and waves. The kids and I made new sand-structures each day and jumped in the big waves of the So. China Sea. It's a long stretch of beautiful beach, extending from Hoi An north to DaNang. This 20km stretch includes the famous China Beach.

One of my favorite activities was the cooking class we took. We learned how to make 3 traditional dishes: Pho Ga, (chicken Noodle Soup), Cau Lao (a local Hoi an Specialty - pork and noodles) and fresh spring rolls. All a relatively quick and easy to make and very healthy!

We took a day trip by bus and boat to the Ancient Champ (4th Century Hindu) religious center of My Son. The place was somehow familiar to us, since these temples refect the style and beliefs of their builders from South India. Ganesh and Shiva are intermixed with images of Yin and Yang (Linga and Joli) symbols of masculine and feminine. Our Vietnamese guide made it clear that much of the site, including a massive 24 meter tall temple (only the base remains) were destroyed by B-52s in the Tet Offensive of 1968/69. He noted that the Viet Cong unfortunately used the isolated My Son Valley as a refuge from American forces. It was part of a network of trails used to resupply NVA soldiers during that war.

The next leg of the trip took us on a 3 hour bus-ride to the Ancient Imperial capital of Hue. Unfortunately, much of this city was destroyed during 2 twentieth century wars - in 1947 and in 1968, but enough remains to celebrate its unique history. We visited the great walled portion of the city that was once the "Forbidden City" of Hue. Similar in many ways to it's counterpart in, Beijing, this Forbidden City was home to the last of the Vietnamese Imperial Dynasties: the Nguyens.

After just one night and a quick tour of Hue we traveled back north to Hanoi and our final destination - the unique and very beautiful, Halong Bay. We spend parts of 2 days and one night exploring some of the channels and 2,000 limestone islands that make up the bay. Our hosts on the boat were kind, despite having left our overnight bag on the curb at the harbor (We managed to recover they bag after paying a small fee to the street vendors for finding it). We got to explore the large Sung Sot Cave, observed some of the many unusual rock formations and saw several "floating villages" made from anchored houseboats. The largest of these has a year-round population of 200 inhabitants and includes a floating bank!

We loved our experiences in Vietnam - the people, the beauty, food and culture. We hope to return again sometime soon to explore the southern part of this lovely country. Maybe even add a side adventure to nearby Cambodia and Angkor Wat!