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by SS at 10:22 pm on Friday 4th December

As I depart India, nearly three months after arriving, it seems like a due time to reflect on how the experience of living and working abroad has affected me.

My first observation is that you quickly learn to argue in India. Indeed, back home, I was usually the sort to quietly accept things in the hope of progressing matters along smoothly. Instead, in India, if you back off, people will walk all over you. Especially so if there is money involved. Since I landed in September, I will much more readily argue with anyone who I deem is either not acting in my best interest or is not acting correctly. Case in point, every time someone attempts to push into a queue, I'll shout them down (not too loudly) and tell them to get to the back. Some of these people are, for lack of a better word, ignorant of the commons.

I suppose being this newfound spunky attitude is a useful addition to my life skills armoury. There is a danger though that one day I will argue and be wrong. As one of my favourite quotations says 'Every man has a right to say what he wants, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.' This brings me to my next point.

When travelling solo, you are responsible for looking after yourself. This means that when you are lost, it is up to you to ask. If you want to find out how much something is, you have to ask. When you are confused, you need to ask for clarification. Basically, no one will do anything on your behalf. A pretty obvious observation but one that becomes painfully clear when travelling. As I mentioned previously, I am normally the quiet, accepting type but having had to fend for myself, I will now ask questions much more easily. Some of these questions might be considered unintelligent, or the answers may be obvious but the beauty of being by yourself is that you never have to worry about being wrong.

Aside from these personality adjustments, I took in a fair dose of modern Indian life. Returning to the civilised roads and orderly shops of England, I think I will appreciate a little more the mutual respect that members of the public have.

3 comments posted so far
Comp Sci wrote at 11:19 am on Sun 6th Dec -
A directed graph would have been a more efficient and therefore suitable data structure.
c@pello.info wrote at 12:53 am on Tue 8th Dec -
I wholely disagree with the suggestion to use a directed graph. However I'm not going to elaborate on the reasons behind why I disagree. I find such an approach is conducive to discussions.
Leszek wrote at 11:34 pm on Mon 28th Dec -
I disagree with both of you. So there.

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by SS at 2:32 am on Friday 4th December

Arrival in Chennai was uninteresting as I found the city itself, although soon after I landed it began to rain. Supposedly this month is the monsoon month and dusty roads became muddy.

I was very grateful to Ruby and Rukku, two colleagues of my mother who both teach and help run the Montessori training institute in Chennai, who let me stay with them as I passed through. It was nice to see familiar faces and learn a fair amount more about the work they do in India. Although there are a plethora of Montessori style schools, they are inundated with applications for their associated nursery school which takes in just 8 students per year and receives 1,000 applications for these places! This is a reflection on the quality of school since it charges fees that are considerable at least. They run applications on a first come first serve basis and it seems parents need to register their child pretty much as soon as he or she is born!

The next day, I spent the morning cruising around the damp roads of Chennai. Relatively lacking tourist sights, the Fort St. George museum and the Government Museum were both formidable attractions. I particularly enjoyed the zoology section of the latter museum, filled with skeletal remains of a horse and an elephant (huge!) and models of fish that are frightening in appearance.

As I wandered the museum I found that I had accidentally caught up with a large school group. This was the second time this had happened; a similar group was present when I went to visit the National Museum in Delhi. I struggled to see what utility the hundred or so young children received as they were herded through the museum in a loosely formed single column. The noise echoing through the exhibition halls reached a mighty clamor as they indifferently failed to observe any rules of museum etiqutte. Luckily I managed to overtake them and sanity of mind was within grasp again.

The luxury airconditioned bus that took me to Pondicherry was less than enjoyable - having paid five times the cost of a government bus, and twice the cost of a normal non-airconditioned private bus, it was not long before a short, overweight south Indian man came and sat in the empty seat next to me. Ordinarily not so much of an issue but it irked me since there were at least five empty rows behind me. Furthermore, as the conductor came to ask for his ticket, he made up an excuse and simply bribed the conductor 50 Rupees. Unfair!

Being a private bus, it was not in their interest to lose time by actually going to the stated destination, instead dropping me off at an intersection several kilometres from the main town. An auto ride later, I decided to attempt looking for accommodation in true backpacker fashion. What I quickly realised though, was that the weather in Pondicherry was too hot to walk around with a 20 kg backpack on, and all the hotels or guesthouses were located annoyingly far from each other.

Having tried several ashrams and being turned away, I turned to two reasonable looking hotels near the sea front. My 'sea-view' room was actually facing away from the beach front but from the grotty balcony, if you stood in the right corner on your tip-toes, you could see a small amount of blue water. Regardless, the airconditioning was a much appreciated luxury.

Having visited some amount of Indian cities and town, I thought I had experienced most of what they had to offer. It was surprising then that Pondicherry is one of the worst smelling Indian towns that I visited yet! The Moosra surmises this to be a combination of the French heritage and the modern south Indian population. I think the clue might be in a covered canal which runs through the town, which appeared to be mainly sewage run-off. Either way, the Lonely Planet recommends walking as the best way to get around - if you choose to do this, breath through your mouth!

The restaurant scene in Pondicherry caters to the European ex-pat and tourist, so I was pleased to be able to avoid Indian food for a short period, consuming pizza for dinner, and museli and a crepe for breakfast. Staying by the sea has further benefit in the relatively close location of an ice cream parlour.

As for actual sightseeing, my propensity to avoid places of worship embedded itself firmly here and there were only a few other places to visit. The botanical gardens were a astonishingly lush and vast collection of exotic plants in the middle of the city, although retaining their Indian heritage through badly placed signs with poor grammar.

Auroville, a township some distance away from Pondicherry, was a pleasant commune of spiritually minded residents who collectively worked together to grow the settlement. It was set up by a visionary known as 'Mother' who was an avid follower of Sri Aurobindo, a reknowned spiritual leader. The most spectacular part built so far is the Matri Mandir, a temple associated with no faith built in the geographic centre of the town. It looks like a giant golden golf ball from the outside - we weren't allowed inside to look.

The rain soon came to Pondicherry and I decided to go shelter in an internet cafe and treat myself to actual broadband, versus the 128 kbps I was getting through my phone's EDGE connection. This was a strange place, ordering food was self service - you placed your order at the counter and went to pick it up. It struck me as odd because the cafe was tiny - 3 metres by 3 metres - and that the lady nearly came to my table to tell me that my sandwich was ready anyway. It was my luck that this was a festival day and they shut early - cutting me loose from my high speed tether to the online world.

I return to Chennai via Mamallapuram, a wonderful town where there are several temples carved entirely out of stone. Sometimes these have been carved entirely out of just a single piece of stone. These are well presented and a pleasure to see in real life. The only bus that would take me back was a state run bus which was brimming with passengers, and I stood all the way back to Chennai.

On the way to the airport, my auto rickshaw was stopped from entering the domestic termal about a kilometre from the entrance and I had to walk with my luggage to the entrance. The monsoon rains were in full swing and my bags remain wet a day later.

1 comment posted so far
Moosra wrote at 2:14 pm on Fri 4th Dec -
You had a mare going to Kerala rather than Karnataka... the latter would have offered you the chance to see the true nature of India. Kerala is just full of clowns who somehow manage to live up to every stereotype of south Indians.

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by SS at 2:29 am on Friday 4th December

My flight from Goa to Cochin was mildly eventful. I was much ridiculed by the astrologer in Pallolem for flying instead of taking the convenient and simple train ride, to my defense, I plead ignorance. While the train pretty much travels in a straight line, the flight involves transfers to an airport some distance away from both airports and a stop over in Bangalore.

Bad weather to Bangalore held up our plane and we spent four hours waiting in the considerably dull Goa departure lounge, distracted only by the supply of free samosas at the airline's expense. It seems the karmic law of the universe had not fully satisfied itself and the south Indian thali I ate the night previously caused severely painful acid reflux, to the point where I spent most of those four hours sitting doubled over. Naturally, my medication was locked inside my checked in bag.

Once the plane was underway, it was a pleasant trip to Bangalore (where they had held up the ongoing plane just for us) and then Cochin. The taxi ride from the airport to Ernakulam, a large town in Cochin, was reminiscent of my initial bus ride through South Goa; beautiful scenery surrounded the taxi whichever way you looked out of the window. The terrain was markedly different though, adding large patches of water to the green leafy vegetation of further north. These are, of course, the popular Kerala backwaters.

Ernakulam was a relatively mediocre place for a tourist, lacking much to see and being a typically bustling (and hence gratingly unfriendly) Indian town. To its merit though, the food was the cheapest that I have eaten yet in India - an accolade not to be taken lightly, given the generally low cost of filling your stomach elsewhere.

My hotel was a pleasant cottage affair which was attached to a restaurant. The room itself was one of the nicest I had stayed in and I elected to save money on the rate by foregoing air conditioning. In the end though, I spent a considerably quantity of time in the room and the heat sapped my productivity.

Breakfast each day was usually whatever they had prepared, which for reasons unknown to me, changed daily. In any case, it was delicious - chapatis one day, parathas the next (which are called parottis everywhere there for some reason) and a dosa the next. This would all typically be accompanied by some variety of curry. Yum.

Dinner was also authentically south Indian - dosas, idli and vegetable noodles (well, perhaps not so authentic). In my quest to cool my body temperature, I walked the street to find a milkshake or similar (a particular favourite beverage group of mine). To my great joy, there was a restaurant not ten metres from my hotel which had an extensive menu of lassis and shakes.

After ordering and grumbling about the 3 rupee surcharge on take out orders, I casually observed the sweet lassi being made. As he added all the usual ingredients, my mouth watered with keen anticipation. Just before he was about to mix it, alarm bells went off in my head as he took what appeared to be a child's beach spade and shovelled a large quantity of curious looking powder from a bucket into the blender.

My fears were confirmed when he told me that the bucket contained sugar. As I gingerly sipped the drink, my thoughts wandered to the, now likely, onset of Type 1 diabetes. A quick mental walk down a chain of logic later and I concluded that 'hey, I'm in India, not going to get such drinks back home'. So if you catch me drinking a lassi at home, remind me of this story.

I spent a day in Cochin on a government run backwaters tour which consisted of painfully slow cruising down peaceful canals filtering through various villages in the Kerala countryside. It was a curious sight to see and reflected a lot of the backdrop in the Malayalam film I saw in Goa. After lunch we took a houseboat to various islands, snapping some unoriginal but spectacular regardless photos. From the description our guide gave us, it seemed that the majority of Kerala's income derives from the coconut tree or many derivative products of the coconut tree.

The next day I took the ferry to Fort Cochin, a considerably more tourist oriented area. Queuing for a 2.5 rupee ferry ticket was far more stressful than it should have been, perpetuated by the insistence of the ticket seller to only sell tickets for five minutes before the imminent departure of a ferry. Arriving just after a ferry had left the jetty, I found myself near the front of the quickly growing queue for the next ferry, suffering from all the usual discomforts of queueing in India.

A ticket later, I boarded the ferry, taking care not to touch any of the rusty exposed metallic surfaces (although my tetanus shot should have allayed any fears). As we approach the Fort Cochin jetty, it was necessary to breath in through my mouth as the vast amount of algae growing on the surface of the water immediately surrounding the island emitted the most unpleasant odour.

I walked first to the chinese fishing nets, curious contraptions which line the sea front of the island. It was here that my paan craving (which hadn't been satisfied for a day previous when the combination of a Muslim festival and the paan sellers only being Muslim had basically halted the supply of paan) drove me to request a meetha paan from a stall near the nets. This paanwala did not seem to think it was possible to make a paan without supari and I was much disappointed with the resulting leaf filled with paste and little else.

Walking onwards, I was repeatedly bothered by an auto driver who would not accept that I wanted to walk around Fort Cochin on my own. After about twenty minutes of walking around lackadaisically and repeatedly asking him to 'go away', he finally departed. As I explored the narrow streets and gazed upon the ancient churches, I wandered into a bookshop and picked up a copy of the Upanishads, on the advice of my friend the astrologer. This will hopefully be the first step to understanding the nature of Vedic spirituality.

A relatively expensive lunch later, I headed to Jewtown, and was much in awe of the variety and calibre of the articles in all the various antique shops. Unfortunately the synagogue was shut but I was able to get a feel of the place. After picking up a small metal elephant as a gift (and not being able to knock more than 10% off the price - those sellers stick to their guns!), I grabbed an auto to take me back to the ferry jetty.

The roads in Fort Cochin are fairly average sized and you would only just able to fit two cars side-by-side. As the rickshaw puttered down Bazaar Road, we came to an abrupt halt. Peering out from under the canopy, I noticed a large load bearing truck parked on the side of the road. Immediately next to it was a similarly sized truck trying to get past. The driver was yelling at the pedestrians near the parked truck to move it forwards, while the pedestrians assured the driver he could safely pass.

Lots of shouting later and this truck passed with what must have been mere atoms of free space. Assuming that this was the only truck foolish enough to come this way, I was shocked when I saw yet another truck move forward to try and negotiate the constricted section of road, behind it were at least another four trucks. At this point my driver admitted defeat and turned the rickshaw in search of an alternative route.

3 comments posted so far
Moosra wrote at 2:08 pm on Fri 4th Dec -
Type 2 Diabetes, not type 1.

YES finally the biomedroy strikes back with pendanticism to match SS' compsci fervour.
HRL AA wrote at 4:29 pm on Fri 4th Dec -
You pedantic roys!
SS wrote at 10:25 pm on Fri 4th Dec -
Damn, you're right. I got confused - oh well, good to know this for when it does eventually catch me.

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Shore Temple & A Rainbow
Shore Temple & A Rainbow
In Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu.
6:32 pm on Wednesday 2nd December by SS
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Beach At Chennai
Beach At Chennai
Not quite paradise.
12:10 pm on Monday 30th November by SS
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Chennai At Night
Chennai At Night
9:13 pm on Sunday 29th November by SS
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Rusty Ferry
Rusty Ferry
Glad I had the tetanus vaccination.
1:26 pm on Saturday 28th November by SS
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Indian Ant
Indian Ant
On a coconut tree.
6:27 pm on Friday 27th November by SS
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Kerala Backwaters
Kerala Backwaters
6:25 pm on Friday 27th November by SS
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by SS at 3:38 pm on Friday 27th November

The last couple of weeks have flown on by. My last week of work with OLPC India was eventful, we attended a launch lunch by Salesforce.com for their non profit organisation in India as well as the much planned for visit by Professor Nicholas Negroponte.

The Salesforce.com event was interesting - having used the basic functions of the software for several weeks, I struggled to see the weight behind all the hyperbole they used to describe it. I have a feeling that our deployment on the service may have only just begun to scratch the surface of what it could be useful for in a typical organisation. In any case, lunch was good.

I wasn't much aware of what was happening with Professor Negroponte's visit to India - lacking information about what I needed to attend and where until the day itself. I managed to see him address members of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) in the Hyatt Regency. His speech was full of conviction, something which struck me very quickly - he answered difficult questions well and was honest in saying so if he didn't have an answer. Later we went to a dinner for MIT Alumni in Delhi where the Professor made a brief experience before heading off to the airport. After many introductions, explaining that I was from the other Cambridge became second nature.

In the course of the week, I must have picked up nearly twenty business cards, and indeed was told off for not carrying my own! Perhaps something I will have to remedy as I enter the professional world. Does anyone know where you can get orange business cards? :-)

My last week in Delhi was spent doing some web-design (as evidenced by the recent site refresh of Hype Dark) and spending time with the family of a good friend from university who lives in Delhi. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to drive on the Indian roads, although despite my fervent vow to try and complete the journey without using the horn once, it was not possible. The issue is that other drivers remain unobservant, so you end up beeping to make them aware of your presence. All told though, driving in India is much easier than driving back home since you really don't need to worry about the rules of the road. In England, you spend substantial effort concentrating on your lane placement, looking in your mirrors and signalling!

A short flight and a long bus journey later, I walked onto Pallolem beach to set up camp in a beach shack for a couple of nights. My first trip on a public Indian bus was uneventful, save for slight drama when embarking when I panicked thinking I was on the wrong bus. I asked a lady on the next row if the bus was going to Pallolem, she said no. I stood up and got off, bag in tow, when someone outside the bus told me that this was the right bus. As I got back on the bus, I noticed the lady had moved into my seat!

Pallolem is one of the two places in the world that resonates perfectly with my soul, where I could happily exist indefinitely. (The other place being a wilderness camp in Alaska.) It is an incredibly chilled out place, where life is simple. I wasn't harassed by beach vendors at all (although this could be because I didn't camp out on the beach itself, nor am I white). There are many shacks which contain bars, cafes and restaurants which line the beach - it is almost expected that you sit and sip a cocktail whilst the day floats on by.

As I sat and read Larry Lessig's book The Future of Ideas in one of these cafes, an Indian girl (who must have not been much older than myself) sat nearby, strumming her guitar and composing a song. Another group of British travellers discussed the demerits of Facebook (which I struggled to manage avoid commenting on). The staff are genuinely friendly too, which was astounding, having visited a fair amount of the rest of India.

Two other residents of the beach hut colony where I stayed were regulars around the campfire in the evenings - an astrologer from Nottingham and a Finnish photographer. Conversation was intriguing, ranging from how best to avoid mosquitos biting in sensitive areas to religion and spirituality.

I was fairly reluctant to leave Pallolem but the extremely (talkative and hence) persuasive manager of the hotel in Panjim in North Goa, my next destination, convinced me to retain my original booking. This wasn't all bad though, since on the bus to Panjim, I met a group of French students (and one Finnish guy) who were also heading the same way. They're studying in Pondicherry University as part of an exchange program where they get to spend a year in India.

That afternoon I toured Panjim, meeting an English gent (whose name I have completely forgotten) as a direct result of following the Lonely Planet walking tour (I guess there is some benefit to subscribing to mass consumer culture).

The next day I went to Old Goa with the French (+ Finn) group. There isn't too much to see there besides a plethora of Catholic churches which, in typical Catholic-church-fashion, depressed me with their imposing and terrifyingly grandiose depictions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other biblical scenes.

That evening, we managed to catch a film at the International Film Festival Of India. Ignoring the absolutely nightmare in trying to get tickets, the film itself (a 1997 Malayalam film called Bhoothakannady) was predictably dark, as seems to be the case with most arty films. It provided an interesting insight into traditional South Indian culture and village life, something which hasn't been present in any of the Bollywood films I have seen so far.

On Wednesday, a duo of buses (one where I was in the close proximity of a woman smelling strongly of fish) took me to the Vagator beach. Near to the beach lie the ruins of an old fort, a short walk up the hillside. Unfortunately, the man I asked for directions was not aware of this 'official' route and so I took the mildly more arduous and exponentially more sweaty route involving clambering over 45 degree rocks near a cliff face. Once the top presented itself though, great views of the beach below were mine to behold.

After making my way down and hitching a lift on a motorcycle, I made my way to Anjuna to visit their weekly flea market. This was a curious mix of locals (in some scarcity though), alternative types and generally vacant tourists. Several t-shirts and music CDs later, I went to meet up with the French (+ Finn) backpackers for lunch followed by a general layabout on the beach.

Having delved into the Lonely Planet on many a occasion, I was aware that several scams for getting money from tourists were in circulation. When an Indian man pointed at my ear, it took a few seconds for me to clock what was happening. As he started explaining himself, he placed some kind of metallic stick near my ear and showed it covered with ear wax to me. It was at this point that I wish I had sworn at him and told him to get a real job, but instead actually told him to go away and leave me alone. This and the incessant stream of beach vendors made me yearn for the peace of Pallolem.

Dinner in Panjim that night was very messy, an unusual bout of clumsiness that I am still struggling to explain. As the waiter asked for my order, I dropped my phone - it responded with it's usual trick of exploding into many different pieces. Later, as I was sitting reading my book, sipping my drink and waiting for my order, I spilt water over the table. When my meal finally arrived, I managed to flick some of the curry onto the floor with the spoon.

It was only natural then that karmic law of the universe should effect itself such that when the waiter cleared my table, water should drip all over my the crotch of my light coloured shorts. With the bill only seconds away and my inevitable departure from the restaurant within minutes, my brain raced to find a solution. Unfortunately, having left all my bags in my room, I was only able to walk awkwardly out of the restaurant with my book (Wikinomics, should it matter) covering my embarassing water stain. It will probably be a while before I return.

3 comments posted so far
srilankanlion wrote at 12:22 am on Mon 30th Nov -
top stuff
HRL Anish wrote at 7:14 pm on Mon 30th Nov -
Gripping stuff! Keep it up!
Sunil Patel (the capello formerly known as SS) wrote at 6:05 pm on Tue 1st Dec -
Damn that Anish for calling himself "His Royal Lowness".... ironically makes himself high.

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