Friday, May 30, 2008

Indian Infrastructure: Traffic, Electrical Power, and Garbage

The three things that everyone seems to complain about in Indian cities (and Bangalore is no exception) are the congested streets and roads, power outages, and garbage that accumulates nearly everywhere.

The streets are clogged. Not long ago, the classic Ambassador (which you can still see in the old Bollywood movies on TV here) was the only car available. Now compact cars, especially hatchbacks, predominate with Maruti, Hyundai and Tata Motors the most popular brands. Utility vehicles and SUVs are also available. Buses, trucks, auto rickshaws, bicycles, and two wheelers (scooters, small capacity motorcycles and mopeds) add to the chaos. In 2002, more than 50,000 new cars were bought in Delhi alone. And the growth is just beginning. In January, 2008, Tata Motors introduced their Nano, billed as a “one lakh car.”($2,000.)

India reportedly has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Bangalore’s local newspaper, The Deccan Herald, reported yesterday that there were 5,091 non- fatal accidents in 2007 and 667 involving fatalities. Crossing the street can be a dangerous undertaking. The other day as we were walking near our place, we turned quickly when we heard tires screeching. A scooter driver was under the front of a small pick up truck, his helmet thrown off. I was sure he was dead, but seconds later his head popped out, he grabbed his helmet, put it back on, and rode off. The truck left the scene just as quickly before the onslaught of a crowd (inevitable whenever there is an accident) had time to form or the police had time to get there.

On a previous visit to Bangalore the three-wheeler I was riding in was forced into the median strip by a car driven by a professional driver and carrying some businessmen. For a terrifying second we both saw it coming but my driver, in a much smaller and lighter vehicle, was powerless to do anything about the situation. By the time the car driver realized what was happening, the auto rickshaw was crushed against the concrete median. I felt so sorry for my woeful looking driver, who probably had to make reparations to the vehicle’s owner, that I left him some extra money before leaving the scene.

Power outages are so frequent that all companies, hotels, and shopping malls have generators that kick in whenever the power goes off. When I was in New Delhi a couple of months ago, my friend Terri and I were captivated by the clumps of cables draped across the exterior of buildings everywhere.

The apparent lack of a system for trash collection is the toughest thing for me to accept. Even a nice neighborhood will have a vacant lot contaminated by all types of garbage, often with a lone cow nibbling away at it. I have seen trucks picking up garbage from some of these lots, so there must be a system, obviously one that the western mind can’t comprehend. The good news is that quite a bit of recycling seems to come out of those pick ups. I was impressed to find a family operated recycling center where bales of magazines and newspapers were waiting for collection in my neighborhood.

On a TV news spot the other day they reported that the garbage pickers are so unhappy with their jobs (for good reason) that they resort to drinking alcohol daily, a pretty desperate solution for folks who are forbidden to imbibe.

There may be efforts afoot to solve the waste problem but we don’t see much evidence of them. Plastic bags are given most places, although some upscale shops are now using lovely paper handled carry bags that can be used practically and aesthetically. When we entered the supermarket the other day with a big shopping bag we planned to pack our groceries in, the security guard required that we leave it behind in the bag check.

In contrast, in parts of the “primitive” state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast, plastic bags have been outlawed and market purchases are wrapped in newspaper. The big difference is population density. Arunachal Pradesh has 13 people per square kilometer while in a large city like Delhi it is over 9,000. Indian’s cities will have to work hard to solve this and its other infrastructure problems as the train called progress has roared out of the station and is rapidly picking up speed.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bangalore Lifestyles

Much of Bangalore looks like our neighborhood in Koramangala. The streets of this, Indian’s Garden City, are lined with lacy and often lushly flowering trees. Children and dogs reign freely, and street sellers, fruit and vegetable carts, and mom and pop markets are commonplace.

For a 21st century feel, however, Bangalore has upscale shopping malls and supermarkets as well as several 5 star deluxe hotels like the Oberoi Bangalore, Taj West End, Windsor Sheraton and Towers, and Leela Palace Hotel.

Part of the Leela Kempinski Palaces, Hotels, and Resorts chain, it offers “panoramic views of the inner courtyard with lush gardens and the mist covered waterfalls.”

Long-term ex-pats and local professionals in Bangalore can find housing in a number of western style residential developments. Two of these are Palm Meadows, “a 95-acre integrated gated community with its luxury villas dotting the exquisite landscape,” and Ozone: “beyond-the-edge solutions in homes, offices, shopping, hospitality and leisure spaces.”

Bangalore: Life in the Hood

A friend sent me an email asking if Bangalore now looked and felt just like the Silicon Valley in California. My response was that, even with the infusion of high tech companies, their influence is definitely strong but not all encompassing.

I like our neighborhood in Koramangala because, even though there are trendy cafes with wireless Internet access (including a very expensive Italian one called Barista LavAzza), it has retained its Indian flavor. It has crowded food stalls, fruit carts, unpaved streets, small businesses like beauty shops and travel agents, and wandering through it all, an occasional cow. The building boom means lots of construction sites with women doing much of the work, mostly carrying heavy loads of rocks in baskets on their heads. Their children often dangle from their backs or cling to their skirts.

The big surprise was finding a herd of a dozen or more water buffalo wallowing in mud created by the recent rains about a block from our comfortable condo. Their caregivers seemed to be a family that included several young children. They scurried inside their corrugated metal roofed lean to when they spotted my camera. It was all just a few doors down from the Men’s American Beauty Parlour and next to a little cart where a beautiful young mother ironed her clients’ garments with a coal iron. As I took her picture, a tractor lumbered past.

Monday, May 26, 2008

India’s Religious Tapestry: Bangalore’s Krishna Temple and Beyond

During my first week in Bangalore, I wanted to experience a piece of Hindu India. What better place to do that than a visit to the ISKCON Temple (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as the Hare Krishna movement.) It is one of 40 temples that have been built by the organization, founded in 1966 in New York City by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Devotees worship Krishna as the highest form of God.

The temple visit is free, unless you choose to take the paid route that separates you from the majority of the pilgrims. I chose to take the mainstream path where I saw no other westerners. The first thing everyone must do is leave behind all large bags (cameras are forbidden) and shoes. Part of the procedure involves giving the men in charge your name and cell phone number, both of which go on a flimsy pink receipt which must be returned, along with a numbered token, at the end of the visit in order to retrieve your belongings.

The path leads to viewings of gold encrusted, flower-bedecked statues, to the recorded background chant of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” Since I couldn’t photograph inside the temple, you can get a feel for what it was like (complete with chanting) by going to the web site:

After passing through the temple, I entered the commercial area where I bought some beads, a hand made cell phone case, and t shirts with stylized drawings of Krishna on the front and “I Lost My heart in Vrindavana” on the back. I also got some delicious spiced (masala) cashews.

I understand that the temple promotes the protection of cows, seen as important for a prosperous and healthy society. The milk of 40 cows (maintained by the community) is used in the making of the sweet delicacies sold here. The large kitchen producing the snacks has the capacity to provide food for two thousand visitors per hour.

Preparation and distribution of vegetarian foods offered to Lord Krishna (prasadam) have always been an essential part of the Vedic culture. In over 40 years, ISKCON has served over 150 million nourishing free dinners, opened over thirty vegetarian restaurants, and widely publicized the value of a spiritual vegetarian diet through printed materials and films. To commemorate this philosophy, each temple visitor is offered a bowl of Kichri (a combination of rice and other ingredients) at the end of the tour.

Here are some photos of other places of worship or religious symbols I took in Northeast India and Delhi.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

It May Not be Nagaland but It’s Not Kansas Either

I had requested a residence hotel with a functional kitchen and the Halcyon had that. So our next task was to buy something to cook. The first supermarket we found was completely “veg.” While we don’t eat red meat, I was hoping for chicken, fish, or even canned tuna. They had none of the above. We bought some things anyway including 1-liter bottles of Italian olive oil and red wine vinegar that set us back $20. U.S. (Imported items have huge duties in India. While these two items aren’t available in an Indian version, things like pasta are available at about a quarter the import prices.)

We asked the driver if he knew any place to buy chicken. He searched and inquired and soon stopped by the side of the road, telling me the nearby shop was the place. It was filled with chickens all right, live and in cages. He told me in halting English that they would kill one for me. I thanked him but said that I would look for it all wrapped in plastic like I was used to.

The next market, a brand new branch of a European chain, Spar, was the place we had been looking for. We found almost everything on our list including reasonably priced spoons, spatulas, hot pads, a can opener and grater. The one thing we couldn’t find was laundry bleach. When I asked for it, a female employee started to lead me to the cosmetics section. I told her I didn’t think it would be there, that I wasn’t talking about hair bleach. “Oh,” she said, “I thought you wanted bleaching cream.” I told her we didn’t use that too much and she said, “Yes, because you don’t have to. Your skin is good.”

Terri and I often found this mentality in remote Northeast India where the locals had seen very few foreigners. As we visited their villages of palm or bamboo thatched huts, women often inquired about our white skin. One asked our guide if she had been born in our country would she be white. It makes me sad to photograph these lovely women whose rich skin tones I admire and realize that the western standard of beauty has colored their view of themselves. Here are some photos of beautiful women I have photographed throughout India.

You Gotta Have a Cell Phone With a Bollywood Ringtone

After a good night’s sleep at the Halcyon, our comfortable residence hotel in Bangalore’s suburb called Koramangala. we arranged a car and driver and headed for the Forum Shopping Center. Our mission: to try to get a local cell phone with Sim card. The Halcyon gave John a letter of residence, which he carried with a passport sized photo and photocopies of his passport and Indian visa. (Don’t leave home without them!)

Our first stop was MacDonalds, where I never set foot in the U.S. However, when in New Delhi in February I had acquired a fondness for two tasty dishes; Paneer and Chicken Tikka wraps. We fought our way through the huge lines of folks, mostly young student types, ate our hybrid snacks, then set out to find a mobile.

Like we always do at Verizon offices in California, we waited a long time in the Vodaphone office across from the mall. After a half an hour we gave up in frustration when our name didn’t seem any closer to the top of the list than when we arrived. Our energetic driver, Amil, referred us to a shop inside the mall selling a variety of telecommunications products and services. We asked for the cheapest phone available and chose a small Nokia. The young clerk (they are ALL young!) requested signatures across John’s photos and multiple other spots on the required forms. As we crowded onto the down escalator of the upscale mall we felt like we had become one with the Indian masses in a very small way. We now had an Indian cell phone!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Incredible India: Entrances Compared

My husband John and I approached the immigration official at the airport in Bangalore side by side. “Are you traveling together?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, then added. “We’re married.” His response in clipped British-style English: “I never make any assumptions about that.”

With that, we entered the world of Bangalore, the high tech capital of India, where John would be on assignment for Cisco Systems for the next 2-1/2 months. It was my second time entering India in the past 3 months.

In February and March I traveled with fellow photographer and friend Terri Gold photographing the tribes in Northeast India. It used to be called the Northeast Frontier or the Seven Sister States. Our entrance to the restricted region of Nagaland (, former home to fierce headhunters, was not that sophisticated.

Besides an Indian visa, a special permit is required to enter Nagaland. These are only issued for couples (meaning a man and a woman) or groups numbering four or more. The tour company in New Delhi had put two extra women on our permit, one from France and another from Japan. They were mysteriously “not able to travel when it came time to get on their planes,” explained the Bhutanese Nepali managers of the company that had been founded by a Buddhist Rinpoche. Even though deceased, the holy man still had a dedicated office in their small complex, complete with a dusty outdated computer.

After we had landed in Jorhat, Assam, we crossed the border into Nagaland. Here a soldier stopped us to confiscate our Tata jeep-like vehicle for government work. The state election was only a few days away and they were short on wheels, he explained. Jimmy, our able Naga guide, was able to persuade them that it was not a good idea to leave paying guests without transport. (We later found out that if the only occupants were locals, the vehicle would have been taken for sure.) This lone soldier didn’t check our document for missing tourists so we thought we were out of the woods.

A few kilometers down the road we encountered the officer in charge who said we were not going anywhere in a group of two women. Jimmy got on his cell phone and called all of his contacts in the nearby regional capital, Kohima. He talked a friend of a friend into leaving his home late on a Sunday evening to try to get us into the mysterious region. The kind man was also a police captain who ranked the guy on duty, but unfortunately it wasn’t his watch.

After long negotiations they struck a deal. If we would back track to the police headquarters and redo the documents, it would be Open Sesame. By breakfast the next day our problem had been solved using some ingenuity and a little oldfashioned document manipulation with white out. The multiple photocopies of our documents listed only Mary Altier and Terry Gold. The French and Japanese women had become MIA.