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Archive for January, 2010

Udaipur Photos Are Up

January 30, 2010 4 comments

Chai at sunrise

I still need some time to put my thoughts down about the second leg of last weekend’s trip, but in the meantime, I’ve posted some pictures from Udaipur.

You can check them out here.

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On the Road: Bundi

January 27, 2010 2 comments

Bundi

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend some time outside of Delhi this past weekend.

For my first trip, I decided to make my way southwest, to the state of Rajasthan, and once I arrived, I had a glimpse into what makes India so special: the gracious people; the gorgeous scenery; the grand traditions; and the indescribable vibe that permeates every conversation, every scene, every meal and every waking moment.

What follows is taste of my first few days on the road.

My first destination was Bundi, a small, quiet city in Rajasthan. Bundi’s known for being a bit off-the-beaten-path, filled with friendly and gracious people, few of whom are tourists (though with each year that passes, the “not-too-touristy” advertisement in the guidebooks becomes less and less of a fact).  It also has a gorgeous palace and a fort in the hills overlooking  the city, and one of Rajasthan’s most beautiful step-wells.

So, I made my way to Delhi’s Nizamuddin station and hopped on my Dehra Dun Express train at about 9:30 pm. I booked at ticket in the train’s Sleeper Class to get the proper introduction to the Indian railways; the cabin was cramped, plain and clean enough, with windows that didn’t really close and bunks for eight people — in other words, it was perfect (save for the florescent light perched directly over my face that could not be turned off). I climbed into my to bunk, kicked off my shoes, locked up my bag, unfurled my blanket and fell right to sleep.

And at around 11 pm, a little over an hour behind schedule (though pretty timely, as far as Indian trains go), I awoke to the sound of the train’s horn, and we pushed off for the 12-hour ride to Bundi. Or at least that was the plan…

When I opened my eyes around 6:30 am, we were pulling into a station somewhere south of Delhi — though apparently not that far south. The train had been moving all night, but crawling at a snail’s pace because of blinding fog across northern India and we were clearly running behind. Others on the train began to wake, as chaiwallahs passed through they aisles hawking early morning tea. After a few hours of milling around and broken conversation with a few of my cabin mates, I finally asked how far we were from Bundi. One guy told me, pretty confidently, that we were about three hours away.

Which was pretty funny, because, three hours later, when I again asked him how far we were from Bundi, he looked at me with the same confident stare and said, “about three hours.” Hmm.

Another passenger pulled out a train schedule and determined that we were running about eight hours behind, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if I hadn’t planned on spending just one day in Bundi — my plan was to arrive early in the morning, around 9, spend the day exploring the city, and then head to Udaipur on an overnight bus at around 10 pm.

At this point, it’s after 2 pm, and we’re not in Bundi yet. We pull into the station at Kota, another city in Rajasthan, where we’re informed that the train will not be going any further. Umm, ok…

So I hop off the train, grab an auto from the train station to the bus station (10 minutes), and buy a ticket for the next bus from Kota to Bundi. A few minutes later, we’re bouncing along on a packed bus — seats are full, the aisle’s full, I’ve got my bag on the lap of the guy next to me, who, judging by how deeply he’s sleeping, doesn’t seem to mind — on the road to Bundi. And about an hour later, we arrive… at the Bundi bus station, which, I find out, is not where the overnight buses leave from.

So I hop in another auto and we buzz around town looking for the place that private buses depart from. After a little while, I had my ticket for the sleeper bus, and the auto took me to downtown Bundi.

It’s now 4:45 pm. The palace closes at 5:00, the sun sets around 6:30, and I’m due to leave just after 10.

This was not exactly how I planned my trip, but to be honest, I really was enjoying every minute of it, learning the in-and-outs — we’ll call them “complexities and challenges” — of Indian travel, chatting with other frustrated passengers, riding trains, autos and buses, and just figuring things out. I was told before I came here to approach every day as an exciting adventure; it’s advice that’s been serving me well, and it certainly came in handy that day.

So, with my heavy pack on my back, I quickly raced up the hill to the palace, ran from room to room — once I was actually chased out of a room by three fiercely screaming monkeys (I wonder if they get paid to clear the place out after dark) — snapped some photos, and then made my way further up the hill to hike around the fort. I finished my hike near the top of the fort, completely exhausted and ready to collapse. I sat down on small ledge, put down my bag, gulped some water, and peered out over the city.

In the distance, the setting sun painted the Bundi sky in the most serene shades of pink and orange, as it crept slowly behind the mountains, departing after a day’s work.

And I relaxed. Well, at least for a few minutes.

I made my way back down into the city. It was time for some dinner, and along the way, I stopped for more than a few cups of chai with city folk eager to just sit and chat with an American. Extraordinarily friendly people who, once it was clear that you weren’t interested in buying a sari or a painting or a wood carving of Ganesha, were more than happy to pull out some pillows, grab a seat and just talk. And, after a long journey alone, I was thrilled to do so, too.

Pictures from the train and Bundi are now up on my Flickr page.

Up next: Sleeper buses, Udaipur sunrises, squat toilets and, of course, lots more chai. Stay tuned.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, it’s… Lashkar-e-Taiba?

January 25, 2010 1 comment

I just got off a 14-hour train from Rajasthan, where I spent my first weekend outside of Delhi. I’ll have much more to say about the trip over the next few days, but I wanted to share this lovely news:

Delhi will turn into a security fortress next Tuesday for the 60th Republic Day celebrations in the backdrop of intelligence inputs about Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) acquiring over 50 para-gliding equipment which could be used to launch an air-borne suicide attacks.

Kamikaze hang gliders? The tens of thousands of soldiers on hand, marching alongside some of the world’s most advanced military equipment — helicopters, missiles and, yes, nuclear warheads — should have this covered, no?

On a lighter note: Does anyone have any contacts at DNA India News? It seems like they could use a proofreader…

The Fruit Cart

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I popped my head outside this morning and the local fruit cart was parked in our driveway, so I grabbed a banana, about a dozen chikoo (they’re delicious!), a papaya, and a whole bunch of oranges.

All weighed out on a rudimentary scale — fruit on one side, iron plates on the other — my week’s worth of nutrition clocked in at a whopping 150 rupees, or about $3. Yet another reason to love this place.

It’s not yet mango season, which I’m anxiously awaiting, but I also had my choice of guava, some sweet lime and batch of apples. And you can usually find pomegranates, packed with the most irresistibly bold crimson seeds.

For now, though, it’s time to eat!

Welcome to the United Nations

January 13, 2010 3 comments

United Nations Flag

I began my internship with the United Nations Development Programme on Monday. They told me to drop by the office at 4 pm (!), so I had the entire day to relax before heading over to the UN offices.

Or so I thought.

Monday morning was a bit dispiriting. Beard trimming mishap? Check. Power outage? Check. No water coming out of faucet or shower head? Check!

Poorly groomed, I made my way over to the Defence Colony market to grab some lunch. I figured some good spicy food and a cup of chai could clear out  the cobwebs. And that definitely did the trick!

After a fantastic meal (photos here) — cubes of Indian cheese in a spicy sauce with tomatoes and peppers, with a side of naan, in case you were wondering — I  headed over to Lodhi Gardens, a gorgeous, sprawling park adjacent to the UN’s campus in Delhi, to take a relaxing walk and shoot some photographs.

At around 3:45, that relaxing walk continued, right into the UN offices. Now, I assumed I’d be entering a pretty secure location — the secretary-general of UNICEF was holding a press conference on site — but strolling into the office was a total breeze. No metal detectors, no pat downs, no searches, even though I had a large black backpack slung over my shoulder. Quite different than my last place of work.

The atmosphere inside was just as laid back. But the first thing I noticed, once I stepped into the UNDP office, was the huge portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, carefully watching over the entire staff, another piece decor that I can’t say I recall gracing the walls at my previous office…

A young UNDP staffer brought me into a smaller room to meet the Communications team, with whom I’ll be working for the next few months. The head of Communications for UNDP-India ran me through my responsibilities (which I’ll explain in a moment), had me sign some papers and printed me off some backgrounders to read so I know what I’m talking about. Then we shared a cup of chai, delivered right to our seats by a roving tea server

And that was it. Day one lasted about an hour, and due to a space crunch in the office, I’m forced to do my work from the comfort of my bed, birds chirping outside, pajamas on, relaxing music…

ANYWAY, I hopped in a rickshaw and headed back to my apartment to start my first assignment — drafting a short report on a UNDP project aimed at resettling and rehabbing rural families that have been displaced by industrial, mining and irrigation projects in their region. The project, in the state of Orissa, also focused on educating community leaders and local government officials about responsible development and putting safeguards in place  to ensure that the local population is protected as new development projects are undertaken.

The state of Orissa, about halfway down India’s east coast, is one of the country’s poorest and most under-developed regions, and the state government’s efforts to remedy this through rapid development have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents. So UNDP has partnered with a number of different players — state government, local NGOs, tribal leaders, etc. — to find a better way forward.

UNDP, not surprisingly has a very large presence in Orissa — they actually have another office there — working with various groups, agencies and governmental bodies to reduce poverty (as with the project I just mentioned),  provide relief to communities affected by natural disasters, improve women’s rights and ensure food security, among other things. All extraordinary work.

And what’s really exciting is that I’ll soon be on a train to Orissa (or a plane, as the train takes about 24 hours, and that’s if all goes according to schedule), pen in hand and camera at the ready, to document that work.

I’m really looking forward to getting out of the city for a little while, to see the slower, calmer side of India, and to meet with people in more rural areas. From what I’m told, Delhi is it’s own beast, and it’s not until you leave that you witness “the real India.” We shall see…

That’s about all I have to report about work.

Up next: Tales from yesterday’s late-night journey to “Bavaria” with four of my German housemates.

UPDATE: I’ve received several compliments about the photo of the UN flag at the top of this page. I very much appreciate those compliments, but the truth is, I didn’t take that photo. I pulled it from elsewhere on the Web — it’s not even a shot from India. But these are all mine, and I think some of them came out pretty well :-).

A Place to Call Home!

January 8, 2010 2 comments

Finally, a place to call home!

I moved into my new apartment yesterday. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a mini-United Nations here — several Germans, a Belgian, a girl from Ireland, an Indian, a Bangladeshi, and now, an American.

Some of the German guys purchased the house a few years ago as a place for long-term visitors to stay. It’s housed thirty or forty different people since then, and it’s an incredibly laid back place, filled with really interesting people who’ve all (or mostly) decided to leave the West and spend part of their lives in India.

The house is three floors — I live on the ground floor in a massive room that I think was once a living room, and I’ve got a wall of windows, with doors that open into the front yard.

There are two kitchens — one is basically a room with a fridge and a sink (and the washing machine) for the people who live on the ground floor; the main kitchen is on the first floor (what would be the second floor in the U.S.).

We also have a rooftop terrace with loads of plants, a thatched roof and some neat Indian art. You really feel like you’re in a bungalow in some small village when you’re up there. And from one side, you’ve got a view of Siri Fort, one of Delhi’s tourist attractions.

I had a great first day here. My bed was delivered, via pushcart. Ate some great Turkish food with a few of my housemates, as well as a friend of theirs from Norway. And I was finally able to unpack.

Not much else to report, just trying to get settled in before work begins on Monday. In the meantime, here are a few shots of my room.

And some scenes from my neighborhood (more on my Flickr page).

Hope everyone’s enjoying the new year. Have a great weekend!

Shaken, and Stirred

January 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Today’s New York Times runs a revealing piece on how former U.N. Under Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, now a minister in India’s parliament, is shaking up Indian democracy and stirring resentment among fellow politicians by embracing social media tools:

It seemed an innocent enough question, posed by an Indian on vacation recently in the palace-studded region of Rajasthan. Should the Indian government make it more difficult for tourists to visit the country’s glorious sights by tightening visa requirements in the name of preventing terrorism?

On a road trip with his wife, the man who posed the question, Shashi Tharoor, tapped out this brief missive to his Twitter followers on his BlackBerry, in the cramped argot necessitated by Twitter’s 140-character limit: “Dilemma of our age. Tough visa restrictions in hope of btr security or openness & liberality to encourage tourism & goodwill? I prefer latter.”

But Mr. Tharoor, a writer and a former top United Nations diplomat, who is now a member of Parliament and a junior minister of foreign affairs, is not just any Indian, and the message went out not to just a handful of friends but to more than half a million people who follow him on Twitter.

That message, along with a few others mildly questioning the merits of India’s new, stricter tourist visa policies, landed him on the front page of most of India’s English-language newspapers, which accused him of a very big mistake in Indian politics: appearing to disagree publicly with his superiors on a delicate issue.

The Internet has revolutionized political discourse in the United States; it’s just begun to leave its mark on the Indian political system, shattering the accepted (or imposed) nature of elected official-constituent relations:

Politicians in democracies the world over have warmed to Twitter, the microblogging service, and other social media tools, like Facebook, to connect with voters. Many members of the United States Congress use it, as does Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

But in India, the world’s largest and most boisterous democracy, it has not caught on with elected officials. Indeed, many of India’s power elite, whether in politics, the news media or business, seem to look askance at Mr. Tharoor’s enthusiasm for a medium that collapses the distance between the governors and the governed and dismantles the layers of protocol and decorum that keep elected officials and senior bureaucrats here aloof from the everyday concerns of those they serve.

It’s worth reading the entire piece, as it illuminates a mere slice — a crucial one, to be sure — of the mountain of challenges facing a rapidly developing  India.

Please send along your thoughts.