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Archive for May, 2010

Gettin’ Around

May 14, 2010 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some of the things that make Delhi a great place to live. Today, the New York Times is on the case, reporting on Delhi’s state-of-the-art subway system:

The Delhi Metro manages to defy just about every stereotype of urban India. It is scrupulously clean, impeccably maintained and almost unfailingly punctual. Its cars are the latest models, complete with air-conditioning and even power outlets to let commuters charge their mobile phones and laptops. Its signaling and other safety technology is first rate, and the system is among the best in the world, urban transport experts say. Despite cheap fares, less than 20 cents for the shortest ride and about 67 cents for the longest, the system manages to turn an operating profit.

The story credits Delhi Metro’s 77-year-old managing director, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, with the system’s success. Here’s a brief snippet about his unique management approach:

Instead of dry procedural manuals, senior managers are given a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, one of Hinduism’s most important texts. But its significance is not religious, said Anuj Dayal, a spokesman for the Metro.

“It is a management text,” he said of the book, which is taken from the Mahabharata, an epic poem at the heart of Hindu philosophy. “It is the story of how to motivate an unmotivated person.”

The Bhagavad-Gita retells a battlefield dialogue between the god Krishna, disguised as a chariot driver, and Arjuna, a brave but demoralized king. Krishna convinces him that he must do his duty against all odds, and fight even what seems to be an unwinnable war.

It is a message that resonates with workers, many of whom came from India’s railway system, where bureaucratic procedures hampered even the smallest innovations. But in the Metro even the lowliest employees’ ideas are taken seriously, said P. K. Pathak, who runs Metro’s training institute.

To be honest, the first time I caught a subway train in the city, I was quite  impressed… and a bit disoriented–the stark contrast between what you encounter on Delhi’s dusty, traffic-choked roads and the cleanliness, order and machine-like efficiency you find immediately below is startling.

And though it’s incredibly pleasant, it’s not yet it’s not yet incredibly convenient–I’ve only taken the metro a handful of times, as it doesn’t yet run near my house. If Metro construction remains on schedule, however, that may soon change, as a new station is planned for a site not-too-far from home.

In the meantime, I’ve been relying on Delhi’s ubiquitous mode of transportation: the auto-rickshaw. But that, too, is quickly changing.

Now, like the good old days in Washington, I’ve hopped back on a bicycle. And I’ve set aside the American road bike for an authentic Indian ride: the indestructible, affordable, stylish, all-steel Atlas Gold Star. Here it is:

On Delhi's busy streets, the bell is crucial.

The Past Month…

May 7, 2010 1 comment

Relaxing

The blog’s been pretty quiet of late, I know, but that doesn’t mean things here have settled down. In fact, the last few weeks have been exciting and eclectic, hot and hectic, busy and beautiful. I’m about to leave town for the weekend, but here’s a quick recap:

I used to spend my days like this…

Reading

Then, three weeks ago, I strolled into a small, newly renovated office space in an apartment building just a few blocks from my house. The latest in a string of job interviews, I was there to chat with the head of the India branch of TechnoServe, a U.S.-based NGO working to help mostly rural entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses in an effort to fight poverty.

A few days later, the folks at Gmail delivered a short but sweet letter to my inbox inviting me to join the TechnoServe-India team. I jumped at the chance, and am now (very excitedly) helping to launch and manage a communications operation for TechnoServe-India.

I’ll have much more on my job in the near future. In the meantime, you can check out our website, www.technoserve.org, for more info on our work.

The new job’s been occupying much of my time—though certainly not all of it! I’ve been working three-day weeks until all of the official paperwork is finalized, which means extra-long weekends, and the incredible fortune of being able to see places like this…

Vashisht Mountains

I took advantage of my flexible schedule this past weekend with a short trip up to the mountains near Manali, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas. “Short trip” may not be the most appropriate description—it took us over 15 hours to reach our destination—though we only spent about two days up there. We hung in a nearby village called Vashisht for much of trip, gawked at the mountains, sipped mint tea, trekked among waterfalls and colorful village huts and inhaled as much fresh, brisk air as our Delhi-polluted lungs could handle.

We then hopped in a car for what we hoped would be a much shorter ride home…

Hoped…

Instead, we rolled up and down winding mountain roads at a slow crawl, tailgating the enormous trucks that paralyze India’s roads at night, struggling to pull themselves up and around the steep hills and sharp curves. Creeping along, with a couple of chai-and-bathroom breaks, a quick stop for our driver to ask for blessings at a roadside temple, a short diversion to drop off some friends, and a brief encounter with the police— after being pulled over for talking on his cell phone, our driver not-so-slyly handed the officer a 100-rupee note; in a matter of seconds, we were off—we rolled into steamy south Delhi just before the dashboard clock flashed “5:00 AM.”

Not exactly the quick trip home for which we shelled out our extra rupees, but, as you tend to hear often around here, “no problem.”

The epic journey home was definitely a bit frustrating at the time—I had to be up for work two hours later and I generally prefer not to stumble into the (new) office with puffy eyes and an overgrown beard—but taken in good spirit, it’s another one of these wild experiences that makes life in India so rich, so unpredictable, and, as I said about the rest of this month, so exciting and eclectic, hot and hectic, busy and beautiful.

In about two hours, I’m off for what I think will be a pretty extraordinary trip with some friends. We’re spending the weekend in a remote wildlife reserve called Gandhi Sagar—we’ll be staying in housing typically reserved for forest department officials, and from our dealings with the authorities there, it seems like we may be some of the first tourists they’ve ever encountered!

Then early next week, I’ll embark on a much longer excursion to… well, suffice it to say, perhaps I’ll see you soon.

Photos are on their way. For now, give this classic Bollywood song a listen. I first heard it from the lips of the patriarch of a cheerful and carefree Indian family who was singing and picnicking in a beautiful park in Manali. They taught us the lyrics and tried to get us to sing along; as you’ll see once you  press Play, it’s pretty hard not to.

Phir melenge!