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My husband is a guru. Or is it a god?

Michael had a faculty member visit this evening.  As a Fulbright lecturer, Michael is not just here to teach undergraduates, but also to mentor faculty.  One of the Indian lecturers here had just applied and been accepted to a US graduate school for a master's degree. The professor came over to our apartment for the evening, and he and Michael talked for a couple hours.

In the US, we joke about the slavery of underpaid graduate students. Here, it's actually true. In India, if you want a PhD, you find somebody who already has one and you become your advisor's peon. This includes doing laundry and errands and washing dishes and other menial tasks that have nothing to do with the field of study. If you're lucky, the advisor might choose to advise you too. Doctorates are heavily dependent on a PhD student's relationship with the advisor, unlike in the US where doctorates are University-centric and students might change advisors a couple different times. Very different. It helps explains the frequent spam from hapless Indian students who send unsolicited CVs to American professors, begging for their support.

Michael explained the American graduate-school systems as he understood them.  Most foreign students to focus exclusively on rankings, and US students (and employers) are only somewhat aware of them. Realistically, it's much better to balance the rankings against the possible funding available and the chances of getting in. Multiple applications are good-- you apply to a top school you would love but don't expect to get in, a lower-tier school where you're pretty sure you'll get in, and one or more middle schools where you feel you have a good chance. A program ranked #17 is not appreciably different from a program ranked #5. And funding is critical; if a university is a regional state school it can still have plenty of research dollars, even for master's students, despite that university being ranked 70th or 80th in the country. It still provides a very valuable US degree and often leads to success (with an American job and visa to follow).

In India, there are hordes of agents who students can enlist to take care of applying to American schools and coordinating all the paperwork. Our Desi friends in the US, who succeeded, generally said those agents are worthless. (Though granted, our NRI friends are stunningly brilliant people and are completely fluent in English. It might be different for a person who less talented or less fluent.)  Michael also suggested the professor contact the Indian student associations at the schools where he was applying. They can tell what the climate and atmosphere are like for Indian students at that particular school, and they'll have the inside scoop on if a program suddenly cut its funding. For visas, the existing students also know what days and times the nicer visa officials are on duty, and can advise each other on when to go to get a visa.

After their talk, when the professor was leaving, he caught Michael off guard by bending down and called him guru.  He asked Michael for a blessing and wanted to Michael to run his hands over him, like a god! The request felt very strange. But that's the sort of esteem in which Doctors of Philosophy are held here. It certainly takes arcane knowledge and higher-than-average luck to get a PhD, but in the US it is nowhere near as prestigious as it is here. One more difference.
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This past weekend we went on a long distance road-trip (10 hours) to extreme western Gujarat.  We saw Gir, Jahdtapur (sp?), Diu, Junagadh, and Somnath.

Unfortunately, Gir was closed for maintenance; it was all under construction. Turns out Gir National Park closes every summer/monsoon season, and it doesn't re-open this year until October 15. They weren't letting anyone in, no matter what. The large signs proclaimed in three languages that it is a point of pride that these public servants do not accept bribes or tipping. So we may go back and try to see the Asiatic lions in November.

We visited the large, famous Hindu temple at Somnath. There has been a temple on this spot continuously since about 300 BC. The site was a frequent target of raiders. Over the centuries, a couple Muslim mosques were also built at the same location. The current temple is about 60 years old, and controversial; they razed the latest mosque to build it. Maybe that's why there are guards with automatic machine guns at the gates. The temple does not allow any kinds of photography or mobile telephones, so we left our cell phones in the car.  As with all temples, you have to take off your shoes to enter. Michael and our driver, Alkesh, were barefoot. I was wearing socks and was just fine, but when the guys stepped on the sun-heated marble in their bare feet, they moved along quickly. Somnath was also my first sight of the Indian Ocean. There's a marker where from that point south, all the way to the South Pole, is completely ocean. Michael speculated that from that point north, all the way to the north pole, might be completely land.  We walked down and dipped our hands in the water.  Farther down the beach was a camel wading in the water and a stray dog playing in the surf.

The road to Diu was okay near Somnath, and then deteriorated. Our car rolled along for a couple hours through rural fields. There were field-worker camps nearby, with tarps propped up as makeshift tents. Part of the road, including a couple bridges, was under construction and our car followed detours diversions down into dry riverbeds and back up again.  There were even a few horses; our car swerved when two of them got away from the teenage boy who was holding them. We passed many auto-rickshaws and the occasional cycle-rickshaw or camel-pulled cart, but most of the traffic was motorcycles, Tata trucks, bullock-carts, and tractors pulling huge heaps of vegetation on trailers. I still can't get used to the traffic here.  When we got into the last town in Gujarat, we were directed along the better of the two roads to Giu.  The land gradually changed, finally becoming marshy estuary.  I smelled the sea air and it reminded me of home and the Chesapeake.   We finally rolled and bumped through the potholes to the checkpoint at Diu. 

Diu is its own independent little district; it's not part of Gujarat. Gujarat is a dry state (no alcohol), and Giu is not. The bars advertised their alcohol in neon lights. But away from the tourist strip, it's a lovely little seaside village with dozens of fishing boats pulled up on land in low tide. The old fort was especially picturesque, with waves crashing on the carved stone blocks. Michael had a cute little brown calf come up to him, as friendly as a puppy, and licked at his pant legs.  We saw the sun set over the old fort.

On the way back that night, we saw some sort of local traditional procession, with men dressed in long garments and covered in red streaks (paint? blood?), all hollering and carrying bamboo sticks. Our driver said he guessed this was some kind of local tradition for Navaratri (the goddess festival). It still felt wild when the traffic stopped and the apparent mob surged through, including directly around our car, with the men shaking their staffs and all shouting some unknown language.  They moved on, then so did we.

We bumped our way back to Junadgadh and stayed a second night at the Hotel Indralok. It's a good Western-style hotel there, with bathtubs and toilet paper. Cost is around 40 dollars a night for a super-deluxe air-conditioned room.  And all the plastic wastebaskets, buckets, pitchers, etc. said "Flora" all over them. :-) We considered driving back, but our driver had been fasting all day, and been up since 6 AM and would have been driving all night.  We found out why our driver had not liked the hotel the first night. He is not normally a driver, and he had to sleep in the driver-room barracks (cramped, with bunk beds). Alkesh is a successful businessman, the owner of his car-rental business. (In India, rental cars always come with a driver.) With the holiday, Alkesh had not been able to have one of his normal employees drive, so he had to take us himself. He didn't mind too much (he likes to travel). But he had not wanted to go back to the hotel and share a room with the other drivers. So we paid for his private hotel room ($14 for a non-AC room) and he was much happier.

The next day we took a longer stroll around Junagadh's historic fort and mosque. Those were beautiful, with elaborate carvings.  Michael went down to the very bottom of the early stepwell there; I was hot and went down part way and rested in the shade.  Michael said the well reminded him of dark caverns he's seen only in dreams.  We also went into the Buddhist caves there. The pigeons were thrumming in deep tones in the underground caverns, and it gave it the right atmosphere. We saw our first cobra, a small yellow snake peeking out of the fort wall. I also saw a lovely big lizard sunning itself in a hole in the rock.

I think my husband is part mountain goat.  After the fort, he insisted we go to the nearby mountain, Girnar. There's a guru there, at the top of a staircase of what locals call 9,999 steps. Both Hindu and Jain believers make pilgrimages there and climb the steps to the top; elderly people included.  It was already afternoon, and there was no way we could even think of climbing it; but Michael went up for about 20 minutes anyway, and came back down. Alkesh marveled at his boundless energy.  I remarked on it later, and Michael says his attitude is, "What would Michael Palin do?" That sounds like the right attitude to have in this country. 
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Friday night we went to a local children's park, Rotary club, and the undergrad business administration gala. 

The first stop was the nursery (plants). I thought of my parents when we visited the nursery. My dad in particular would love the giant palms--like his pet ponytail palms, but these ones are several stories tall.  We met our friends professors Hiren and Bhavesh and their families.  With their kids, we saw the Fish Gar (fish house). It's a building in the shape of a fish, with different aquarium tanks for different types of fish.

We ate supper at the park's restaurant. It turns out it's owned by [pharmacy school dean] JK Patel's brother. The food was excellent. I especially liked their papad (crispy bread wafer), and I don't normally like papad much.  They also made a Hydrabadi biryani which is a brilliant green rice dish that tasted really interesting (it's flavored with cilantro).

It turns out the hospital that treated Michael's broken toe (for $6) is sponsored by the local Rotary International club.  Dr. JK Patel drove us there. He's a member, and he gave Michael the scoop on the Rotary.  Dr. JK Patel introduced us to his Rotary club officers. I think he's wanting to introduce Rotary to Michael.

Michael got his bandage taken off at the Rotary Club hospital. The Rotary sponsors the hospital and other charitable works in Visnagar.  There's a traffic circle around one of their symbols in town.  Dr. JK Patel drove us there and back.  Michael was looking at the analgesic ointment they gave him for the pain, and then Dr. Patel started talking all about its chemical properties. It was great having an expert in the car.

It was late, so we went only briefly to Bhavesh's undergraduate Business Administration welcome gathering. (The BBA degree is part of the engineering school.) That was a quieter affair, though very well-organized. They had a live band that was pretty good.  They also had corporate sponsorship banners from local businesses (including Shukan, our favorite Visnagar restaurant).  They presented us each with a gift pack of flowers. This included Dr. JK Patel, to his surprise; he was still along to give us a ride back so Michael wouldn't have to hobble the 20-minute walk across campus.  For once, Michael didn't dance.
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We arrived back a little late for the Pharmacy College's fall welcome event/dance.  This was the same idea as the MBA school's event, welcoming alumni to mix with students and dance the gerba. They had a booming live band but, curiously, only a handful of people were dancing (though most were in gerba clothes). The food was much better. The pharmacy college's director/dean, Dr. J.K. Patel, welcomed us heartily.  He had shown Michael around his pharmacy the day before, including their greenhouse of plants used for drugs and drug research.

Michael joined in the gerba circle and danced for two rounds, arms waving, and surprising everyone including himself. As for me, I think I did a little better trying to dance this time, joining the line of women and mimicking their steps: turn clockwise and clap, turn counterclockwise and clap, then turn around and move forward and clap again. Maybe I'm learning this thing.

Pharmacy is a growing field in India; many drugs are manufactured here. Language note: in the US, a pharmacist is a highly trained dispenser of prescription drugs--those people are called "chemists" in India (and here, they normally don't ask for prescriptions).  In India, a Pharmacy degree prepares you for biochemistry and drug research.  They have several different concentrations at this pharmacy school, including animal research and ayurvedic (traditional plant-based medicine). It's not quite NIH, but they're doing real research here.
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Late Thursday afternoon, we zoomed off for a Western grocery run to Ahmedahbad (the relatively large city near here). This was our first time there since arriving at the airport.

Traffic in Ahmedabad is very dense, but it's the most well-behaved we've seen in India. Reason is, Ahmedabad stations traffic cops at all of the congested intersections in the major highways.  There were enough traffic police around that our driver actually put on his seat belt and latched it, and made our faculty host, Padneet, wear his belt too.  One other note - in India, there are huge speed bumps right before all the railroad crossings. So traffic is forced to slow down to a crawl, so it will miss an oncoming train.

We went to the big international shopping mall INDCON - or more specifically, to the "Reliance Mart" store there. Reliance Mart is like a US Super Wal-Mart, with groceries and housewares and furniture, but without the discount prices. The prices at Reliance Mart are about three times more expensive for comparable items we've seen elsewhere in India.  That's still usually cheaper than US prices, except when they're ludicrously expensive.

They're also very concerned about security and theft. The guards at the door at first thought my little black purse was a camera and they didn't want to let me in with it. I opened it up and showed them I didn't have any camera (I'd left the actual camera in the car).  They settled for putting a security sticker on my umbrella to show that I'd purchased it elsewhere.  When we checked out, they used electric zip-ties on each bag, and every clerk counted our bags. They counted the bags again and stamped our receipt several times when we left the building.

Reliance Mart sells Toilet Paper. Amazing! Can't get it elsewhere. So we stocked up.

We also bought groceries.  Michael purchased a couple dozen boxes of Tropicana fruit juice (no refrigeration necessary until after opening) for about 70 to 80 rupees each. We also picked up a few bags of international flavors of Lay's potato chips: indian Masaala, "American [sour] Cream and Onion", and Spanish "Tomato Tango".  And breakfast cereal. We have easy access to pasteurized milk here; there's an Amun dairy store on campus next to the canteen. So we have Kellogg's corn flakes ("The best Vegetarian source of Iron!") and some off-brand Fruit and Fibre cereal that proudly declares it is a "Member of the Snack Food Association, Virginia (USA)".  And Masala flavor Ramen noodles.

Besides toilet paper, our shopping list also included:
- Paper cups, plates, napkins, paper towels
- Bowls and teaspoons. Tea is good. I also splurged 60 cents for silver tongs for sugar cubes, just because.
- Several pots and pans. Our host is maybe arranging a stove or burner for us. I'm hoping to cook.
- A sewing kit. Michael had 2 buttons fall off his shirts in the last week.
- Scissors. We think we left our scissors in Paris?
- Dish soap. The housekeeper has been rinsing off our dishes in the bathroom sink, without any soap.

Our faculty companion this time was Padneet, a quiet engineering lecturer.  On the way back, we stopped by Padneet's relatives house. He introduced us to his brother's family and his parents. His mother offered us water and Pepsi.  The walls had a calendar with several Hindu gods; I recognized Ganesh.


Sep. 19th, 2009 10:08 pm
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Patan has very old Hindu carvings

This was Sweetie's excursion on Saturday, accompanied by Bhavesh, the MBA professor and our faculty coordinator's best friend. I was at home sick with GI issues, though I recovered by lunchtime and put in almost a full day of work. Michael still hasn't reviewed this, but I'm posting it anyway. I may edit this later and move some details around if I mixed up anything.

The Temple of the Sun

The Mughals are famous, but you never hear much about India's Hindu kings. Like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Hindu rulers claimed to be descendants of the sun gods--no longer actively worshiped even in the long-running Hindu religion. The temple was outstanding. There were many carvings and pillars. The sun at its zenith shines through a particular window and marker at certain times of the year.

Lake of a thousand temples

This was sad. It should be called, more accurately, a thousand former temples. They've all been vandalized and toppled down. Bhavesh said there used to be at least some temples in the middle of the lake, when he was a teenager. But now they're all down, vandalized. India has an incredible wealth of cultural heritage. It seems like there's so much emphasis on looking forward, there's not much value on the past. Given the choice between a modern shopping mall and centuries-old temples of long-forgotten gods? They'll take the shopping mall.

Patan Step-Well

Patan has the largest of the step wells in western India, the Ran Ki Vav carved in the mid-1000s. These wells were the major sources of water for people in the surrounding towns.  They're multiple stories deep, with elaborate carved steps going down and walls decorated with gods and worshipers. I went to a different well with Michael earlier that week, and write about that separately.

Most of the Patan stepwell was closed off that day; the apparent reason was because another tourist had been severely stung by bees or something. But it helps to have an American along who came thousands of miles for this trip. So Bhavesh and the driver pleaded, and the guards looked the other way while they ducked under the ropes into the restricted area.  (The group behind them also went, but they bribed the guards outright with some good haggling; the price went from 20 dollars to 20 rupees, or 40 cents.) 

The carvings were outstanding. This whole area was only recently excavated in the last few years. The carvings have persisted for centuries,
buried, but now are unprotected from the elements and vandals. It's not certain that they'll persist. Even the architect's original carving and site plan was still preserved, scratched into the wall. 
There were also many detailed carvings showing ritual acts of honoring the gods. In the interests of keeping this blog safe for work I'm not posting pictures, but there were all kinds of combinations and configurations: men and women, women and women, groups of people, people and animals, gods and humans. The actions likely have religious significance, but it's not certain if they were done primarily for fun or for worship or both. It was enough to make one of our Indian friends lament the prudishness of modern-day India, where the police will arrest even married couples for kissing in public. 

I'm hoping we will go back there together. Patan is relatively close to Visnagar, less than two hours away, so it's day-trippable.
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The new apartment's internet connection has been super-flaky, going out about once or twice a day for no apparent reason whatsoever.  Now  maybe we know why. 

It's probably a loose connection. Jagat showed us how he fixes it.  Just go up on the roof, to the edge where the antenna is, and wiggle around the cable going into the connection box.  (Apparently the ISP won't come out and fix it, even though it's their faulty installation.)  But if we just move the wire around a bit, it often mysteriously starts working again.

The trouble is, it's precarious. The connection box is about 7 feet above the edge of the roof, mounted on an antenna, and it's directly over empty space and a four-story drop to the ground below.  So we grabbed a spare length of plastic pipe from the construction, and put it nearby. We'll use that to poke and prod it in the future; maybe that will help.

Beating it with a stick! If only all computer problems could be solved like that!
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Several of our excursions have been accompanied by professor Bhavesh, deputy director of the MBA school. He's a neighbor and close friend of our faculty coordinator, professor Hiren.  Bhavesh invited us to dinner with his family and we were delighted to visit them.

We met his family. Bhavesh and his wife, Widaya (sp?) have two children, a three-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son (similar ages to Hiren's kids--they're neighbors and frequent playmates).  They were all watching a kids video together, of English nursery rhymes.  Hearing a too-cheerful voice singing nursery rhymes is grating at any

We got to talking about his family. Bhavesh says he is a farmer.  He's a fairly well-off MBA-school professor, but he's a farmer. Now, he doesn't actually farm. He hasn't ever farmed; wouldn't know how. But his father owns a few farms. Now his father doesn't do any farming either, but he rents farmland to people who actually work the land and grow crops. It was the professor's grandfather who actually farmed and did first-hand agriculture. You have to go back two generations. But that still means he and all his descendants are farmers. It makes perfect sense, if you have that mindset.

While we were there, Bhavesh's parents called and talked to their grandson on the telephone. They call Bhavesh and their grandson every day, and about half the weekends the kids go to their house, or the grandparents visit.  They only live about a 20 minute drive away.

Family ties are very close in India, and much stronger than most families in the US. The extended family is the basic economic and social unit. Here, a father always includes his son in any economic decisions, starting around age ten. The savings rate is very high, with an eye toward creating wealth for the children; even if the father is living in a shack, he may have saved up $100,000 USD for his kids. A major emphasis for middle-class families is saving enough money to pay for weddings and buy a house for their children. They typically pay cash. Also, parents tend to live with their sons when they retire (daughters live with their husbands' parents).

Bhavesh married his wife, then his brother married her sister.  Bhavesh says this is a common practice, called "Saca" (exchange). Some families, when they look for marriage partners for their children, deliberately seek matches like this, and they want to give a son and gain a daughter (or vice versa) for all their kids at once. Bhavesh had gotten engaged before his brother, and he and his wife seemed happy. He says they have never had a single fight. Michael and I bicker from time to time, but that's part of the way we communicate. It's a different approach.

I'm envious of Indians' close relationships with their families. In the US, my parents (and Michael's too) live over six hundred miles away from our home in Maryland. Most of my extended family on my dad's side is scattered across the US, and my mom's side is concentrated in rural Texas. Here, nearly everyone has stayed to live and work near their parents, cousins, and extended relatives.  Americans tend to value money and work and material things more highly than Indians, and many think of India as an impoverished developing country and feel sorry for its people. But Indians don't seem to miss the luxuries we Americans take for granted. When Indian people consider the high divorce rate in the US, or hear about how distant our families live from us, they feel sorry for us. It's a different values system.

Back to dinner. The food was great, and Bhavesh had cooked all of it himself (most with his own original recipes). It's not common for Indian men to do cooking, but becoming more so, and Bhavesh is a terrific cook. He started cooking fifteen years ago and is still going strong.  He cooked us a dinner of "Fusion" cuisine of his own invention. All the food was delicious. I recognized chinese influences in a couple of the dishes (cabbage, ginger, garlic, and green onion fused with curry). We had a lychee milkshake drink for dessert. Bhavesh refused to take any food himself until we were finished. Apparently the custom here is that guests eat first, and the host eats only afterwards. It's another part of the "guests are like gods" emphasis on hospitality.

On our way back home we stopped by a couple more gerba dances. The Navararti festival goes on for nine nights all over India, celebrating the goddess in different ways. In Gujarat, they honor her by dancing the gerba. Every neighborhood has their own gerba in the local square or vacant lot, with a little temporary shrine set up with candles and twinkling christmas lights. People dance gerba for hours, going until four or five or six AM especially as the week wears on. The dancing pauses when there is a ritual offering with prayer (a musical chant), a lighting ceremony, and offerings of sweet foods. The lamp used in the ritual is carried around afterwards. Worshipers put their hands out over the lamp flame to absorb the light and energy of the goddess, then run their hands down from their head around their bodies. This, along with eating the sweets, helps them absorb the essence of the goddess.  The older neighborhoods tend to take the religious aspects of the dancing somewhat more seriously than the newer subdivisions, where people emphasize the dancing and fun. The music is the same at both types, praising the goddess to Bollywood songs and drumbeats.

Men and women sit separately for the religious ceremonies. They also dance separately. There's always a circle of women dancing the gerba, most glittering in spangles, bangles and bling. And usually, though not always, there's a smaller group of men lined up inside, also going around dancing the gerba (though in much more subdued clothes).  The womens' circle keeps going and going, and the dancers move in and out as they tire. It's fascinating watching it, with the hypnotic music and the bright colors and constant movement. There's just always something going on here.
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In India, undergraduate Electrical Engineering is all about power. It's very different from the normal US EE curriculum.

Today Michael met the electrical engineering faculty and finished touring their laboratories.  The undergraduate electrical engineering curriculum is quite different from the US.  He knew that something was different at introductions when, of fourteen professors, ten said that they worked in power, three in machines, and one in controls.  It reminded him of the scene in the Blues Brothers when he asked if their curriculum covers all areas of electrical engineering and they replied, "Of course we do.  We teach both types of Electrical Engineering: Machines and Power."

The labs are different too.  In US EE labs, equipment is along the lines of breadboards, oscilloscopes, function generators, or logic analyzers. There's no need for them here; they apparently don't teach much analog electronics, electromagnetics, radio, communication, logic, or digital electronics at the undergraduate level.  However, there is a single course in digital signal processing and a single course in microcontrollers. 

Michael really enjoyed the lab equipment.  It's like props from the Frankenstein movies (or his office and our barn back home, for that matter), with Jacob's ladders and other electrical devices buzzing with activity. They also have giant tesla coils, mammoth AC motors, and labyrinthine networks of relays.  Most of the machines emit giant sparks.  The "low voltage" labs deal with 240 and 480 volts (household wall-outlet voltages in India). The other lab rooms are surrounded by thick Faraday cages.  Students don't do much design work, but instead operate preconstructed machine modules.

There are plenty of jobs for Power engineers in India, with its electrical grid still in the formative stage. So it makes sense to have that focus. Michael's doctorate is in Electrical Engineering, but that means something totally different here.  That's why he's teaching "Information Technology" (which is really computer engineering by a different name).
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Michael was a guest judge at the big state university's MBA project conference. It was a good experience.

The flagship university in the area, at the city of Kadi, has a 2-year MBA program. The summer after it, students work in Industry doing a research project on the company they're working with, write a report on this research study and present it at a conference. There were different businesses, including big names including Tata motors and others.

Representatives from Indian companies flock there to hire the MBA students. Michael enjoyed lunch with the HR director of The Times of India, who was very proud of the paper having the largest circulation in the world. While we're here, Michael and I read it whenever we have the chance.

There was also a heated contest/competition. Each set of presentations was in different sessions. The sessions have three judges: one MBA professor, one industry supervisor, and another professor (such as Michael). He judged 17 presentations, and found them really interesting.

Some presentations were incredibly good. Some were... not so good.

One good group stated its objectives for its research study right up front, and the questions they would use to demonstrate the objectives. Then on every slide, they showed: this is the question, here is a table of the data clearly demonstrating the answer, and summarized at the bottom with a single sentence of why the data proves the explanation. At the end, it felt like that group knew everything there was to know about their topic.

The lesser-quality presentations spent 15-20 minutes talking all about the history of the company and what it does, but didn't ever mention what they personally did while working there.

The other professor judge didn't feel like he had to avoid hurting the student's feelings or stroke their egos. If a project was bad, he spent 10 minutes aggressively grinding them into dust. After a while, Michael felt more free to critically review the students (but he was much politer). The other judge's questions were like: So how do you do market research? What techniques do you use? When did you learn those techniques? You learned them in the third week of this class in the last semester! Did you pay attention? Obviously you didn't. So obviously you didn't spend any time this summer at all! What did you spend your summer doing?! (You get the idea.)

Michael criticized only a little, very carefully. For instance, there was the group that had slides full of densely-packed, light blue text on a white background. Michael stated, very slowly, it is bad when you cannot read the slide. So that's practical advice, and hopefully not too offensive.

All in all, it was a good day for Michael.
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The Kadi university faculty and a couple MBA students got a car and drove Michael to the local tourist sites.  There were two local sites, one a nice big Indian temple.  Michael enjoyed the temple, but he really got into the well.

The Kadi stepwell was a dark, evil ruin of glory; it was the best thing Michael had seen yet this trip, and the most interesting landmark he'd seen in India. Imagine an underground temple, totally subterranean, going down and down and with all the intricate sandstone carvings we remember from Fatepuhr Sikrhi and the Red Fort.  There is a giant circular amphitheater with balconies, going up hundreds of feet. You go down all the way to the giant well at the bottom; way way way up above is the sky. But it's a dark creepy well, and filled with screeching sounds from bats flying in every direction shrieking constantly.  It looked exactly like Khazad-Dhum in the Lord of the Rings.  There were stone cut spiral staircase going down; you couldn't use your hands to guide you through the darkness because you'd grab a bat.

After that, Michael said I would have to see it. But his guides said no, this is nothing. The one in Patan is even bigger and more elaborate.

[ETA: Turns out, Patan has even better carvings, but it's not as dark and dismal and foreboding. I want to see both.]
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Our first event was full of strange prayers, speeches, and us in funny clothes.  This covers the fun parts.

The MBA program held its annual welcome/awards/festival event, "Blossoms 2009", on Sunday.  Michael was the Chief Guest of Honor. I was also one of the other Guests of Honor; five total, also including the university's Principal, the Director of the MBA school, and an older gentleman.  They had asked us to dress in our Indian wear.  Turns out, Michael was the only man there in a traditional Indian kurta pajama; the elder men were in button-down shirts and slacks.  At least several of the female faculty were dressed like me in salwar kameeze.

The time was "Indian Stretchable Time".  It was planned to start at eleven; they picked us up at 11:20 and we were drinking tea beforehand with the honored guests for probably half an hour.  Then we all went out as a group.

They started with a prayer - a ten-minute song, chanting in either Hindi or Gujarati (I still can't tell the difference in speech). Then they immediately read from Genesis 1:1-4 ("let there be light"), and all five of us honored guests lit an oil lamp to symbolize the light illumination provided by knowledge.  Then came the speeches, at least one in incomprehensible-to-us Gujarati.  We honored guests handed out the awards for the previous semester. The academic awards were almost all won by girls; a few boys won awards for extracurricular sports.  Michael gave the official launch of their new Web site and their brand-new English Language curriculum, "Learn English with Fun and Joy".

Michael's speech was excellent. His theme was that India today is the right place and right time to be a student entering the work force. He spoke of the increasingly close ties between the US and India, and how his personal view of India changed over time. In childhood, he had visions of India as a magical land of Maharajas and elephants. Then in graduate school, his advisor and all his lab-mates came from India, and he learned more about its real culture. Michael talked about technology and its importance, and the value of tinkering and invention.  He told the MBA students to seek out the nerds and get to know them and the technology.

They asked me to speak too. My speech was hastily thrown together, and it didn't help that I somehow missed a page of it and had to ad-lib. I greeted them as a fellow student for a master's degree in [Information] Management, and tried to tell them a bit about my background in information/systems engineering and IT project management. I was nervous and over-caffeinated, and probably came off as rambling a bit. Between the echo in the microphone and the language barrier, I'm not sure anybody understood much anyway, since English is a third or fourth language for most of the students.

As presents, they gave us "Gurpa dress" - fancy special-occasion attire for Indian festivals and weddings.  Mine is a fringed turquoise dupatta (sash/scarf) worn over a heavy, spangled two-piece choli (short top), and a skirt in purple/gold/turquoise, all covered in silver beads and sequins. Michael's outfit is much plainer, a simpler gold-colored kurta-pajama with a long red-and-gold silk stole. He looks very handsome in it.  The female faculty also helped me dress and do my hair, and one of the alumnae there (Ishita) made a present of an elaborate metal necklace and forehead-bob.

The student talent show was fantastic.  There were several phenomenal dancers and singers, and a couple group skits/dances to Bollywood tunes complete with choreography and elaborate costumes.  We need to make sure to see more live entertainment and dancing while we're here.  Only the stand-up comedy parts were lost on us, since we don't know Gujarati.

The dance was the capstone to the event.  This is India; dancing is a Very Big Deal here. The female faculty attempted to teach me how to dance a very simple, three-step Gujarati circle-dance. Now, I do not dance. Ever. (I need that icon, "Overly Caucasian--do not place on dance floor.") I told them I don't know my right from my left; they didn't quite believe me until they saw me.  Indian children grow up with Bollywood movies, memorizing all the choreography and dance moves. Dance is tied to religion here; many girls have dance lessons from a young age.  Michael and I were already the center of attention and it was kind of expected.  So I got in the circle and tried to dance. I failed miserably; I have neither rhythm nor coordination.  Professor Hiren Patel's wife, Chandtra(sp?), jumped in next to me and helped show me what to do, despite her four-year-old clinging to her. I tried to mimic her and did marginally better.  At least I tried to take advantage of the opportunity; no regrets.  Michael also hobbled along one lap around the dance circle, but I couldn't see him due to the press of people.
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Only one week in, and Michael is a celebrity! It's not at all good. He says he now knows what Harry Potter must feel like.

We were mobbed by MBA students. I've written a separate entry on the good parts of the event.

Michael and I went back to our apartment and changed into our new fancy Indian traditional costumes, "gerba wear".  We arrived back around 9 PM, and sat in chairs at the back of the festival, away from the loud music. A couple students came up wanting to take our picture with their cell phones. That's fine; they don't see foreigners much, and never dressed up like us.  So a few pictures are fine.

Then the couple students turned into a handful.  A few more stopped by to see what was going on.  A student asked Michael for his autograph.  Shrug. Sure, okay.  Then another student pulled out a ten-rupee note and also asked for an autograph.  Soon everyone was doing it, and we were both signing.  The crowd grew to 40 or 50, all pushing and trying to get Michael's autograph (and mine).  We were feeling crowded, and the mass of bodies completely blocked off the light.  The security guards came over and pushed through, and we grabbed our chairs and moved to the edge of the dance tent. 

The dance was okay for a few minutes. One of the female faculty pulled me in to the circle to dance (I failed miserably, but enthusiastically).  I was pouring sweat, so I went and sat down to drink some water for a moment.  The students started gathering around us again, just as before.  It was so bad that my husband, who never dances and had a broken toe, got up and hobbled around the circle once just to get away from them.  I couldn't even see him, ten feet away, because of all the people in between.  Soon after that, we left.  We were only there for about 40 minutes.  We just couldn't stay there.

We mentioned this to our host the next day, and he was very embarrassed. He apologized and politely said, in effect, the MBA students aren't as mature as the undergraduate engineering students and they don't have much sense.  But yes, Michael is a celebrity.  We hope it doesn't happen much again.
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My husband is a brilliant, intelligent man. He is also a fool.

He broke his toe trying to drive an electric bike (motor scooter). I'm glad he didn't break anything else. And I'm extremely thankful he will not try driving a motorbike in India again.

Nothing gory, but cut to hide the details of his stupidity. )

Medical care here is cheap. He had three fractures in his big toe. It cost Michael only a few hundred rupees (about six US dollars). That covers the X-rays, doctor consultation, bandages and meds. He was in and out in about 20 minutes, despite the hospital ER being crowded with people. His insurance has a $15 copay, so the cost is moot. It's likely my cell-phone call to the health-insurance company cost more than the treatment.

We took this as a sign that Michael should not try driving a motor scooter again. He also was sufficiently alarmed by riding on the back of a motorcycle to the hospital that he asked me not to do it. I'm just thankful this incident happened; the next time he might not have been so lucky. Traffic here is crazy and I would be worried sick any time he tried it.

So now he's thinking of getting a regular bicycle. I'm not sure what I think of that. At least we have another week or two before the bandages come off, to think of alternative ways of transportation.
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Visiting Vadnagar

The old city of Vadnagar, Gujarat, is nearby and has several historic attractions.  One of the professors, Jagat, grew up there, so on Saturday he showed us around his hometown.  We took an auto-rickshaw there, since the streets of Vadnagar are too small to navigate by car.

Our first stop was an 800-year-old temple. There were carved oxen and a turtle, guarding the god. 
Cow sculptures gaze in awe at the idols of the gods.

The temple's stonework was reminiscent of the Notre Dame cathedral, with chimeras and carved dancing girls.
Exterior view of the temple, showing stonework

The actual city of Vadnagar is pretty neat. The current structurdates at least from the medieval era, and has walls all around it. There are five impressive gates.  When we were taking pictures of one of the gates, one of the nearby citizens invited us over to pet his baby goats and take our picture with them and his family. They were adorable goats. We wouldn't mind having a pet goat or two.
Vadnagar people

Vadnagar family with their goats

We visited a lake Sfiartha(sp?). Legend has it that the lake went dry, and to get the water back, a local girl had to give up her life. In honor of her sacrifice, the lake is named for her.  They also fly a white flag from the center of the lake, symbolizing her innocence and virtue.  There is now a park there, built just in the last two years.  The chief minister of Gujarat is from Vadnagar, so he has an interest in promoting tourism there.

There was a massive Well - a huge, incredibly deep well.  It's so deep we couldn't see the bottom.  We dropped in a stone, and took about six seconds to hit the bottom.  It's dry. It gives new meaning to the term, "when the well runs dry."  At the driveway back to the well, there's a little farm with a camel (who let us pet it, then spit) and water buffalo (who snuffed at Michael and also spit at him).
Me petting a camel

Michael's favorite was a large open-roof bath, with water, with columns stretching down from ground level. We'd seen similar structures to Fatapur Sikri, but this one had water.  Looking from the steps at one end had a gorgeous effect, a hallway of water.  With the carved stonework and the greenery hanging down, it felt like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 
View down the well
As part of the malaria-control program of the Gujarati government, the bath was stocked with tiny mosquito fish - little fish that eat mosquito larvae.  They were schooling about.  Michael also spotted a tiny little frog, the size of a fingernail.  We snapped its picture with the cell phone.

The local people in Vadnagar don't see foreigners often - maybe once every month or two. They're very friendly and everybody wants us to take our picture with them.  Michael was interested in knowing how one of the men tied his dhoti and turban, and when Jagat asked (in Gujarati), he was happy to demonstrate. 
Tying a dhoti on Michael
All day, Jagat was walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation, and people were happy to talk with us.

There were some more remote sites.  We saw two 500-year-old arches, like Indian versions of the Arc de Triomphe.  Apparently they were excavated a few years ago, and erected for tourists to see.
Ancient carved stone arches in Vadnagar, Gujarat, India

There was also a garden with the graves of two sisters; I didn't catch the full story. It had a beautiful flower garden and some peacock topiaries.  It was out in the middle of nowhere but quite beautiful to see.
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We discovered we share our apartment with other creatures.  This is in our new "living quarters", the brand-new apartment building up on the third floor of the doctors' apartments.  We've seen far fewer ants than in the guest house and it's nicer overall.
Gecko (wall-lizard) on the window-frame An upside-down gecko under the furniture. It's in the center of the picture just above the table leg.
We have lizards!  There are at least two wild geckos in our apartment.  They're smaller than my pet gecko at home, and they scurry around up and down the walls and hide behind the furniture. 

One very unwelcome visitor was the five-inch-long centipede.  It was in our bedroom.  We were going to bed, then Michael almost stepped on it with bare feet.  After quite a shock, we trapped it under a throw rug and ran for our shoes and stomped on it through the rug.  It wouldn't die easily.  That was scary; the fangs were half an inch long.  After finally seeing it dead, we flushed it. No picture, we just wanted that thing AWAY.  I feel no guilt for its death, because it's suspiciously like a similar giant centipede from my high school biology (bottled in formaldehyde) and that one was poisonous. That startled us a bit and we didn't get to sleep for quite a while.

Not in our apartment, but just outside it on the stairway is also a large hornets nest on the ceiling of the stairway outside. There are numerous giant beetles, June-like bugs and smaller bugs. We've seen a praying mantis and a katydid that could be straight from our back yard. The crickets here look just like US black field crickets, but they can actually fly a couple feet if you startle them.

We haven't seen any mosquitoes or flying insects in our apartment yet. We have an All-Out plugged in (like a Glade plug-in, but with bug repellent). The window screens are intact.  A few beetles have crawled around the floor, but that's about it.  Guess the geckos have to eat something.
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It can't all be perfect.  But at least it's well on it's way.  And the service is still much more responsive than Comcast.  :-)

The good news: the Internet connectivity here, when it works, is reasonably fast.  It's not nearly as fast as our home cable-internet, but it's at least comparable to DSL.  The bad news: It's been up and down for us.  Most of this is our fault for coming in and wanting service in our living quarters. It took them a couple days to get it set up in our guest house apartment, and then we moved to the other side of campus.  To their credit, they connected up our new apartment in half an hour and it was working fine!  Then sometime around noon today it suddenly stopped I'm not sure why; I'm guessing the construction work outside was a factor. (They are building a hospital next door, on the other side of our building.)  Anyway, they fixed it this evening.

It probably helps that Michael and the lead internet/network technician are getting to be pretty good friends.  He and Michael trade Linux tips.  They did a six hour road-trip together today, and visited the place Ghandi started his salt march.  Michael brought home a fully-functional hand cranked spinning wheel that folds to the size of a cigar box. It's ingenious and absolutely gorgeous.

I tried calling my office today via Skype, and it lasted only about 30 seconds before the connection dropped.  It may be something in in our configuration, or the college's authentication may have kicked in or something.  Who knows but it might be as simple as adding Skype credits. :-O  I'll try again tomorrow or the next day after Michael's looked at it.

As a fall-back, as long as it's before 5pm local time I have use of Michael's office; that internet connection seems a bit more reliable. So I have internet for at least 8 or 9 hours a day if I need it (though it may not overlap much with my office's time zone).

Ah well, these are minor complaints. And if it keeps running I'll be happy.

Indian food

Sep. 7th, 2009 10:52 pm
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The host institution is bending over backwards to accomodate us. Among their wishes is to provide food that we will enjoy eating. Professor Hiren, our key guide, has taken us for lunch and dinner to various restaurants to try to see what foods we like. Apparently, they will arrange for the local Visnagar restaurants to deliver food to campus for us. The local Gujarati cuisine is completely vegetarian (as are about ~80% of the local people). Fortunately we love cheese, and most of the vegetable dishes are served hot so we can eat them without fear of getting sick.

Chandrika, our faculty coordinator's wife, cooked us a standard Gujarati dinner when we visited them. We ate it in the traditional manner, with our right hands, as we were all seated on the floor.
A Gujarati meal, with many dishes including gulab jamin

We've also eaten a couple times at Shukan, the main hotel-restaurant in town. It serves Paneer (Indian cheese), in just about any way we could imagine. Much of it's Punjabi (North Indian), with cheese cooked in different spicy sauces. Michael especially likes the dry paneer tikka: a toothpick hors d'oeurve-style cheese chunk, dipped in Tandoori yogurt/spice sauce, and topped with a grilled pepper or onion or tomato slice.

I'm remembering much of my culinary Indian terms. Aloo (spelled Alu) or Batate for potato; Ananas is Pineapple. The Gujarati dal (lentil soup) is more watery here. The Lassi is normally a sweetened custard sundae. They serve "buttermilk" (chaas) which is more like the plain/salted yogurt Lassi drink I'm used to, but frothy.

Michael is living on chai coffee. That's made with hot steamed milk, sweetened, with cardamom and other spices. I still prefer tea, but the coffee is good. There's also a certain novelty in being able to push a buzzer and summon a new cup of coffee brought to you upon demand.

For drinking water, we've been able to drink bottled water (seals broken in front of us). I've also been drinking tea made from tap water after it has been boiled in the electric teakettle. The water from the sink is not safe to drink or use, due to the prevalent bacteria that cause diaharrea and worse. We brush our teeth using bottled or boiled water. It is also not safe to eat vegetables or fruits that have been washed in the tap water; we try to only eat hot food. It's that way throughout India. An article in last week's national newsmagazine was trumpeting a new project for safe drinking water in Harayana, a relatively small state near Delhi. So it can be done.

Sanitation and tradition also dictate that eating occurs with the right hand only. We've torn our <i>naan</i> and <i>roti</i> breads with our right-hand to scoop up mouthfuls of food. Forks are usually provided, though not always. Spoons are served with Lassi and desserts. Silverware is acceptable, but eating with fingers is strongly preferred.
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SPCE issued a press release and held a press conference for their visiting American scholar. The local Visnagar newspapers attended.  Several people made speeches or statements, apparently including Michael (though I wasn't around to see that one). The story will be printed sometime in the next few days.  The article will be in the vernacular Gujarati, so Professor Hiren has offered to provide a translation.  The reporters called Hiren on Saturday during lunch, asking him for more information on the Fulbright-Nehru exchange program.

Today (Monday) there was a TV news crew for the Gujarat state news.  They interviewed Michael briefly on videotape, along with the SPCE principal (Dr. L.N. Patel).  They also asked to tape Michael teaching a class. He'd already delivered two lectures that day, so he pretended to teach a class--he preempted an operating systems lab, and taught the students how to remove all the files on a disk recursively.  They'll have the segments on the Gujarati news channel tomorrow morning at 11.
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The Indian collegiate system here is very different from the US. At American colleges and universities, usually a single professor writes the syllabus, projects, homework assignments, and exams for a course; and the same professor teaches the class. That professor chooses what topics to teach and adjusts as needed; there might be some key concepts the department wants, but the subject matter is really up to the instructor. That sort of academic flexibility is not common here in Indian engineering schools, except possibly at IIT.  I think that was the biggest surprise to Michael.

Grading at Sankalcand Patel College of Engineering depends heavily on standardized final exams for each subject, given at the end of each term. SPCE is part of a consortium of a half-dozen engineering colleges and universities.  Most of each student's course grade is determined by his/her performance on the final exam, and the exams are developed separately by an independent examination board. Consequently, the subjects really need to teach to the tests.  Faculty at SPCE typically team-teach, with two or more faculty teaching each course's  "theory" lectures, plus lab instructors.  All students in a given year and major take the same classes together.  In computer engineering here, there are about 120 students per class. The classes are divided into smaller sections or "batches" for the more practical lab sessions, about 30 or 40 students per batch.

Scheduling the teaching will be interesting.  As I mentioned in previous posts, their semesters don't line up with the traditional Fall/Spring semesters at US colleges.  It didn't help that Michael had to wait for 4 weeks after his visa was approved. Those dates were more convenient for us, but the main SPCE semester ends in mid-October. They are still working him into the schedule on a supplemental basis.  He is supplementing Artificial Intelligence, Operating Systems, and Parallel Processing. The current faculty will continue teaching their course material and will cover the standardized exam topics.  Michael will cover specific extra topics in each course, that he feels would be good additions to the existing material.

Michael will also likely give some workshops and seminars, especially starting late October. The college plans to invite faculty from other institutions, and possibly some students too. He and Hiren worked out a list of teaching and seminar topics on Friday and Saturday.

The work week here is six days, Monday through Saturday, and faculty teach a certain number of hours per week.  The engineering class times range from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a half-hour break for lunch.  A majority of the students stay in "hostels" (dormitories) on campus.  Some additional students stay off-campus, and commute from the surrounding areas.

The engineering college has fewer female students than male students; I think it's not as bad a ratio as it is in the US, but it's still about a two-to-one ratio. The girls sit separately, too; female students cluster together at the front of one half of the classroom, and male students on the other half and behind them.  They also have separate dormitories ("hostels") and eat at a separate dorm cafeteria ("mess").

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