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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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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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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
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
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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Our hosts are treating us like visiting royalty. Sankalchand Patel Engineering College (SPCE) has decided Michael is a VIP, and they want us to feel comfortable here.

We initially stayed in the guest house VIP apartment--a whitewashed studio apartment, with a private bathroom with indoor plumbing.  There wasn't a separate kitchen like I'd hoped, but it had an electric teakettle and small refrigerator.  And we have air conditioning!

Professor Hiren and the college were very thoughtful and tried to anticipate our needs. They supplied the room with American comforts. In the refrigerator was Tropicana orange juice, Kelloggs corn flakes, bags of milk, and all-important bottles of safe drinking water.  Another little cart held Tetley tea bags and sugar cubes.  We also had whole, uncut apples and bananas. Hiren had gone out of his way--literally, two hour's drive away--to Ahmedabad to pick up toilet paper for our bathroom. (Indians do not use bathroom tissue.) They really went to great effort, and we appreciate it.

Nothing's perfect. In the Fulbright orientation, they tell you to expect small problems. We had our share.  The hot water heater didn't switch on; they replaced it with a new unit.  The air conditioning window unit kept the room cool, but it was old and very loud. We had trouble talking to each other over its clanging and rattling. I couldn't sleep more than about two hours the first night, it kept waking me up with its loud bangs.  They replaced the unit on the second day, and the new one was humming along quietly until this afternoon when it suddenly stopped. Maybe it  realized I was typing about it? They just took it out and will find a new one. Our internet connection also had a problem with a faulty cable, and it wasn't working until about 7PM on Friday. It was out again on Saturday afternoon too, so I was originally typing all this in a text editor then.

UPDATE: On Monday, we just moved to a new apartment.  The campus is finishing a brand-new building for the doctors in the brand-new hospital. It's several rooms, brand-new, and sunny.  Our neighbors across the hall and downstairs are medical doctors; Michael is the only Doctor of Engineering.  :-)  We'll see if they can get the shower hooked up to the hot-water heater; the rest is pretty nice so far.

And we have servants (or peons, as professor Hiren unflinchingly calls them). A guard/houseman is at the guest house night and day. He fetches us chai coffee whenever we want it. A housekeeper comes in once a day to sweep and mop the entire apartment. She also mopped up after the air conditioner water leaking on the floor (twice).  There are at least four additional people I've seen helping them, in and out of our room, but I don't know what their status is.  None of them speak any English.  They understand "thumbs up" means good.  For the rest, we smile at them and they smile back; I guess that's all we can do until we start learning some of the local language.
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We were literally welcomed with flowers.  Sankalchand Patel College of Engineering (SPCE) is very glad to have Michael here. Our first day was full of welcoming meeetings and greetings.

Thursday night, we flew from Delhi to Ahmedabad--the largest city in Gujarat.  Michael's faculty coordinator, Professor Hiran Patel, was waiting at the airport with a big sign with my husband's name.  He and the driver loaded our luggage into a large Chevy labeled Noonan Dental College (it shares the same campus as SPCE).  Professor Hiren Patel and the driver gave us each a decorated package of flowers as a welcome gift.  We had about a two-hour ride to the campus and Visnagar. Michael and Hiren and I chatted a bit (the driver didn't appear to speak English). I think Hiren was a little surprised that we had been to India before. However, we had been to the tourist sites. Now, we were going to rural Gujarat, where very few non-Indians go. It's almost all new to us.

Our faculty coordinator and personal host, Professor Hiren, is young, enthusiastic, bright, positive, and completely fluent in American English. He is very open and honest, as well as knowledgeable about his culture and ours. Hiren had personally initiated the process of applying to the Fulbright-Nehru scholar exchange program, and pursued it through the two-year application process.  He and the college have never had a visiting foreign scholar before, and they are anxious to make us feel welcome.  Hiren and his family spent a couple years living and working in Birmingham Alabama, so he has experience with the United States; his colleagues regard him as their resident expert on Americans and American culture. Now he teaches networks and security at SPCE; he is the head of the computer engineering and information technology departments as well as running the college's IT services. He is also finishing his PhD dissertation in network security (border gateway protocols). I don't know where he finds the time to help us so much, but we are immensely glad and grateful to have such a warm, tremendously helpful guide.

On Friday morning, the college held a small welcoming reception for Michael. We had coffee and cookies with the college's president. There was a faculty gathering Friday morning, where each of the college's department heads stood and introduced themselves.  They presented us with two more packages of flowers each. I was invited to all of these too, though I mainly sat to the side. The faculty are mainly young men in their mid-30s. The department heads included even the dental and MBA graduate schools. The president and principal are traditional, older men and wear white kurtas and lungis like Gandhi wore. The younger faculty members dress in modern polo or button-down shirts and trousers.

Michael's office is several large desks in one end of their totally modern conference room. They set up a desktop computer for him there too.  Michael's favorite feature is a coffee button, where he can press a buzzer and someone will arrive with fresh Indian chai coffee (made with thickened milk and cardamom/spices). They invited me to telework from there too; I will see how it goes with internet in our apartment.

The campus is stunningly beautiful, with tropical flowers and palm plants everywhere. (I promise to post pictures soon.) We're still in monsoon season, so it's very hot and humid. We have air-conditioned living quarters; more about that later.
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Getting there is half the trip, right? This post documents our recent time in airlines and airports.

I packed a few critical kitchen utensils, mosquito netting, insect repellent lotion, stainless-steel water bottles; I will try to post a comprehensive packing list at a later point (along with a wish-list of should-have-packed). We checked two big bags each plus 2 carryons apiece, and squeaked by the excess baggage fees. Note for the future: Know the weight/kilo limits for ALL the carriers to be traveled on. 50 pounds is the limit for American carriers. Emirates Airlines charges 30 euros per extra kilogram and the post office isn't always open or convenient. Fortunately the flight wasn't full and the person who checked our bags took pity on us and didn't charge us.

Note for the future: Assume dirty laundry will not fit and leave extra room for it. Also leave extra room for the Darling Spouse (tm) who says "oh, my bag's full, do you have room for this?" and "oh do we have a place for this book?" We were both guilty of these crimes and somehow made it all fit.

Paris gets its own post. Later, once I can link to pictures.

Emirates airlines as a carrier was pretty nice. Comfortable seats. The food was glamorous airline food (dill prawns, truffle-bechamel-sauce pasta) but it didn't really taste good. The best part was the free personal movie/entertainment system. You could view cameras for the front or underside of the plane. We watched a movie and I actually watched a couple episodes of NCIS. The entertainment user interface could've been much better designed though; for instance, it took several screens to simply adjust the volume. Also on the second flight, the screen defaulted to the main movie after only a ten-second-delay. For all the money they apparently spent on it, they could've done more in usability or user studies. Also, it was all in English; our neighbor the next seat over spoke only Arabic and he couldn't make sense of it.

We connected through the Dubai airport. That's not something I ever want to do again. For one thing, prescription sleeping pills (and a lot of other extremely commonly prescribed US drugs) are illegal in Dubai and will get you 4 years in prison. We mailed all our meds from Paris to the Fulbright house in Delhi; it cost $$$ but it sure beats jail time! Dubai had a separate security screening inside the terminal when you transferred planes, and they definitely weren't looking for explosives; didn't have to remove the ziploc of liquids or laptops. They stopped Michael and asked him questions for a couple minutes on where he was going, but they let him go. They let me go.

DBX (Dubai airport) is also a miserable place for anyone with cigarette allergies. The terminal had "smoking rooms" that had single-story glass walls that didn't block the smoke from wafting over; the whole terminal had an undercurrent of cigarette smoke. It gave me a headache but otherwise didn't trigger my cigarette-allergy migraines too badly, as I chugged water and managed to keep my food down. For some reason, the gate was closed until a half-hour before boarding, and the whole terminal aisles for several gates around it were lined with bodies of Indians lying on the floor and sleeping before the flight. We hung out at a little coffee shop that had less smoke in the background. We nibbled pastries and I read Jack Keay's History of India for a couple hours until the gate opened.

The Indian immigration/entry process was very straightforward; much improved from five years ago. For one thing, the waiting area in Indira Gandhi airport is now air conditioned (hooray!) and has its own clean, modern toilets. The airline gave us a single long half-sheet of paper Indian immigration form for use by all people entering India; we didn't have to try to figure out which form to use on our own. They also gave us a photocopied half-sheet of paper with questions on our health for the Swine Flu. We had a line for the health check when entering. The health check line used thermal imaging; the clerk took our papers and stamped them. The immigration line checked our visas and gave arrival stamp. Then we had a very welcome sight of a driver waiting for us. Yay! An enterprising Indian guy loaded up a luggage cart for us and steered us through "nothing to declare" customs. He asked for five dollars in return; we gave him a euro coin and sent him on his way.

Traffic--- well, traffic in Delhi makes me long for the quiet, orderly calm of the DC Beltway during rush hour. From the airport to the hotel, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic that was somewhat worse than I remember five years ago. Almost all the vehicles were cars or motorcycles, not many auto-rickshaws and only a couple mopeds or Tata trucks. We saw cows on the side of the road, but they stayed out of the main traffic flow. The rules were the same as always though--biggest vehicle gets priority; lanes are a suggestion; honk if you pass by someone, so they don't swerve into you when they're dodging someone else. Lots of people playing pac-man with the lane markers, going down the dividing lines. It might have been worse than normal; this traffic jam was bad enough that a couple of the motorcycles ahead of us crossed the median and went the wrong way down the other side of the boulevard. 'Course that might be normal too.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
This blog chronicles our adventures in India during fall 2009, during my husband's Fulbright Scholar exchange.

New here? You can read from the beginning, or, read by month: September October November December

Disclaimer: The opinions on this blog are entirely my own; they are not my husband's, not my government's. This site and its content are not in any way associated with the U.S. State Department or the Fulbright program.
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Mainly for my reference.

To Do
- vaccinations: polio, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, typhoid fever, MMR
- fax vaccination form to UM
- figure out payment for fall semester class
x international driver's license
- glasses
- refill allergy prescriptions
- Malaria tablets
- vitamins
- acidophilious pills
- CAC reader
- sandals
- letter from doctor's office listing all prescriptions
- check climate statistics for Gujarat
- return shirts to JCP

To scan and send to gmail account
- Passport, visa
- international driver's license
- birth certificate
- US driver's license
- Credit cards (cover up expiration date)

Carry-On Items
- Contact info for in-country contact people: office, home, work, personal cell, personal email, facebook, gmail, instant messenger, whatever other info we can get
- 3 days worth of clothes
- Special clothes:
--- suit
--- shawl
- meds: benadryl, imodium
- Prescriptions in original packaging
- Letter from doctor on letterhead listing prescriptions
- small plane-friendly first-aid kit, no sharp instruments
- sunscreen, toothpaste, toiletries, dental floss
- extra passport photos
- Copies of documents
- blank books/journals
- everybody's contact info from home (for sending postcards)
- Printed photos of family and friends (for showing Indian hosts)

Checked baggage
- UV water purifier gadget
- sunglasses
- pillows
- sunscreen
- toothpaste
- deodorant
- DEET mosquito spray
- mosquito netting
- shampoo
- conditioner
- detangler x2
- hand sanitizer jug x2
- toilet paper
- razors, 1 pk
- nail clipper
- scissors
- blank notebook/composition book
x feminine products
- panties
- bras
- nightwear
- shirts
x black slacks
x belts
- shoes/sandals
x comfort insoles
x can opener
x small grater
x windbreaker jacket

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