Monday, July 17, 2006

Truth is stranger than fiction...

After all my blogging about India, it turns out that the Indian government may or may not have decided to block Oh well, easy come, easy go. I guess people in India don't really need to read about my silly comments about their nice country anyway.

In other news, now that we're back in the 'States, we can realistically evaluate my capuccino habit. Turns out that a tall double cap is a pretty reasonable caloric investment, as long as I don't go for the soy version, which has too much sugar.

The trip to Montreal right after India pretty much flattened me, but I'm feeling much better today. Our sole accomplishment for the weekend was to go shopping and get Andrea some very cute clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch.

One observation about India, Montreal and Chicago: people in India look a lot healthier than people in America, on average. I don't mean to minimize whatever troubles people there may be having, but it's clear that the American diet of focused gluttony isn't serving us well. That sounds harsh; I don't mean it to be. I don't think we've set out to be gluttonous, but we're just in such a situation of immense prosperity that we have to work to avoid it.

It's kind of sad - I think our biggest problem as a culture (aside from our habit of institutional killing) is housing, even though we have many fewer people per square inch than India. Many of the dwellings we saw in India would be illegal here - there are plenty of folks there who live under a perfectly good roof, but their house is basically a mini-quonset hut made of bamboo and trash bag plastic, with no door, no lock. This isn't exactly a palatial setting, but consider what someone here lives in if they only have the resources to build a house like the one I'm describing: they live on the street, with no roof at all, because it's illegal to live in a house like that here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Indigo, boy.

So the Montreal equivalent of Borders these days is apparently a store called Indigo. It's very nice. I walked by it three times before settling for the other store. Indigo has two floors, one french-language and one english-language. It's quite large. There's a whole wall of f&sf - about a hundred feet of shelf space. Just for the stuff in English. The reason I walked by Indigo three times is that they didn't have any books in their display - one window was just some wrapping paper that said "solde" (sale!) and the other had some CDs. So I thought it was a music store.

The weird thing is that I really like the word "Indigo." So normally I would have gone in just on the basis of the name, to see what they were selling. But not today.

Obstacles... :'}

More pictures from India and elsewhere.

Blogspot uploads images in reverse order, which is a bit of a pain, so this picture from Montreal comes out first. It's a pretty strange sight in contrast to what we saw in India.

I shot this whilst Sanju and the Pakistani truck driver were negotiating. Unfortunately you don't get any sense of the immenseness of this view. This is not a tiny stream, as you might think, but a raging river several hundred feet below us.

This is a dog who plagued us throughout the teaching. He got a lovely grooming today, but it will probably be his last - sadly, nobody has time to take care of dogs in India. Well, that's not entirely true - the Tibetans dote on their dogs. But for the most part dogs like Tashi here just run wild. They're not exactly wild dogs, because they interact just fine with people, and the people aren't unkind to them, but they're more like neighbors than friends.

This is a view of the detritus that remains when everybody is up for a break during the teaching.

A very typical street scene. You can see the nut roaster under the blue awning to the right. Very tempting, but too scary.

A lovely temple up near the crazy circle.

A typical vegetable stall, right alongside the road near the top of the hill. We would see this every day as we went up the hill to the Green Hotel Cafe. There was really a lot of nice-looking produce in the market.

Amit consented to have his picture taken next to the nice car. I think he was a little puzzled about it, though.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

It's Tuesday, so this must be Montreal...

After a brief and pleasant interlude at Debby's house, I had to leave yesterday for Montreal for a conference. I'd gotten Andrea a frequent flyer ticket to come along, but she was undecided about it because she was still under the weather. We went back and forth on the whole thing, but finally decided that she should come. Debby was a bit skeptical, I think, but she gamely drove us both to the airport.

The flight was half-empty and pretty uneventful, unless you count the thunderstorm that camped out over the airport and delayed us for a half hour. We did a really fast descent into Montreal - it was quite exciting. The money-changing situation at the airport is pretty grim - I think it's good to come with some Canadian money or else take the bus to the hotel (since then you only have to change $2.50). But we gritted our teeth and changed enough to cover taxi fare, because we were both too tired to deal with public transit. It's a flat CDN$35 from the airport to downtown.

We're staying at the Delta Centre-Ville, which is about a ten-minute walk from the Palais de Congrès de Montreal. It's a pretty nice hotel, although comparisons to the Shangri-la are invitable, and frankly it doesn't hold a candle to the Shangri-la, despite costing about 30% more. It's nice to be able to brush one's teeth in the tap water, though.

Today I went to my working group meeting, the DHC working group. It was remarkably tame - normally we have more controversy, but there were a lot of really good proposals on the table, and nothing that seemed like a bad idea, so the only real controversy was over the leasequery option, and that was pretty mild. We finished forty minutes before the end of our time slot, which is a bloody miracle.

IETF is a strange thing - I've been going for around ten years now. It meets once every four months, roughly, usually twice a year in the U.S. and once on some foreign land, which is appropriate given that for most participants, the U.S. is a foreign land. It's an international body, after all. The people I see at IETF are people I generally never see otherwise, except for my co-worker, Jim, who came out from California for this IETF. It's always nice to see the usual cast of characters here - these are people I've worked with for a decade, some of them, and they're all really smart people with whom I share more in common on a technical level than a personal level, but we chat about our personal lives too, and that's often very interesting.

I ran into Subir Das outside of the meeting room - he's a really smart guy from HP India - and we talked a bit about India. He was surprised we'd only been to Himachal Pradesh, and even more surprised that we didn't at least trek to the head of the Ganges river, which is apparently a quick drive from Dehradun (the capital of HP) and then a 20km hike. I think that if we go back to India, a prospect to which Andrea is somewhat resigned, we might be better equiped to do something like that, but personally I'd be happy to just do some hiking in the Sierras - there are plenty of rivers to follow there, albeit none so sacred as the Ganges. (Given that I have some small amount of native American blood in my veins, it's a bit odd that I identify more with Hinduism than the native religions, but for whatever reason, I do. Probably because I know more about Hinduism, and a lot of our Buddhist tradition hearkens back to ancient Indian tradition anyway. Khen Rinpoche used to refer to the Hindu deities as the ancestors of the Buddhist mandala).

Andrea is in fact feeling a bit more energetic today (although as I type this she's sleeping with earplugs and a bandana to shade her eyes). So she went out, found an ATM, and researched a couple of restaurants. We wound up going to a Thai restaurant that specializes in healthy Thai food, which was extremely yummy - Andrea was really happy at how well it turned out. It was a nice treat to get a fresh vegetable soup and then a very spicy stir-fry. The place is called Tai Nature, and it's at 475 St Laurent. I definitely recommend it - the menu is small, but it's half vegetarian, and what I got was unapologetically spicy. It also doesn't involve a significant uphill walk, which is kind of nice. It's about a ten-minute walk from the Delta, northeast along Rue St. Antoine to Rue St. Laurent, right on Rue St. Laurent, on the far side of the street a couple of blocks up.

After lunch I decided I needed to cocoon a bit - I think I've come down with Andrea's head cold, which is fairly mild but still uncomfortable. So I figured, why not stop and get a book first? There's bound to be a bookstore. This turned out to be true in a very limited sense. I normally think of Canada as a reasonable place to get books: when I was in Vancouver it was no problem, for example. However, Montreal is very much a french-speaking city. So all bets are off.

I wound up in a big underground shopping area on Rue de Saint-Catherine, and I did in fact find a bookstore, but all the books were in french. I very proudly trotted out a phrase I was pretty sure was correct: est que vous avez des livre en englais? The clerk understood exactly what I wanted, and rattled off some extremely rapid french that I didn't understand at all, which I like to think meant that my pronunciation was pretty good, although I'm sure Andrea will scoff at this notion. He pointed in a certain direction, and then when I seemed not to comprehend, said something something question mark something. So I went over to the question mark sign, which was an information desk, but nobody was there.

I had the impression that he was directing me to a nearby store, in the direction he'd pointed, so I went out of the store I was in and walked in the direction he'd pointed, but that turned out to be a complete fiasco - I found a store full of computer books, but that was all. Eventually I surfaced and looked sufficiently confused that a nice bilingual lady stopped and asked me what I was trying to find. I told her, she thought for a minute, then looked happy, and directed me to a shopping mall. I was afraid that she was directing me to the same store, but the name of the mall was different than the name of the store, so I went in. Sadly, it was the same store.

Having twice been told that this store had english books, I searched more carefully, and indeed there were three small shelves of english books. One of them was Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norell; that's what I finally settled on. It's quite a tome in hardcover, but here was a nice compact trade paperback edition. Armed with a cup of coffee, I headed back to the hotel to finally do a bit of cocooning, but here I am blogging instead. Bored yet?

Monday, July 10, 2006

In recovery...

Well, we're back.

A tip for travel out of Delhi: bring a printed itinerary with your name and flight information on it. They will not let you into the airport without it. Another tip: there is no place within Delhi airport where you can get an Airtel card. It's hard to imagine why this would matter, isn't it? Read on.

We moved out of Dharamshala on the 6th, and spent the night of the 6th at Pop's. The room at Pop's was nice - everything worked properly, the food was *really* good, the bed was clean, there was even a TV, which Andrea tested out and then abandoned. It's surprising how many channels you get up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh (and no, this apparently wasn't cable).

We'd planned to leave Palampur at 5am, just in case things got tight on the way to Delhi. Unfortunately, the last night of teaching went on until 2am. The folks at Pop's were very good-natured about it - they seemed to enjoy the festivities (the teaching ended with a party). We were really flagging, though - I'd been sleep-deprived from the previous night, and Andrea was still battling a bad cough.

So we finally went up to our room for our three hours of sleep (which was closer to two, because we hadn't packed yet). At 5am the sun isn't yet up, so the rice paddies had that gunmetal grey of pre-dawn light. It was very beautiful. There was a storm coming in, so there was a good wind going as well. Really, if you had to be up at 5am, this was a good 5am at which to be up. I think we finally hit the road at around 5:30 am. Our drive took us back toward Chamunda Devi. If you remember the picture of Chamunda Devi from a previous entry, the turn-off is at the top of the road from which that picture was shot - about a hundred yards on. There's a really sharp hairpin there, with a couple of hotels and dhabas, and the usual dogs lying in the road and cows everywhere. Another half-mile along is the nice rice-paddy picture from my first photographic blog entry this trip. This time instead of taking the hairpin, we went straight, into unexplored territory.

The road there is not particularly huge, despite being the main way to Delhi and other points flat. And the rain had hit by then. So we were driving through this murky wall of water, between buildings, fields, cows, and so on. It was very picturesque, but there wasn't enough light to shoot any photos. At one point we went left at an intersection where the right fork lead to Dharamshala. This felt nice - we hadn't had to backtrack all the way. The driver (Sanju) pointed it out, or we wouldn't have known.

The road was a bit bigger and straighter at this point, but it started to flood, so we kept having to slow down and ford major streams. There was a point where the road was itself the stream, for about a mile or so, right through an Indian town whose name I don't remember. At 7am, people were going about their business as if it wasn't raining - some had umbrellas, but most did not. It felt like we were having an adventure driving through all of this, but at the same time it was impossible not to be aware of what it was like outside the car. Inside, we had nice air conditioning. Outside, it was incredibly rainy, humid, and fairly warm, and there was no way your boots weren't going to be full of water. I suspect people in that town wear sandals a lot - I think it floods every time the monsoon rains come, which at this time of year is basically every day.

About fifteen minutes down the road, we started to see a big river off to the left as we began ascending into the next range of foothills. The ascent was lovely, and the glimpses of the river, farther and farther down, were too. At some point we crested the range of hills and started to descend again. The terrain here was very steep - there would be a 30-50' cliff going uphill on one side of the road, and a steep several-hundred-foot dropoff on the other. The road was wide here, but all of the uphill cliffs were sliding in minor ways, mostly dropping large piles of rocks on the road that we had to go around.

At one point, we came to a slide that had covered most of the width of the road and taken a tree down with it. On the other side of the slide were a Punjabi trucker and a bus. The Punjabi truckers are apparently fairly notorious in Himachal Pradesh because they aren't all that good at driving in the hills, and this one was no exception - he insisted that he had to cross the slide first, even though we could have crossed the slide easily and been out of his way on the other side, and there was no place for us to go on our side. Haste makes waste.

So the guy forced his way across the slide, and then made us back up onto the side of the road, right next to the uphill cliff. There still wasn't room for him to pass, so our driver kept honking, trying to get the people behind *him* to make a little more room so that we could clear the truck. The truck driver got impatient and just gunned it, Andrea shrieked, and there was a loud crunch. Rs 10,000 in damage in about a second, completely avoidable. :'(

Ten thousand rupees is about US$220. This is probably more than the Punjabi truck driver makes in a year. So needless to say, there proceeded a rather lengthy dispute, the outcome of which, since the truck driver had no insurance (I'm not sure they even *have* insurance in India), was that Sanju had the driver's license and operating permit. Andrea and I had discussed it in the car and decided to just pay for the damage ourselves, but unfortunately we were a little slow off the mark and didn't tell Sanju until after we'd left. I felt somewhat unsympathetic toward the truck driver, because he'd really brought this disaster on himself, but afterwards I felt bad at taking so long to offer to pay, because I'm sure the driver had an incredibly bad day. While you can argue that he brought it on himself, I know from painful personal experience that frequently the consequences of our actions are of much greater magnitude than the actions themselves, and so I actually had a great deal of sympathy for his situation. Sigh. Later on it turned out that Sanju hadn't told Amit I was going to pay - by the time I talked to Amit that evening, it sounded like he'd also had a really bad day.

Something to remember next time a Punjabi truck driver sideswipes the car I'm in.

Anyway, despite our offer to pay for the damage, Sanju was in a black mood for a good thirty minutes, but then he seemed to just brush it off.

We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant catering to foreigners along the road an hour later. Andrea and Michael very intelligently ordered potato parothas, but Nicole and I branched out - she had the biryiani and I had the chow mein. Both were inedible due to salt, and the chow mein was also cold, because they'd let it sit so they could bring everything out at once. I felt only a minor twinge of guilt at not eating it - I wound up having a parotha, and Nicole had an omelet with slice. This is an omelet with a slice of bread inside of it. Weird, but apparently good.

The restaurant was cooled with a swamp cooler. When you live in Arizona, and you're out of town every year during monsoon, it's easy to forget why they're called swamp coolers. It's because if you run them during monsoon, they turn the place they are cooling into a swamp. The humidity inside the restaurant was immense. Probably up around 150% or something. We were a bit desperate to eat up and get out.

Michael and I had Cliff bars to supplement our breakfast after we left - the parothas, while fairly good (still a bit salty) were not sufficiently filling. We had really mixed results with the places our drivers took us to - there was one good place in the lot, but most of the roadside attractions at which we stopped were clearly aimed at the "you're never going to come here again, so it doesn't matter if the food sucks" crowd. The roads of India could really do with the equivalent of a Michelin guide.

One of the things that really strikes me about the roads of India is how much they are like what you hear about traveling along Route 66 in the fifties. Yesterday in our post-transit stupor I read the Chicago Tribune, and there was a good news article about how the death toll on American highways dropped with the advent of the Interstate system. India is pre-interstate. I suspect that their drivers are generally better, actually, because I think most of the people you see on the road, particularly on the major highways, are professional drivers, not people with private cars. But I wonder what India will be like if it every gets U.S.-style Interstates.

In the global warming debate, they always talk about how the pre-industrialized countries can't follow the Kyoto protocol because they want to have their own industrial growth spurt, but I wonder how accurate this is. Indians are *incredibly* efficient in their use of energy. Our car, in which we seated four passengers and one driver, is billed as a nine-seater. I've seen cars like it crammed with ten or twelve Indian passengers, who seem to think nothing of sitting in each others' laps for hours. We even saw auto-rickshaws with five or six passengers (I think they're intended to carry two passengers and one driver). Our car drove for twelve hours on a single tank of gas, and not a very big tank. All the way to Delhi. And this was a Chevy, if you can believe it. Most of the taxis in Delhi run on compressed natural gas. So I think it's not the pre-industrial countries that are the problem with Kyoto. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

Anyway, after several hours of car, we stopped for lunch at a very nice Indian restaurant with real air conditioning and a vegetarian buffet. Yum-ola. It was a bit heavily spiced, but we weren't complaining - Andrea even went up for seconds! The bill was a bit spendy after the prices in Dharamsala, but we survived.

I didn't take any pictures after we got out of the Himalayan foothills. There are two reasons. The first is that after a while the landscape hypnotizes you, and it's hard to know what will be a good picture. The second, and more compelling, is that in order to get a good picture with an autofocus camera, you have to open the window, and there was no way in hell we were opening the windows, because by the time we got into the Punjab, it took the car about ten minutes to cool off after the outside air got in, and the windows were hot to the touch. Not burny hot, but not merely warm either. By the time we got to the outskirts of Delhi, even with the AC going full blast it was still warm enough to raise a sweat in the back seat.

Our first stop in Delhi was the Thomas Cooke office, where we traded the last of our travelers checks for a giant pile of cabbage, which we counted and stuffed into an envelope to give to Sanju. Seventeen thousand rupees. We might have paid that just for the car ride if we'd gotten the car in Delhi; here that included the cost of fixing the damage from the morning's accident. The hot air of Delhi hit us like a hammer when we got out of the car, but fortunately Thomas Cooke was air conditioned.

The news on the hotel front was not good. Micheal and Nicole had been hoping to stay at the guest house that John Brady favors, which is called Prem Sagar Guest House. It's deep in the heart of Connaught Circus, and it's very nice by the standards of the area. Unfortunately there were no rooms available, and so they were working from the Lonely Planet guide. Say what you will about how great Lonely Planet is, their advice about hotels was terrible. We went through three hotels that they'd recommended, and they were all terrible. There was another hotel right next to the Prem Sagar, and it was bad too. Nice looking lobbies, lousy rooms. This is after two weeks in Dharamshala, so it's not just the "we were hoping for the Oberoi" syndrome.

Our friends Elly and Chunzom were staying at Prem Sagar, as were John and a few others (that's why it was so full). So we got to look at the rooms. They are small, but decent - a little nicer than what we had in Dharamsala, and air conditioned, which is a huge win in Delhi. I don't know how a westerner could sleep at night there without.

Personally, I'd be okay staying at Prem Sagar, but might spring for the Shangri-la instead - it's about twice the price, and much, much more than twice as nice.

Sadly, a night at the Shangri-la was not to be. We were scheduled to leave on a 12:15 am flight from Delhi airport. Sanju waited around for us while we had dinner with Micheal and Nicole at a very nice restaurant, Saravana Bhavan. It's right next door to Prem Sagar, the food is vegetarian, south Indian, and very good. We were a bit taken aback by the menu, because it was completely south Indian, but once we ordered, what we got was tres yummy.

Michael and Nicole got a car from the front desk at Prem Sagar, and we collected Chunzom. Tearful farewells were exhanged, and Michael and Nicole drove off in their car to the hotel they stayed at last time they were in Delhi, which I hope worked out well for them - we haven't heard from them yet. I think they should be back in the 'states by now. Sanju bravely drove off in the direction in which he hoped the airport lay, but got a bit lost and had to ask directions - he's from Dharamshala, not Delhi. We finally got on the main road, Sanju looked very relieved, and we had a fairly quick drive to the airport.

One of the really interesting things about Delhi and Dharamshala is that after spending two weeks in Dharamshala, Delhi looks much more modern than I remembered from the trip out. Most of the buildings you see are complete, with no rebar sticking out of the roof, waiting for more money to add on another floor. The giant tenement buildings that looked kind of liveable, but only kind of, when we drove out of Delhi on that first day, now look quite posh. And the amount of light on the streets at night seems like a lot, whereas when we drove from the airport to the hotel on our first night in India, it seemed painfully dim.

When we got to the airport, it wasn't too dissimilar to any U.S. airport at first - the usual pile of cars, no way to get to the kerb. We unloaded, handed Sanju the big envelope, and also gave him a nice tip (I hope!). He seemed happy. He really took good care of us.

When we got to the entrance, the guard there wanted to see our travel itinerary, but since we were on E-tickets, we didn't have anything printed. Fortunately, there was a representative from the airline waiting at the door, and he was able to go inside and get some documentation that allowed us to come in. *Un*fortunately, the reason he was at the door was to tell us that our flight had been canceled.


We couldn't believe it - we expected that American Airlines would be the people to show us some good old American can-do after quite a bit of the Delhi runaround, and all that time in the back country, but sadly once we got inside we discovered that the worst was indeed true - American had dumped an entire Boeing 777 full of passengers into Delhi airport, with only four relatively inexperienced staff members to rebook us. American treats us very, very well in general, and I don't want to be too harsh on them, but this was a really major screwup. Andrea started crying when I proposed just going back to the Shangri-la, so we toughed it out in line for several hours instead.

Actually, about an hour and a half in, I called my father back home, and gave him all our information, and asked him if he could please call the AA gold desk in the U.S. and get our flights rebooked from there, because it was clear that it was never going to happen in India. He was a bit surprised to get such a request from out of nowhere, but he did it, and got us onto a British Airways flight to London, connecting to an AA flight to the U.S. Unfortunately, the Delhi number for American only answers during regular business hours and does not, as it probably ought, forward to the U.S. reservations line after hours. So there is no way to do your rebooking by cell phone, as most seasoned U.S. travelers do in situations like this. I suspect the line would have cleared in an hour and a half had this option been available to the majority of the travelers there, since they all had cell phones, and most spoke English. We actually tried to get some help from Andrea's father in the form of a phone number in the U.S. people could call (my father was a bit burned out after the first rebooking effort, which involved calling and waiting on hold for five minutes three times, and getting hung up on twice).

There was a Jet Air flight to London that left at about 2am, and a lot of folks in line got on this flight. We were actually feeling a little bit stupid for having gotten onto BA instead, since that flight didn't leave until 8:20 the next morning. We wound up camping out at the head of the BA checkin line, which worked out really well for us, because they gave us exit row seats when they finally opened at 4:30 that morning. The BA flight was really nice - I finally got some sleep, the first I'd had since the two hours I got at Pop's more than twenty-four hours previously.

When we got to London, we learned how lucky we were to have had my father's help. The folks on the Jet Air flight were sent from Delhi to London with no confirmed seats. Most of them were still in London when we left that afternoon. The folks on our BA flight all made it to their connecting flights. The only seats that were available on the flight from London to Chicago were two seats in different rows in the back of the plane, and we were pretty sad about that. The woman who was getting us our seat assignments said we could have one exit row seat, but the other person would have to sit in back. Andrea urged me to take it, but I didn't want her to be abandoned back there for the whole flight, so I said we should just sit near each other in the back. The ticketing agent took pity on us and called the gate, and managed to get us two bulkhead seats next to each other that were being held for people traveling with infants - at that point I think the flight had checked in full, so there was no reason to hold them any longer anyway.

So this was a pretty major fiasco for American, but they did take really good care of us in the long run. I really hope they figure out a better system for Delhi, though - from what I've read online they've pretty much maxed out their fleet of 777's with this Delhi flight, so this could happen again, and they should be better prepared for it next time. It would really behoove them to make the U.S. reservations line available for Delhi travelers, if not all the time, then at least when they have a flight cancellation like this. It wouldn't be that hard to do.

The stop in London was sweet. We exchanged 1300 rupees for 12 pounds twenty pence. Andrea stopped at Boots and stocked up on stuff you can only get at Boots. We stopped at a Brasserie that offered good food and free laptop recharging, and charged her laptop up for a while while we ate their vegetarian food. Yum. I got a cup of fair trade coffee at *$$, and a really bad scone (yes, in Britain!), and a sandwich for the road.

Andrea was having kind of a rough time due to some "female problems," as she would prefer that I describe them. I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say that it was a stressy time for her, but we didn't want to miss the flight, so we got on it. The purser had had similar problems in the past, and was able to reassure Andrea that she would be okay until Chicago. She's doing a lot better now, two days later - things are basically back to normal. But it added that little soupcon of excitement that made the final leg of the return trip really memorable.

The landing in Chicago was a bit of an anticlimax - the customs line was the shortest one I have ever experienced, the customs agent was a bit gruff with Andrea for calling her sister on her cell phone but didn't give us any real hassle about it, and we got through customs with no delay to speak of, and Debby had had a really easy drive to the airport, so she showed up almost immediately when we got outside. We drove back to Debby's house, chatted with her and Martin a bit, threw all our clothes in the laundry, showered, and went to sleep. Aah, the joy of an actual mattress to sleep on, after two days of pot luck.

I will see if any pictures from the drive down are salvageable and post them later - sorry for all prose and no pictures in this issue. :'}

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Happy post-fourth-of-july...

Goats. Little goats, by the side of the road. We see them every day, on the way down into the chasm. There's not much to say, since it's hard to make isn't-he-cute coos in ASCII.

I think I promised pictures of this gas station. Here it is. The reason I include this picture is that I think the car is cute, and the mountains are pretty. I admit that it's not high art.

The white SUV-ish thing on the right is the car we took yesterday. The guys at the gas pump hadn't caught on that I was taking pictures yet...

The thing that's amazing about this gas station is how western it looks. There's a mini market, it's air conditioned, and it has great stuff, but we liked this place even before we went inside because immersion in Indian culture, even at the remove of Dharamsala, is a challenge, and when you go by this gas station, for a moment the depths of your mind think "I'm at home now." It's a pleasant feeling; sometimes I wonder why we ever leave. Not that I'm complaining - this is the second time I've been in this general area; the first time I came here, I felt the same thing: that it was silly to have put so much effort into coming here. But it's not silly - immersing yourself in an alien culture (friendly, but definitely alien) is mind-expanding. It's also very difficult, so the occasional taste of vanilla is a nice treat.

There's nothing very special about this picture except that when I was reviewing the pictures I'd shot yesterday, my reaction was that the car was passing us. This is on a narrow mountain road, with probably a fifty-foot dropoff on the right. I am unsure as to whether this car was parked or passing. Either is possible. It's kind of sobering.

One of the cool things about being in India is that with the exception of Jinmei-san, who lives in Japan, there is nobody anywhere near my time zone right now. So the usual rapid-fire email exchanges you get when you're local don't happen. So I've had to deal with a lot less email while I've been here.

I want to include something here that Geshe Michael said last night. This is from my notes, so it's probably inaccurate, and I've left out a lot of verbal connective tissue, but I thought it was well said. GM grew up in Arizona; I guess he was a teenager in the sixties. So he gave us a neat little fourth of July lecture.

I grew up in anti-war days, even went to jail briefly. Shut down napalm plant, peacefully, but they didn't treat us peacefully. So I'm very cynical about the US. We like to pick on US. It's this big dumb giant that does dumb things like Iraq. People are lazy, drinking Starbucks all day, don't do anything anymore.

We've been now in two situations recently [when we were travelling through Asia]. We were told, "there's a three-day blackout." We said "what does that mean?" They said "No public meetings allowed. No more than five people can get together." This is in the whole city. 12 million people. We said "What?!?" They said "Yeah, so we had to cancel your programs. " We said "Why?" They said "Some foreign diplomats are coming through the city."

We went driving around, to a venue, this big huge motorcycle cop comes up, looks and feels like Elvis. The driver's like "uh oh." We didn't do anything. The cop gives him a 200 yuan ticket. Driver says "yes sir." We pull over, he gives us a ticket, driver says "thank you sir," we leave.

In another case we asked for permission to have open public debate, they said no. In the America where I grew up, you can't imagine somebody telling you you can't express your religious opinions, can't wear your robes. I'm giving you this Fourth of July speech because you're overseas. Not everyone here is from the U.S., but most of you are from countries with similar freedoms. We should appreciate [democracy] - it's a great system. Based on honesty, letting everyone have a chance.

Even when we don't agree with people, we let them say their peace, don't horsewhip them, don't electric prod them. Put them on public access at 3am, they can say their peace. That's a great thing. And you'll appreciate it someday, maybe if you lose those freedoms. It's really cool. The idea of treating everybody equally, and whatever wacko buddhist religion you want to do, you're totally free to do it. You'd have been burned at stake, hanged, head chopped off by now in any normal country up to now. I think pure working democracy is a high expression of Dharma. We can improve it and we should.

One thing that occurred to me after hearing this speech was that in fact India is a lot more like America than I would normally assume. Gandhi was a beautiful recent expression of this, but India is in a way as much of a melting pot as the United States, so we can't lay it all on Gandhi's shoulders. People don't always get along well - we hear stories of shrines being blown up and that sort of thing - but even in this incredibly diverse culture, somehow the democracy survives.

Sarva Mangalam.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More pictures, etc.

Here's Andrea, looking at some sheep (or maybe goats) as we climb up out of the chasm.

This is the Buddha statue in the temple at Norbulingka.

Looking up from the gardens at Norbulingka to the temple. The Buddha statue you see is beyond the door that you see at the top of the stairs.

I really like this lion fountain. What can I say?

I believe this is an image of Chenrezig in his wrathful form. But what do I know? :') This little shrine is interesting because it's very much in the style I saw when I was trekking in Nepal, and so I think it's very traditional. Of course this Norbulingka was built in the past forty years, so this isn't that old, but a lot of Norbulingka seems to be focused on preserving tradition, so I think it's safe to think of this as authentic. It wouldn't surprise me if it had been carried, stone by stone, out of Tibet.

Traditionally, Norbulingka was His Holiness' summer palace. If you watch Kundun, the scene where His Holiness leaves Tibet starts at the original Norbulingka. There's a running ha-ha-only-serious joke in Kundun about His Holiness buying up herds of animals to save them from slaughter, and Norbulingka is kind of the spiritual center of this activity. So it's no surprise to see someone there taking such sweet care of a tiny animal that's already had a hard life. This little puppy has very bad mange, and the woman who's cleaning him is hoping that it's not so bad that his hair won't grow back. Apparently mange scars the follicles so that they can't grow hair anymore. This woman and her partner came to India a few months ago after selling or giving away (they didn't say) everything they owned except the contents of two suitcases. They just decided to spend some time wandering around righting wrongs, and this is today's effort. I've seen them walking around McLeodganj. They look very happy. To me this is a good example of santosha, if you want one.

Someone asked me to say more about His Holiness' teaching. I'm not sure what to say. If you're curious to know what his teachings are like, the best thing to do is to go. You absolutely will not be wasting your time. Sometimes westerners go to see His Holiness just because he's famous and maybe they hope for an easy fix for whatever unhappiness they wish to dispel. Then they get discouraged when they find themselves in the midst of a serious monastic teaching on some really intense topic.

But if you just sit back and let it wash over you, after a while you start to get it, and I think it's worth the time. The trick is that while the answer to life, the universe, and everything is simply expressed, walking the path is different than being told what it looks like. And that takes time. So his Holiness very kindly spends the time that it takes to get you to grok the teachings, not just hear them.

We westerners are used to Powerpoint presentations, and indeed sometimes I'm tempted to do a Powerpoint of the Lam Rim, or something like that, but really a PowerPoint presentation isn't going to do it.

Seeing His Holiness in Dharamsala was a real bargain - in New York they charge $100/class, typically, but in Dharamsala the teaching is free. This year (and I think in previous years) a group of Taiwanese students of His Holiness sponsored the teaching.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Sunday was a day of rest. Which I really appreciated. There was an intense thunderstorm last night, with really high winds blowing things around. There were lightning strikes sometimes three or four per second, driving rain, and all the other good stuff you'd expect from a Himalayan-sized storm. Tri, Peter, Michael, Nicole, Andrea and I sat in our room and watched A Fish Called Wanda. Good times.

Not much else to report. We're going down to Norbulingka today before the teaching. I'm not sure what to expect - the original Norbulingka was His Holiness' summer retreat, and this one supposedly has beautiful gardens and a lovely temple, but that could mean anything. Apparently there's also shopping.

Will Shetterly
was talking a couple of weeks ago about a hierarchy of need. To me, the whole point of fulfilling ones' basic needs is to get to the point where you are free to do something meaningful with your life. The thing that strikes me here is how trapped people are. There are plenty of trapped people in the U.S. as well. I brought my guitar here. I'm not a guitar player. I'm a computer geek. Here, people are drivers, or waiters, or cooks. Because my job pays well, I'm free to just buy a guitar, not because it has any economic function for me, but because I want it. I want to play it.

I don't know if people here have that kind of freedom; the appearance is that they do not. Our drivers think nothing of working all day and all night. They get paid extra for it, about a dollar an hour (some of which, I suspect, goes to the car company, not to the driver).

I feel a little sad about the intonement adjustments on my guitar - they're a little more primitive than the ones on the expensive Fenders. The guitars here are an order of magnitude more primitive.

I feel a little funny staying at the caretaker's house up at DM sometimes, because it's a bit rough around the edges. It's a palace compared to any ordinary home here.

Is the problem that this place is too dirty, or that I have too little santosha? The interesting thing is that in fact I have a lot more santosha than I would ordinarily think, since I'm basically doing just fine here.

I still want the nice car on the way back to Delhi. But if we get the not-so-nice car, I think I'll be okay.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Scorpions 'r' Us

Here's a little pal Andrea found under the bed two nights ago.

This is the sign outside Pops. Florida. Did I tell you?

This is a temple in the middle of the heart of McLeodganj. I think this picture really gives you a clear idea of what it's like in McLeodganj - spiritual and commercial, cheek-to-jowl.

This truck, which seems to be a supply truck, was trying to get down the street in McLeodganj. It's nearly as wide as the whole street. After much fuss, it finally got disentangled, but in the process it tore the tin overhang of one of the shops.

This is the "crazy circle" at the top. Andrea and Chunzom have adopted that name - officially it's the bus stop circle. Just uphill from here I discovered something really cool: the place where the cabs go when they're not busy. There are about 40 cabs up there, and there's an office that you can call to get one. This is what the hotel people call when you ask for a cab. The number is 01892-221034. They seem to give honest rates, but you have no choice of which cab you get from here, so if you're fussy and want to shop around for the nicest cab, it's better to go down the hill to His Holiness' temple - there are always three or four cabs hanging around there, and you get to negotiate with an individual driver.

When we got to McLeodganj the first day, we arrived a little after dark. The sight that greeted us was intense. Downhill, most of the color is in the cars and the fields. When you get up here, the Tibetan sensibilities take over, and it's a riot of color. At night, after eleven hours of India, the impression was intense.

We had arranged to stay at the Hotel Tibet, which I think is a nice hotel. Anyway, the restaurant is very nice. But we got a pretty crappy room, with no screen on the window and no fan overhead. And the bathroom was tiny and scary. So we wound up ditching the next day, which brings you back to my comments about Hunted Hill House at the beginning of this series. The folks at Tibet House are very nice, and very honest, and I think if you get a good room it's probably a nicer place to stay than Hunted Hill House in some ways, but we're happy where we are. Sharon has a bit more of the hard-bargaining western capitalist thing going, but she's really taking good care of us, so I don't fault her for it.

The owner of the Green Hotel says his rooms are a little nicer than Hunted Hill house, but admitted that he hadn't seen the rooms there. The rooms here are 800 rupees, he says. I don't know if they're cheaper when His Holiness isn't teaching - it's quite possible. That's Nancy's theory, anyway.

The ride back from the teaching last night was intense - at about 10:00 in the evening, the rain started to come down in buckets, just as hard as the first day of the teaching, but this time it was during the teaching, and we could hardly hear the Lamas over the rain. But we could hear them, and the teaching was pretty intense, so we stuck with it. When the teaching ended, there was a brief lull in the rain, and we managed to get out and find our driver - it was Amit again.

I heard Kim Stanley Robinson, in Escape from Kathmandu refer to the drivers in the Himalayas as Homeric heroes. I think his description was apt. Amit is not a large man by western standards, but he has nerves of steel. He drove us, at night, in a monsoon downpour, with no road lights because the power was down, for an hour, and delivered us safely to our hotel in Dharamsala, and was shocked (but happy!) when I tipped him extra for his trouble.

Since his holiness' teaching is over, the population of westerners in town has dropped substantially. The beggars are out in force, desperate for a last bit of baksheesh before they head back to the lowlands. It's a bit hard to take - I would love to be able to make them happy and comfortable, but at the same time I am fairly certain that whatever I give them will wind up in the pockets of the man who brought them up here, so giving them money won't help them. It's a really awful situation. I think, too, that they know that a lot of the remaining westerners are down the hill, so it's like running a gauntlet coming up the hill. They wouldn't let Nancy get in the taxi.

Andrea is down in Lower Dharamsala with Nancy and Chu; they're having lunch and she's looking for a sari. I'm recovering from my adventures today. It's about time for me to run the gauntlet in reverse. Sigh.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Catching up.

Today's big news is that I got run over. Well, depending on whether or not you believe that a thing is its parts, either I got run over, or my foot got run over. It was up at the top of the commercial part of Mcleodganj, coming back from the Green Hotel Cafe. I was walking along minding my business, and a car hit me from behind. Gently - he was only going a few miles an hour. I put my foot down so that I could use it to get out of the way, and the driver drove right over it.

This was in a way a very useful experience, because I've often wondered what it would feel like to have one's foot run over - I've come close once or twice in the past. It turns out that if it's a passenger car, and it's not going fast, it's not so bad. My foot is sore because a lot of muscles in it got stretched in unusual ways, but no bones rubbed together, and none snapped, so I don't seem to be seriously injured - I was able to walk back down the hill without any discomfort. It may be that the Mephisto boots I was wearing helped - I think they have a steel dome in the toe. But I'm not sure about that.

I was so shocked that I swore the top of my lungs at the guy, and then held up my foot and yelled "you ran over my foot!" The guy looked shocked, but not particularly sorry. I was on the phone to a travel agent to get a car when it happened, so I wonder what he thought of the crazy shouting Inji. He didn't say anything. After I realized I was all right, I thought it was pretty funny, but Andrea wasn't amused.

Our car didn't come yesterday when we'd arranged. We sat around twiddling our thumbs for a while, hoping for the best, and finally gave up. The driver didn't speak english very well, and I think he didn't enjoy us very much either, so it wasn't a big surprise. The drivers here are really very skilled - I'd say as much so as an airplane pilot, but my airplane pilot friend might dispute that, and it's not really true. But they are not just run-of-the-mill drivers - they can judge the width of their cars amazingly well.

So after a few moments of panic about having to go up the hill again, I realized that I had the cell phone number of a travel agent. That's who you call to arrange a car, unless you have a driver's card, and the driver speaks english. He agreed to provide a jeep for twelve hundred rupees, which is very inexpensive. The driver took a long time to arrive, though, and we were starting to panic. There were a number of telephone exchanges with the travel agent, and finally just before six the travel agent said the driver couldn't get up Jogiwara Road (the road the hotel is on) because there was a truck blocking it, doing repairs, so we had to walk down.

We did walk down in a little caravan. It turned out that the driver was Amit, the same man who'd driven us from Delhi last Thursday. It was very nice to see Amit, and the walk wasn't too bad. Amit still had the thermos cup I'd left in the back on the way back, and seemed relieved to be able to return it to me. We made it to the teaching site with fifteen minutes to spare.


We're at the teaching site again now. It turns out that my foot is a bit more upset than I thought. I carried Chunzom's luggage up two flights of stairs so that we could get going faster, and started to feel unhappy ligaments. Now I'm limping quite a bit. Andrea put some arnica gel on my foot, and I've popped some ibuprofen, the wonder drug. If we'd had to walk down the hill today like we did yesterday, I think I would just have been stranded.


It's the break at the teaching. My foot is doing pretty well - I think there's pretty much nothing three tabs of ibuprofen can't fix. Although I hope the initial bold stroke nipped the swelling in the bud, because I don't want to have to keep taking it. Andrea set me up at the front of the teaching space in a chair, with another chair to keep my foot elevated. This is somewhat problematic, because you're not supposed to point your foot at the teacher, so I've been taking refuge in covering my feet up with a muslin sheet that I bought a couple of days ago.

In the middle of Christie-la's mind-only presentation, Andrea got bit by some kind of nasty insect that was crawling up her skirt. The bite is giving her a sharp, painful twinge every couple of minutes. It doesn't seem to be swelling badly. One of the students here is a registered nurse, and she checked it out pretty thoroughly.


It's Saturday now. Andrea's bite seems to have completely mellowed, which is nice. My foot is happy enough that I was able to do yoga this morning with no problem. There are still twinges from it if I do certain things that put extra stress on the muscles and connective tissue, but for the most part it's as if it didn't happen. It does itch a little bit.

We finally got up the courage to send out laundry today. Michael and Nicole's laundry got badly stained a few days ago because they put new Indian clothes, which are not at all colorfast, in with white clothes, and the people who did the laundry didn't separate them. So now Sharon's sending all our laundry up the hill.

We're up at the Green Hotel Cafe again, Lobsang Chukyi and I. The power's been out the whole time, and we can't get online. Very frustrating, since it's quite a long walk up the hill. But maybe the power will come back soon. We can only hope.


Since I don't have the Internet to distract me, I'll write a little about the beginning of the journey. Our flight to Delhi was about fourteen hours. We got in at about 8:30 pm, and got through passport control and customs in about an hour. I saw an Airtel dealer on the way out, and was tempted to stop, but didn't. We were planning to stay at the Imperial hotel, which is a very fancy hotel built toward the end of the British occupation, in an Art Deco style. We'd gotten the room arrangement that included pickup at the airport, so there was a driver waiting for us when we came out of customs.

Andrea blogged about the switcheroo, so I won't go into details about that. It was a rough welcome to India for us, and kind of ironic since in trying to avoid a taxi switcheroo scam, we wound up experiencing some of the stress of one anyway.

The hotel we wound up in, the Shangri La, was extremely nice. I would certainly recommend it to any western traveler who can afford it - you will never experience anything like it in the United States, because in the U.S. service is considered a dirty thing - not something you aspire to do well, but something you endure on your way to whatever you really aspire to. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large that's how it is in the expensive business hotels in the U.S - the goal of the place is to extract as much money from you on incidentals as possible, while providing the least value.

A $15 breakfast buffet in an American hotel would be some decent breakfast fare, but nothing fancy. At the Shangri La, the breakfast buffet was so good I nearly cried. I think that by itself it might have been worth the trip to India. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but after all the travel excitement, it was really sweet to be so well-treated.

We had the buffet twice, the day after we arrived in Delhi, and the day we left Delhi. It was a sweet beginning to a very long day. The driver arrived at about 7:30, I think, with Nicole and Michael in tow. From there we went out to stop at Cafe Barista so that they could have lattes. We discovered an interesting fact about cafes in Delhi: they don't open when you need them. Cafe Barista was shut tight at 7:30, and people were there cleaning it. We never found cofee that day - after a lot of driving we finally stopped and got Cokes. They won't let you take the bottles away - you have to drink it there.

The drive out of Delhi was pretty overwhelming. In fact, I think we were out of Rajasthan, the state in which Delhi is located, before it got un-overwhelming. I remember specifically an intersection outside of Delhi where there were tens of thousands of people streaming over the road in bicycles and on foot, amidst the four lanes of car traffic. We had to stop so that the other direction could go, and while we were stopped people came up and tried to sell us stuff and to beg. One mother with a very cute baby came up and harangued us, trying to get us to give her money. We were really upset about it, but at the same time it didn't feel safe to roll down the window in that crowd.

We went through several towns that were small by Delhi standards but still quite large; in each town, the same sort of thing would happen: if someone noticed who was in the car, they would do a double-take. If a car was in traffic with us, they would stare at us. If I met someone's eyes, they would follow us and try to catch my eyes again. With very few exceptions, it wasn't unfriendly; rather, it was like the car contained devas, and they wanted to see us and find out about us. It was very strange.

Our driver, on the other hand, did get some angry looks - there was one wedding car whose driver played tag with us for several hundred miles, deep into Punjab. They were probably headed for Manali; I think we lost them at the turnoff for Dharamsala.

The trip north very much reminded me of a long journey through Florida, only much drier. The level of kitch you see at the side of the road is very reminiscent of Florida roadside attractions. There are a series of government-sponsored rest stops on the way through Punjab; these *really* look like Florida roadside attractions, only with Indian gods and goddesses instead of flamingos. I think I prefer the Indian way - flamingos are boring after a while.

We stopped at a roadside attraction around noon to get something to drink. This was about an hour south of Chandigarh. Chandigarh is quite close, as the crow flies, to Dharamsala, but it's still in the plains of Punjab. We stopped for lunch again after Chandigarh; by this time the road had gotten a bit less straight and a lot narrower. When we left Delhi, we were on a four-lane highway (albeit a rather small, dusty one). We bypassed Chandigarh; by the time we got to the north end, the road narrowed down to a decently wide two-lane rode, reminiscent of U.S. 50 in Nevada, perhaps.

It also began to get greener; all along we'd seen agriculture, but at some point after Chandigarh it started to be common for there to be mango trees overhanging the road for miles at a time. You'd see kids out throwing sticks up into the tree to knock loose mangoes, which would be caught by other kids standing below, so that they didn't bruise. Much safer than ladders...

Because Chandigarh is so close to Dharamsala, I thought we were doing really well when we got through it, but of course that was a mistaken notion. Once you get into the foothills, things really slow down. Twenty five kilometers can easily take an hour.

As we began to ascend into the hills, I noticed something really weird - the people by the roadside, who'd seemed alien before, started feeling like beloved family. I don't know how to describe it, and it was by no means a common reaction, but for some reason that's how it felt. The drive from Chandigarh up into the Himalayan foothills was really blissful for me as a result, even though I was pretty uncomfortable in the bench seats of the jeep we were in.

We finally passed a sign that said "Dharamsala, 127km." This was the first sign for Dharamsala we'd seen. I was pretty happy about that - I figured we were maybe two hours away, because up until then we'd been making very good time. But it wasn't to be - the driver said maybe three hours, and I think it was more like four.

We caught our first sight of actual foothills a little after that, and kept going through more and more little Indian towns. Indian towns don't look like American towns. Indians seem to like to paint their trucks bright colors, but ther houses are generally the color of whatever material they're made of. I don't know if this is due to a lack of funds, or a lack of interest. I suspect that what decoration goes on is either inside the homes, or it's peoples' clothing. You see a *lot* of brightly-colored clothing.

I tried to see these towns through Indian eyes. American eyes pretty much pass over everything, because we're so accustomed to brighly colored signs and images that try to catch our attention. In these towns, I think if you are not accustomed to bright colors, there must be a huge amount of detail, and the shops must look very interesting and useful. After practicing this for a few hours, I was starting to get it.

We eventually got to Kangra, which is about 13km from Dharamsala. It's a huge town - it goes on forever. There's no obvious distinction between Kangra and Dharamsala - it turns out that Dharamsala is just a suburb of Kangra. Kangra is famous for its tea. You see signs for "clean green" all over the place. I've had it, and it's quite tasty. Very different than other green teas I've had. I might bring some home. This probably explains how large the town is.

I think the border between Kangra and Dharamsala is at a gas station. But not just any gas station, this is the gas station of the Gods. It's what a 7-11 wishes it were. By American standards it's not very big - only four pumps - but it's the newest-looking, nicest building I've seen in the entire trip. We pass it every day on the way to the teachings, and we've stopped a couple of times. They have a wall covered with bickies, they have Coke and Mirinda in plastic bottles, they have chocolate, they have scrubby sponges. They have everything. It's amazing. And the prices are good, too. I'll try to get a picture of it - we haven't had a chance to yet.

Yesterday when we left Dharamsala for the teaching, we left in an intense downpour, which started just before we got around to loading the car. I was soaked - my pants only dried off this morning after wearing them for an hour or two. We stopped at the nice gas station on the way down to get sodas for the road. We've stopped there one other time, also during a downpour. The funny thing was that as soon as we got below Dharamsala, the rain stopped, even though I'm sure it was still going up the hill. All the rivers and streams were boiling with runoff.

Anyway, I think that's all for now. I still have a bit more to write about our arrival in Dharamsala, but it's getting late.

Lots of pictures.

Getting tired of rice paddies yet?

This is a tree I really like amongst the rice paddies behind the teaching venue.

Rice paddy and mountain, behind the teaching site. Don´t be fooled by that big cloud in the background: it's a mountain.

This is what a rice paddy actually looks like from the top. They get a lot thicker than this - the ones I've seen in Japan completely obscure the water. I think it's probably early in the season, at least for this planting.

I've been trying to get a good shot of this for several days - this is the first one that stuck. This is a view from the switchback above Chamunda Devi, looking back on Chamunda Devi. The white hotel you see to the right is one of the ones we checked out last week; Andrea and I might stay there next week.

This is the view of the road out the front window of the car. Yes, it's really that narrow. No, it's not a dirt road - it's paved. What you're seeing on the left is a two-foot-deep gutter running like a river with water. What you see in the middle is all the muddy water running down the pavement. It rains like this quite frequently in Dharamsala.

This is a view from the shortcut from our hotel to the temple, which is a narrow path at the top of a long series of stairs. I like this shot because you can see the temple road way down below. It's steeper here than it looks.

This is His Holiness' temple, shot from close to the same place as the previous shot. The temple is the building at the very top of the hill, with the trees.

This is Michael, going to town playing on the neck of his guitar.

This is a view from the balcony of our hotel.

This is a closeup of the same view - I think this is a school.