Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to Dubai

Tomorrow marks our last trip off the subcontinent before heading home in December. The destination? United Arab Emirates (UAE). More specifically, we'll be in Dubai for three nights and then at a desert resort for a couple nights (with the wife's love of camels, you didn't think we'd hit our first Arab country and not figure out a way for a sunset camel ride, did you?) before a quick stop in Abu Dhabi en route to the airport back in Dubai.

I'll be the first to admit that the man-made paradise that is Dubai isn't my preferred typical type of destination. On the other hand, Lindsay spent two (mostly) blissful and glorious weeks trekking at high altitude, so I couldn't really veto five nights of borderline pampering. I envision a Vegas-like atmosphere of posh hotels and restaurants and time spent just, well, relaxing. To be honest, at this point that type of trip sounds like exactly what we need.

When home in Chicago in May, Lindsay got to talking to a college friend and before you knew it, they had a rendezvous planned. At certain points there four of five girls considering going (yes, it would have been very much a "Sex and the City 2" style trip that I had already graciously excused myself from). In the end, peoples' lives get busy and it turned into just two couples. I breathed a slight sigh of relief.

While planning, we did exactly what you shouldn't do when traveling to the Arabian Peninsula and booked flights without even considering that the UAE might be a different place to visit during the month of Ramadan. It definitely would have been an interesting visit; however, something tells me that for the kind of trip we're looking for (a little luxury and a lot of nothing), it would have been nice to be able to eat and drink in public places before the sunset each day. Miraculously (I suppose it doesn't really qualify as a miracle, but let's go with it), we booked a flight the day after Ramadan ends.

Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss (and it doesn't hurt to have a little luck on your side).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Friendly Disclaimer

I had a return appointment at the hospital today to check the healing progress on my spider bite (more commonly referred to as a "hair follicle infection" by my doctor). Again, the process was more efficient than expected. The total time for the point (round trip from the office)? 35 minutes. Fifteen of which were in the car. While driving back, I noticed an interesting disclaimer at the bottom of my prescription receipt:

"Error in billing, if any, is an oversight and unintentional."

So basically the receipt is saying, "We very well may try and overcharge or otherwise attempt to swindle you; if you catch us, it was an accident. Seriously. We swear."

It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the billing process, now does it? On the bright side, as long as the billing errors aren't of a ridiculous order of magnitude, it's easier and cheaper to just pay out of pocket than to worry about figuring out how to get my American insurance policy to reimburse me.

(And yes, I double checked my bill; 100% accurate.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Indian Kennedys

In America, we have the Kennedys. In India? The Gandhis. If you're not aware of the parallels, let me try and recreate the explanation our friend Swata provided last night. Please note that Swata is from Baltimore, but her last name is coincidentally Gandhi. Though much like Mohandas, she has no dircet blood relation to the confusing family web described in the next paragraph.

It all started with Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first Prime Minister of India after independence from Britain. Nehru's only daughter was Indira Gandhi, who had two stints as prime minister before being assassinated in 1984. Her elder son Rajiv succeeded he lost an election and was later assassinated in 1991. Her other son, Sanjay, also had a ton of political power but never held office and died in a plane crash in 1980. Rajiv's wife Sonia then became involved in politics and now leads the Congress Party in India. Many believe she's the most powerful person in the country. Her son, Rahul, is the heir apparent to this political dynasty and is currently a prominent member of parliament.

If you couldn't keep that straight, Wikipedia has a family tree.

I'm sure we could spend all kinds of time trying to equate different family members between the two, but suffice to say that both families are politically connected, powerful, and have the unfortunate draw of death before their time.

I know less about Indian politics than a person who's lived here for two years should know; however, I've seen enough of Rahul in the papers and on TV that you'd think I'd recognize him. Not so much. Last night we were fortunate enough to be invited to the pub at the Delhi Golf Club for dinner and drinks on the patio overlooking the practice green. There were two surprises. The first, that a golf course could smell like a golf course in the middle of Delhi, and the second, an unexpected close-up celebrity sighting which is my second while here (the first being Ranbir Kapoor filming a movie at Hauz Khas Village). Midway through our meal, our host Sonem motioned to a table of unassuming people near us and said, "That guy that just walked in wearing the black t-shirt; that's Rahul Gandhi."

Now the thing that was odd about that statement was that he was wearing a t-shirt yet we were at a country club. As you may or may not be aware, country clubs as institutions frown upon shirts without collars. Delhi Golf Club is no different. Apparently, Rahul, who spent his day addressing parliament on the anti-corruption Lokpal bill, wasn't above this rule. Someone brought him a golf shirt. Continuing his unassuming routine for the night; one minute he was wearing a black t-shirt and the next he was wearing a gray golf shirt. I didn't even notice the change.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Spider Bite?

A strange bump appeared on my calf a couple days ago. I thought maybe it was a mosquito bite. Wednesday it started to swell to the point where I searched for similar images on the internet to see if it might be something more severe. Yesterday, midway through my first meeting of the day, the pain and discomfort simply became too much. My streak of 19 months and 15 days needed to come to an end. I would finally see a doctor in India.

Having never been to the doctor I suggested to Lindsay that she come along and show me the way. Maybe I'm a wuss, maybe I just didn't have the adventurous spirit to try and figure out my way through a foreign hospital. I'm pretty sure it's mostly the wuss thing.

I've got to admit, the entire process was efficient. We walked into the front door of the hospital, explained my condition to the front desk guy (not that he was a trained medical professional), he made a phone call and got us an appointment with a general practitioner, and sent us to another desk to fill out a quick form. Once I filled out the form, we were asked to pre-pay, Rs. 100 for walking in the door and Rs. 800 for a consultation. $20 total. And that's "total"; not the co-pay, not the deductible. It was the total price for services. We were given directions to his office, waited a couple minutes, and then saw the doctor. He made a quick diagnosis, asked a few questions, answered a few questions (this is also why I brought Lindsay, she's pretty good at asking questions), and prescribed the necessary medications. After a quick stop at the pharmacy, we were out the door. I think we were back at the office in under an hour. My only complaint was that the 3 prescriptions, jar of anti-septic, and some sort of ointment were more expensive that expected. I've heard laughably low prices for drugs in this country. All of that cost just over Rs. 1000 (about $22); probably twice what I was expecting. But then again, that was the total price, not some sort of insurance subsidized amount.

After all of this, I'm sure you're wondering what the heck was wrong with me. Based on my scientific research using Google Image, my self-diagnosis was that I had a spider bite. I had even told people at the office this, including colleagues on my team, leading to a round of Spiderman jokes (from multiple sources). Mind you, I don't remember being bitten by a spider but I figured it just happened while I was sleeping. Not exactly a comforting thought, but what do I know?

The actual diagnosis? A hair follicle infection. If I felt like a wuss for dragging my wife with me, this diagnosis pretty much sealed that designation. 

F*ck the Maldives

Originally we had intended to take an extravagant four or five night trip to the Maldives as a "reward" for completing this little adventure. I mean, what better way to end this ridiculous experiment than by lounging in some over-the-water hut, watching tropical fish swim beneath our feet, and sipping cocktails without a worry in the world. I'll tell you what better way; taking yet another trip where you (if you're lucky) shower every five days, struggle to breathe, and pack maybe two sets of clothes.

On the second day of our trek to Ladakh, on a day when we climbed our first high pass, we reached a short rest stop in the morning. I quickly scanned the horizon as I tried to gulp down as much oxygen as possible. Three hundred sixty degrees of jagged mountains. I turned to Lindsay and calmly said, "Fuck the Maldives. We're going to Bhutan."
Not the Maldives
In my oxygen-deprived, romantic head, her response would have sounded something like an affirmative response that included the use of an f-bomb. Instead, she muddled through something like, "I think you're right." I don't blame her. This was before she discovered the soothing effects of Diamox, and she happened to be struggling through her initial altitude-related issues at the time.

By the fourth of fifth day, when the drugs had taken full effect, our decision had been made. Rather than relaxing our final few vacation days at a pristine resort in the middle of the India Ocean in a country that may one day not exist, we would fit one final (short) trek to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan into our schedule before. The reason? Apparently treks are as addictive as crack. That, and there are beaches everywhere in the world. Now I'm sure there are those that will say, "What's the big deal? There are mountains everywhere in the world." I like those people. Those are the people that crowd the beaches and leave the mountains for the people like me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Actual Rug Story

For me, shopping for rugs is a little like shopping for furniture, which is to say that 95% is total crap, and you basically know what you're going to buy when you see it. Even though we found that 5% at the first store we visited last weekend, we still performed a little due diligence by visiting a second establishment that, if nothing else, gave me the story I'll tell my grandchildren about the rug they'll be admiring many decades from now.

On Saturday, Lindsay went back to the first rug shop, negotiated a deal, and made the purchase. She's excited about the rug because it "looks traditional without looking too traditional." It was further described to her as a rug "with Persian influence yet modern colors." Lindsay eats this stuff up (even if it sounds like it's coming from a J. Peterman catalog). Speaking of catalogs, she also learned that the rug type she selected was featured on one of Stickley furniture catalogs a couple years back. What's Stickley? Only my mother's favorite furniture manufacturer. I guess this rug was meant to be. It also means that I could have bought this rug in the U.S. I'm not sure how I feel about this. If I get back and find it cheaper, I'm going to have issues.
Lindsay surveys her selection
Regardless, we're happy with our decision and the rug was delivered promptly this morning at 11am. Since the rug clashes horribly with our rented furniture and we saw no real need to accidentally destroy it before getting home, we decided to have them roll and package it so that it could be easily added to our container when we head back in a few months.

The packing process was more interesting than expected. They tightly rolled the rug, wrapped it in plastic, and then cut a thick muslin material to wrap surround the plastic. The material looks like it was used for "The Others" outfits in "Lost." The material was literally hand stitched around the rug with a huge needle and some coarse twine. The sewing process took about fifteen minutes and the rug now lays on top of a long wardrobe in our guest bedroom.
Ready for shipment
By the time we get home, I'm sure we will have forgotten what the rug looks like. Let's hope we still like it. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Long Rakhi Saturday in Delhi

Saturday was Rakhi, a festival meant for siblings. Since my sisters both live far, far away and didn't react terribly positive to last year's open letter explaining the festival, I didn't celebrate. Since we're good people (or like to think that), we told Kailash (our Saturday driver) that he could come at 11:30am so that he could celebrate with friends (his sister still lives in their home village near Khajuraho). Even with that late start, it seemed like a very long day.
Tying a Rakhi bracelet at Khan Market
Due to the festival, the streets were fairly empty when the day started. Much of the traffic was husbands transporting their wives to meet their brothers. You know it's a holiday when the women are dressed up. Saturday, the saris were out in full effect. Rug shopping was just the beginning. After our failed second stop, we headed for Khan Market. Somehow, regardless where we're going or what we plan to do, Lindsay finds a way to get us back to Khan Market. On the bright side, I had some items ready at the tailor so I'm now three shirts richer.

After a late afternoon snack, we went to Lagpat Nagar so Lindsay could get her hair cut and colored. Rather than talking about the color, let's just move on. While she was busy there, I headed to buy some travel magazines and decided to make a stop at India Gate since the sun was close to setting. In preparation for Independence Day, they were busy dressing up and keeping the crowds away from the monument. Much of the gate was surrounded by temporary green walls which kind of sucked; on the bright side, I now have pictures of India Gate with no people, which isn't something I thought I'd ever be able to take.
I always feel safer when the bomb disposal squad is present
A people-less India Gate
After a lengthy stop back at the salon, it was time for dinner. We decided to make our first return to one of our favorite restaurants from our 2004-2005 assignment, threesixty at the Oberoi. Not a bad little way to cap off a long day. Then on the drive home, we approached a large object in the road from behind.

Lindsay really wanted to stop, I was happy having seen it from the road. We passed it, and I made mention that she could probably could have gotten a ride. Immediately, she ordered Kailash to turn around. I put up a little bit of an argument (it had been a long day), but Kailash isn't stupid. He knows nearly as well as I do that a happy Lindsay (or a "happy ma'am," in his case) is an important aspect of life. Plus, no matter how long I live here and how many I see (and I really don't see that many), witnessing an elephant walking down the street in a city of fifteen million people is something of an event in my mind.
We stopped for pictures but an unsuspecting Lindsay had her glorious ride usurped as she posed for a snap. Still, not a bad way to end a day in Delhi.
Lindsay's loses her ride

The Rug Story I'll Tell My Grandchildren

Not unlike many other visitors to India, we're in the market for a rug. Unlike many other visitors to India, we know we're in the market. We've gone back and forth many times on whether or not we wanted to try and buy one. Ultimately, "if we're ever going to want one, now is the time to do it" seems to be winning out over "we don't think traditional looking rugs are really our style right now."

Saturday we set out to visit two places. The first, a shop recommended by a colleague located near Qutab Minar called Maharaja Arts, figures to be where we'll ultimately purchase the rug. We found one that we both agreed upon. In order to not make a rash and knee jerk reaction, there was also a second place we wanted to visit. At the American Christmas Mela in early December, Lindsay met a carpet dealer named Farooq. She had kept his card and wanted to check out what he had. Typically, he sells in some high end mall on MG Road in Delhi. A few weeks back she called to try and arrange a meeting and he was visiting family in Kashmir. He directed us to the mall, which was called the Gallery or something. There was a Versace Home store; not exactly our demographic. Instead, he told us to wait until he returned and he would take us to his warehouse.

After leaving the first store, we called for directions and headed to a neighborhood called Jangpura in Delhi, a place we had never heard but turned out to be close to Hamayun's Tomb. He wouldn't give us the exact address, told Kailash approximately where he could be found, and said he would meet us on the street to lead us to the warehouse. This didn't seem nearly as odd to us as the way I'm sure it reads.
Heading down the corridor
He lead us down an alley, turned into a narrow corridor, lead us up a set of stairs, and into a barren room filled with rugs and shawls. We took a seat, were offered a Coke (which I felt a little strange accepting since he was Muslim and this is Ramadan, but I figured it was better to accept what was offered), and they quickly began rolling out rugs.

Unfortunately, we didn't find anything that caught our eye. Or as Lindsay might tell you, "there was too much blue in all of the carpets and we don't have any blue in our house." Alas, our little known dream of purchasing a carpet from a warehouse in the back alley of a strange neighborhood in Delhi was dead. At least we have the experience. I'm sure when we're staring at whatever rug we ultimately purchase, the lasting memory will be that of Farooq's warehouse; honestly, it may even become the story I tell when I grow old.

A Typical Day on the Trek, the Ladakh Version

Seeing as this was only my second big multi-day trek, it may be difficult to keep from comparing this Ladakh trek around the Ripchar Valley to last year's trek to Annapurna Base Camp.

While last year's trip to Nepal seemed to have more routine each day, there was still a basic formula to a day on the trail in Ladakh. The trekking days were shorter that last year, as in we started later and ended earlier, but when you take into account the terrain, the altitude (we were over 12,000 for all but the first night in camp before we started actually walking) and the lack of organized stops along the way, the days seemed both longer and more difficult than Annapurna.

So I don't have to completely reintroduce the characters, here's a link to that post. As is the case with most things on a trek, all times are approximate. 

6:00am - Tea, Coffee?
Each morning at 6:00am, our faithful guide and kitchen dude Sarbu would approach the tent vestibule with a welcoming hot beverage. The intent of this beverage is twofold; (1) it's just a nice touch to have an instant coffee or black tea delivered to your tent and (2) it's an insurance policy against campers not getting moving in the morning.
Not a bad morning view
6:10am - Washing Water
Shortly after coffee, two bowls of warm washing water were placed outside the tent. The stated intent of these bowls is that they're for any morning washing you may want to do; however, since I tended to do most of my washing (these are the things you want to know) with the "arriving in camp bowl of washing water", I really just used this water to soak my hands and warm up a little. I'm a delicate little flower.

Once my digits were warmed up, it was time to visit the facilities, brush my teeth, quickly reorganize the tent, stuff the sleeping bag, repack the trekking duffel, and make sure the daypack, which was the only thing we were responsible for carrying, was stocked appropriately. The stock included my daily allotment of Crystal Light or Gatorade poweder (but usually Crystal Light, I'm addicted to that stuff - on a quick side note, the four of us were suffering the withdrawal effects of not having wine for so long and quickly assigned grape varietals to flavors, as in White Grape = Sauvignon Blanc, Fruit Punch = Malbec, Cherry Pomegranate = Cabernet; these are the things you think about when you're walking around the wilderness for 10 days) and a Clif bar, rain gear (which wasn't nearly as necessary in the world's highest desert as it was in Annapurna, and any expected changes in layers throughout the day. Not a bad deal.

6:30 or 6:45am - Arrival at the Dining Tent
Once ready for the day, it was time to hit the dining tent for more coffee. Like last year, I tended to be the first to hit this stage. Either I'm extremely efficient or disgustingly unhygienic.
Lindsay approaches
7:00am - Breakfast
Breakfast was two courses of guilt-free calories. The first course consisted of a bowl and a half of porridge with honey and sugar. The second course consisted of 2 - 3 small omelets and 4 - 5 pieces of some sort of carbohydrate. The default carb was toast; however, Judith (a lover of fine dining and pancakes) would give Sanjeev a subtle hint like, "Hey Sanjeev, I really love Deepak's pancakes." Magically, the next day pancakes would be on the menu. Freshly brewed coffee gets consumed through this entire process. Sanjeev also picked up on the fact that my caloric intake increased on days we were climbing passes so on those days there was just a little more food.
Warm breakfast morning
After breakfast, we actually had a little free time. Since there weren't cooking facilities along the trail at lunch, Deepak had to cook lunch right after he cooked breakfast. If we started trekking for the day right after breakfast, it wrecked the timing. Most mornings we sat around and talked, wrote in journals, or made final preparations for the day (making sure we had the right varietal of Crystal Light for the day, making sure our water bottles were full, checking which layers we had included, making a last stop at the toilet tent). One or two mornings we continued the previous night's game of canasta.

9:00am - Start Trekking
There were far fewer villages than last year's trek. As a result, there wasn't a destination stop to make during the morning where we'd sit down at a tea house and stop for 20 - 30 minutes to relax with a tea, Coke, or Everest beer (you know, on the days that were mostly downhill). Instead we would just figure out a time when everyone was getting tired around midway through the morning and, at a spot that looked comfortable, take a quick break that included sitting rather than just catching our breath. After that break, it was back to the trail. Most days, around break time or slightly after, Deepak and Surya would catch up with the food, stop for a quick minute, and quickly scurry out in front of us. You really have no idea how slow you are as a paying customer until you see somehow appear from the distance, catch up and pass you (all while carrying our lunch), and then have that lunch set out for you when you finally "catch" back up.
Starting the final day toward Kanji
Noon-ish - Lunch
The time varied depending on the day and whether we were at a spot that wasn't too exposed (i.e., on most days that we climbed passes we ate a later lunch). On last year's trek, there were actual kitchens along the way and lunch actually took a lot longer because of it. I remember days when they would purposely slow us down because lunch wouldn't have been near ready when we arrived. This year, lunch was cooked at the previous night's camp, packaged, and then served while on the trail.
Short catnap after lunch
The blue tarp (which doubled as the evening yoga tarp) would be set out and we'd gather around. Surya would first hand us a box of mango juice, which was perhaps the sweetest, most sugar-filled juice I've ever tasted. I thought it was delicious. Others on the trek did not. In addition to the juice, lunch typically consisted of salad (which is pronounced "salat" in the trekking world, and if you ever take a trek with Sanjeev you'll be pronouncing it that same way within the first couple days), some sort of protein (usually a canned meat like tuna or cooked Spam), some sort of carbohydrate (my favorite was the aloo jeera Deepak whipped up one day), and a bread. The breads were fantastic, plentiful, and typically region inspired. Parathas some days, Tibetan sweet bread on others.

12:45pm - Afternoon Trekking
After a brief rest, it was time to hit the trail again. Depending on the location of the next camp, the afternoon trek could be anywhere from two to four hours. The trekking days seemed "shorter" than last year; however, based on the lack of "long" stops at tea houses, I feel like there was just as much walking, the days were just more compressed. Regardless, the trekking was at higher altitude and seemed more difficult, so early arrivals at camp weren't necessarily unwelcome occurrences.

3:30pm - Arrive at Camp
By this time in the day, you started looking in the distance for any signs of camp. The most obvious sign was typically the blue dining and kitchen tents off in the distance. Some days you could see the tents for the last 45 minutes, some days you didn't see them until you were actually in camp. Most days, camp would only be partially set up, so we would get to the dining tent and just hang out there and relax a little bit while our tents were set up. The reality is that the sleeping tents aren't terribly exciting places to hang out, so the dining tent was, in my opinion, the preferred spot to be.
The blue tent (it's there, I swear)
4:00pm - Yoga (i.e., more resting for John)
My other trekking companions tried to make a point of doing yoga for a little while each day. I participated on two days but haven't quite caught the yoga bug. Plus, on the days I participated I had a tendency to make jokes, which apparently isn't typical while doing yoga. I don't think I was technically not asked to participate, but I think it was better for all parties that I typically didn't.
Before I wore out my welcome
4:30pm - Setting up the Tent and Washing Water
Once yoga was complete and/or the tents were ready. It was time to hit the tent and get organized. They would lay out a sleeping mat inside and have our bags set out. Sarbu, the guy responsible for setting up the tents, would even have our respective bag on the correct side. This year there was less rain, so it wasn't so much a race to the tent and we typically took turns getting set up.

Once you had your sleeping bag out and got reorganized, it was time for the washing water. Each evening two warm bowls of water would be set next to the tent. I would bring a bowl inside the vestibule, zip that shut, strip down, and let the washing begin. "Washing" really just means adding some camp suds to the water, dipping a towel into the water, and trying to wipe your self clean. We've also found that wet naps can be quite effective. The last step is trying to dry yourself off with another towel, which never seems to work. The goal is to get no water in the tent, and after a couple days, this goal is reasonably attainable. Thankfully, no pictures exist of this entire process.

Once clean, it's time to put on "camp clothes". My camp clothes consisted of an extra pair of hiking pants, a white long sleeve t-shirt, an extra pair of hiking socks, low-top hiking shoes, and my black fleece vest (i.e., the frat vest). I wore the same clothes for all 11 nights at camp. In addition to this, we would fill a stuff sack with warmer layers like our down coat, thicker fleeces, gloves, and hat. The other important thing to not forget in the "evening bag" was the headlamps. As you can probably imagine, it gets cold and dark when the sun goes down.

5:00pm - Tea, Coffee, and Canasta
Shortly after the comedy of the washing process concludes, it's time for a nice warm beverage and cookies. We would head to the dining tent where Sarbu would be eagerly waiting for tea and coffee hour. The choices were plentiful, including tea, instant coffee, hot chocolate, and some mocha-coffee-vitamin drink called Bourne Vita that Sanjeev seemed to enjoy. In addition to the warm beverage, there would be some sort of snack. All days that included packaged cookies and on certain days that consisted of fresh popcorn. Yes, it is possible to pop corn on a trek at 13,000 feet.
Lindsay ponders her next move as Glenn prepares to ridicule it
The warm beverage quickly became secondary and the next couple hours were spent playing cards. Canasta, to be exact. Boys versus girls (yes, the boys basically dominated the trip, winning six of nine games) and lots of trash talk. My journal quickly became not only a set of notes of what happened during the day but the book of record for scoring our canasta games. Thirty years from now, the canasta scores will be infinitely more interesting when opening that book.

7:00pm - Dinner
I can't say enough good things about the food on the trek. Dinner was no exception. The first course was some sort of soup. Last year it seemed like we alternated between chicken and vegetable (and it was tough to differentiate). This year there was more variety: tomato, vegetable, chicken, mushroom, and fresh lamb. After a bowl and a half of soup, Sarbu would bring the rest of the meal. In general, there would be between four or five different things to select from. Typically, it was carb-heavy. One night, we had pizza, spaghetti, and roasted potatoes. The final four nights, it included the sheep purchased along the way. There was never any shortage of food. Sarbu continually circled us with serving dishes and made sure our plates weren't finished. Again, you'd think a high altitude trek would be a good way to lose weight. It's not.
7:45pm - Tea, Coffee, and Canasta
Following dinner there was one last round of tea and coffee. But rather than tea and coffee, we'd top it off with a hot chocolate. Mmmmmm dessert.

The first few nights we were dead tired at this point and headed to the tent very early. Unfortunately, when you start to get ready for bed at 8pm, you tend to wake up very, very early. By the third night or so, we decided that an hour or more of canasta never hurt anyone. From my and Glenn's perspectives, it just gave us more time to dominate. Throughout the evening, the layers start to come out. By the canasta hour, especially on the nights at higher altitude, fleeces, down coats, hats, and gloves had all made an appearance.
Yep, she's wearing two down coats
9:00pm - Prepare for Bed
When it was time to call it quits, it was time to get ready for bed. We would grab our water bottles and head toward the toilet tent. There must be something about creating a bathroom because most nights we brushed our teeth near the toilet tent, much like your sink is very likely near your toilet. There is no explanation for this. In fact, I can't think of a worse place to brush your teeth. After visiting the tent and brushing teeth, it was time to head back to the tent

9:10pm - Bedtime
Depending on the temperature, there were some nights when the time between the toilet tent phase and the bedtime phase was far less than ten minutes. Depending on the temperature, I might elect to keep most of my layers on or strip down to an appropriate level. This year I used a sleeping bag liner which served two purposes; an extra layer of warmth when cold and a thin layer when hot. Genius. I fashioned a pillow by wrapping my down jacket in a fleece. It was comfortable enough, though I'm semi-allergic to down filling so I'd often wake up with eyes as puffy as the jacket. Judith was the smart one of the group. She borrowed a pillow from Lufthansa when she arrived in India. She's the real genius.

Once situated in the tent, it was lights out. I tried to read a couple nights but the reality is you're just too tired. Lindsay tried to stick with the reading a little bit longer but I think she read about 45 pages of "The God of Small Things". Glenn had coincidentally brought the same book and got through about 9 more pages. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the award winning book
Moonrise over camp
When you repeat this cycle for ten or eleven days you find a rhythm. The days are long (almost as long as this post) but rewarding. In fact, when all is said and done the 21 total days I've spent trekking in Nepal and Ladakh (plus the 5 more I have planned in November) will be some of the most memorable days of this experience.

Be Careful What You Post

As I walked out of the office on Friday, I was greeted by my driver Ashok. He had taken it upon himself to park on the other side of the road so we didn't sit in 45 - 60 minutes of gridlocked traffic heading in the normal direction. It's little things like this that really make me appreciate how good are drivers are. Especially on a Friday evening. As we stood waiting for "ma'am" to emerge from the building, Ashok (who has become more talkative as of late) told me that he had twenty four pictures of me. Puzzled and slightly worried I might now have a stalker, my response was something like, "Huh?"

He showed me his phone and sure enough, in a folder called "Boss", was a set of pictures mostly downloaded from the blog. I say "mostly" because included in the set was a random picture of a house I didn't recognize and a headstone for John H. Luth who, rest his soul, passed away in 1983. When he got to the headstone picture, he excitedly asked, "Is this you?" I wasn't sure if the concept of a headstone would register and it proved problematic to try and explain to a Hindu that doesn't speak too much English and isn't as familiar with the silly tradition of burying the dead. In addition, he found pictures of himself and Kailash. I had told Kailash I've put some pictures on the internet and that many friends ask what it's like to have a driver. I guess I never really con
sidered that they would, one day, find those pictures.
Ashok, Ma'am, Sir, and Kailash
In addition to the pictures, they've also found the blog. Apparently, both he and Kailash enjoy reading the "stories." Ashok admitted that it's difficult for him to understand; however, he seemed proud that he had found and was making an attempt. I'm not reading any Hindi language blogs so he's doing better than me.

When we leave India, Ashok and Kailash will be two of the people we will miss the most. Outside of the office, there aren't many people with whom we've spent more time and they're a big part of our pseudo-family while here. They're reliable, would do just about anything for us, help put things in perspective, and most importantly, are curious and ask questions. In fact, I think they're just as curious about us and (what I'm sure they see as) our ridiculous lifestye as we are of them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ignoring Rule One

As a first general rule, I ignore children. Well, at least the children that see my white face behind my car window and immediately expect I want to give them money. The "tap, tap, tap" with a sad or hungry looking face is one of the first thing that shocks you about this country and is, invariably, one of the first things to which you become desensitized. 

As a second general rule, when I ignore the first rule and for some reason want to take a photograph of the sad or hungry looking child, I will give them money. Mind you, I don't ignore the first general rule often. On Sunday, while playing with my new camera from the back seat of the car, I decided to break that first rule.

There's a fine line between the children that want their picture taken for money and the children that want their picture taken so they can see their image on the screen. This kid, obviously fell in the former category. As soon as you take a picture like this, your immediate reaction is guilt. It feels like you're exploiting or encouraging the behavior. The more I think about it, I would never stick a camera in the face of a beggar on the streets of Chicago so it's probably more exploitative than I care to admit. As soon as a street child sees that big DSLR in a car, much less pointed at her, she immediately thinks money. And she's right. If I'm going to take advantage of her situation, the least I could do is pay for the situation.

In my head, I had decided that the photograph was "worth" 10 rupees. I have no idea if this is comically high or comically low, and I can't explain how I arrived at that figure; it just seemed "right". Unfortunately, after taking this picture I realized I didn't have any small bills handy. I immediately turned to Lindsay, but all she had was a fifty. In my head, that seemed inappropriately high. I fumbled some more into my pockets to make sure I didn't have a small bill. I didn't. I then, starting to panic a bit, asked my trusty driver Kailash if he had any small bills. He didn't have a ten but did have a five. I rolled the window down a bit and handed the girl the five, feeling guilty that I hadn't give enough. I then asked Lindsay if she had any coins. Since the girl saw us fumbling, she knew she had a better chance getting more money from us than moving to the next car. Lindsay found three 2-rupee coins, so I rolled the window back down a crack and gave the girl the additional money. Eleven rupees seemed more than fair. Unfortunately, by this time, the stoplight had turned back to red, which just meant that she'd keep us company for another couple minutes.

Stoplights can be annoying long. This type of situation only amplifies the length of time that red light seems to stay red. After what seemed like a good eight minutes, the light turned green and we were finally on our way. In total, I felt guilty that about acting like a tourist. I felt guilty for exploiting a street child for the benefit of a photograph, and I felt guilty that I had to have my driver fund that endeavor. At the next stoplight, I ended up giving Kailash the fifty note to pay him back for the five he had given me; a pretty good investment on his part, in the end, he may have been the real winner.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The All-American Diner

People often ask, "what food do you miss most?" There's any range of answers to that question depending on my day and mood. While not so much a "food", one of the eating experiences I do miss is going out for breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The concept of going to a restaurant or diner, sitting down with a newspaper, eating something not entirely healthy, and drinking a bottomless cup of coffee just hasn't taken off in India. Sunday, we found the closest thing.

Part of the issue is that it's just a "later" culture here; people stay up late, get up late, and before you know it the morning is gone. You can imagine our surprise when we were invited out for "brunch" with a co-worker and his wife and were asked if we could meet them at 10am. Nothing starts at 10am in India. (Note, the Sunday brunches in India that we've been known to frequent start at 1pm and consist of foods like sushi, crab legs, and momo's; not exactly bacon and omelets).

That changed on Sunday when we went to The All-American Diner at the India Habitat Centre. For all intents and purposes, they've recreated exactly what the name would imply. Unlike so many restaurants in India that try and serve a little bit of everything and don't really master anything, this diner had a purpose. Omelets and bacon? Yep. Burgers and fries? Yep. Nope. Malts and shakes? Yep. Hot dogs and onion rings? Yep. Murgh malai tikka and pasta? Nope.
Reminded me a little of a Steak and Shake on the inside
I was shocked to find a place that was not only full by 10am but required us to wait at least 30 minutes to get a table. Overall, the food was really good. I went with a "Sante Fe Skillet", which wasn't exactly what you'd get in the US (it was scrambled eggs with green chilis, chicken sausage, and a hash brown); however, I've got to admit it was the best breakfast food I've had in India. Lindsay had some sort of omelet and declared it the best she's had as well. I think she was relieved to not have to order the omelet "well done" (which is usually the case when ordering at a hotel else you end up with an egg dish that's cooked on the outside and still liquid on the inside).
Sante Fe Skillet
In a country known for noise and chaos, the one thing the diner was missing was noise and chaos. There was no pushy waitress trying to turn as many tables as possible to increase her tips. There weren't lurkers hovering for the next open table. There weren't the sounds and smells of an open kitchen behind the stools. Even without that part of the experience, for what it was, The All-American Diner was as good an American restaurant in India as most Chinese restaurants probably are in the US that are trying to bring another cuisine halfway around the world. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Apartment Tragedy Averted

When Lindsay's Mom was in town, I wrote about the first thing that had fallen to the ground from our apartment; the laundry. Tonight, a second item fell.

I arrived home around 9pm. Yashoda, our cook, heard me come into the apartment and immediately approached. Two things had happened that day. The first, quite minor, was that she had run out of cooking gas while making dinner. The net result of that was that dinner would now consist of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I actually like, so not a big deal. The second, could have had a disastrous impact to the family that lives below us, unlike the time a wet pair of jeans was blown down to their patio.

Yashoda heard a large crash outside, had no idea what had happened, and decided to come into the apartment to make sure everything was fine. It wasn't. The window air conditioning unit, which in hindsight, always appeared to be precariously perched in our guest bedroom decided its perch was just a little too precarious. She found an empty hole with warm, humid flowing in where cold, refreshing air was once produced.
The tragedy-free end result
Thankfully, and I really mean thankfully, there was no one outside below our apartment. We live on the first floor (yes, the "British" first floor, that's how we do things in India) so there was "only" one family at risk. I can't imagine if we had been on the twelfth or thirteenth floor (yes, our unlike most hotels and other buildings, we actually have a floor labeled "13" in our building). Had this happened a month or two ago, we would have had someone staying in the room and they would have had a much more colorful firsthand account. No one was hurt, and that's the important part.

By the time I returned home, the hole had been temporarily filled with cardboard which is another reason we're glad we selected a "serviced" apartment for our two year stint (things either just get fixed or there's one number to call to get it fixed, and usually quickly). Supposedly, a new unit will be in place today and it will be good as new.

This entire episode was probably not necessarily worth an entire post and all together not that interesting; however, it beat out the stray horse I saw wandering the streets of Gurgaon yesterday afternoon, which I believe was the first stray horse I've seen. See, the air conditioning unit isn't so unexciting after all.