Cars: India Edition

The normally mundane task of getting from point A to point B has been upgraded to a thrill ride. On my pre-birthday weekend adventure, I went on car trips that would put the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland to shame.

One of the sweet benefits of being married to an astronomer (and there are many) is that you get to tour telescopes. Telescopes, which need to be located in high, dark places, are often on mountains. Mountains have very windy roads.

Winding mountain roads in the States are feats of civil engineering. Often two lanes, well signed, and with reasonable visibility, these roads present the average American driver with a safe (though sometimes nail-biting) route up steep slopes and untamed lands.

India’s civil engineers, not to be outdone, have upped the ante. Mountain roads have 1.25 lanes, hidden signs, and overgrown trees that provide the average Indian driver with challenges not seen outside of a video game.

Our expert driver handled these hazards with a cool head. We passed buses on hairpin turns, trucks on mudflats, and slower cars at every opportunity. The diesel and constant whipping back and forth made some of our crew nauseous and we had to stop occasionally. No shame in that; just a fact. What got me about this whole experience was that pulling crazy maneuvers and working through the associated nausea did actually save us time. Up until the point when the driver’s phone rang.

He pulled over and took the call.

The buses, trucks filled with bricks, slow cars, and minivans full of tourists all passed us while our professional diver took a call on the job.

What.

The.

Hell.

Well, I have to hand it to him; he was safe and pulled over. But taking a call while you’re in the middle of serving your clients? Yikes…

This was reasonably understandable in light of the ride we had back from the airport the next night. This diver obviously hated his job because not only did he take multiple phone calls while driving, but he stopped to refuel without turning the car off. I know this isn’t the most dangerous thing in the world, but it’s still a risk you don’t have to take with a volatile organic chemical. Having refueled, we took the weirdest route back to our guest house. I couldn’t figure it out until we pulled off to the side of the freeway and the driver took a fat envelope from some random guy he obviously knew. No one said anything. My “Seriously?!?” meter had pegged at WTF, but the rational part of my brain reminded me that shutting up and sitting tight when this level of sketch was going down would probably get me home.

Since I’m writing this now, that plan seems to have worked. To be fair, these experiences are noteworthy only because they are out of the ordinary. Many of our drivers have been very courteous and professional. I also know that several of the taxis I’ve taken in the States have had similar levels of sketch/unprofessionalism. But those are for another time.

+1 more story for Mike.

A life worth living

Kodaikanal: a city in the mountains of south India. The backdrop for rich tourism, farmers turned weekend vendors, and dancing mists. Our visit here makes me realize just how crazy life can be. Our drive up the green winding road from Madurai to Kodaikanal takes three hours, with dozens of near-misses and one tiny fender bender. But we arrive to the solar observatory at the top in one piece and soon settle in to a century-old facility. The walls are thick and fire places compliment every room; British colonialism collides with modern India and decade-old American electronics.

The next morning we eat breakfast with the observatory’s head honcho, a tall, slightly balding man who has tended the observatory for over 30 years and specializes in solar activity. His stories of our sun’s structure and behavior fascinate me; tales of warping magnetic fields and celestial storms seem more fodder for science fiction than phenomena we’ve studied for over a century. After we finish our dosa and omelets, we begin our walking tour. A shorter man from the observatory joins us along with our liaison from the IIA. The grounds are filled with trees and gardens, and the occasional cow. Our hosts explain how the campus often wins local gardening awards and that the IIA takes great pride in its grounds. Talking with these men gives me a sense of timeless stewardship, as they are the current caretakers of these invaluable scientific assets and historical facilities.

Captivated by a story...

My curiosity grows with each telescope and instrument we see. Behind each tool are powerful discoveries, innovative engineering, and in many cases the indomitable spirit of adventure – surely required to carry delicate mirrors and precision parts to some of the highest points on the planet. I marvel as our host demonstrates the spring-loaded shutter that allowed scientists over a century ago to take a snapshot of the sun.

After the tour, a short drive to town with our guide from the IIA and one of our observatory hosts reveals much about the Indian culture and the tight knit world of astronomy. We stopped our car to say hello to a colleague, blocking the traffic flow of seemingly angry tourists. Instead of going around us while honking (the standard procedure), they honked and then asked for directions. Our companion from the observatory seemed to know quite a few people; he gave us free chocolate at a local market and introduced me to a state representative who happened to be in the area. It was unreal to have a powerful man, surrounded by political groupies and photographers stop and shake hands with me with words of welcome to his state. Individuals are so friendly, but people so callous.

I say that because, later in the day, I found myself to be the engine of a sinking paddle boat. The man at the lakeside dock begrudgingly produced a towel to dry the seats, but said the boat was safe. We begin pedaling, and I quickly find two things: 1) my feet are too big for the paddle crank, and 2) the boat has a leak. Who sends anyone out on a lake with a leaky boat? We paid nearly $2 for this! Brandon and I pedal with all our might as Meredith and the IIA guide lean to counteract the resulting lilt, and we manage to return to shore before taking on too much water. All we got were dirty looks from the man at the lakeside dock.

I'm on a boat! And it's SINKING?!?

Wandering about the town after that encounter, a strange and subtle euphoria settles over me. I am visiting a wonderful town in the mountains with fresh air and amazing scenery. The country I’m from boasts some of the best standards of living, and for the most part I don’t have to worry about tap water that will make me sick, or random diseases, or failing infrastructure. I’ve been given a great head start in life, and I’m one of the lucky few on this planet whose only responsibility is to lead a life worth living. Daily survival is assumed, illness an inconvenience, and I get weekends off. Most of the world doesn’t have these things. I am lucky.

What does a life worth living look like? Slowly I’m learning what that may be, but the answer is different for everyone. For me, it will have the qualities of our observatory host who ran public outreach for the locals and gave us chocolate, a bit of the passion that drives people to search beyond the obvious and become immersed in a worthy cause, and a lot of luck.

+1 for Mike

Phoning Home

I have a confession to make: I’m 26, and I’m old. I found out when I had a “remember when?” conversation the other day. The subject was telephones. When I was a kid, I was over at my rambunctious friend Jordan’s house playing Robo Cop.  Neither of us had a volume knob and were told to go play outside when our Robo Cop adventure got out of hand and Jordan’s dad had to make an “international business call.” This apparently was expensive enough to threaten my friend with no allowance if his dad had to repeat himself because of us making noise. I suggested we play secret agent, and Jordan kept his allowance.

Skip the awkward teenage years where cell phones were just starting to hit the market, and just after graduation when the first iPhone came out and come to today. I made an international phone call, via free wifi, to a landline. This is awesome. I didn’t have to pay a cent, the call was crystal clear, and it just worked. Amazing right?

The magic is a combination of Google Voice and an app called “Talkatone.” Google, being a good all powerful digital overlord, will give you a free phone number that links to your gmail account. Talkatone allows this to work on your iPhone.  It’s magic, like the Hogwarts kind.

Well, the telecom companies have a new trick up their sleeves. The voodoo-juju that allows for international calls to the US via the internet doesn’t work as a local telephone, so we use the local phone at our dorm. This may not sound like a big deal, I thought nothing of it until my third call to a friend of a friend here in Bangalore. Each time I called, there was some guy singing about something while the call was dialed. No big, I know many cell plans allow a custom song to replace your dial/ringing tone. Well, on the third call, I finally understood what was being said.

“When you have something to saaaaayyyy, say it the BSNL waaaayyyy…”

What the heck is BSNL? A code? Did I hear that right?

I hang up the phone and look at the receiver:

BSNL is the phone company!

Instead of a Ring-Ring, I had to listen to their advertisement. And now, I can’t get their jingle out of my head.

Why isn’t there an ad-block for real life?

+1 infuriating melody for Mike.

Bargains

Negotiating is one of my secret passions; the interplay between two parties’ perceived value of goods and services is fascinating to me. So when I learned that the primary mode of transport was the autorickshaw, and each trip represented an opportunity to level up my negotiating skills, I did a happy dance in my head.

For those of you who just threw a “BS flag” citing I hate conflict, let me explain. Because there are roughly 40 rupees to the dollar and most trips cost less than 150 rupees, we are arguing over quarters here. I normally dislike confrontations because the costs of engaging make the game simply not worth playing. But here, if I lose 30 rupees, I’m over it.

So, here we have the perfect setup for training the inexperienced American bargainer.

  1. Costs of losing are cheap
  2. You get to play many rounds without depleting your resources, and
  3. You can always literally walk away.

A brief summary of +1 for Mike’s bargaining adventures:

  • Got to a restaurant for 30 rupees. Skipped an hour walk in the hot sun. +1
  • Went to a park for 100 rupees. Missed the cross-town traffic and didn’t have to dodge cows. +1
  • Went to church for nominally 100 rupees. Price went up to 150 rupees apparently due to a misunderstanding. Left in disgust. -1
  • Had to confirm everything my wife said to the driver, and was charged an additional 20 rupees to go farther than he thought originally. Broke even.

But the biggest victory came just the other day. A friend of ours wanted to see X-Men First Class, and the only showtime was 9:30pm. It also happened to be in the “gold class” theater, which is both pricey and translates to “reclining lay-z-boy seats and waiter service.” The movie, with intermission, got out just before midnight, and the walk was a few clicks along unlit sidewalks. A rickshaw driver approaches as we exit the theater.

“Where you want go my friend?”

Our friend Brandon explains where we’re headed, with the usual hand gestures and onslaught of landmarks.

“150 rupees,” came the driver’s response.

Brandon laughed. I said, “No way man, the trip is worth 50 at most.” I mean, we’d gotten to the theater for 30, but there were only a few cabs around and we were going to a place where he might not get another rider easily.

“No, 150 rupees,” and he gestured for the three of us to follow him.

I chuckled. “Nope, that’s fine, we’ll walk,” and the three of us started away.

“Okay, my friend, 100 rupees!” he called after us.

I stopped, and turned in the theater’s lights. “75 at most, or we’re not going.”

He didn’t seem to want that, so I resumed walking away.

“Okay, Okay 75!” he shouted and gestured wildly towards us.

“75?” I repeated, gesturing with my hands the number I intended to pay.

“Yes, come!” so we piled in, zoomed back to our dorm with a few terrifying swerves, and were soon back in our rooms.

Boom! 50% off!  That may be the high score for the trip, but we’ll see if I can go for 60% next time.

+1 Negotiation for Mike

Flashback: A game show and a honeymoon

Game shows were the first form of entertainment to demonstrate how stupid most people are. Seriously: you have a group of people in front of a live studio audience who do everything from answer inane questions to perform feats of weirdness. Needless to say, my participation had a two drink minimum.

Near the end of our honeymoon cruise to Alaska, a formal dinner was followed by the “Love and Marriage Game Show” as after-dinner entertainment. My new bride said she’d like to go, and maybe be one of the contestants. As soon as she said this, I felt the hand of fate half-nelson me as fear slugged my gut. Didn’t she know game shows were for idiots?

We enter the theater after dinner to find the cruise coordinators handing out raffle tickets for those who had been married 5-20 years, 20-40 years, and 40+ years. Having been married two weeks, I was told to raise my hand when they called for volunteers. Three longer-married couples were selected, and then the call came. My bride and I were newlywed couple two of seven.

Now, instead of randomly picking one of seven couples like a nice host, our cruise director made each couple come up to the stage in turn and say:

“Ooey baby, ooey baby, we want to play, ooey baby!” and seal it with a kiss. The winners by applause got to play the game.

Some reward, right?

So, we head up when called, and as I stroll down the aisle, time slows as fate whispers in my ear:

“Crush this, Mike.”

I look deep into my wife’s perfect blue eyes, smile and belt out:

“OOEY BABY, OOEY BABY! WE WANT TO PLAY! OOEY BABY!” And with a full-on kiss, I gathered her up in my arms and gave her a slight dip.

The room exploded with cheers.

The competition breathed a sigh of relief – they wouldn’t look stupid tonight.

The Game

The game itself is split into two rounds of four questions each. First, with their wives out of earshot, the husbands are asked four questions. Upon returning, the wives try to match their husbands’ answers for 10 points each. Next, the roles are reversed; however each question is now worth 20 points. Finally, there is a 50 point bonus question posed to the wives that their husbands must match. So, the unlucky shmucks husbands, are responsible for guessing 130/170 possible points worth of their wives’ opinions.

Round 1 kicks off as the women step out with champagne and the men are addressed. The first question, asked first to yours truly, was:

“Who is the biggest trouble maker on your wife’s side of the family?”

And they’re filming this.

My deft reply:

“Well, I’ll preface this by saying she’s also the ‘fun-maker,’ but I’d have to say her aunt Pam.”

The cruise director smiled and gave the slightest of nods.

Other questions were asked that I don’t recall, but when the women came back in, the heat was on.  Meredith was asked:

“Who is the biggest trouble maker on your side of the family?”

“Aunt Pam,” without a moment’s hesitation.

(Note: when shown the DVD, Pam fell out of her chair laughing at this point.)

My wife got two of the four questions right, with a near miss on a third. Topics ranged from cooking to “unusual locations.” Then it was the husbands’ turn to head out.

The other men and I were led to the casino while making awkward conversation, the highlight of which was the man married for 40+ years looking me straight in the eye and saying:

“This is a terrible way to start a marriage.”

My steely eyed response: “We’ll see about that, Joe.” I added with a wry grin, “really, a snow bank?”

We laughed heartily as we filed back into the theater.

I answered three of the next four questions correctly, and some of the other guys landed in hot water by missing trivia most obvious. The scores after two rounds were as follows.

Married 20-40 years: 65 points
Married 5-20 years: 70 points
Yours Truly, married just shy of 2 weeks: 80 points
Married 40+ years: 95 points

It was anyone’s game with a 50-point bonus question up for grabs.

The final question: “What is your husband’s favorite condiment?”

They started from the lowest score and worked their way up. The first two had a hard time with the definition of “condiment,” wanting to choose things such as sugar or salt, and completely missed their wives’ answers. Then it was my turn, and I knew I had this one cold:

“+1 for Mike, what did your wife say is your favorite condiment?”

“Ketchup.”

And the crowd exploded in cheers! Finally, a correct answer!

Then came the moment of truth: would old Joe be able to clinch the win?

His response: “Mustard?”

Hers: “A-1 steak sauce.”

And that was it! We won!

… and I didn’t look dumb!

 

+1 Amazing Victory for Mike

Adventures in Bangalore

Did you know that there are over two dozen ways to prepare lentils? That’s good, because +1 for Mike is eating mostly vegetables for the next six weeks. The lack of meat has been one of the biggest cultural differences I face every four hours. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, where my wife is working this summer, has a cafeteria which offers great (and cheap!) meals. But by tradition and economic necessity, meat is only included as a special option on Wednesdays. So far, I’ve tried meat dishes on two different occasions. Once at an upscale “Asian” café, and another on a Pizza Hut pizza (don’t judge me). Both experiences were startling in their own right.

The Asian Café Experience

We had to register with the local police to validate our visas, and having played DMV Bangalore edition all morning, we decided lunch was in order. Our host suggested a café that served a variety of curries and soups. The car we had hired for the day drove us about a mile to a very clean, white tiled restaurant. The doorman welcomed us in and we had a whole team of servers asking us what we would like. Since lunch was taking place around 2pm and my stomach had made two attempts to eat my liver, I would need at least half a plate of food to switch my status to “ravenous.” The buffet-style line had no labels but many options, so I chose a four-item combo with what appeared to be chicken tikki masala, kidney bean curry, fried cauliflower, and naan. Grabbing a bottle of water, I dashed to the table and tucked in to a much anticipated meaty treat.

Only to find sharp bones!

It was agony; an empty belly, tender marinated chicken in my mouth along with a short sword and a dagger.  My mind raced: what is the most culturally sensitive way to expel the bone from my mouth without using my one and only reserved-for-rich-westerners napkin? Could I eat the bone without a hemorrhage?

The staff psychic came over with a small basket of napkins and the situation was resolved. Very little meat was consumed, but the sauce was tasty.

Satiated with veggies and naan, we went back for round 2 of DMV Bangalore edition…but the meat craving returned a few days later…

Pizza Hut…really?

We were three quarters of the way through our cycle of 24 lentil dishes when the craving struck. It’s that feeling you get when you’ve been good for so long and just want to wolf down the most calorie-laden thing you can get your hands on. My wife and I were talking with the other US grad student in her program, and the word “pizza” came up. The next ten minutes were the most hunger-inducing of the trip. Discussions of cheese types, optimal topping ratios, and the definition of “deep dish” ensued. We needed to acquire the staple of the American college student for dinner that night.

I’m working remotely until 7:30pm or so when the wife walks in with “Did you get my email?”

“No, I was working.”

“We’re getting pizza! Let’s order some tastiness.”

She and the other grad student had put together a whole order of Pizza Hut’s most bad-for-you food, Indian style. We ordered a Chicken Tikka Makhani and Paneer El Rancho (I did not make that up) along with cheesy garlic bread and pasta. The Paneer El Rancho is just like it sounds: a confused Mexican, Indian, and Italian trifecta of awesome.

The man on the phone assured me I had made a smart choice, complimented me on my wisdom, and told me how wonderful I am. Pizza Hut America: this is how things should be done. When I order a pizza and people know I’m a smart man for doing so, I’m probably going to order again. Because who doesn’t like being told they’re amazing for figuring out how to work a phone and asking someone to bring you food?

We wait a while when the phone rings. It’s the Pizza Hut folks confirming our address and letting us know that they were heading out. I was complimented for my patience and wisdom.

The delivery man arrives and then I realize why I got so many compliments; the meal was over 1000 rupees. Now, for context: in Zelda, this money could buy you a magical suit of armor. In India, this could buy a week’s worth of food. In America, it would buy you two medium pizzas and a side of pasta.

Hauling our treasure trove of pizza back to the room, we proceed to “U.S. it up” with a Stargate episode. The food didn’t last fifteen minutes.

It was amazing. And, there weren’t any bones.

More adventures to come!

+1 for Mike

Mind the Gap…

So, I haven’t posted for nearly a year.  The cliff notes version:

1)      Obtained my PE

2)      Got promoted at work

3)      Married the love of my life

4)      Now in India

Yeah, a lot of stuff happened, and I chose sleep over writing.  I’m a better person for it.

+1 almost-year for Mike