Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reflections on India

I'm back in the States for three weeks, so it's time for a recap. What's the best and worst of India so far?

The Bests

Without a doubt, the best thing about India is the people. Indians are welcoming, generous, tolerant, and patient. We have been welcomed without reservation by neighbors and strangers alike.

Next -- the food. I've come to appreciate spice! LOTS of spice. Lots of "heat". Indians take their food very seriously -- and it shows.

With those two things in place, all the minor inconveniences (inconsistent power and water chief among them) are tolerable!

The "Wish I Had …"s

What do I miss the most? No, it's not peanut butter or beef.

Number one, by an overwhelming margin, is the lack of a "weekend". The standard business week here is 6 days, 48 hours. But for salaried workers, it's more like 60 hours (6 10-hour days). Even school runs 6 days a week. Indians work hard! Lon takes Sundays off, but I miss having a two-day weekend. Even more so that we don't have a driver on Sunday, so we're limited to walking. There's a lot within about 25 km of Vapi, but 5 or 6 km (one way) is pretty much our limit.

The second thing I miss is a full-size oven. Yes, our microwave is also a convection oven, but I'm limited to what can fit on a 12-inch diameter plate. It's really not feasible to bake dozens of cookies or a turkey. (As if I could find a turkey in India!) Even a cake has to be baked one layer at a time.

The Worsts

What's the worst about India?

First, the climate. For a non-summer person like me, 24/7/365 heat is challenging. The three seasons are wet & warm (monsoon), hot ("winter"), and scorching ("summer").

And secondly, the dirtiness: both trash-wise and pollution-wise. The mind-set of tossing everything on the ground or out the car window is difficult to understand.

Burning leaves and trash on the roadsides adds to the poor air quality in India.

All in all, if that's my complaints, life is really pretty good!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Along the Arabian Sea

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge saves about 45 minutes of travel time between Bandra and south Mumbai according to our drivers. At peak travel times it can save over an hour! Along with the time savings, it's an incredible cable-stayed structure across Mahim Bay.

Sea Link from Bandra Fort
Sea Link from Joggers' Park

The difference between high tide and low tide at Mumbai is 6 to 8 feet.

At low tide, boats are stranded on the beach.
At high tide, there's plenty of draft to get out to the open sea.

Finally, some picture of sunset from our afternoon/evening walk:

Sunset along the Bandstand Promenade.
The sun slowly setting into the haze/smog over the Arabian Sea. It was totally invisible 15 minutes before sunset.

This is India

This Is India (TII for short). Today it means sights that would not be seen in the United States. Just a reminder that there's a whole other world out there that lives in a very different way.

In more-or-less chronological order from today's morning walk:

In a small lane just north of St. Andrew's Church, was Holy Cross Undertaker.
The man sitting in front is hand chiseling text onto a marble grave marker.
A bit further up the lane were several fish vendors. Definitely fresh -- not even refrigerated!
In another country, this debris on the side of the Carter Road Promenade might seem sinister.
In India, it's just left-over fireworks from last week's Diwali celebration.
The end of the Carter Road Promenade. The white monument is obviously related to sailboats, but the words at the base are just graffiti scratched into it. I'm not sure if it's just Sunday or everyday that laundry get dried along the shore. Many people were doing laundry and bathing in the tidal pools.
Shops (below) and homes (above) along Carter Road. Note that the homes are accessible by ladders, not stairs.
This arrangement is a fairly common sight in Mumbai.

Churches of Bandra

Bandra was the original Portuguese outpost for Bombay. It was "Lands End" on the peninsula that is now Mumbai. All of Mumbai that is south of here was originally islands, that slowly got in-filled and consolidated into one peninsula.

As a result of its Portuguese heritage, this part of Mumbai has the most concentrated collection of Christian churches in India. Most are Roman Catholic, but there are a number of Anglican churches from the British era, as well.

Mt. Mary Church (officially, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount). This structure dates back to the early 1900's, but it's been a worship site since the 1570's. I loved the typical Indian stalls in front of the church where you could buy all sorts of worship accessories from rosaries and candles to flowers and statues.
Across the street from the church is a shrine to St. Mary. Worshippers lay lit tapers horizontally on this grill rather than light conventional votive candles.
Just down the street from Mt. Mary Church is an Anglican church, St. Stephen's.

St. Stephen's Church
At the end of Bandstand Promenade is another old Catholic church, St. Andrew's. It is entirely surrounded by a large cemetery and columbarium. The graves are so close together that you have to walk across them to get to the church.

St. Andrew's Church
More of St. Andrew's cemetery and columbarium. Many of the graves have five or six bodies buried under one slab.
Even Christian graves are decorated in a typical Indian fashion with plenty of marigolds.
A bit further up a narrow lane from St. Andrew's, we came across a roadside shrine to St. Mary. The Hindu influence is apparent in the marigolds and pictures along the sides.

Roadside shrines/temples/mosques are common throughout India.
Many times, they actually stick out into the travel lanes of the roads.
And finally, although it's not a church, it definitely has religious roots:

Further up the street, just past Joggers' Park is this booth that is obviously Muslim.
I presume it has to do with the name of the street.

Dogs of Bandra (Mumbai) - Mostly

We're spending the "weekend" (i.e. Sunday) in the Bandra area of Mumbai. Officially, it's a suburb, but it's mid-way down the Mumbai peninsula and definitely in the middle of "metro Mumbai". We've decided to make this our 35th anniversary celebration (which doesn't officially come for another two weeks).

This morning we took a four hour stroll through Bandra -- from the Taj Lands End hotel and back again. We probably walked about 8 km (like I said, it was a "stroll") and saw many interesting sights. More posts coming later.

But to start the day, here are photos of the "Sleeping Dogs of Bandra" and a bit more.

Fast asleep on the steps to the shrine of Mary across from Mt. Mary Church.
His and hers sofas on the Carter Road Promenade.
Taking a cue from the ubiquitous cattle -- fast asleep in the middle of the Carter Road Promenade.
This enterprising pup dug up a recently planted bed of flowers to make a nice, cool bed.
The shade shelter is for the flowers, not dogs!

And in the interest of (un)equal time:

Cats are rarely this "public" in Vapi -- they prefer to leave as soon as people arrive.
But in Mumbai, we saw several cats of this coloration and nonchalance.

Now for a change of pace:

I didn't know there were turkeys in India. This one was showing off at the entrance to Jogger's Park.
I've always thought that male turkeys in display are in full "Kabuki mode"!
These birds are soaring outside our hotel window. I think they are Black Kites, but I'm not sure.
This video may not be worth watching -- handheld at fairly high magnification and a funky soundtrack.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Day Trip to Surat

About 120 km north of Vapi is the old port city of Surat. With a population of nearly 5 million, it's a pretty sizable city. There's not a whole lot for tourists to see here, but the shopping is good!

Old Surat shows its Portuguese heritage. There were a lot of wooden shutters, and the rounded corners give the architecture a somewhat European flavor. The streets were considerably wider than those in Ahmedabad, but still narrow.

The outskirts of Surat are much like those surrounding many growing Indian cities: new construction vying with agriculture. Herds of cattle crossing the road no longer surprise me, but when two-wheelers decide to try their merging techniques with tonnes of buffalo, it's quite a sight:

Our main objective was to check out shopping, so we stopped at the brand-new VRSurat mall. (VR stands for "Virtuous Retail" and the company operates several malls throughout India. I'm not sure what is so "virtuous" about shopping!)

A typical up-scale shopping mall -- it goes up rather than sprawl. Parking is in the basement. The shops are also much smaller than those in a typical American mall, even though many of the brands are the same.
This mall makes an effort to bring local arts into the public spaces. The Diwali lanterns are hand silk-screened and make one of the largest "kinetic" art installations in the world. (Or so the signage says.)

Another piece of art was a full-size sailboat:

The boat and it's supports are painted in the same style as the sail.
And finally, no road trip is complete without a couple of pictures taken along the road:

Large temples along the road are fairly common. This one was easier than most to photograph from a moving car.
Just north of Vapi is a small mountain / large hill that is being systematically turned into crushed stone.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Diwali - Part 3 - Happy New Year!

Today was the Hindu and Jain New Year. Lon took the day off and we went on a "Sunday Walk" on Monday through a different part of town. No adventures except that Vapi and environs can go from very rural to very urban in a few hundred meters. We walked a road that most likely very few non-Indians take. We got lots of stares. (Of course, my sun hat provides interest just in itself.)

Some views of the day:

"Pottery Barn" Vapi-style?

Two of Vapi's bovine citizens. What caught my eye was that even the cows were wearing "bling" for Diwali.
Some even had a "bindi" (red spot between the eyes) -- but not this one.
Note the beaded necklace.

And finally, a 24-second audio clip of last night's "cracker" barrage. (It's continuing tonight even as I type.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Diwali - Part 2

We took a night walk to see all the Diwali lights. Vapi was a happening place at 8 PM. The wide bazaar street really doesn't get set up until between 5 and 6 PM. Most carts have a compact fluorescent bulb running off an automotive battery.

My iPhone camera worked remarkably well in the dim light. A real camera and tripod would be better, but it would be difficult to carry that gear around at night -- not to mention trying to stay out of traffic as I took a picture!

First, a few pictures from our neighborhood:

We've set out some lights on our railing. The clay pots cost a whopping 8 cents (5 rupees) each.
The tea lights to go in them cost twice that! Half of the lamps are burning oil with a string wick --
that's the authentic Diwali light.
Looking down our street. It's hard to see the lights on the houses through the trees.
My camera didn't have enough to go on to focus properly, but these are lights in the windshields and bumpers of three "Goods Carrier" trucks. It really was a cool sight.
A small part of the large bazaar street in Vapi. You can tell it's a busy place!

And finally, a picture I can't take credit for:

A NASA photo of India at night taken in Diwali 2012. The extra light from Diwali really doesn't add anything at this scale -- the date is just coincidental.

Cattle Redux

I continue to vow not to take any more pictures of cattle occupying inconvenient spots, but there's just too many interesting encounters to give up entirely. So here are two recent encounters with the same herd of buffalo.

When a herd of buffalo takes up the entire road, it's difficult to do anything but wait for them to pass by.
As they were passing, I noticed that two or three had blue eyes!
Now that monsoon has withdrawn, we can take this tunnel under NH8 as a short-cut back to our bungalow.
(It probably cuts off almost a km, but during monsoon it's about a foot deep in mud and water.)
Today we had to share it with our favorite buffalo herd.

Diwali - Part 1

It's Diwali -- the Festival of Lights. Think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one week-long festival.

The main dates of Diwali this year are November 3, 4, and 5. But this is Gujarat. In Gujarat, Diwali celebrations started on October 31, and will continue for 10 days. This is also the Gujarati New Year. The "crackers" (firecrackers) are continuous from sunset to midnight, with occasional outbursts at any time of day or night. At night, houses are lit up with strings of colored lights and oil lamps. I'll try to get some of those pictures tonight -- it's much more difficult to photograph at night!

Sand paintings on thresholds are common this one is at Spice Academy, where we take our Hindi lessons.
The one, with a clay lamp, is at Ruby Macon's main office in Vapi.

You can tell it's a festival season when marigolds are sold by the kilo.

Bags of marigolds on Main Bazaar Street.
In this blow-up of the photo above, you can see the marigold seller with her child sleeping on milk crates amidst the motor scooters.
More marigolds. In the background you can see marigolds already strung.
You can buy marigold strings every day -- you never know when an auspicious moment will occur!
This is also a major shopping day. This photo doesn't really do justice to the crowds crammed into this little lane just off Main Bazaar Street.