Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ten more thoughts on India

Ten more observations about India, having just returned from my trip there.

1. I went down to the southern most tip of India, where I was able to simultaneously swim in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal. There was a shrine there in memory of Mohandas Ghandi. The shrine had a picture of Ghandi, with what I'm relatively sure is a Christian halo around his head, which I've only otherwise seen for saints. Similarly, the language in the English version of the text near him made more "virgin" references then I'm used to in Hindu sources. It's fascinating that India's Christian population also has a significant following for Ghandi, despite him not being a Christian.

2. We stayed in the Leela in Kovalam Beach, which was gorgeous, though at times a bit inept. India is still barely electronic in their administrative functions, and so in the shuffles of papers things get lost. Despite telling the hotel when we checked in last Sunday that we were checking out on Thursday, they seemed to think that we were checking out Wednesday and began demand we vacate the room because they were full. Eventually the conference staff intervened on our behalf, but it was amazing that they would consider kicking out paying guests because of a snafu on their part.

3. Luckily, we didn't have to stay in one of the other conference hotels, the Uday Samudra, where we heard the rooms were not great, and everyone got sick from the food.

4. After the conference, we drove a few hours up north. Indian driving is something I have never seen before. Down here, it's not mass chaos, like Cairo, but it is crazy. First of all, you have vehicles sharing the road of vastly different cruising speeds (from bicycles to mopeds to three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, to cars, buses, and trucks). On mostly two lane roads, faster vehicles have to have some means of passing slower ones. What happens is that the middle of the road becomes a passing lane, used by traffic in both directions. If that weren't terrifying enough, if a medium speed vehicle is passing in the center and a high speed vehicle (like our driver's car) wants to pass, he goes fully into the oncoming traffic lane. Somehow the system seemed to work. While India has very high car crash rates, I happened to see none when I was there.

5. Farther north, we spent a night on a houseboat, exploring the backwaters of that area. It was wonderful - relaxing, comfortable, with great food. Apparently there are 500 houseboats in that area, each few owned by a different person. The boats contract with the tour companies which then contract with the drivers and the hotels. It seems to be a good system, though our hotel (Greenshore Apartments - see below) did not charge us a commission, which is very nice of them.

6. The tuxedo, mentioned in my previous post, came exactly as specified - without a doubt best fitting two pieces of clothing that I own. I highly recommend Duron Tailors. Bring many pictures of what you want, and ideally a driver or friend who speaks Malayalam (though their English is passable).

7. If you are looking for an inexpensive, comfortable place to stay on the beach, Greenshore Apartments is a great option. It has kind, helpful staff and charming British owners.

8. The religious harmony in India was absolutely incredible. We saw nothing but Christian, Muslims, and Hindus living side by side in accommodating peace (dietary requirements respected - it took our Hindu driver to explain why the tailors were closed for 3 hours Friday afternoon - the owners are Muslim). Our of Greenshore's 4 staff members one is of each religion and they get their respective Sabbaths off

9. Trivandrum Airport (TRV) does not understand internet boarding passes (the kind you get when you check in online and then print them from your computer). They kept asking for our "original" boarding passes and then finally sent us all the way back to check-in (past immigration) to get them. Hand luggage also all has to be tagged, so we would have been in trouble even if they accepted the boarding passes. This level of anachronistic incompetence at an international airport is incredible. Maybe Qatar Airways shouldn't laud their online check-in system if the local airports can't handle it.

10. Finally, the Sunday morning flight from TRV-DOH (Doha), as to be expected, is almost all men commuting for work. (Remember that the work week starts on Sunday in Muslim countries.)

That's all! Anyone traveling to Kerala please get in touch with me for more travel tips.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What happened to the Dems who voted against health care?

There were 34 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who voted against comprehensive health care reform last March. Politico has a story on it, but here are the details (from my own analysis):

Number who stood for reelection to the House: 30/34
Of those 30, number who won: 13 (38%)
Of the 2 who ran for higher office, number who won: 0
Of the 2 who retired, number whose seats the Democrats retained: 0

Great night for those who opposed health care reform!

I fully expect Nate Silver's blog to come out with a comprehensive analysis, looking at those Democrats who voted for it from Republican majority districts and how way they did. But, suffice to say, voting against health care reform to appease one's conservative constituents did not appear to buy sufficient good will.

Monday, November 1, 2010

First nine hours in India

I landed in Trivandrum, India at 3:45 AM local time (6:15 PM EDT - yes - this is my first time ever in a half time zone). Total journey from the Upper West Side to my hotel in India was about 24 hours, by way of JFK and Doha.

Several observations about my trip so far:

1. Qatar Airways is fantastic, especially because they have plentiful delicious vegetarian food. In coach. (None of this chicken-or-beef nonsense I once experienced in first-class Continental.)

2. Doha Airport has surprisingly reasonably duty free single-malt Scotch prices, despite its majority culture prohibiting alcohol.

3. Indians have near 100% compliance with mustaches. It is rare to see a man without one or with any other style of facial hair.

4. Indian men tend to wear western clothing, whereas Indian women tend to wear traditional clothing.

5. India has the best, most considerate vegetarian food in the world. Every one of the dozens of dishes at the breakfast buffet was labeled as to whether it was vegetarian (by Indian standards - so eggs and fish are not, but dairy is).

6. I went into town to get a tuxedo made. The hotel provided me (at my expense - about $30 for the first two hours and then $10 for each additional hour) with a driver, who not only could navigate the crazy driving in India (passing in the opposing lane or worse between the two lanes, the bikes/walkers/auto-rickshaws - which are tiny cars with only one wheel in the front instead of two), and had cold bottled water, but came into every store with me and translated what I wanted into Malayalam (yes that's a palindrome in English transliteration) if needed.

7. Speaking of which, Malayalam and Hindi use different alphabets, so most signs here are written in three languages (English being the third).

8. If you ever go to get clothes made in India, bring many many pictures of exactly what you want. Don't assume they will know what a tuxedo is or what it is supposed to look like or why there is a satin stripe over the seam in the pants.

9. I went to two places - Duron and BodyFit. Duron was much better - they spoke better English, knew what I wanted, asked detailed questions of things I didn't think of, arranged me for to come back for a fitting two days later and then would have it done in four days, and even sent me with fabric samples so I knew what kind of satin to buy.

10. With regard to fabric, when you want clothes made you have to go to the textiles store nearby and buy your fabric (the tailor tells you how much he needs of what). I had never done this before, and learned two things. One, to make a tuxedo jacket and pants for someone my size (5'6") requires 3.5 meters of wool and 1.25 meters of satin (the tailor provided the synthetic lining for the jacket). The high quality materials ended up costing the same amount as the labor from the tailor! Fascinating. All in, including the three trips with the driver, the cost will be under $250, which is incredible for a custom made tailed tuxedo using high quality fabrics.

More to come later.