24 November 2008

Week 54: Showing off Bangladesh in Chennai (seeing the three biggest cities not named New Delhi)

54th-1st in Kolkata 9/10

Last night was not so much fun, I was having stomach issues. This led to me not eating very much during the day. Despite still being queasy this morning, I still headed out to see the Victoria Memorial. I had seen it last night lit up, but it was much more spectacular when I saw it in the daylight today.

The memorial was gorgeous, startling. Inside I felt queasy and had to sit down several times. Light headed and sick. But I enjoyed the exhibits very much, a very well done museum. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the initiatives the British made to learn Bengali. They wrote the first Bengali-English dictionary. (pics: Victoria Memoria and the reflecting pool, Victoria Memorial in Kolkata)

A great surprise was to meet the family again from the ticket booking office. I saw them outside the museum, and we had a photo session on the steps, and then down at the bench in the gardens. The little girl stole my camera, and her father’s camera, and tested both out while I chatted with her dad. (pics: myself and my friend, the girl and her father, the girl took this photo of her father and I, stealing her father's camera)

On the way to the airport, there was a major jam, and the hot taxi did not make me feel any better. While waiting for the airplane, I started feeling increasing nausea. Got on the plane, and then just as we left the gate, and came to the end of the runway, I threw up. I had to use two airplane bags. It was the worst moment of all my time in Asia. I had never felt so horrible. However the place it ended up happening was quite good for storytelling. I had a schedule to keep though, and I was not stalling in Kolkata by recovering. It needed to plow through, and just deal with it. Its times like these that I thank my rowing career, as I feel it taught me to feel uncomfortable all the time in all types of situations. So this was just one more thing to get through.
I had asked the steward earlier if I could have a blanket, but as this was Spice Air, a budget airline (one of the many in India), they had none. Well after I threw up, I held the airplane bags in front of me until the plane had reached altitude, and I could unbuckle and carry the bags to the bathroom and dump them out. The stewardess back there saw me, shivering and carrying my bags. She offered me one of the sportcoats that the stewardesses wear as part of their uniform. I sat in the back row of the airplane, as it was a bit warmer from the front, and shivered. She then brought me another sportcoat of her coworker, and I wrapped that over my head. She brought me hot tea which she delivered under a napkin. Explained that they don’t offer hot beverages on the plane although they can still make them, and she had made it secretly. Lastly she brought me a tomato sandwich for free which would typically have to be bought. So there I sat, huddled under bright red Spice Jet women’s sportcoats, nibbling a sandwich and sipping a tea. I didn’t throw up again, but I still felt sick.

Arriving in Chennai, as our plane had left a bit late, I was worried I might miss my train, leaving in the nighttime to Tiruchirappalli. When I landed, despite my sickness, I hurried to baggage claim, and went to the prepaid taxi counter. They said the train station was 45 minutes away, and I still had time to make it. Got in the taxi, we were off, almost across all of Chennai to the train station on the north side of the city.
I got there in time luckily, and found my train car, and got into my seat. The man next to me however told me that the seat I was in was also his, and I had to move. I showed the guy my ticket with the seat number printed on it. He then showed me his with my seat number written in pen on the back of his ticket. I felt I trumped his scribble with my actual ticket, and refused to move. He left the train, and came back insisting again I was in his seat, but I insisted this was my seat. He didn’t speak much English, and I spoke zero Tamil, so we left it at that.
We all arranged our beds just as the train started, unhooking the bunks from the ceiling, and went to bed. As this my first time riding in a train in India, and the lowest class at that, I was nervous about my luggage. The guy across from me sensed this and urged me through hand signals to use my big bag as a pillow. I had already wrapped my backpack around my legs.
Later that night, about an hour into the trip, I was woken up by a train conductor. Standing around him were several other passengers. He had a passenger list in hand, and asked for my ticket. He then told me I was in the wrong bed, and had to move. I was in bed 63, and I was supposed to be in bed 79. Tiredly, and still sick, I moved to a bed a bit down the train, and resettled in. From what I could tell, everyone was getting shifted, but in my tiredness, I might not have realized that it was probably just me. (Postscript: I realized on later trains that they post a passenger list outside of each cabin before the train leaves. On this, any changes in your seat or bed are listed. Thus, I was likely shifted and hadn’t known to check the list beforehand. On a later trip I had also been shifted and checked and then had this epiphany.) (pics: train arriving at the platform in Chennai, three-tiered bunks in second class)

54th-2nd in Tiruchirappalli 9/11

I arrived in Tiruchirappalli just after the sun rose. The train had arrived an hour later than it was supposed to. I had booked a hotel near the train station, and was able to walk there when I arrived. Although a bit expensive, I couldn’t find any other open rooms in the cheaper hotels. When I got in the room I slept for 3 more hours. I ate a banana before going to bed, my first real food since being sick. The later arrival by train had worked out well, because the hotel had a strict 24 hour checkout policy. So by checking in later, I got to check out later the next morning, and avoid paying for an entire second day if I slept past sunrise.

I tried to find some simple lunch to fill my empty stomach. Rice would be perfect. I found a restaurant serving typical South Indian lunches. They brought a variety of small dishes and curries, some spicy and some not, as well as rice and chapatis. I nibbled on what I could, filling up as much as possible. I felt better. (pic: first meal after being sick)

The South Indian languages are intimidating. They are completely different from anything I have encountered as they are not a member Indo-European family of languages. The script as well is unique. I can’t attempt conversation like I do with Hindi or Nepali. Thus it was only English, and some interactions took time.

Finding a bus to go visit the temples was easy, I asked a young guy, and he was waiting for the same bus. We sat next to each other and chatted on the way. I got off first and thanked him.
The Rock Temple was pretty neat, towering over the city on its rock outcropping. Inside there were numerous shrines as you climbed. It was a hard going up, but provided great views of the surrounding city of around a million people. At the top it was very windy. I sat there and watched families play, and one guy came up to me and talked for awhile. We went up together to see the main temple.(pics: looking out over Tiruchirappalli, myself at the top of the Rock Temple, the man who befriended me at the top of the Rock Temple, the peak of the Rock Temple, inside the stairwell of the Rock Temple, a temple on the way to the summit)

I saw one of the funniest things I have seen written on a sign. This one said that said the rock the temple was built atop was 3500 billion years old, which makes it orders of magnitudes older than the universe. (pic: I found something older than the universe!)

From the Rock Temple I headed to Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the largest temple in India! I was very excited to see the South Indian Hindu temples after learning about them in my architecture classes in college. Their many walls that have giant gopurams, which are the gates located in the center of the walls, are gorgeously decorated and usually decrease in size as you reach the center. I remember seeing photos of them lined up in my textbooks. The temple has seven walls, and a total of 21 gopurams. It was built in the 12th century. I noticed that some of its sandstone walls are eroding. I spent a lot of time here, taking it all in slowly, and sitting down and observing the activities.
You’re allowed to go on the roof of one of the walls for a small price, I went up, and was accompanied by the worker who was to escort you. He gave some information, and I asked some questions while I stood and took photos. He offered to give me a tour of the inner areas as you cannot go inside without a tour guide. I declined; it cost 300 Rupees. But he still followed me when I went downstairs again. And kept trying to show me things. Finally I asked if I needed him around to see the temple, beside the inside. He said “no” but insisted the inside was the best part, and you need a guide. Well I explained how I had no interest to go into the middle of the temple for a price. He was shocked that I had no interest, and looked appalled. He stormed off, then stormed back demanding that I give him some money for “leading him on.” I told him I never led him on, that he followed me, and I told him I didn’t want a tour. Still he stuck his hand out, so I put in 5 Rupees, as a small tip for “wasting his time on me.” He got angry, ran over to a beggar, and put it in the beggar’s hand and yelled to me “I am not a beggar, this is a beggar’s wage!” I have to say I didn’t enjoy his attempt at a tour anyway. He only wanted to show off all the sexual artwork on the temple, and I was turned off by his assumption that this was all I would be interested in.
Walking around for awhile was fun. I even ran into an elephant at one point. Felt I almost got trampled. (pics: largest gopuram at Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, gopuram on second inner wall and the shops that make up the space in between the walls of the temple, closeup of a colorful gopuram, gopurams lined up in a row as seen from the top of the third wall, almost getting trampled by an elephant as it turned a corner, the elephant in front of the only white gopuram, myself within the fifth wall of the temple)

I still wasn’t feeling 100%, but got some popcorn as a snack and an apple juice.

I took the bus back, and tried looking around for an internet café. Then someone shouted to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was the Bangladeshi guys from the train and cell phone store doing business in India for a week. This is the third time we’ve seen each other, and now hundreds of miles from Kolkata where we got off the train. It was incredible. We chatted for an hour or more, and had tea. Then we headed for a light dinner. They wanted light food as they had a bus back to Chennai, and I was still a bit sick. It was great to see them. Made me feel much better. (pic: myself and the Bangladeshi men who I ran into many times all over India)

In the evening at my hotel I spent some time practicing my presentation that I have to deliver in two days at the conference.

54th-3rd in Chennai 9/12

I felt a lot better this morning, and had a breakfast of toast and eggs at the hotel after checking out after my 24 hours were up. I walked to the train station, and boarded for my trip to Chennai. On the five hour ride, I practiced my speech every twenty minutes, and worked on how to explain all my ideas. After arriving in Chennai, I took a CNG to the IIT-Madras campus gate. From there I was able to catch a bus to where the conference was. The campus was enormous, and it is a good thing the bus was there, it would have been way too far to walk. I realized later how fortunate I was to get the bus (crowded) because it ran so sporadically.
I had some lunch at a coffee shop chain on campus near the bookstore, and then marveled at the monkeys running around. The wooded campus used to be part of the nearby national park, and it certainly still maintains that look. (pics: IIT-Madras's campus used to be part of a national park, IIT-Madras and its dense foilage)

I was here for the International Conference on Best Practices to Relieve Congestion on Urban Streets in Developing Countries, which was sponsored both by Fulbright (because a Fulbright Senior Scholar was hosting it at IIT-Madras) and the World Bank. I had submitted a paper to it at the advice of my former professor Dr. Stone.

I checked in at the guesthouse and then was received by undergraduate students (older than me) to bring me to the academic building we would have the conference at. I checked in there as well, and joined a room full of presenters conversing. I was introduced by the conference organizer who I had emailed with over the past two months. He publicly commented to the group how loose my pants looked due to the amount of weight I’ve lost. (pic: the hall my conference was held in at IIT-Madras)

I talked with two Bangladeshi women who had done studies on women riders of buses in Dhaka. Most of the Bangladesh presenters are talking about buses! I also met a young lecturer from Hyderabad, and he remained a close acquaintance all weekend; we shared a few meals together. I didn’t eat tonight much as my stomach is still readjusting.
While waiting to check my gmail later, I got to talk to a representative from Ghana. He knew NC State because we send students to his campus for study abroad.

I called my Dad to wish him a happy birthday.

Later that night, I unexpectedly gained a roommate. I was not aware I was sharing my room, and apparently neither was he. But we were both okay with it. He was a civil engineer from Kolkata, so it was fun to talk about Bengal with him.

54th-4th in Chennai 9/13

Today was the real first day of the conference. And the day I would give my presentation. I was nervous and excited all day. Hard to focus on the presentations before me because of that, but I was still attentive. (pic: main lecture hall of the conference)

I’d give my presentation at B-. I felt I might’ve talked too quick. But mostly it was because the moderator told us all we had 5 minutes less each to present, because he wanted more time for comments. Well we’d all find out that that meant 5 more minutes for him personally to comment on each of our presentations while everyone was forced to listen. One audience member told me later that this moderator is always “like this.” (pic: myself getting introduced before presenting my research)

Even given short notice on the time restriction, I felt I cut out the necessary things, and gave a good 15 minute presentation. I chose the best parts to focus on.
In the future I think I’d scope my slides a bit more. My future papers and presentations will be better, and this was a good start. I was happy with my talk, I spoke with confidence and excitement.

I enjoyed the conference, but I wish that some of the presenters were not reading straight from their slides! I also found a lot of them overlapped, ending up seeming a bit similar. Topics such as pedestrians and congestion mitigation seemed to find a spot in each talk. As well, many folks gave the same background information. There were a few IIT-Madras students, but mostly graduate level, so I believe I was the youngest person at the conference. Most folks are also here from Chennai or India. This is what international delegates must feel when they come to TRB in Washington DC.

The meals are all buffet style with the best of South Indian cuisine. We all conversed while sitting at tiny tables. Only problem is that the same tablecloths were used for all the meals, so they got very dirty, and became gross to eat on them. Some pretty intense discussions over many transportation topics resulted regardless while we ate. (pic: dining area at the conference)

Before bed, my roommate and I had a long discussion about West Bengal and the current political situation there. As well we touched on the political issues facing India in general, and how the states vote on party lines.

I washed some clothing in the bathroom of my guesthouse. I bought some detergent from a campus store and used the bucket provided.

54th-5th in Chennai 9/14

Today was similar to yesterday, except that I was relaxed without having to give a presentation. I did get to see the moderator who pushed us off the stage yesterday give his own presentation. He had over 100 slides for his presentation today, in just a 20 minute presentation. He was clearly going way over time, and had to get told to hurry up and get off the stage. He became flustered, annoyed, and started skipping 6-7 slides at a time, and kept getting interrupted by his moderator. Then during others presentation, when he asked bizarre questions, he was told to be quiet by the moderators. Another professor said he is always like that.

The last presentation of the day was great and I was glad to have caught it. After this there was a panel discussion. However it did not flow like I was used to. After each member of the panel gave their opening remarks, the whole crowd was invited to give their commentary. People one by one took their turn at the podium and expressed whatever was on their mind. The panel simply sat and watched. At the end, two members of the panel gave closing comments. So, not really a panel discussion, more like an opportunity for everyone to express themselves one more time.

In the afternoon, I saw my two-day-roommate off in his taxi. After the conference was over, and after a final dinner I was back to the hotel. The final dinner was a good chance to give our goodbyes to the people we had met over the weekend. I spent the rest of the night checking internet, or in my room watching TV.

54th-6th on train to Mumbai 9/15

Breakfast was at the guesthouse’s mess hall. Two older couples and I were eating there. Standard South Asian breakfast fare that I can’t recall, just that it was what I’d eaten the last two days.

I was afraid I would miss the train. I had gone out to get the campus bus to the front gate so I could catch an autorickshaw, but the bus did not seem to be coming. A women from the conference recognized me, and told me that it might not come for a long while. My other hope was to get an autorickshaw from here but I had to hope one would come by. I was worried. I can’t miss my train! We saw an autorickshaw pass, and they assured it would have to come back our way. It did but with someone in it. We hailed it anyway, and begged him to take me to the train station after dropping the other guy off. Both the driver and guy agreed, and luckily I was on my way.

I met Shuman, Ayon’s brother-in-law, at the station, with still plenty of time to spare. He is in Chennai working for Standard Chartered bank for three months. We got to stand and chat for about 20 minutes before my train came. He walked me all the way to the train car before saying goodbye, and mine was all the way at the end. It was good to see him for even just a short time. He is the one friend I knew in India at the time. (pics: mix of traffic waiting on the streets of Chennai, Chennai Central train station, Shuman/myself at the train station, Shuman taking photos at the Chennai Central train station)

The train was the nicest I’d booked for myself, as I’d be on it for 27 hours across India. I had a double bunked cabin. Across from me was a married couple, and atop a young guy who never came off his bunk except to use the toilet. Across from me was an Israeli guy, and we chatted for a bit a bit into the ride. We shared a tea, ad he told me about how he was the head of an organization which could be called Adam LeAdam, something he related me as the Israeli Peace Corps. He was the first foreigner I’d talked to on my trip. His top bunk guy was also nice, but didn’t talk to us until the following morning.

Lunch and dinner were pretty much the same on the train. Vegetarian South Indian food. The rotis were cold and uninspiring. I spent the day reading the magazines and books I’d brought form Bangladesh. One was Angel and Demons, the other Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

It’s not really possible to roam the Indian trains. The cars are separated as to not allow mixing of the different train classes. I could walk to the end of the AC cars, and that was it. Mostly if I left my bunk I hung out in the doorway of the train and watched the state of Andhra Pradesh fly by. The Eastern Ghats were great to see, as they rose up from the coastline, but the AC windows didn’t allow for good photos, so I had to go to the door and hope it was open for a good shot. (pics: myself hanging out the door of the train, dried up river bed in Andhra Pradesh, train station sign at the surrounding empty landscape, the early hills of the Eastern Ghats)

A man kept coming by our bunks and sitting and talking to me and the husband across. It was quite annoying. Didn’t seem to pick up how no one wanted to chat with him. Yet he told us his life story as we patiently listened.

The bed was comfy, and I slept well.

54th-7th in Mumbai 9/16

When the train passed through the Western Ghats it was morning. They were much more gorgeous than the Eastern. We emerged from the Deccan Plateau through a tunnel and all of a sudden were looking out over the hills as they swept toward the Arabian Sea. They were much greener, and I had my camera out taking tons of pictures. We went from tunnel to tunnel as we made our descent to the coast. At one point the train stopped for 10 minutes, so I jumped off the train, didn’t go far, just for the hell of it. Train made a stop at Pune and half the train left, and more people came on. The Israeli, Uri, and I decided to share the room I’d booked in Mumbai. (pics: train passing through a tunnel, the view as we emerged from a tunnel in the Western Ghats, myself as the train stopped in the Western Ghats, Uri standing beside our train, train passing through tunnels)

After arriving in Mumbai, we found our hotel via taxi, and checked in. The place looked empty. Took five minutes until a staff person even showed up. But the room and toilets were nice, good choice. (pics: Victoria Terminal in Mumbai, streets and traffic mix of downtown Mumbai)

After grabbing a streetside lunch, some sandwich with tons of veggies and cheese for toppings, we found Uri an internet café. I left after that to go explore myself.

I took the suburban trains in Mumbai to go up to Mumbai Central were you can buy bus tickets out of town. I was purchasing one for two days from now to go to Udaipur. The train got crowded, but not to the point I thought it’d be. You did have to expect which side of the train you would disembark as side the platform would was different for each station. I had to ask someone where my stop would be, luckily they knew. If you didn’t expect it, you’d be stuck on the wrong side when the train arrived, and would have to squeeze through the entire crowd before the train left…impossible. No one checked tickets on the train, so I realized I may or may not have to buy one. I did see a fight, some old guy fought a young guy when he felt he was in the way as he got on the train. (pics: packed train at a station on the Mumbai suburban train line, inside the crowded Mumbai trains)

I bought the bus ticket to Udaipur, worrying the whole time it could be a scam.
I then roamed the neighborhoods around the area, trying to see the fancy homes of the city and the rich areas. Saw a Porsche dealer. Lots of high rises, and I was taking pictures of those. I stopped by the home that Gandhi used to stay at when he came to Mumbai. It’s a museum now, with photos of his time there and dioramas of his life. Neat after I just finished reading all about him in the book Freedom at Midnight. (pics: Gandhi talking to Rabindranath Tagore...in diorama form, Gandhi's room in the house he stayed in Mumbai, finally found Gatorade and placed it amongst some of the Mumbai skyscrapers, flyover in Mumbai with new buildings going up in the background)

I was roaming around without any money, a tragedy in the nicest part of town (or a blessing?) I hadn’t exchanged more money yet, and couldn’t find an exchanger. It started to rain while I was still walking around. I had my umbrella, but already was soaked. Got lost going in a circle. Then thought I’d found a neat way out of it all, and ended going in a circle again! Three times I showed up at the same intersection. I was drenched. Looked for a bus to take me back, as the train station was far. Ended up taking a bus that someone said would take me back to a train station. Bus was jammed and everyone was wet. At the train, couldn’t buy a ticket on the platform, so just boarded, but again, no one checking tickets. (pics: Porsche dealer in Mumbai, it starts to rain at Kemps Corner in Mumbai while I'm walking, its starts to pour and I get soaked in one of the nicest part of Mumbai)

Uri and I went to dinner together. There he told me more about his program because I asked him lots of questions. Dinner was at a place which looked to be a Mumbai chain restaurant. We walked around town after that in the dark and Uri had a fun time joking with locals. Promised some food stall guy we’d come back for diner tomorrow.