Monday, October 31, 2005

A Lesson in Economics

I'm an academic at heart, and so it's time to conduct a lesson in Economics. Today's topic is: Price Fixing

I'm staying in a semi-resort. Or at least, no one lives here but the tourists. There are no restaurants where the locals eat, no shops that the locals purchase from. We (the foreigners), are a captive market.

Given the high prices that the local businesses are paying for a beach-front location, they need to make a pretty steep profit. To do this, they appear to have all gotten together, and planned things out - to their benefit, and not that of the consumer.

There is no competition here, at least on price. Vendors agree on prices, and then agree to compete on everything but price - food quality, music, and other value added services.

However, in all cases of price-fixing, there is a very big incentive for one of the group to cheat - because if they drop their price just a little bit, and can attract more customers, then they win bigtime.

And that, is exactly what happens here on the beach.

Internet is 40 rupees everywhere, however, once, in the confines of their shop, it is often possible to haggle them down.

Likewise, a bottle of water can be haggled down to 22 rupees from 25.

However, in all cases, they tell you to keep it a secret (making the sssh noise, and putting their finger over their lips), pledging you to secrecy.

The thing is, it's not that they don't want you to tell other customers. It's that they don't want their competitors to hear - or the outcome would certainly be either violence, or a price-war...

It's interesting to note that the one place where the price-fixing works (and is completely haggle proof), is when trying to get a rickshaw or cab back to town. As the taxi drivers all hang out at one spot, it is impossible to make a private below-standard-rate deal with one of them without their peers hearing.. And thus the threat of group backlash is enough to keep everyone in line.

That's it for today's lesson.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

I'm alive (again)

I'm nowhere near Delhi. And the train derailing was one state away from me.

Fear not. I'm alive, and happy.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ah, the beach.

So Varkala is a tourist trap. For sure. However, it is a nice tourist trap.

The layout of the place is as follows. All of the backpacker guest-houses are on a cliff, 4km from town. There are a few beaches below the long cliff. Your time is spent hanging out on the beach, or relaxing in a cliff-side restaurant, or walking past the shops interspersed amongst the restaurants and guest-houses.

You are, effectively, a captive audience... the prices for everything are higher up here... a meal costs 60 rupees (1.5 dollars), as opposed to the 20 rupees in town. However, for this minor increase in cost, it does mean you get to see the beach from your room, and smell the surf..

I've been firing off bottle rockets every evening - much fun, hanging out listening to music, drinking a bit, and making the most of the fact that there are other foreigners here.

Admittedly, it does get a little bit lonely travelling by yourself in small towns after a while, surrounded by only Indians, and so it is nice to go somewhere with a few other native english speakers...

I've spent the last day and a bit with a very cool Lebanonese woman, and we may decide to travel north together (to another beach). We'll see - the great thing about travelling alone is that if someone pisses you off, you can just leave, and never see them again. But for now, we get along just fine - although our conversations are making me miss Lebanonese food.. Mmm. Fatoush.

Friday, October 28, 2005


I'm finally here.

Took one bus for about 30km. The front of the bus was full, but there were a few open benches at the back, so I plopped myself down. Suddenly, people start smiling, and gesturing.. Eventually, I look around, and figure out that i'm in the women's section of the bus.

Now, it's not that women are oppressed.. it's not some kind of Rosa Parks era situation - more a way of protecting women from the ass-grabbing nature of men. I understand that some people claim the same thing when defending the Burqa in Muslim countries - but this is 100% honest. Women have their own train carriages, their own waiting rooms, etc. That doesn't mean they can't use the rest of the train - but when you're surrounded by mustached men leering at you, why would you want to?

Back to the point at hand - I was in the women's section.. and I'm not a woman. All the male seats were taken, and I wasn't about to stand up due to my gender.. so I just sort of shrugged, grinned widely, and they forgave me for my genitalia, and let me stay where I was.

I had to get one one more bus for the last 6k.. and shorly after getting on it, we pulled up to a school - and our commuter bus suddenly became a schoolbus - full of little kids. These guys were really really excited about seeing me. The boys talking to me non stop. The girls smiling, and then quickly looking away when they saw me smiling back. An older man wanted to sit down next to me, but the kid sitting near me started arguing with him, and hung on to my arm - it seems that he was happy to make space to his left, but he didn't want to give up the prized seat next to the foreigner.

Eventually, I made it to Varkala... and then up to the tourist ghetto. The main town is a normal dirty indian road with a bus stop, a few restaurants, etc... the Tourist ghetto is on a cliff above a beach, with fancy tourist restaurants serving pasta and fish, kashmiri clothing shops, and a few places even showing movies...

It's just before tourist season starts, and so I was able to get my own bungalow (a private hut, with a bathroom inside, fan, electricity, etc) for 150 rupees (after much haggling). This would cost about 600 rupees in 3 weeks. Score!

While this place is rather touristy, and the restaurants are a bit more expensive than those in town.. I'll probably stay for a while. It's a nice place to relax, The beach is pretty, and unpolluted, and there is a constant stream of pretty western women walking by - and after a few weeks of mainly non-touristy places - I'm quite happy to enjoy eye candy, and someone to talk to..

Slight Change of Plans

It seems that Indian busses, and British airways have the same people designing their seat configurations. No matter how I positioned myself, I still found that my knees weer somewhere near my chin.

I took a 2.5 hour bus ride south from Alappuzha, arriving in Kollam at about 7-ish. After figuring out that it was another -two- busses to get to Varkala (the nice beach town, and my intended destintion for the evening), I decided to stay here... Arriving in a big city at night isn't too bad, but arriving in a tiny town is a pain in the ass.

I took a rickshaw the 3km north of town to the "Government Guest House" (owned and ran by the Kerala state tourism board). Wow. What a place.

It was straight from the Raj (the British run India period), and was the mansion that the Viceroy lived in. My room had absolutely massive ceilings, probably close to 15ft high, and the bathroom was larger than some of the crappy bedrooms I've had here. Thats not to say it was 5 star, because it wasn't. My window had a huge hole in the shutter (filled with a pair of my boxer shorts), the hot water heater was broken, and the walls were less than clean.. However, for 6 bucks a night, it was a steal. Oh, how I loved those high ceilings.

I bought a Mosquito net a few days back, but had yet to use it, because it had been too cold (and high up) everywhere. However, the little bastards were out en force here, and so using carefully tied string, I pitched the net above my bed. In the end, it looks more like the tents that little kids setup in their living rooms (made of a blanket and a few chairs). However, it did the job, and so I had a wonderful night bug free.

In the morning (or well, afternoon), I took a speed-boat across the river to the bus-stand, and from there, onwards to Varkala!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Kottayam & the Backwater Boat

Took a "high speed" government bus from Mullay to Kottayam - a town that my guidebook said wasn't worth visiting. What this meant, was that I was the only foreign face I saw in town. I got a number of strange looks that I've yet to get here thus far... and so a pleasant change.

Rickshaw drivers here did away with the meter - which is usually present, but broken in other towns, and refused to haggle at all on prices. Every driver I went to offered the same price, and so I can only guess they're all in cahootz.

I finally solved my fruit problem. I've been eating bananas as my daily fruit intake, and this has been getting rather boring. I've seen other interesting fruits here, but they're usually cut up and served by the piece... and I don't trust the streetside fruit sellers here - the stuff sits on their table for hours before being sold. Solution: Buy an entire tasty pineapple for 15 cents, cut it up with my pocket knife, eat as much as possible, and then hand the rest to some street kid. Problem solved!

Ate dinner on the street again - Parata (a tasty flaky bread) with a plate of Channa (spicy chick peas). Mmm. 20 cents for a filling dinner.

The next day (today), I took a 2 hour government boat from Kottayam to Alappuzha. While most of the tourists take an 8 hour backwater cruise from Alappuzha north (at a cost of 300 rupees), I opted for the government boat trip, for 10 rupees.

After a 2 day boat trip in Laos this xmas, I understand how after a while, even the most beautiful boat trip gets boring. 2 hours today was more than enough. We rode along a beautiful canal, through lakes, with palm trees and rice paddies all around - naked children, old men and women bathing clothes in the water, and the odd goat standing by the side. Again, Kerala is amazingly beautiful.

I passed the time with a bottle of whiskey and my mp3 player - all while enjoying the great view, smiling and waving at people I passed, and taking photos (to be uploaded soon).

I'm going to head south later today (as soon as i'm done in this internet cafe), and I think, I'll head to Varkala, a beach-side town.

My clothes didn't dry properly last night, and so i'm quite anxious to find a town warm enough where they can dry properly. Munnar was just too damn cold, and so my towel would be wet and moldy in the morning. Not good.


Indian Advertising is a funny thing.

First off. Shops:

Any store that claims to sell "fancy" goods will stock a wide variety of buckets, sponges, and other kitchen crap. Hardly fancy.

Any restaurant that promises a "high class VIP dining experience" will have a half-naked (waist up) barefoot guy in the kitchen stirring a big pot of food, the waiters will be shoeless, toothless, and will probably cough on your food before they bring it to you.

Equally, any bus that claims to be "high speed" will stop, whenever the bus-driver feels like it, so he can have a cup of tea and a beedie (a cheap nice smelling cigarette) on the side of the road.

TV advertising is rather strange too, but I think I've finally figured it out.

Bras, women's underwear, or any other kind of potentially adult product that requires a large quantity of skin to be shown - will have western models. Indians are quite happy to show women prancing around in their underwear on TV - with Hindi voiceovers explaining the benefits of the new 24 hour comfort bra system or somesuch - as long as the scantily clad women are Western.

In the films i've seen at Cinemas, there were often brief bits of nudity during love scenes - much to the enjoyment and humor of the audience - not a problem. However, Indian films won't show couples kissing, let alone doing the horizontal mambo.

It's quite an interesting status quo they have. They get to maintain their strict cultural standards, yet enjoy the scantily clad benefits of western culture - all while looking down their noses (albeit excitedly) at those loose western women and their hedonistic ways.

Holy Huge Jesus Statue Batman!

A few details I forgot about the bus trip from Munnar.

At multiple points along the way, we passed gigantic Christian statues and shrines.

After a few years of travel, I've seen huge Buddhas, and massive Mosques, but I've never in my life seen a gigantic (25-30ft) Jesus.

However, in the space of about 20 minutes, I saw a huge white jesus (with some other dude on his knees in front of him), and a huge mary, with a young child (Jesus?) in her lap...

The thing is, Indians are serious about religion.

Later on the trip, as it got dark, I passed a Hindu temple, with a large precession of people (40-50) walking up to it, singing, dancing, with a decorated elephant leading the group. Flowers, music, incense..etc

Just down the road, a gigantic christian church/outdoor tent thingie was there, with a massive nubmer of people singing and praying to our exported white god.

Perhaps there aren't many churches and so people come from miles around, or perhaps the Indians just take religion really seriously.. but there are -loads- of people praying here. It's quite a shock coming from the sinful ways of the West.

Plus, who doesn't like a Gigantic Jesus?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A full day of (cold) fun

Woke up early - thanks to my guest-house owner knocking on my door - askign for payment for that night. Quite annoying. However, it did mean that I got up early enough to actually enjoy the day. Also, given that it is mostly wet, and cold here (my towel is never dry in the morning for a shower), I'm quite happy to leave - as soon as I've "done" the touristy things....

Pretty much every rickshaw driver in town does a few set tours - they even have a menu that they show you, listing the places they take you. The most expensive being a trip to the "Top Station" - one of the highest points in the area, and the border with the adjoining state of Tamil Nadu.

Most of the rickshaw drivers wanted between 350 and 400 rupees for this trip...depending on how stupid they thought I was. However, after about 10 minutes of haggling, I managed to get one guy down to 250. I don't think he was used to this kind of business, as he kept complaining that his profit for the 4 hour sightseeing trip would be just a dollar.

However, at multiple points along the trip - he took the time to tell anyone within listening distance about how much I'd haggled him down, and how I was only paying 250.. after a while, it seemed, it had turned into something to be proud of.

The trip was amazing - through hilly tea plantations, an artificial lake/dam - with an "echo point" where you could shout and hear your voice bouncing around the nearby hills.

I saw women picking tea - at the lower altitudes, they chopped the leaves off the bushes with tools (crappy cheap tea), and at the higher altitudes, they picked the young leaves by hand. My rickshaw driver told me that the tea pickers make 70 rupees per day (about $1.75). This includes free rent, free hospital access, and rice at 50% cost (5 rupees per kg instead of the 10 that people pay in town). Still, for 10 hours a day of back-breaking labor, this sucks.

At the echo point, we stopped for cardamon chai (amazing), and deep fried battered peppers (slightly spicy, but more like bell peppers than chilis). Amazing.

On the way up, we passed through a national park checkpoint, and somehow, again to my driver's amazement, I managed to talk my way out of the 20 rupee "park entrance fee" (i.e. a bribe to the head guy at the checkpoint). This entertained my driver to a considerable degree - and he kept chuckling about it for a good 20 minutes after. "Good business man. No backsheesh. Hah!"

At the top of the hill, which we reached after about 45 minutes of driving, it felt like you were in the clouds. A thick layer of mist covered the area - stopping the view that is supposed to be quite breathtaking. However, the view of mountain tops covered in white cotton wool like mist was itself quite beautiful.

While it's nice to be taking hot showers (as cold ones would kill me), I think it's time to move on. I'm not happy about being cold (and of course, wet). I'll be heading downhill tomorrow, either south or west.. but i any case, it will be towards warmth - away from the hilltop tea plantations, and back towards the tropical coconut trees.

I have to say though, Kerala is the closest to Eden that i've seen. Everything is lush here, the food is tasty. Amazing spices are grown locally - enough to supply many parts of India with Cardamon, Black Pepper, and a few others.

Police Violence

I almost forgot.

So last night, while the taxi drivers were acting like little boys, and leaping for joy as they blew things up with my firecrackers, a man approached me.

He introduced himself as a police officer, and told me that I was breaking the law by setting off fireworks. Now, this was very suspect, because, he wasn't dressed like a cop, he smelled like booze, and he was missing one arm... It was an obvious scam.

However, before I could begin to tell him to go away, the taxi drivers grabbed him, pushed him away from me, and then started repeatedly slapping him and hitting him. It's the first bit of violence i've seen here since I got to India.

Now, i'm not completely sure why the guys did it... if they felt a duty to protect all tourists from scams, or if they felt a particular duty in this case, as I was sharing my fireworks.. but for a few minutes, they continued to slap the guy and shout at him, and eventually, he backed away from the group and shouted a few (probably) rude words...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Improved Plan, and Food Pricing Revealed

Problem. Fireworks work best at night.

Children do not wander the streets, alone, at night. Well, they do, but not too many, at least not here in Munnar, up in the hills.

Plus, I was starting to feel a bit of nagging guilt about the possibility of maiming a child for life.

A much better solution hit me: Drunken rickshaw drivers. These guys hang out on the steets, waiting for customers all night long. There are usually large groups of them, and lets face it, if you're bored all day, fireworks are going to improve your life, assuming you keep your kinds.

So, I walked up to a few, took out my fireworks, and asked if we could use them here... their eyes lit up, and soon enough, so did the fireworks. I rationed them out, one at a time. 10 bottle rockets, and about 60 fire-crackers... Much fun, mostly watching the drunken guys nearly get blown up... Once i saw how short, and unreliable the fuses were, I was oh so glad I didn't decide to light any myself.

Much fun was had.

Have finally figured out the food pricing here. It goes as follows: You buy your bread, and whatever veggies you want, come free. Thus, I'll buy two whole-wheat chapati for 10 rupees, and then get an unless supply of spicy potatos, chick peas (channa), and various sauces... at some point, i'll want something to scoop them up with, and order more bread.

It works out well, and when i'm feeling cheap, I can do a whole meal with one piece of bread.

I'm going to try and wake up early tomorrow, and explore the tea plantations. We'll see if it happens.

In Munnar

I leave Cochin at around 1PM ish. By the time i've taken a rickshaw, a ferry to the mainland, and then another rickshaw to the bus station, it's 2PM - and although I showered before departing, my shirt is now completely saturated in sweat from the one hour journey to the bus station.

I manage to find the bus to Munnar, find myself a nice seat in the back with leg-room, and settle down for the long journey ahead. However, it appears the ticket-collector likes that seat too, and decides to share it with me. This minor inconvenience is more than worth it considering the lack of leg-room in the other seat.. However, I do feel significant pity for him at one point, once I realize quite how bad I smell... I've yet to adjust to the weather here, and deodorant is a losing battle - soon enough, you end up smelling. Oh well. Perhaps he'll think twice about sitting next to a dirty foreigner next time.

3 or 4 hours in to the journey, as we begin to hug steep hill roads, with lush tropical cover on both sides, the sky opens - and it starts to rain. This continues for the last 2 hours of the journey, so that when we arrive - it is both dark, and very wet. Lovely.

The lawyer I met in Cochin gave me some advice on a place to stay, and so I hop off the bus, and into a waiting rickshaw. I give him the rough directions i have to the place, negotiate a price (10 rupees), only to find out that its is a 3 minute drive, maybe less.. I feel somewhat like a sucker, but well, it's wet, and I don't even want to walk those 3 minutes in the rain.

The first place I check-out is awful.. he wants 300 a night, the rooms look gross, and have cold water. Which is fine in most places, but we're cold enough here that the beds all have blankets, and hot water is a must.

Sligtly down the road (with the rickshaw still following me, trying to get a kickback from the hotel), I find a guest-house with available rooms. I end up getting a room with 4 beds, cable tv, and a hot shower, all to myself, for 200 rupees (under 5 bucks). Sweet! My first time in India with cable TV, and so I spend much of the evening watching western movies, and western tv shows...

I woke up today at 1PM..slightly oversleeping, but after the 5 hour bumpy ass bus journey yesterday, I think I deserve it. There's not much to the town - although the views of the tea-growing in the hills around is pretty cool. I'll explore tomorrow, and hopefully wake up early enough to avoid the rain...

I wander round the market, and find a firework shop, walk past it, until the little boy in me revolts, and drags me back. Now, i'm not completely stupid. I know that fireworks are dangerous, and India is not the best place in the world to have your hand shot off.

So - I buy 10 bottle rockets, and a pack of 50 firecrackers - all things that are illegal in Virginia, with the express plan to pay some small kid to light them for me later. He'll have a good time, and I won't face any risk. Perfect solution eh? (until his hands are blown off).

Total cost for fireworks: 2 dollars. Sweeeet!

Internet is expensive here, and slow.. my first modem experience in India.. so don't expect too much internet access while i'm here.

Diwali, the festival of lights, is in 8 days, so I need to figure out at some point, where I'll be for that. I want to be in a large enough place so that I can see people celebrating in style.

More later.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cochin, adios

It's time to move on.

Cochin is a tourist spot. Especially in the fort area where I was staying, it's a classic tourist ghetto. Restaurants charge upwards of 100 rupees per meal. On the north end of the island, there are a bunch of chinese fishing nets (the main tourist attraction, which are quite nice). In the evening, there is a fish auction, and you can buy fresh fish there, and then take it to a beachfront restaurant which will then cook it for you.

I, instead, went into the muslim part of town, and found a nice restaurant that served an all-you-can-eat-meal for 12 rupees... and possibly the hottest sauce i've had so far. After complaining for the past few weeks about lack of spice, it was very pleasant to finally sweat, and then get the hiccups from chili power.. Awesome.

As always, the restaurant owners, and other diners were rather shocked to find me eating with them. They even went to the trouble to bring me a knife and fork, which I quickly tossed aside, and using my freshly washed right hand, began to scoop up rice like a local.

I developed an evening ritual here with the British lawyer that I met - we'd get a taxi to a government owned alcohol store, pick up a few bottles of beer each (wrapped in newspaper for discretionay purposes), and then headed to one of the beachside restaurants.. where we sat for a while, chatted, avoided buying anything, and then eventually had to run from the seemingly clockwork-like evening rain. At 9, or abouts, a massive quantity of water began to drop, forcing us to flee, he for his guesthouse, and me for an Internet cafe.

In the main village green, youths gather to play cricket.. and they take it very seriously. However, yesterday, I took my frisbee (which i'd yet to use on my travels), and threw it around. Pretty soon, about 5 kids ditched their cricket match, and started playing with me.

Another american guy showed up, seeing my bright orange frisbee - and together, managed to keep the kids entertained for over an hour, as they chased it across the green, eager to be the one to attempt to throw it back to us.

Today, i'm catching a 3pm bus eastwards (5 hours) up to the hill country, to one of the highest tea growing areas of India. It should be a bit colder up there, which might mean that I can escape the bastard mosquitoes for a few days.

Until tomorrow.

5 Star

Perhaps i'm a Primadonna. I think I was perfectly reasonable.

Last night, when i came back to my hotel, I found a cockroach sitting on my toothbrush in the bathroom. Naturally, I freaked out, and chased it out of the bathroom into the hallway, and threw the toothbrush into the hallway after it. I sure as hell wasn't going to use it again.

The sad thing was, i'd just started using that toothbrush last week.

This morning, I found a cockroach (a different one or the same, unknown) in my room, upside down, wiggling it's legs and trying to right itself. I freaked out even more, and made a scene.

1st off, I demanded 20 rupees from the hotel manager (off my bill) to pay for a new toothbrush. I tried to get some more cash off the price of the room, but he wouldn't budge - stating that this was the 1st time in 9 years that a guest had tried to get a discount due to cockroaches. I think i'm perfectly reasonable, and sure as hell don't want to spend any time in a hotel with nasty cockroaches, but I suppose they are everywhere.

I remember back at Johns Hopkins, my office and the hallway outside were often frequented by those little buggers - the worst part would be when they were on the ceiling - constantly threatening to drop on your head as you walked by. Ick Ick Ick.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


I apologize in advance to my readers (all 2 of you) for the subject of this post. However, soemthing must be said on this subject.

I go to Internet cafes practically every day here. With nearly $90k of debt over my head (see my post last week), I need to check my credit cards quite often.. just to make sure things are kosher.

I'm also, well, a computer geek, and so I like being online. I read the news, I geek out, and chat with friends/family.

And while there are a few other tourists in the internet cafes slowly pecking away emails, letter by letter, with one finger, the vast majority of customers are Indian guys.

And what do they do all day online? Look for women.

I have no shame, so I don't mind peering at someone else's screen to see what they're typing.

Some, the well brought up ones, are surfing to marriage personals - trying to find a nice woman to marry through the wonders of the Internet.

However, the vast majority are either:

1. Chatting online, trying to find some young lass (or lad) to talk dirty with.

2. Covertly looking at porn (as it's against the rules in most cafes). This mostly involves quickly switching windows when the owner of the cafe walks by.

In a shop of 10 computers, guaranteed, 5 or 6 will be used for yahoo chat, in chatrooms named "Chennai Dating", "Chennai Hot XXX", "Tamil Love", etc....

One or two, used by brave individuals, will be covertly used to look at porn.

One poor chap will be looking for a wife (that is assuming that one cannot find a wife in the "Chennai Hot XXX" chat-room).

And then, I'm there... on the last computer - reading up on the latest political scandal in the US.

At least i'm keeping my nose clean, eh?

Owning Up

Ok, it's time to face the music.

I have a confession to make. I have an addiction, which is costing me money, and affecting my quality of life. It's time to confont it.

Hello, my name is Christopher, and I am addicted to books.

My backpack currently contains 11 books. Some, I read very fast and then trade.

However, in an effort to (1, not be made upset when I have to discard them, and 2, get good value for weight, in terms of reading time), I have bought along a few "classics". These are great, in that they're cheap, and take ages to read.

However, they are also the worst. Don Quixote has been in my backpack since I started the trip - the same for Crime and Punishment. Both I bought this xmas in Thailand, and never got around to reading. They're both heavy, and are weighing down my backpack.. and every time I open the bag, they taunt me, crying out "why won't you read me? Aren't you man enough?"

The truth is, every time I try to read one of them, after a few pages, my eyes refuse to read anymore. However, they're "classic books", and so I know that I must read them.... but until then, I carry them around like a cross.

Yesterday, I traded one book, and bought 3 more. I'll probably pick up another one today. In part, this is because most cities have such a crap selection of books (Grisham, Dan Brown, Harry Potter, Romance novels) that whenever I find a few decent books - I gourge myself... but it's also because well, I have nothing else to do, and reading is fun.

It does cost money. I spent more on books yesterday than my rent and food costs for the day (admittedly, only 5 dollars).

Will it stop? Doubtful. But eventually, i'm going to crack, and get rid of that bloody Don Quixote.. in the mean time, I'll keep hauling it around, and feel a twang of guilt every time I open my backpack, and find it staring me in the face.

The train west

Night train.

I spend about 20 mins talking to the woman in the bunk below me - typical indian chit chat: her kids, the weather, my work, etc... after a while, some random strangers walk up and ask her for her autograph. I'm quite puzzled.

Eventually, one of the strangers tells me that the woman is a TV/Movie star in the Tamil (south/eastern) industry. At this point, I lose my tongue, not really knowing what to say. It seems rather stupid to talk to her about her kids when she's a famous star. Random people keep walking up and ask for her autograph.

Eventually, I fall asleep upstairs... and wake up in Cochin.

I take a taxi to the ferry stop, catch a ferry across to the island of Cochin Fort, and pick out my guesthouse.

There are loads of kids in the green outside my hotel, playing cricket, football (soccer), and surprisingly, baseball/softball - quite a shock.

I take a rickshaw into the main town, to go and see the old jewtown, and the synagogue there (which is closed, due to the sabbath). I meet a brit there, and we hang out for the rest of the day...we trade books (Kafaka for a crappy Grisham book.. a great trade). He's a lawyer, and has been working for the last 5 years investigating money laundering, and so we chat for a while. I'm interested in some laundering-ish techniques for my PhD, and so we have a pleasant chat as he tells me all my ideas are thoroughly illegal. Still, it's nice. I learn the term "smurfing", which describes what bigshot criminals do, when they have each of their underlings setup bank accounts with under $10k each, which they transfer around. It seems that under 10k, the IRS/UK Govt doesn't care, and this term, smurfing, describes the act of sneaking money under their radar in small chunks.

Nifty. I can use the word in a paper somewhere :)

We nip off to a beer shop, pick up a few drinks, and head to the beach, where the famous "chinese nets" (see picture later) are setup. We sit at the beach, chatting for a while.. until, yes. more bloody rain. Eventually, a french girl shows up, who is not particularly beautiful, but being female, my friend beings to hit on her. Eventually, I tire of this, as she, as most french people, has god awful english, and I mourn the loss of interesting high level conversation. He and I will meet again for breakfast - perhaps giving me the opportunity to learn a bit more about the world of money laundering, and the awful hours that lawyers seem to work (note: Do I really want to work in this field.. 60 hours a week, hrm?)

I head back to my hotel, and begin to enjoy the Kafka book. Good riddens to that awful Grisham.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Photos Uploaded

Uploaded the photos i've taken in the last two weeks. Not too many i'm afraid - Chennai is a boring place.

Mostly Mamallapuram, with a few of the flooding in Chennai.

Knife Sharpening, and the Indian Head Nod

Bought 22 bananas today, and gave them all out to kids (aged 1-10) on the street. Again, this is within a 2 block radius of my guest-house. Total cost = half a dollar. I'll need to step things up, and start spending a bit more. I can easily afford at least a few bucks a day to help poor people. However, given the drug/substance abuse I've seen by the adults, giving cash or anything that can easily be sold is a bad idea.
Maybe I'll start giving out rice (uncooked) to the parents...

This has to be better than giving money to the Red Cross - who probably suck up 50% of it in admin costs. This is direct aid.

In other matters...

My swiss army knife has been getting a fair amount of use, and is now quite awfully dull. Took it to a knife sharpener a few doors down from my hotel. Essentially, there were two guys working there. One, whose sole job is to turn a very large wheel all day long (think dante's inferno, only without the republicans) - this large wheel is attached by a long bit of rope to a grinding machine, which the other guy squats in front of, and grinds whatever he's told to.

I sat down with a bunch of gents waiting to have their scissors and knives sharpened... The large-wheel-sharpener was cool enough that I decided to take a photo. Suddenly, everyone becomes very intersted in the view-finder, which managed to capture the sparks as they were shooting off of the scissors. I made some friends there.

In casual conversation with the gents, they asked my age, and said I looked about 25. It seems that shaving has done me some good, as people were saying I was 35 last week. Good god.

In addition...

I've finally got the Indian Head Nod down. It took me a while, and even after I had been told about it, I still didn't quite grasp it at the root level.

At least here in the south, when Indians mean yes, they nod their head left-to-right. It's not the same as a no in the west (which is more of a shaking left to right), as in this case, the head rocks so that the person's eyes are always looking forward. In any case, for a while, it was very confusing when someone replied to a question with the head-nod - as I always thought they were saying no.

I'm already catching myself doing it - it's strange... but somewhat addictive.

Off to Cochin tonight. I catch a train at 9:15PM, in the Luxury 2nd tier A/C sleeper compartment. I think the journey is 600+ KM, and will take about 12 hours.

Night Time

Things shut down here at night. By 10PM, most of the shops are closed. By 11PM, they're all shut, and the homeless people have set up their makeshift beds on the street.

However, i'm a night owl. I'm now fully back to my schedule of waking up at 2PM, and so I stay up at night. I'm not content to just sit in my room and read (the hotel turns the TV channels off at midnight - probably to save electricity, not for some decent reason).

Thus, I've been surfing the net, late into the night. The internet shop that I frequent is 24 hours. Last night, for the first time, I decided to try it out, and stayed online till 2:30AM. However, at midnight - suddenly, the lights were turned off. Figuring this was yet another attempt to save electricity, I complain. They then tell me that strictly speaking, it is illegal for a shop to be open past midnight. They break the law, but keep the shop lights off to avoid police problems (in a way, a cost saving measure, as to be caught just means they'll have to pay a bribe, or "on the spot fine").

I'm really not so happy about walking home at night though. It's not that i'll be robbed or anything. More about the creatures out at night.

In the country, it's the wild dogs that, while during the day are calm and lazy, at night suddenly start barking and chasing you.

However, in the city - it's the huge bloody rats. The stories of the New York subway system having huge rats may be true. However, they can't possibly be as big as the rats I saw last night. These things were bigger than a well-fed cat, ran rapidly, were hairy, and didn't look very pleasant. Worse, they were hiding under a car RIGHT OUTSIDE of my hotel. Wielding my umbrella as a defensive tool, I quickly ran for my hotel, with my eyes facing behind me, just in case they decided to come out and bite.

I'll repeat that again tonight. Oh, the things I do for internet access.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Personal Beauty Care & Bananas

I've learned a hard lesson over the years. However, I always forget it.

I'll get to a developing country (Morocco, Laos, Sri Lanka, etc), be so shocked by
the low low prices that I'll decide to pay someone to shave me. I can't afford this back home, and in theory, these guys are so used to it that there is no way they can make a mistake, right?

Well, after each experience at the receiving end of the well-named cut-throat razor, I'm usually bleeding from multiple spots, and my skin is screaming for mercy.

No more.

However, I can't just not-shave... I mean, I can... but after a month or so, I start to look like a Yetti, and feel quite uncomfortable.

However, I've figured out a nice half-way point between Yeti-dom and severe bleeding. Today, I got the barber to use his electric clippers, at the 0 setting, and just trim my beard as much as possible. The end result is a soft bit of fuzz that leaves me looking like I shaved 3-4 days ago - meaning I won't have to do this again for another 3-4 weeks. Plus, no blood or irritation.

After that, i'm feeling so chuffed with myself that I decide to try and get a hair-cut. This is where I hit the Indian Hair Care Catch 22.

The problem here, is that Male Barbers don't really have to deal with too many different haircuts here. The blokes all seem to have the same haircut, and the only real choice is if you'd like to have a mustache (80%), or be completely clean shaven (20%). I doubt any have ever cut long hair before, and I'm not about to become their first.

I sought out 2 different beauty parlors. All catering to women (with curtains over the windows to keep out prying male eyes). The problem though, is they're not willing to cut a man's hair. I explained my situation to them (by undoing my ponytail), they laughed, and said sorry.

Thus, for now, no haircut, until I can figure out a way to sneak into a beauty parlour.

Later, a bit of kindness found my heart. I counted up all the street children within a 2 block radius of my hotel - bought 15 bananas (15 kids), and gave one to each of them. Sure, they're naked, sleeping in the dirt, and will probably be wet once it starts raining later.. but I can't do everything. At least they'll get a bit of fresh fruit today.

Back in Chennai

Within 10 minutes of driving past the city limits on the bus, it starts to Rain. Bloody Chennai.

I'm back in this god forsaken, fithly, and currently, partially flooded city.

I take care of the last dentist visit, which is rapid, happy, and pain-less (for once). With any luck, I'll never have to go back to that office ever again in my life. Not that it wasn't clean and pleasant.. i'd just rather not spend any more time in this crappy of cities.

It seems I made a mistake when booking my train ticket. I googled for my guest-house's name, instead of consulting my guide book. I also forgot one key thing in the process. Hotel here, doesn't mean hotel. It means a south indian restaurant that serves only vegetarian food.

Thus, instead of my train ticket being delivered by courier to the Paradise Guest House (my current place of residence), it's been delivered to the Paradise High Quality A/C Vegetarian Hotel. Bloody hell.

In the rain, I take a rickshaw over there, try to explain the situation to the restaurant manager. In theory, the couriers were supposed to only deliver the ticket if I was there, or if I had left something in writing to say I gave consent. They delivered it without either of these, to a bloody restaurant.

I pick it up. and head to the cinema to see a new Jet Li film.

Again, I hate Indians at the Cinema. They have absolutely no respect - talk on their cellphones, giggle, heckle at the film, and one annoying man started choosing ringtones for his phone during a key fight-scene.

Yet, with all of this going on, no one bats an eyelid.. However, the minute I pull out a bottle of whiskey in the dark, and start to take a few sips from it - both the guys next to me (on either side) and the guy behind me start to notice, and say stuff.

Clearly, can distrurb your fellow cinema goer with your cellphone, but you better not silently sneak in some

A day of relaxation tomorrow, and perhaps some more book buying, before heading off to Cohin on the 20th (night train).

True Love

I've fallen in love.

Or at least, i've seen the light.

I was sitting at a beach-side cafe, enjoying the view of the fishing boats, the random trash, and multiple ever-pooping cows, when I glance over to a woman at the next table. She's got -2- cellphones in front of her, is scribbling madly onto one of them (a smart phone with a stylus), and has a book about Al Jezeera propped open next to her. Clearly, this is a woman I need to talk to.

Eventually, I get up the nerve. I tell her that I noticed she was reading a current affairs/politics book, and asked if she had any others with her that she'd already finished - given that the bookshops in town seem to just stock romance novels/Da Vinci Code/John Grisham, this is a reasonable enough request - of course, it's an excuse to initiate conversation, but it's at least a legitimate line.

Quickly - we begin chatting. She's a former music journalist. German, but based in the UK for the last 15 years. After the music biz, she switched to warzone reporting, mainly based out of Africa (Somalia, Congo, etc). She's just finished up a tsunami documentary for the BBC, and is about to start working for Al Jazeera's new english language station (which will be competing with BBC World and CNN). I'm left with my mouth wide open.

After a few days of casual conversation with mainly non native english speakers (swiss, with a bad grasp of english), it's extremely refreshing to speak to someone with a decent english vocabulary. Even moreso, after mainly meeting aid workers and hippies trying to find themselves through yoga tretreats, its even nicer to be able to chat with someone who knows the way of the world.

We spend a few hours chatting over dinner. Then I meet her the next day for a long-ish lunch. We exchange books (success!), business cards, and she extends an offer - visit her the next time I'm in London - we can have a drink, discuss politics, and she can show me her latest, self funded documentary on the political struggles of Hati.

She's at least 10-15 years my senior,. drop dead beautiful, and able to discuss the damage that King Leopold of Belgium did to the Congo - oh so sexy. She's far out of my league, and so I don't even pursue it.. however, it is a refreshing break from the karma cleansing hippies I see most of the time, and a chance to flex my braincells.

Maybe I should have been a warzone journalist.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Patent submitted


Looks like IBM finally got around to submitting my idea to the patent office. I'm still waiting for approval from my old boss to be able to talk about it with non IBM people... and more importantly, to actually be able to work on the problem again when I get back to uni next year.

However, if it gets approved (in 2-5 years), it'd mean i'd have a patent to my name. Sure, IBM owns my idea, and can make millions from it (because, of course, it's pure genius).. but well, my name will be on file at the patent office.


Information Inequality

The only successful bookshops I've seen in developing countries, have been run by expats.
Even then, most are not successful in the long term.

However, the expat will usually have a good idea of which books are good - which are not, and what a fair trade in value is.

I've been ploughing through books very fast recently - it's all i've really been doing, and luckily, this town is touristy enough to have a fair number of bookshops... alas, they're all run by Indians, and so they don't quite pick their stock - it's more a question of them getting whatever tourists bring in to trade/sell..

So this afternoon, I traded in Anne Kareina (Tolstoy), an awful new John Grisham book, and another awful book by the guy who wrote the Bourne Identity - and after 20 mins of haggling, managed to get 3 better books... Usually, they either want a 2-1 trade (you give them 2, they give you one), or a 1-1 trade if you pay cash in addition.

However, their only metric for judging books, alas, is the publishing date, the price on the cover, and the thickness of the book. Tolstoy is old, and cost me 75 cents in the states.. but on the cover, it was 20 bucks, and so I managed to use it to my advantage.

On one hand, I should feel guilty, right? I obviously pulled the wool over their eyes, and while not robbing them of anything - didn't give them the deal that they would normally get.

However.... it's all about availability of information. I have a much truer idea of the value of those books (and can judge them by more than their thickness). Likewise, when I go shopping for clothes and such, I have no real idea as to the production cost.

Information Inequality is a terrible thing... But in this case, I came out on top.

I'm sure Karma will kick in at some point.. but for now, I've got 3 more books to plough through.

Off to find some lentils.. mmmm

Settling in

I've gotten into a fine groove here. Alas, my old habits have come back, and so I'm staying up till 3-4AM reading books, and then sleeping in until 2pm.

When the highlight of your day is an evening cup of tea, you have no real reason to wake up early.

I spent a few hours the other evening chatting with one of the Kashmiri merchants on the touristy main street. Nice chap, no pressure to buy anything - we just chatted about the state of business here, and the fact that competition is getting rough as new merchants rush in and copy his style.

He described (quite accurately) the tourist ghetto experience as the job of a fisherman. Tourists walk up and down one main street, lined with pharmacies/general stores, stone carvers, kashmiri clothing shops, internet cafes, fancy restaurants, and travel agents. The tourists never stray from this one street - as all their needs are met here. On one end, near the bus stop, touts and taxi drivers hang out, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims... and as the tourists continually stroll down the road, each merchant shouts out to them "come into my shop, have a cup of tea, etc". When you close your eyes and imagine it, the thought of 20 merchants each with a fishing line in the water, waiting to catch an unfortunate tourist - its not too far from the truth...

In any case - after one day, I got bored with the ghetto. It's very strange, but if you walk just one street away, the tourists vanish, and it's back to normal India. No one bothers you to buy anything - and they're a bit shocked that you've wandered out here.

I've got an almost ritual now - in the evening, I stroll a few streets away, get a plate of Samosas covered with spicy lentils (amazingly filling, and 5 rupees.. or 12 cents. What a steal!). After I polish a plate or two of that off, I wander over to the chai stand - a tea booth where old men hang out and drink. For 4 rupees, i'll get a cup of tasty, sweet, and (surprisingly pleasantly) milky tea - poured and mixed from an impressive height, thus giving it a nice head of bubbles. To that, I add a buscuit or two for dipping, and I hang out, drinking my cup of tea amongst the somewhat surprised old men.

On the way back, I pick up a bannana or two (an attempt to at least eat a bit of fresh fruit), and stroll back to the tourist ghetto, so I can find somewhere to read in peace.

I'll be leaving tomorrow, and heading back to the hell that is Chennai. With any luck, I shouldn't be there more than a day or two.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Mamallapuram - Tourist Ghetto

It rained, yet again, on my last day in Chennai. Although I requested my clothes 2 days before, I ended up waiting until 2pm to get them back - totally wet. I then had to deal with the boy (anyone working in a hotel who isn't a desk clerk is a boy. The boy does chores, old or young), who wanted money for the totally wet and slightly mouldy smelling clothes.

In any case. I left, and took a 2 hour bus to Mamallapuram, promised by the Lonely Planet to be a much quieter place, on the beach.

Mamallapuram is a backpacker ghetto. I must have seen a total of 5 white people during my entire stay in Chennai (no one in their right mind would stay), and while the area I was staying in wasn't exactly 5 star, it meant there really weren't any people bothering me, other than a persistant (and unhappy that I wasn't buying) bike-based drug dealer, and a few beggars.

This entire town, it seems, or at least the part that i'm staying in, is geared around tourists. I see white people everywhere.. mostly wearing cool hippy baggy clothing, a few japanese guys with dreadlocks, and many (like myself) looking like they could do with a good scrubbing.. but in any case, there are lots of foreigners here. Touts are everywhere, following you even when you tell them to go away.

The main biz here, apart from depriving tourists of their money, appears to be stone carving, and so there is the rather pleasant tap tap tap everywhere you go, which is then interrupted by "Good sir, come into my shop please, what is your tongue, from which country are you, maybe later?" The statues and things are quite nice, but given that i'm travelling for 9 months, I don't really see any point in buying anything. Plus, what the hell will I do with a statue of Shiva?

One interesting thing I've noticed, is that most of the statues of women appear to be of, er, nymph-ish large breasted women, many of whom are either topless, or wearing very revealing clothing. It's rather shocking, considering that i'm in Tamil Nadu, one of the most conservative places in the country, in a land where kissing isn't done in public (not even in the movies), and you never see couples holding hands. I'm slightly intrigued then, as to why it's perfectly ok for scantily clad women to be carved out of stone, and be sold in the streets, or be displayed in temples. Perhaps i'll learn more about this later.

Walked along the beach this afternoon. A pretty (enough) beach, with fishing boats, women trying to sell me batik-cloth/blankets, and a large number of wandering cows. I'm sure this is the norm here, but it's still somewhat strange to see cows walking around on a beach, being ignored by everyone.

Saw the famous "Shore Temple" on the beach. Or at least, got as close as possible to seeing it without paying the $5 foreigner entrance fee. At this point, a temple has got to be pretty fantastic for me to shell out money for it, and while this one looked nice enough, I didn't think the up-close experience would be worth the price of one night in my hotel, 3 meals, and 2 hours of internet.

I ate at a tourist joint last night (evidenced by the fact that they had chips/french fries on the menu, and that the veggie curry dishes cost agbout 3x more than any indian place)... Today, i've been eating with the locals again. Much better food, much fresher, and much cheaper.

Still no food poisoning *knock on wood*

Internet is more expensive here (25-30 rupees per hour), but my hotel is costing me a fantastic 150 rupees per night (just over 3 dollars).

The plan right now is to stay here until the 18th, when I'm due back in Chennai for my final (I hope) dentist apt. I've got plenty of books to read (finished Anna Karena by Tolstoy last night, and then read The Broker by John Grisham before lunch today). This is a good place to get my reading done, as there are plenty of bookshops where I can trade the books when they're done.

Chennai had nowhere at all to trade, and so I'm hoping to read as much as possible, trade my books, and move on.

However, the constant pestering of touts could get annoying - although, I suppose India will be like this everywhere, so I might as well get used to it now.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

More rain

Yes. It rained. All day.

Sometimes, there is a downside in being a rich man in a poor country. I'm too lazy to wash my clothes, and given that I can get my laundry done for about 20 cents, it means that I send my clothes out every day. Now, the problem is, it's rained for 3 days now, and so I haven't got any of my clothes back.

I made the stupid stupid mistake yesterday of sending my towel off to be washed (in an attempt to be nice and clean, and have my towel laundered every 4 days), and so it means I don't have a towel now. Thus, no shower today. Ick. Thus, I am punished for trying to be clean, by, er, being made more dirty.

Took an hour and a half to get to the dentist in the evening. The water was even higher than yesterday. Bikes in the street had water above the chain/gears.

Finally got the temporary cap installed in my mouth. Thank goodness. However, the flirting/giggling in the dentist office has gotten to a pretty significant level now. I semi-invited myself over to the home of a single lady dentist for lunch - at which point, every nurse/dentist in the room started giggling. Now, whenever I enter a room or leave, there is much giggling and blushing.

I'm not quite sure what they think of me. When I told them that I was a vegetarian, they were very impressed. They seem to be under the impression that westerners all eat meat, and lack morals.

Got into a nasty situation with a rickshaw driver on the way home. I got himn to agree to 40 rupees (a great price), and then no sooner had I gotten in, then he picked up someone else, who sat next to him, and went a short hop for 10 rupees. I demanded that he give me a 10 rupee reduction, and when he didn't. I got out, and got another rickshaw. The guy then comes over, and starts shouting at me, waving his fist, and shouting at my richshaw driver. I need to learn some Tamil words, because I'm not sure if my limited Hindu (i know how to say go away, and most foods) worked.

This evening, my heart finally caved in, and I bought a bananna for one of the naked street kids. It's wet, not very hot, and they look really cute. I know it's gotta be rough sleeping on the street every night, and even moreso when you go to sleep wet. I've seen a few of the adults sniffing glue, and so I didn't want to give money. I figured fruit was a safe bet.

So damn cute, and so sad. I need to learn to deal with this soon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

About bloody time

Finally, some process.

The root canal is done with. The temporary cap is being put on tonight, which means I can finally leave Chennai. Yay.

The bad news, is that the monsoon season has arrived.

Yesterday, it rained pretty much all day long. When I had to go and get lunch and dinner, I had to walk through about a foot of brown dirty water in the street. Not pleasant.

Plus, all the laundry that i've sent out to get washed has yet to come back (due to rain), and I made the mistake of sending my towel away, meaning I can't dry myself after a shower. Lovely.

I'm told that the entire state of Tamil Nadu is going to be wet for the next few months, and so i've decided to head west. I'm going to go to Pondicherry, I think, tomorrow for a few days, as I have to be back here on the 18th for the permanant cap on my tooth.

In any case. on the 20th, i'm off. I've reserved a train ticket for the 20th. I'll be off to Cochin on the west coast, where (inshalla), it should be dry, and warm.

Since i've had all this downtime, I managed to arrange for a job interview by phone (or actually, by internet phone) yesterday. It went very well, and is for a security firm in the DC/Northern VA area (USA). They want to do 3 more interviews this week, so they seem to be interested, at least.

Off to get some more mango ice-cream.

Monday, October 10, 2005

I voted

Went to the dentist this morning again. They've told me that they can't finish the root canal process until there is no more pain (which was supposed to go away after a day or two). It's now day three, and i still have a bit of pain when I move around (or get bumped around in a rickshaw). So they cleaned the tooth out, put a bit of cotton wool in it, and told me to come back tomorrow morning.

I'm wondering if i'll end up spending 9 months in Chennai.

Went to the post office afterwards, and sent in my Absentee Ballot. The process was really really easy. As a US voter abroad, I was able to qualify for some new program where they email you a pdf of the ballot. Its a lot easier than in previous years, as it means you don't need to tell them where you will physically be 2 months ahead of time.

I wanted it to be as proper as possible, so I even got one of the post office employees to be my witness (although, I don't think he quite understood what he was doing).

The post office was a strange experience. The envelopes and stamps here don't have any gum on them. You have to go outside, where there are big bowls of sticky glue/paste, which you apply onto the backs of the stamps with your fingers. It's like fingerpainting, only not as fun.

When you think about it though, it's probably a good idea (although slightly confusing at first)... in this country where hygine is no one's priority, licking anything is a bad idea.

Anyhow, sent off my ballot, and then went off to the Amazing British Council office for 5 hours.. a beautiful new building, soft-ish seats, a very nice library of books, current magazines, and newspapers. I read the last two Sunday's Observers (for those of you who haven't spent the day reading a British Sunday newspaper - you're missing out), reading the Economist, and a few other mags.. very pleasant, and made me glad to be a British Citizen (although, not a taxpayer.. hah!)

I've spent about 4 hours over the last two days applying for summer internships. It might be a bit too early, but it can't hurt... We'll see if I get any decent responses from this.

Off to the dentist again tomorrow. With any luck, I might be able to finally leave here Wednesday morning (fingers crossed)

Sunday, October 09, 2005


I've been here since Wednesday, and haven't really done much.. it's pathetic, really. But then, there really isn't that much to see in Chennai -surprising for a city of 6 million people.

I've seen a film at the cinema, read about 500 pages of tolstoy, and rarely left the street where i'm staying (which has my guesthouse, a good restaurant, and cheap cheap internet).

I knew before coming here that India would be difficult -andto be honest, it hasn't been very bad.. but then, I haven't done much, or tried to go anywhere.

Admittedly, the taxi drivers here are evil. Chennai is known for the fact that Taxi drivers refuse to use their meters (how can every meter in the city be broken)..

On the street where i'm staying (The Triplicane district), there are a decent amount of homeless people - mostly women and children. The children are mostly young, and naked...

The other day, at around 2pm, I saw a child's body wrapped up in cloth on the street, with only the bare feet showing... People don't really take siestas here, and so I can only assume that this was some poor dead child,waiting to be taken away...Which would be the first dead body i've ever seen... even if it's just a pair of feet.

I've resisted the urge to go back to the Cinema, mainly because the only 2 films showing right now are both awful...

With any luck, I'll be able to leave here on Tuesday morning, but I have a feeling it might take a bit longer. And after that, i'll still have to come back here a week later to get a cap put on my tooth.

The Thali

I usually skip breakfast here, and eat a very light dinner. My main meal of the day is a massive thali...

A Thali (or, meal) is an all-you-can eat buffet, except that you don't have to leave your seat.

It starts with a big green bananna leaf, which is put onto the table in front of you. For hygine, some other reasons, you splash a bit of water on the leaf (I use bottled water, so as to avoid the nasty stuff they give out here).

Now comes the fun part..

Between 4-5 different employees come round, each with 3-4 containers of food, which they scoop/slop onto your leaf.

Once they're done, you'll usually have a massive quantity of rice, 4-5 different curries/vegetable based dishes, some kind of lentil soup dumped onto your rice, various sauces, salt, chutney, yoghurt, and some mysterious clear/white soup (too scared to try it)..oh,and a popadom.

You eat only with your right hand (because the left is used for bathroom functions) - any time you forget this, and accidently tear a piece of bread or something with your left, you'll get very strange looks from people...

Just as at an authentic chinese restaurant, you're put at a table with other people who you don't know.

The serving chaps keep wandering around, and so any time you've usedup/consumed a particular foodstuf, they plop some more down on the plate.

Once it's all over, you fold the top of the leaf over (covering up your eating surface), pay (here in Chennai, it's 21 rupees, or about 50 cents), groan at the extreme quantity of food consumed, and leave...

I've been here for 5 days now, have not had food poisoning yet (thank god) - and if this daily thali extravaganza continues, i'm going to get very very fat.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Not Dead

The earthquake that hit Northern India wasn't felt at all here in Chennai. I suspect that we are too far south/east.

In any case. I'm fine.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Really Crappy Day

Easily the worst day of the trip so far.

Things that have happened today:

1. Rejected by the second health insurance company I applied for in the US.. Essentially, no one is willing to cover me, unless I pay $380 dollars per month (which is absolutely insane). I hate the US healthcare system.

I do have travel insurance (thank god, see below), but if for some reason I get so terribly sick that I need continuing care when I get home - or, if I need to be brought by plane/helicopter home, then the travel insurance won't cover the bills in the US...

The only way-out of this that I can think of, is if I get sick, that instead of flying back to the US, I'll fly to europe, and make use of my EU citizenship (and thus free healthcare) until i'm well enough again.

The US Sucks.

2. Felt a -slight- bit of sensitivity in one of my teeth. Since I went to the dentist in California in August - who said my teeth were fine, I didn't think it'd be a problem. But since I was supposed to be going to a small town this afternoon, I figured I should check it out while I was in a big city.

I go to the best dentist in town... and what do I find out... infection under the filling... Root Canal Needed.

Those dreaded words, Root Canal. How scary they are.

I had no idea what it involved, and thoroughly pissed off the 3 different dentists who worked on me, making them explain over and over, step by step what would be happening, how much pain it would involve, how many needles, etc.. I really was a baby about it, but then, Root Canals sound very scary.

The last dentist, in particular, didn't seem to be too happy with me. Especially when I kept screaming about pain during drilling.

I have to go back tomorrow morning, and then monday (twice). Then I can leave Chennai, go somewhere for a few days, and then I'll have to come back here 5-6 days later... what a pain in the ass.

The unpleasant dentist wrote me a r/x for pain killers, which turned out to be ibuprofin and paracetamol. Luckily, the pharmacists are nice here, and when I asked if i could have anything stronger, he smiled and brought down a box of pills. 1 cent each, and now, no pain at all.


Ok. I've regained my senses. I'm not going to hang around here any longer than I have to.

Chennai is the 4th largest city in India, with over 6 million people. It's the largest city in the south, and is -hot-, and sweaty. Oh, and dirty.

I went to HigginBothams, a large bookstore today, read a Rough Guide to South India for inspiration/travel info, and checked out the computer science textbooks upstairs... It's really cool. All the publishers seem to produce special editions of textbooks for Asia... at cut prices. My Computer Security textbook by Perlman cost around 45 bucks in the US - and sells here (in paperback form) for 7 dollars. Sweet eh? They only had 3 security books, and I have them all already, or i'd send a few back home.

There isn't that much to do here -and it's so hot, that I don't really want to just go wandering. So i've mainly spent my time enjoying the dirt cheap broadband access (30 cents per hour), calling all my banks in the US to sort out my affairs, and then this evening, went to a film.

Saw the Island (pretty decent film), at the best cinema in town.. My 1st class ticket (hah, they have different classes of cinema ticket) cost me 2 dollars. For a digital projected film with THX.

The only downside, was that Indians have no shame... cellphones went off during the film, and about 4 minutes before the end, people started walking out (to avoid the post-movie rush)..

Anyhow. The current plan is that i'm going to leave tomorrow morning, and head a few hours away, to a beach town south of here. After a day or two there, i'll head to Pondicherry.

I think i'm going to just head south, and follow the coast south/west through the state of Tamil Nadu, and then on to Kerela (which is supposed to be mind blowingly beautiful).

Oh yes.. there are perks here. At least in Chennai, "The Hindu", the newspaper I buy, seems to copy half its editorials and world news from the UK guardian.. and is a steal, at 2.5 rupees (approx 5 cents).

And no food poisoning yet (although, that could be because of the antibiotics that i'm taking for my nasty cough).

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Collect Calling is a Scam

All of my credit cards and ATM cards on the back state:
"To reach us outside the US, please call collect xxx-xxx-xxxx".

However, what they don't tell you is that collect calling is -impossible- in many countries. It just doesn't exist.

The phone market in India and Sri Lanka is dominated by private phone centers = i.e. a shop wiuth 2 phone booths inside. None of these companies are willing to let you use their payphones without charging you, even if in theory, they are not paying for the call.

Thankfully, Skype makes it quite easy to call the US at dirt cheap rates. Not sure what I'd do without VOIP though.

Thank you Internet

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Get to Negombo around 8-ish, find my hotel, get a room, and pretty much hit the sack straight away. The bathroom is full of mozzies, and so I spray a bit of deet on myself, and then dive under the mosquito net and go to bed.

Wake up and explore Negombo a bit.. it's so close to the airport, and probably the most tout-filled place in Sri Lanka. Taxi drivers constantly bug me - I get offered drugs for the first time in the country. Not nice.

I meet a couple of brits who've just come from India - I trade a book with them, and they end up giving me their 2003 Lonely Planet India (very abused), which is perfect. Steve, the man of the couple, was also really into reggae, so we spend a few hours talking about obscure jamaican artists. Quite fun.

I took out -just- enough money to cover my expenses in Colombo, ,as I didn't want to be stuck with Sri Lankan Rupees.. well, I sort of miscalculated and Negombo didn't have a bank. Luckily, I find a young chap who pays me 350 rupees for my phone SIM card (I'm not going to need a Sri Lankan phone number anymore). Giving me just enough money to cover my last meal - at an amazing italian place - pesto gnocci for 300 rupees.

I wake up at 4AM, and am in a tuk-tuk to the airport by 4:45... Get an exit row on the plane, and land in Chennai by 10ish.

Chennai is the only international airport I've ever been to in my life that doesn't have an ATM that accepts international cards. Luckily, I convert my last 50 SL rupees (50 cents) into 16 indian rupees, giving me enough for a crowded rush hour train ticket (6 rupees), and a 10 rupee per day left luggage fee at the train station.

I'm hanging out in the Egmore area now, using the internet, got some cash (accidently withdrew 340 USD... didn't realize the exchange rates. Not amazingly happy about having this amount of money.. but not sure what I can do with it now) - will get lunch, and find a hotel shortly.

Hope to have a new SIM card by this afternoon, giving me SMS abilities.

Still got a cold. Coughing everywhere. Ick.

Tsunami Aid Rant

This has been on my mind for a few days.

I really didn't meet many independent travellers in Sri Lanka. Most fit into one of two categories:

1. Package Tourists (tickets+hotel included in one price)

2. Tsunami Aid Volunteers.

It is this second category that concerns me the most.

I met at least 10-15 people in this category, and I know there have to be hundreds.

The usual deal is as follows:

A westerner pays for a flight over to Sri Lanka, volunteers to build houses in tsunami damaged areas for 1-4 weeks, travels around sri lanka for a few weeks of holiday, and then goes home, feeling warm and fuzzy.

Here is the problem. There is no shortage of workers in Sri Lanka. It's not as if the Tsunami killed all the able young bodied men (as a war would). What there is, is a shortage of money...

It is just plain ineffecient to bring a westerner over to Sri Lanka to build houses, esp. a student/yoga teacher/librarian/other do-gooder who has no previous building experience, when there are lots of unemployed sri lankans with building experience.

Worse - the cost of the flight alone - 700-1000 dollars could easily pay for 3 people to work nearly a year in building projects.

Now, given that I'm a tourist, I can't claim to be doing that much to help - other than spreading my tourist dollars around - which actually is quite useful.. However, i'm here to explore other cultures, and to relax.. not to get a warm fuzzy feeling because i'm helping people. The fact that a poor family has a bit more money because i'm eating at their guesthouse is a side benefit...

If these aid volunteers -really- wanted to help - they should either donate their money to a non-crappy charity (admittedly, these are hard to find), or group up, and send one person, who will spread around the money that the others would have spent on flights.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Leaving Colombo

Woke up early, and went to the Indian embassy to drop off my UK passport (to get my Visa). There was a pretty decent line already, but the guy in charge waved me through to the front of the line (being a foreigner). I was in and out in about 10 minutes.

When I went to the Cultural Triangle (Sigirya and the old ruins), I had to pay $40 dollars for an entrance tickets.. a pretty steep price for a country where a decent meal can cost 60 cents. Unmentioned in my book, and in no way advertised at the ticket sales points, I found out that you can get a 50% refund if you can prove you're a student. With this much time to spare, i'm happy to spend an hour to get $20 bucks.

So, I schlep down to the UNESCO Cultural office, and ask for a refund. They make me copy a form letter "Dear sir, I had the pleasure of attending your cultural places, and am in possession of a ISIC student card. Would you please be so kind... " etc, and then wait while a woman filled out 3, yes, 3 forms. Another 2 people had to sign the forms, before I could then go to a clerk, who gave me my money back. It took about 25 minutes from the moment I walked in the door to get my funds back - Crazy! But I suppose this is how they keep lots of people employed, and ensure that not too many people ask for their money back.

In the afternoon, I picked up my British passport from the Indian embassy. This time, the line was -massive. At least 80 people in front of me, snaking through the garden outside the visa processing office. However, again, the benefit of being a foreigner (even in this case, a foreigner in a hawaiian shirt and a purple skirt) kicked in, and they again waived me to the front of the line. I was a bit shocked, but quite happy to receive this benefit. Again, in and out in about 5 minutes.

Stopped by the US embassy, as it was nearby to ask a few tax questions - Oh my god. It was completely empty. Now, i've only ever been to the one in London, which is usually filled with people, so this was a big shock. Literally, not a soul in there apart from the people working there. I got all my questions answered, had a nice 20 min conversation and exchanged business cards with the Vice Consul (who is a big linux fan), and got another 24 pages added to my US passport (for free, so I can get a bunch of entry/exit stamps).

I also spent a few hours trying to hunt down a Rough Guide/Lonely Planet guide to India... all the shops in town are sold out of the India books - although seem to stock them for every other country. Quite annoying, as I fly to India on wednesday morning.

This should make flying into a strange land rather fun :)

In any case. I'm going to take a bus to Negombo, a beach town 10km from the airport in a few mins. Should arrive there at 9-10pm, and give me 2 nights there before I fly off on Wednesday.

In Love, at Last

I finally found an internet cafe here with a DSL connection.

I've been here for the past 5 hours, checking my email, posting blog entries, and more importantly, uploading my photos from the past 3 weeks.

There are a lot of photos right now.. about 330... I'll be sorting/deleting/rotating them when I get time over the next few weeks.

You can browse them by clicking on the photo bar on the right hand side of this page, or view the entire sri lanka set here:

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Polonnaruwa ruins/ Train to Colombo

Wake up late, with a hangover. Not the best thing, considering that I have a day's walking around an old ruined city ahead of me.

The guidebook suggests that you rent a bike from your guesthouse (approx 150 rupees) and use it to get around the 4km sq old city. Being lazy, hot, and hungover, I opt instead to hire a tuk-tuk to drive me around the various sites - for the not so expensive price of 500 rupes. This proves to be a great idea, especially after a few ants start biting my bare feet.

Anyhow - so. It's an old city. 1000 years old. Buddhas, everywhere. If I knew anything about archaelogy, I might have enjoyed it more.. but it just looked like an old city. A hot hot hot old city. Lillian, where are you when I need you? I make the most of it though, and try to at least learn a bit, spending approx 4-5 hours there in total.

As a number of the ruined buildings were shrines, you need to take off your hat and shoes before entering - which, when the building no longer has a roof, means that you are walking on hot-as -hell rocks to get up close to a Buddha statue. This was fine for a bit, until someone "helpfully" moved my sandals to a shady spot hidden behind where I had left them - and I end up spending about 10 minutes searching for them, hopping around from one foot to the other (much to the enjoyment of touring Sri Lankan schoolchildren) and generally trying not to say obscene things in a very holy place - all while my feet start to burn.

I head back to the main town after, and try to find a Doctor open (I can feel an ear infection coming on). At 6pm, on a Sunday, I find that the "hospital" in town (really, one room with a bored doctor sitting at a table) is open. The doctor examines me (using a knockoff maglite to look in my ears), and writes me an rx for some drugs. Total cost for the doctors visit = free (government hospital). Total cost for the antibiotic drugs = 50 rupees.

Remind me again why US healthcare costs are so high?

Eventually, I catch the 11:30PM train to Columbo - where I do indeed have a 1st class bed... with a private toilet in the cabin. This would normally sound lovely, except for the fact that a private toilet means that my bed is literally less than a meter from a urine soaked room. Ick.

Still. It was 1st class. I could sleep, had a fan. and arrived relatively refreshed in Columbo this morning.

Drunk in Polonnaruwa

The first thing I do after getting to Polonnaruwa is to go to the train station to reserve my 1st class berth (bed) ticket for the night-train for the next (Saturday) night. I've learned already that you need to book the good seats as soon as possible.

There is some confusion at the station, and the guys tell me that there are no berths on this train, and that I can just book a vanilla 1st class seat (which won't allow me to sleep well).

I go to my guest-house, check in, unpack, shower, etc, and start speaking with the guest-house owner - a very nice chap. His wife calls the station to try and clear things up. It turns out there are indeed berths available, but that they've lost/never taken down my reservation - which I had made 20 mins before.

The owner offers to drive me into town to check it out. In the end, it seems my reservation was valid, and the train station employees were just idiots, and couldn't find my name on the reservation sheet (pretty difficult as I was the only 1st class reservation).

On the way home, the owner asks if i'd like to go to his local bar for a quick drink - naturally, I agree.

It turns out that Polonnaruwa is a heavily muslim area, and with Ramadan starting soon, he's not allowed to drink in the house, and his wife turns a blind eye to him drinking out of the house. What started as a quick drink turns into a decent stint of Arrack consumption = 3/4 of a liter between the two of us... which after a meal, sends me straight to bed.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

To Polonnaruwa

After checking my email/posting to my blog on Friday afternoon, I headed back to my guest-house in Dambulla which had been hanging on to my backpack for me. With the backpack in tow, I headed to the main bus station in town to catch a bus to Polonnaruwa.

One important lesson I've learned thus far, is that with both the train and bus, if you catch it close to the beginning of the line, you're fine - however, if you catch it at any point in between the beginning and the end, there is no way you'll get a seat. This is even more of a problem when you're carrying around a massive packpack - as Sri Lankan busses don't seem to have luggage storage.. you just buy an extra ticket for your bag, and put it next to you on the seat.

Thus, i'm waiting at the Dambulla bus-station (or at least, the spot on the main road where busses pull up ), and fully expecting to find a nice empty bus. After all, the bus to Sigiriya the day before had originated in Dambulla. Why would today's bus not do the same?

10 minutes later, the Polonnaruwa bus shows up, having originated from Kandy (3 hours away), and packed to the rafters with people... this wasn't looking good.

Now, backtracking slightly, the moment I showed up at the bus-stop, a few tuk-tuk drivers started trying to get me to go with them. Normally, a bus is a much better option - it's cheaper, it's safer, and you won't be hassled by someone trying to make a comission on everything you do. One chap had even told me that he lived in Polonnaruwa, and was trying to get back there that day - and that he just needed to charge me enough for petrol... this smelled like bullshit to me, and so I ignored him.

However, once the packed-o-matic bus passed by, I began to talk to the agressive tuk-tuk driver again. In the end, I got him to drive the 1.5 hours to Polonnaruwa for 200 rupes = the price of 2 bus tickets.

To make matters worse, half-way there, he gets flagged down by a police officer for speeding (I'm not really sure how they can prove it.. they don't have any speed sensing equipment), and had to pay an on-the-spot bribe of 150 rupees.

It wasn't till I finally got to my guest-house that I discover that a tuk-tuk would normally charge 2000 rupes (20 dollars) for this journey.. So I actually did luck out!