10 January 2007

My Last Post on Blogspot

This is my last post on Blogspot. North State Needle is moving to its permanent site: http://nsneedle.zanlus.com. I hope to see you there.

North State Needler

28 October 2006

The Escape

Now that I have a good Internet connection, I can catch up a bit on the posts. There is much to report, including more photographs that people might find interesting.

Leaving Dharamsala

One of the weirdest parts of this trip has been the craziness of my sleep schedule. I guess it really isn't that crazy if you don't include the entire day that I stayed in bed, but when I found myself awake at 3:30 am on Thursday morning, I was more than a little irritated. I just could not shut off my brain, which was equally unable to focus. I thought about everything from how to start a documentation standards working group to what I want in a home gym. After trying to will myself to sleep, I finally gave up and just started working. Here are pictures of my room at Hotel Shikhar, if you are wondering.My room, picture 1My room, picture 2


Eventually 6:00 came around and I decided that I would get out of bed and get dressed. I was ready to go at 6:15. I didn't allow myself to move my bags downstairs until 6:40, as the cab driver was supposed to be there at 6:45. I watched the sunrise, filling the mountains with light, but that is a slow process and my brain seemed to be in rather a large hurry. When I moved my things downstairs, I realized that one of the staff actually sleeps in the lounge, presumably to help people who might come in the middle of the night. As far as I know, there aren't very many people who fit that bill, but who knows. I set my luggage on the steps and took a seat to let the landscape sink in one last time.

The cab driver arrived at 7:00 exactly. We placed our bags in the trunk and were off. It was a beautiful morning: bright and cool, not dark and cold. The decent from Naddi is filled with hairpins. When we got to Dharamsala, a school bus blocked the road, collecting children, while anxious parents urged their children forward. It was a gentle reminder that life as I know it is here, too.

Roadside in HimachalAs we reached the bottom of the foothills, people's lives seemed to take on a different character. People were sitting around, drinking tea, socializing. Time seemed to offer them more respite than the people that I had been walking past for the last week. I've included here a picture of a typical roadside store.

Jammu-Kashmir

Dry Rivers in Northern IndiaOne of the weirdest things about this trip was the amazing number of dry river beds. A few started in the hills, but by the time we reached Punjab, the number and width of these dry waterways increased. I'm extremely curious about the nature of these river beds. Are they channels for mountain run-off that have wasted away over the long, dry summer? Are they former rivers whose water has been purposely diverted into some grand plan? I don't know the answer, but I must say that I am very curious.

As we crossed the border from Himachal to Punjab, the first thing I noticed was the military presence. This presence became a theme of the drive, because as we advanced toward Jammu, and especially after we crossed the border into Jammu-Kashmir, the military was everywhere in full regalia. Of course, Jammu is about 20 miles from the border with Pakistan, so it doesn't surprise me that there was a significant military presence. What was surprising was the massive roadwork project, often forcing travelers completely off the road in order to build a new road. It makes sense, of course (just look at the Interstate system in the US), but I had not expected it.

Roadside in the Jammu DistrictThe roadside in Jammu-Kashmir was quite different, at least in two senses. First, the number of cows increased dramatically. And most of these cows were of the Brahma variety, which makes some sense but which created a rather significant disconnect for me. My father used to tell stories about how mean Brahma could be, so to seem them walking around freely was a bit jarring. And the poverty level seemed to increase by an order of magnitude. (In retrospect, it isn't any worse than a certain place I had the misfortune of finding in Delhi, but it struck me as rather severe then, after the lusciousness of the previous countryside.) I'll include a picture here, not because it adequately reflects the poverty but because it was taken in amongst the poverty, and it is quite a nice photograph.

When we finally arrived in Jammu, we passed down streets that were lined with machine gun nests. It was more than a little unnerving. Even more alarming was the number of civilians who seemed to be wielding AK-47s. I thought America had captured the market on public ownership of automatic weapons, but I was clearly wrong.

This should have prepared me for the airport, but it didn't really. You cannot drive into the Jammu airport. You must collect your baggage outside the compound (that word is truly fitting) and walk through three layers of metal detection security. After you walk for about 300 yards past the initial set of security checks, you arrive at the main entrance, and another security check. Once you finally get in, you go through another security checkpoint and you can then get in line for the check-in desk.

On the way in, I recognized Sherrin Isaacs, so we had lunch with him. The restaurant had very little that looked appetizing. What did look nice was a fresh lime soda. Little did I know that they can be sweet or salty, and I got the salty one. It was like trying to drink the brine that you might gargle with if you have a sore throat. Sherrin was nice enough to tell us that the flights from Jammu to Delhi are often hijacked and detoured to Islamabad. That made me feel really good! I'm facing hijacking in the name of community networking. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch.

Back in Delhi

The Ashok Country Resort, where Dave had stayed the night he arrived, was completely booked. We were both tired and gross and we really didn't feel like roughing it. So, we decided to splurge. We had been staying at a very cheap hotel all week, which had several most unfortunate quirks, and we felt entitled to one night at the Radisson, which is very close to the airport.

The Radisson was luxurious. I mean, really posh. I crawled into bed, Dave had two of his clothes cleaned for the plane ride home the next day. We napped until 8, which really was only about an hour. I was very groggy afterward. We went down to grab some dinner, and we decided on Chinese. It was great food, and I really needed to have something that was not Indian. We went back upstairs and got online for a few minutes. Then I jumped in the shower and took what I felt at the time was clearly the best shower of my entire life. The problem is that when I was done with the shower all I really wanted to do was to sleep. I gathered my things and went downstairs to catch a cab to the airport.

I checked into my flight without a hitch, only to discover that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes. Okay, no problem, except that at this point I am nearing the exhaustion point. I fell asleep sitting upright in the waiting area. The flight itself was completely packed. It is THE flight from Beijing to Eastern Africa, so it was an interesting mix of people. It wasn't particularly eventful, other than that this jackass decided to get up and roam around the cabin just as we were taxiing on the runway. He had been loud and annoying during boarding, and I decided that if he did anything like that again, I would put him out for the remainder of the flight. Surly Ross was bubbling just below the surface.

The flight to Addis Ababa was shorter than I had expected. But it also meant that the layover was overly short, so that I needed to hustle from one gate to the next. At the security check, I shoved my watch into my briefcase without paying much attention as to which pocket I shoved it in. When I tried to find it, I couldn't. I thought perhaps that I hadn't successfully closed that pocket and perhaps it had fallen out in the xray machine. The lady at the security check put the bag back through the xray and pointed out where the watch was, which was a great relief.

Arrival in Joburg

The problems started at the immigration counter. I handed the woman my passport and she asked how long I had been in Addis Ababa. I explained that it was a stopover on the way from India and she asked for my yellowfever card. My what? I had done the check to make sure that no shots were necessary for the US, but I had not bothered to make sure that South Africa didn't require shots. So, I walked across the airport to a little clinic where I paid $75 for a yellowfever vaccine. But no worries, because when I got back there was no line and as I got to the baggage carousel my bags came rolling out.

I made my way to the rental car counter, knowing full well that I have made a reservation and that I should be at Birgit and Pete's in about an hour. Well... that was the plan as of 15:00. Car companies here require double the cost of the rental to be reserved. I didn't have nearly that amount available on any credit card. But I had the cash in my account. So, what I am supposed to do?

According to the credit card companies, I should make an immediate deposit to fix the problem. I spoke with one guy who said that if I could promise to pay $300 that day then they would accept the charge from the rental car company immediately. This was great, because I could have done that immediately upon arrival in Pretoria. But, as I found out later, that was complete rot, and if I ever get my hands on that guy, he's going to be very sorry for doing that to someone in such a vulnerable position.

To actually rectify the problem, I needed to either get online or provide the routing number for my bank. The only place I'm going to be able to get online is in Pretoria, at Birgit and Pete's, which rules out option 1. Option 2 is always possible, because I always carry around my bank routing number. Basically, after two hours, I discovered that I was just SOL. On the verge of exhausted tears, I called Birgit and Pete to see if they could possibly come and pick me up. Fortunately, they were able to pick me up, and so I was able to have some dinner, call Helen to make a plan for how to deal with things, take a shower, and sleep very, very soundly.

[Announcer Voice]To find out what happens to our anti-hero, tune in next time.

Last Day at Dharamsala

Conference Notes

My Perch in the Auditorium

The conference began today with a lecture on the developments of WiFi spectrum from a former chairman of the IEEE, the organization that makes that standards that govern wireless. He wasn't a bad speaker, per se, but he really didn't provide much more than a history lesson of the standardization process. What he revealed, when asked a question about involving other people in the IEEE standardization process, was a complete lack of interest in people who are neither high level academics or powerful business interests. It was actually rather depressing.

WiFiDogThe next panel was about VoIP, Voice over IP, a service that has been popularized by the Skype application. It was virtually useless if you knew anything about VoIP. Perhaps if you were a complete novice, this might have been interesting.

Then there was a discussion about WSFII, the organization that hosts the conference. I frankly found the dogs who kept coming into the auditorium to nap more interesting.

I had lunch with Sherrin Isaacs from the Meraka Institute. He gave me a very valuable perspective on what the plans of the Meraka Institute are, as well as the political terrain I am going to be walking into. I'm excited about what they are doing, which is to work on a multiple stakeholder initiative across the entire continent of Africa. We talked a bit about how that might be achieved and what strategies might be fruitful in moving forward.

Dave Chastizing Hardware Manufacturers for Being Bad ActorsDave's PanelThe afternoon panels were much better. There was an interesting discussion about innovation and cost efficiencies in wireless. Dave was on this panel. What was particularly interesting to me was the sense of agreement that surrounded Dave's argument that hardware manufacturers are being unreasonably difficult when it comes to releasing documentation about their products. This has been a problem for CUWiN from the beginning.

The final panel of the day was about how to replicate wireless best practices. The obvious thing for the panel to talk about was documentation. Naturally, no one really addressed the problem of documentation. I wanted to make a point about this, but they didn't allow comments or questions on the panel, which was pretty frustrating. In any case, I see a real need for a formalization of the documentation process for wireless technologies, both for the techies who develop and implement wireless networks, and for the ordinary person who uses the network. I'm not quite sure yet how to make it happen, but I have some ideas that I hope to bounce off of people over the next few months.

My overall impression of this conference is rather negative. I felt that previously formed cliques tended to distance other participants. I felt that the one auditorium, one presentation approach was impossible, given the need to satisfy vast extremes of interest and knowledge. Moreover, too many of the speakers were too oriented toward lecturing and not nearly interested enough in the perspective of others. Perhaps this is skewed because I missed day 2, which by all accounts was pretty amazing.

Post-Conference Headache

A Photoshop Assisted Panoramic View

DuskAfter the conference concluded, I went back to my hotel to catch the Himalayas by evening light. In some ways, it is even more spectacular than the morning. I took a few pictures and caught a cab down to McLeod Ganj. I was supposed to meet Dave at 18:00 at the Ashoka Restaurant. I was running late, but as it turns out, so was he, and we decided to sit outside. It was a surprisingly warm evening compared to the previous evenings, and the streets were alive with conversation and lights. We had heard that the Ashoka was very good, and we were not disappointed.

McLeod Ganj by NightWhen we left the restaurant, we went next door to do some gift shopping. There were some absolutely beautiful pieces of cloth. I decided that presents were in order for some people that I will be visiting and even decided to splurge a bit. The problem is that the credit card companies hate me. I suspect that this is due, in large part, to the fact that they think I am not capable of being in India. But when I called them on Monday and told them that I am indeed in India and that they should lift the restriction, they failed to do so. I am so angry right now I could scream. What happens when I get to South Africa and they still won't release my credit card accounts? Will I be stuck at the airport without the ability to rent a car? Moreover, what would have happened if I had been ill and needed money to pay the doctor? I assure you that I am going to ream them a new one when I get back to the US. And all of this was compounded by the fact that the only ATM machine in town would not dispense money. In the end, Dave was gracious enough to purchase the items on his credit card, which seems to work just fine, and I will owe him money when I get back to the US.A Hand-Stitched Table Runner

I'm not sad to say that I will be leaving here tomorrow. I am tired of feeling light-headed from the altitude. I am sick of constantly smelling waste, both human and animal. I'm also tired of feeling like everyone around me sees me as a money dispenser. Tomorrow I will pay for a cab ride to and from the airport in Delhi, and that will be the end of it. I don't hate India, but I'm not ready to stay here for any extended period of time.

24 October 2006

Ill in India

I'll get to being ill in India, but the historian in me is partial to chronological order. Since it's my blog, I'll start on Monday, Day 3.

Trying to get out of India

Monday morning broke beautifully. The sun was out and felt warm against my face. I decided to walk around a bit to take some photographs. While I was out, I saw Xavier, who is a cool activist from Southern California. I suggested that he join us for breakfast, which we had agreed would be at 8 am. I'm trying to arrange pictures into a panoramic shot, but it's not going particularly well. I'll try again a little later. Anyway, when we met up for breakfast, I learned something new: this is the season for tigers and leopards. Apparently, they come down out of the mountains and are often spotted at night. What makes this particularly humorous is that Dave had walked to TCV and back in the pitch black the night before, not thinking about the possibility of wild animals.

Monday morning posed a certain dilemma. Dave and I had agreed that we would use the break in the conference schedule to go to McLeod Ganj and arrange our travel out of Dharamsala as well as take some money out of the bank. We could take a taxi for eleven hours (or more), but neither of us were very keen to do that. First, if we could fly, we might be able to attend more of the workshops. Second, neither of us are particularly keen on how cab drivers here practice their trade. We also decided that we could take the train, but we had heard mixed reviews of taking the train and decided that flying was our first option. The dilemma was additionally complicated by what a colleague revealed to us over breakfast. The Dalai Lama was going to be at TCV (Tibetan Children's Village) that morning for a children's festival. It would be our only chance to see him. As much as I relished the idea of being in the general facility of his holiness, I decided that for me travel was more important. So, I'm sorry, dear reader, that I have no photograph of him for you.

Little did we know that most things are closed on Mondays. We found a travel shop that seemed open, but in fact it too was closed at 09:00. We were instructed to return at 10:30. I was a little concerned that our cab driver would be left in the lurch, as we had asked him to come back at 11. I wasn't wrong to worry about that, but on the other hand he surely understands that time in India has its own rhythm. Sometimes it is very fast, but whenever one tries to conduct business or order a meal, it is rather slower. We took the opportunity to try to find a coffee shop that had been recommended, but it too was closed. We found someplace that advertized drip coffee, which had to be better than the coffee that I had the first morning. It was better, but I'll be glad to return to my own coffee stores.

We returned to the travel agent, who said that there was a possibility to fly, but that he could not arrange this himself. We were instructed to walk back to the main square and look for Dream Travel. Dream Travel happens to be located inside a little building and is not easily accessible from the outside. On a hunch, I walked down the correct street (there were six to choose from) and found it. The man inside was very nice. He said we could not get the flight from the Kangra Regional Airport, which was only one hour away, but we could get the flight from the Jammu airport, which was four hours away. All total, the cost would be $220. That seemed like a lot, but since we were going to be reimbursed and it was our time, we decided to take the flight.

For those of you who don't know your Indian geography, Jammu is one half of the name of a province. The other name happens to be one of my favorite songs by Led Zepplin: Kashmir. Jammu itself can't be less than 100 km (60 miles) from the Pakistani border. There is part of me that is concerned about this decision. I think it is my mother's voice. There is another part of me that thinks that this flight leaves every day, and when I asked about security, I was assured that there had been no major incidents on the flight from Jammu to Delhi.

Actually purchasing the tickets turned out to be a mission of its own. My credit card wouldn't work, which was exceptionally annoying. The company had put a block on my credit card because I had charged a car rental in South Africa. I appreciate their sentiment, but it was rather annoying! I had to call them and tell them that I was in India for work, and then I was traveling to South Africa for work, and would they please let me manage my own credit. However, it still didn't work because the guy kept trying to put a cash advance, rather than a purchase, on the card. I'm glad I gave him that card because cash advances on credit cards are murder. Dave stepped in to fix the problem by putting it on his credit card. Then we waited thirty minutes to have the tickets printed, and we were off to TCV and the official start of the conference.

The conference started without much fanfare. The opening speaker talked about the role of the school. Dr. Roger Downer lived up to his name as the next speaker. He tried to outline the useful of wireless technology in tackling global problems. He argued that the first world is evil and that sustainable development was a myth propogated by the rich to suppress the poor. He couldn't do math (even from his own slide) and he contended that the only institutions that could really effect global change are the nation state and multinational corporations. Remember, almost everyone in that audience lives their lives in ways that are contrary to that argument. The next speaker was one of the organizers, and he must have thrown together his slides at the last possible moment, because they were more disorganized than he was.

I don't know if any of you have heard of Richard Stallman, but hopefully you have heard of the GNU project. Stallman started the GNU project as a professor at MIT in order to counteract the evils of proprietary software. The GNU project argues that software should be free in every sense: freely available, freely copiable, and freely alterable. It's a good idea whose time is certainly now, as most of the wireless initiatives work under some form of the GNU project license, GPL. However, Stallman is one of those guys who beats you over the head with his message. The result is that while I might agree with many of his arguments, listening to him can be a bruising experience.

And then there was Colonel Dave Hughes. Colonel Dave Hughes reminds me a Foghorn Leghorn, except with more substance. He's clearly a really bright guy who managed to do some really interesting things. But he is also a cocky, brash cowboy want-to-be. I say that he's a wanna-be because as much as people might associate his demeanor as the stereotypical cowboy, I've known enough cowboys, most notably my grandfather, to know that Dave Hughes acts more like a ranch owner than a cow-hand. What really set me off was his faux graciousness toward the Dalai Lama. Hughes asked the audience if it was okay for him to present a white silk scarf to the Dalai Lama's secretary on our behalf as an act of respect. I think most people raised their hands, but I didn't. I was just offended by the showmanship of the whole thing. To me it didn't seem to be a genuine act of respect. It seemed to be more grandstanding and bluster.

Evening Activities

Dave and I decided to walk back to our hotel and then head down to McLeod Ganj to grab a bite to eat. We had heard that people were going to be gathering at the Jungle Hut, and we thought we would try to join them. According to the website, the walk from TCV to Hotel Shikhar is 1.5 km, or about a mile. If that is true, it is probably 0.5 kilometers of horizontal travel and 1 kilometer verticle. Still, Dave was very gracious as I had to stop many, many times on that walk. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was hot, my heart was pounding, and it wouldn't have surprised me if I had a heartattack right there. Fortunately, that didn't happen. We both grabbed some warmer clothing and hopped in the cab for the Jungle Hut.

The Jungle Hut is about 200 meters outside of McLeod Ganj. It is, as it's name suggests, a hut, hanging out over a ravine. Still, it looked like a fairly nice place to eat, and so I decided to have something that I have been wanting to try for some time: rogan josh. Rogan josh is lamb stewed in a clay pot. It is a punjabi dish, if I am not mistaken, but it is widely known throughout Indian restaurants around the world. This was the first time that I had had meat since the previous Wednesday. I decided that this restaurant looked safe enough to try the dish. In the meantime, we met up with someone from the conference, Kingsly John. Kingsly was a particularly nice fellow from Bangalore who did freelance work for several companies on the east coast. He was full of useful information, like the fact that the snow on the mountains had falled just the previous week and that winter seemed to be coming quite early this year. He also explained why Dave's telephone is not working (which is too technical for me to launch into here).

When the food finally came, I discovered that there was very little meat in my rogan josh. It was first and foremost bones, followed by gristle. Dinner was, thus, rather unsatisfying, outside of the delicious naan. I had asked for rice, as at least that would soak up the sauce, but none was delivered. I was also told later that I was not allowed to order another tea after the meal. I didn't tip much, which is to say that I tipped what I probably should have been tipping but substantially less than I normally do. What made all of this more miserable is that the air had taken a particularly frosty turn, and I was shivering during the meal.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was feeling rotten. I was cold and my stomach seemed to have passed judgement against the rogan josh. As I turned on one of the lights in my room, the electricity went out, which suggested to me that I should go straight to bed.

Shivering and Burning

I woke up several times in the night with a very unhappy stomach. I forced myself back to sleep until about 7 am, when I got up to turn on the boiler for my shower. The power had come back on over night, but as soon as I flipped the switch to turn on the boiler, it went off again. By 8, Dave had decided that the electricity was not going to come back on and so we should just go to breakfast. I had a very solid breakfast: toast, cornflakes with hot milk, scrambled egges, and lemon tea. Frankly, it seemed like every bite made me feel worse.

By the end of breakfast I had decided not to go to the conference this morning. I decided that I would crawl back in bed and try to sleep off this nasty feeling. It was a good idea. Once I got into bed, I started shivering and burning all at the same time. My stomach was extremely upset, and I just felt awful. I fell asleep, woke up, turned over, fell asleep again. This lasted until 17:00, when I finally woke up and felt good. In the meantime, the handyman had come to fix my shower and the cleaning lady had cleaned up after them. I barely noticed.

It's now 19:00, and I am both hungry and extremely wary of eating anything. I am sweaty the cold sweats, but I dare not take a shower, less the electricity goes out again. I would really like some soup, and perhaps a lemon tea, but I'm not sure that I want to go downstairs to get them.

Post-Dinner Notes

Dinner was fine. Cream of vegetable soup tasted nice. Dave is becoming quite frustrated with the hotel. I think mostly that he is jetlagged, but there are also some things that are becoming rather annoying. Babalu (sp?), the concierge (for lack of a better word), is becoming a little obnoxious. He is constantly hovering, wanting to know our plans. At first this seemed more genuine, but as time goes on it seems more like he is looking for ways to make a buck. I don't resent him for wanting to make money, but I don't feel like being a cash cow, either.

Perhaps the best part of this evening was realizing that I could turn on the television. This might not seem like such a big deal, but when the International Cricket Championship is on television there is reason for rejoicing. My joy is increased because South Africa is playing Sri Lanka. The South Africans went 219 for 9, and the Sri Lankans went 141 for 10. I know that when Helen reads this, she's going to be jealous.

23 October 2006

India on Day Two

The Himalayas from My HotelThe second day actually presented fewer challenges than the first. I slept well the first night, getting more than eight hours sleep, which is unusual for me. I woke up early and opened the curtains for sunrise. I watched the sky move through its coloration from my warm bed, while trying to collect and convey my thoughts about the day before.

The shower proved to be a bit of a challenge. There is a hot water boiler, so one must wait twenty minutes for the water to heat up. This boiler didn't start heating immediately, which I rudely discovered after 20 minutes and the water was still cold. A bit flummoxed, I decided to run the hot water until the boiler kicked on. I then waited another twenty minutes, and took a nice, warm shower.

I then went down for breakfast. Of course, all I know of Indian food is lunch/dinner fare. What does one eat for breakfast in India? Fruit I suppose, and perhaps some yogurt. But that seemed rather uninteresting. After toying with taking on the challenge of ordering something random off the menu, I decided that it would be difficult to go wrong with an English breakfast. As described on the menu, the meal would consist of “Butter Toast, Boiled Egg, Hot Porridge Juice, Tea/Coffee”. What I got would have made any Englishman protest. They figured out the toast pretty well. They delivered one boiled egg that was actually hard boiled, and another egg that had barely been boiled at all. There was no porridge, hot or cold, and certainly no porridge juice. There was an orange soft drink, which proved to be a sugary concoction that contained virtually no juice. They brought me coffee without asking, and in this case I would have assuredly preferred tea. I admit that I am a coffee snob. Serve me bad coffee, and you have an immediate mark against you. This coffee would have merited ten negative marks. Sugar and milk, which is quite bad enough, but also clearly Nescafe or something similarly wretched.

I then proceeded to make arrangements for a taxi to take me to Dharamsala at noon. In the mean time, I completed my homework for this week, and tried to get a handle on the homework for next week.

The taxi to Dharamsala was arranged by the concierge, which conjures up an image that is true in function but not in form. We stopped at the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV), which is where the conference will be held. I had hoped to register and take care of a few business details. Alas, no luck. I couldn't find anyone there to register with or to point me in the right direction. I did find a ton of children, and was aided (sort of) in my search by some very young boys. They said hello, and so did I. I thought that might be the end of the conversation until one boy asked what I was looking for. I said that I was looking for the conference, which returned blank stares. I decided that the registration had probably been postponed due to the excursions that had been organized. I had wanted to go on one of the excursions, but I had already decided that I was going to be in no condition to walk for five or more hours. The point is that I no longer knew where to go. I decided that it would be a good idea to return to the Green Hotel, where I know that there the organizers are staying and that there is Internet access.

Unfortunately, I was still under the impression that McLeod Ganj was part of Dharamsala proper. Not so much, as it turns out. Nine kilometers not so much. Of course, I only discovered this half-way down the mountain. I inquired and learned the truth. They were upset by the mix up, even though I apologized profusely.

After proceeding to Dharamsala, we went to McLeod Ganj and the Green Hotel. I told them that I would be a long time and they insisted that they would wait. I told them that I would go inside to make sure that I could get what I wanted and then give them an idea of when they should pick me up. I went inside to inquire, decided to stay so that I could use the Internet connection, and returned outside to tell them that it would be several hours, only to find that they were nowhere in sight. I waited a little bit, thinking that it was possible that they had needed to move to allow traffic through. After a few minutes in the rain, I decided to return inside and that they would sort themselves out.

98 email messages and more than 70 were spam. This is just stupid. I skyped Helen to let her know that I had arrived and was well. It was 3 am for her, which was unfortunate, but I thought she would be more unhappy if I had not called. I also discovered that Dave had made it to Dharamsala the night before and was staying with Shannon at the Hotel Himgira. I directed him where to find our hotel on a reply email. And amongst a hundred other things that I was doing, the concierge an the taxi driver came in a bit upset. They were insistent that I had failed to return outside, and I simply explained that if they would wait two more minutes I would be ready to go. I feel both happy that they are so eager to assist me and frustrated that their assistance is rather overbearing. I know that some of the problem is a language problem, but the other part is that I am sure that they see me as a cash cow. I both understand and resent that thinking in the same moment.

I returned to the hotel, where I decided that I would work on next week's homework, in an attempt to get it finished. On the way, I noticed that the Hotel Himgira is right next to my hotel. Dave spent the night less than 100 feet from me. I was highly amused.

When Dave arrived at about 6 pm, I arranged for us to have dinner while he brought his things over. He arrived with the last of his things at about 7 pm, just after dinner had been declared ready. We ate a very interesting meal. Yellow dal, Shahi paneer (which I think is cheese in curry sauce, chaphati, vegetable raita, and tea. Wondering what vegetable raita is? Me too! It is clearly a yogurt-based dish that had cucumbers, garlic, and onion in it. I reminded me of really lumpy tzatziki sans dill. To be perfectly honest, I could only eat a little bit of it. Dave ate even less.

And then we went to bed. Dave was fading fast, and I was pretty sure that I would be as well. Sure enough, I crawled into bed to continue working on the homework and found my eyes drooping.

Sleep was surprisingly restless. The bed is about six inches too short, which means that I lie diagonally across it. In addition, I had a really disturbing dream. I have had the start of this dream before. I know that I am in my home, things are well lit, and the shudders, which are external and white, have been drawn. Suddenly I notice that there is a set of black fingers reaching through the shudders and pulling them open. This is the dream I have already had, but it was at this point that I have previously awoken. Not last night. Last night several sets of fingers appeared. They continued to force the shudder open, so I grabbed the mechanism which closes the shudders and wrenched them completely shut. Several fingers were snapped off in the process and I remember feeling this cruel sense of please at having snapped them off. Then I opened the blinds to try to see if there was anyone still there. And the last thing I remember is seeing a set of huge dark eyes staring straight at me, a sense of dread washing over me as I awoke. Just freaky.

The conference starts today at noon. Before noon, Dave and I will be going down to the McLeod Ganj, where we will take out more Rupees in order to pay our hotel bill, and we will also inquire about flying out of Dharamsala, rather than taking the eleven hour trip of terror. Then we will head up to TVC, which is very close to our hotel, so that I can register for the conference. Should be an exciting day!

Land Use Locally

22 October 2006

Arriving in India

The tale I have to tell began more than two days ago. It is neither particularly happy nor particularly sad. It is filled with the exhaustion of international travel and sensationalized by what still feel like near death experiences. What I am also about to share with you might be offensive, not because I intend to be offensive, but because I am exhausted, my feet have swollen into their own baby elephants, and I today I have had the grand total of an onion naan (a large kin to the pita, served like a buttery quesadilla with sweet red onion), a banana, and three sections of a tangerine. [Note: I started this last night, but finished it this morning. Can you tell how far I got the last night?]

International Travel

I like to travel, but as my backside broadens I am less enamored of air travel. The flight from Chicago wasn't bad. Boeing 777s are far and away my choice of jet liner. However, my seat kept wanting to slide forward, which meant that I often felt like I was going to slide onto the floor. If you add that onto a relatively sleepless night, you can understand why all I wanted to do in Heathrow was sleep.

But sleep was highly elusive! First, there was the security checkpoint. When flying from Chicago to London, my toothpaste posed no threat to airline security. Magically, when I landed my toothpaste became liquid C4. Of course, the people who love these rules are the shops, because people will throw away a perfectly good tube of toothpaste and they are encouraged to buy a new tube of their favorite brand at the shop in the terminal. I, on the other hand, am unwilling to throw away a completely full tube of toothpaste just because somebody decided that my toothpaste was a potential bomb threat. So I asked if I could check the bag and keep the toothpaste. The lady escorted me to the baggage check, I deposited my bag, and she even let me reenter through the first class security checkpoint, which meant that I didn't have to wait in line, which had gotten quite long for all the “other class” passengers.

Once I got to terminal 4, I got some lunch at a pub. The Bombardier was warm and tasty, although less tasty with a chicken caesar salad. It's not that the salad was bad. In fact, it was really quite tasty for a salad (especially one served in a bar), but it was not intended to be mixed with beer. I had hoped to get shepherd's pie with peas and chips, but I had failed to note that this was only on the children's menu. In my haste, I ordered the salad. If I had paid attention to the menu, I would have had meself a nice piece o' steak and mushroom pie. Oh well.

Then I sought out my gate, which was conveniently posted nowhere, not even on my boarding pass. I made the proper inquiries and went to that gate. I found a place to briefly lie down, but was soon awoken by the fire alarm. It went off for about twenty minutes. An hour later, it went off again, by which time I had a splitting headache. I found some Icy Lemon Fanta, which is second to Bitter Lemon in my pantheon of sodas, took two Advil, and decided that I would build one of the webpages that I needed to construct before Tuesday.

Once I finally boarded, all seemed well in hand. I found my mark right away, as he was sitting next to me. Before this story takes on a spy novel quality, I should say that my mark is Sebastian B�ttrich, a friend of Sascha, my boss. Somehow, and it really is a bit of a mystery as to how, Sascha found out that Sebastian was sitting in seat 32C, so I snagged the seat next to him on the plane. Because Sascha had discovered this without his knowledge, you can imagine the surprise on Sebastian's face when I walked down the aisle and said, “You must be Sebastian.” Good times.

The flight was uneventful. I took sleeping pills, I had the vegetarian meal, I went to sleep. I did manage to watch The Devil Wears Prada, which wasn't great but Meryl Streep was in fine form. Mostly, I slept, and it's a good thing I did, because the international travel was nothing compared to the domestic travel.

My First Impressions of India

I am completely unprepared for India. Nothing, and I honestly mean nothing, has prepared me for the 10 hours I spent in a taxi whose driver seemed to have strong suicidal tendencies. I had expected the driving in Delhi to be chaotic. I should say that by chaotic I meant chaotic like Rome or Paris is chaotic. Lots of little cars darting everywhere in a nice, orderly rhythm. (I'm sure that some people might differ with this description, but it never really bothered me, even when I was the one behind the wheel.) Driving in India is not chaos. It is a state better described as total anarchy, when all order is subverted by the impulses of the various actors. There are three demarcated lanes of traffic with six vehicles across these lanes at any given point. The patrons of the roadway include (but are by no means limited to) bicycles, scooters, motorcycles (often with the entire family on the motorcycle), animal-drawn carts (cow, donkey, mule, horse, take your pick), cars, trucks, and cows. Just because there is a barricade dividing the traffic into two clear directions, don't think that there aren't cars going in both directions on one side of the barricade. Some are going the opposite direction head-on, others are just backing up. And don't forget that people are darting across the roadway at any given moment.

Blow HornIf the visual spectacle puts you off, imagine the audio track. Each truck has the following printed on it's tailgate: “Blow horn.” As much as I might want to poke fun at this, it is a highly useful mechanism for letting someone know that they are about to run you off the road or letting that same someone know that you would like to pass, or for signaling drivers coming around a mountain curve that you are coming around that same curve. Add into that the normal noises from such a mix of transportation devices and you have a fairly good idea of the soundtrack to this ten-hour trek.

Cows. Somehow I was unprepared for number of free-roaming cows. Somewhere in my mind I knew that cows roamed freely here, but that image had not moved past the trite pastoral imaginings based on my own experience with cattle. If you missed it, there were cows mixed into the traffic. Most often they were toward the outside of the road, but this was often not the case. In a completely insensitive moment, I found myself wondering if a global economy can actually work in a place where cows are a roadway hazard. The answer is clearly yes, because even in the remote location of Dharamsala, there is Mountain Dew. But it raises another question: if a cow wandered onto the runway as a plane was taking off, what would happen?

I suddenly realize that I need to provide more detail about the arrival. Fred Pook, one of the organizers of the Air Jaldi Conference, arranged for a group of us to be picked up by taxi drivers from the airport. There were to be seven of us, which required two vehicles. Joy was already at the airport, Sebastian and I arrived at 06:15. David and Shannon had arrived the night before and were camped out at one hotel, while Kloschi (whose actual name I still don't know), was camped out at another hotel.

Of course, neither driver knew anything about where the others were or where anything was in Delhi. I thought I remembered where Dave and Shannon were staying, so I searched my email to find a number and called them. They thought that they were going to be picked up at the hotel. We attempted that, but it was hopeless. No one seemed to know where the hotel was, and the driver had no idea where he was going. We were, at various moments, going head-first and backwards down the road the wrong-way. We did manage to pick up Kloschi, who called while we were stopped with no idea of where we were going. He ended up being very near the airport, down a side street off of another side street that we happened across because the driver saw the sign in his rear view mirror as we were driving backwards down a one-lane alley.

At this point, we were quite clear that six passengers were simply not going to fit in the one car. I telephoned Dave and Shannon and told them to take a taxi to the airport where they could meet up with the other driver, who was waiting for Lars, who was supposed to arrive at 07:20. The other driver was supposed to wait around because there could be other passengers who were stranded. Did I mention that neither of the drivers spoke English? As it turned out, the other driver left immediately when Lars arrived. I still haven't heard from Dave. I am relying on his ability to handle himself, because there is literally nothing that I can do for him, other than notifying Fred of the situation, which I have done.

We drove a little ways outside Delhi and the driver asked us if we wanted to stop for some breakfast. This seemed like a good idea. It was here that I had the onion naan. Yummy. The others got either fried cheese or fried vegetables. I was much happier with the naan. I also ordered a rotti, which would have been really tasty, but they never delivered that. Oh well. Back in the car.

The Journey

I can't even begin to describe in full what I have seen. I didn't take pictures. Partially because that destroys my ability to actually take in what I am seeing. Partially it is because I wouldn't know what to take pictures of, and I really hate it when people take random photographs that lack personal context. I think those types of photographs do the worst violence to their subjects and they also make for really boring slide shows. Here's some snippets.

I don't know what kind of agriculture I'm seeing. It's everywhere along the roadside. I recognize some rice fields. I recognize a potato digger. There is a bunch of stuff for which I don't have any frame of reference.

We hit a dog. We had moved from the large multi-lane highway to a country road. The dog came off of a field and started to run along with us. He was right in front of me, and then I saw him dart in front of the car. I heard the bump, and then the yelp. It was a sickening feeling. I don't think I've ever hit a dog before.

The clothing on the roadway was intensely colored, especially the women. The men were mostly in drab clothing, although some wore bright blue or pink shirts, and some of the headwear, I'm not sure it is called, was bright pink and green. The women wore colors of every possible hue: stunning blues and greens, shocking pinks, vivid yellow.

Diwali. The Indian New Year, as it was described to me. A festival of lights. Firecrackers everywhere. Amazing. Way better than New Year's Eve in the Netherlands or Germany.

Dry river beds. I'm not sure why, but so many of the river beds we crossed were dry. I suppose this might be the result of the season. Fall is setting in, and after a long, hot summer the rivers are dormant, waiting for the delivery of run-off from the Himalayas. There was strong river that was not dry. It's water was crystal clear. I wonder about it's origin, given the emptiness of the other river beds.

Arrival

When we arrived in the Mcloed Ganj area of Dharamsala, which is where most people seem to be staying, our driver informed us that he couldn't go any farther. He was partially correct, as the streets were very narrow and full of people. He was also lying, because he knew that he could have gone farther but didn't want to. We unloaded our things and trekked up the street in the cool night air. I mean up, because Dharamsala is in the foothills of the Himalayas, as you can see from the picture taken from the window of my room [soon to be added]. Everyone else was staying at the Green Hotel, which we were able to find rather easily.

Naddi in the MorningAt the Green Hotel I learned that my hotel was actually 4 kilometers away, in a little village called Naddi. I walked back down the road to a place that seemed like it was full of taxis just half an hour earlier. Taxis were now sparse. I asked one driver, who refused to take me. I asked another, who said no as well. Finally, I found someone who was willing take me. It cost 120RP, which is just about $3. Best investment ever! The people at the Shikhar Hotel are very nice. I had a lovely dinner of curried mixed vegetables and allo gobhi, a curried potato dish, with chapati, (a close relative of the tortilla) and sweet tea. I was also given water, which I decided to drink. I have been constantly advised to not drink the water unless it was from a bottle, and I held to that until we arrived in Dharamsala. But this area seems so fresh and clean that I have decided to partake in the water, at least until I can find some bottled water this afternoon. This great meal cost about $3.

I struggled to make it to dinner without falling asleep, so when I returned to my room, I crawled into bed (it was about 21:00) and fell asleep. I woke up this morning at about 05:30. The light was just starting to creep across the mountains. I'm getting rather hungry, so I'll wrap this up. It is about 8:30 at the moment and I'm pleased at the thought of taking a shower. I'll turn on the boiler, crawl under the warm blanket, and wait until the shower is ready.

31 August 2006

Score another for Olbermann

Sorry, I don't have time for an original post, but if you haven't seen Keith Olbermann's response to Donald Rumsfeld's "all the dissenters are Nazi sympathizers" speech to the American Legion, you must. It's here: crooks and liars website. If you think our country is in peril, you're right.

29 August 2006

If it's funny...

Yesterday I realized that I spend a good deal of time looking for something humorous to lighten the day. Whether it is a clip from the Daily Show or an amateur video mocking Mel Gibson, I dig it because it breaks the serious mood I easily get into when I'm working. To find these online gems, I have a stock collection of websites that provide entertainment. For example, Salon's Video Dog provides humorous clips along with boring clips of its kitten fascination. Truthdig.com has some good stuff. Crooks and Liars is a gem. But perhaps there are other sites that you know of which are worthy of consistent perusal. I'd love to hear about them.

Yesterday's clip of the day goes to Bill Maher, who does a great mocking of idiotic "stay the course" rhetoric. Here's the clip.

27 August 2006

Focus and Flexibility

It's official: I'm behind the times. Perhaps I've been that way for a long time now, but the realization is reinforced by the fact that I want to write about Brokeback Mountain, the much acclaimed "gay cowboy" movie by Ang Lee, six months after everyone was writing about this twist on the classic American romance. I don't suspect that I'll offer any new insights to the movie or the criticism that accompanied it. What I hope to get is a better sense of balance between focus and flexibility.


I have been very busy of late, working probably the better part of each day for the last three weeks. In my case, working isn't about physically doing anything in particular. Nor is it necessarily the act of writing or reading. For while it encompasses all of those activities (and certainly there are many of these activities that I still need to accomplish), work is first and foremost thought. Creating a website, drafting a position paper, responding to email inquiries, writing a shell script, designing a logo, and organizing a not-for-profit are all first and foremost acts of contemplation and imagination.


I realize as I write this that I have not been this creatively engaged since my first year of graduate school. At that time, my intellectual focus was driven by fear: fear of failure, fear of ridicule for thinking that I was intelligent enough to be in graduate school, fear of the void should I fail at that endeavor. To some extent, that fear remained with me until I finally quit, five years later. But, much to the chagrin of the current administration, fear wears thin on the psyche over time, losing its potency.


Of course, the thoughtful activities of the last three weeks have come at a price. In some respects, it has come at the price of my other interests. I was making good progress on learning to play the banjo, but I haven't picked up the instrument in over a week. I haven't played a video game in more than a week, not even FIFA or Battle for Middle Earth. I also haven't been getting much exercise. That isn't anything particularly new, but I have tried to at least make myself go for walks. I enjoy them, but they often leave me feeling even more harried because they generate so many ideas about things that I'm working on.


Perhaps the biggest loser of all is flexibility, and here is the tension that I wish to probe. I will gladly give up most of the things mentioned above for the creativity and drive that I feel currently, but can I be socially flexible in that same mode? Does the conviction which harnesses the focus destroy my ability to express empathy, even with someone I profess to love?


My wife and I watched Brokeback Mountain and Girl with the Pearl Earring yesterday. She is uncomfortable with both films because she feels trapped by the weak roles that the women in the movie enact. She acknowledges the response as a purely emotional one and recognizes that the characters played by Michelle Williams and Scarlett Johannson both engage their power selectively. I feel like I cannot engage this response fairly, because I cannot seem to find my way out of a sentence that begins with "Yes, but...".


In fact, that sentence is my best attempt so far at acknowledging her emotions. Does that matter? Must I as a good partner sympathize with my wife's reactions? Is it imperative that I find a way to end the sentence at "Yes."? To be honest, I feel morally compromised by such an effort. I think that her emotional reaction is a failure to use the suspension of disbelief in order to experience someone else's story. If one cannot see through a couple acts of violence by Ennis Del Maar to see the seething self-hatred that generates these acts, perhaps they don't deserve a sympathetic reading of their response. Or is this just the crass reaction of a man too focused to be compassionate?


I am left wondering if I must choose between the anxieties of flexibility and the ambitions of focus. Surely there must be an equilibrium, but finding it will be left to another day.

15 August 2006

Family of Spam

Gentle reader, you are about to embark on a thrilling expedition into my world of rage. I realized in the car today that rage is actually a pretty good description of what I do as my stress level gets higher. Thom, the best man at our wedding, got a taste of how out of control that rage can be. His response was to get me a magnet that said, "I don't have an anger problem. I have an IDIOT problem."

The last two weeks have been fairly stressful. Mostly, I'm aware of the stress and its resulting rage and I have found ways to channel it productively. However, sometimes it catches the unsuspecting bystander in what can only be described as a vile act of snarkiness. Most of this stress is caused by the growth of CUWiN and its need to shed the cocoon and actually make it happen. Sure, there have been some other issues, but mostly this is it. And one of the ways I deal with this workplace stress is to write emails that I would never send, but that clearly express the rage I am feeling at that moment. By the end of the email, I'm ready to get back to work.

Yesterday wasn't actually a particularly stressful day. It also wasn't a particularly anything day, although it was long. Late in the afternoon I wasn't feeling all that great and I got an email from my uncle's wife. Now it should be said that he is having his sixtieth birthday and many in the family are going to go on a cruise. I had hoped the email would be about some special present they are setting up for him. Well, not so much.


Subject: Let's say thanks please read very important!!!!!

If you go to the web site at www.letssaythanks.com you can pick out a thank you card and Xerox will print it and it will be sent to a soldier that is currently serving in Iraq. You can't pick out who gets it, but it will go to some member of the armed services. It is FREE and it only takes a second. I just did it...it's cool give it a try


Now, if you have followed this blog at all or know who I am, you will know that I'm a pacifist and that my appreciation for the military is non-existent. With few exceptions, militaries are despicable institutions that commit unconscionable acts. So I don't want to get this email. In fact, I view this email as little more than an invasion of someone else's politics into my personal space. This only got worse when I decided to go to the website and see that what would be sent was pictures drawn by children (or chickenhawks who act like them). What an obvious case of brainwashing our children to believe that everything soldiers do in the name of the military-industrial complex is a positive act that defends freedom.

I decided to write back. But rather than writing about how I would prefer not receive a bunch of crap (I received several more items later in the afternoon), I decided to engage. Well, I thought, if she wants me to engage in this, I will. I'll write back some thoughtful words about saying thank you to poor bastards who are in Iraq because GW, Dick, Donny, and Wolfie (sounds a little too much like a boy band) decided to make the rest of us live out their fantasy. I didn't want to alienate them by raging. Instead, I decided to say something else to the troops: "I'm sorry." I replied to all recipients with the following:


Dear all,

I'm all for saying thank you, even if I am a pacifist. But perhaps thank you isn't the most important sentiment that we need to be relaying to our troops. Perhaps we should say, "I'm sorry." Here are ideas about what we might want to apologize for:


  • I'm sorry that we supported going to war against an enemy who had _nothing_ to do with September 11, 2001 or Al Qaida.

  • I'm sorry that we re-elected officials who lied about the causes for the war and knowingly spouted false intelligence to bully members of the global community into going to war.

  • I'm sorry that we sent you into battle without the necessary equipment to keep you safe and without the necessary troop numbers to actually secure the country and win the peace, even though many of our own experts told us that we were seriously underestimating both.

  • I'm sorry that we continue to keep you in Iraq, some of you through a back-door draft, without any hope of bringing you home.

  • I'm sorry that you must watch a civil war unfolding right before your very eyes while I watch "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Surreal Life".

  • I'm sorry that we have decided to flaunt the Geneva Conventions and use torture on people in your name. We know that this only results in false information and making your job more difficult.

  • I'm sorry that we feel it is more important to give ourselves tax breaks than to actually pay for all your medical care when you are injured in this war.

  • I'm sorry that when you come back the freedoms you think you are defending will have been usurped by an administration that breaks the law in the name of expanding executive powers, even when it is contrary to the law.



Sincerely,

Ross


The irony of all of this is that I looked into the website and found that Xerox was actually running this site. They claim that this is an act of social responsibility, an attempt to ensure that the troops feel warm and fuzzy right before they get maimed by an IED. I actually just finished writing to Xerox to offer an alternative idea about what to say to the troops.

I hope we can start turning this cockamamie bs patriotism that can never question and that can't hold people accountable when they volunteer to kill people in foreign lands into the mockery it is by starting a counter campaign. Every time you see one of these stupid websites, send the troops a real message that expresses the sorrow you feel for their terrible situation.