Monday, May 26, 2008

The moonsoon is coming

Ugh. I'm sick again. Headache, fever, crappy muscles, no appetite. It looks like a virus this time, which may or may not have been contacted from the water.

Please immunity, come quickly!

In the mean time, I am most happy to have Shailaja as a neighbor. She is a doctor and she has been watching over me like I was her own child. Thank you.

Here is a pretty table. The title of it is It's 31 C outside, the monsoon is coming!

High /
Low (°C)
Precip. %
May 26
Scattered T-Storms 26° 60 %
May 27
Scattered T-Storms 32°/26° 50 %
May 28
Scattered T-Storms 32°/26° 50 %
May 29
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
May 30
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
May 31
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 01
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 02
Scattered T-Storms 31°/26° 60 %
Jun 03
Scattered T-Storms 30°/26° 60 %
Jun 04
Scattered T-Storms 29°/26° 60 %

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Trivandrum, home of IIITM-K

I arrived on Monday to my new city of adoption, Trivandrum, Kerala, India.

Work is starting presto. My first lecture was yesterday, on version control with Subversion. I am glad to find that, despite the warning about the passivity of Indian students, I was able to get some interactivity going.

The semester starts August 1st. The plan for the summer is to organize lots of little workshop for the companies around here. We are thinking of selling workshops on Java Generic, on concurrency, on computer architecture, and Venkatesh's own Principle of Programming class. We are also thinking of doing a TeachScheme with college teachers.

I am getting settled. The two bags that I could fit on the plane sit in the corner of my large apartment. They are sum of my belonging. The rest of this middle-class 5 1/2 is filled with echoes of my footsteps. The search begins for those hard-to-find items of copious western consumption, a French-press, a kettle, a crock-pot.

Food-wise, I am very lucky. A new food court opened on the day of my arrival. It supersedes the shady cafeteria on campus, which served the most uninspired biryani have eaten of all India.

The North Indian food here could not surprise me. I was a regular of the numerous Indian restaurants in Providence and in Montreal, which served perfectly authentic food. Plus, I have yet to find a tomato spicy chicken that can match the one I cook from Madhur Jaffrey's excellent recipe (surely because I haven't been eating much chicken). The street-food experience, however, has been remarkable. The typical restaurant has no name, no decoration, no menu. The place has three walls; where the front wall would be there is a row of large pots containing non-descrip food. The owner plops a bit of each into a plate for you, pours a glass of water which you won't touch because it might be tainted. He charges you the equivalent of 0.75$CAN for the meal. You take a bite, and it's the best food ever.

With my arrival in Bangalore, I discovered I don't care so much for South Indian food. South India meals are composed entirely of chutneys, that you eat with your hands, perhaps with some rice or some chapati. Personally, I need more veggies, especially if I'll go on pretending I'm a vegetarian. The food discovery #1 of the trip is India's interpretation of Chinese dishes. They are as un-Chinese as American shopping-mall-Chinese, but it's so much better. It is perhaps the best Chinese in the world if, like me, you don't care for authentic Chinese. Trivandrum is a city lush with fruit trees. From my apartment window, I see the neighbor's house through the large leaves of banana trees, mango trees and of uncountable coconut trees. So, food discovery #2 are the fresh coconut dishes of Kerala, which appeal to the Thai lover in me.

It is hot. It is 32 C here, everyday. In Montreal, that temperature is the signal to do nothing with the day and go to an ice cream shop. Thus I have been eating three servings of ice cream per day. Breakfast at the sundaes place next to my apartment, lunch at the crunchy sundaes place in the food court, and diner at the Ben and Jerry's Baskin-Robbins' franchise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Three minutes of silence

Seven bomb blasts in Jaipur this evening, around 19:30. Dozens dead. I was flying over the region at that time, on my flight from Delhi to Bangalore. Jaipur was not on my travel plan, Delhi is 260 km away, so the closest I got to Jaipur was 8000 meter vertical. I'm alright. [Google News]

A huge quake of 7.8 magnitude in Sichuan, China yesterday. Thousands dead. I was traveling away from the Indo-Tibetan border at the time, 2000 km away. Needless to say, I didn't feel a thing. I'm alright. [Google News]

Cyclone in Myanmar last week. Lakhs of people affected. Myanmar is the next country East after the Eastern States of India. It's very far way. I'm alright. [Google News]

I'm alright, but this week many people in Asia aren't. My thoughts are with them.

Dum Maro Dum

Mit Jaye Gum

Erase all sorrows

Bolo Subaho Shaw

Say in the morning in the evening

Hare Krishna Hare Ram

Lord Krishna lord Rama

Dunija ne jumko diya kya

What have the people given us?

Dunja se jumne liya kya

What have the people took from us?

Hum Sabki Parvah Kare Kyum

Why do we worry so much?

Sabne humara kiya kya

Have we done anything?

Everyone here who listened to What Cheer?'s cover of Dum Maro Dum was overjoyed by it. It was way more popular than my attempts at introducing John Coltrane to India. Thanks to Kartik for the rough translation.

I have spend the last five days in Kalpa, a 1000 souls village at 3000 meters of altitude, 100 kilometer West of the Tibet border. After a two hour hike, I was having a picnic at the snow line. It is a place so remote, you cannot surf the Internet nor can you buy a cola. I was able to find, however, a fading Coca Cola ad painted on the side of one house.

When I visited Poland, I made a point of covering the remaining distance eastwards to take a picture of myself facing the Russian control point. I didn't dare repeat the performance. The Russians might be crazy, but the Chinese are crazier, especially those in Tibet. Sorry folks, there will be no pictures of myself being pursed by the Red Army.

I grow more fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism the closer I get to their homeland. I sat down with the lady monk of Kalpa for the morning Puja. She sang in my presence and invited me to turn the prayer wheel. They are heavy, these wheels, as they are filled with scrolls which are covered with copies of the prayer. The scripting of the scrolls is a meditation exercise for the monks. The wheels themselves are an optimization. Once rolled tight, each turn of the wheel sends millions of copies of the prayer into the wind at once.

A distance of 100 kilometers might not be much, yet here it represents 10 hours of bus rides. Such is life when you are following the twisty little roads that grab to the sides of the plunging Himalayan cliffs. The ways are one car wide, plus half a width for the space that would be occupied by the cinder blocks, if there was any. When you meet another bus, the driver find space to pass, somehow, most of the time without stopping or slowing down. It is a feeling not dissimilar to flying. In both cases you have given fine control of your altitude to a trusted professional, and you have nothing to do for hours but to ponder that fact.

Some mountains here are so steep, they are devoid human presence, something I have not seen anywhere else in India. It takes a 70 degree climbs to discourage an Indian from establishing a settlement, apparently. Everywhere else, on the bus at night whenever I open my eyes I confuse the village lights for the stars.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


If you hike for an hour North of Dharamsala, you reach the Tibetan Children Village. While most of the population of Tibetan in exile lives in city, they created this special place for the children. For one, the adults are resilient. With efforts, they can overcome the culture shock of being adopted by India and integrate, something that the children may have more difficulties with. But the village was also created to give them a chance to grow as Tibetan. So that they could do more than remember their Tibetan culture, but be Tibetan.

Two of my future colleagues happened to be in town. It was a nice day out so we went walking. In the village, I pet the dogs and I cheered at the kids playing cricket next to Dal Lake. Then we had a meal of spicy chopsuey at the cafeteria.

The water pipes run along the roads, only occasionally do they go underground. When they leak, they gush more water than is ever available in the city. It is enough to create a new creek. The pipes to the Tibetan Children Village are broken in a number of places. So, as we walked, the road was lined with people who came to the leak to wash their car.

In India, the vehicles on the road are kept alive for decades. I would be curious to have an expert in antique with me to put dates on everything (Lucien?). The buses must be from the '50, the scooters from the '70, the motorbikes from the '80. But the cars are new.

I understand that India has little money and many hands. That is why they repair instead of rebuilding, and why the infrastructures are shabby. But why are the cars new? How do they afford them? Which disproportionate fraction of their income do the invest on them? Why do they do so?

That's the first mystery of India. The second mystery are the large smoke plumes raising from the hills. It looks like the forests are coming ablaze at multiple locations, every night, everywhere. In Rishikesh -- though nowhere else -- I was able to see an orange glow at the base. I was captivating like a camp fire: it was dangerous-looking yet safe. Natives I asked say the villages must be burning garbage. Sure, even in the city it is customary to gather a pile of garbage in street to incinerate it. But I don't believe it. The quantity needed for the plumes I see couldn't be produced by the diminutive hill villages.

The third mystery are the dry river beds. More than half of the bridges step over a ditch of rocks with a few trees. The Slumville picture, for instance, is taken from such a bridge. The river has been dried for long enough that, after the trees, the poor have taken roots. I mentioned it to a friend of a friend, my host in Kullu, Mr Kamal. He described how global warming had taken a unmistakable toil on the region. Kullu went from receiving 7 feet of snow to not receiving any snow in the last 7 years. Farmers are abandoning their apple trees and are looking for replacement crops. The newspaper talks of cities rationing water. Is global warming responsible for all the dried rivers?

I would like to thank Mr Kamal and his family for hosting me for a few days. I enjoyed being showed around the farm and having a chance to discuss the economy of India. The trip to Prashai Rishi Temple was equally memorable. Thanks again.

I spent the last few days in Manali, bathing in hot springs, waiting for the glacier to melt and the roads to open. Leh or to Kaza, near Tibet, whichever melts first, I will visit!