Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background.

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

The city is on a peninsula that juts southwardly into the sea. Many times we drove down the western coast, past the beaches and the Haji Ali Tomb, a mosque and tomb on a small island half a kilometer off the coast. When the tide is low pilgrims make the crossing. Every time we drove into the city we took the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, a 5 kilometer long toll bridge. It takes only a few minutes to cross the smooth surface, and apparently it cuts off more than an hour of commute through the regular twisty streets of Mumbai.

in the background a long pier connected to a building, with two small boats in the foreground
Haji Ali Mausoleum as the sun sets

The northern side of the bridge is the neighbourhood of Bandra where one evening we went to the bazaar. The traffic and honking give one the impression of how many people are actually in this city. The shopping area of Bandra consisted of winding streets with single-storey storefronts full of people. Outside of the shops the sidewalks were lined with street vendors, often selling the same products as the store they were in front of. Shoppers slowly shuffled in line with shops on one side and street vendors on the other. While passing a clothing shop the store owner rushed out to berate a street vendor selling clothes — in direct competition and without a license. Elsewhere we halted in an underpass stairwell as a teenage boy shouldered a clothes rack loaded with women’s attire hauled his wares up the stairs: moving selling locations, likely something he did more than once that evening. We paused in a food area and I ate an “Indian hamburger” — a spicy, deepfried mashed banana patty in a white dinner roll — and picked up some brilliant cashew-based desserts in silver foil.

Bandra traffic 1
Busy streets of Bandra

The streets here are nowhere near as smooth as the bridge, or the streets of Delhi. Mumbai is under constant construction now, with new roads being paved and new subway lines being dug. The infrastructure here is dated and over capacity, but with elections coming up, money is being spent conspicuously.

These damnable roads, jammed with all this damnable traffic, was the source of my almost eternally sickened state in India. I stayed in very good hotels and was protected by my corporate minders who never let me out of their sight. I was only ever given the highest quality food and never suffered from diarrhea or vomiting. However I did feel queasy quite often due to all the driving. Bouncing along pot-holed, bumpy roads, weaving between vehicles and pedestrians who walk between cars (no sidewalks), and the stop-start jerky driving constantly triggered my carsickness. Rather than “Delhi Belly” I suffered from “Mumbai Motion Sickness.”

The ferry to Elephanta Island was a welcome change from all the driving. Heavily laden with Indian tourists it slowly passed through still waters to the island. We took a novelty steam train down the long jetty, then spend the day wandering around ancient 2200 year old Hindu and Buddhist caves, carved out of the basalt rock of the mountain.

Bas relief of a female deity surrounded by many smaller carvings
Carvings in the walls of Elephanta Caves. See all pictures here →

Despite these being a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an important cultural and historical site, I was amazed that basically nothing was cordoned off. There were tourists from all over India (and quite a few white people, more than I had seen anywhere else thus far), walking through the shady caves, right into altars, touching statues and lingams. We arrived on the first boat of the morning, so there were not many people, and the weather was still relatively cool. After viewing the caves we climbed to the highest peak to get a view of the city. There was a large military gun there (8” barrel… anti-aircraft?) watching over the bay. But it was from some previous crisis, left abandoned and rusting. Kids climbed all over it taking pictures. We rested here watching families feeding the monkeys on this gun emplacement from the last century, sitting atop a mountain carved out by holy men two millennia ago.

Girl feeds monkey
Girl feeds monkey on Elephanta

The return trip was even slower than coming. The boat was so laden with people that I feared we would sink! But everyone was in good spirits and enjoying the opportunity to sit down after hiking all day in the hot sun. I conversed with some locals on the ferry as we watched massive container ships and even spotted a submarine pass by. I had never seen one in the open sea before.

After returning to land, we walked around the Gateway to India plaza people watching for but before popping into the Taj Hotel to enjoy some air conditioning and a late lunch. A lovely way to wrap up the tour, but we weren’t done yet. Back into the car we drove through the center of town past the barracks, the law courts, the university, and past the street where we tried to go to the synagogue made by Iraqi Jews in the 19th century (closed for renovations). Driving north we went through some Parsi neighbourhoods where the driver pointed out some delicious bakeries. I recalled the wonderful honey sweets I ate in Iran in agreement.

Within a few minutes we got to our destination: the iconic Chhatrapaji Shivaji Terminus (CST), a train station built in the late 1880s. We took the stairs below the streets to the underground, and were assaulted by frenetic light and sound. The low-ceilinged passage under the road to the station wasn’t well lit, but was packed with hawkers selling belts, slippers, electric shavers, and flailing battery-powered mosquito-zapping fans that made the most terrible sound. Inside the station we were able to see the famous regional trains pull in, doors wide with people hanging out.

People on a train platform
Sunday afternoon rush at CST

Both the inside and outside of the station was under renovation and great care was taken to preserve it. The setting sun give the gothic station a sort of golden hue, a visage of imperious dignity — turns out the sun does set on the empire now.

Chad standing in front of the station taking a selfie with his phone
Taking selfies in front of the CST

Next time we will travel to Agra in central North India to see the Taj Mahal

Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity

Andheri is a neighbourhood of northern Mumbai, just past the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a beautiful wood-panelled facility where white paisleyed pillars gently swirl up to the ceiling covered in a pattern meant to resemble the feathers of a peacock, the national bird of India.

I had been in Mumbai for four days and was standing on the roof of an office park in Andheri, looking out at the surrounding hills. Green trees grow tall making the hills look like lush jungle, even though underneath that canopy are millions of people, a tangle of traffic, and blocks and blocks of factories. Andheri is home to the SEEPZ Special Economic Zone. Every factory here in these 100+ acres are building products that can never be sold in India. The building I stood on held software companies, all providing services overseas. The pattern of greenery was occasionally broken by the pastels of a slum complexes, boxy rooms stacked upon one another, each a different colour, all clinging to the hill. 40% of Mumbai’s 18 million population live in slums.

Andheri from rooftop

The sun was bright, it was warm (around 30 degrees C) but not hot. Winter in India means everything is very dry. Dust and sand settle on everything. I was feeling peaky, and looked it. The night before I was up all night with the shakes. Four days of sightseeing in the dry heat had dehydrated me, and I spent the morning undertaking Oral Rehydration Therapy. But I came into the office for a gentle lunch of yellow dal while drinking orange-flavoured Gatorade. Moving to the couches from the edge of the building I sat down to a very interesting discussion with the president of the software company and a visiting American investor representing a private equity firm based in Australia. This meeting was one of the best of my trip. Too bad it was while I was feeling the worst.

In the 1990s the computer giant Dell outsourced its manufacturing to Taiwan. As the internet boomed, driving more computer sales and more importantly services, Dell outsourced more and more of its computer manufacturing to increase revenue. Business was booming. But now all of Dell’s institutional knowledge and source of innovation were residing with one company on Taiwan. That company had everything it needed to start its own laptop brand and defeat Dell at its own game. That company was Asus.

China may be the factory of the world, but India is the services agency of the world. And we are not just talking about call centers, but software development. There is lots of innovation and product development happening locally, not just at the behest of foreign companies. Indians have the knowledge, the skills, and the capital. Check out this McKinsey report which shows how explosive the digital growth has been in the past few years. India has the world’s third largest population of billionaires, after the US and China. Foreign investors and PE firms are sniffing around more and more to get a piece of the action. Ycombinator is even holding interviews in Bangalore this year. And with brands like Ola — India’s domestic answer to Uber — recently launching in the UK, you can see how India seems it could be on the verge of its own Asus moment, taking the knowledge it has gained over years as a business process outsourcer, and building its own global brands. Furthermore, for foreign investors the politics (although not great) are much more amenable than China.

view of buildings and sunrise from a tall building window
Early morning smog and sunrise from my hotel window

I was stopped short by Indian politics the first night I arrived. After walking out of the airport into a smoggy night, a representative from the company I was here to see drove me in bumper-to-bumper traffic to my hotel. “Wow its is busy for 11 at night!” I said and the driver answered with a wry smile, “11 is just when Mumbai gets started!” Pulling into the hotel we were stopped at a guard hut. A guard stood in front of our vehicle and rapped boredly on the hood. The driver popped the hood and the trunk, as another guard walked around the vehicle, opening my door and letting a guard dog have a sniff inside the vehicle. We were waved through the front gate and pulled up to the front doors. There I had to put my bags through an X-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. It was a nice hotel, but I didn’t think it warranted this level of security. “It’s because of the 2008 terrorist attacks,” said my driver.

In November of 2008, Pakistani terrorists killed 174 people and wounded more than 300 in a series of coordinated attacks around the city. One of the places they attacked was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which I visited on my first and second days in India. We walked around the hotel, taking photos of the Arabian Sea (and the smog!), and the Leopold Café on the other side, another site of the 2008 attacks. Security was ever present (if ever bored).

The grand Taj Hotel, where terrorists attacked in 2008

Indian politics are complex as hell. I had read a few books and listened to a couple of lecture series before coming, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the amount of diversity in the country. Since Mumbai is the economic hub of India I was luckily exposed to Indians from all parts of the country (of all the people I met there, I think only one was actually born in Mumbai).

Besides Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians the country is cross-cut by dozens of languages, people groups, and distinct cultures. While visiting the Taj Mahal (the subject of a later post) the two Indian friends I went with (from Chennai and Kolkata respectively) spoke to our guide like they too were foreign visitors. My friend from Chennai is married to a woman from Delhi, and the way he described the culture clashes with his in-laws sounded a lot like my relationship with my Japanese wife’s family!

a mural with the quote "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela" in all of India's writing systems, around a composite map of India made up of characters from different languages
Mural featuring the different languages and writing systems of India

For North Americans I use this analogy: India is a country made of up different, smaller countries. It is kind of like the United States of America taken to the extreme — imagine each American state as having its own language and its own ethnicity. Another analogy: imagine the European Union was just one country, where each country was a state, and had twice the population.

In India we celebrate the commonality of major differences; we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

Shashi Tharoor, 2001

All these varied people groups make up a single community of 1.2 billion people, which makes national elections (like what is coming up in May) an amazing production. With 900 million eligible voters (large swathes of whom are illiterate) India’s general elections are the largest in the world. The last one in 2014 had 66% voter turnout, and it wasn’t like they had an easy choice: there are thousands of candidates representing hundreds of parties. It is truly mind boggling.

Western Canada is home to lots of Indo-Canadians, but many are of Punjabi heritage, from the north of India. Down the western coast, at the mouth of the Arabian sea I was exposed to many more varieties of Indian people and food. There were all sorts of wonderful seafood (not a common staple in Indian restaurants in my part of Canada), desserts, and even Indian pizza (the paneer and pineapple was my fav!) and Indian Chinese food.

India was not at all what I thought it would be like. And with 4000 years of cultural history it is endlessly fascinating. I look forward to visiting again someday!

Stay tuned for my next post where I will take you through Mumbai by car, sea and train.

Kashgar, 15 years later

I have been thinking of this very impressive New York Times photo essay of Kashgar, and how it has changed in the 15 years since I visited. Kashgar is an old Silk Road city in the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang province in Chinese Turkestan. A friend and I had crossed the Taklamakan Desert on a 36 hour sleeper bus journey where we were given bunks in the front (since the back is where the goats and chickens went). We used Kashgar as a base to travel up the Karakoram highway, through the breath-taking Pamir Plateau, to the Pakistani boarder checkpoint.

In those days, the city was divided by the main road, with mostly Uighur communities in the north, and Han in the south. After days of eating mutton, we crossed the highway to the south to have some “Chinese” food for a change. Our beautiful hotel used to be the Russian Consulate during the days of the Great Game, romanticized by one of my favourite authors Peter Hopkirk. I remember walking through the old town, the narrow streets and clay multi-story homes transported me back to a different era… something like 1001 Nights. According to the Times, these buildings are being destroyed by the Chinese government as the state increases the surveillance burden on the Uighur population. Even 15 years ago I thought Beijing’s presence was overwhelming. The People’s Square, where there was a Nowruz festival being held with all sorts of Uighur folk dances, is overlooked by the second largest statue of Mao in all of China. We saw government propaganda written in the Uighur Arabic alphabet on wide red banners strung across overpasses. That was nothing compared to what is happening now. Watch and listen to the photo essay and see what Kashgar has turned into, and read this Twitter thread by one of the journos for some behind the scenes material.

screencap of the linked tweet from the NY Times

Some pics from Kashgar in 2004

Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

Continue reading “Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time”

A quick end of year roundup

Last day of 2018. Only wrote 5 posts this year, but it was a big one for me since I took a big step up in my job and even took on a second job. Some highlights:

  • taught 2 semesters of Computer Science as a sessional instructor at University of British Columbia (Okanagan) 👨‍🎓
  • though I didn’t do a lot of writing, I did create over 600 slides for my lectures ✍️
  • paid off 2 of my 3 students loans (the final one will be done in the coming months) 💰
  • a magical trip to Hawaii (review) 🏝️
  • World Cup, which was brilliant, and motivated me to start tracking La Liga, in addition to my beloved Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League ⚽
  • read 50 books, including a lot about Asian history (not just Japan, but China, India, Tibet, Southeast Asia). Really taken an interest in what is happening on continental Asia these days. So interesting! 🌏
  • was even able to re-read a few books, which never happens ♻️
  • discovered Murakami Haruki (read 3 of his books) 📚
  • only watched 30 films (a third were rewatches). My all time favourite of the year: Bao 🥟

Now that my teaching is done, I plan on writing more in 2019. I haven’t set a goal yet, but likely the topic will be on Asia. Kinda think I might be going back to my Coming Anarchy roots. I will be in India next month, and Japan in the summer. So there will be at least 2 travelogues.

2018 was big for me. It feels like a new beginning. Here’s to 2019! 🥂

Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.
Continue reading “Your life-changing books”

From intergalactic villains to badminton

(The following started off as a tweet, which quickly developed into a tweetstorm, so I decided to move it to the blog, for this is where longer thoughts belong, right?)

I have been trying to wean myself off of comicbook-based entertainment: Marvel TV shows and movies. I need to take a break from the bombastic — less super and more mundane. Stories about the connections between normal human beings. 1/6

Somehow I have found myself captured by “slice of life” anime shows. Haha! Trading one kind of drawing for another! But it is not so comparable. There is so much humanism… and without obtuse metaphor (Ironman’s armor is really the brittle carapace of Tony Stark’s ego, etc) 2/6

These shows deal directly with the emotional material: interpersonal relationships with family, friends and lovers; community values; building confidence and becoming a better person, etc. All at the level of the normal people and not cosmic beings. 3/6

I just finished a series about high schoolers trying to reconstitute a defunct drama club (CLANNAD), which was brilliant. It looks like my next series is about a girl who is really good at badminton, but refuses to play. So excited! 4/6

This trend is also sorta reflected in my reading. When reading fiction I have been trying to steer away from genre-fic to read more literary work. 5/6

Why this new trend? Midlife crisis? 😅 Truthfully, I am not sure. It is something I am reflecting on (hence this thread). Speculation is welcome! 6/6

Calming on the surface – A review of Hawaiʻi

waikiki during the day

I stare at the waves.

At 5am, while the kids sleep, I drink coffee on the 24th floor balcony afforded a spectacular view of Waikiki Beach. It is meditative. I breathe in the ocean’s breath on my face. I have just turned 40. The vast ocean is my lungs, the waves my breath, slowly undulating. My computer and work are 4500 kilometres away. It has been six years since I have had totally disconnected vacation.

The mottled colour of the morning ocean washes up on the shore. The formative volcanic crater Diamondhead rises in the distance, imposing yet spent. On the water’s surface is a peppering of early morning surfers, at the mercy of nature. Under, are the dark grey blotches of dead coral, at the mercy of man.

I stare at the waves. Continue reading “Calming on the surface – A review of Hawaiʻi”

ALL of my nearly 5 years of real-world OGO carshare usage data

Periodically I have openly shared my costs of carsharing with our local OGO Car Share Co-op. This will be the last time, since OGO has joined regional carshare co-op powerhouse Modo. Although I love my OGO, I am really happy that this is happening. Congrats to the whole OGO team here in Okanagan, and I am enjoying the same great service under the Modo brand now. Though, I am a little sad that my driver id number goes from “9” to “19-thousand-something-or-other.”

Carshare has been excellent for our car-less family, and as you can see from the data above, extremely economical. We have been trending up as my kids get older and ferrying them to activities has increased,† but we are still about a third of the average annual cost of ownership for a vehicle in Canada. You should consider it as an option, especially if you don’t quite need that second car.

† With regards to the kids activities: it boggles my mind that many of our local community centers do not have door-step public transit service. Every community center should have a bus loop with covered bus stops, no?

A brief pause

It has been a couple of months since I have made an entry here — it is merely due to life keeping me very busy. I am working on some large projects at my day job (at which I was recently promoted to Director, Platforms & Technology), and in late December was offered the opportunity to teach a class at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus.The course is Digital Citizenship, a sort of technology ethics course. It was a last minute emergency appointment, and preparation for three lectures each week has taken all of my spare time. Luckily I am team-teaching with a very talented friend, otherwise there is no way I could do it.

Once things begin to calm down in late March or April, I should like to get back to writing. I certainly want to reflect on my experience teaching, and I still have to write about my new year’s trip to Japan, including my stay on one of Japan’s holiest mountains Koya-san (see pics here). Furthermore, there are a number of book reviews I need to write. See you in spring!