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

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”

There is no “I”

At 6:15 the bell tolls. You have already been awake for a half hour. Anticipation? Slowly, you pad out of your cell at the Birken Forest Monastery, walking over the matted straw floor and into the carpeted hallway. You peek down into the meditation hall from this second-floor hallway to see if anyone is already in there. A few are. Anticipation.

The meditation hall from the second floor hallway

Down the wooden staircase to the first floor, you alight onto the tiled entrance way. Many wear socks, but the monastics don’t, so you don’t. You open one of the double doors to the sala and give a short, Japanese-style bow to the five-foot-tall statue of the Buddha. You are still unsure of the etiquette in a Thai Forest monastery, so you stick with what you know.

Along the back wall of the sala are the large, square mats, and the round, stuffed meditation cushions. Taking a set, you settle down on the black, marble(?) floor. Quarter-lotus is all your poor inflexible legs are capable of, but yesterday you could only do Burmese style, so you feel a little sense of accomplishment. Resting your hands near your belly, thumbs lightly touching, you gently close your eyes and (try to) calm your mind.
Continue reading “There is no “I””

The National Mall, Washington DC

I am travelling in the capital region of the United States right now on business. I took a day to walk the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not hot. The wind made it deceptively cool, and I got a terrible sunburn.

I walked the 5km from Union Station to the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and finally to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Mall is massive. This is America doing BIG at its best. The architecture, design and sheer size of the monuments is awe-inspiring.

satellite photo with line representing walking path
My walking path at the Mall

The Capitol Building had some protestors on the lawn. I didn’t get close enough to find out what they were protesting — being a foreign citizen I didn’t want to get swept up in anything. I was shocked at the size of the Washington monument. I thought that it was just an obelisk. The thing is massive and has an elevator inside! The thought put into the design of the Reflecting Pool and the Korean War monument is amazing. Below is just a few of my pictures. You can see all 45 photos and videos on Flickr →

From the Lincoln Memorial, I took a quick taxi to the White House. There were lots of school groups around on the day. You cannot get tours of the White House as a Canadian anymore. I walked around the north side and the south side, and then to the White House Visitor center, which is open to the public. On my way I was stopped by some very aggressive yelling police (actually, pretty much all the police in DC were like that). Everyone on the sidewalk was told to freeze while they blocked off the roads for some sort of presidential motorcade. Of course, everyone including me took video. I am not sure if Trump was in that car or not, but it was quite an entourage.

DC is a really nice looking city, much cleaner than most of the US cities I have been to. Mind you, I was only in the hipster Adams Morgan neighbourhood, with its tree-lined streets and classic buildings, and downtown in the capitol area. Still, it was pleasant. Contrast it with Baltimore, which I visited the following day. I grabbed a taxi from the train station and we were heading downtown. I could see a massive building with late 19th century copper roofing, similar to the parliament buildings in Ottawa. I asked the driver what that building was — literally the first interesting building I saw — and he replied simply, “Jail.”

I am staying in the inner harbour in Baltimore and it is all under contruction/gentrification right now. Red brick of the old industrial town is giving way to glass facades. It isn’t very reminiscient of The Wire at all, and I am glad for it.

Baltimore downtown

Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows:

Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience

In 1335, a few years after he abdicated the throne, the 95th emperor of Japan Hanazono (1297-1348) decided to become a Buddhist monk. He entered the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism and donated one of his palaces, turning it into a temple complex. Almost 700 years later, the Myoshin-ji (妙心寺) complex houses almost 50 sub-temples, and lays just up the road from the JR Hanazono train station in northeast Kyoto, a station I used to frequent often when I was a student here in 1999.

Last Saturday, on a crisp morning with a cloudless blue sky, I wandered about the temple complex in search of Shunkō-in (春光院). A few times a month, the Reverend Taka Kawakami gives an introductory zazen (seated meditation) lesson in English. Having only done guided mediation on my own, listening to podcasts or books, I was really looking forward to trying zazen, especially under the guidance of a teacher.
Continue reading “Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience”

A short trip to the Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast is a region of mainland British Columbia just up the coast from Vancouver. Originally inhabited by the shíshálh people, the area was settled by westerners in the mid-nineteenth century. Now, about 27,000 people live there. The Sunshine Coast is less than two hours from downtown Vancouver, accessible by transit, and gets just half the rain of Vancouver. Its small-town feel, yet nearness to the city makes it popular with retirees.

My wife and I visited the region for the first time. I took almost 500 photos and videos. I put some of them up on Flickr, splitting them into albums for each leg of the trip, as detailed below.

sunshine_coast-horseshoeWe took the Greyhound to Vancouver ($34), then a city bus from downtown to Horseshoe Bay ($3.75). From there we walked on to the ferry ($7.50), and after crossing over took a short bus ride ($2) into Gibsons. Once in Gibsons we used the Coast Car Co-op, a carsharing outfit partnered with our local OGO Carshare Co-op. It was nice since I just used my regular fob to get into the vehicles.

sunshine_coast-gibsonsWe spent just two nights at the Sunshine Coast. We were based in Gibsons, and explored the area including the marina where Molly’s Reach is located. This is the restaurant featured in the long-running CBC show The Beachcombers which was set in Gibsons. We drove around the various neighborhoods, checking out the town, and down to the beach at Chaster’s park. My wife was so happy to see the ocean. I am always amazed at how green and verdant the coast is with its temperate rainforest. Even the rocks on the beach were green with seaweed and moss. The whole area is teeming with life, especially when contrasted with dry Okanagan.

sunshine_coast-davisUnfortunately it rained heavily the second day. We drove to Davis Bay, where the weather started to clear up. There is a long sandbar jutting out into the ocean at low tide, and a number of people were fishing at the tip, where a freshwater stream emptied into the ocean. I asked a fisherman what people were catching and he replied with a smile, “Salmon!” Of course… why didn’t I think of that.

sunshine_coast-secheltThe weather started to clear and we visited Sechelt, the center of the Sunshine Coast district. I had caught a cold in Vancouver on the first day of our trip and was feeling pretty terrible. We viewed a number of totem poles, and enjoyed the waterfront as it started to warm up. Unfortunately the shíshálh museum was closed. I was looking forward to learning more about the nation and the original four settlements in the region.

sunshine_coast-smugglersWe drove east to Halfmoon Bay and the sun started shining. Finally, the Sunshine Coast we came to see! There are a bunch of hiking trails so we took one into Smuggler’s Cove, the location of an aboriginal settlement which was later used to smuggle alcohol during the the prohibition years. The hike only took an hour or so, and there was a surprising number of people we met along the way.

Davis Bay, Sechelt and hiking to Smuggler’s Cove made for a busy day. We headed back to the Garden Cottage B&B (which I highly recommend, see my tour video here) and relaxed, viewing the stars as they came out. The next day we headed back to Vancouver via ferry and bus, and then back to Kelowna. It was a whirlwind trip, and we enjoyed it so much that we plan on going back next spring.

All 99 photos and videos can be viewed here →