Blog

What do you want to know about India?

National Flag of IndiaI’ve been going through a bit of a dry patch recently, trying to come up with some inspiration on things to write about on my blog. Days are whizzing by, months are coming and going, pretty soon I’ll be going home for Christmas…and I’ve only been in India since last week, or at least, that’s what it feels like.

So, I’m going to open the blog to you.

What do you want to know about India?

You’ve seen it on the news, you’ve heard about all the jobs being outsourced to India, so what questions do you have?

Want to know about the food? The weather (one for the Brits!)? The lifestyle?

You can leave a comment on this blog asking your question, you can email me at peterclaridge@gmail.com or you can shoot me a message on Facebook.

We’ll see how it goes, I’m wondering if I’ll even get a single question ūüôā

Diamonds in the rough?

I have often posted about how bad the tuk tuk drivers are here in Chennai. They see the white skin and little dollar signs flash in their eyes. A journey that should cost Rs 80 to a local will cost Rs 150 for a foreigner – as if we’re all made of money. Yeah, right!

There are some ways of dealing with the drivers, but they will use every excuse under the sun to try and charge you more; time of day, traffic, one way system, it’s 100 metres from the landmark you said, raining, sick child, 4 kids and well, any other excuse he can think of and tell you about in English.

If you catch tuk tuks everyday like I do to get to work and back, it’s pretty tiresome as you try and explain where you want to go (MAN-DA-VELLI!) and then bring the price down to a sensible amount. My number one expense at the moment (after umm, beer) is travelling around.

Anyways, a couple of things happened to me this week that made me think, maybe not all the tuk tuk drivers are that bad.

Outside my apartment is an informal stop for autos (the local word for tuk tuks). All the drivers know me now and we’ve settled on the inflated price of Rs 90 per journey. No need to bargain or explain where to go. A win-win situation all-round.

The other day there were no tuk tuks outside so I have to walk about 300m or so to the main road and find one. 300m doesn’t sound that far, but in 35 degree heat it doesn’t take much to get the sweat pouring off you! As I was walking down, one of the regular drivers stopped and said he was picking up his children from school and that I should get in. So I did.

What came next was a little suprising, he drives down to the main road, finds another tuk tuk driver, tells him where to drop me and how much to charge – brilliant stuff!

Then today, as I was walking back down the same road carrying two bags of heavy food shopping, another one of the regular drivers pulled up along side me and ushered me to get in. I then got dropped off outside my apartment and he waved me away when I offered him some money. Amazing!

So, not all tuk tuk drivers are thieving little badgers after all ūüôā

Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?

I think it’s doing front crawl, sir.

OK, so yesterday I had my first cockroach experience. Henceforth know as “that thing that happened and what we will never talk about again. After today”. Now I have seen plenty of cockroaches in India. Some of them are big buggers and fly (FLY! who knew?!), others are a lot smaller and look like big ants. You see them in the local supermarket a lot.

So at lunch times, I go down to the local cafeteria and buy what is known as a Bread Omlette. The place is a dive and a half, but what the hell, the sandwiches taste good.

To give an idea on the strict hygiene standards they adhere to, I once watched one of the cooks sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of onions. He was using a thin, rusty blade to peel the onions. Every now and then, he would scrape the blade along the floor, presumably to sharpen it, and carry on peeling the onions.

Despite watching the food preperation conditions, I still went ahead and bought bread omlettes daily.

Yesterday was just like any other day. Went downstairs, they know my order by now. Sat down, spoke in broken English with the owner, got asked my salary…again (he’s convinced I earn thousands each month).

Once cooked and wrapped up in the previous days’ newspaper, I asked for the usual helping of tomato ketchup. Back I went to the office, looking forward to my lunch (it was 5pm after all).

As I was pouring the sauce over one of the sandwiches, I noticed a black thing that looked like a small leaf, so I innocently fished it out.

Now I’ve heard the expression “and my stomach turned”. But I’ve never actually experienced it to that moment, and let me tell you, the expression is very fitting. You can almost feel your stomach turn over and say “dude, no f…..king way!”.

The cafeteria has lost a customer. I skip lunch now.

Smile; We’re All Doomed

Tomorrow, about lunch time, we’re all gonna be doomed.

Why?

Scientists in France and Switzland are going to switch on a $9bn experiment which contains a ‘slight’ chance of creating black holes. On Earth.

For anyone that doesn’t know what a Black Hole is, it’s one of the most destructive things in nature. Nothing can escape from it, not even light (which is why it’s called a black hole).

So, about this time tomorrow, scientists are going to switch on this machine which they are ‘reasonably’ sure won’t create a black hole. Just like they were ‘reasonably sure’ there would be no long term effects from a nuclear bomb blast.

The aim of the experiment is to recreate conditions just a billionth of a second after the big bang (you know, it all began with nothing. Which exploded). It accelerates particles to near light speed, and recklessly smashes them together “to see what happens”.

So, what’s it going to be? A black hole or a big bang?

We’ll find out tomorrow. Only, we probably won’t because we’ll never know what hit us.

If you are truly nerdy enough to want to find out more, check out what the BBC is merrily calling “Big Bang Day“.

Right, time to make a tin foil hat and retreat to my country bunker. I may be gone some time…

(for anyone nerdy enough to understand this post, we’re really not going to die in a big explosion or get sucked in to a black hole, but a little paranoia never hurt anyone ūüôā )

Cuisine of Goa

One of the big things that I was worried about when I first came to India in 2006 was the food. I’m a self confessed fussy eater, and the list of things I don’t like could be turned in to a book 500 pages long. However, this worry was unfounded because the food in India is simply amazing. Fast forward to 2008, my Mum had the exact same worry. One of the big problems is, that in the West, we think everyone in India eats rice and curry. The thought that there are any other types of food is not considered.

Once again, this ignorance of India has no basis, as I think India has one of the most diverse and varied diets in the world. Because it’s so big, and has every climate from cool and temperate to tropical, it means that virtually every type of food known to man can be cultivated in India. As such, the diet consists of every vegetable, every fruit that you have heard of in the West plus double that amount again that you have never heard of. This variety probably makes India one of the best places in the world to eat.

Goa is certainly no exception, and you should come here with an open mind.

What looks like a run down native fisherman shack can produce some of the best food you have ever tasted. True, if you let your mind wonder and think about the conditions the food is prepared in, it might not be as enjoyable, but if you accept the surroundings and try the local cuisine, it will blow you away. Quite how they can russle up the fantastic dishes in a palm tree shack on the edge of the beach is anyones guess, but they do, and your taste buds will love you for it!

Touchy, Feely, Inquisitive Goa

Having lived in possibly the most conservative place in the entire world, where even at school, boys and girls are kept separated and even speaking to a member of the opposite sex can result in a 10,000 rupee fine, you kind of get used to the fact that you can never shake hands with, or pat on the back a member of the opposite sex. The thought of any kind of body contact is unheard of, and if it does actually happen it results in 1000 apologies as if they’ve just informed you that they’ve run over your pet cat that you’ve had for 10 years.

So, you come to Goa and it’s the complete opposite. As you walk down the beach, navigating between the hawkers, the girls and ladies come up to you with confidence, reach out to shake you by the hand and will even put their arm around you as they try to get you to buy their cheap necklaces. In England, this kind of behaviour wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, body contact betweem friends is acceptable, but when you’ve been in Chennai for 7 months, it’s a bit unusual and to be honest, a little bit disturbing!

Whereas Chennai is way too conservative, I think Goa is too liberal the other way, and there is a need to find some middle ground where they get it just right.

So far, everyone has been so incredibly friendly, the English is extremely good, and everyone is so curious to know about you. We’re told that this is the quiet season and that we should come in full season, but as we sit by our deserted pool, where there are more friendly, helpful staff than guests, having personal one on one service at the bars and restaurants I can’t imagine why anyone would come at a different time! Tell me where else in the world you can get your own waiter, your own barman, your own chef and your own tourguide for less than $10!

Goa: Where everyone has a story to tell

OK, so in my last post I said that Goa is the equivalent to Benirom or Daytona. I wasn’t far off the mark, but it’s not entirely accurate either. It’s a bit like one of those Greek island resorts where the tourism is aimed at the middle aged and families with young children. There is a certain attraction for hippy types, or those that simply want to get out of the rat race.

We are staying in an area called Calangute, which the tourist book describes as the armpit of Goa, over commercialization, young indian men off their faces, hawkers, fruit sellers the lot. But actually, it’s really not all that bad – and anyone who’s been to a Spanish resort will know how bad it can get! As you walk down the road towards the beach, you go past the tourist shops all selling the exact kind of thing – it does beg the question, if they are all selling the same stuff, how do any of them make any money.

As a foreign tourist in Goa, you are a magnet for the hawkers, but unlike other places, although they share the same desperate persistance, they are also extremely polite. From the 10 year old girl who has perfect English and asks for 10 rupees to have your picture taken with her (and on a very serious note: there really needs to be some education to the kids about talking to foreigners), and claims that there’s “no school” today, to the much older, and more experienced hawkers selling you their wares from a coat hanger – yes, really!

You really have to keep your wits about you, and in most cases, be exceptionally rude – because if you are polite and give them the time of day, they will stick with you like glue until you buy something – all the while being very friendly, chatty and inquisitive though! If you are anything like my Mum who will try and be nice and give non-commital answers, expect to come off the beach loaded up with so much cheap tat that you could very well start hawking yourself!

If you have to buy something, or can’t bare to see the 8 month pregnant lady selling her wares (which is the same as everyone elses) in the blistering heat, it’s important to remember to bargain. The hawkers will start very high, so you should start very low. It’s amazing how a cheap bangle which they swear blind is solid silver (but leaves a suspicious green mark hours after putting it on) can go from 500 Rupees to 50 Rupees. Use the classic bargaining technique that you already bought something and it cost 20 rupees, and watch how quickly the price tumbles.

At first the hawkers are ok, but pretty soon it becomes tiresome and bothersome. There are two effective ways to deal with it though!

First, don’t answer, don’t reply, and don’t even look at the person. Even if they ask you questions, don’t reply, or if you do say anything, say a firm “No”. If they place a shawl around your neck, don’t touch it or feel it, continue walking and ignore it at all costs.

The second advice if ignoring them doesn’t work, is to head down to the sea and go in up to your knees! Works a treat every time, none of them will follow you in ūüôā

Anyway, the highlight of the hawkers in Calangute is Rodney and Del Boy. Everyone gives themselves Western names, so Deva becomes David, Sandeep becomes Sandy etc. So we weren’t too surprised when one hawker told us his name was Rodney. The penny dropped when we met his mate “Del Boy”. The two guys could be attractions within themselves as they quote lines from Only Fools and Horses in their everyday language. They even tote their wares around in a big suitcase. I can’t imagine what’s going through their mind, or why they decided to model themselves on Del and Rodney, but it will keep you amused for some time as they tell you all their wares are “pucker” and how the other day Rodney was such a “plonker”. Asked where Uncle Albert was, and you are told he’s looking after their shop.

The other thing about the hawkers is that they all have a sob story to tell. Now depending on your level of naivety and compassion, you can make up your own mind whether to indulge the stories or whether to dismiss them out of hand. Sticking to my cynical self, I think that the stories are just that, stories to tell the tourists to get some more money out of us.

Kerala – What Western Tourists Should Know

Kerala – What Western Tourists Should Know

In my previous post I lampooned India’s tourist industry by writing some fake tour guides for 3 completely lame tourist attractions – attractions which the Indian nationals queue up for and visit in their hundreds. However, what is apparent, is that the things that entertain Indian’s (standing on a bay shouting your name and listening for the echo) is not what entertainers Westerners (who, quite frankly, have been disney world’ed to death and if it doesn’t go upside down 400 times, soak you through, take 5 years off your life, and cost $50 to get in, it’s not ‘entertaining’) are wanting from the experience.

So, here is a (rather lame) Westerners guide to Kerala

First off, the place is green (as I may have mentioned in my previous post). The views are spectacular and well worth the money. It’s like a combination of the Austrian / Swiss alps, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. If you are all for inspiring vista’s, panaramic views, mountains rising out of the mist, thundering waterfalls, then Kerala is the place for you. In the morning the mist can be seen in all the small valleys (if you are in a high up resort) with the mountains poking out, and slowly, as the sun heats the air, it all rises, joins together and passes through you and overhead.

Up in the mountains, there are huge tea estates. Seriously huge. As far as the eye can see kind of huge, there are miles and miles of tea plants. As a Brit who loves tea, it’s great to finally see the plant where it is grown and find out which part of the tree the tea comes from. Your impressions will be: a) it’s a lot smaller than you imagined and b) what part of the tree does the leaf come from.

If you are driving up to the mountains, make sure you get the driver to stop so you can get out and take some photos (if you want), because they probably won’t stop (tea trees are not interesting, right? But it’s good to actually see them up close). You will also see the ladies picking the tea with bags strapped to their back, so when you go back home to your friends and drinking your cup of Tetley, you can say, with authority, that you have seen the actual tea plants the tea came from AND actual people picking the actual leaves. Wonderful conversational piece. Go ahead.

The other strange thing that happened was the driver brazenly drove past three Elephants, and we had to cry out just to get him to stop. Again, it’s a Western thing, we don’t see Elephants in the street! You get to sit on the elephants and feed it fruit. No comment on the conditions the animal is kept in, but it’s probably not great ūüôĀ

Beyond that, the recommendation is to either admire the views, or simply to ask your driver to drive around, because the real attraction is the scenery – and very good scenery it is too, they must have seen Lord of the Rings and thought, “hey, that’s a good idea! We can have mountains like that too!”.

There are some cultural things that you can do, and I use the word in the loosest sense of the word. You may have to ask around before you go, because my mother received an ‘ayervedic massage’ (say what now?!) – organized by our travel agency – in a freezing cold hut. We also watched a show about Lord Krishna (maybe, who knows?) which was very…cultural. If you are not in to the bizzare, abstract, downright weird, then you should probably give that one a miss too. If you are really going to be a culture vulture like my mum, then go ahead, knock yourself out. And if you do find out what the play/show/art/performance is about, be sure to drop me a line because I was totally lost.

From what I could tell of the story, the girl (played by a guy) was a real hussy and tried to lure the green guy in to bed. The green guy being very traditional refused and said they had to get married first. The hussy just wanted to get some action and persisted until eventually the green guy cut off her breasts because she wouldn’t stop. Then he went and told his father about what happened (and presumably got a bitch slap upside the head for being so stupid).

I could be gravely mistaken though.

Hmm, I’m writing this blog from a houseboat on the backwaters in Southern Kerala. It’s pretty cool, you get to see a completely different way of life, with women washing clothes in the river, washing the cutlery in the river, washing their kids in the river, washing themselves in the river, before finally, catching their dinner from the river. However, there’s also the cynic in me that half thinks: these guys are being paid to be rural and traditional for the high paying tourists.

Again, very scenic, and only slightly ruined by the number of white tourists gawping at the culture. Damn culture vultures!

Keeping with my penchant of comparing everything here to the way things are back home, the houseboats are like canel boats that you can take short breaks on, but over here, they know what a house boat is! It makes our canel boats look quaint, a little funny and a bit like a noddy toy. The Kerala houseboats are really big, really nice, well furnished, have great facilities and even better meals onboard.

Anyway. Next stop: Goa. India’s equivalent of Benidorm, Malia or Daytona.

Awesome Olympics

Being in a country where the national sport is Cricket which doesn’t feature at the Olympics, and other sports are so far off the radar you probably won’t even be able to read about them on Wikipedia, the Olympics have been relatively low key over here – with the exception of when Bindra won his gold medal the other day.

However, I couldn’t be more amazed at Team GB’s stunning performance, then best in over 100 years. Everyday I check the results and more good news is flowing out. It does make you sit back and go, “what the hell? We’re not supposed to be this good”. The fact that we are 3rd in the current medals table (err, 3rd, or maybe 5th, see below…) and ahead of the likes of Australia, Germany and Russia is, quite frankly unbelievable. Since I can remember, Team GB has been mediocre at best, poor at other times.

The other thing I’m hugely impressed with is how well the Olympics seem to have been run so far. Even the BBC, scathing in its attacks on China in the build up, has become more and more positive as the days go by. Ignoring the whole human rights stuff for a (brief) second, China has put on a show and organized the event to a standard that few other countries in the world could achieve. You might say America could do as well, but don’t forget that the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was lambasted for being something of a shambles. Australia did a fine job, but as well as China? It would be a close call.

True, China have had the luxury of a blank cheque in order to pull it off, and spent upwards of $40bn to make it all happen, would other countries be able to organize it as well if they had that kind of budget?

This brings me on to the 2012 Olympics, I’m yet to find one Brit who believes that we’ll put on a good show. I’m not sure if it’s our typical dour, downplaying, somewhat negative nature, but confidence is not high that Britain will make a good job of staging the Olympics. For starters, there’s the budget. We are still four years off, and the budget has tripled in cost since the original bid was placed.

Then there is the construction and organization. In a place like China where there is a single party to make all decisions, decisions suddenly become a lot easier to make when there’s no opposition. In the UK, there will be opposition to virtually everything that they try and do. There will be committees, think takes, sub-committees, all trying to make a decision, but ultimately delaying everything and costing us (well, you guys living in London) a whole lot more.

But, to end on a lighter note, at least we are not as vain as the Americans.

In a desperate attempt to show Team America as the greatest sporting team in history, the American sports sites have come up with a new way of presenting the medals table. For them, no longer is it the case of the team with the most gold medals is at the top. Nope, that’s no good because China have run away with that title. To save face, they have changed their medals table to order the countries by total number of medals, veering away from the tradition, normal way it’s always been done.

The official site of the Olympics displays the countries in the traditional method too.

So, the question is, why do American sites feel compelled to change the way they rank the countries? Upset that they are no longer number one? Regardless, with the way China have been so rampant in winning medals, they might top both American and rest of the world tables by the end of the Olympics!

A Nation In Euphoria

Well who would have Adam & Eve’d it (that means “believe it” to all my Indian readers)? India has gone and won itself a Gold medal at the Olympics, the first in 26 years and the first for any individual. The modesty in me says that this was in no small part thanks to me coming to India. But enough about that.

India is rejoicing. No longer is it the Great Britain of the Eurovision song contest (nil points). It’s made its position clear and has told the world…err, we might win another one at London 2012.

So what was this Gold medal in? The speed of Athletics? The energy of swimming? The grace of gymnastics? The thrill of rowing?

Umm, no, it was none of these. The gold medal came in the Mens Air Rifle competition. The Mens 10m Air Rifle competition to be more exact. You can nearly touch the target with your hand at that distance!

Still, it’s a Gold medal, and India is proud.

On another note, China are doing awesome! I wouldn’t be surprised if they topped the medals table this year. Added to that the whole event seems to be exceptionally well planned and executed. I wish I could say the same about the London 2012 Olympics, but who are we kidding? It’s going to be a farce, complete lack of planning run by incompetent fools who are doing it because they couldn’t get a job in the business world. I hope my opinion will prove to be misguided though.

Sidenote: Before my Indian friends chastise me and claim that sports in India don’t get the funding of countries like the UK, I would like to draw your attention to this BBC article. Zimbabwe, possibly one of the worlds worst run and mismanaged countries and easily with the worlds worst economy managed to win 3 medals in the last Olympics. If they can manage it with a shoestring economy, I’m sure India can manage it with a population of over 1bn people!

Me, A Microsoft Fanboy?

Warning: This is a totally nerdy blog post!

I’m getting more and more concerned that I’m turning in to a Windows fanboy!

A couple of months ago I got new laptop which had Vista pre-installed. Convinced I would hate it I tried to get the IT guy at the office to put XP on instead. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible so I had to get to grips with it.

To my increasing horror, I actually found that I was liking Vista more than XP. After a week I was converted and now I’ll never go back to XP.

I can’t understand why Vista got such a bad name – there is nothing wrong with it! It’s fantastic to use, more user friendly, easier to navigate and very fast!

Infact, Microsoft suspected it was the anti-Microsoft hype that was causing people to have a bad opinion of Vista (and to be fair, that’s what my opinion was based on), so they set up an experiment in San Fransico with 150 people who refused to use and upgrade to Vista because they thought it was so bad. Microsoft told them that they would be trialing their brand new operating system, the successor to Vista.

The result?

They all loved it.

The best part?

They were actually using an out of the box copy of Vista.

Conclusion?

People’s hate of Vista is based on media biased.

If that doesn’t make me sound like a Microsoft fanboy, I don’t know what will!

But it gets even worse.

Recently I lent my phone to my buddy in India. A Nokia N73. I really liked that phone. I had it for two years. I lent it to him for one day and he manages to lose it.

Sidenote: This is not the first phone he has lost, and it wasn’t the first phone I even lent him. He runs a multi-million dollar company, but since I’ve known him, he’s lost 3 phones.

Anyway, since he lost my phone, with all my contacts, all my photos (including the first match at Wembly!), all my notes, everything, he was only right and proper that he bought me a new one.

The phone I chose was a HTC with a touch screen, there’s no keypad, everything is done by touch. My buddy wanted to get my an iPhone, but there’s just something so wrong about it. Everyone seems to love it so much, and it’s considered cool to have one, but to me when everyone wants something, it loses it’s ‘cool’ appeal.

Anyway, back to the HTC phone. It runs Windows Mobile, which I was aprehensive about because everyone knows Nokia has the best usability and easiest navigation. However, once again, Windows exceeded my expectations! Windows Mobile 6 is great to use, the whole touch screen is really intuitive and even better, it makes me cooler than an iPhone user because not everyone has a HTC phone!

Me, a Windows fanboy? Never! Umm.

(sorry for the totally nerdy post guys!)

Miracle On 3rd Cross Street

One of the things you learn to live with in India is their love for noise. Any noise. As long as it’s loud. They are truly not content until whatever noise they are making is perforating ear drums within a 1km radius. In the cinema the walls, floors and seats vibrate with the sound. At temples, there are bells, drums and singers blaring out from 6am onwards.

Most of it you learn to deal with, for example I can almost sleep through the bells and drums coming from the temple opposite my apartment.

One of the other things you learn to live with is the frequent power cuts, which usually happen at the most inconvenient moments, like when you are taking a shower with water heated by the electric heater. Power cuts are a fact of life though, so you must put up with them.

This¬†morning was different though. Not satisfied with musical¬†instruments,¬†the temple decided¬†to rig up a¬†PA system right¬†outside¬†my bedroom and start playing old tamil¬†movie songs at full¬†volume. The female singers¬†in Tamil songs sing at a couple of octaves higher than a falsetto. I’m sure there have been occasions where the note goes so¬†high pitch you lose¬†it¬†for¬†a few seconds as is¬†goes¬†out¬†of¬†human hearing¬†before¬†coming¬†back¬†again. I’m sure this is beautiful music to people growing up listening to it but to the¬†people sleeping peacefully at 6am it’s quite torturous.

So, this kind¬†of ultra-sonic¬†noise is blaring¬†out¬†at 7am¬†on Sunday morning. Half¬†of me was relieved I decided¬†to¬†have¬†a quiet¬†night¬†in and didn’t¬†have¬†a hangover¬†to nurse¬†with this audible torture¬†going¬†on,¬†the other¬†half was praying to the Hindu¬†Gods (anyone that was listening would do) for a power cut to stop this painful music.

Well,¬†not¬†one for¬†believing¬†in miracles,¬†barely 5¬†minutes¬†after I¬†asked for¬†a¬†power cut, I was duly¬†granted¬†one and¬†peace and harmony¬†returned to the¬†streets of Chennai. Peace and harmony that admittedly¬†includes¬†the constant sound¬†of horns, drums,¬†bells, children shouting, planes flying¬†overhead,¬†men shouting¬†at¬†one¬†another,¬†building works and goodness knows what else. But at least there weren’t any ladies singing.