So now to sum up my India experience in one measly posting. Good thing I have a 4-hour layover in the Chennai Airport to work on it… This will be part journal entry, part meditation and part travelogue, so if you actually read this and aren’t liking a paragraph, maybe just skip to the next to find something more to your liking, or just take a peek at the pics…

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My experience in India has been in some senses just as I expected: completely overwhelming, befuddling, momentarily infuriating, often inspiring and always thought-provoking. It’s been a bunch of stuff I haven’t expected at all as well. With the uncertainties in my travel schedule (the troubles in Thailand, mostly) I considered re-organizing my trip to spend more time traveling around India but decided that the chill and easy-going environment in Thailand and other parts of SE Asia better suited my plans for a relaxing and relatively low-stress trip (though I still have some challenge in mind, more on that in a bit). However I’m definitely intrigued by my little peek at India and like I’ll definitely be drawn back here to see more of it during my lifetime.

From India and Malaysia

First off, I have to give big thanks to my gracious hosts and friends in Delhi: former-friend-of-friend, now-friend and inspirational dude Tak who gave me a comfortable and homey place to lay my head and showed me around town in a way only an experienced Delhi resident could; Conor and Rebecca are amazing travel and work and exploration partners; and their current host Suparna very graciously opened up her home to me when I crash landed in Delhi late at night a few weeks ago. I’m continually thrilled and thankful for the people I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from in my recent travels – I’m a lucky guy. Ok, on to India…

I have mostly stayed in Delhi during my time in India, with a few side trips outside the city. Delhi is in every sense a mega-city. The population is somewhere around 16 million people and the city has air pollution like I’ve never experienced. It truly puts how good we have it in most of North America and Europe in terms of all aspect of infrastructure and public health into perspective. On an annual average basis, air pollution levels in Delhi are something like 10-20 times worse than standards allow in the US (and most places – even really dirty areas like LA and Houston and-I-can’t-think-of-any-other-place-like-maybe-somewhere-in-the-rustbelt hover a little above the standards. In more accessible (if disgusting) terms, every day was a black-booger day for me in Delhi… I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been studying this stuff, but the experience really is oppressive and the impacts obvious. It’s all I could do to keep myself from calculating the minutes ticking off my life expectancy. On the other hand, the levels of poverty, lack of housing (people sleep on the streets _everywhere_), child welfare programs (the kids on the street are heart-wrenching), education, sanitation, etc. etc. make the air pollution -as everywhere- just one in long list of problems waiting to be worked on. Making sense of or progress on any of these problems seems daunting to say the least, but it’s an important reminder to me that these things move in increments and that there’s only dynamic.

I suppose something about India that really struck me hard both in my explorations of cultural and historical sites and also in thinking about issues of ‘development’ (which almost sounds like a dirty word to me by now, but I’ll use for brevity) is the heavy weight and presence of History here. Maybe it’s because there is relatively so little historical continuity in the US (the ‘way things are’ for most of us – with important exceptions of course- can only be traced back a generation or at most century or two) or it’s just striking because this is such a vastly different and new-to-me culture, but the weight and influence of the past and the established order (or disorder in some cases?) seems absolutely pervasive here. And since I firmly believe that ‘context is everything’ it makes thinking about things like air pollution and climate change that are supposedly ‘technical’ issues without considering these aspects to be kinda ludicrous. I already probably thought that, but this trip (all of it) has made it tangible and has given me the slightest inkling of some of the aspects involved in these problems which are frankly quite daunting and humbling; to think that I may in any small way be able to contribute to solutions to such problems seems crazy, but I’ll still try… It makes me really grateful and excited that I’m doing work in an inter-disciplinary setting where this complexity is recognized and appreciated. The importance of transferring some of the progress and helping avoid some of the mistakes more-developed nations have made/are making is clear. How that might be done not as much… The conference I attended in Bangkok showed me one way in progress may be made – through the exchange of ideas and capability in an open, international setting, but how these kind of things get put into play is still largely mysterious to me…

Anyhow, some India stories:

As shown in the previous photo set, Rebecca and I explored the labyrinthine alleys of Chandni Chowk (thanks for the pointer Subu), and she and Conor and I visited the Jama Masjid and climbed one of its massive towers for a view of Delhi and it’s haze (ok, ok, enough air pollution).

Tak took me on a range of late-night adventures in Delhi, largely seemingly built around the procurement of Delhi’s finest ‘street meats’. I really never felt threatened while in Delhi, even late at night. That said, I probably wouldn’t have ventured out quite as much without Tak’s company and assurance that he’d never had any problems.

We went to Karim’s, a (rightly) famous curry joint back in an alley in Old Delhi for some incredible mutton curry, kebabs and an almond chicken dish which was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. After feasting, we went on a late night stroll around Old Delhi looking for the outlines of the havelis (old mansion-like estates) that were divided, built-upon and destroyed in the slow transformation of Old Delhi from the realm of the elite to the rambling maze of alleys, shops and residences that it is today. We also happened across a 2-century-old Masjid (Muslim temple) built atop one of these old buildings, supposedly by the wife of a famous musician, which the night watchman let us in to see (wandering with an adventurous Hindi-speaker has huge perks…). We also happened across a nearly half-city-block-square gathering of marigold venders who’d presumably brought their wares into the city to outfit the multitude of weddings happening in this favorable season.

A night or two later, we took another late-night jaunt to a BBQ joint in Nizamuddin (a historically Muslim area near his house) which is just a concrete slab that serves as an auto-tire shop during the day but makes tasty, tasty kebabs and biryani (flavored rice) and amazing rotis for the late-night crowd. On the night we were there they couldn’t serve at tables because the municipal elections were the next day, but we took it to go and sat on some steps and feasted. The kebabs were so tender that they were almost creamy and were made with a recipe supposedly developed for a king with bad teeth. From here, we went strolling and ended up at a Sufi shrine at around midnight. The tomb of a famous Sufi saint Nizamuddin is one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world and a big source of religious pilgrims. It is also a pilgrimage site for destitute people begging alms because of Nizamuddin’s and Sufi’s dedication to giving to those in need, and was probably the most extreme exposure to poverty I had during my trip. I could write a whole other entry on my mental processing this exposure, and Tak and I had an interesting conversation on the internal conflicts that grip you in it. I’m still digesting it. This visit was incidentally on the evening of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

For Thanksgiving, Tak got Conor, Rebecca and I invited to a Thanksgiving potluck on a rooftop in a nearby neighborhood in Delhi. What can I say? All the traditions: turkey, mashed potatoes (I made half of ‘em), stuffing, cranberry sauce, beer, wine, tequila (?), drunken Australian shadow puppets (??), the Irish penguin shuffle (???). Ok, maybe not so traditional, but a good time was had by all (see the slideshow above for evidence) and I got to meet some really interesting people. If any of you are looking for a ski holiday in Kashmir, let me know, I met just the people to hook you up…

From India and Malaysia

A final jaunt with Tak was a late-night bike ride throughout Delhi – we figured we probably covered 20 to 30 miles between 9 pm and around 1 am and I got to see a bunch of the big tourist areas (India Gate, Connaught Place, the backpacker’s neighborhood) astride Tak’s Surly Crosscheck. This also involved a visit to a late night kebab joint and some heavy-duty (Indians and Irish both love their butter – something I learned on this trip) veggie curries. I loooove riding my bike in the city! Great fun! (and I won’t mention the air pollution!) This reminded me (How did I forget? I don’t know.) that a bicycle really is my favorite way to travel, so I’ve reworked the plans a little bit so that now I’m planning on doing around 2-3 weeks of bike touring in Northern Thailand, Laos and maybe Vietnam… I’ll have to keep y’all posted on that.

Peter (a guy I met at the conference in Bangkok and then met up with again with in Ko Samet in Thailand. He was passing through Delhi (where he’d lived for a year as a young teenager) so we met up and went to Humayun’s Tomb, an amazing site and an architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal (which I didn’t quite make on this trip…). Peter’s a Vancouverite, so I made a Canadian friend in Thailand and India!

From India and Malaysia

This past weekend, Conor and Rebecca and I took a trip around 200 km north of Delhi to a town on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas called Rishikesh, which is sort of a new-age / yoga magnet in India. It’s a beautiful setting and we had a nice relaxing time (in clean air!), did some yoga, made a fairly strenuous hike up one of the mountains to a Hindu shrine (but didn’t quite make it for lack of day light) and did some gift shopping. From Rishikesh, we took a taxi down to Roorkee, which is a site of an Indian Institute of Technology campus (IIT-R) where Conor and I went to visit with some potential collaborators and I gave an impromptu research talk to some (hopefully) interested researchers. The IIT campus was the first technical college built by the English in India and has a beautiful campus and placid feel, the people there were great hosts and we had some interesting conversations.

From India and Malaysia

A bit of excitement on the way to Rishikesh in a bus. We pulled up to a traffic jam in a small village and all of the sudden saw a bunch of guys running across the field next to the road with guns and started hearing gunfire right near the bus. The three of us ducked our heads and started moving towards the aisle, a tad freaked out. But a guy sitting next to us assured us that everyone outside the bus was smiling and laughing, so we shouldn’t worry. We then saw them carrying some other guy in gunny sack. Practical joke? Police training? Not sure, but a few days after the Mumbai attacks it was enough to get us jumpy…

From India and Malaysia

POST-SCRIPT (from Chiang Mai, Thailand where I’m finally getting a chance to post this): Upon reflection, some of my writings/observations about my time in India seem a bit trite and maybe naive. But, I’ll let it stay as is and if you’ve gotten this far, and have comments/criticisms/counterpoints, please don’t be shy…