Monday, December 1, 2008

Prop 8, Karnataka and gay Nepal MPs

Like any good mainstream Californian, I’ve always felt strongly about sexual rights, but recently I’ve felt a lot more passionate about the issue as a basic human right. Maybe it’s the passing of Prop 8, maybe it’s the rampant homophobia I hadn’t been exposed to before. It was one thing in my predominantly Christian village in Kenya, where I expected people to be less educated or open-minded. It’s another in an urban center in India, a nation exploding with diaspora and Western influence. To see young people scoff at traditions like arranged marriage like they’re arcane vestiges of their parents’ generation, but hold tight to their anti-gay prejudices without questioning their origins, is something I can’t get used to despite knowing full well that this is not a phenomenon of the east.

This came to be even more front and center this morning when I read a press release about some recent events in Karnataka, the next state over. This brought back to mind so many images of the issues we worked against in the HIV fight in Kenya – stigmatization, misrepresentation of facts, deliberate deception… but for all my whining about corruption in Kenya, I never saw these types of actions carried out by the police. They were carried out by non-state players, churches, Western-backed NGOs, but never by the very government agency working to prevent misinformation and promote awareness. This reaches a whole new level of atrocity.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Recently a panel was held here (in Chennai, capital of the country’s most conservative state) featuring Sunil Pant, a member of Nepal’s parliament who is Asia’s first openly gay MP. Milk is coming out this week, although sadly not in India. The No on 8 campaign is finally waking up and taking some legal action, albeit a month late. And the realization that this is a battle that’s far from over, not just a “matter of time” as I had previously thought, has pushed me into a far higher level of awareness and incited my inclinations towards activism. As much as the comparison offends some communities, I do think of this as our generation’s version of the 1960s civil rights movement, and am starting to consider getting more proactively involved (hmm, next career move? stay tuned). If a few events like these can spur a straight, middle class white girl who’s experienced relatively negligible discrimination in her life to action, imagine what they can do for the rest of the population.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Decent local coverage and streaming video of the terror attacks here.

To me this one is particularly scary not just because of the scale of the attacks (as opposed to Delhi in September) or the targeting of foreigners. It's the indiscriminate shooting in train stations, the ambiguity of motive, and the impact it's actually having. The Delhi, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad blasts didn't receive this kind of coverage from the international press. There weren't hostages. The markets didn't close. They certainly didn't cause the death of the chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad, which may be the most scary so far.

I do sincerely hope, though, that this isn't considered a crisis just because of the involvement of foreigners, the threats against US and UK passport holders. The latest counts say 101 people have died, 6 of them foreigners. Let's remember that the other 95 deaths are just as tragic and despicable.

Night at the Museum, or, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Recently I’ve been on a touristy streak, having realized that I have lived in Chennai for 5 months and seen only a fraction of the city sights that a traveler would see in two days. So my friend Mike and I decided to take a tour of the Government Museum over the weekend.

You know those experiences that you can already hear yourself retelling (or writing in a blog) while you’re still going through them? This was one of them. The museum was a typical underfunded, poorly labelled government project with dozens of valuable ancient artifacts just lying around in open air, deteriorating and occasionally falling victim to petty vandalism. Some of the pieces (mostly religious carvings and writing slabs) were just slapped down on the floor and loosely covered with plastic. Others had been residing on window sills for so long that when the caretakers decided to “renovate” by giving the sill a fresh coat of paint, instead of removing and then replacing the slabs, they just painted around them and left the bottoms with an inch or so of bright blue paint. I kid you not.

But that’s not what made the story retellable. We also visited the “animals” section, which was more like a high school biology exhibit. Or as Mike would describe it, the Mütter Museum of medical oddities transplanted from Philadelphia to India. There were taxodermied displays of just about every animal on earth, from birds to tigers to fish (yes, taxodermied fish). To display the anatomy of certain animals, there were exhibits featuring the disembodied wings, tail and head of various birds. There were cheetah paws, just the paws, cut off at the elbow. There was a whole section on insects, complete with 50x models of dog ticks. My personal favorites included the displays on humans (one case showing the skulls of “man, horse and elephant,” another featuring a full human skeleton alongside a full horse skeleton, in a posture that would never have occurred in real life). Another favorite was a cat, split open all the way down its belly, floating in a jar of formaldehyde so you could see all its innards. Oh, and a Siamese twin pig fetus, also floating in formaldehyde.

But I still haven’t reached the climax of the story. We were so engrossed by the displays in the museum that we wanted to see more, and had the curator open up the door to the botany section (which clearly hadn’t been viewed for decades, not because it wasn’t open but because no one was interested) for us. There we found such treasures as algae floating in formaldehyde-like jars, except the preservative had evaporated halfway so the leaves were only partially submerged. Also a display of mosquito repellents over the years, progressing from a jar of eucalyptus oil to a tube of commercially manufactured bug cream.

We had been exploring this section of the museum for about 10 minutes when the power suddenly went out, leaving us in relative darkness (thank goodness for the glow of our cell phones). We decided this would be a good time to leave and headed for the exit. When we got to the door, however, we found it mysteriously closed. We messed around with it for a couple minutes until we realized it had been locked – from the outside. That’s right, we were trapped inside the museum. In the darkness.

We also heard some rustling around outside, so we banged on the door and yelled out. We promptly heard the rustling stop, and someone walk away. Then silence. Literally, a curator had heard us inside, continued locking up, and just walked away.

This is about when the panic started to set in – as much as I enjoy a good museum mystery, the dinner I was planning that night sounded like somewhat better company than the algae. We tested out a couple other doors to the room, to find all of them locked as well. Mike went to work on a window next to the entrance, and miraculously pried it open and looked out. His comment “it’s a little steep” was a bit of an understatement – it was a straight fall two flights down onto a winding staircase. I managed to convince him that wasn’t a good idea before we got a window to the courtyard open and started yelling through it. Finally someone heard us and came over, realized what the problem was, and disappeared to find the people in charge. Fifteen minutes, 6 security guards, a lot of yelling and lot of requests to “wait wait” later, the door was opened and we were released to freedom.

Mike would like it to be noted that we had found a way out on our own, in case the guards hadn’t found us. I would like it to be noted that the guards are idiots. We did, however, have many plans of what we were going to do if no one found us (break down the door with a stool, burn a hole through it with Mike’s lighter, swing through the window to a fire escape, take a bunch of stuff from the display cases and have a party all night just like Claudia and Jamie).

So for any others who decide to visit the Government Museum in Chennai – be aware, it closes at 5 and if you’re not out by then, you might be there all night.

Upon recounting this story to my roommate Ponnu, who happens to be a journalist, she (and subsequently her editor) found it entertaining enough to run in the paper. My debut in the Indian Express:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Boys playing with fire in French colonies

October 27th was one of the biggest holidays of the year in India – Diwali, the festival of lights. The nation celebrates this by making it temporarily legal to purchase just about any and all kind of fireworks, and set them off unregulated. Pretty great.

A few friends and I decided to celebrate this three day weekend by driving down to Pondicherry, a semi-autonomous former French colony about 3 hours south of Chennai. We packed five people plus a dog into a Hyundai hatchback and took off down the coast.

We ended up staying at a great half-hostel half-campsite elevated bungalow thing right on the coast in Auroville, the hippie colony neighboring Pondicherry town. This was particularly convenient because a) it cost about $15 for 5 people, and b) not only did the caretaker not mind my dog being there, but he liked her so much that he offered to trade the dog for the room fee. Unfortunately he was unaware of the effort that has been put into this dog.

After settling in our bungalow we headed into town. Our first stop was the reason most Chennaiites make the journey down to Pondicherry: because of its semi-autonomous status, the colony is not subject to the same alcohol laws as the rest of the state. We were able to stock up on coveted imported liquor, including French and Australian wine (sure to make our upcoming Thanksgiving feast far more pleasant).

Errands finished, we spent the rest of the weekend gluttonously stuffing our faces full of crepes, pasta and pizzas. To celebrate Diwali properly, we bought a 60-shot firework that looked like a huge car battery, dug a hole for it in the sand on the beach and set it off. (This was the brainchild of my crazy friends Mike and Raghu, who are exceedingly lucky that they didn’t lose any limbs.) My dog was not as amused as the rest of us.

We finished off the Festival of Lights by returning to Chennai in time to watch the celebrations in the city from a rooftop restaurant. It’s really an incredible sight, seeing fireworks erupting all over the city at random intervals, hearing sparklers and crackers on every block. You could never get an experience like this in the states. And admittedly, it is a very dangerous tradition – walking to the restaurant I almost walked into at least three crackers about to go off. But it was also a pretty amazing celebration.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Two work updates

1.) After initiating contact with the IT guy a mere two and a half months ago, a description of my program is finally up on my centre's website!

Please note that reading this is unlikely to actually help you obtain a better understanding of what I do... but one can always try.

2.) Our organization, and its many affiliates, are recruiting like crazy. There are a number of job descriptions up on our site, but there are lots of others available that aren't listed as well. There are jobs available in everything from environment to digital marketing to tourism to finance.

The most recent of these is that my group is starting to recruit to double our team (from 3 to 6), so I am now personally looking for people. If you, or anyone you know, are interested in moving to India for a year or two to work at a very exciting, sometimes disorganized, never boring development research & consulting organization, please let me know! The biggest advantages of working here, in my opinion, are that you have a lot of freedom to develop and mold your own projects, and that we have access to some of the most influential academic, government, corporate, and public sector names and organizations out there (in India and the US).

I'm hoping the financial crisis and subsequent unemployment will help me in my recruitment endeavor. ;) Job descriptions coming soon.

Monday, November 3, 2008


And also, watch this hilarity and customize it and send it to your friends. If you already got it from me, you're someone special (or maybe one of the 5 remaining people who still reads this blog).

For further entertainment, here is the story of my experience voting absentee from India.

In Chennai there's this wonderful group called Democrats Abroad that organizes events to help people register to vote, keep up to date about American politics, etc etc. They offer personalized advice on how to fill out your ballot and make sure you sign in all the right places and all that. (For the record they run nonpartisan events, but you run into very few people living in developing countries who are not Democrats.)

You'd think with a great organization like this, voting would be easy, right? Right.

So I registered to vote with Dems Abroad way in advance. And typically, my absentee ballot did not arrive. And did not arrive. And did not arrive. Fortunately, as it turns out, some dude in the 1970s came up with a great solution to this absentee ballot mailing problem and got Congress to institute the "Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot". The FWAB, as we absentee junkies like to call it, allows people who have registered to vote but haven't received their ballot to download a generic one off the web, fill it out, and send it in. So I did that. Yay, job done right?

But, there are all these weird county rules and it's very unclear whether
you're allowed to vote for local issues on the FWAB. Apparently there's actually a danger that if your county doesn't allow you to vote on local issues and you write in your votes for them anyway, your federal vote could be discounted. Since California is such a swing state, I didn't want to risk that, so I only voted federal. However this precluded me from having my say on things where my vote might actually make a difference, like Prop 8. Not so good.

By some stroke of miracle, a week or so later my absentee ballot showed up. I was positively floored. But it arrived on a Friday afternoon, and about 30 minutes later I received an email from my trusty Democrats Abroad group informing me that the next Monday was the last day to turn in absentee ballots to the Consulate to get them sent home. Unfortunately that Monday was Diwali, arguably the largest Indian holiday of the year, and our hardworking friends at the Consulate get both American and Indian holidays off. Plus, the Consulate website told me that citizen services were only open 9-12:30, so I was too late to submit my ballot that Friday. Sweet.

Fortunately, a call to the Consulate informed me that I could in fact submit the ballot on Tuesday and get it sent in time. So like the good informed voter I am, I called up my mom Tuesday morning and had her tell me what to vote for on all the local issues. (Kidding. Mostly. In CA you can vote for everything from animal rights to your high school superintendent, so there were a few things mom had to advise me on.) I then went to put my ballot in the envelope, seal sign and submit. You'd think the story would end there...

Gotta love India. My ballot envelope had glued itself together without the ballot inside, because the adhesive melted in the heat. I had to force it open to get the ballot in, which obviously made it look like it had been tampered with.

Another call to the Consulate. Apparently the way to get around this is to tape the envelope shut and sign over it, put it inside another envelope, and include a little note explaining that the ballot has not been tampered with. I didn't feel ridiculous at all typing up a professional business letter to my county registrar, explaining how the adhesive had melted my ballot shut in the south Indian heat.

As the icing on the cake, I finally went to the Consulate to submit my ballot. You can't take it inside the building because they don't allow sealed envelopes, and of course the people who work security at the entrance to the Consulate aren't experts in US voting procedures. You're supposed to personally put it in one of those fancy ballot boxes without anyone touching it or influencing you, right? Nope - they took it from me, shoved it through the metal detector, and dumped it in some generic box. I'm just hoping it was the US mail box, not the trash bin.

However, the point is I voted. So now everyone else better vote too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Muggle Empire

The eminent Kristian Lau and Ellie Smith were my first visitors in India last week! Okay, so they didn’t actually come to where I live, but they gave me a great opportunity to travel around the tourist spots of north India with them. We spent 10 days trotting around the forts and temples and rooftop cafes of
Rajasthan (the state west of Delhi).

Most of the noteworthy sites in Rajasthan were constructed during the 16th to 19th centuries by rulers of the Mughal Empire, a bunch of Persian imperialists who were patrons of culture and intellect when they weren’t busy imprisoning their own fathers and entertaining their concubines. When Kristian first learn
ed about the Mughals he couldn’t help but wonder aloud why the name sounded so familiar, until he realized it bore a striking resemblance to the non-wizarding communities of Harry Potter fame.

Every city in Rajasthan is different – has its own character, its own type of tourists, even its own color. We spent our first day in
Jodhpur, the “blue city”, named for the use of indigo dye in paint (people thought it was a pesticide). We walked around the beautiful Mehrangarh Fort on the hill overlooking the town (the unfortunate site of the deadly stampede a few days later), and made friends with the sellers of overpriced pashminas at Baba’s Art Emporium, where apparently Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie have also been duped into buying at a 300% markup.

From Jodhpur we went south to Udaipur, the most romantic city in India (a great place for three plutonic friends to visit together). The most remarkable feature of the city, which is reminiscent of Venice except for the rickshaws and cows in the street, is a massive island palace that’s been turned into a hotel and is now accessible only if you stay there or shell out $100 for a meal. Jerks. But we did take a boat ride to a similarly cool island with a similarly enchanting palace. We also toured through the City Palace which has 12 different palaces all with different motifs, saw a sweet traditional dance show where a lady balanced 12 jugs on her head, and hung out with an entrepreneur who had just opened a coffee shop near our hotel.

Next we went to Pushkar, an important city for Hinduism because it houses the only temple to Lord Brahma in all of India. Unfortunately the city has turned into a haven for drug-addicted ravers (a rave was raided and 50 people were arrested a few days before we got there), and the sacred lakes you can visit near the temple are swarming with fake priests who pressure you to give massive amounts of money to pray for the health of your family. It did, however, score us some big bindis (the Hindu marking placed on the forehead during prayer, in this case consisting of red powder and dried rice), which we were still wearing none too gracefully along with our dirty sweaty clothes when we arrived at the 5-star hotel we were staying at in our next stop, Jaipur. It wasn’t too surprising when the receptionist, encountering three grimy young adults claiming a reservation on a platinum card that included a free suite upgrade (Kristian has a lot of hotel points from work travel), asked for ID.

So basically Jaipur consisted of us taking advantage of the free Sheraton. We did manage to find some time between the pool and the steam room to see the “pink city”, one of the three points of the Golden Triangle of India (the other two being Delhi and the Taj Mahal). These included the City Palace (complete with a south Indian movie set), Amber Fort (site of the biggest cannon in India, an unusual tourist attraction), and the largest of five incredibly accurate observatories constructed by the Mughul ruler Jai Singh, called Jantar Mantar.

We left Jaipur a li
ttle later than expected (I blame the swimming pool) and consequently hadn’t quite reached our next destination, a remote tiger reserve, when we ran across a village protest around 10pm. The crowd (who knows what they were protesting) had dragged a tree across the road and weren’t letting any cars through. Our awesome driver, Chain, got tipped off that there was a way around the barricade through some dirt roads, which seemed like a great idea until we found ourselves at a fork with the options of getting our car stuck in some deep rivets or running into sleeping cows. We chose to turn around. Eventually we found our way around the protest though, and stumbled into our hotel (actually luxury tent camp) around 11pm. Which was great since we had a game drive at 6am.

Our trip to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve was well worth the adventure of getting there, though. On our afternoon drive we had an amazing sighting of a 300kg male tiger, aided by our jeep guide, who was clearly the alpha jeep guide (he tracked the tiger and informed all the other drivers). He also turned down my offer to sacrifice Kristian to the tigers as bait.

We finished our trip in Agra, where we got up at 6am (again) to catch the sunrise sighting of the Taj Mahal. The first clue that this was going to be a good visit was the fact that Kristian, Ellie and all other foreigners had to pay 750 rupees ($17) to get in, but as a “local” with an Indian tax ID card, I got in for 20 rupees. We had expected a crowded, touristy experience to an overhyp
ed monument, but to our surprise this one actually lived up to its reputation. This tomb, built by the Mughal Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favorite wife (imagine how the others must have felt) really did look like the most romantic building in the world. There’s a massive garden with a bunch of reflecting pools leading up to it, and two red marble mosques flanking it that are architectural wonders in their own right. The real thing, beautifully symmetrical and situated picturesquely along the banks of the Yamuna River, naturally took up about 80 photos on my camera.

If you want to come visit me here and see all these amazing things… too bad, I already saw them, you’ll have to see another part of India with me. Just kidding, but if I do go there again, you have to make sure I fit in an elephant ride.

The Long Road to Reunion

Warning, this is a long one… but, there are pictures at the end of it!

They always say the harder you work towards a goal, the sweeter the victory when you achieve it. The month of August was a poignant reminder of how true that is.

After much debate and reflection upon moving here, I decided to bring my dog to India from Kenya. I had been advised that it was a bad idea, Chennai wasn’t a dog-friendly city, but after seeing the pet I had raised from a puppy living off my Kenyan family’s table scraps (as is the fate of only the lucky dogs in Africa) I decided that her life would be better with me in India than alone in Kenya. I also decided to suck it up and pay the exorbitant cost of hiring an agent to go to my village, get my dog, bring her back to Nairobi, get all the necessary vaccinations and paperwork done, and ship her to India.

It turns out this process was just the tip of the iceberg. To start with, when I called my Kenyan brother up to let him know the agent would be coming to collect my baby, his reaction was “hmm, that might be a problem.” My dog had been in heat the week before, and was now pregnant again! (She had 6 puppies in February.) I got a hint at the panic a mother must feel when she finds out that her teenage daughter has gotten knocked up.

Of course, a pregnant dog can’t travel any more than a pregnant mother can, and neither Kenya nor India need any more puppies that can’t be taken care of. So my agent got her spayed in Nairobi (which also aborted the pregnancy). After a week of recovery, she was ready to go. My agent mentioned that I should check into the clearance procedures for imported animals at the airport, thinking I might have to get a couple forms in advance. Little did I know what a nightmare that would be… India, as it happens, is even more of a bureaucratic nightmare than Kenya.

The quarantine office requires you to produce a bunch of papers (arbitrarily decided depending on the mood of the quarantine officer) in person in order to receive a “no-objection certificate” to collect the dog at customs. However, the quarantine office is located an hour and a half outside the city and is open 10-5 on weekdays. Having recently gone through the process of getting my visa registered at the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office, I had an idea of where this was going. At the FRRO, the list of papers required by a given foreigner changes on a daily basis, is extraordinarily confusing and inefficient, and requires the average foreigner to go and wait in line a minimum of 3 times (10 times is not unusual) in order to get through the whole procedure. The FRRO is only 5 minutes from my office and nearly made me tear my hair out; I had no interest in dealing with the same hassle at an office 1.5 hours from me and subsequently going bald.

After multiple phone arguments with the quarantine officer and consultations with various vets and cargo shippers, I begrudgingly paid another exorbitant fee to hire an agent to get me through the clearance process (ie pay the necessary bribes to the necessary people) on the Indian side. From then I thought I was good to go. How wrong I was.

My Kenyan agent booked the dog on an Air India flight direct from Nairobi to Chennai. We were all surprised that they had direct flights. It turns out they don’t – it was actually a flight from Nairobi to Mumbai. After that annoyance she switched the reservation to Emirates Airlines. Now she was booked to fly through Dubai, which has a good reputation for animal handling. However, the Dubai airport requires three days of processing for a transit permit, and doesn’t do processing on Sundays… and the health certificate they need in order to process the transit permit is only good for four days. On top of this, Dubai requires a dog to have a microchip in order to be held in transit. Neither Kenya export nor India import require a microchip, so shelling out another $75 to ship the dog through Dubai seemed illogical. So a week and many expletives between my Kenyan agent and the Emirates guy later, the dog was back on Air India. This time they gave us the correct flight details, with a 6 hour layover in Mumbai.

This whole process took over a month from when my dog was originally picked up in my village. While I, my Kenyan agent, my Indian agent and multiple airline personnel were developing ulcers and popping blood vessels, my pup was blissfully unaware, hanging out in the kennel with other dogs and working steadily towards fattening herself up on proper dog food. Dogs are also amazingly resilient – so at the beginning of September, she finally arrived at my doorstep, unscathed and none the worse for wear!

Malaika is now a happy member of our apartment family (which for a little while was 6 people and a dog in a 3BR flat). She seems to be adjusting well to the new environment, intrigued by the new smells and only getting mildly sick a couple times (much like humans adjusting to India). She even participated in our housewarming party a couple weeks ago, flirting with all the guys and intimidating the girls. She’s the most international street dog I’ve ever met, having lived on two continents in 1.5 years, and I hadn’t realized how many things would be new to her after growing up in a village (beaches, auto rickshaws, staircases…).

It’s also clear that this dog was meant to come to India someday. When my roommates asked what her name was, I was about to launch into an explanation of what “Malaika” means in Swahili, when they cracked up. “Why did you give her an Indian name??” Malaika means angel in not only Swahili and Luo, but Hindi too. It’s the name of a famous model here, and there’s a song named after her. Clearly this was fate.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More bad news

I'm on vacation in Rajasthan, north India right now. It's great. Full update and pictures to come, but...

Horribly sad news. Every time there is a celebration here there seems to be a risk. We were in Jodhpur three days ago, visiting this massive old fort on a hill there - really fantastic site. This morning, on the first day of the annual Navaratri Festival (also called Durga Puja), the crowd waiting to enter one of the temples in the fort turned into a stampede as the gates were opened. Over 140 people died of suffocation, according to official reports. This follows another stampede on a hillside temple in Maharashtra a month ago, when 160 people died. The tragedy is that much more in our faces because we were JUST there.

Slightly fuller story here:

I don't mean to keep posting upsetting news on my blog, but I'm guessing that news from the east rarely makes it into the western papers.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I went to Sri Lanka over India’s independence day weekend. Because that’s what you do when you live in South Asia – you hop over to Sri Lanka for the weekend.

As with most tropical island weekend trips, it was pretty spectacular. To answer the questions of
those who follow world news, no, it was not dangerous. We stayed away from the north and northeast where the Tamil Tigers are fighting the Sri Lankan army (long, sad story) and generally avoided Colombo, where large parts of the city are on lockdown. Instead, we rented a van and driver and spent a day each on three activities: a beach, a hill station and a rock fortress.

We found a resorty little village on the southwest coast with a nam
e I can’t get enough of: Unawatuna. It sounds like something you’d say in Swahili, except that “kutuna” isn’t a verb (although it should be – to tuna? What better word could there be?). We bunked up at the first guest house we found right on the beach, and spent the day lounging and swimming and body surfing and getting $6 beachfront massages. We ate and drank our way through the closest restaurant to the guest house, and went out for the local Arrack liquor that night. The next morning we explored this cool old Portuguese/Dutch fort in the neighboring town of Galle. This was one of those days that made me wonder, no, seriously contemplate, why I haven’t yet decided to leave it all behind to set up a B&B on some idyllic white sand beach and while away my days in paradise.

I contemplated this even more the next day when we got up early to leave paradise and embark on a 10-hour journey inland to the hill city of Kandy. After a set of roads reminiscent of my days in Kenya, we arrived just in time to cram ourselves into the crowd that had amassed to view the climax of the Perahera Festival. Like typical ignorant tourists, we hadn’t realized that we had come to Sri Lanka during the weekend of this event, also known as the Tooth Festival. Kandy is the site of a very famous and sacred temple in Buddhist tradition, where they house what they think is one of Buddha’s teeth. Every year they parade the relic around the city with grand fanfare, to the tune of 80 adorned elephants and countless traditional dancers, saber spinners, and fire throwers on stilts among other performers. It was quite a spectacle, and well worth leaving the beach behind.

On Day 3, we went a little farther north to check out Sigiriya, the site of a 1st century rock fortress. Some king built his palace on top of a huge rock overlooking his kingdom for many miles around – an even better strategy than mountaintop and shoreside forts, if you ask me. The ruins still remain, complete with an inner and outer moat, fountain garden, terrace garden and wall frescos (which I assume have been redone). It may have been a tourist trap, but it was still a 2,000-year-old tourist trap.

Did I mention the seafood? After 3 days full of prawns and crab in every meal, it was difficult to get on the plane back to Chennai. Especially difficult when the 1:00am flight was delayed 2.5 hours, getting us home at 6am Monday morning. This is extreme weekend travel at its best.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Two hours south of Chennai, by public bus, is a sweet little temple-filled town called Mahabalipuram (ten points if you’re not Indian and have never been to India and can pronounce that). I went to check it out a few weeks back with my friend Mike.

My first experience with public transportation in India was a far cry from the speed racer matatu mini bus death traps of Kenya, but it was an experience all of its own. We were pretty psyched to discover that the bus was leaving just as we got to the station so we wouldn’t have to wait… until we realized that it was leaving because all the seats were full, and we had to stand, packed like sardines among dozens of other people, for the entire 2 hour ride.

It was worth it once we got there though. Right along the beach there is this fabulous ancient temple, the main attraction of the town. Europe, I see your 16th century cathedrals and raise you a 7th century Hindu temple. The temple is surrounded by a wall of protective stone rams and contains a few hard-to-see but intriguing sculptures inside, including a reclining Vishnu (one of the three gods in the Hindu Trinity).

Then we spent about an hour walking around this vast park within the town that I like to call The Big Ancient Rock Playground. It is essentially a set of massive granite slabs that you wander around and randomly bump into really old shrines and reliefs carved into the stone. My favorite was a massive oval rock egg perched precariously on a heavily sloping rock slab. Not sure what the significance was, but it was pretty fun to take pictures with it.

Incidentally, last Saturday I revisited this little seaside town and experienced the other side of Mahabalipuram: local shopping, mopeds for rent, open roads and restaurants that serve drinks (which Chennai does not). I even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to ride a motorcycle down a narrow side alley. It was a far cry from temples and granite sculptures, but equally worthwhile.