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.