Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It's Starting Already...

Holy crow, I cannot tell you how much I want a burrito from La Sirenita on Alberta at... 28th? And that is not because I'm not a very good writer, it's because I want it so badly, which is to say I want it in the worst way. Oy.

I just want the chicken burrito, with the black beans. I'll add the green salsa bite by bite. I know they use lard. I know my stomach hurts if I eat two of them in the same week.

How much are they now? $3.25? I know I remember when they were $2.25 and I could eat 5 in a week. Remember sanding the floors at DZ's house that summer? We slept in beds 10 feet from each other in the basement, ate burritos for lunch, and refinished those floors for weeks. I hallucinated. But those burritos.

Poem #9 and #10: "Parting at a Wine Shop" and "Wind and Rain"

Parting at a Wine-shop in Nan-king
A wind, bringing willow-cotton, sweetens the shop,
And a girl from Wu, pouring wine, urges me to share it.
With my comrades of the city who are here to see me off;
And as each of them drains his cup, I say to him in parting,
Oh, go and ask this river running to the east
If it can travel farther than a friend's love!

Li Po (701-762)

(Nice to imagine this actually occurring…)

(Buuut... sometimes this is more like it)

Wind and Rain
I ponder on the poem of The Precious Dagger.
My road has wound through many years.
... Now yellow leaves are shaken with a gale;
Yet piping and fiddling keep the Blue House merry.
On the surface, I seem to be glad of new people;
But doomed to leave old friends behind me,
I cry out from my heart for Shin-feng wine
To melt away my thousand woes.

Li Shang-yin (812?- 858)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Admin Note

Sorry to all who have made comments and haven't seen them post! I turned on some ultra-high security feature that wouldn't let comments post until I approved them, due to some earlier spam. I remember doing that. I thought I had also asked to be notified whenever there was a comment via email, but I guess I didn't.

Imagine my surprise upon finding some 30 comments waiting for my approval on a heretofore never used part of the Blogger dashboard. Heheh... sorry! Anyway, they're all up now. Double-super apologies to one VDub in Austin, to whom I owe an email.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blog. Thanks!


With a rush and a great gasp of air, I emerge from my blogless existence! Whew. I think I experienced one (short) lifetime in my trip to Chennai, which was colorful, eyebrow raising, slightly sickening, educational, and, well, fun. Of course, I spent most of my time doing consular work on the visa line (or "counselor" work, as a few folks there say for some reason). But I also managed to collect some impressions of greater Chennai, of nearby Pondicherry, and of similarly nearby but way "out there" Auroville. What a great trip.

As a quick introduction, Chennai is one of India's 'Big 4' cities, the others being Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), and Kolkata (Calcutta). I've been to only Delhi and Chennai, with a trip to Mumbai looming in the near future. While India has historically been a country of villages, urbanization continues to accelerate. As this occurs, more and more focus is on city life and culture. All four cities are being connected by the 'Golden Quadrilateral'freeway project, and so are increasing their pull as centers of cultural gravity. Each of the Big 4 has its own character (and partisans, natch). I confess that as an American, I think of these cities in analogous American terms - to me Delhi is Wash DC, Mumbai is a combo of New York and L.A., Calcutta is kind of like Atlanta, and Chennai is, well, Seattle?

I think of Chennai as "Seattle-like" not only because of the southern Indian tech boom, but because it actually feels like a walkable city, unlike Delhi. Where Delhi is built for parades and imperial splendor, Chennai has a certain small town flavor to it. Some would say there's little to do in Chennai, but I had the feeling I could walk around downtown and find all kinds of restaurants, shops, trinkets, whatever. Like a Northwest US city, it has narrower roads, storefronts flush against the street, and something that felt almost like a grid system. Contrast this again with Delhi, which has clusters of markets, most of which need to be driven to, and wide streets that invite comparisons to Frogger.

Another great thing about Chennai was that it constantly threw me for a loop; I couldn't decide whether I thought it was an incredibly urban island in India or a center of cultural conservatism. Of course, it's both, and it's going through the same growing pains as the rest of India, only perhaps more vibrantly and palpably. For example, when you first drive into downtown Chennai, it is impossible not to be struck by all the billboards everywhere. They are stacked horizontally and vertically, advertising everything from movies to travel to cellphones to air cleaners. So urban! Can it be that so many Indians are now buying Moto Razr cellphones and Tommy Hilfiger clothes? I think this fellow to the right wants both - just another commuter writing SMS messages on his cellphone in traffic. But just when I was ready to proclaim Chennai decidedly urban and Western, I started noticing all the 'pocket temples' everywhere. In the middle of a traffic circle, next to a business or restaurant, wherever, these temples spring up. They are all ornate, packed with figurines, and in technicolor. Similarly, as I experienced when I was in Kerala, folks I talked to seemed more culturally conservative. Temples seem more populated, more women wear saris and more men wear lunghis or dhotis. So at the end of the day, Chennai is just Chennai. I wish I had had more time to just wander around and meet people.

Visas, Visas, Visas
Anyway, Chennai baptism complete, I actually had some work to do. I arrived in my suit and tie on Monday morning to the consulate. Now, people have varying opinions of the Embassy architecture in Delhi. It's grand, ornate, just plain big, and of course is the basis for the Kennedy Center in DC. Some people like it and some people think its an anachronism and a white elephant. But it is clearly an embassy. This was my first trip to a consulate, and, well, let's just say it's not an example of grand architecture, or the Raj, or anything else. It looked more like a concrete fortress to me.

Inside, however, the people were very warm and friendly, and work hummed along. Unlike in New Delhi, where there's so much political and economic work to be done, here non-immigrant visas are pretty much the name of the game. Chennai is far and away the #1 issuer in the world of non-immigrant visas for workers in specialty occupations (H1B visas) and intra-company transfer visas for specialized knowledge professionals (L1 visas), and the demand is only growing. Said another way, all those computer folks Thomas Friedman and everyone else talks about are coming from India, and most from Southern India. It is a crushing load, honestly, and the people in Chennai are on the front lines. Sometimes it feels like you're on the Starship Enterprise, a floating outpost thousands of miles from the mother ship. The Chennai section gets cases no one else gets, by the hundreds, and as a result they have a work culture that feels slightly insular and definitely battle-tested. They have taken the lead in setting best practices associated with "Hs" and "Ls" because they've seen things noone else sees. It can feel a bit like the Wild West down here. But it was a pleasure working with all of them; they really know their stuff.

The only unpleasant part, really, of working in Chennai was that they have an astoundingly bad mold/mildew problem. I think I am slightly allergic to mold, so I'm more sensitive to it, but I was bowled over by the air quality. You can see black streaks coming from the air vents and there are veins of mold on some of the walls and ceilings. Yikes! In many places, you can also see where they have "solved" the problem by painting over the mold. Hmm, perhaps not the best long-term solution, eh? I spent my two weeks continuously coughing, but luckily it wasn't serious. I hate feeling fragile, but they have got to do something about the air quality there. If anyone knows how to solve mold problems, let me know and I'll forward it along.

French Flying Saucers
Ok, so work was illuminating, and Chennai's a funky town. Cool. But what did I really take away from my trip down south? There are some crazy people down here, that's what. I had a pretty extraordinary weekend taking in the weird French-Indian hybrid town of Pondicherry, and then seeing the exponentially weirder Auroville. Gosh, I loved that place.

First, Pondicherry. For history on Pondicherry, go here. Suffice it to say that for some 150 - 200 years, Pondicherry was part of French India, and many people there still hold French passports. It officially became a part of India in 1963. My friend Araucana and I stayed at Le Dupleix, a wonderful, restrained hotel that for some reason seemed slightly more Swedish than French to me, but what do I know? Our room was bathed in dark wood, had incredibly high ceilings, and was really quite genteel. Others might say "old," but I'd rather be in a place like Le Dupleix than some of the hyper-modern, characterless places out there. So yes, it was old yuppy, not nouveau-yuppy. Now, the restaurant experience I had there was abysmal, but besides that I would recommend it in a hearbeat. It was designed by the person responsible for HiDesign, a leather (bag) company with a weird, fetishistic, funny website. (Check out the intro.) This fellow's also just finished a newer place called the Promenade, but it looked too flashy.

Araucana and I wandered around Pondicherry, which honestly does feel different from the rest of India. They clearly have some hardcore zoning and design standards here. The buildings are all whitewashed, and there are a number of nice cafes. Unfortunately, the one we picked was only ok. I was dreaming of good coffee, but the poor folks at "Le Cafe" fell into the trap of confusing "good" with "astoundingly bitter and brackish." (See, we are yuppies!) But the atmosphere was very pleasant, and that more than made up for my slightly dented coffee expectations.

Now, here I have a confession to make. Well, two. The first is that I've neglected to talk about the wonderful temples we saw at Mamallapuram, including the shore temples. They are great, and old, some 13 centuries old. They are part of a chain of temples across India, and their style is the same as temples found in Cambodia. They are fascinating for their quality and for their theology. I have some nice pics if anyone wants to see them. Anyway, I just don't have the energy right now to go into this part of the trip. The second confession is that we were going to go see Chidambaram, the mother of all technicolor temples. It's been recently refinished, and is even more awesome now. But we didn't go see it. Instead, we went to Auroville, and I am so pleased we did.

Oh, Auroville. Where to start? I had never heard of this place before. In short, it is a UNESCO-sanctioned international peace city of 1800 people that is trying to create heaven on earth, a peaceful, reforested, harmonious, the-divine-dwells-within-each-of-us kind of place. And it's got a gigantic buckyball temple in the middle covered with gold discs and the world's largest crystal ball in the middle. Yes! I know, sign me up, right? I could not have made this place up, it was so perfect.

Auroville was the brainchild of two people, I believe, Sri Aurobindo and a woman known as "the Mother". The Mother was French, born in the late 1800s, who claimed to be clairvoyant, into the occult, and in touch with the divine. Her book On the Mother (by the Mother) details her life growing up. She knew when she was 14 that she was really the Mother, and she knew she was called to India to begin showing people how to become in touch with the supramental. By the 1960s, they decided that she would begin to make a place on earth oriented toward human self-perfection, based on spiritual harmony. To me, it sounds like she was born right into the middle of the fin-de-siecle interest in the occult, egyptian mythology, etc, and she internalized it and lived it. With an international group of young folks, I would guess hippies, in 1968 they started Auroville in the dusty plains outside Madras. Today, there are 1800 people, 2/3 of them westerners and 1/3 Indians, building according to the plan for an international peace city for 50,000.

Araucana and I spent the better part of a day checking the place out. It is huge, and not really designed for tourists, although they have a nice information center. We watched a video, bought some literature (amazing), read about the great reforestation work they are doing (they've planted 2 million trees I think), and then we visited the Matrimandir, aka the buckyball. I think Matramandir means Temple for the Mother. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in that day. Total bummer. I think they were replacing the gold-plated (real gold) discs on the outside of the temple, so we couldn't go in. Here are two pics, one of the work in progress on the temple, and another of the crystal inside. So amazing, and not at all tongue-in-cheek.

Part of me was really taken with the place and their aims. It feels very peaceful (see the rocks above, natch), is full of artists (mostly fairly well-off I think), and most of all it's interesting to see what happens when a group of people decide to make one geographic area their focus. And sure, it's silly, new-agey, and vaguely cult-like in terms of its adoration of the Mother, but how wild to meet a bunch of people that committed to these ideals. Good for them! And they had great food - great organic vegetables, good tofu lasagna, a surprisingly good spirulina honey drink. I would love to go back again and spend a couple of weeks there, just to understand the mentality of the kind of person who decides to live there. When you go to live there, you are first a Guest, then if you commit to join, a Newcomer for 2 years, then finally an Aurovillian. Fascinating. Who are these people, I wonder, and how much does the ideology of Auroville take over their lives? Are they artists interested in self-perfection and spirituality, or are they kooks infatuated with crystals and the supramental? I would love to find out. And eat their food.

Back in Delhi
But all that will have to wait for a while. I'm back in Delhi, with much work staring me in the face. It's Sunday noon now, and I need to venture out and re-engage with my town. I'm behind on poems, too, which means I'm not keeping pace with my New Year's Resolutions. More soon.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


This is a very common ad in India. There are ads in the newspapers, billboards on the streets, and commercials on TV with snappy jingles. This one is pitched toward men, but there are many for women. The ones that strike me the most are the ones oriented toward mothers of infants. Mothers are encouraged to lighten their child's skin as early as possible, so that the child will grow up to be fair. In Bollywood movies, the love songs often extoll the heroine's beauty, including how fair she is.

I think it's got to be a very mild bleach?

What can you do? It's not my culture, after all. And I'm sure I don't understand all the cultural reasons why this occurs here. It could be lingering cultural impacts of caste society / Brahminism or the legacy of the Aryan invasions, but it is interesting from my POV to find it in yet another culture. Interesting, and sad.


In other news, I'm going down to Chennai (aka Madras) tomorrow for two weeks. I'll report when I'm back, if not before. I'm not sure what kind of web access I'll have while I'm there (gulp), at least in terms of blogging. But I hope to take some good pictures of temples and of southern living generally. More soon!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Monday, March 06, 2006

Nukes, No Nukes

Good NYTimes article on the implications of Bush's visit to India and Pakistan.

And here's another piece that asks whether the nuclear deal with India is smart or reckless.

The more I think about it, the more I think this is a good deal, because it points toward international dialogue as the way to decide who should be recognized as a valid nuclear weapon country. For me, this whole India process has exposed what an unwieldy tool the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is, and how unstable the treaty's foundations really are.

Said another way, many people object to India being recognized as a nuclear weapons state because it undermines the effectiveness of the NPT. But when you look at it, under the NPT, membership in the club of nuclear weapons countries is determined solely by who got there first, which hardly seems an adequate criterion. It's not about democracy or record of peacefulness.

Now, the NPT has spawned good tools for slowing proliferation (i.e. IAEA inspections), which is a very good thing. But by itself the NPT is a poor substitute for international dialogue on who should or should not be a nuclear weapon country.

And while the NPT may have slowed nonproliferation, it clearly hasn't stopped it. Now we have all these cases of states that have some degree of nuclear weapon capability, and under the binary model of the NPT, we can only say "No. Bad. No nukes for anyone after 1970." Unfortunately, this shackles the international community from effectively dealing with those countries in gray areas (Israel, India, and Pakistan, to name three) or those in almost black areas (North Korea and Iran). Shouldn't the international community be able to say, "you and you are ok, provided you take these steps, but you guys over here are going the wrong way."

Additionally, as long as the NPT is the sole treaty governing nonproliferation and disarmament, it will only underline the power imbalance between nuclear haves and have-nots, much to the chagrin of the have-nots. This situation galvanizes a number of the "have-not" countries to develop nuclear weapons technology (by any means necessary) because they perceive they will then be taken seriously and/or seen as a "great" power.

So perhaps it's right to say inspections are good, nonproliferation is good, but change happens and we're going to talk about it. That would also give the international community flexibility to apply different kinds of sanctions for different countries.

Perhaps the best lesson of the U.S. / India nuclear agreement should be that the world needs to start talking about nuclear disarmament. If the only nukes that existed were for energy supply and all parts sold were registered with the IAEA, period, then the use of centrifuges, etc could be more easily tracked. I believe the Atlantic Monthly said that AQ Khan was able to construct Pakistan's program because there were so many dual-use technologies around and he took advantage of gray areas. We need to get to a place where all nuclear facilities are inspected, because all are solely for civilian purposes, and there are fewer of these gray areas.

(By the way, as ever, all these opinions are strictly my own rambling thoughts, and they are not connected in any way with U.S. State Department policy. I'm speaking only as a citizen trying to understand the world.)

Now, the next question: what is Congress going to say? I think they'll go along, just based on what the newspapers here are saying. Anyone disagree?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Poem #8: Mad Farmer's Love Song

O when the world's at peace
and every man is free
then will I go down unto my love

O and I may go down
several times before that.

- Wendell Berry

I'll take a dozen.

"Where decisions are made, the Vice-Consul exceeds the comfort confidence."

Beautiful. I don't know what this means, and I think the ad copy was written by someone who speaks fluent english, so it's even more of a bonus. But certainly I like to think that I exceed the comfort confidence. Indeed, I would march smartly in these "vice consuls". Hail Rockport, maker of fine shoes.

And yet, what the heck do they mean? Is that confidence as in to exude confidence? Or is it more like when one is taken into one's confidence? Or perhaps are they speaking of confidence men? I doubt the last, as it wouldn't help sell too many shoes, except perhaps to fans of the Grifters.

Still, fascinating. I really may buy a pair.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Behind the Scenes...

So, yeah, the President of the United States was here. W - i - l - d, that's what it was. It is pretty cool to see the POTUS machine in operation, I tell you. We had literally hundreds of people here in the weeks leading up to his visit to India - people negotiating the nuclear separation deal, people arranging security, people doing walkthroughs, people talking mangoes and agriculture. It was crazy. Right before the visit, a storm of military and other official personnel swept through, including the K-9 unit, armed forces, and secret service. The motorcade alone was about 90 cars I believe. (And I'm not giving anything away, because all of this was published in the local papers. They knew exactly what floors folks were staying on.)

I was the site officer for one event, the President's Greeting to the Embassy community (i.e. the "meet and greet"). Luckily, I did not have to deal with Government of India contacts, which would have raised the degree of difficulty considerably. But it was still quite a trick to work with the White House staff, secret service, tentwallahs, and our own internal staff to transform our Ambassador's lawn into a suitable place for the President, the First Lady, the Secretary of State, and the Ambassador and his wife to spend a little quality time with 700 embassy staff.

Planning went well, and it was a pleasure working with the White House and Secret Service staff. Things didn't get really hectic until the actual event. I had heard that when Secretary Powell visited before, there was such an intense push for handshakes that some people, including parents with kids, got pushed and almost stepped on. So, we had the bright idea to make a separate special stage area for kids under 16, about 120 kids in all. We had them clustered inside the rope line area, so we needed to take special care that they not run up to the President during his speech. Guess who got that job?

While the kids started out on their best behavior, it is asking quite a bit for them to sit quietly for an hour in the sun for anyone, even the President. (Especially when the younger kids were confused on just what the big deal was, anyway...). Unfortunately, the president (who is quite often 10 minutes ahead of time) ended up being about 45 minutes late. This did not go over so well with the slowly-roasting-in-the-sun kids. I was stationed right by them, watching them wilt, most coming down from earlier sugar highs. They went from excited to bored to squirmy. Then one of the boys started alternately kissing and kicking the kids around him. So, we needed some action. We ended up serenading the crowd with songs, and even did the wave. Thank goodness the President's party finally arrived.

Or so I thought. When they arrived, the same kid who had been kissing and kicking everyone made a run for the stage! He tried to hug Ms. Bush and then tried to throw down the microphones. You could see the muscles twitch in all the security people's arms. I went to catch him, but Ms. Bush turned to me and said "Oh, he's alright, let me talk to him." Eek! Now, we had all been informed, do not talk to the POTUS party, and stay out of the photo shot. By trying to gently corral this child, I was being led right to the stage area, and then I was talking to Ms. Bush.

So I of course said, "Um, yes ma'am" and just backed away. She was great though; she clearly has kids, and I do not. She guided him off the stage like a pro. His mom was duly mortified. The president gave his speech, took photos with the kids, and worked the rope line. Everyone had a great time.

(By the way, nuclear nonproliferation - is this just a seriously flawed concept or what? Well, that's for others to think about. For me, after the Meet and Greet, the POTUS visit was pretty much over. I also got to attend his speech at the Old Fort, which has been received with great acclaim across India. I thought it was ok, but it definitely played well in the papers. His entrance seemed to me to be straight out of Triumph of the Will, if you've seen that. Very dramatic.)

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