Spring break

by francine Hardaway on March 31, 2004

19 March
Who knew you needed a visa to go to India? When I called Sri, my friend who was to be my travel companion and guide, on the day before the trip just to check in with him, he offhandedly asked me if my passport and visa were in order. Visa???? I was driiving at the time, and I almost ran off the road! It was already Thursday afternoon, and we were scheduled to leave on Friday night from LAX: to visit Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, and perhaps to visit with His Holiness himself. My calendar was clear, my clothes were packed, my tickets were paid for. And you can’t get a visa to go to India from Phoenix.

The nearest Indian consulate is in San Francisco, So my trip began a day early, on a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area to stand in line praying the Consul General would grant me a visa in one day. He did, but what a long day it has been, flying to San Francisco, flying to LAX, and now on a fifteen hour flight to Hong Kong to connect with another flight to Singapore, then to Delhi, then a train to Pathankot, then on to Dharamsala. I’ve already seen “Love Actually” and “Sylvia,” two movies I deliberately missed in theatres, and I’m choosing between “Matrix Revolution” and obscure Chinese films. I also read an entire book–before I even got on the long flight, and exhausted the batteries of my IPOD.

21 March. We have lost a day in the air. It turns out that the visa was just the beginning. In Hong Kong, we had a few moments to marvel at the size of the airport, buy a new cell phone that can be used in Europe,Asia and at home –at long last, and runs the XP operating system. It’s pretty cool: about three inches long, fancy black plastic, and loaded with features. Just like the last time I was in Hong Kong, I discovered that the Japanese send their best technologies to Asia first. And now the Americans do, too. My cell phone is a Motorla.

We had a six hour layover in Singapore, so we left the airport and went downtown to Raffles, a sort of Fisherman’s Wharf/San Antonio Riverwalk combination. On the Singapore subway I took photos of the passengers, everyone with an electronic device, from the littlest kid with a Gameboy to teenagers with cell phones. The subway ads hype SMS as the way to keep company with the outside world during one’s commute.Singapore seems pretty subdued, perhaps because the government does things like chop the hands off of thieves.

It was explained to us that Singapore has relaxed its world-famous ban somewhat on chewing gum: you can chew it, but you can’t buy it, sell it, bring it into the country, or spit it out in the street. Indeed, the streets of Singapore are as clean as everyone has always said. People must not mind living with the government’s restrictions, because Singapore has a downtown punctuated by construction cranes and large projects.

Byt the real thrill of Singapore is Changti Airport itself: a destination airport more comfortable than any upscale shopping mall. Nigel, who travels a lot to Asia, says it is ranked as the best airport in the world. That’s not hard to believe.It has a transit hotel, where you can check in for a few hours, grab a shower, a nap and a massage. There is also a Rainforest spa at the airport, with a fitness center and a bar. I took a shower there and used its free Internet accesss. The International Terminal is one big wireless hotspot, with places where you can get email access either on your own laptop or on a fully loaded PC for $2 Singapore for fifteen minutes. That’s about $1.50 US.

The airport sells just about everything, and has a beauitul indoor tropical garden as well. It’s designed to entertain you through a layover of days, not hours.Singapore used to be a mecca for shipping and logistics because of its safe harbor (best weather of any Asian port), but since that’s not as strong a value proposition anymore, the country is struggling to redefine itself as a land for the future. The airport is the beginning; it defines Singapore as a tech center as soon as you get off the airplane.

Sri’s a good guide. He goes to Asia twice a year now, and he knows just how to minimize the distruption of multi-day travel. He also doesn’t mind my stopping at every PC and checking my email…He’s nice, and he finds the inconveniences of travel trivial.he is a Buddhist. He has the attitude that what will happen, will happen. That’s very helpful on these long journeys.

22 March
Delhi is not Singapore. When we got off the plane and made our way out of the airport, even though it was 10:30 Sunday night, I could hear a racket like the howler monkeys of NewZealand; it was men looking for work, for tourists, for each other, for who knows what. The street are full, the cars are old. the air is thick with pollution. And, oh by the way, it is hot.

In the hotel, there is fleeting hot water, and you have to be a graduate of IIT to use the electrical system. My Sharper Image worldwide converters works on only one of the outlets– it’s the same one the TV is plugged into, so if I want to charge something, I can’t watch TV. I borrowed another converter from the hotel to charge my phone, but I found out that my Hong Kong phone card, good throughout Asia, does not automatically send information to the network in India about me. To use the phone, I must find out how to connect. So now I have two cell phones that are useless in Delhi :-)

The hotel itself is very old, although it is going through a major renovation. This renovation seems designed to upgrade the art work in the halls, the paint, and the beautiful stonework and marble floors, but not the plumbing and wiring. Flushing the toilet takes concentration, as the handle is loose and you must make an effort to connect with the infrastructure inside the toilet itself.

23 March 2004

After a day of driving around Delhi and walking around the market area near our hotel, we are on the overnight train to Pathankot, in a three-tiered sleeping car with four other people.I went to the bathroom, and it was a hole in the ground with two places to set your feet. Good thing the train was not yet moving. On the train we are sharing the dinner of the people next to us,who have brought home cooked vegetarian food and nan.

The train is a cross-section of subjects from the BBC world news: kids going to Pakistan to visit grandparents, others going to Kashmir, or to Tibet. We are going north and west, into troubled zones where I will be the onlhy blonde for miles around. Already people look at me strangely; even in Delhi the Indians so outnumber the tourists that I am an oddity.We will pass very close to the Pakistani border and to Kashmir.

We spent the afternoon shopping in various markets in Delhi, probably one of the last cities on earth without malls and supermarkets. I did see Pizza Hut and MacDonald’s, but their presence is barely felt through the pervasive dust. (and yet Delhi is supposedly 50% less polluted than it was before they made vehicles run on CNG. Mostly it’s markets and bazaars, puncutated by incredibly beautiful government buildings and squalid homes and shops. Sri says the government is the largest employer in India, and since it can hire the manpower, it spends a lot of time and effort making its own facilities beautiful. And the workers who make those buildings so beautiful go home and sleep in decaying flats.

But even the beauty of the Indira Ghandi Art Center and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare doesn’t change the fact that Delhi is a decaying city. The Brits made a stab at beautiful infrastructrure for themselves –wide tree-lined streets with grassy roundabouts and clear city plananning principles, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the beauty is reserved for only the public spaces; I am certainly not the first to observe this, but the ordinary Indian
people live in the street, in boxes, in condemned spaces, in crowds. At lumch, outside the clearly tourist-oriented
restaurant was a snake charmer. H would only do it for mney, though, so I didn’t see it. I didn’t think it ws something I’d want to pay for. But it is his vocation.

I bought a silk rug woven in Kashmir by a family that has had its design in the family for generations and takes a year to weave one rug. The man who sold it to me lamented the fact that only 50 or 60 families still make these rugs, because most people are so impatient notw that they don’t want to order a rug and wait a year for it to be woven, so they settle for computer-generated designs and automated looms.

This man wanted me to buy three rugs. I also came away from Delhi with some statues of Ganesha for friends, a SIM card for the Indian phone company and a flash memory card for my camera. You can get anything from any century in stores side by side.on the streets of Delhi.

The vendor comes by our sleeping car with chai tea and ice cream, Indian favorites. But I’m full of orange creams and vegetables. I will love to sleep on the train.

24 march
It is dawn. I have slept on a train for the first time since I was a kid going to Florida with ny family from New York. It was wonderful I can now pee accurately into a hole while standing up on a moving train. It takes strong quads. You may think i concentrate too much on plumbing, but believe me, it’s the most difficult thing to adjust to, and it comes very quickly to the forefront of consciousness. I am up at 5, so my body has made an adjustment to the time differencs. Or at least it has begun.

After eating dinner with the six nice folks in 3 AC (third class, air conditioned), we managed to upgrade to 2 AC, where there are only four people in a compartment. Sri is sleeping in the berth above me, and a stranger with a hat on — probably a Muslim, is sleeping next to me. The porter gives out sheets, pillows and blankets. It’s like summer camp on wheels.

The train is in the station now. The little man we bribed to upgrade us for 2000 rupees ) less than $20, is letting waste water
out of the side of the cars. In India, you see the structure of things, the intimacies, how things REALLY happen. At home, we make a fetish of masking those things. So at home, if you have to sleep three feet from a strange man, it’s a big deal. For Indians, no big whoop. Even a blonde. It’s so crowded here that people are at once very social, and very inside themselves. Less aware of and insistent upon, personal space, theirs or yours.

Once again, I have done yoga in my bed, although more limited with Sri right above me. I have noticed that apparently everyone of any age here can sit comfortably crosslegged without a back support; We Americans have pretty tight hips by comparison. Sri meditates, so he can do it, even though he’s overweight by our terms. He can climb in and out of an upper berth, too. You do it via metal rails, with bare feet.

We talk to an Indian army officer who has been posted at Patankot for the past year. He says the Pakistani Muslims frighten even the army, because he cannot tell who the enemy is.The enemy hides in mosques.

We are at the ashram in Pathankot now.

The ashram is beautiful; it’s an ashram that services other public ashrams, so outsiders don’t usually come here. It is all gardens and small buildings. The beds in the rooms are far from elegant; they are wood underneath and a thin mattress, One of the displines of Vipassana meditation involves giving up splendid beds.

25 March 2004

At the ashram, we learn that the appointment with the Dalai Lama has been moved to today, and that Dwarko-ji has already left for it. We are three hours from Dharamsala, and have already missed it. There’s a long discussion about whether we should still go to Dharamsala, but after three hours of wrangling, we go. While waiting, I watch a six-month-old baby being passed around from grandmother to mother to sisters, and I realize that the baby has not been laid down once during my entire stay. And nobody talks about it, they just keep handing it off from one to the other.

The ashram is dedicated to espousing and circulating the principles of Ghandi, and they re-publish Ghandi’s out-of-print teachings. There’s a reading room inside, supported by Rotary International. It’s fascinating how effective Rotary is outside the United States.

The drive to Dharamsala takes us within ten miles of the Pakistani border, where there is enormous development. I wondered why, and Sri told me it was defense spending; the Indian government’s strategy is to develop the borders so the Pakistani militants will not have anywhere to hide.

Driving up the mountain, the vegetation becomes lush and beautiful, and when we arrive in Dharamsala it looks like a ski resort anywhere in the world. We try to change money at the local bank, and confront a powerful banker with a handwritten set of ledgers who looks at every bill with a UV scanner and also holds it up to the light. It takes us an hour to change the money, but since there are no ATMs, we are at this civil servant’s mercy. And he is scrupulously slow…

At the StayWell hotel, which is nothing more than a cement structure with no lobby and three levels of two or three rooms, we see Dwarko-and his entourage. The meeting with the Dalai Lama hasn’t gone particularly well, as the Dalai Lama did all the talking and didn’t really understand what Dwarko-ji was proposing. Over dinner, we discuss it, and I realize that this Institute is a kernel, not even a full-fledged idea, and that it is no where near being implemented. But Dwarko-ji has arranged another meeting for Sri with the Tibetan Prime Minister, who is very keen on an Institute for Non-violence and Spirituality, and the Dalai Lama for next Monday. Once again, I will miss it, because that’s the day I leave for home. But I do’t mind; I wouldn’t know what to do in a meeting with the Dalai Lama anyway!

We depart for McLeod Ganj, the upper sector of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama’s headquarters are. It is, once again, night and day different from the remainder of india. I’m coming to realize that everything in India is different from everything else. First of all, it is inhabited by Tibertans, who are Chinese descendants. Second, the peaceful Buddhist influence is everywhere. We visit the Vipassana Center, where students spend ten days in silence contemplaing suffering and impermanence,t. I ask the director to show us the center and I also ask if he has a copy of “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, a film Chelsea saw and liked. He asks us if we want to see it, and we watch the video in a meditation center, seated on the floor. It’s a very powerful film, and I decide to try to find a Vipassana teacher for Arizona’s prisons. Vipassana meditation is used successfully in India’s prisons to bring prisoners in touch with their own anger and help them take personal responsibility for their crimes. At the end, many realize they have harmed society and want to apologize to their victims.

Then comes the shopping. All of northern India’s crafts seem to be aggregated in Dharamsala, as well as all of Tibet’s. Craftspeople from the surrounding areas must try very hard to get their goods here, because there are tourists from all over the world. Because of the influence of the monks, the shopping experience is completely different from in Delhi, although the shopkeepers still try to sell you two of everything. Actually, I bought two of just about everything! I’m sure I can find good homes for the beautiful Tibetan and Indian artifacts next Christmas.

Dharamsala is in the mountains, very close to the Kashmir border. Thus everything is cashmere and Pashmina. The town is green and beautiful, dotted with retreats and ashrams. We decide to move from the Stay Well Hotel and end up at the Dev Cottages, looking down at the Iyengar Yoga Center. Spirituality seems to rule here; it is peaceful, unlike Delhi. Walking down from the Vipassana Center on a shady path through the trees, we are greeted by monkeys– lots of monkeys — in obvious family groupings, performing their grooming activities on each other in full view of the monks and tourists using the path. There are also cows, oxen, and donkeys roaming the streets and paths along with trekkers, taxis, mopeds, and dogs. All the dogs seem to have had the same father; there are no discernible breeds.

It’s spring, and the wildflowers are awesome. Life is good here, and I wander around all afternoon looking at beautiful artifacts.
It’s so familiar to me from my study of yoga that I feel like I’m home..

Once again I pee in a hole in the ground, this time at a ladies’ room in a restaurant. To use this facility, you climb up on a ledge, place your feet in two striated footprint markers, and squat. Indians don’t use toilet paper; they think it’s unclean. Instead, they wash thoroughly with soap and water. At every toilet is a bar of soap and a beaker to fill with water, which comes out of a spigot at the side of the toilet. After the first day of carrying around a roll of toilet paper, I decide to do the same. It feels very cleanly.

I go into a place called English wine and whiskey and buy a bottle of India red wine. Sri and I open it before dinner, but it is totally undrinkable! Alcohol is a very small part of my life on this trip, as is meat. I’ve had chicken once or twice, but most of the meals are vegetarian, and Sri is a big expert in Indian food so I eat what he eats. I did, however, buy a Cadbury raisin and nut bar at a shop in town.

Back at the hotel, I hear that the spiritual leader of Hamas has been assassinated, and the 9/11 hearings are on CNN. Set against this beautiful meditative environment, the idea of violence is almost unthinkable.

I don’t usually take many photos, but I’ve been madly photographing this place. I’ll upload everything when I get home and make a photo journal.

26 March 2004 – Dharamsala

Well, I finally got sick. After a day of rushing around Dharamsala trying to buy the best of the Tibetan, Indian, and Kashmiri handcrafts, and of course networking with the shopkeepers so I can order things once I go back to the USA, I arrived home and began the colon cleanse. Still can’t figure out what caused it, but it seems to have passed, so I guess I survived. I’ve been trying to do all the suggested travel precautions, but now I think it doesn’t matter, because even the bottled water is produced locally. I heard on the BBC World News that Coke had withdrawn its Dasani product in some parts of Europe because it couldn’t control contamination.

Because I was not feeling well, I asked the Dev Cottages manager for a heater. Before he could give me one, he had to repair the outlet that the heater gets plugged into. He went around the room with an outlet tester trying to see which ones worked. It was hilarious; he finally had to take the wall plate off, shut down the main, and reconnect the wires behind the wall. It was a kind of just-in-time electricity.

I have decided to take a day train back to Delhi, because I am afraid to be a single white blonde woman sleeping alone on the train. I will stay in a business hotel in downtown Delhi for the last two nights, so I can see what the international businesspeople see. I have been with Sri on his roots trip, and he definitely didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances. It’s so wonderful how he managed to get educated and come to America to work on artificial intelligence and knowledge management after a childhood that contained the remnants of centuries of colonialism. He was born just prior to Indian independence.

One neat thing about travel across the world is listening to the news. I have heard all about Tony Blair’s visit to Tripoli and the furor surrounding the 9/11 hearings. Indian news is very personalized, almost sensationalized, and seems to be mostly about Bollywood movie personalities and cricket teams. But all hotels, no matter how spartan, seem to have CNN and BBC, and lots of business news. Thanks God for satellites and the Internet.

I found a yoga teacher here, and was going to take a class (most classes are not offered on a one-off basis, they are a series), but Sri has engaged a taxi to take us to an eternal flame and a monastery, and I want to see that. So once again I do my yoga on my hard bed, which is the perfect spot.

I decided to blow off the eternal flame and walk around Dharmasala again. Good choice; I went to the main temple where the Dalai Lama was holding a chanting ceremony for Tibetan exiles living in Switzerland. I got to hear about an hour of spectacular chanting and see the Dalai Lama, although not meet him.

And then I did something I have never done before: I practiced yoga outside my room, in the company of the Himalayas and the early arrivals for the Himalayan Iyengar Center’s first series of classes.I couldn’t believe I was there…

27 March 2004

India whizzes by, in all its paradoxical splendor. This morning, I took a taxi down from McLeod Ganj to ChakkiBank train stateion in Pathankot and now I’
m on the train to Delhi. I’m in 2AC, which means I share a seat with another man. He was very impressed when he saw my laptop, and he told me that wireless Internet connectivity is coming to India with CDMA phones, launched last year by Reliance.The infrastructure for CDMA isn’t very prevalent yet around India, however.

This conversation followed my taxi ride out of the Himalayas, a ride puncuated by cows eating garbage in the middle of the road, herds of goats, a monkey or two, and laborers carrying bricks on the backs of donkeys. Not to mention women carrying metal milk containers on their heads.

At the train station, whose waiting room smelled from the now-familiar stench of urine common to most Indian public spaces, a little old man with about four teeth offered to be my porter. First he wrapped a towel around his head, then he lifted my suitcase and duffel bag onto it, and slung my backpack over this shouler. Bowed by the weight of my luggage, he guided me from the waiting room to my seat. I paid him 30 rupees – not even seven cents. On the platform I asked a student next to me how old he thought the man was; the student replied “not as old as you think. He looks older because of the smoke.”

I wasn’t sure whether he meant the cigarettes the porter smoked, or the smoke in the air. There was plenty of both.

Out the train window, green fields alternate with industrial and residential areas that look as though they are constantly being built and destroyed. Piles of bricks are everywhere, and it’s hard to tell whether they are going up or coming down. Occasionally there are places of great beauty, but mostly India is a mess. As an American, I find it embarrassing how easy our lives are and how much we take them for granted. At the train station, a barefoot woman walked into the ladies’ room and came out again in a different saree, carrying the clothes she had just removed. Later I realized there are public showers in the bathroom (that’s how it got the name) and she had taken a shower and washed her yesterday’s clothes. She hung them on a tree trunk that jutted up through the platform, drying them while waiting for the train.

I order a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse to drink with my chicken tikka in the hotel’s northwest Indian restaurant, and it is spoiled. What a surprise. I order another; it’s only somewhat better, but at least drinkable, a white Bordeaux. The next morning I wake up feeling less well than before — the karmic outcome of my attempt to struggle against my suffoundings instead of surrendering to them.

I’m still trying to get my head around my impressions of india so I did something I never do on my trips: I bought a guidebook. I find I want to know the history, because I can’t understand everything from the surface. I didn’t feel this way about New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Costa Rica, Mexico — any of the other places I have been..

India’s infrastructure can’t hope to keep pace with its population growth. Its legendary school system is in a state of collapse; many schools have no teachers and the kids just go there and play all day. Health care is in a similar situation, as the government opened a bunch of clinics and staffed them with doctors and nurses who are not accountable to anyone and often just don’t go to work. No wonder India is pioneering telemedicine!

Anyone worried about outsourcing our jobs to India should come here and see how many people DON’T work in Bangalore in a call center — don’t work at all. In Dharamsala, there are hundreds of beggars, people with no fingers, one arm, no legs, who live in the street and beg for food..

On the outskirts of Delhi, near the suburban train stations people are living in structures that can’t be described–made of corrugated metal, cardboard, fabric — just anything to keep out the sun and rain. Children play beside the railroad tracks, even though raw sewage comes out of the trains. It’s difficult to watch, and I don’t know how Mother Theresa did it. When I think of all the people in American who can’t have children, I wonder why more Indian children are not given up for adoption. I think if you walk up to a mother on the street (Sri told me this) and ask her for her baby, she will probably be willing to give it to you. The problem is getting out of the country with it.

When the train stops at Delhi, a deluge of porters comes on the train, two of them fighting over me. Two travel agents have made reservations for me, and each sends a porter. I engaged the second because I couldn’t reach the first on the telephone yesterday and wanted my resevation changed. So the porter from the first brought me to the “man on the ground” from the first, who brought me to the hotel chosen by the second! My driver tells me I have to leave for the airport at 4 AM Monday morning for my 7:40 flight, so he’d be sleeping outside my hotel in his car on Sunday night. What a life. But he thinks it’s his karma, so he’s okay with it. Big lesson for me.

To get to my hotel from the airport, the driver takes me through the neighborhood where the Prime Minister lives (very tight security) and the high government officials. First we pass a busy shopping street, and then Connaught Place, the center of the city as planned by the British. It’s a circle with spokes leading out to the rest of Delhi. Connaught Place itself is old colonial buildings, some of which have been converted to Ruby Tuesday or McDonald’s. Then, from total filth in the streets and jostling humanity, we move into serene tree-lined boulevards, clean streets and beautiful landscaping. The PM’s house is et 1 km back from the road. I find myself offended that the government seems to do so much for itself and so little for the people.
It is also pretty scary to be a middle-aged woman getting into a taxi with a strange driver at night in Delhi. To be a woman travelling alone in this environment takes every bit of trust I can muster, and I’m a pretty trusting person.

When I check into the Ashok Hotel, supposedly a five-star, I find out that I can’t go to the bar because it is a “proper” bar — a real bar, not a restaurant with alcohol — and is open only to couples on the weekends. No single women. And I was told his by a woman at reception, who said it with a cheerful smile and didn’t seem to find it alarming.

The hotel is ornate and huge, sort of like Las Vegas without the casinos. Very elegant, with two art exhibitions in the lobby and a Buddhist prayer wheel as you enter. There’s a huge shopping arcade, again reminiscent of Vegas, with all of the overpriced art items I already bought in Dharamsala. But the rooms are old, and if you look at the outlets (some of which don’t work, as usual) near the floor, dirty. I also buy a copy of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India to re-read on the plane home. I feel a need to do this. I vaguely remember that it is very good at describing the complexity of India. 32 states and sixteen languages. Makes us look homogeneous even with our movement toward diversity.

28 March 2004

Today was a fascinating day. I met a man in the coffee shop who teaches English in Tokyo at a university devoted to fashion. He is the only one at the university who speaks English, so they sent him to Delhi to a worldwide fashion conference that is to be held here at the Ashok in the English language. What in the world is a fashion conference doing in Delhi? He will also go to a similar conference in Paris on behalf of his university — and all because he speaks English. He’s a Canadian who has been living abroad for ten years.

My driver came and took me to Faridabad, an industrial suburb of Delhi, where the Jiva Institute is located. Jiva is a social enterprise that was started in 1994 by an Ayurvedic physician and a guy from New Jersey who taught education. It was founded to sell Ayurvedic products as a way of funding the production of curriculum and materials for Indian elementary schools. Now, ten years later, it has a project going with the MIT Media Lab, a highly successful Teledoc project that gets medicine to rural villages using mobile devices to gather information in the villages from the patient, transmits them by cellphone to doctors in Delhi, who then diagnose and prescribe over the cell phone and the prescriptions are filled and delivered by “distributors” in the villages. It’s such an effective channel that Pitney Bowes wants to use it to discover consumer preferences about postal services.

Steve Rudolph, the American educator at Jiva, has also collaborated on a series of books for elementary school science and social science called the ICOT program: Indian Culture of Tomorrow. These educational materials are in use by the six hundred K-12 students at the school Jiva operates in Faridabad, as well as in other towns in India. The are designed to foster learning, rather than teaching — critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will replace the bureaucratic heritage that holds India back. The way the British most took advantage of the Indians was through the education system — teaching them to be a generation of clerks who can carry out orders to the letter without being able to make a single decision for themselves.

To fund all of this change, the Ayurveda program has become somewhat of a big business over the internet, with the site www.ayurvedic.org being equipped both for e-commerce and for individual consultations from Dr. Partap Chauhan, Steve’s partner. Dr. Chauhan gives talks in the US, and the Institute is holding an Ayurvedic Beauty Course in Faridabad next week. Partap’s brother, who worked as a quality control manager in New York for several years, came back to India to help with all of these projects..

There are several other programs at Jiva aimed at bridging the digital divide, and Neerja Chauhan has developed a program to teach women in villages how to use the computer, and also to optimize the manufacture and sale of the embroidery they do. She has taught them time management, division of labor, and even customer service (communications skills).

As an aside, another brother of Dr. Chauhan’s, a Sanskrit scholar, has been collecting old manuscripts of the Bhagavad Gita and other early teachings, and is re-translating them into English. They have collected hundreds of antique (three and four hundred year old) artifacts. I suggest that when they need money to fund more education or health care projects, they sell the fragments to collectors, or auction them on EBay. They’re not marketers; this had not occurred to them.

As I drove back to Delhi from the Jiva Institute, I was amazed at how much they had accomplished — but there’s so much to do. My driver took me to the India Gate, the Lodhi Gardens, and the President’s house, and I see that the government of India takes all the money and uses it to make its own life better. A mile from the clean, beautiful VIP section of Delhi is the same stuff I see all over India — people begging in the street because they have lost their fingers working on some industrial machine, dirty children, and unethical business practices. India is building and crumbling, building and crumbling. You can see it in the piles of bricks.

30 March 2004

China, on the other hand, is going in one direction only — world economic dominance. It had been nearly twenty years since I last was in Hong Kong, and in that time the city had gone from being a British colony to being a part of China. Last time I was there, I remember the fearful way the newspapers portrayed the coming change in government: the end of the city’s cosmopolitan dominance. But from my perspective, that hasn’t happened. Rather, Hong Kong has had an influence on the mainland.

All around the Ocean Ferry Terminal, in the venerable shopping district known as Tsim Sha Tsui, new hotels and new underground arcades gather the best shops from around the world and offer a selection unequalled anywhere. It stunned me then and it stuns me now how Hong Kong gets the best clothes, the best perfumes, the best consumer electronics devices before anyone else. I saw 1 megapixel cameraphones, and a JVC ultra-portable that is smaller than my Vaio. I walked through four miles of underground mall, all with marble floors. Hong Kong sells everything; it is the 21st century version of the Asia trading company.

Hong Kong, however, is not the surprise. For me the surprise was Shen Zen, an hour away by TurboJet ferry, but a world away politically. Twenty years ago, Shen Zen had open markets, bazaars much like those of India, and unpaved streets. I remember mud huts inside which little kids stamped out plastic soldiers, using huge metal machines. This was factory life in Shen Zen, even then an “outsource” for the plastics industry.

I remember ducks hanging upside down to drain their fat outside a butcher shop, their carcasses surrounded by flies. And I remember eating in a restaurant where I didn’t recognize the ingredients in the soup.

Not today. When you get off the Ferry at Shen Zen, yhou are immediately taken by shuttle to the airport, which has been built in the past twenty years. The city of Shen Zen has skyscrapers, bank buildings, multi-family housing. It’s not on the scale of Hong Kong, with its miles and miles of 60-story buildings, but it is clearly going in that direction.

On the Ferry I sat next to a guy from Michigan who is the tools manager for a plastics firm. He comes to China about once a month, because his tool vendors are there. He has been sourcing tools in China for a year, and is still building relationships with new vendors and suppliers. Just an average Joe, he’s now a world traveller.

There are still some problems with Chinese cities, however. For example, almost no one at the Shen Zen airport spoke English, and they don’t take American Visa cards in the ATMs. It’s painfully obvious that Shen Zen is a Chinese airport, rather than an international airport, and that it doesn’t see many Western tourists. But the changes over twenty years have been more than dramatic: they’ve been world-shattering.

The only thing keeping China back is the knowledge (or lack of it) of English. Unlike the working class Indians, who have some interesting cultural traditions around work — largely instilled by the British — the Chinese are energetic and entrepreneurial. They move quickly, work quickly, talk quickly. I got a landing Visa in Shen Zen in fifteen minutes, from a woman who ran back and forth behind her desk, effortlessly juggling ten applicants at a time. Not the mindset you would expect from a Communist country. China may be politically Communist, but it is economically as capitalist as it gets.

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