[Note 2019:  I was recently forced to port my website to a new format, and all of the internal links were broken.  I might fix them eventually, but those that link to another part of the same page are lowest priority.  This page has a lot of them.]


Posted 2005/11/13, with a few words changed later

Table of Contents for today’s posting

Since it’s my first, it’s a big one. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Culture shock

Before flying to India, I stayed overnight in a hotel just across from the Frankfurt train station. It’s one of these places with tiny rooms, but nonetheless with all of the amenities that you really want. In this case, that means a free minibar, the psychological effect of which cannot be overstated.

After a long series of flights, taking a taxi in from the Delhi airport, through the roads crowded with animals and pedestrians (all of which are just narrowly missed by the vehicles), and surounded by shanties, my thoughts cycled between “it’s exhilarating to be back” and “why did I put myself here again?” So it was sort of like downhill skiing, but with less snow.

Getting lost

Dipendra, my Indian host, lives in Bombay. He was good enough to arrange lodging for me at the Indian National Science Academy’s guest house. But my taxi driver couldn’t find INSA, which is located in a district known as I.T.O. (for “Indian Tax Office”). First, he took me to the sales tax office. Then, the income tax office. After asking directions, we traveled through a maze of little alleyways. And eventually found our target, which was indeed in a prominent location.

At the reception desk I asked: If I go into town and want to take a taxi back, what do I tell the driver?

Answer: “Just say I.T.O. Everyone knows I.T.O.”

Strangely, she a would turn out to be right. Not that it mattered, because soon I knew my way around.

Problems of shyness

India gives me a better appreciation for how autistic people must feel. If you look like a Westerner, but are shy around strangers, then you are out of luck here, at least in the city. As you walk down the street, expect rickshaw drivers to pull up and ask you where you want to go. “No thanks” or “I’m just walking” might not be enough to pursuade them to move on. This is discomfiting, but benign.

And it is hard to ignore vendors and taxi drivers who shout “Sir! Sir!” in the tone that you reserve for someone who is inadvertantly walking away with your umbrella.

Less benign, but still not dangerous: In certain parts of town, expect a stranger to strike up a conversation. At some point, he’ll tell you that there’s nothing interesting in the direction you are headed, and he’ll suggest a different direction. One man follwed me for over ten minutes.

The key to dealing with this is to know in advance that it will happen, and to understand his motivation. He wants to deliver you to a store, thereby earning a commission. Since this is included in the price, this is not the best way to shop.


India is a paradise for people who love to shop. But since I am not one of those people, I must appreciate India in other ways.

Before I buy something, it is not enough for me to want it. I also have to be in the mood to do business. When someone is pushing something on me, that always puts me out of the mood. This is sad, since there were indeed some items pushed on me that I might have wanted. Postcards, anyone?

But some vendors don’t seem to understand the concept of not-in-the-mood-to-buy. If I say no, they just offer a lower price. Eventually, the price can drop from cheap to essentially free. People seem genuinely mystified when I still don’t buy.

Concerning two fluids

Many vehicles in Delhi run on compressed natural gas, and I’m told that this has greatly improved the air quality. But it’s hard to imagine how it used to be. As it is now, when you blow your nose at the end of the day, the tissue is blackened.

It’s at times like this that I am grateful for snot. Someone needs to fill in the blank: Baruch ata adonai

Scam avoided

I took a rickshaw to the New Delhi railway station to buy a ticket to Agra. On the way, my driver said, “The ticket office will be very busy at this hour. I can take you to another office, and then to the station.”

Me: “No, thanks. I’ll just check out the station anyway.”

After some silence: “The ticket office will be closed at this hour. I can take you to another office instead.”

Me: “I’ll just check out the station anyway.”

Eventually, we reached a sign pointing to the station, but not the station itself. At the side of the road was a shop labeled “Booking Office”, but it wasn’t part of the station.

“You hurry into the office. It’s about to close. Then I take you into the station. I wait. Okay?”

Me: “That’s not necessary.” I got out of the rickshaw, paid (I shouldn’t have), and walked the remaining 100 yards through a crowded intersection and into the station.

What was the scam? He was probably trying to deliver me to an office that would sell me a fake, or altered, and definitely overpriced ticket. For this, he would receive a commision.

Treatment of foreigners

It seems that many of the strangers I encounter are involved in schemes to rip off foreigners. [Updated: see the endnote.] I always thought that America was an unfriendly place for tourists, in that we mostly speak only English, don’t have maps posted all over the place, and don’t always have good public transit, or even clear signage. But in most cases, the prices we charge are not based on how much of a sucker we think you are. So I’m revising my opinion upward.

On the other hand, it’s hard to know how we would behave if we were poor and most foreign visitors were visible, rich, and clueless.

In most countries, one expects foreigners to be subject to more suspicion. But in India, visible foreigners (or at least white Westerners, and possibly east Asians and black Africans) get something of a free ride. At many historical sights, museums, cinemas, etc., everyone has to pass through metal detectors and submit to pat-downs. At INSA, I even saw people patted down on their way out. But I was always taken less seriously as a security risk. After all, since I don’t look Indian, I’m probably not Pakistani.

I fear that it’s only a matter of time before some terrorist organization takes advantage of this situation. There are plenty of Westerners who are gullible or pliable enough to take part in some damn-fool plot.

Not missing the train to Agra; another scam avoided

Saturday (29 Oct) was my first time boarding a moving train, at least with heavy luggage. But it’s a good thing that I made it on, since the station was shut down a few hours later (see below).

When I arrived at the station in the morning, my first stop was the “International Tourist Bureau”, a special office for foreigners, since I had a question. It’s a good thing I wasn’t there to buy a ticket; the queue for that was well over an hour long. The queue for asking a question wasn’t that short, either. Eventually, I decided to bag it, and to wait in a nearby chair, since I wouldn’t expect to find a place to sit on the platform itself.

There I chatted for over an hour with a middle-aged couple from Edinburgh. (Should be careful about that term; I am now middle aged.) They had bought a ticket on line, but were now told that it wasn’t “confirmed”, and were asked to wait (and wait) for further information. Gradually, they learned that their train was full but that, for a fee, they could get a refund. Just as I was about to leave, they learned that they could get a seat on the next day’s train. So their plan was to try to find a room in one of the cheap backpacker hotels in the neighborhood across from the station.

Then I headed out for the platform. On the way, I passed through the main hall. A driver immediately asked me where I wanted to go.

“Here. The train station.”

“Is your train going to Agra?”


“Right this way, sir!” he said, attempting to lead me out of the station. It didn’t work.

I arrived at my platform. The trouble is, the train is very, very long. How do I know which car is mine? I asked, and was pointed toward the front of the train. So away I went, with my luggage, along the densely populated platform, for several minutes. When it was clear that I’d gone in the wrong direction, I headed back. This took even longer. Suddenly, the train started to move. Fortunately, it accelerates slowly. Apparently, it is normal for passengers to get out, walk around, buy snacks, etc., and re-board at the very last minute.

I jumped onto the nearest car. So I had to pass through many others in order to reach my assigned seat, but at least I was on.

The train station was closed later that day because of the bombings, one of which occured in the neighborhood where the Edinburgh couple was considering staying. I doubt that they were hurt, since I would have heard. But at the very least, their travel must have been delayed further.

A word about the bombings

They claimed over 50 lives, putting them on the same scale as the London bombings of July 7. Did they get the same press coverage in the U.S.?

A previously dormant terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the bombings. However, everyone believes that the real culprit is Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is to India what al Qaeda is to the West. Most of their activity has been in Jammu and Kashmir, but in recent years they have branched out. For example, two years ago there was a car bombing near the Gateway of India, a major Bombay landmark.

Communication difficulties

Arriving at the Agra Cantonment station, I took a taxi to my hotel. The driver did not speak English, but on the way out of the station, he picked up his “uncle”, who did.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States”.

“Which state? America, England, Japan…?”


“America! Very good. Double-you George Bush: you like?”

“Not so much.”

“Many people here like him not so much. But his father: he was good!”

I kept my silence, since I didn’t know a simple way to convey, “Yes, relatively speaking,” or “Yes, in retrospect.”


I had made my Agra hotel reservation at a government tourist office in Delhi. You can generally count on government agencies not to rip you off, but given the dodginess of so many of the people I had dealt with, what would I find?

Answer: Unimaginable luxury. They had a big, fancy lobby, a 24-hour reception desk staffed by people whose English was better than my French. And a restaurant serving Indian, Chinese, and Western food, all of which I deemed safe. Salad! Challah rolls! Cut fruit! Cakes with creamy filling!

I asked the maitre’d what is the custom in such a restaurant concerning tips. But he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. Could I try to say it some other way? “You know, when you leave a little extra money on the table?” He still didn’t understand.

The next day, I came up with a better way to say it: “Service charge.”

His answer: “It’s your choice. Here we call it tipping!”

Nearby, there’s an internet cafe that is built in a first-world style. I can’t get a decent connection, but somehow, kids are involved in chat sessions and multi-player games.

To get there, I go around the block, via an alley that sometimes has goats. Beside the alley is what looks like an abandoned construction site. Imagine one floor of a parking garage with rebar sticking out the top of the pillars, and no roof. People are living in it.

Agra is home to the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, and it’s not far from the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. But I promised not to say anything about sights…

…except that the souvenir sellers at Fatehpur Sikri were the most aggressive I’ve seen yet. So are the guides, so I hired one. Of course, he was in league with some of the vendors, particularly the ones who sold magical cloths for tying around the pillars when you go into the shrine to make a wish.

But I didn’t believe their claim that all of the money (or any of it) would go to “the orphans”. And anyway, I’m not into the magical power of objects. The concept seems un-Jewish.

Train to Allahabad

On Monday morning I headed out to Allahabad via a train ticket that Dipendra was good enough to buy for me. He even delivered it to me personally when we were both in Germany. The only trouble is, the train departed from Tundla, some distance from Agra. I hate not knowing where I am, so I did a Google search, and the most detailed mention I could find involved a mishap in the travel diary of someone called “Disaster Dave”.

I hired a taxi (always an uncomfortable transaction if you don’t have a sense of the proper price) to Tundla, and made it in good time. At the train platform, I had a shoe shine, and gave money to a few of the many beggars, but stopped when I ran out of small change.

For most of my stay in India, I have not been within sight of any other visible foreigners. But eventually a Japanese man shows up, with a Japanese-speaking Indian guide. After I’ve determined that we’re on the same train, I watch them like an eagle. Otherwise, how can I be sure which train is mine?

Train travel itself can be quite comfortable. “First class” doesn’t mean that the furnishings are luxurious, but it does mean that four people are seated in a space that can easily handle six. For most of the trip, it was just me, a railway worker, a few roaches, and rat: plenty of room for all!

Problems of shyness, Part II

My train arrived an hour late, and in darkness. A car was supposed to meet me, but I couldn’t see it, nor was anyone holding a sign. I was immediately set upon by drivers of taxis, auto-rickshaws, and cycle-rickshaws, all of whom wanted to take me to the hotel of my choice (or, more likely, theirs).

“No, thank you” doesn’t work. Neither does “I am waiting for a friend”.

I looked around the station, drivers in tow. I called the institute. The gate-house guard gave me the car’s license plate number, and suggested that I look around the parking area. I did, drivers in tow. Porters, too. It’s kind of hard to search effectively under such conditions. I go back to the phone. “Where exactly are you?” the guard asks. “I’m at the phone booth.” The drivers were surrounding and staring at me the whole time.

The institute sent out another car. Soon after that, I found the first car, and stood beside it, along with the drivers and porters. After a few minutes, my driver saw me there, and off we went.

Shy people should not have to endure this.

Promised land

The driver brought me into the loving embrace of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, where I am writing this. Gardens! Open countryside! It’s as if I’ve never seen them before. Did I mention clean air?

Harish-Chandra is the patron saint of harmonic analysis on reductive groups. He deserves such a place.

My second night here, I attended a Diwali celebration, organized by the students. The first part (which I missed) involved the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. But given that this is a research institute for math and physics, the students added Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. They had prepared elaboarate Rangolis, which are like paintings on the floor, but made of colored rice.

They organized a fireworks display. This was in the old-fashioned style, where the fireworks are right there in front of you, set off by the grad students and the young children of the faculty. Meanwhile, a continuous chorus of booms could be heard from the nearby villages. (It actually started the previous evening, and continued for several days.) Then followed a meal. Then the students engaged in a sort of Hindi drinking game, but without the drinks.

After a few days, Dipendra and his family arrived. That afternoon, we all took a row-boat trip a few miles upriver, to the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. On our way back from the boat, we walked through an ashram.

It’s not every neighborhood that contains an ashram, an estate, and a government-funded research institute. Still, the surrounding villages are quite poor.

Food in India is problematic. Generally speaking, foreigners should only eat food that has been freshly cooked, boiled, or peeled. This rules out salads.

But my diet here at HRI is in other respects better than my usual one. Everything is made fresh from scratch. (Indeed, there’s no other choice.) If you walk into the kitchen at an odd hour, you might see, piled onto a sheet laying on the floor, a huge pile of carrots, onions, and other assorted vegetables.

Steinberg Festival

Dipendra used to be on the faculty here. One of his students, Shripad, has graduated and moved to Bombay, but still needs to go through the formality of defending his thesis. He external examiner, Nagaraj, from Chennai, also has to attend.

Given that so many people have to converge on this spot at this time, Dipendra decided some time back to organize an informal symposium on the work of Robert Steinberg. It was for non-experts, by non-experts. Like me: I was responsible for three hours of talks.

It seems that everyone has to use some Steinberg theorem at some point in their lives. Haven’t you?

Not only was the festival festive, but the night before the actual thesis defense, Shripad received an offer of a postdoc in Paris.

Sharing keys

At the HRI guest house, I had to share my room with Nagaraj for two days. This was not a problem, even though I only found out when he arrived at 8am.

Interestingly, we only had one key between us. This was also not a problem, as we had a brilliant sharing mechanism. There is a drop box at the reception desk. When you’re not using the key, just drop it in. If you need the key, and no one’s in the room, then ask the receptionist to unlock the box and retrieve your key.

If there is no receptionist on duty, which is often, then pick up the drop box, turn it upside down, and shake.

And this is only necessary when the box is actually locked.

Things I did not photograph

  • The most beautiful street that I could find in Delhi. It was uncrowded and had clear, tree-lined sidewalks. But when I tried to take a snap, well-armed men asked me not to, and seeing as they were so polite, I elected to comply.
  • Squalor. The living conditions in the slums have to be seen to be believed. But you won’t see them in my photos, since that would require me to take close-ups of people and their homes. This seems like too much of a violation of privacy.
  • A cremation along the bank of the Ganges. Privacy, again.

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Posted 2005/11/17, with three words added later

Today’s Table of Contents

Indian Railways: “150 Years of Glorious Service”

With the Steinberg Festival concluded and school about to start, it was time for Dipendra to return to his home and my next stop: the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, in Mumbai (colloquially and formerly Bombay). Thus, on Monday and Tuesday, I had a more authentic experience of Indian Railways: a 23-hour journey in “Sleeper Class”, which amounts to third class.

This was easier than my earlier journeys by train, since I wasn’t alone. Although Dipendra’s wife and 4-year-old daughter had left the previous day to prepare for a family event, he and his 7-year-old son Rohit traveled with me. (Or, rather, I traveled with them.)

I have never seen either of his children in a bad mood, and was looking forwarded to seeing if they could sustain this over a 24-hour period. In the case of Malika, I won’t get a chance to find out. But can Rohit?

In a word, yes.

Sleeper class is different from first class in the following ways:

  • A compartment that would have held 4 in first class now has places for 6. When we fold down the various sleeping shelves, we get in effect two three-level (not two-level) bunk beds. This means that once the beds are set up, it is not possible to sit up straight, so you might as well go to bed.
  • In addition to the six of us, lots of other people without reserved seats are hanging around. Either they stand in the aisles or, if any room appears, they join you in your seat. It was not unusual for me to wake up at night and find that someone was sitting on a free space on my bunk. In short, the trip was sometimes crowded.
  • There is no air conditioning. But this is no problem in November. In fact, the night was quite cold. Fortunately, my itinerary includes stays in Berlin and Beijing, so I have plenty of warm clothing.
  • There are more beggars.

But there were also some similarities between first and sleeper, such as:

  • a rat.

At every stop, passengers get off the train to buy samosas and other snacks on the platform. Meanwhile, sellers of chai and toys pass through the train. Sometimes, they don’t get off until the train is moving at a brisk pace.

There are not as many beggars as you’d find on the street, but there are some. Some have various deformities. For example, one man had a broken forearm that was hanging loose.

Twice, I was approached by bands of hijras. In the West, some of them would be considered MTF transgendered, others intersexed, and others transvestites. Here they are considered to be a third sex, part of a tradition that goes back many generations in both Hindu and Muslim culture.

When out in public, their main function appears to be to act outrageously, with the idea that you will give them money to stop. However, I did not witness this directly. In each of my encounters, a few hijras entered the car, and one came right up to me, ignoring everyone else, clapped once, and put out her hand. (Feminine pronouns are traditional.) Not wanting to play along, I just froze. During the second encounter, she followed up by saying many things in one of the local languages, then touched my cheek and said, “Don’t touch me.” This got a laugh out of the other passengers, but I’m not sure at whose expense, if anyone’s.

Not counting people without reservations who muscled in on whatever personal space they could, the other occupants of our compartment were a couple and their teenaged-looking daughter. She and Rohit spent some time playing Snakes and Ladders, followed by a game that looked like Parchesi but apparently wasn’t. After my second encounter with the hijras the father told Rohit (in English) some of the things he should have said to defend his uncle (“uncle” being a generic term for a child’s male adult friend, or a title that children would use to address male adult strangers).

I didn’t do any reading. It seemed impractical given the rocking of the train, the noise, and (during the night) the poor lighting. I didn’t see anyone else reading, either.

But I wasn’t completely idle: I learned some math.

  • Dipendra and I discussed representations of p-adic unitary groups, and their Fourier-Jacobi models.
  • Rohit taught me to count to ten in Hindi.

There is no notion of “quiet time”. It’s not some party cruise, and people do try to sleep. However, passengers who board during the middle of the night have no inhibitions concerning loud talk, playing radios, etc. This together with the considerable noise of the train itself would have made it impossible to sleep were it not for my earplugs (thanks for the idea, Laura!).

There were no trash receptacles that I could see. Apparently, it is customary to throw your trash out the window. This includes paper boxes, plastic cups, and even glass bottles. Within and near the stations, I saw employees cleaning this up. But I doubt they can maintain any regular cleaning schedule over tens of thousands of route miles.

Near Bombay, the train passed through several tunnels. In America, it’s traditional to scream when the roller-coaster passes the top of its route. Analogously, here all the children seem to know that they should yell out the window while in tunnels. I suddenly realized that the other compartments of our car held a lot of children with healthy lungs.


The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is located near the tip of the Colaba peninsula, in the middle of a restricted naval compound. Thus, photographs are prohibited. According to a sign in my room, naval police will arrest offenders.

What a shame. The campus is quite beautiful, and sits on the shore of the Arabian Sea. I decline to say whether or not I can demonstrate any of this.

I am not allowed into any of the surrounding facilities. However, I am told that one of these contains a jogging track, and that no one will question my right to be there if I wear jogging clothes. (Too bad I don’t have such clothes, or I’d test this out.) It’s another example of Westerners not being taken seriously as security risks.

This is my second trip to TIFR. The previous one was a little over two years ago, during the monsoon season. Most days, I did not see the sky. Think Blade Runner. Rain was frequent and heavy. At least, it seemed heavy to me at the time, but it must have been light compared with this year. Back in July, Bombay saw 37 inches of rain in a single day, and much of the city was shut down. In the city and the surrounding state of Maharashtra, 1000 people died from drowning, mudslides, electrocution, etc. Over the following weeks, well over a hundred died of flood-related diseases.

But now the sky is clear. Perhaps because of this, the city appears more navigable then before, and I am looking forward to doing some exploring. Bombay is often described as “vibrant”, “exciting”, a “land of opportunity”, or a “shopper’s paradise”. I can finally see how this makes sense.

On giving to beggars

Since there is no social safety net, begging here is a more legitimate activity than it is at home. However, I am still not sure how I should respond. Some say that you should not give to children, since they are probably working for someone else. But how about elderly women?

One guide is to imitate the Indians around me. When a beggar approaches only me and ignores the Indians, I figure that I’m seen as an easy mark, so I don’t play along. (It’s true that I’m richer than the average person in the street, but most of them can afford to give 5 rupees if they feel like it.) If a beggar approaches many people, and some of them give something, then I might do so, too.

In any case, every time I don’t give to a beggar, I mentally increase the size of my next donation to the American Jewish World Service.

How do the poor survive?

I have asked several friends about this, and have formed opinions based on my interpretation of what they have said. But that doesn’t mean that my opinions are accurate. If a foreigner asked me how poor people in America live, I could certainly lay out some facts, but I might not have the whole picture.

I have been given two partly contradictory impressions.

First: The poor are engaged in a constant struggle for survival. If you’re poor, you don’t know how much money you’ll make today. If you don’t make enough money, then you won’t be able to eat, and so you’ll be weaker tomorrow, and even less able to earn money. Thus begins a downward spiral, at the end of which you die.

Second: While there is hunger in some villages, no one needs to go hungry in the cities. Reason: even a menial job like cleaning garbage out of the streets can earn you Rs 10,000 – 20,000 per month, and you can eat reasonably well on only Rs 50 per day.

Shelter, however, is another story. One friend says that in the cities there is no market in decent, middle class housing. “Decent” here means, among other things, that you have electricity and running water 24/7, rather than, say, for a few hours on alternate days. So for an urban worker the choices are as follows:

  • Be rich.
  • Live in the suburbs, and put up with a long, miserable commute.
  • Get a high-enough-level job that it comes with housing. (Example: university student or teacher.)
  • Make do with the sort of housing that you could never live in if you were not used to it.

In Bombay, I passed what looked like counterexamples to the above: apartments that looked decent enough on the outside, but that clearly weren’t fancy enough for rich people. But Dipendra said that the residents were probably upper-middle class, or had lived there for a long time.

But don’t take my impressions too seriously. Back in 1986, when I visited the Soviet Union, one of my goals was to get a sense of what ordinary people thought about their own government, Communism, America, etc. So I asked my contacts there (none of them Communists) what people in general thought. Here are three answers I received:

  • Most people believe and support the government.
  • Everyone hates the government.
  • No one thinks about politics. They’re too busy drinking.

So my goal was unrealistic. But I should have known this; if a foreigner asked me what Americans in general think about world affairs, I wouldn’t have a good answer.

Giving a talk

In the math department, the colloquium is held on Thursdays. But I can’t give a talk next week, since I’m leaving early on Wednesday. Can I speak today (i.e., with three hours’ notice) on a work I’ve never spoken about before?

Since I am always up for a challenge (Note: This is false), I agreed to do so.

How it went: I think that parts were too elementary, and parts were too advanced. So on the average it was just right. At least, the audience threw no vegetables. Nor meats.

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Posted 2005/11/19

The story is becoming more sedate. Since I am among friends, I have fewer opportunities for getting scammed.

(Actually, I’m on my own for a bit. Dipendra is off in the suburbs giving lectures to college teachers. On Saturday he’ll be in Bangalore, and Rohit and a group of children (millions of them, probably) will see the premier of Harry Potter and the Chicken Soup for the Soul, or whatever the latest installment is.)

Today’s Table of Contents

Demons conquered

When I visited Bombay two years ago, I didn’t see much of the city due to a combination of my work schedule and illness. Apart from the beautiful TIFR campus, I mainly saw the area around the Gateway of India, and parts in between, i.e., Colaba peninsula, and my view was colored by the monsoon.

Though Colaba is a tourist destination, it is also crowded, seedy, and dirty. Without clear sunlight, it was hard for me to notice that there were hotels and restaurants that you might actually want to patronize (apart from the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, which is impossible to miss).

Not only was my opinion biased by weather and illness, but I extrapolated from it to other parts of town. Thus, I didn’t know if there were places to: sit in a coffee shop and read; have a relaxed dinner on a patio by the street; live in a Western, middle-class style.

Friday evening, I fixed that.

First, I visited a new neighborhood for me: Nariman Point. Here I could find rows of plausible-looking restaurants and shops, and I walked around mostly unmolested. True, the beggars would still walk beside me for a block, and there were a few people sleeping on sidewalks or medians, but no one was yelling at me. [Question: Why would you sleep on the median of a major road when there are broad expanses of quiet, unoccupied sidewalk nearby?] Several people said “Hello”, and I really believe that their only purpose in doing so was to say “Hello”.

There were still few foreigners around, but I was rarely the only one in sight, so I stuck out less.

The restaurant that I visited had a variety of Indian and “Continental” food, so I had a bit of each. There was was a bake shop attached, so I had a meringue, too. When it comes to inducing comfort, a little familiarity goes a long way.

From Nariman Point, I walked all the way to Colaba. Yes, it’s dirtier, and the beggars are more numerous and aggressive. But through some sort of acclimation process, the situation was now most tolerable. Moreover, I could now see the hotels, restaurants, and bars that I had missed two years before. Not as many as at Nariman Point, but enough.

Some cultural differences

  • When two men hold hands, it only means that they are friends. Other forms of friendly bodily contact are also common, at least among younger people. And this is not confined to India. Three years ago, I saw inter-male hand-holding in Malaysia, a country that is not known for embracing certain kinds of, um, diversity.
  • In America, when you lean on the horn, it means, “Get out of my way, you idiot!” But here the horn is rarely used in anger, and means one of the following:
    • You are about to veer and/or step into my path. Please note that I have not slowed down, and act accordingly.
    • I wish to affirm my existence.
    • Please join with me in celebrating our common humanity.

    [Note added 2005/11/20: the next posting contains an addendum to this list.] During daytime traffic, expect a cabbie to honk about six times per minute.

  • In America, one drives on the right. In India, one drives in the center, but veers to the left when necessary to avoid either a median or a head-on collision.

Is India a third-world country?

At first, this question seems absurd. So many of the people live in poverty, and India’s UN Human Development Index is somewhat low. Judging by personal conversations and my reading of the newspapers, the government is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective (and so most of my contacts here don’t bother to vote). And labor is dirt-cheap, a boon to those who can afford to hire some.

Aren’t these all characteristics of third-world countries?

On the other hand:

  • India has first-rate science. Not as much as it should have, given the size of the country, but still a lot. Of course, the USSR also had first-rate science, but that was because emigration was difficult, and because in a command economy you have a greater ability to artificially concentrate resources on showcase projects. (Thus Russia today still has good science, but much less of it.) While many of India’s brightest do indeed emigrate, those who stay do so by choice, not compulsion. So whereas the USSR struck me (in 1986, when I visited) as a poor country pretending to be rich, India is a poor country trying to get richer.
  • Though written off decades ago as a Malthusian disaster, the country is self-sufficient in food.
  • The economy is diverse, producing not just exportable goods but many of its own inputs. If this is also true of individual cities, then Jane Jacobs would approve.
  • The economy, the poverty level, and the government could be a lot worse. This is the impression I get from chatting with a visiting neuroscientist who, though she is of Indian origin and speaks two Indian languages, is actually a fourth-generation east African, presently living in Kenya.

So we have a contradictory picture. Perhaps it’s simply too hard to sum up a country with a one-word label, even if it is hyphenated.

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Posted 2005/11/20

You might notice that the amount of time between postings decreases by a factor of two each time. Since I write only finitely fast, this is not sustainable.

Today’s Table of Contents

An important omission

Yesterday, I gave several possible meanings of leaning on the horn. But I forgot an important one:

  • I am about to pass you.

In fact, many vehicles have “Horn, please” written along the back.

In Ohio, you’re supposed to give a toot when you pass, but you don’t lean on the horn. Not that anyone does either one…

Rant: Could the U.S. become a third-world country?

[This item grew large enough that I put it on its own page.] [Update, 2019.  I was recently forced to port my website to a new format, and all of the internal links broke.   Out of laziness, I’m not repairing the link to my thoughts from 2005, the details of which are of less interest today.  To summarize, I thought that we were moving in the wrong direction, and have continued to do so since then in the sense that, more and more, we operate under rules that barely pretend to serve the public interest.  But there is still a long way to go down.  I don’t advocate burning down the house just because the refrigerator is unreliable.]

Another walk through the vibrant city

When I’m in the big city, I like to just walk around, stopping along the way for snacks, meals, drinks, and gawking. Somehow, it always seemed that this was not possible in Bombay; for example, I didn’t know of any comfortable place from which to gawk apart from, say, the hermetically sealed lobby of a luxury hotel (and it’s cheating to pretend to belong to the expense-account set).

This evening, I took another walk around Nariman Point and Colaba, just like last night, though along some different streets. I saw (and sometimes patronised) more and more restaurants, department stores, bakeshops, convenience stores. That is, I functioned in the way that is normal for me.

Well, mostly normal. Once, I was surrounded by beggar children who kept following me. For some reason I cannot fathom, they were satisfied when they pulled two pens from a side pocket of my backpack. What use are pens to a non-nerd? I was too surprised to say something like, “Children, your parents should spank you.”

During a five-minute period soon before I called it a night, various gentlemen offered me:

  • something to smoke that probably wasn’t tobacco;
  • a room;
  • a girl;
  • themselves.

However, at least on this particular evening, I wasn’t interested in any of the goods or services listed above, so I declined. But at least none of the gentlemen were pushy.

I Win!

After my first trip to India, I was utterly defeated. Normally, I can drop into an unfamiliar city and function just fine, even if I don’t know the language. Why not here?

The present trip is, among other things, a rematch. Towards the end of my stay in Delhi a few weeks ago, back when I was still traveling on my own, I was already starting to feel that I was getting the hang of things. That feeling has only increased.

I now know, for example, some places where local middle-class people (or lower-middle-class people who want to splurge) might go for a good meal, for coffee, or for people-watching. I know when I need to haggle (though I don’t always bother). I know how to get around (at least in the big city; the countryside is another matter entirely). I know how to not get anxious over touts. I know some neighborhoods (at least in Bombay) where I can walk around comfortably. This, despite the fact that I still have not taken a general city tour (which I hope to do Tuesday, making the situation even better.).

I win the rematch.

On the other hand, last time around, Dipendra and I solved the problem that we had set for ourselves, one that had been bugging me for about a dozen years. This time, so far, we have not.

So we’ll call it a draw.

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Posted 2005/11/21

City tour; baffling incident; India epilogue

In Delhi a few weeks ago, I took a city bus tour offered by the government tourist office. All of the commentary was in English, and at least a third of it was in a form of English that I can understand. So it worked out rather well.

In addition, I managed to have some nice conversations with a fellow passenger.

But despite having spent a lot of time in Bombay, I had only seen the southern part of town, and had yet to take a city tour. I fixed that today.

This time, the commentary was in Hindi, so I understood slightly less than I did in Delhi. More worrisome, every time we stopped somewhere, I had to wonder where and when to meet the bus afterwards. Still, I managed never to get lost, and even had a few halting conversations with other tourists.

In accordance with my policy, I won’t describe the sights we saw. But I was glad to see a wider variety of neighborhoods than I had known before. I’d feel comfortable enough returning to any of these.

Since I was only taking the city tour, rather than the full-day, city-and-suburbs tour, the bus left me off in the northern part of town and continued on its way without me. Rather than taking a taxi all of the way home, I decided to take one only part way, grab a cup of tea, and then walk from there to a familiar place.

(Note: Cup-of-tea prices can range from Rs 5 to Rs 150, depending on the fanciness of the joint. If you go the fancy route, you are like Jennifer Lopez paying $10,000 for a normal-sized hotel room in New York. But you probably look different.)

As I was walking toward Mumbai University, something happened that I can’t explain. Two men followed me as I crossed a busy street. At some point, they both touched my sandals. Why? I ignored this. Then they both grabbed my knees and tried to lift me up.

I shook them off and shouted (quietly; I was too surprised to be loud) “What are you doing?”, and abruptly reversed direction. Personal space, you know. They gave me a baffled look, and made a gesture that looked to me like a request for money.

What were they doing? We were in a crowd, and in the bright sunlight. So this was not an attempted mugging. And when you pick someone’s pocket (not that I would know, but you hear things), you either have to be subtle, so the mark doesn’t even know anything has happened, or you need for a friend to provide some sort of friendly misdirection while you exercise your five-finger stock options. So this wasn’t an attempted pocket picking.

What was it?

(But to illustrate the fact that India has no monopoly on bafflingness, here is quote from my mother: “Beacon headline today is that Summit County has enacted an indoor smoking ban, sort of, to start February 28. The ban includes restaurants and bars. Exemptions include Northfield Race Track, private homes, retail tobacco stores, part of hotel rooms and bowling alleys, and this interesting drafting: private adult nonprofit members-only clubs in free-standing buildings with a specific class of liquor permit, provided that they have no employees. What do you think is described here?”)

I’m leaving India in a few hours. If I have any concluding thoughts about my experience here, I’ll post them (if at all) only after mulling them over for a bit. But for now, I’ll just say that I think that India is indeed manageable for a foreign visitor, provided that you can endure petty inconveniences with good humor. If you’re curious, ask me later what I think are the relevant dos and don’ts for you. Or, to paraphrase from a certain manual, I can tell you “things not to do and how to do them right”.

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Posted 2005/11/25

Table of Contents for today’s posting

Bangkok: Culture shock of a different kind

When you arrive at the airport, there are certainly plenty of taxi touts. I would have found this situation uncomfortable had I not become used to much worse in India.

In most other respects, travel here is completely different, and I’m appreciating even pleasures that I had forgotten I was missing.

There’s safe food and drink everywhere. I can eat salads even if they haven’t been soaked in a potassium permanganate solution. I can have foods involving cut fruit, even if I didn’t peel and cut it myself.

Drinks made with ice are safe.

Taxis use their meters.

The ladies who yell “MAAAAA-SAAAAZH” take “No, thank you” for an answer. (To be fair: I think that most massage services here are legitimate.) In fact, almost everyone takes “No, thank you” for an answer. Exception: One guy who I couldn’t understand. Eventually, I realized what he was saying.


“No, thank you.”


No, thank you.

“Whatyouwant? Whereyougoing?” …

Don’t follow my nose

Having a good sense of direction isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you and I are walking in an unfamiliar place, I probably can figure out how to get where we need to go. But:

  • You have to be willing to be lost for a while. So don’t follow me if you’re in a hurry.
  • Somehow, I have a knack for wandering into the least interesting parts of town. Once my parents made the mistake of letting me choose the walking direction in Canterbury. Soon, we were strolling beside people’s washing lines. Another time, my cousin Debby and I were walking near the Tower of London. Soon, we were headed down a street that had no retail establishments, and where trucks made up the majority of the traffic.

Here’s an illustration of both of the above. I wanted to cross the river along the Rama IV bridge. It’s in sight, so why not just walk? Unfortunately, there’s a canal blocking my way. To get over the canal requires a long diversion. But making this diversion requires another diversion. Soon, I’m in a part of town where there are no signs in English and no visible foreigners. And now it’s completely dark.

Speaking of my nose

The pollution here is probably as bad as that in Indian cities. However, it’s different in character somehow. I’m guessing that it involves more chemicals, and less soot.

So while I’m still grateful for snot, it’s less useful here.

Meanwhile, I have come down with a bad cold. Could I have a little less snot, please?

On the ubiquity of certain chain stores

You won’t be surprised to hear that Starbucks shops have sprouted up like… well, Starbucks. However, 7-11 shops have sprung up like Starbucks’s much more successful cousin. It is not unusual to see two of them along the same block. Or two across the street from each other. Or both. So you could have three or more shops within sight at once. I have proof!

Once, while in a cab, we passed five 7-11s in… fifteen seconds. Of course, we were moving rather fast, but still.

My first-ever Thanksgiving away from family

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the U.S. Some restaurants and hotels prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal for homesick American expats. However, I didn’t make any effort to get in on any of these, having decided that Thanksgiving is tied not to my local time but to God’s Own Time: Eastern Time.

So I didn’t feel that I was missing anything Thursday night. Friday morning, however, I gave the Folks a call. Since they were hosting not only my entire immediate family and the children thereof, but also some of my best friends, calling them was better than eating turkey.

A taste of home

While I had no turkey on Thursday evening, I did experience a taste of home.

I was hanging out in a neighborhood where about a third of the people were (judging by overheard accents) European or Australian. Adding to the hominess was a familiar sight: A well-dressed, fresh-faced American-accented white guy shouting about the certain Doom we face if we do not understand the Bible in the correct Way, and take Heed. He made me feel like I was right back at the Universities of Akron and/or Michigan.

However, I think that he could have maximized his expected impact by visiting a neighborhood filled with people who were displaying more upside potential. For example, there is a whole district devoted to strip shows and such, but that is elsewhere, and none were visible nearby.

And if he didn’t want to go to the trouble of moving to another part of town, he could always have gone around the block and visited Chabad House.

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Posted 2005/11/27, with one sentence changed the next day

There’s an oldie but goodie about an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician who were traveling in Scotland and saw a black sheep. If you don’t remember it, then you might want to refresh your memory before reading the rest of today’s posting.

Table of Contents

In response to a question about that convenience store chain

I was asked what the 7-11s carry. Well, they have all the usual flavors of Lay’s potato chips: Cheese ‘n’ Onion, Extra Barbeque, Nori Seaweed, Thai Chili Paste, Grilled Lobster. Many other products are also analogous to familiar ones: lots of instant noodle products, dried snacks (mango, tamarind, “sweeten plum”, salted plum), cereals (like Nestle Koko Krunch), and Asian analogues of Hostess-type products.

Most important, they have Slurpees. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be real 7-11s.

However, they do not have tofu jerky, and you’d better believe that I looked hard. The closest item I could find had the following list of ingredients: “pork, fat, sugar, salt, preservatives”.

Churning the Lung Butter

Last Friday, apart from getting an evening meal and posting something to this log, I never left my hotel room. My cold was just too severe. But some medication cured my nose and throat problems in the traditional way: by transferring them to the lungs.

Still, by Saturday I was well enough to take a day trip out to see Ayuthaya and nearby sights. (I passed on the Day-Long Poultry Farm Tour, even though it was 50% off.) We traveled up by bus, and back by lunch-boat. There was plenty of scenery along the shores, and Mr. Bean on the TVs.

A gang of schoolboys interviewed me, something that was apparently part of an assignment. But when they asked what I liked in Thailand, how could explain my answer, “safe food”?

Since I’m not commenting here on the sights themselves, let me just remark that, despite being a direct descendant of that guy who was portrayed on Broadway for years, King Bhumibol bears no resemblance whatsoever to Yul Brynner.

Backing up a statement I made earlier

The other day, I said that I thought most massage businesses in Bangkok were legitimate. Here is an actual datum. Upon returing from my day trip, I took a walk through bits of Chinatown and down Silom Road. Then I had a one-hour foot-massage session.

Actually, it was foot reflexology. The theory behind reflexology is that you can cure all sorts of aches and pains by manipulating various points on the foot. I neither believe nor disbelieve in this or similar theories (though, come to think of it, my nose-bridge sure is relaxed), but for me all that mattered was that my feet and lower legs felt great. Had I known that something this affordable would have worked so well, I would have had it done during every day of my short Bangkok stay.

Strictly in the name of Science, of course.

So, in the spirit of the black sheep story that you should have read earlier, I can now unequivocally state that at least one massage business in Bangkok is legitimate, at least some of the time. At least when it comes to massaging certain parts of the body.

Why I can’t observe Bangkok objectively

First of all there was my illness, which caused me to miss every single historic site in town. So it’s a good thing I wasn’t going to write about those anyway.

Second, there’s the fact that I’m here for a tad under four days.

Third, there’s the fact that I’m here purely as a tourist. I have no local business or local contacts of any kind.

Finally, for now I can only see Bangkok in relation to India. I cannot see any reason why this would be considered a third world country. What with the sparkling mass transit system, the almost total lack of beggars, the relative (relative) dearth of scams, the ubiquity of safe food and drink, the general setup that assumes that a certain fraction of people around are foreigners, it’s at the moment hard for me to see anything else. (Like, say, the health system, rural living standards, the tax situation, the level of political corruption. Of these I know nothing.)

Hong Kong: First three impressions (with more later)

  1. Oh.
  2. My.
  3. God.

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Posted 2005/11/28

Interlude: I owe Judge Samuel Alito a debt of gratitude

I am a some-time collector of kook and near-kook literature. Back when I was in college, a dissident alumni group, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, published an alternative alumni magazine, Prospect. They were good enough to distribute copies to all dorm rooms on campus. I still have several issues in a box somewhere in a storage locker outside Akron, Ohio.

According to a New York Times story that appeared on line just before I prepared my previous posting, Samuel Alito, the current Supreme Court nominee, was a member of CAP, at least during the time that I was reading Prospect. I should thank him for helping to finance my habit.

Why did I collect Prospect? Since I don’t have access to my copies right now, I will only comment on a few items that I remember best, in order not to confuse CAP with the various alumni cranks who occasionally wrote letters to campus publications. (Sample sentiments that I think come from the latter: I am dismayed by the mongrelization of campus. Let’s have no more than 15% Jews, and 3% Asians and other minorities. Why are we letting in all of these big-SAT kids from New York City? Everything went to hell once they started admitting women. How dare you decline admission to my daughter when I’ve given you money!)

Prospect was mostly serious, but occasionally tried to be funny. Once in a while, they succeeded, especially when it came to colorful phrases. I still remember “evangelical lesbians”.

Unfortunately, the humor was often undermined by a tone of nastiness. They had a little news item on a woman who had previously obtained her job as a coal miner after a discrimination suit. Now she had become the first American woman to die in a coal mining accident. They linked this event to an ongoing campus controversy in a way that clearly meant, “Served her right”.

Perhaps they would say that I am a stereotypical humorless liberal (SHL) for taking offense at this reading. In practice, I find SHLs to be more the exception than the rule. (After all, the term “politically correct” was originally one of liberal self-mockery.) But Prospect did tend to bring them out of the woodwork. One of the many student-run businesses on campus was the Prospect Removal Agency. For a fee, they would remove issues of Prospect from your doorstep within a few hours of delivery. Prospect‘s then-editor, Dinesh D’Souza, who went on to bigger things, responded appropriately, offering to perform the same service for a lower price. [Updated: see the endnote.]

The campus humor magazine published a spoof of Prospect whose cover featured a bunch of folks in Klan outfits standing in front of Nassau Hall, the main administration building. The headine: Let’s Put The “Old” Back In “Old Nassau”.

This also offended the SHLs.

What really got Prospect in trouble was the heartbreaking story, mentioned in the New York Times, of a Puerto Rican mother whose daughter was sleeping with her boyfriend, and the university wasn’t going to do anything about it. On the contrary, if the mother cut her financial support, then the university would raise theirs. Although the article referred to the girl via a pseudonym, they included enough details to make her identity obvious to everyone at my end of campus who had a clue (i.e., probably everyone but me).

Then, to make matters worse, in one instance they forgot to use the pseudonym.

The article seems to have been based on the mother’s complaints. But judging by the observations of some students, she was not necessarily reliable, and her daughter had good reason to try to separate herself. This is not to say that the daughter was living what you might call a wholesome lifestyle. From what I hear, it was actually worse than anything described in Prospect.

By the way: The girl’s boyfriend was the roommate of someone who until recently worked at the University of Akron’s Mathematics Department.

If I had access to my literature collection, then I could write more about Prospect. But the two items above (the lady who Got What She Deserved, and the university’s Encouragement of Female Immorality) were not exactly outliers. The Times story has more information.

Samuel Alito did not write these articles, or anything else in Prospect. Is his membership relevant?

I certainly would not want to be held responsible for every word that has ever appeared in a publication to which I have subscribed.

On the other hand, I used to be a financial supporter of an organization that does good work. Once, they engaged in a common fundraising practice that I find objectionable. So I objected, and when I received what I considered an unacceptable response, I withdrew my support. They are still a good cause, but there are many good causes in the world, and since I can support only a tiny fraction of them, I can be as selective as I wish, using whatever criteria I wish, and feel no twinge of conscience.

So while I am not saying that Alito’s CAP membership should be a prime consideration, it is relevant, as is the fact that he himself thought his membership was relevant when he mentioned it while applying for a government promotion in 1985.

Unfortunately for my habit, Prospect folded as I was finishing college. Later, I almost forgot about them: I moved to Chicago, where the analogous publication was much, much nastier, perhaps because it was run by students, not alumni. Let’s hope that they grew up, because they’re probably all in positions of power now.

Sometimes less nasty, and usually more colorful, were the various leftist groups in Chicago. Among others, we (the community at large, not the campus) had the Maoists, the Trotskyites, and the Stalinists, all of whom probably hated each other.

Sadly, most of these groups, left and right, stopped publishing in the late ’80s, though the Stalinists held on for a while, continuing to praise the Albanian government as an ideal for all the world to follow.

I also heard of a revolutionary group whose members all had code names in preparation for the day when the revolution began and they’d have to go underground. I heard that they had about six members, but this was before they split in two over a doctrinal disagreement.

But enough time on Memory Lane for now. Whenever I set up house again, as I’m unpacking my kook literature boxes, I’ll say a word of thanks to Judge Alito, or to Justice Alito, depending.

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Posted 2005/12/01

The other day, I forgot to mention something important: the Massachusetts-born King Bhumibol plays the saxophone.

Today’s table of contents:

Problems of Shyness III: Horror replayed as farce

At Ayuthaya, the former capital of Thailand, over 100 schoolchildren were sketching the ruins from various angles, and taking directions from someone who had a loudspeaker. I do not understand Thai, but can interpolate the probable meaning of one of their instructions:

“Notice the foreigners walking among us. Remember to say ‘Hello’.”

Problems of corruption

As I wrote earlier, I left Thailand knowing nothing about, say, the level of political corruption. Well, now I’ve learned something.

The hugely popular Sky Train offers a quick way to travel around the parts of Bangkok that it serves, giving passengers a panoramic view of the gridlock below. Two extensions to the system are partially built, but have been stalled for several years. Why is that?

Apparently, each political party is tied to some corresponding business interest. The Democrat Party is tied to the Sky Train builders. They presently control the city government, but not the central government. Ergo, it’s in the central government’s interest to stall or prevent construction. At least, that’s what the Bangkok newspapers seem to think.

But recently, in response to public pressure, the central government had to relent, and approved further construction.

Another reminder that the U.S. isn’t in the third world yet.

Bad Tourist! Bad! No Souvenir!

For several weeks after leaving India, my itinerary takes me every 3 or 4 days to another place that I’ve never been before. I do not endorse this mode of travel, at least for people who are like me. Here’s why.

When your stay is short, and it’s your first visit, you have to spend proportionally a longer time getting your bearings, learning to say the basics (“Hello”, “Thank You”, “Excuse Me”, “Not In A Million Years”), and taking whatever naps are necessary in order to recover from travel and ward off illness. That leaves much less time for everything else.

So I’m not going to have too much to say about the next few stops I make. For proof, go a few lines down.

Moreover, I’m getting itchy to return to the Land and Home of, respectively, the Free and the Brave.

Hong Kong

Imagine a cross between New York City and science fiction, but in a Florida climate, and on a topography more jagged than that of San Francisco.

An important lesson concerning that ubiquitous convenience store

Suppose you’re walking around in one of the well-populated districts of Hong Kong, you see a 7-11 across the street, and decide that you have a powerful hankering for a Slurpee. Should you cross the street? No!

  1. You’ll soon find another 7-11 on your side of the street.
  2. In both of them, the Slurpee machine is broken.

But it all other respects, Hong Kong is ahead of us in technology.

Scam avoided: Hong Kong version

Walking along Nathan Road, I was stopped numerous times by gentlemen, all of the same nationality (I won’t say which), who all wanted to make conversation about where I’m from, and who all said that they were tailors, and who all invited me to be fitted for a new suit.

If you’ve seen me at a formal occasion, then you know that I could actually use a new suit.

However, if I were in the mood to have a suit made for me, I’d choose a tailor based on recommendations, not based on whom I happened to meet on the street. And if I were a tailor, I would not be standing on street corners. Something’s not right about this.

I should have thought about suits before I made the trip, and visited a tailor either in Hong Kong or India. Dang.

My present whereabouts

I’m sitting in an internet cafe in Manila. A Heroine of Free Enterprise is standing outside the door. She is waving at me frantically. Perhaps she wants to show me some free-market action. Milton Friedman would be proud.

But I’m tired of saying, “No, thank you.” So to stall for a moment, let me just record the fact that, while shopping for snacks in the convenience store a few blocks away, I had a choice between ube bread and mongo bread. Let’s hope that I chose wisely.

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Posted 2005/12/06

[I have composed my next posting, but internet access is a bit inconvenient here in the People’s Republic, so I’ll wait to post it until I get back. For now, I’ll just say that the ube bread was delicious, and I’ll bet that the mongo bread would have been, too.]

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Posted 2005/12/13, but mostly composed much earlier, at least in rough form

Today’s table of contents:

The Philippines: Still bird flu free!

The U. S. State Department is warning people against visiting the Philippines, mainly because of a home-grown terrorist movement. In addition, stories exist of travelers being robbed at gunpoint by taxi drivers. There are precautions that one can take against being a victim of either terrorists or taxi drivers, but it would be nicer not to have to worry.

However, there were no terrorist incidents during my visit (though the American embassy was closed two days later because of a bomb threat), and not only did my drivers not rob me, but they even used their meters, a pleasant surprise.

Upon arrival at the Manila airport, you learn:

  • they have the death penalty for drug traffickers;
  • they are bird flu free, and would like to stay that way;
  • the mayor of Pasay City, where the airport is located, is named Pee Wee Trinidad;
  • all major airports have ATMs, but it’s a bad idea to assume that all major airports have working ATMs.

Economic conditions

(Apart from first-hand observations, my information comes from two sources: my local contact at the University of the Philippines, and the tour guide for a day trip I took to the countryside. These two people are not connected, and yet their versions of reality meshed remarkably well.)

The Philippines is a third-world country. Not only is the poverty visible, but when I asked my two sources how many people typically go to bed hungry, they both came up with the same figure: 70%! [Updated: see the endnote.] This is much higher than the analogous figure I was given in India. However they are not really comparable, since the Indian observers might be using different definitions of “hungry”. For example, my local contact, when pressed, said that he probably did have enough food growing up, but not enough nutrition.

Both contacts also mentioned (with no prompting from me) the deep influence of the Catholic Church, and its opposition to certain reasonably effective forms of family planning. They cited this as one of the causes of poverty. The tour guide even mentioned that her husband’s family have condemned her as a bad Christian because she had a tubal ligation after having her second child. Too much information!

Here is something I don’t understand. If the people listen when the church says, “Don’t use birth control”, why don’t they listen when the church says, “Don’t offer or accept bribes”? [Updated: see the endnote.]

Manila has some people (including whole families) who sleep on the streets at night. But there are fewer of these than in Delhi and Bombay, and I am told that they generally have adequate lives to return to in the countryside, but are willing to endure street life in exchange for the economic opportunities of the city.

How I am treated on the street

I am less of an oddity here than I was in India, partly because the density of tourists is higher here, and partly because of the long local history of American military occupation.

(Of course, I am enough of an oddity even when I’m at home.)

Anyway, my treatment on the street here is thus much different than it was in India. For example, drivers do not stop to solicit business, and almost all vendors take “No, thank you” for an answer. The only exceptions are:

  • a woman who vends herself a few blocks from my hotel, and who feels that if she follows me for a half a block while pleading her case, then I might change my mind;
  • a guy outside my hotel who is vending other people. When I say, “No, thank you”, he always responds that he can get a “very young” girl. Unfortunately, I think that he’s telling the truth. But reporting him to the authorities would be like reporting Ohioans who disrespect red lights.

The tour guide sounded shocked to hear about this. She had previously referred to the neighborhood as the “former” red-light district.

By the way, no one in Manila ever offered me drugs.

Universities and malls

I visited the University of the Philippines, Diliman, the mathematical home of my local contact, and the leading university in the country. The campus is quite beautiful, even on a sometimes uncomfortably hot day, and a fleet of jeepneys helps the students get around. As is often the case in tropical architecture, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is sometimes blurred. For example, the hallways at the math department had cats.

Among the cats, I got to do a little math, discussing nonunimodular groups as well as deformation quantization.

A senior professor here can expect to earn around $600 per month, which is plenty for getting by. However, salaries are several times higher at the few private universities that cater to those children of the rich and influential who cannot pass the UPD entrance exams. (Apparently, wealth and influence only go so far, even here.) But the downside of such a job is having to deal with pressure from above to alter grades. (So wealth and influence do have value, after all.)

Filipinos love malls. (Is it okay to make such a blanket statement?) Here, in this third-world city, they have huge, beautiful shopping malls, built to what appears to be first-world standards. In any major city, you’d expect to see a few such places to cater to the foreigners and the local rich. But here, it seems like ordinary people can afford to hang out, and even shop. You just have to be willing to go through the metal detectors and endure possible pat-downs.

Let’s hear it for a skeptical press!

On December 2, the Manila Bulletin (“The Nation’s Leading Newspaper”) had a front-page story about the inaugural convocation of the “Universal Peace Federation” (UPF) in Manila. This was also the subject of the lead editorial, as well as a congratulatory message on the editorial page.

According to the Bulletin, the UPF is a project of that “world peace advocate and staunch supporter of interfaith cooperation”, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. His entourage includes “peace leaders” such as…… Neil Bush.

Holiday cheer

The Philippines is even more Christmassy than Akron. The seasonal music starts in September, and it is relentless. Imagine Leroy Anderson’s Sleighride, but played with a syntho-pop beat, and very loudly. White Christmas is also popular, even though Manila has probably never seen one. There’s also the ever-present Chipmunks roasting on an open fire, or whatever it is.

I swear, every time I hear even one of the lesser-played bits of Handel’s Messiah, it’s so glorious that it’s almost enough to make me a believer. But then I hear yet another version of Jingle-bell Rock, and it’s back to my heathen Jewish ways. In the Philippines, the musical choices are such that my identity is secure.


The most charming sight in Manila is the constant flow of jeepneys. Imagine a bunch of surplus army jeeps, retrofitted as public transport vehicles by the addition of benches. Each vehicle is decorated differently: the more garishly, the better.

Unfortunately, as the old jeepneys wore out, they were replaced with new, purpose-built vehicles, which thus now have an underlying sameness, and the decorations are less garish than I’m told they used to be. But they’re still impressive.

About the decorations: Expect to see logos of American sports teams; pictures of Tweety Bird, Spider Man, saints, or horses; statements of faith in God or Jesus; miscellaneous slogans; or various combinations of the above. I would have paid money for a nice book of jeepney photos.

First impression of Beijing

Imagine glitzy neon lights grafted onto a soulless, wind-swept, Soviet-style police state. But maybe I’m biased, having arrived on a Sunday evening in winter. And as for the “police state” bit, you won’t suffer from repression unless you challenge the government’s authority in some way, and most people are too busy for this: the poor are scrounging for money or food, and the growing middle classes are texting each other at Starbucks.

Government troops did kill some unarmed demonstrators during my visit, but this sort of thing has rarely happened since the Tienanmen Square massacre. (And for Mom’s benefit, the demonstration was nowhere near Beijing.)

Communication difficulties

A huge number of people in China are studying English. This is a good thing, since if they didn’t, we’d probably eventually have to learn Chinese, and then we’d be sunk. Still, most people in Beijing know little or no English, and there are some simple ideas that can be difficult to convey with gestures alone, such as:

  • Now that you have placed this ten-page menu before me, may I have a moment at least to peruse it before ordering?
  • May I have another cup of tea? (This required conversations with three staff members.)

Briefly joining the People’s Liberation Army

I participated in a People’s Liberation Army march. Or rather, I was walking down the street past a military installation (remember how I have a talent for finding the least scenic routes?) when suddenly I was among soldiers marching in formation. If anyone got a picture of this, then my political career is shot, at least in America.

The Great Well-Known-Sight of China

I visited the part of this that most visitors to Beijing see. Since it’s a long climb to the highest tower, there is now a train that takes you half way up. It’s more like a Disney ride, except that you’re not strapped in securely. In order to make it the rest of the way to the top you have to be

  • in good physical shape; or
  • pig-headed enough not to quit even when you’re in great pain.

Fortunately, I am one of these.

Things not bought

Tourists in Beijing are often urged to visit the Silk Market or the Pearl Market. However, a Swedish woman I met at the Great Well-Known Sight told me that these are the sorts of places where you have to bargain hard. That is, offer 10% of the asking price, and expect to settle on 15%. She enjoyed this, but it doesn’t work for me.

(It’s good that she was around. After we climbed the Well-Known Sight, the nearby coffee shop tried to charge me and her party the equivalent of $25, many times the going rate, for two tiny teas and three undrinkable coffees. I would have just paid, left, and felt exploited. She refused, plonked down something a bit more than the going rate, and directed us all to leave. No one arrested us.)

I was also told that these markets are the sorts of places where not only do the vendors not take “No” for an answer, but they’ll physically grab you. While it would be easy enough to ignore this, I was getting a bit cranky after almost two months outside my native country, so there was a danger that I might punch someone. Not visiting these markets was my way of promoting peace and nonviolence.

But silk and pearls weren’t the only commodities I failed to buy. Several times, I found myself near the Workers’ Stadium, and each time, I was offered drugs and women.

A common, unpleasant feature of tours

In many countries, when you take a tour, you can expect it to include a shopping trip to a place that pays a commision to the tour guide or operator, and that charges correspondingly exhorbitant prices. This is the case in parts of India, particularly Agra, unless you are dealing with the government tourist office. I was surprised to see this phenomenon also in Bangkok (though they tell you this up front, and make it easy for you to opt out), Hong Kong, and Beijing. The difference is that in India, the salespeople outnumber the customers, and the pressure is on.

As part of my trip to the Great Well-Known Sight of China (see above), we visited what was said to be an institute of traditional Chinese medicine. For some reason, they felt a need to display in their lobby pictures of all of the foreign dignitaries (e.g., Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland) who have supposedly visited, as well as pictures of foreign doctors studying their methods, or something.

There’s something wrong if you scream, “Look! We’re legitimate!” too loudly.

They also had posters extolling the virtues of using the finest, most expensive ingredients, and not cutting corners on quantity.

Anyway, after hearing a brief talk about the wide interest in traditional medicine because of its “perfect results”, we were introduced to three professors (i.e., older guys in white coats), who offered to examine us in the traditional way. This involved taking our pulse in both wrists, and looking at our tongues and eyes.

Each person who submitted to this found that he had some problem that could be cured by herbal medicine, and that such medicine could be bought downstairs on our way out.

My own problem: “Low kidney energy.” I was told that this is causing my hair loss, among other things. Guess I’ll have to stop blaming my father for that. (But I can still blame him for my back troubles. Okay, it’s not his fault that I’m out of shape, but it’s his fault that I’m tall. So let’s split the blame fifty-fifty.)

I did look at the prices downstairs. They were beyond what most Chinese people could afford.

But maybe cheaper substances would also work. Here’s a headline from the December 7 China Daily: Dog Vomit Excites Traditional Doctors.

Getting out of a foul mood

During my last full day in Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City and the parks and lakes north of it. The buildings of the F.C. have colorful names, like the Hall of Scrupulous Behavior, the Hall for Observing Military Virtue, and (my favorite) the Hall of Central Extremity. These buildings are all many centuries old, if you don’t count the fact that they have been destroyed and rebuilt several times.

In fact, one creepy aspect that Beijing and Berlin have in common is that they are both old cities that contain almost nothing old. However, between the two cities, the reasons for this are very different.

I skipped Mao’s mausoleum since I’m not into pickled meats. Moreover, I had visited Lenin years ago, and he hadn’t been the thrill-ride-of-a-lifetime that some people expect.

Anyway, it was cold and windy, and I was eager to get back to the States, and was thus in a rather foul mood, which the Forbidden City did nothing to temper. But the parks and lakes heading northward are quite lovely even in winter. Eventually, I heard some syntho-pop Chinese music and came upon a small plaza.

There’s nothing to brighten your mood like a dozen middle-aged Chinese ladies dancing the moral equivalent of the macarena, while several elderly couples practice their ballroom dancing.

I’m back in the USA, and shovellin’ snow

No trip is complete without five hours worth of delays at O’Hare, so I made sure to fit that in. (It could have been worse; at Midway, Chicago’s other airport, a plane skidded off the runway and hit a car.) But eventually, I arrived in Detroit, where Loren was good enough to pick me up and take me to Ann Arbor.

Here would be a good place to record the Lessons Learned from my trip. But it’s too soon for me to formulate these, with one exception.

Since Loren’s a junior colleague, I can assign him a task. The next time I make elaborate travel plans, or indeed elaborate plans of any kind, he’s supposed to tell me that I’m too old for this.

He asked if it would be okay just to shout “Dooooooooon’t!”.

“No, whatever you say has to involve the word ‘old’.”

Knowing him, he’ll comply. But knowing me, I won’t listen. I’m a big fan of spending surplus money on experiences rather than on things. So my advice is: Do get out there. But keep it simple, okay?

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Here is miscellaneous information I’ve learned since I wrote all of the above.

  1. Job, my mathematical contact in the Philippines, has read this page, and wishes to revise his estimate of how many of the people over there are hungry: 80%![Return to main text.]
  2. In response to my question about why, if so many people follow the directions of the Catholic Church, can’t the church just stamp out all corruption, Job expresses the opinion that the current president is a “really devout Catholic” and also “one of the most ruthless politicians around”.This doesn’t exactly answer the question, but it provides another counterexample to something or other.[Return to main text.]
  3. The founder of the Prospect Removal Agency, Anthony Lovell, identified himself to me, and says:

    As I recall, I only put up posters once advertising this service, to cause a stir. I did not care for D’Souza’s mean manner at all, plus he HAD come from Dartmouth. I am actually a conservative person, particularly by contrast here in my Cambridge place.

    So the Agency mainly existed in the initial splash and in the reaction from D’Souza. Perhaps I was the one being a stereotypical humorless liberal (SHL) when I assumed that it was a serious operation.[Return to main text.]

  4. [2006/03/27]: Muthu, a Chennai native who has read this page, points out that in Bombay he is presented with the same scams that I was. Evidently, some of what I labeled “Treatment of foreigners” is really “Treatment of out-of-towners”, and is analogous to, though more pervasive than, the three-card monte games that you sometimes see in New York City.[Return to main text.]