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Friday
Jun012007

Delhi: The Arrival

Now I've been in Delhi over two weeks and it's a big improvement over Kabul. Thanks to Chitra's help I found a decent appartment in Green Park and I've set up my office in Priya Complex market in Vasant Vihar. My "office" is actually Passion, which is a tea house that looks like a post-modern Starbucks and offers free wireless hi-speed internet.

It's an interesting experience finally getting to live in Delhi, and here are the biggest insights I have into Indian society so far.

-Some things are universal. The guy from AirTel who's supposed to set up my internet has so far managed to miss two appointments.

-You litterally cannot build stores and fill them with products fast enough here. People have a desire to spend their money but few places to do it. In the upscale suburb of Gurgaon there are countless megamalls and hypermarkets under construct to complement the 15 already completed. Delhi only really has a few decent shopping areas--Ansel Plaza, SouthEx, Khan Market, and Priya Complex, the rest are all out in Noida or Gurgaon. Now before you realise my bias, I'm not saying this as a snobby Californian so much as a consumer who just wants to be able to get stuff in an enjoyable and navigable environment. The old bazaars, say in Shahjahanabad, are now mostly wholesalers and not practical for the consumer, and the rest are crowded, dirty, and annoying (or tourist traps), even if they do have good food. Overall Delhi makes Los Angeles look pedestrian-friendly, which means not that it doesn't have public space, but that those spaces are too superhuman in size and hence too alienating. Whoever can fill demands more decent public/commercial space will make a lot of money. (this relates to my theory on how any good public space needs to be comercially oriented, this is why the National Mall in Washington DC is such a dramatic failure; it's not fun and it's not social)

-There is a serious lack of entrepreneurialism here and this has serious implications when coupled with the need to feed this growing economy. I'll give an example of how this plays out. At the tea house where I work they have a music playlist that basically consists of Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson, which the odd bit of Shaggy thrown in. All day long they will play the same Backstreet Boys songs over and over again and this doesn't change ever, I've been here almost every day for two weeks now and I've stopped in before as well. Now it's interesting that this never drives the staff crazy and that they don't think that they can say something to their manager about changing it. Trust me, nobody likes Backstreet Boys that much. Ever. The next point goes to why I don't ask them to change it. My reason is simple--the music will switch to whatever I ask them to change it to and then probably remain on that in perpetuity. In other words, it wouldn't get any better. This may be a bit presumptuous on my part, but I think as an example it captures something of the picture. I remember seeing a newspaper ad that has the shocking title of "World's Most Reliable Career!". Think about that for a minute.

A other cool thing is that I've already managed to have some visitors here. Shareena came to stay with me here and Liz and Sahar, both of Kabul, are also in town for short periods. Sahar actually will be here for about four hours tomorrow on a layover, during which I plan to take her to the famous Bukhara restaurant.

Friday
May112007

Shifting to Delhi!

A lot has happened since my last blog entry. My trip to Delhi went exceedingly well in way I never imagined. The girl who I had just met at the time of my last entry (Chitra) is now my girlfriend, and I will be shifting to Delhi for two to three months!

In Delhi we did end up going to Chitra to Elevate and then the three of us (me, Chitra, and Sanaa) hung out the next day and went to an excellent R&B club in Vasant Vihar, and me and Chitra decided we were a couple. Soon I found myself extending my stay by another week.

Upon arriving back in Kabul we tried to work out my visa paperwork, but it was more complicated than before. In order to get a working permit, we have to conven our board of directors to clarify that we can hire foreigners in our charter. This isn't very difficult or unreasonable--it's simply a matter of following the steps--but there's no way it would have been done before my one month tourist visa (which I got in Delhi) expired. So we came up with the decision that I will work from Delhi for the next two months while this gets straightened out, which also conveniently allows me to spend some time with Chitra!

With housing prices in Delhi being what they are, I should be able to get a very nice place with all the amenities. One amenity which I will be getting for the first time in my life will be air conditioning, which is essential now that the temperatures are consistently topping 40 degrees there.

My last weekend in Kabul is proving to be very pleasant as well. One of the higher-ups from Nathan's NGO, the COO, came to town and we spent the day touring various attractions. First we went to the OMAR (an organisation which clears landmines) mine museum, which has a collection of old military hardware. All of this was illuminated by Azim, Nathan's driver, who was conscripted out of high school by the communist government to fight the mujahidin. Azim also pointed out who controlled which hilltop during the worst of the fighting (from 1992-96). Basically all the warlords in Kabul (Dostum, Hekmatyaar, and Mas'ud were the main players) controlled various hilltops and spent the four years before the Taliban took over trying to dislodge each other from them (to give you an idea, Kabul consists of two big plains, with about three huge mountain peaks in the middle, and the northern plain also has about five major mesas interspersed upon it). With warlords such as Hekmatyaar firing up to 2,500 poorly guided, Pakistani-supplied rockets a day, one can see how the city emptied quickly and got to its current state.

After the museum, we went to Babur's tomb (Babur was the descendent of Timur who founded the Mughal state in India), which is surrounded by pleasant gardens filled with picknicking families. It has been restored by the Agha Khan Foundation, which has faithfully planted the garden with Babur's favourite trees like fruit trees and sycamores. After that we drove around the bombed- and burnt-out hulk of Darulaman Palace. All and all it was a very nice tour on a very nice day.

Saturday
Apr072007

Brain Masala and Elevate

I did manage to get to India, but Tuesday was a little stressful. First it turned out that what the Ministry of the Interior had given me as an exit visa, was not in fact the right document. So I couldn't go through customs. This time I held my ground. The customs guys wouldn't budge, so I pulled some wasta with a friend who's an advisor to Karzai. Soon the airport director was in on this and they finally agreed to hold my ticket and boarding pass while I dashed back to the Interior Ministry for my exit visa (turns out, the visa are issued in the passport directorate across from the ministry compound proper). I just barely managed it. We (me and the airport cabby) had to get exact change, and then passport photos, and finally head back to the airport. Luckily the flight was delayed and I ended up being the first person on the plane. The airport officially were stunned that I had pulled it off. Ironically at the passport directorate, just as the man was about to give me the visa, he said 'you shoulda come in here a few days ago, we would've given you a six-month multiple entry visa, which is the point of me going to India in the first place.

But here I am in Delhi, and it's nice and warm, as well as clean, green and fresh. I was dismayed to get off the plane and find that alcohol wasn't being sold for two days due to the municipal elections. Oddly enough, alcohol was also supposed to be forbidden today and yesterday too, because of vote counting and Good Friday, but no one seems to be heeding it now. The first night I contented myself with going to Karim's and getting some nice Shami kabab and karahi. The man who sat down next to me at the table goaded me into trying his brain masala, which was indeed tasty, except for the brain part.

As expected, I have been a lot more efficient here than in Kabul. I generally spend my time circulating between an internet cafe and one of the many coffee shops here. The coffee shops are a bit nicer and cooler than their American counterparts, usually full of businessppl like myself staring at their laptops with the addition of an above-average number of ridiculously hot girls.

In the evenings I've been having fun with some people Saurabh put me in contact. It's kind of like a refined version of my old crew from DC, with people who work in the World Bank, local Think-tanks, and some journalists. Also in the mix is Sanna, from Denmark, whose purpose here is doing research on middle-class drinking habits. Everyone is happy to provide her with material.

Yesterday the Indian end of the crew was too tired, so me and Sanna met up in Defence Colony (where I got some awesome Mangalorean fish fry for dinner!) and decided to go to TC. Now TC (Turquoise Cottage) is a random-looking Irish-style pub near Hauz Khaas Village. We wanted to go separate because Mohit, Kaushik, etc, usually don't like these sorts of places (they're loud and annoying, which I would agree with too, except that I'm curious). It was hilarious, the part played nothing but 'uncle music', some of which is very good like REM and U2, but would never fit into a 'cool setting' that I could imagine. In any case, we met a girl there name Chitra and hung out with her for a while. It turns out her goal for tonight was the same as ours, to go to Elevate in Noida. Elevate is prolly one of the largest and most important clubs in the world, with best and newest in music, so this truly should be an experience. This city is cool, and it's actually making me cool, if such a thing were ever possible!