Horn OK Please

Sunday, March 11th 2018 at 10:46 am
by Berck

India is a mess.

I tend to be more sensitive to sensory input than most people, and India is constantly in a state of assaulting all my senses.

India is absolutely full of smells, and almost all of them are not pleasant. The streets smell of vehicular exhaust, rotting garbage and urine. The inside of most places seem to be heavily artificially scented with perfumes and incense, none of which I find pleasant. Restaurants are the only places that actually smell good. I find even the inside of my hotel room to be quite unpleasant for a few minutes until I adjust.

It’s hot and sticky. I am poorly adapted to hot climates. I sweat constantly, everything gets sticky and I just want to take a shower. I’ve taken 3 today. I set the thermostat to 19 degrees in hotel room, a temperature that it’s only able to reach when the sun has set. It mostly hovers around 21.5, which is still cooler than whatever passes for room temperature in India.

And then there’s the noise. Here’s a video I shot on my walk this evening. I took it at an average intersection in Bangalore that wasn’t particularly busy and at a time of day with overall light traffic.

At first listen, it seems likely completely arbitrary and capricious use of the horn. Sadly, it’s far worse than that. In India, they actually believe that it’s polite to honk as you’re passing someone in order to let them know you’re there. The back of every single truck has a hand-painted slogan that reads some variation of, “Horn OK Please”, or “Sound OK Horn”. They are actually requesting that people honk at them so they know that they’re there. This is completely insane in a modern city, and is mostly insane anywhere else. It’s the driver’s responsibility to check his mirrors, not the overtaker’s responsibility to notify the driver that he’s passing.

Some parts of India have realized that this is a problem and have tried to address the problem by banning the phrase on trucks but it’s such engrained behavior that I’m not sure it can be changed. Rickshaw drivers tend to suffer hearing loss at disturbing rates. Surely someone must think, “Gee, it would be a lot nicer to be a person in India if I didn’t have to listen to this honking all the time.”

I can only presume that there are traffic laws India, but it doesn’t appear that they’re obeyed. It makes sense that they refuse to pay any attention to the painted lane markers because the roads can’t handle the traffic. It makes sense that they ignore the absurdly slow posted speed limits. It probably doesn’t make sense that they drive the wrong way on a divided highway because they can’t be bothered to find the next break in the median. Overall, though, I would rate your average Indian driver as far more competent than the average American driver. They pay attention, have excellent situational awareness, and don’t take up unnecessary space.

I think the “Horn OK Please,” mentality reflects the general problems I have with India. I’m not sure if there’s any city planning at all, or if anyone stops and thinks before building or modifying a structure. There’s trash all over the place, but there are teams of street sweepers on the highways. That is, women with small brooms, who push the trash into a pile. I’m not sure that the piles ever get picked up, but it seems that given the city is only about 25% covered in debris piles that some of them must get picked up some times.

The infrastructure is generally a mess. Here I am, walking along one of the better sidewalks in a wealthy part of Bangalore:

After I get past that, I encounter:

From what I gather, the local government in power in Karnataka has decided to launch a massive bit of infrastructure overhaul just before the elections. I’m not sure it’s going to engender the good will they’re hoping for. Here was the scene outside our restaurant this afternoon:

But even if things are trash-free, not dug up… what is going on here? This is typical. What is in this building, anyway? Is the place I go for a lampshade the same place I go for a kingfisher? Is the whole place the Brooklyn Tap, or is that upstairs? Maybe the lamp shades are on the roof?

I do like my hotel. There are some strange things, like the security. In addition to the xray/magnetometer dance every time I come and go, the elevators scan my room key, but poorly. The bed is a bit hard. The light switches are confusing, and everything turns off if you don’t have a room key inserted. But what’s best is the shower. It’s definitely the best shower I’ve had in a hotel room. I should post a picture of it. Maybe tomorrow. I’m sure that the water saving laws in the U.S. would prevent such an awesome shower.

In short, I’m glad I’m getting to see (at least this little part of) India, but I have no intention of spending my own money to buy a plane ticket to get back here. And I didn’t even get to the fact that I can’t walk anywhere without being harassed.

Hare Krishna

Sunday, March 11th 2018 at 9:15 am
by Berck

The manager of one of the teams in Bangalore has insisted on showing us around this weekend. Yesterday, we went to the Veerabhadra Temple. I’m not sure what I imagined, but it didn’t really fit any idea of “temple” I had in my head.

I don’t understand any religion from a rational basis, but Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common, familiar structure that I can understand to be comforting for some. Paganism is far removed but has, for me, a coherent literary structure and while I’ve never encountered contemporaneous practice, historical practice seems logical.

Hinduism, from my very first exposure has seemed nearly impenetrable. I suspect this is at least in part due to the lack of effort I’ve put into it, but even its practitioners come across to me as confused. The brief facts I know about Hinduism seem as though my childhood textbook writers picked arbitrary facts that were easy to convey with single words: polytheism, reincarnation, caste-system. None of which make any effort to get any core belief.

And maybe that’s because Hinduism isn’t actually a religion in the same sense of other religions I’m familiar with. From Wikipedia:

Hinduism includes a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but has no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist. Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term Hinduism, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult. The religion “defies our desire to define and categorize it”. Hinduism has been variously defined as a religion, a religious tradition, a set of religious beliefs, and “a way of life”. From a Western lexical standpoint, Hinduism like other faiths is appropriately referred to as a religion. In India the term dharma is preferred, which is broader than the western term religion.

My notion of a temple is thus rooted in my experience with temples I’ve known thus far: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and quite a few pagan ruins.

The Veerabhadra Temple is an odd (to me, but common for India) architectural ruin and functioning temple. The outside is surrounded by engraved, well-worn columns, frescoed ceilings, dirt floors. The frescoes are fading or have disappeared and the figures in the columns are eroding. There is no apparent effort to preserve the 500-year-old structure. Visitors touch the columns. The place is dirty.

On the inside, there are several idols attended to by priests (?). Devotees provide a small donation, and are rewarded with some words, some color smeared in their foreheads, some coconut water, maybe some fruit. I don’t really understand the exchange of fruit, as it seems to go both ways. The atmosphere inside is loud and chaotic and dingy and doesn’t resemble any sort of religious practice as I know it.

The drive to the temple was several hours and it was several hours back. I requested that today we see things in vicinity of Bangalore since we only had one day and it seemed like a city of 12 million probably had some interesting attractions without driving far away.

We started today by visiting ISKCON temple in town, home of the Hare Krishnas. We drove for nearly an hour and got to the temple only to discover that our coworker-guide had blindly followed his GPS to a small subsidiary temple and not at all the large temple we were trying to visit. We removed our shoes and visited anyway. I was permitted to take photographs of the idols.

We then drove for a long while down unpaved “roads” as our guide relied on Google Maps directions to navigate back to the correct temple. Google maps has a very good idea of where there are gaps between the buildings in Bangalore. Unfortunately, it thinks all of them are passable roads, and that’s simply not the case.

We eventually made it back to some main roads, and then after another hour, reached the temple we’d set out to see. Unlike the ancient temple it was built relatively recently. I was not allowed in wearing my shorts and to rent a dhoti to cover my obscene white legs, which greatly amused my coworkers.

The time spent in the temple itself was about 10% of the time spent in the massive complex of gift shops that you must pass through in order to exit. My coworkers were awfully interested in the various tchotchkes, but the perfumes and incense were more than I could take. While waiting for them, various Indians came by and took selfies with me. I’m not sure if they were amused because I was white, wearing a dhoti with a t-shirt, have a large beard, or the maybe the entire package. In any case, I’m probably lighting up Indian instagram.

At first I was glad to be able to walk around barefoot, but India is hot and my poor feet have grown soft since my days of perpetual barefootedness. I’m pretty sure I have blisters on my feet.

After another hour of driving and some back and forth about lunch after I requested spicy goat biryani, we arrived here for lunch. It’s apparently somehow related to this guy. I think.

In any case, the food was served on banana leaves and was quite good. Sadly, the biryani was only available as “medium” spicy, but it was still quite good. Instead of plates, the food is served on banana leaves and no silverware was offered. I’m not good at eating rice with my hands. We had a half-dozen different things, and they were all quite tasty. It was spicy enough to make me sweat, which is a good sign, but then all of India is hot enough that I’m not sure I’ve ever stopped sweating.

I’m in India

Saturday, March 10th 2018 at 8:32 am
by Berck

Premium economy made it not so terrible, even though I didn’t sleep much. Lufthansa in-flight entertainment is great and even includes camera views outside the plane, but mostly I just read DODO and tried to sleep.

I ate 4 airplane meals, which given the 1.5 calendar days of travel makes sense, I guess? The first was not-terrible vegetarian pasta. The second was a nearly inedible “spinach omelette”. The flight to India had an Indian vegetarian option, which I selected. I have no idea what I ate, but I’m certain that it was better than the “chicken and barbecue sauce” option. It included a packet of sugar and fennel which I did not eat, but I did spread the container of chilis on everything except the dessert. The dessert was some sort of rice pudding with pistachios, or so said the menu. I tried to order the Indian option for the last leg, but they ran out.

The 747 is a seriously impressive machine. I was startled at the size of the wings and just how quiet it is. Watching the outboard third of the wings flex upward at takeoff is impressive.

We had to go through security after immigration and before customs, which makes no sense. The unintelligible command, “Vials and Water Inside Bag,” was actually “Mobile and Wallet Inside Bag” which I did not do.

Our rental car came with a moderately aggressive driver who still had an impressive density of traffic to navigate given that it was 3am. We’re staying in a swanky Marriott that xrayed our luggage and made us go through a metal detector.

My first flying lesson

Saturday, February 24th 2018 at 3:29 pm
by Jonah

Berck said I should blog about my first flying lesson, since he did.  Since he’s my instructor, maybe that’s a homework assignment?

He also told me to read his post about his first lesson, and there’s a lot of similarities!

We began the lesson by going through the checklist Berck created for the plane. I learned all where all the buttons I’m supposed to push and switches I’m supposed to flip to test are and where all the hinges, etc. I’m supposed to  check are to make sure they’re not falling apart.

Then we pulled the plane out of the hanger, strapped ourselves in, and went through the checklist for starting the engine.  One of the things you have to do is open the little window on the left side and yell “Clear prop!” as loud as you can.  This is to warn anyone that might happen to be walking by your plane to get away from the propeller before they’re decapitated.  It took us so long to get through the checklist, however, that by the time I actually go around to starting the engine, it was probably ten minutes later.

The next step was to steer the plane down the taxiways to the runway.  As Berck noted in his post, there’s this thing that looks like a steering wheel right in front of you but is completely useless when steering a plane.  In fact, “driving” a plane is pretty much the opposite as driving a car.  You control the throttle with your hand and you steer with your feet by pushing on the rudder pedals, which move the front landing gear wheel.  I felt like a 15 year old with a learner’s permit, trying to move as slowly as possible while over-correcting my steering like crazy.  This plane also only has brake pedals on the left (my) side, so I had to try to brake (evenly with both feet) as fast I could whenever Berck said to.

Following the checklist went out the window as I was concentrating on steering, but I somehow managed to get us to the run up area.  Here, Berck took the controls and wheeled us around so we were facing the runway.  Then I kept my feet mashed to the brake pedals and gunned the throttle while we went through the checklist of the things that you have to check at high RPMs.

Berck took over to take off, and we headed east before he gave me the controls.  I practiced turning to the north and to the south, trying to coordinate my turns using the yoke (attached to the ailerons) and the rudder pedals (attached to the rudder).  Berck kept encouraging me to release my death grip on the yoke and to keep a hand on the throttle.  He showed me how to set trim and how to set the flaps to perform slow flight.  Then he had me head back to the airport and took over again once we got close to land.

I had to taxi back to the hanger, which seemed easier than the first time taxing out.  Once we shut the engine off, we went through the last of the checklist, which involves things like turning the key to off and taking it out.

I don’t share Berck’s passion for flying, but it seemed like a thing I should learn how to do, especially once our plane is built.  But I had fun! And even though I already knew he was a professional instructor, I was very impressed with Berck’s instruction.  He really is very good at it.

The Mansion

Sunday, January 28th 2018 at 10:07 pm
by Jonah

When I was in grade school, we had a class where we’d write journal entries and our superintendent would have various students read aloud their entries to the rest of the school.  The favorites were the ones written by the older kids that were obvious rip-offs of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, substituting the names of their classmates.  We’d beg for the next installments to hear what happened.

No one ever asked for me to read my writing.

I wasn’t a very good writer and never had anything terribly interesting to write about. Also, I was a little kid.

One day on the way home from church, my dad made a right turn off our route home, then another right turn down a one-lane driveway.  “Let’s see where this goes!” he said.

Looking back, I’m sure my dad knew exactly where it went.

Dad knew things.  He knew that the tiny gas station with filthy restrooms halfway between our house and my grandparents’ house stocked Yoohoo.  He knew that the vending machine in the workshop of the construction company where he worked had grape Nihi, even though the button you had to mash to get one was just handwritten in.  He also knew that if you shimmied along between the side of the workshop and the fence separating the construction company’s lot to the next door neighbor, you’d come to an apple tree brimming with delicious apples with a branch than overhung the fence and you could pick all the apples you wanted at will.

He had  to know about the long driveway leading to the south with tree limbs overhanging, the weeds growing up tall between the tire tracks.  When you’re a kid and don’t know how to drive a car, if you think about it, a one-lane drive is treacherous.  What if a car comes up the other way?  Will you crash?  Will you come to a standstill?  Will one of the cars have to back up the whole way?  What if the driver isn’t that great at backing up?  Will you crash? Etc.

We drove what seemed like miles, the bright sun disappearing behind the thick canopy of live oak limbs overhead.  Finally, Dad stopped the car.

We got out and stepped into an overgrown garden.  A gigantic fountain lay dry in the center of the garden.  Horticulture and weeds jockeyed for position in the sun’s rays.  This garden had clearly once been splendid.

Beyond the garden was the most beautiful house I had ever seen.  It was tall, stately, ornate, and at the same time decrepit  and a little creepy.  It was huge.  Even in the bright southern sun, it seemed cold and foreboding.

“Let’s take a look around!” my dad said.  My mom, always game for a bit of adventure, began peeking in windows. It was no use. All we could see was darkness inside.

My parents chatted about how much the mansion was worth.  “How would you like to move into that?” my dad asked, obviously rhetorically.

No creatures emerged to assault us.  No ghosts appeared. Nothing bad happened.  When we had looked around at everything there was to see, we piled back in the car to continue our journey home.

Still, this was the most exciting thing that had happened to me in months.  I couldn’t wait to write about it in my writing class.  Maybe I’d even get called on to read it out loud.  I was contemplating the adjectives I’d use.  The house was just so beautiful.  I mentioned all of this out loud.

“Oh,” my dad said, “No, don’t tell anyone about this.”  While tramping around an abandoned out-of-the-way mansion wasn’t illegal, it isn’t the sort of thing you want to go around advertising.

That week I wrote about something else.  Mushrooms, maybe.  Or socks.

(I should probably point out to my parents that I am now publishing this story publicly.)