Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why we came to India

So far, I seem to be focusing on the challenges of life here, so I thought it might be worth it to include an excerpt of a letter I wrote at the end of 2007 explaining some of our thinking to come to India:

"We have been struggling with the decision of whether to move to the Netherlands or not (where he received a job offer), which has led to the current plan to go to live in India for a few years (starting with two) , leaving by the end of 2008.

Now, Holland and India are at two ends of the spectrum economically, socially, culturally, weather wise, and in so many other ways -- although they both hold the cow as sacred -- and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about this. (If you are interested, I can send you the spreadsheet I developed to help guide my thinking,) I think India makes more sense for us given our family ties, the dynamism of the economy, the chance to learn language(s) that more than 25 million people speak, and the energy of the place compared to the more staid but clearly healthier and cleaner Holland. Europe certainly has a certain allure – being close to lots of interesting places and old friends, great fruits and vegetables and meat, clean air and water, being half way between both sets of parents, watching the EU process from inside, and earning in Euros. But something just didn’t seem to feel right to me about going to the Netherlands. I think that our marketability after a few years in India would be higher than a few years in Holland too. So the current plan is to go to Bangalore, where both Sub and I will work for a new think tank called CSTEP (Centre for Science, Technology and Policy). Sub will likely continue to do some work with TU-Delft, and hopefully I will find a way to continue to do some work with Georgetown. Then in a couple of years we can come back to the US with new perspectives and skills, and think about where we want to live and what we want to do."

I still think the reasoning holds, even if being amidst all this change (while some things continue to move so slowly) is dizzying.

Dems in India, Bangalore gathering for Obama speech

Saturday night saw our first post 6 .m. outing -- to a meet-up of the Democrats Abroad in India, Bangalore group. I didn't need to see the Obama acceptance speech again as I had seen in live on BBC on Friday morning our time here, but I thought it would be fun to meet some Americans and see downtown at night. We were the token Easterners, almost everyone was from high tech firms from California, but we were in a big group of mixed couples -- one Indian (or Indian descent) and one of more European descent. Amartya was happy to have some little boys to play with, as well as an opportunity to eat well cooked meat and fish. There were about 35 people there or so, I guess

Here are some of the pix of the event:

Seeing, and being part, of a group of Americans abroad is something I'm often ambivalent about, but I have to say that it felt quite comfortable. To get at one of Giorgio's comments on an earlier post, I certainly feel very American, and I think that even Sub does. In Bangalore that's not such a strange thing, as there is a very large expat community playing a large role in the dynamism of the place. I think it might be different in Chennai, where the traditional family roles and expectations -- at least in the little Tam Bram (Tamil Brahmin) community -- would feel more limiting. Here though, I'm feeling very American in many ways -- the way I try to approach solving problems, not being content for shoddy service and products that seems to be a way of life here, saying hello and thank you to all the people working around us -- yet I also feel like I'm respecting some Indian traditions (clothes, at least) that are rapidly changing all around us. In terms of how living here is different than visiting, I'm in less of a rush to see things and people, and buy "Indian" things for gifts, and moving more on s-l-o-w Indian time (and this in Bangalore that is supposedly more efficient!) and not worrying (or trying not to worry) about it. I'm also trying to think of purchases and prices in rupees and not always in dollars, but that is harder. I will reflect more on these issues over the course of the next few months I'm sure.

Cricket, round 1 (many more to come I'm sure)

Amaryta also spent some of Saturday playing cricket with some Indian friends -- bigger kids who gave him a chance to prove himself, unlike the kids in this complex. He seems to be enjoying it, using his baseball "swing for the fences" approach. The hardest thing, he says, is to remember to run with the back. Here are some pix:

You can tell he misses his Capitol City Little League Cubs!

The bank

We had a busy Saturday, starting with the inefficient bank. We went to open an account one of our first days here, accompanied by our landlord to provide the introduction, and filled out several forms, gave copies of relevant documents, and were given a receipt. It said that we should receive our "welcome package" within 10 days. Since we hadn't received anything, we called the customer complaint number (wow!) as well as went to the bank to find out what the problem was. The customer service folks said there seemed to be a problem with our documentation. We had provided a copy of our lease, copies of our passports, and copies of our PIO and OCI cards. These cards -- for Persons of Indian Origin (oddly enough, me) and Overseas Citizen of India -- allow for visa free travel to India, and supposedly confer the equivalent rights to economic, financial, and a few other matters to members of the Indian disaspora to make it easier to come, invest, and live in India (they still don't allow for military service, voting, running for office, and a few other things like that). However, it doesn't appear that they help much on the banking front. Everyone we ran into looked at these papers as if they were worthless, sort of like conterfeit money. They wouldn't let us open a normal rupee account, saying we needed something else. But we thought those problems had been settled. Apparently not. On Monday we are supposed to hear back from the customer service/complaints folks as well as the relationship manager. We'll see what it is, but it is a pain not to have an Indian bank account yet.

Saturday coincided with the end of the month, which might help account for these long lines at the ATMs, seen below. The bank itself was also packed wall to wall with people.

As opposed to Latin America, however, there were no policemen nearby with big guns.

Still, however, hard to reconcile the inefficiency of these financial services with a major services exporter.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Worthwhile article on the US a bit off the beaten path

This article from haaretz, the Israeli newspaper that I don't regularly read, makes me wonder if I should. It argues that it's not racism that scares Americans from Obama (although I think it's racism too), but that his honesty in describing some of the scary reality we face presents more of a challenge.

Pictures around town

Strange to be writing this as I listen to/watch Bill Clinton address the Democratic Convention, with all those American flags waving in the background. He sure can give a speech. Wow, very impressive. He puts these other politicians to shame. Streaming video across the continents is great when it works, but the glitches intervene from time to time. We'll see how it holds up over time.

I will now post some of the pictures I've been promising.
Here is Amartya on the first day of school with our neighbor from across the street.

Next, some of the anthills near Amartya's school that he wants to make sure you see. They are huge.

I'm more impressed with the coconut groves and banana plantation.

Here is one of my favorite ads, full of some of the color that is all around, here applied to a high tech product in an Indian-themed way:

I love this store -- I can get organic veggies (including lettuce). Tthe street it is on, in a neighborhood not too far from our house, follows. The only bad thing about it is that it doesn't deliver, whereas most of the other grocery stores do.

None of us have gotten sick from anything food related, although we have stuck to our fairly healthy routine -- a salad with lettuce, cukes, tomatoes and croutons with chives and olive oil and pasta with some fresh veggies and/or a sauce. My big splurge here was on "snow" -- some Parmesan cheese -- for the pasta, and soon it will be on the really expensive olive oil. The impressive change now is that it is available in many sizes (and many brands) -- something I couldn't find a few years ago, and didn't even see to this extext last November.

Things are changing fast here, all around. This is what I came to India to see and experience. A new metro, actually a monorail system, is being built around Bangalore, and many things are being torn down (disassembled, in some cases) to make way for it. Any religious site, however, cannot be touched. I will try to take more pictures, but here are a couple of one such site:

Now, focusing in:

I need to address some of the questions posed by Giorgio in the first comment (grazie!), hopefully later today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Moving in

I haven't had time to write because we moved into our house and started Amartya at school, both challenging endeavors. First, on the school. Amartya went off on the bus in his little uniform, very cute (pix to come later). Interestingly, all the other kids getting on the bus were the foreigners, although there are many Indians also attending the school. They, however, get driven by parents or drivers. I can't tell if its part of the individualistic nature of things, a desire to show off, nervousness about the bus, or just folks running late, but it was very noticeable. Amartya seemed to like it, "but it's not as nice as Murch, and the recesses are too short." There is a little Indian boy across the street in his class, as well as a Hungarian who lives five houses down but who speaks very little English. The Germans kitty-corner from us are also attending the same school, with a teenager who is furious that she has to wear a uniform. At least I don't have that fight with Amartya. We'll see how it goes, his nice Australian teacher seems to have engaged him, and yesterday he had Hindi as well as a computer class. He has already told me that he has no intention of attending the Divali dance the school will have. I think it will work out fine, once he makes friends with a couple of the jock-types, but he needs to find them.

Moving in, on the other hand, has been much harder. Sub-par building practices (mentioned in an earlier post, but certainly deserving of much more) and a lackadasical approach to service continue to present new problems. Empty sockets, connections that don't work, fans that seem to swing in the air, glue from construction that was never cleaned, incompatible connections (those pesky standards, once again), servicemen who fail to appear or are unable to perform the service needed (connections, etc.), constant power outages with uneven connections to the backup system, and the list goes on and on. I would, however, like to note that AirTel has been a source of happiness and good service. While the state-owned former monopoly (but still acts like one) BSNL seemed to have a hard time connecting our phone, and told us that broadband internet service could take a week, a month, a few months ("there are many people waiting"), we snagged the AirTel guy who was visiting the Germans across the street on Friday, and there were technicians working all Saturday afternoon, evening, and Sunday afternoon! Very impressive. Finally, a glimpse of a service economy helping consumers in India, not just on the phone to the US! So, we now have internet service that works well when there is power. More on that later, along with some comments on US politics as seen from India.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Record breaking performance -- 3 medals!

India is celebrating its record breaking performance in the Olympics -- a total of 3 medals, one of which is gold (mentioned earlier). One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Today we went to orientation at Amartya's school. VERY nice. His teacher is a friendly Australian, and his class is about 1/3 Indian, with representatives from several European countries, Japan, and a bunch of Americans themselves representing a wide range of ancestries. We also sought out the Spanish teacher, who is from Argentina and has been here for a few years. Unfortunately, Spanish isn't an option as a class for Amartya, or even as an extra-curricular activity. The sports facilities are very nice, so that is, obviously, what Amartya will be doing. We are struggling with him cause he doesn't want to take the bus, which would pick him up in front of our house at 7:45 in the a.m. We'll see how it goes. I forsee a difficult time on Monday and Tuesday mornings, days 1 and 2 of school.

We still haven't moved into our new place because we still don't have Internet access. We go and wait there for hours, trying to call different phone numbers, but folks don't answer, or say to call back in 15 minutes, or call someone else. We finally got our phone service yesterday by calling a woman with apparently magic powers who turned it on. This followed days of getting the run around. Maybe tomorrow we'll get the Internet there, and then move in, but at the moment I'm feeling rather pessimistic. Slowly I'll start feeling like I live here -- reading Indian newspapers (of which there are SO many that it will be difficult to choose exactly what to read), venturing out by myself , watching cricket-- but right now I'm still feeling very rooted in America.

I always get reminded of just how rich the US when I'm first out of the US, or just back. The things these days include silly little things like how thin and crumply the plastic is in disposable cups, how the tape (still) yellows like it used to when I was tiny, or how the rubber bands (gumbands to you in or from the burg) are SO thin to more major things like needing to heat up the water before you use it (not having hot water on tap all the time, which is actually something we should probably adopt), not printing out nearly as much (ditto), larger sizes of everything, crumbling or non-existent infrastructure. I'm sure I'll return to this topic many more times.

One final comment: while I think that analytically the right comparison with India in Latin America is Brazil, I am constantly reminded of my time living in Mexico City here. From horrible traffic to folks driving backward to get to an exit they missed on either the Ring Road (here) or the periferico (in the DF), to utility workers expecting an extra payment for doing their job, to corn on the cob sold on street corners, to folks begging for money near churches (or temples, or mosques), to people giving the wrong directions, I often feel like I'm caught in a time and place warp. The impressive downpours every afternoon wiping away the pollution also help. I'll need to think more about similarities and differences.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shoddy building practices

Above, the empty socket. Below, a socket with the wires that one expects to see!

We are moving into a townhouse in a development considered to be one of the fancier and better constructed areas, but we are finding that many of the little things that should help it stand out as top-notch seem to be a sham. For example, most of the rooms appear to have at least one plug for a phone connection. Great for connection with the outside world, right? Well, if they were functional they would be. Instead, we find empty holes in the wall.

Another not so great practice we have encountered: critical parts "borrowed" from one unit to another. That's not so clear, so let me explain. We are living in a complex with approximately 100 units. However, only about half to two thirds of them are actually occupied full time. The rest are held as investment properties, or to house relatives that visit, or by NRIs (Non resident Indians who live and work abroad) as places to stay when they return to India. Our unit wasn't occupied full time, and it is about three years old, but somehow a key power switch was burnt out. Now, with only occasional use, even with all the power outages in Bangalore, it is unlikely that this unit should have a burnt out switch. More likely, someone else who has been living in one of the other units had a burnt out switch that the maintenance types "switched" with ours. When we asked for a receipt, as well as the old burnt out switch, the maintenance man looked like he was going to have a heart attack. Clearly, this was not a normal request, and his reaction as well as under the breath comments overheard by our driver, let us know that the "normal" procedure is merely to switch out a burnt out switch with a good one from one of the units where no one is living.

I'll write more about these kinds of experiences in days to come, as we have had many so far, and I expect to have more. The more I have these experiences, the more I'm reminded of my time in Mexico.

I should offset these complaints with some things that are great: I really like waking up in the early a.m. to the call to prayer that comes from the mosques. An aside that I will address more later, there are new mosques around, and many of the older ones look like they've had lots of attention lately -- paint, facilities, etc.

The Star Spangled Banner - more Olympic news

We finally got to hear the Star Spangled Banner for a US gold medal. Not, as one might expect, for Phelps, but instead for the women's discus winner, with a Cuban in 2nd and a Ukrainian in 3rd. I didn't even know that the US was competitive in that sport, which seems to be dominated by husky Eastern Europeans. Amartya, who for some reason loves to hear the US national anthem, was VERY happy to have the opportunity to sing along. Maybe they'll show the ceremony for the men's hurdles now too, where the US finished 1-2-3. One can never predict.

The quirky coverage of the Games on Indian TV continues. We see endless reruns of the Indian gold medal winner, along with a "You are our pride" sign. My favorite today was the enthusiasm shown by the commentators for the 1st ever Gold from Panama, or as they keep repeating, Pam-AN-a. My attempts to watch the NBC coverage on the Web have failed, as they can tell I'm outside of the US, and I get a message saying that they only have the rights for the US. So instead I'm left with the IOC sponsored coverage on YouTube. Some of it is fine, but some of it purports to be Olympics and instead is something else, sometimes offensive. But I should be doing something else (like writing here) anyway.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Trying to set up house

Here's the delivery truck with our fridge and washing machine. Not the big truck one would expect in the US, instead this is a little mini-vehicle like those you see on the back streets of Tokyo.

This is view out our new front door, with Amartya playing badminton in the street. A huge advantage of living in this place is the ability for him to play nearby. In addition, there are lots of kids in the neighborhood, two from his class within 5 houses from us.

This is the front view of our new place. Of course, in order to actually move many more things need to happen, all of which seem to take a long time to get settled -- water, electricity, phone connection, internet connection -- but we will likely move in by Monday or Tuesday. The complex in which we are living has backup power, a necessity here in Bangalore that regularly has power outages, but the switch is not working. Only one phone connection in our house is currently working, insufficient for our need to run our Internet connections as well. The water system has a purifier so that we don't need to boil it before drinking.

Here is a street scene from the night before Independence Day, when shops were lit up (many in orange, green, and white lights) in honor of India. More street shots to come.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Independence Day plus VaraLaskhmi

Today India celebrates its 61st birthday, plus it is a South Indian Hindu festival. Many things are closed, but we will go to our new townhouse and connect the washing machine. An exciting day, huh? In the meantime we watched a bit of the Independence Day celebration with PM Singh giving a talk and now are watching Olympic coverage ("the man from Baltimore" and his records are finally forcing some coverage of his exploits here). The randomness of the coverage means that we sometimes gets to see the Chinese dancers/cheerleaders in between sets of volleyball, something I doubt we would see in the US, but that I don't care about much. Amartya misses hearing the National Anthem.

On a personal note, Amartya lost his first tooth, very exciting, as can be seen in the accompanying very unflattering picture. Nope, no picture, Amartya made me take it off. I'll get another one.

Servicio a la mexicana in a services-exporting country: Trying to get a landline and broadband access has brought back bad memories of Mexico to me. Our new house is in state monopoly BSNL-land, so despite some intervention at the very top, the service has been pathetic, with workers clearly expecting lots of money to provide minimal service. Funny that a services exporting powerhouse like India provides such poor service domestically. This is one of the things I hope to study here in India, but the contrast could not have been more obvious.

We drove around a lot yesterday (back and forth ebetween the office and the house in a futile attempt to establish service), so got to see more of town than we had earlier. Pictures to come. There were neighborhoods that were all decked out with lots of lights and flags in preparation for today, and vendors hawking flags at every stoplight. The traffic was impressive -- especially given the downpours -- but overall traffic seems to be moving better than it has in the past few visits. There are more dividers around between lanes, which unfortunately are required to stop folks from taking over the unoccupied space in the lanes in the opposing direction

Later I'll try to post a more analytical piece about some comparisons between India and Latin America.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

First individual gold medal for india ..... ever

Some Olympic commentary: An Indian won this country's first individual gold medal in the Olympics yesterday. (No, not Amartya, at least not yet.) In the past, the field hockey team had won multiple times (while this year's team didn't even qualify). This gives you an idea about the role of sport and physical fitness here. Looking "prosperous" is still valued, and physical work is done by those who must do it to survive. It is downright dangerous to go for a walk on many streets, let alone think about a jog.

Coverage of the Olympics is quite different here than in the US. There is close to around the clock coverage on one channel, with commentary in English and Hindi. In terms of quality, let's just say that sports broadcasters in the US do NOT need to worry about their jobs being outsourced to India. I haven't missed the rah rah attitude of the US sportscasters, but I would like to see more of what is happening. What gets displayed seems quite random other than the obvious preference for sports where there are Indians competing, which has its charm -- when would you ever get to see Brazilian gymnasts in the US? -- but I feel like I'm missing a lot, such as the Chinese and American gymnasts, for example.

Amartya, on the other hand, is enthused by the badminton. Here is a shot of him playing with the Nepalese cook from our guest house.

Also, some updates on my views of the Hyderabad airport. After spending the night in a small part of the airport after our international arrival, in the early a.m. we dragged all our luggage outside and then upstairs to the connecting domestic departure area (what had been closed to us the night before). The airport itself is actually quite attractive, and the departure area has nice restaurants, stores, and the like -- what one would expect for a brand new international airport. The architecture was quite interesting, much more than that of the also spanking new Bangalore (or Bengaluru) airport, which is a functional box -- certainly an improvement from the previous airport, which seemed like an overgrown bus station, but still lacking the interesting curves of the Hyderabad airport. Both of them are too small for a growing India.

Welcome to Robin's blog

Hi everyone:

In the old days, I used to write lots of letters. Now apparently the thing to do is write and publish a blog in an attempt to convey impressions and thoughts more efficiently, so here goes.

For those of you arriving here, the likelihood is that you know me from my life in Washington (or Texas, or Mexico, or Bolivia, or maybe even Niagara Falls), so you know that I have studied Latin American economics for a long time. I am currently in India on an adventure with my son and husband to live in Bangalore for a few years (still undetermined). This blog will attempt to capture some of my thoughts and impressions. It likely will focus primarily on India, but given that I am from the US, and an international and Latin Americanist economist, I will certainly include commentary on some non-India issues from time to time. I will try to post pictures to capture our daily life, and the life around here. I'm sure I will come off as very critical of India some of the time -- I don't mean to be too negative, but will try hard to be balanced, which is hard in a country with such extremes, and full of folks who are so sure of their opinions.

I've been visiting India every few years since 1991, so I have seen lots of changes. All of my trips included visits to Bangalore and Chennai (even back when it was still called Madras), and they all included visits to my now-husband's extended family. I've seen Bangalore change from a lovely, sleepy garden town to a sprawling metropolis and global brand-name. As a result, you will realize that my reaction to things I'm seeing is both muted and amplified by my inclusion in a TamBram (Tamil Brahmin) extended family that gives me a particular insertion into society here. I will include some reflections upon past events (along with pictures) like weddings and other thoughts from past trips (the tsunami, for example) as well as some background on why we decided to come here anyway. This seems especially relevant as I write at 2 in the a.m., tremendously jet lagged, after a day of frustration in setting up life here.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and observations with you, and hearing your comments and questions.

Arriving in India

Aug 9, 2008 , Hyderabad Airport. Welcome to India! Our travel agent in the US messed up, and we didn’t catch the mistake – booking us on the computer to Hyderabad instead of Bangalore despite our printed confirmation to Bangalore -- until we got our printed boarding passes. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to change the flight, so here we are in Hyderabad.

This is one of the new international airports, and it certainly looks bigger, airier, and more modern on the surface, but like “modern” things in many parts of the world, when you scratch the surface the facilities are lacking. There are beautiful “Glorious India’ electronic billboards throughout the airport, but the contrast with inefficient India all around. We arrived around 11, and while I retrieved our mounds of suitcases, Sub used a variety of mobile phones (a prepaid Indian number with very little money left on it and a Dutch number) to try to clarify things abt our flight early in the morning. Luckily there was a place you could pay to make a call inside the customs clearance area. Now that we are outside customs, but still inside the airport, there is no place to make a phone call, get anything to eat or drink, let along someplace comfortable to sleep or a wireless network. Sub has talked to the security guards so that he can go to the outside area, which is open air, where there are tea stalls, phone booths, and the normal things one expects in an airport, but we have three luggage carts full of suitcases, and once we leave, we can’t get back in until 7 a.m. The pouring rain and the windblown trees outside, as well as the requisite masses of folks waiting for arrivals right outside the door signal to me that we should forget about going outside, especially as the women are wrapped in shawls, and the men have jackets. Instead of the wall of heat that hits you as depart the Chennai airport, or the steamy fog of Delhi, here it would be rain and wind, so I think we’re going to stay inside, protected from the elements and thongs of folks milling about outside. The presence of many military types with big guns creeps me out. Sub did brave the elements to add some money to his prepaid phone, only to find out that because we are Andra Pradesh instead of Karnataka, where the phone number is based, there is a 20% surcharge.