Wednesday, 14 January 2015


I recently returned from a week vacation in Thailand. When Connie and I got back to our flat in Delhi the first thing we noticed was the surround sound of our neighborhood. We agreed. It was something we missed in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

What sounds? Well without a doubt the horns are the most noticeable. People here depend upon their horns to navigate the crowded roads safely. There are the raspy horns of the motorcycles and scooties, their volume completely out of proportion to their diminutive size. There are the clarion horns of trucks and school buses. No one misses those. They raise the hair on the back of the neck.

There are the irritating, blaring horns of the auto rickshaws as they push their way through jammed traffic. All those I have come to terms with, if I have not come to enjoy. They are necessary. But the angry and insistent blasts of drivers in private cars who are trying to intimidate the driver just ahead and to get some small advantage in position at the next red light, those I find annoying.

Though the horns are impossible to ignore, there are many more interesting sounds. We live in a four story building with eight flats. One story up there is a family with three children. One is 3, another 5, and another 10.  Early in the morning their father takes them down the stairs and down the road to catch a bus to school. The youngest, a girl, chatters happily from the moment the door opens to as far down the street as I can hear her. I don't understand Hindi, so I have no idea what she is talking about. But her voice is a delightful beginning to the day. A sound that is repeated in reverse about five o'clock every evening.

Before our neighbor girl hits the stairs, however, there are other noises that urge us awake. There is the Muslim call to prayer at five followed by the street dogs in chorus. I am not sure whether they like the call to prayer or are complaining.

Then the rooster that lives a block east of us takes over and the last few mornings the bellowing of a bull. I never recall anything like that in Lacey. And then there are the birds. One variety, something like a blackbird but both more colorful and easier on the ear, is busy every morning flying from one roost to the next, gossiping with one another all the while.

But maybe the thing that is most different from life in America are the voices of people in the streets. There are the hawkers of vegetables, fruits, and carpets who travel our street every day, calling out in singsong voices the presence of their carts. Yes. Those are unique. But more friendly are the voices of people greeting as they pass one another in the street or stop to talk for a while like the ladies in the photo.

We are too much in a hurry in America, at least in the neighborhoods where I have lived for more than a brief "good morning.". The friendly sounds of people in the streets will be something I will miss when it comes time to return home.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

India Matters

I've been in India just two months. That doesn't make me a knowledgeable observer, but it has given me a perspective I did not have before. Maybe something of that perspective is worth sharing.

The big splash for America this past week has been the visit of Prime Minister Nerendra Modi to New York and the United Nations. Indians are eager for recognition. They are a rapidly emerging nation on the world stage, and they sensed this was their moment. And it was.

Indians have adopted (and elected) PM Modi as their champion with the hope he will open up the world for them, that increased trade will improve the Indian economy and image. And there is no question that Modi's reception in Central Park and Madison Square Garden was a leap forward toward that goal. India will be a major economic player in the years ahead and perhaps a major inspiration. Certainly Modi was. I just like this guy.

As an expat living in India, I admire Modi. (So do all the Indians I have spoken to.) In a political culture that has been known too long for corruption, Modi seems to have risen above that and has been able to galvanize the dreams of Indians for a better future. But realistically, there is a very long way to go for India. Incredible numbers of people live in poverty and without the basics of sanitation or clean water. It will take more than rhetoric to make a difference. But Indians are intelligent, patient, and hardworking. Given a chance they will make progress. They have made progress. There has been improvement in just the four years since I was here last. Modi seems able to provide them hope for the future. Sanitation, health, schools, those are places he has identified as crucial. And they are. India will emerge from this era of rebuilding as a strong participant in the world  economically, socially, and politically. America should take note.

Less noticed in the United States, but nearly equal to Modi's visit for Indians was another visit, the visit of MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) to Mars. The news of the success of that first mission to Mars impressed everyone here with the technological skill Indians have acquired. They were proud that on this their first attempt to send a mission to Mars it was both successful and a good deal cheaper to pull off than any of NASA's missions.India is pushing their space program. NASA seems to be coasting, waiting for private industry to make up for the shortfall in finances and vision. It will. But among nations of China, Japan,and Russia, India will be be in the vanguard of space exploration in the years ahead. And India will reap the benefits of scientific advance pushed by the exploration of space. America could and should cooperate rather than try to go it alone.

The last visit, which will interest my Washington friends, was Jeff Bezos's visit to Delhi. If you've been living in the hinterlands of Ohio or some place equally remote, you may not know Jeff Bezos.
He is the CEO and master mind behind
About a year ago Amazon launched their Indian operations. Bezos promises a $2 billion  investment in the Indian market and a vibrant new approach to selling the things Indians want and delivering them A.S.A.P. And there is no doubt he'll accomplish that goal. Already is successful beyond expectations.

Bezos's visit was reported in a full page color spread in the Times of India. Indians are excited about the possibilities of online shopping and are proud of the attention they are getting from the truly major players in the world economy. It might be added that Tommy Hilfiger also visited India a week ago. He has some strong ties to India and a strong investment in India. And just today Microsoft announced a new investment in cloud storage servers to be built in India. These connections and investments are worth more to India than any talks Modi is likely to have with U.S. President Barack Obama this week. Business is shifting focus and resources to India. These are not simply "call centers." Bezos and Hilfiger and the other U.S. corporations working in or just now discovering India represent real money, and a real future. Political talk is cheap.

India is America at the beginning of the 20th century. It is still underdeveloped, but industries, both manufacturing and IT industries, are strong.
It sits on the cusp of the new world and the new industrial age.  Its strength right now is a lower cost of doing business. But it has the one thing most nations have had to have to move into the future - people. People are India's strength - educated, skilled, enterprising, eager, and hopeful people.

India is not yet America of the 21st century. But we need only look over our shoulder to see India close behind us and closing the gap.  India, not China, is the future of Asia and the world of the 21st century. That is why India matters.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


Every city is made up of neighborhoods. Some are classy. Some are sassy. And some are, well, Oh hum. But always they are where you catch a whiff of the real character of the city.

Connie and I have always enjoyed exploring neighborhoods. I like Ballard in Seattle. You know the locks, the tiny and fascinating coffee shops, and the crazy variety of international foods. I also like
the Proctor district in Tacoma. Its a place with character, the Blue Mouse Theater for example, or Europa Bistro where we had a fantastic Italian lunch under the eyes of a black suited tough-looking guy watching everyone who came and went from his own private table in the corner. He spoke only to the cameriere and only in Italian. A true Mafioso? I don't know, but not nearly like we experienced in Milan - or Hoboken. That's the real deal.  

Here in Delhi it is the same. The neighborhoods tell the story of the city. We live in the Neb Sarai neighborhood. I suppose the residential areas would be considered middle class, but the truth is, the classes are mixed together like a fruit salad. There are nice large homes, mansions really, such as the one across the street from us, a one room hut right next to it, and our flat, a four floor apartment building, looking rather middle class.

The shops are packed together, thin volumes on a long shelf along about a one mile stretch of IGNOU Rd.. They are small. We would call them hole-in-the-wall, even though all the services you need are there - somewhere. You can buy eggs from a street vendor or milk in little litre bags from a tiny corner store or you can shop in Sabka Bazar, more normal market a few blocks down the street. In fact, I walked to the corner store this morning where the eight-year-old proprietor sold me two bags of dudh (that's milk). No eggs, though. I had to walk down the street to find a vendor who sells eggs.  

Right next to the egg vendor there might be a tyre (tire) shop and next to that a stationary store or a small shop where a man sits on the ground laboring over a chair he is building. 


Khan Market
My first trip to India several years ago was to Nizamuddin, a neighborhood in east Delhi. It was a mixture, like Neb Sarai, and quite fascinating.

After seeing two neighborhoods - and some of Old Delhi - I thought that Delhi was all like this. Wrong. I had just seen two of many neighborhoods.

Last week we visited another, and quite unexpectedly. I was looking for a historic site called Siri Fort. But the rickshaw driver could not find it. But he did take us to a park that surrounded an ancient wall. Connie and I took a walk and discovered behind the wall Shahpur Jat (pronounced shopper jot). We loved it.

It was an old neighborhood with narrow streets lined with shops - a bit more classy than those in Neb Sarai - and flats above. The life of the neighborhood flowed through the streets, a river of changing colors and people.

Totally intriguing.  Connie and I had a cappuccino and a Mediterranean wrap for lunch in the serene atmosphere at Red Cafe.  We wandered the streets, and Connie even chatted briefly with a lady of the neighborhood. It was not unlike Venice, though without the canals.

We'll go back. There is much more to see and experience. But there are other neighborhoods. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way..."

Friday, 5 September 2014


"Something there is that does not love a wall." That was Robert Frost. But he was in New England, not New Delhi. In Delhi walls are everywhere. Everybody loves walls. Some walls are quite
attractive.  Others, most others, are not. But they all serve a purpose.

The purpose of walls in Delhi is not to keep people out. Yes, some are topped with broken glass embedded in the grout, others with steel spikes. Those do the job, I suppose, of discouraging trespassers. But the real reason for walls in Delhi is to keep something in. That something is order.

The streets and neighborhoods of Delhi are crowded and chaotic. There is little beauty. Signs for everything from optometry services and women's clothing to fast food restaurants  blast the eyes.
Even the walls are covered with handbills and promotional messages - some ironically promising serenity in the midst of this cacophony of sight and sound. (I wonder if the message appeals, or has chaos become the "new normal" for Delhi-bergers?)

Surrounded by chaos and unable to control it, Delhians have chosen to build walls around the little bit of order and beauty they can control. If you peak through the wrought iron gates or over the brick walls, you will likely find a green oasis. The home right across the street from the flat
where I live is such a place. There are palm trees, fruit trees and grass! Just outside the wall is clutter, discarded cigarette packages, and unidentifiable refuse. Inside the walls there is peace.

That is the common element that binds us all together, whether you are from Delhi or Chicago or Olympia. We all crave order and, at least, a touch of beauty.

Our upstairs neighbor lives in a tiny, squalid room on the featureless roof. But he (or she) has found a way to have a corner of beauty. A few potted plants.
It is as much as life allows. But it is something. It is green. It is living. And in its shade there is peace.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Traffic. Again.

Day 24 - Friday.  Today the traffic lights were not working at several major intersections, I mean intersections where five or six roads cross. Incredibly, the traffic flowed smoothly. Perhaps more smoothly than when the signals were working. I was puzzled. Why?

I came to the conclusion that drivers know the rules of the road in Delhi. Those rules are pretty much unwritten, but they work. For example, with some few exceptions - and in those pedestrians take their lives in their hands - cars have the right-of-way. So people crossing a street do not expect a car to stop for them, or even slow down. Children four-years old know this rule. They leap out of the way. Which accounts for the unbelievably small number of crushed and broken school children along the road. In fact, I would expect more fatalities at marked crosswalks. Crosswalks are simply too confusing. Drivers don't know. Pedestrians don't know.

When it comes to cars, the car with its nose even a fraction of an inch further into the intersection than another trying to cross has the right-of-way. It does not matter what the lights may say. The exceptions are large military trucks and buses. No one will challenge a military truck, and buses are too big. That does not prevent drivers wanting to pass a bus from using his horn. It is not that the car driver is honking out of irritation, just out of hope. The horn lets the bus driver know that the car is within a millimeter of the bus and wants by. Sometimes it makes a difference. But usually not.

So also one car to another. Horns tell you that another car is on your right or left and getting close. Be careful. Or please get out of the way. By the way, getting close means that there is only the distance of a layer of paint between you. Further than that, don't bother.

The little autorickshaws that buzz in an out of traffic and are everywhere operate by different rules. They can drive anywhere. There doesn't need to be room. They'll just wait until the cars notice that the rickshaw is on his fender and finally give way. Rickshaw drivers are fearless. And car drivers know it. Just look at the rickshaws. Not one is without a headlight hanging by a wire and flapping like a broken unset arm. Not one is without a rear end that has not been scrunched in and has an engine door flapping. They all look like evacuees from a war. And they are. It is called Delhi traffic.

Buses, of course pay no attention to rickshaws, but most car driver do. There is no sense getting scrapped up over a few inches of space battling these maniacs.

Then there are the motorcycles and scooters. They dart in and out of traffic and between cars even more fearlessly than the rickshaws. Yes, cars try to prevent it. Stopped at a traffic light cars line up, if you can call chaotic crowding together lining up, and leave not so much as an inch between themselves and the cars on either side or in front. They do this to prevent cyclists from squeezing between. Still they do. I have never seen more adept cycle riders than here in Delhi. And they do it with a wife and two children hanging on the back of the bike.

That leaves at the bottom of the pecking order the peddle rickshaws. They are holdovers from less affluent times, but they are still used. Some carry passengers, but many are utility vehicles . They carry enormous piles of boxes, or a load of chickens - the scrawniest I ever seen. (It's enough for any sane person to swear off chickens for the remainder of his life.)  Sometimes they carry a half ton of re-bar bent into a U -shape and sticking out four for five feet fore and aft. Usually these are given some space. And for good reason. The sharp end of the re-bar can do nearly lethal damage to any automobile without disturbing the rickshaw in the least. It is simply no contest; it matters not that the rickshaw driver is dressed more poorly than a homeless man with no status in this status driven society. The re-bar is the equalizer.

Aside from this singular exception, status is important, on Delhi roads. A black Mercedes, looking like it came directly from a 100 mph cruse on a German autobahn, has status. All but seriously blind drivers give way. The Mercedes scoots on through, oblivious of the serfs toiling along in their Hondas or Suzukis. And, of course, an embassy car has status. You can't miss them, marked with red or blue flashing lights and often an Ambassador (aptly named), an anachronistic looking car reminiscent of a Checker Cab or one of those huge black and totally tasteless sedans used by Russian officials in Moscow. No one messes with an embassy car.

Even emergency vehicles don't have the clout of a Mercedes or embassy car. I rode for two miles yesterday in an autorickshaws squeezed in among a solid block of other rickshaws and autos while behind us a fire truck, siren yelping, tried to get through. No one gave way. I guess the drivers several cars ahead of the fire truck didn't think it important until the truck was riding their bumper, and the cars and rickshaws right in front of the truck thought it imprudent to so much as hesitate; the truck would run over them. And perhaps they were right. I can only hope there was no actual fire. All of south Delhi could have burned to the ground before the fire truck made it through.

This all sounds more than slightly insane and very un-American to people in Olympia or Seattle. (I can't speak for New Yorkers; they are in a category by themselves.) But incredibly it works. Cars and rickshaws turn right across three lanes of traffic without getting a scratch and no more than a couple of irritated bleats on the horn. Cars stop and make u-turns on a simple crowded two-lane road, and no one gets hurt. Accidents, which seem very few, though most cars have the scars to prove otherwise, are no doubt the result of drivers from outside Delhi unacquainted with the traffic. Delhi drivers know the rules. And if I can ever figure out the rules, I may give it a try, though I'd guess I would have to live here for more years than I have left to learn the rules.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Day 21 - Tuesday.  It will be cooler some day. But for the last several weeks the temperatures have been running in the mid-90s each day. Several days have felt as though the humidity was lower, somewhere in the range of Eastern Washington or Oregon. But most days the humidity is so high that perspiration beads up on forehead and arms and soaks our shirts.

The ride home from school this afternoon was one of those days. Hot and humid. Still it is not unbearable. And getting home to sit under a fan brings cool relief.

This post is not about the weather, however. It is about The Times of India, the newspaper of Delhi and greater India. The lead story today is about 13 men who were sleeping on a traffic divider last night when a  a drunken driver lost control of his SUV and ran over them. Thirteen people run over One was killed. The rest were injured, some severely. It is not an unusual story in a nation of 1.2 billion, many of them poor and homeless.

The driver was arrested. That was appropriate. But the sad thing is that the injured men, who were laborers working in Delhi but from places far away, are totally without resources to pay for their emergency medical care or families to care,  and they will be unable to work for many weeks. So they are totally destitute.

They are not alone. Driving around the city, I see thousands of people sleeping on the ground or pavement at intersections or sidewalks. Others have created small tents from blue tarps or from whatever they can find for some protection, though a monsoon rain must still inundate them. In the winter they shiver in the cold and build fires out of whatever wood they can find. Do they have work? I don't know. But many of them beg. The numbers are overwhelming.

That's the reality here for many. But in The Times of India, after the front page news of accidents and rapes, the pages are filled with pictures of beautiful people, with sports heroes, and with the elite of the social scene. Or of the Prime Minister talking about the new road projects, along with pictures of superhighways that I have yet to see. I suppose it is not much different from The Seattle Times in a way, but the contrast seems far more extreme. 

The danger for me is that I become so accustomed to all of this that I don't really see. I ride by with blinders on, ignoring the poor - just like the Indians do. They have a worldview that allows them to do that. They believe that people suffer justly for something have done, and relieving that suffering is wrong. Ironically, their worldview encourages feeding the pigeons. On many street corners in the morning I find people pouring out grain in huge heaps for the birds. But there is no food for people.

I have a different worldview. But my worldview is challenged here in Delhi. I am hoping that I don't give in to the fatalism.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Day 17 - Sunday. Connie and I early this morning walked down the street to Bethel MarThoma Church. The church is pastored by Father Thomas Koshy Panachomoottil.  Earlier in the week Connie and I had walked by the church, and curious, looked through the gate. A young lady, who is evidently the caretaker, let us in and called the Father. We had a delightful visit with him, his wife Lovely (what a wonderful and fitting name) and his daughter. We expressed interest in  attending a service, and Father Panachoomittil invited us back to the Sunday service which would be in English.

So we attended this morning. The church is Syrian Orthodox Reformed.That will take a bit of explanation. It is Orthodox in theology, which makes it seem like an Episcopal Church. (Father, please forgive my inaccuracies.) The service includes incense as is common in Eastern Orthodox churches. There is a long liturgy, which is a responsive reading in a semi chant or song,  including many prayers and much reciting of Scripture.I enjoyed it all.

The music was led by a small choir. The songs were all hymns that Connie and I knew from our past, such as "Standing on the Promises."

The message would ordinarily follow worship and liturgy, but this week Father Panachomoottil had asked me to bring a greeting from the American church and from the Word. We will return another time because I really do want to hear the Father speak.

The service concluded with Mass (Holy Communion). We went forward to receive the bread and wine at the altar. What an honor to take Communion with brothers and sisters around the world.

The "Reformed" part has to do with the history of the church. The church was originally established by St. Thomas in 52 A.D.. In 325 A.D. a Bishop John  of India is recorded as having participated in the Council of Nicea. Over the centuries friendly relations were established between MarThoma churches and the churches of Persia. The bishops who came from Babylonia were Nestorians.

Then in the 16th century the Portuguese arrived and with them the Roman Catholic Church, and the already established churches of India were required to receive the Roman Bishop as supreme. Then in 1600s the Portuguese influenced waned and new relationships were established with the church in Antioch, Syria. Thus the Mar Thomas Church became Syrian Orthodox.

A church in Kerala State established by the reformers in 1906
And then with the coming of the British, relationships were developed with the Church of England.  However, in the mid 1800s a nucleus of people, encouraged by missionaries from the West, began to long for a more scriptural church as had the Western church before them. So by the end of the 1800s the St. Thomas church became independent again and a time of revival began.

Today there are 900,000 members in 1100 congregations centered in India but also scattered around the world. There are, in  fact, 70 congregations in the United States.

Altogether, the day was inspirational and educational. The Father and his family are wonderful hosts. We thank them very much.