Category Archives: Auckland

My home town!

Pushing through the Surf and Bracing for Take-off

I pump up my phone, poison my shirts, and ponder what books to pack in my case; I count my southern blessings and brace for psychic assault.

A friend compared the pre-departure chaos to getting the boat through the surf as you launch out into the deep.  Or planning an extended tramping trip, wrestling to fit gear in your pack and weighing up what you don’t need and worrying about what you’ve missed, before the sigh of relief as you step out on the trail, the die is cast and decisions are left behind.

I’ve spent the last week crossing off multitudinous “to do” lists.  Loading Dad’s classical music collection, Hindi learning videos, maps and Lonely Planet India onto my new phone; last weekend’s Times of India news onto my Kindle.  Training Mum on computer tasks, and installing remote access software to help her from overseas.  Purging my filing cabinets and cupboards, filling bins with expired clothing and notes.  Sorting out Dad’s wardrobe with Mum to find cool shirts for English teaching in the heat.  Donning gloves to impregnate my mosquito net and travel shirt with permethrin to kill bugs on contact.  Getting hair and beard trimmed to remove excess insulation.

I’ve been googling internet security: had my gut been as infected as my USB stick was in 2007, I’d never have left the bathroom.  I’m higher tech this time, and the bad guys will also have upped their game.  I’ve confirmed accommodation contacts, and been invited to a wedding in Bangalore – with 2000 other guests!  Weighing up books versus clothes in my case.  For a list of physical (versus electronic) books I’m taking, see here .  I’ve re-read cards received during the year and am taking a couple to cheer me up in hard moments.

And of course I’m farewelling friends and counting the blessings I will miss.  Familiar faces.  Hokey-pokey ice cream.  Jogging along Auckland’s waterfront.  Spotting the Southern Cross; soon I’ll be navigating by the North Pole Star!  Turning on the tap for a glass of water; I’ve got purification tablets (dissolve and wait for 30 min) and an ultraviolet Steripen lamp (submerge and stir for 40 seconds) if I run out of safe bottled water.  I may desperately miss the public and university libraries, a few minutes’ walk from my office, but at least Bangalore and Delhi have good bookstores!  (I listed things I missed about New Zealand in India during 2007 here.)

In the words of writer Shashi Tharoor, India’s civilisation was “the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 political parties, and 300 ways of cooking the potato”.  With such diversity, it’s frequently said that for any statement about India, the opposite is equally true.  It’s a land of contrasts, where even a steady stolid phlegmatic may become manic depressive, swinging between ecstasy and excrement.

I’ll probably be troubled by crippled beggars; yet India reportedly has the most billionaires of any Asian country.  India has around 40% illiteracy and standard women are far worse off than men; but few years pass without an Indian novelist shortlisted for the Booker prize – and many are female.  Earthquake-potholed, rubble-strewn Christchurch streets reminded me of normal Indian roads; but after the pumping commercial sparkle of Bangalore’s malls, Auckland’s central Queen Street feels like a drab small town.  Even the time zone is ambivalent and eludes the usual schedule: India is 7 ½ hours behind New Zealand.  So if my reactions range from delight to despair, I hope no Indian readers will take offence.

My next missive, God willing, will be from offshore: tomorrow I fly!

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Rail Rage and Hindi: India Take Two

I battle to book grumpy trains and incensed hotels, I’m insured against mad dogs and bone up on strange scripts.

Friends, relations, colleagues,

For those who haven’t heard, I’m going to spend most of 2012 in Asia!

On Tuesday 28 February I fly with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur for three nights, then on to Bangalore in southern India.  I’ll leave my suitcase there, and fly on 5 March with local airline SpiceJet to Delhi for a month in northern India.  From Easter I’ll be back in Bangalore, joining a team to teach academic English to theology students for seven weeks.  On 27 May, I’ll return to Kuala Lumpur for 5 to 6 months, continuing my current web development work for the University of Auckland on line, before coming home for Christmas.

I spent two weeks in Malaysia in 2004 and two months in southern India during 2007 – you can find my India reports here.  Now these countries are drawing me back.

Last week I battled to book trains.  With 63,000 km of tracks and around 6900 stations, the Indian rail network is the third longest in the world (after Russia and China – one guidebook said 109,000 km of tracks, making it the second longest).  7500 locomotives transport 13-20 million passengers per day.  It’s the world’s largest utility employer with 1.5 million staff and has a massive booking system, which, I have found, is massively overloaded.  The third-party website I used (www.cleartrip.com) was elegant and fast but mostly failed when interfacing with the national system.  Its upbeat messages were amusing at first, but grew stale after four or five readings, exasperating after seven or eight, and infuriating by the time they reached double figures:

“Oops! We weren’t able to process your payment.  Your payment has been declined by your bank. .. We know this sucks but it happens at times…”

Or

“Just like people, our system sometimes has a bad day and gets grumpy.”

Yes, it sucks, and I too became grumpy – to put it mildly – when getting these errors at all hours of the day and night; after typing my credit card details until I knew them by heart; after five long calls to my New Zealand bank made no progress, and bad lines plus strong accents rendered the Mumbai helpdesk incomprehensible (though high marks for courtesy and effort to both countries); when about one reservation per day succeeded, as I watched trains I wanted book out two months in advance and I began to wonder if I’d ever make it on board…

As well as the impressive stats above, 400-500 train crashes occur per year in India, I read, killing 700-800 people, making it the most dangerous rail network in the world.  Do I really want to get on board?  Here I am fighting Indian infrastructure before I even get there – why on earth am I going back?!

After a week that threatened premature baldness, I now have almost all trains and accommodation confirmed:

  • Two weeks in New Delhi with side trips to the pink city of Jaipur and perhaps the Taj Mahal.
  • A homestay in Lucknow, centre of the 1857 uprising against the British – I hope they’ll be more welcoming to me.
  • Two days at The Leprosy Mission’s Vocational Training Centre in Faizabad.
  • A week at Allahabad Bible Seminary – might I possibly teach there in the future?
  • Several days in Bhopal, site of the 1984 chemical disaster, from where a most welcoming e-mail provided some relief from railroad rage:

Dear Sir,
It is with special pride that we invite you to be our honored guest at Bhopal, Splendidly we introduce to you our New venture HOTEL SONALI, …
….  We Offer you the following exquisite facilities…
Our endeavor would be to provide you the best service, comfort and Convenience. So we hope during your next visit at Bhopal, you would surely Give us a chance to serve you better. We assure to make your stay a pleasant And comfortable one.  (sic)

We will see whether reality matches the rhetoric!  It is a good sign that the manager monitors travel website www.tripadvisor.com.  To the latest review on 27 January:

“Far too much incense is constantly being burnt in the lobby. When we entered the hotel it was like stepping into a cloud.”

He replied in three days:

“RESP SIR
THANKS FOR YOUR RESPONSE
We will take use of incense stick down immediately”

I’ll let you know whether I’m asphyxiated upon arrival!

As second and third classes were fully booked, I just had to go first-class for 15 hours overnight to reach Hyderabad by Good Friday.  (See a map of my trip here.  Click on any city for my dates there and information about it.)

Medical visits have also provided respite from the rail: my optician for an updated lens prescription; my dentist for my first filling ever L; my doctor for a typhoid booster, three rabies shots at $120 each, and so many pills he joked I’ll resemble a walking pharmacy.  (I had most other vaccinations in 2007.)

Rather less costly and significantly more stimulating is some great reading on Indian culture and history over the past months, and digging into Teach Yourself Hindi.  Of India’s 1 billion inhabitants, around 10% speak English, and 40% Hindi, the biggest of 23 languages recognised in the Constitution.  I can now slowly read the Hindi script and know some simple phrases with basic grammar.  Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up newspaper headlines and introduce myself after the month in Hindi-speaking northern states.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a rich mixture of travel and teaching, language and learning, culture and computing.  A time of growth and discovery and challenge, exploring options for my future.  I’m both effervescent and apprehensive, especially about the first month of solo India travel.  And later looking for a flat among the 7 million residents of Kuala Lumpur!

This will be my longest time away from home and family so a new season of life for me, and likewise for my mother, learning to live alone after Dad died one year ago.

And the Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.”  Genesis 12, c. 2000 BC

If anyone asks for me, tell them I’m off on an adventure.  I’m lost on purpose, to be found by love.  John of the Cross, 16th century

Re-entry Reflections and Christmas Grace

Questions on return and listing what I missed, monochrome adjustments and memories; Christchurch collapsing, mountain meditations, and living the feast of grace.

After an 11-hour flight from Bangkok, I stepped off the plane in Auckland on Saturday afternoon, 8 December.  I had 20-30 new books (depending on how you classify books versus booklets) in my case and a shoulder bag of wooden Christmas presents.  None caused any problem at immigration, though should I have ticked “been on a farm” on the border control form of the NZ Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries?  As Mark Twain said, “India is one vast farm” and I dodged goats and cows most days.  As we drove home I noticed how rigidly conservative New Zealanders are compared to liberated Indian society: everyone here religiously follows those ornamental markings on the road.

I’ve heard that reverse culture shock when you come back home is often harder than the first culture shock of travel.  Some of the American students from St Olaf College dreaded being asked on return how their trip was.  How to compress the physical and spiritual journey, the multi-month barrage of experience and emotion – I filled several pages in my diary every night – to a 30-second sound bite for a non-travelling socialite?  Perhaps this is why, though on a humbler scale, those who see mystical visions are often left speechless and silent.

The St Olaf Orientation Handbook (aka “the blue folder”) had some good questions for “a thoughtful return”: How have I changed?  What am I most or least looking forward to?  What lessons have I learned I never want to forget?  What will I do with the experiences I’ve had?  Or will we return to our comfy homes, as one student gloomily predicted, and our lives will be no different?  After returning to the States, one girl was scared at how little she seemed to have changed on the outside, although she felt different inside.

So what have I noticed or thought about in my first weeks back?  I began with a list of things to take next time:

  • sellotape to repair much-used maps.
  • cotton wool to plug ears on the street, as do many locals.
  • a smaller face mask covering just my nose, to be cooler and permit smiling.
  • talcum powder for itchy sweaty skin.
  • a bigger camera memory-card.
  • NZ coins and photos of home to show kids.
  • cards with NZ scenery for thank-you notes.
  • a small AM radio for English news or info – India didn’t have many FM stations.

And here are some things that I wished I could have taken, or what I missed about NZ while I was away:

  • wandering barefoot to our local dairy to buy a loaf of bread.
  • walking down the road without constant assault from beggars, hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers.
  • breathing fresh air, without stinging eyes.
  • turning on the tap for drinking water, or accepting a glass without anxiety.
  • fresh salad sandwiches for lunch, unlike the high-fat, low-fibre Indian diet.
  • performing daily tasks without conscious effort, like catching the bus to work.
  • infrastructure that works: switching on a light, lifting the phone, withdrawing cash from an ATM.
  • communicating in English.
  • friends and family.
  • solitude and quiet.
  • my own functional office computer.
  • the efficient, well-stocked uni library: so many more books I want to read! For a start, to help make sense of it all, I’ve taken out Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India (2006).
  • jogging through bush tracks in the Auckland Domain or along the waterfront.

On one of my first homecoming runs grey-green waves were blown against the black rocks and Pohutukawa trees were bursting into red blossom.  It is also called the Christmas tree, which reminded me that it was nearly the biggest event of the Western year.  I noticed I’d not noticed many decorations or much of a festive feel.  I took a closer conscious look as I pounded by and perceived some skinny strands of faded tinsel hanging like stray cobwebs in most shop windows.  A few artificial trees had a tired glimmer.

But where was the colour?  Where were the flowers?  Where were the banana leaves and chunky garlands on passing vehicles?  The drumming and firecrackers like cannons?  India’s assault on the senses has raised my sensory threshold: words like “colourful” now seem bleached of meaning in Auckland’s muted monotone.  A friend who has just returned from the Chinese winter had the opposite impression, and commented how colourful New Zealand seemed.

When singing carols on the steps of my church, the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, I remembered choirs in Chennai singing the same songs (see here).  The Tabernacle runs a Christmas display which many school children visit.  On the “Bethlehem Street”, sacks bulging with white rice and red barley took me back to Indian markets – until I saw the cardboard to which thin layers of beans were glued.  And I’ve now seen Nativity-like scenes for real: families living alongside cattle and goats in shacks like a farmyard barn.

At communion I caught myself reaching for the bread with both hands, forgot that I had left India, and tore off a portion with my right hand alone, making a mess of the crusty loaf (bracing with my middle finger left a deep hole) and bemusing my neighbour.  Around the corner from church, the New Age “Third Eye” shop sells incense, devotional articles, and Indian idols – I can now identify many more.

As usual, I spent Christmas in my mother’s birthplace of Christchurch, a city of about 300,000.  In the taxi from the airport, we passed elderly residents weeding and watering their gardens.  Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and I’ve often thought that it would be a pleasant spot to retire – a “Pensioners’ Paradise” one might say.  Both epithets were applied to Bangalore a decade or two ago.  What if Microsoft were to move a head office to Christchurch and one third of a million people were pumped into the city every year – as Bangalore has experienced?  Where would Christchurch be in a decade?  I imagined a Bangalorean scene of gridlocked roads, crumbling infrastructure, and the few remaining flower beds wreathed in smog.

From Christchurch I headed West up to Arthurs Pass National Park for a few days of tramping.  I hoped my fitness would be okay: I’d had little formal exercise the last months.  But traversing the refuse and rubble of Indian footpaths in the smog was like tramping in low-oxygen conditions!  The tiring journey between sheltered compounds or air-con interiors in India resembles a hike through rugged terrain and rough weather between the refuges of tramping huts.  I loved the solitude and clean mountain air, though some Indian reflexes continued: I felt a little nervous at eating from wet dishes.

The handclapping experiment at the Art of Living centre (see here) and the Indian emphasis on meditation has shown me again that I’m seldom if ever conscious or present or awake.  Trying to be mindful, I sat and contemplated a mountain stream.  Through the ever-changing surface, long ripples swaying like a veil, I glimpsed tranquil pebbles on the bottom, like the timeless reality behind the tumultuous mask of maya.  In places the water flowed deep and serene, at others it chattered with joy as it bubbled and splashed around rocks in its path.  Why so content?  Why so cheerful?  I asked myself where it was going and the answer came, namely, the sea.  In my reverie I had stumbled on a great image of the mystical goal: to merge with the eternal One like a stream in the ocean.  Perhaps the sages of India, meditating alone in the forest or by a holy river, came to this illumination in much the same way.

I have heard it said that there are two ways to view life: as a fortress or as a feast.  You can operate by tight control, or accept whatever comes as a gift of grace.  India teaches you to enjoy life’s banquet.  You can’t precisely control the day’s schedule; you rarely know what’s going on.  You have to rely on the grace of God and the generosity of people, such as friendly locals who communicate your destination to an English-less auto driver, or direct you to the right bus and where to get off.  Every day I would sally forth, not knowing what adventures I would find or people I would meet.  You need to balance scepticism of smooth-talking cons with openness to genuine hospitality, the wariness of a sceptic with the wonder of a child – in the words of a Jewish guru, being wise as a serpent yet innocent as a dove.

India is dirty, chaotic, confusing and exhausting.  But it is also alive.  The West, by contrast, can be quite sterile – physically and socially.  Where life is safe and under control, you are less open to grace; when our hands are full, it’s hard to receive life’s unexpected gifts.

One great gift has been the many prayers, emails and encouragements I’ve received while away.  I’ve survived the Indian adventure!  My malarial medication continues for another week – 30-days post-travel – but the life-broadening effects of this trip will ripple on much further into the New Year.

20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.
Mark Twain (or not), in the St Olaf Global Orientation Handbook

Countdown Crescendo: Mixed Messages and Medication

Veterans of India have assured me they didn’t get robbed or sick.  They swear by garlic oil capsules, ayurvedic herbs or western antibiotic prophylaxis for the stomach, and vitamin B against insect bites.  Others recalled Indian stomach bugs. My friend Grant plans to run a sweepstake on how often I get sick; another indicated he’d be “particularly interested in stories of explosive diarrhoea”.

Others confirmed, “India definitely is an assault on the senses. I loved it!!” One suggested the biggest pre-requisite is patience.  A cousin compared my trip to “a really good ice cream shop. Lots of fascinating flavours to sample.”   A retired Presbyterian minister warned me to ” Watch out for the dusky, sari-clad maidens and mind those holy cows!!”  An Indian workmate gave me a Sanskrit travel blessing, “Shubhaste panthanha santoo”, meaning “may your journey be all good”.

Another friend said “India is a land of contrasts and chaos” – a land of paradox.  It exports modern IT and ancient spiritualities, hedonistic Bollywood stars and world-renouncing – or world-seducing – gurus.  They say that any claim about India is simultaneously true and false: the only valid generalisation is that one can’t generalise.

So this Saturday I’m off to see for myself!  At 3:15pm I depart by Thai Airways, and in two days will be in Bangalore, India, 7.5 hours behind New Zealand – yes, one of the few countries in a half-hour time zone!

Things are busy but under control.  My sister’s old bed is jumbled with mosquito net, water purification tablets, and other items for packing.  I’ve endured hepatitis, polio, tetanus, typhoid jabs – much less traumatic than my childhood vaccination memories.  This morning I took my first anti-malarial tablet, hoping possible side-effects of increased sunburn sensitivity and stomach upsets won’t hit me.  I’m glad I’m on doxycycline, as the major alternative anti-malarial can cause depression.  A friend in World Vision told me one of their workers taking at wandered the Sudanese desert in a psychotic daze till someone found him.

With his physicist’s knowledge of optics and his decades of photography, Dad helped buy my first digital camera, a Canon IXY Digital 900IS (7.1 Megapixels, 4.6-17.3mm zoom I’ll be uploading shots at http://picasaweb.google.com/djtitheridge.

If I’m not shipped back in a body bag sometime before then, I’ll see you back in Auckland, New Zealand, on 8 December.

Love, David

Blasting to Bangalore and Prelude to India

Saris and spices, monkeys and maharajahs, gurus and curries and cricket – here they all come!  In one month I will board a Thai Airways flight for the psychedelic fairy-tale land of India.  A 13-hour flight on Saturday 6 October, overnight in Bangkok, then four hours further to Bangalore where I’ll touch down in the subcontinent for my very first time.

They say India has 300 million gods.  If mundane averages applied to divinity, they would have a mere three or four worshippers each.  But if said deities pooled their devotees, there would be over one billion and counting, a population set to soon overtake China’s.  India is already the world’s biggest democracy, has the second biggest Muslim population (after Indonesia), and third most English speakers (after USA and UK).  It’s also the third biggest, and much the cheapest, publisher of English books, which may increase my aircraft’s fuel consumption on the return journey.   India has 18 official languages and over 1600 minor ones, with English the lingua franca, as Hindi is only widely spoken in the North.

Since November 2006, Bangalore is officially Bengaluru, following many Indian cities in reverting from English to precolonial names, much as Mount Egmont in New Zealand is again called by its Maori name of Taranaki.  Bangalore is the capital of the southern state of Karnataka (population about 55 million; official language Kannada), due west of Madras/Chennai (see India map here).  The temperature should be bearable: October-February is the cool season in India, and at 920m, the “garden city” of Bangalore is less hot than elsewhere.

Bangalore is now “the Silicon Valley of India”, an international hub for call centres and computer software.  With many expats and engineering students, it’s also India’s pub capital, with the most bars per head of any Indian city.  The population (and pollution) has doubled over the last two decades to about 6 million.  Of India’s biggest 6 cities, 1-3 are further north, but I’ll probably see 4-6 in the South.  For those who like stats (from www.world-gazetteer.com):

Colonial English “New” Indian Approx. pop.
1 Bombay Mumbai 20 million
2 Delhi Dilli 18 million
3 Calcutta Kolkata 15 million
4 Madras Chennai 7 million
5 Bangalore Bengaluru 6 million
6 Hyderabad Haidarabad 6 million

So what, you may ask, am I doing there?  I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Theology last year, and am now considering post-graduate study options.  Via an Indian contact of Auckland University’s theology HOD, I’ve been invited to the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) in Bangalore for a one-month course on Indian culture and religions.  After that I’ll explore southern India for 3 weeks, and check out a few of Bangalore’s 20-odd Bible/theology colleges as possibilities for future study.

Hinduism (82% of Indians), Buddhism (0.8%), Jainism (0.4%), Sikhism (2%) began in India, while Christianity (2.3%), Islam (12%), and Zoroastrianism have been present for centuries.  On the program we’ll have lectures on all these faiths and visit their places of worship. Here is the official “Aim and Objective of the Course”:

  • To give a first hand experience of the Indian Society, its heritage, culture(s), faiths, politics, economics and context.
  • To obtain a meaningful exposure to the Indian Faith Based Organizations – their philosophy, theology, history, worshiping places and to learn and participate in the spiritual celebrations of India.
  • To learn and reflect on the Pluri-faith living expressions and the role of the Organized and Unorganized faith based Communities (Religions and faiths) towards Social Amity.
  • To understand Globalization and its impact on the Indian Society.

The course is run for St. Olaf College, a private Lutheran University in Minnesota, USA.  Between black-haired, brown-eyed Indians and blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans, it’ll be a double culture shock – I’ll be the only one who speaks English properly!   Last year’s report describes how the group was “welcomed with tender coconut water in a creatively decorated form” on one field trip, and the American students exclaimed, “Oh…it was a blast”!

To brace myself for the explosion, I’ve been reading Indian history texts, cross-referencing Lonely Planet for what’s still there today, and discovering the culture through Indian English novelists with their lyrical, innovative English and variegated settings.  (Recommendations for fellow bibliophiles: Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Gita Mehta, V S Naipaul, R K Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie.)  I’m tracking current events from websites of English daily newspapers (e.g. www.timesofindia.com, www.indianexpress.com, www.hindustantimes.com), collaring Indian acquaintances and attending Hari Krishna scripture studies.

India has been called an “assault on the senses”.  Some fall in love and extend their visas; some book the first flight out and swear never to return.  I plan to drink only bottled water, but most tourists still get sick.   I’ve heard most people are friendly, but with nearly one third below the poverty line, there are reputedly countless beggars, hawkers and pickpockets.  So I’m feeling both excited and nervous and will appreciate your prayers!