My lovely wife Dana and I recently enjoyed a tour of the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and Jaipur. We enjoyed it in style only affordable in India: everything arranged for us, private car and (awesome) driver, and certified guides at most places we visited. It was awesome to be in the midst of so much history. Somehow it was easy to imagine being in the midst of Maharajas and Maharanis, eunuchs, concubines, and immeasurable wealth. It was equally unimaginable how such wonders were made so long ago...One example is an iron column that hasn’t rusted for hundreds of years due to it being made of 7 alloys that shouldn’t have been discovered back then. As far as we could tell, it served no purpose other than its creators saying, “ha ha we can do this.” We enjoyed an elephant ride, rich culture and tradition, and taking home a few treasures that can’t be found anywhere else. There was an incredible richness to all of it. Having guides was essential, or we would have missed out on a lot. For example, this looks like a carving of a flower right? Yes, but…(watch the video).
And here are some photos of the sites:
And a bonus! Gen-yoo-wine snake charmers:
The food was good, and at two restaurants, fantastic (see reviews links below). Accommodation was generally good, but beware that India is always under construction. Everywhere. Case in point:
The discussion went something like this:
Alex: Hello. It seems there’s some construction just outside our room. Hotel: Yes. Alex: It’s 10PM and they have lights and they seem to be making very good progress (the stairs are coming along well.) Hotel: Yes. Alex: …when do they stop? Hotel: Actually, I don’t know. Let me check and I’ll call you right back. (30 minutes later) Hotel: They’re not going to stop. They work all night. Alex: 3 feet from my room? Hotel: Yes. Alex: And?... Hotel: …We’re going to upgrade you to the Executive suite on the other side of the building. Alex: OK.
Here are some reviews we wrote on TripAdvisor, to help fellow travelers:
Also, as a manner of general update, things are going well in India. I had the privilege of giving a well-received talk at the Center for Technology Advancement in Rural Areas (CTARA), and broken equipment is working again (for the most part). I think we’ve passed the standards for a cement replacement, and can hopefully start building pilot projects soon. It’s a joy and challenge juggling 5 programs in 4 countries (plus discussions with 3 more countries)… what a thrill! I’m also in the process of applying for Postdocs and faculty positions. Let’s hope it goes well!
I recently had the privilege of witnessing Krishna Janmashtami (Dahi Handi in Mumbai) celebrations (thanks Niladri!). This Hindu festival honors Lord Krishna, reportedly a mischievous youth, who even climbed to high shelves to get to the butter his mother had hidden. In like fashion, teams of 20 - 100 able men make human pyramids to reach and break a suspended clay pot of ghee (clarified butter). The whole community comes out to see, and the teams ride in giant trucks to compete at various sites until they're all won. More recently, political or community groups sponsor the competitions so the winners split a big prize. I was told that the first one I saw was worth 1 MILLION rupees ($21,400). In buying power that's like $100,000, a princely sum even split 100 ways, and I'm told others are worth many times more. More info here.
Getting there and back was even more amazing though. We had a tough time finding an auto-rickshaw, but Niladri finally convinced a reluctant driver to take us to the competition at Ghatkopar. After stopping to pick up my camera, the driver said we wouldn't make it in time, and suggested going to two closer competitions he knew of. So we did. He drove us through police barricades and crowds of hundreds like we were celebrities in a limo. And we made it just in time. Knowing it would be difficult to find a ride back, he allowed us to pay for the ride there and back in advance, so he could wait for us, as long as we didn’t get separated. The three of us watched in awe, as equals, pointing out the best vantage points to each other – on top of that bucket, next to that pole…and when the first one was over, he took us to the second, then back to my apartment, and then Niladri home. Over an hour for a fare of $3.
I’m not sure if it was the leading of the Holy Spirit, or the jubilance of the festivities, or merely thanks for going well above and beyond his duties, but I wanted to thank him. I had intended to give a bit less, but didn’t have the right change…and decided my policy of staying within local economic norms allowed for exceptions…I pressed a bill worth about $10 into his hands, which was met with an expression of “Sir, I don’t have change for that.” I know he didn’t understand my words, but the message got across: “It’s a gift. I’m very grateful for your kindness and all you did for us tonight.” His eyes grew wide as he gasped for air, and in spontaneous gratefulness he kissed my hand as it passed the bill into his. It would be appreciated by him and his family in ways I can’t begin to know.
It is written that we are to do “…good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2) Maybe this was one of them, maybe not. Regardless, that was by far the best $10 I’ve spent in India.
I had the privilege recently to visit three bohemian communities in Mumbai. People work, play, and live there with creativity, resilience, and strong community spirit. There are manufacturing shops, stores, barbers, a doctor's office, electricity, water...Some people call them slums. Slum is not a dirty word here in India. Nor should it be...I don't at all mean to trivialize the challenges of slum life, but it's not the crying, forcibly oppressed dystopia one might expect. In fact, single slum rooms start at about $10,000. I was surprised; perhaps you will be too.
Apologies for not updating the blog much lately.* Things are going well overall, in the labs at both Drexel and IIT. I'm finding myself in more of a management role these days – directing research, writing papers, critically reading the literature – perhaps a good stepping stone towards the hope of being a professor. Still eagerly awaiting a meeting with the local development authority and the NGO I'm working with. It should happen this week, which in India, means it's scheduled precisely for "probably sometime we hope but maybe not but we'll sure give it a try" O'clock. I'm growing personally as well, thanks to many small experiences, and some bigger revelations from the Lord about being freed from my lingering idol: pride. 'I can do it myself!' only goes so far...especially when "[He] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3)
And now for a story about a train. A train made of train cars that have been running since the 1950's (or so it seems) and regularly carry three times the passengers they're designed for. I have ridden the local train before, but today, caught it at the tail end of rush hour.
Boarding a train
It's already full, but they will probably all make it on. (Source)
Along the tracks
Enjoying the fresh air? Perhaps. But mostly they're overflowing because the inside is more than full. (Source)
Think intellect has made physical strength obsolete in cities? Think again! Only the strong can ride Mumbai local trains (unless you travel at odd hours). I nearly missed the train when 6 people squeezed into the 12 inches between me and the car. After getting on, another 10 or so piled in, pushed, and pulled to stay there. It was sort of like a wrestling match, except the goal is to get your opponents to take up less space. For a good portion, I think I nearly suffocated an unfortunate young man about 2 feet shorter than I. For another, I tried not to elbow an elderly man too hard. Surprisingly though... it wasn't as uncomfortable as I expected. Everyone was generally in good spirits, and after learning how to stick to solid walls and readjust for better positions in the 5 seconds of at stations, it was rather enjoyable. Not "MOM can we ride the local train again??" enjoyable, but more in a "what a fascinating life experience that I have now had and thus do not need to unnecessarily repeat thank you very much" way.
The cars themselves are of a most utilitarian style, with a soviet Russia feel to them. Plenty of fans keep air moving though, which I suppose helps prevent people from passing out. If one did pass out, I'm told by a friendly passenger I met, nobody would care. In fact, about 6 people die every day on the local trains in India. That's 2,000 souls lost each from crowding onto trains...and falling off. At one point today, I could have taken out 6 with one well-placed shove. That's a lot of trust in your fellow man...and so I join the ranks of millions who have survived the local train. We should print T-shirts...at least it's not quite as bad as Japan.
Onwards and upwards.
*I swore I wouldn't write such a thing as "I'm writing a blog" and "sorry for not updating" comprise about 75% of blog posts out there. Also, 68.6574% (+/- 2%) are made up on the spot. Blogging is more work than I thought! Kudos to those who do it well.
This week has flown by! Here's an update on some key things:
We're producing results at the lab here, and will hopefully have all the remaining items needed this week. It has been fantastic having a recent Civil Engineering graduate take the lead on running tests. The lab staff helping us is great, and with having 30+ years' experience, they know how it's done here.
Had a great meeting with the NGO SPARC, the most influential slum-dwellers (SDs) advocate in Mumbai, and possibly in the world. They realized early-on the importance of slum redevelopment and worked with SDs to develop equitable development plans. When it got to hiring a contractor to put them into action though – things got pricey. So they did what any of us would...started their own non-profit construction company! It makes sure that the interests of the SDs are always at the top, employs people in building their future homes, and is able to sell apartment units at 600 Rs. / ft2 instead of the retail rate of 1000 Rs. / ft2. Innovative financing makes them even more accessible. There are plenty of opportunities for us to collaborate towards common goals, the most obvious of which is my low-cost cement. If my cement is half the cost, that might lower the cost of construction by 5%, which would be passed directly on to the purchasers. They already batch their own concrete, so it may even be feasible to set up a plant to batch green cement, letting them own even more of the supply chain. This is where it all comes together.
Making progress on several parallel paths at Drexel, thanks to the excellent team (notably, mostly freshmen and sophomores). For example: we are investigating making geopolymer cement from soil in Bangladesh, the only material they have in abundance. We are doing testing in Philadelphia, I'm managing from Mumbai, and we got excellent consultation from colleagues in Brazil and Australia, the latter who is currently in Chicago. What an amazing time to be alive.
Finally submitted the two papers I've been working on for 2+ years. The process is moving forward; looks promising so far.
So, overall, I think I'm settled in and basically firing on all cylinders - in no small part due to many answered prayers and small miracles. Onwards and upwards.