Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why am I talking about New Orleans, you ask

I was part of the Stanford GSB Service Learning trip to New Orleans (or NOLA as we fondly call it) last Spring. Was an amazing experience, extremely intense. The New Orleans 100 list I referred to earlier lists many of the organizations we visited.

the GSB's primary contact is with The Idea Village, a non-profit that works with entrepreneurs. Daryn Dodson, a GSBer at the time and now a full-time Idea Villager, started the tradition by taking a group of classmates to help with the cleanup. Subsequent worked with entrepreneurs and surprised them with some cash grants to get them going with their work.

See our trip's official blog as well. We first visited the Upper and Lower 9th Wards, and met other entrepreneurs, social and otherwise, working in the area, including New Schools for New Orleans, NOLA 180, Make It Right, Global Green etc, all listed in New Orleans 100. One of the most powerful visits was to Hope House where Sister Lillian Flavin happened to be one of our trip leaders' aunt. The film Dead Man Walking is based on the character of one of the nuns who worked there. Sister Lillian read us something she had written about her own epistolary relationship with a death row inmate. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Jonika's and Patrick's stories too were almost unreal, and left us spinning, thinking of so many things at the same time. I loved the story-telling relationship between Patrick and the gentleman (can't believe I've forgotten his name!) who drew his story out. Such strong people.

Most of our work was with four entrepreneurs with plans to return to the Upper Ninth. That phase of the project was even more exhausting, but everyone put in so much effort, and we all felt so good after it was done.

One of the articles about our trip:

Bye bye Pune, Namaskar Bangalore

Tomorrow a.m. I fly to Bangalore to take part in the Stanford and India Learning exchange program (SAIL to its friends). Been a nice month in Pune, been eating far too much though because the food is just so nice compared to my choices in Kyrgyzstan (or New Orleans for that matter..!)

We have a packed schedule in Bangalore (only two hours to ourselves, on the last day!), and I am glad to see that my suggestion we visit a National Park has been snuck in - we're going to Bannerghatta baby!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

That air crash in Kyrgyzstan

Finally looked up the recent air crash in Kyrgyzstan. Sad story. My uncle and a good friend of mine had for a moment wondered if I had been anywhere near it, but I was in India by then. Been maxing out on the local National Geographic Channel variant most evenings in the flat. Did you know that more people get killed annually by mules and donkeys than in air crashes? Stay away from that ass!

Final week in Pune, finishing up the report and presentation. Looks like we'll be presenting ahead of schedule, tomorrow evening in fact, to make room for everyone's schedules and time zone differences.

Wrapping up here in the office for today. Some kid next door seems to be having his birthday party, lots of high-energy music pumping out, got me tapping my toes and swinging my conference chair in here :-)

As the old dude in the MotoYuva ad says, "Cheeeyaooooo!"

Monday, September 8, 2008

An assault on the senses

Ah, India. Your first real sensory experience if you don't count sweating in the humidity and heat is the heady mix of incense, dust and cow dung that invades your nostrils. The food briefly drowns out all else as you immerse yourself in the spices, reveling in the thick gravies and ghee-soaked naans, rotis and rice. And then, you have the monsoons. I already wrote about that, an immersive experience in its own right :-)

Today as we were brushing up our final report in the conference room that is our office, we heard the gleeful beating of drums announcing yet another Ganesh street parade as another small sangam escorted their own Ganesh idol down Prabath Road. We rushed out with our cameras and spent a few minutes soaking in the sounds and taking in the spectacle. I loved the fact that the backup (as if they needed it) to the enthusiastic brass band in their smart uniforms came in the form of an electric keyboard and those snazzy electric drumpads, powered by a generator and all housed in a colourful Mahindra jeep.

a gaggle of sweaty young men danced their hearts out ahead of the procession, mugging for all they were worth for the cameras. The young bass drummer had a little help with his drum in the form of a couple of friends balancing it for him off the back of a motorbike. Incense filled the air, the sun directly behind the statue filtering through the smoke served to create a suitably impressive effect for the photograph.

Ganesh's modern vahane was of the three wheeled variety, with sturdy attendants to ensure He stayed on even keel up their on the roof. I love this country!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Indian ads

More funny Indian ads

The CondomCondom campaign to demysticize and promote condom usage. Unfortunately the website doesn't seem to really work when you try to download the ringtone :-(

The CondomCondom song set to some old Amitabh Bhachchan clip :-)

There's another really nice one by Reliance Mobile - the pilgrim hotspots one where a girl calls her grandmother to hear the bells ringing at some temple. I love the little old lady and her expression at the end. Big sop that I am...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hilarious Indian TV ads

I love some of these Indian TV ads. Used to be that in the newly liberalized market the guys didn't seem to know what to do with all the airtime - resulting in toe-curling, usually sickly sweet epics that took up more time than whatever you were paying good money to watch.

Obviously the market has matured a great deal, and competition does wonders of course. I love these two ads running on cable right now - and a good thing too, since you can easily see them about every 10 minutes if things are on tight rotation.

Tata Sky Aamir Khan ad: You don't need to know the language to keep cracking up at this one

Motorola MotoYuva ad: Hilarious, universal - I think the phone is pitched straight at the Indian teeny market, but everyone knows their father must do this at home, they just haven't caught him yet...

Still think it isn't a small world?

Ben Maritz, GSB '08, who backpacked through Central Asia last summer was very helpful in guiding me towards interesting reading, and a source of great tips, before I went to Kyrgyzstan. Today he emails me, and I quote, "Hey I just met your sri lankan water polo buddy who went to wharton - he is starting at mckinsey in london with me. Small world!"

Ganaka was in my class in high school and kept goal on our water polo team. Haven't seen the guy in years, though we exchanged an email or two while he was at Wharton.

Oh, and then last week another dude who used to swim with my sister and me way back when turned out to be working in Mumbai - I swear I hadn't spoken with the guy in at least 15 years, closer to 20.

I rest my case.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Monsoon mayhem, idol chatter

Been pretty hectic these last couple of weeks, lots of bumpy busrides to far away places. Today's a public holiday as the first day marking Ganesh Chathurti. Lord Ganesh, the jovial, pot-bellied, elephant-headed god of learning, homes, etc etc is invited into homes in statue form. the festival culminates in 11 days when the idols are bathed in rivers.

It's interesting watching all this from the sidelines. Many people are pushing for a return to eco-friendliness (these religions were so close to nature until just a few decades ago) with non-polluting paints and materials for the idols, particularly as they'll be immersed in the highly polluted rivers unless people can bring themselves to substitute a bowl of water for the deed. One newspaper was running a poll as to whether people prefer a slimmed down, keep-fit Ganesh to the traditional image - which could be a problem since thw universe is supposed to reside in his belly, held together by a snake for a belt. Slimmer waistline => more overcrowding?

My great-aunt Ena simply adores Lord Ganesh - you find all kinds of statues around the house and in the Matale Heritage Centre's workshops. She would have loved being here right now - though she did spend a lot of time in India when they were both much younger.

Yesterday evening Pune received half its average rainfall for September - in the space of 3 hours. I was supposed to go see my parents at Le Meridien hotel which is some ways away from JM Road (Jangli Maharaj Road - these guys love to abbreviate everything - MG Road is Mahatma Gandhi Road and RBM Road where the hotel is, is really Raja Bahadur Mill Road!)

I ended up wading most of the way down JM Road - which turned out to be a good thing as I passed card, rickshaws and motorbikes stalled in the water that was waist-high in places. Gangs of youths were feeling under the muddy water for the sewer grates that had got hopelessly clogged with all the rubbish people liberally scatter as they walk. One group had found and opened a grate - but I didn't see any drainage taking place...

Finally flagged a rickshaw down at usurious rates (rain PLUS nightfall?? jackpot!) and made it - but I think many people did not get too far; the whole thing took me at least 2-3 hours for a trip that usually takes 15-20 minutes in traffic.

Thunder in the offing, and the skies are darkening, time to head back to the flat while I still can! Challo!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Diya Rakusa in Pune

Landed in Pune on Sunday after an exhausting series of flights from Bishkek. Moscow airport is the pits - all the more ironic considering all the buzz about BRIC and the super luxury brands advertised and on sale.

Pune is a nice place, reminds me so much of Sri Lanka as well as the other places I've been in India. I'm in a shady, green area on Prabhat Road, the flat is two lanes down from the Lend-A-Hand India office.

No water since I arrived - on the fourth floor, which is the maximum number of storeys one can build before installing an elevator. After several days of this my landlady apologetically explained that there just was not enough pressure to send water through my taps. Ah well, back to bathing off one bucket of water - good for the environment (and the back and leg muscles from the carrying) if nothing else. Think this may be better than moving into the hotel nearby - at least this way I can cook myself a humble dinner of instant noodles once in a while.

Went to Vigyan Ashram yesterday - beautiful countryside, hard to believe that's what a rain shadow looks like, though it's the rainy season these days. Met a successful graduate of the DBRT program (class of 1986) in the village of Pabal just before we went to VA.

Had a scenic picnic lunch on a hillock just outside the compound - the same that everyone at the Ashram has (delicious chapati, rice and curries) - with some of the instructors. They fed a dog and crow that didn't try to sneak off with our food but waited patiently for the hand outs.

Met Mrs. Kalbag, widow of Dr. Kalbag - a very calm and philosphical encounter. Today I leave in the evening with Yogesh Kulkarni, now head of VA, on a seat-of-the-pants field trip to Yavatmal. Return on Saturday morning.

Love the food though - Pulaos, all kinds of curries... yumm... off to lunch now! :-)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

On Navel-Gazing

My dear Sainted Aunt (no, really, she's a candidate for sainthood AND a Nobel Prize for organization) reminded me recently of my scornful dismissal of blogging as an excuse for much feckless navel-gazing and blathering. This was, of course, a while before I started blogging in earnest :-)

So let me modify that: blogging can still be an excuse for outpourings of mindless drivel, but it can also be used for good. Ref. some of the blogs I've been linking to on Facebook and here. It just depends on what you use it for, just like with guns I guess.

Now Twittering, that seems totally off - unless you know exactly what the Twitterer is talking about. Even the Slate Twitters on the Olympics are way too cryptic for me, cut off from most coverage as I am.

Hopefully this is the first and last inward-looking post for a while, as I try to keep this blog about my experiences during my internships, the second year at Stanford Business School (if I have the time - not likely), and maybe as I try to change the world just a little bit in the field of development.

My Next Assignment

Lend-A-Hand India works with Vigyan Ashram in Pabal, Maharashtra (close to Pune) on spreading the school-based Introduction to Basic Technology curriculum under Plan 100 (to 100 schools).

If you have an hour or so, watch this. I may be a big softie, but I got teary-eyed at least twice.

This message will self-destruct in 15 seconds...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

J-Lo on the Jailoos

Well, not quite. But Ms. Lopez, as well as Ms. B. Spears and some others do make the occasional appearance. Even on chocolate wrappers. Ah, progress.

By the way, Jailoos are alpine meadows.

Where I'm headed next

Check out this video by Lend-A-Hand India. I arrive in Pune this weekend.

PLAN 100 - A Silent Revolution from Lend-A-Hand India on Vimeo.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Did Jaws come from Central Asia?

I mean the character in The Spy Who Loved Me. So many gold teeth around here, it takes a while to get used to. Only the youngest and most educated seem to have a full set of their own teeth. Combination of diet, personal hygiene (or lack thereof), and the water too, I think.

I've spotted a few dental clinics around, they don't seem to be that well off. Surprising.

"Wear you wealth" redefined.

"What's a Diya Rakusa, anyway?"

Translated literally, Diya Rakusa means "water demon." I tend to get a little, shall we say, stern, during water polo practise, whether I'm in the water or on the deck. One of my team mates at Otters called me Diya Rakusa and I quite like the handle. Also the name given to the pirate captain in the Sinhala-dubbed cartoon Dr. Doolittle. I can do the voices, too :-)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Central Asia's fountain head - down to a trickle

Kyrgyzstan is poor in just about every natural resource except water. It happens to sit at the source of most of Central Asia's supply of the wet stuff - but this year has been a particularly dry one, and the rumblings may already be beginning.

With water and mountainous terrain, hydro electricity was a no-brainer of course - but with the Toktogul resevoir drying up, that's a two-fer in terms of resource shocks.

The huge, obviously inefficient gas- or elecricity-powered heating systems in urban and rural housing and in public buildings - nothing more than 3-5 inch pipes running along the walls - were a stark contrast to the energy issues plaguing this country. Mains electricity supply comes and goes. Other energy sources are prohibitively expensive in this land-locked country - forget about solar, heating oil, gas and petroleum are almost completely imported, along with the generators that would burn them.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan import Kyrgyz water and export gas and oil respectively - and tensions are always simmering. Mirgul, my translator, says Uzbekistan's president recently complained that water comes from God and should be free, whereas gas is pumped out by man, very expensivley at that.

Add to this summer temperatures of 30-40 degrees Celsius, versus -20 to -30 in the winter - I can barely get my tropical, coastal-dwelling head around the problems racking up for this country.

Hospitality vs wealth

Is hospitality inversely related to a person's, or society's, affluence?

In Dilli Haat in New Delhi, in December 2006, a poor street performer/mendicant from Rajasthan removed the tunic and turban my great-aunt Ena had been admiring and gifted them to her with great ceremony; "from my body, to yours" he said.

People in Kyrgyzstan are unfailingly hospitable and incredibly, heartbreakingly generous. Strangers met on the street, striking up a conversation after giving directions, invite you to their home for plauf. Guests are highly respected, in true Islamic tradition, and hardly allowed to move a finger besides eating and making conversation. The questions are unending, sometimes childlike but always sincere and stemming from great curiosity about lands beyond the mountains and the former USSR.

Random people stop in the street and ask if I'm from Pakistan (the closest to a sub-continental most can immediately think of). When I say "men Sri Lanka-dan Keldim" I'm greeted with sheer delight at my smattering of Kyrgyz, and great compliments on my country's tea - the only reason people here know of Ceylon at all.

Do we have water melons in Sri Lanka? Rain? How often? What do people eat? Vegetariansky?? How on earth do I survive at home, let alone in meat-loving Kyrgyzstan?

Olyn, olyn - please, eat some more! Life revolves around food, preferably consumed lazing on a chaikana in a shady orchard, with great ceremony around breaking the bread with one's guests - sharing the naan that looks like a huge doughnut with a thin membrane of dough left where the hole should be - and plying them with chai

Visitors always remark on Sri Lankans' hospitality, and I'd say that hospitality increases with each mile travelled away from the bustling cities into the poorer hinterlands. Is there a link?

Central Asia's Soviet hangover

Old people here still talk fondly of Soviet times. It's quite a toss-up trying to figure out when people were better off. The giant planned economy allowed monstrous factories to spring up that supplied people thousands of miles away, and no one had to worry about getting paid of course - that had nothing to do with their salaries.

The few rotting carcasses of abandoned factories that get used these days are home to photo studios, clothes shops, small workshops. Most just lie empty. Parks and the grounds of public buildings are encroached by chaikanas and small shops. One of the beneficiaries has started a greenhouse and chicken farm in the shadow of Lenin's statue in an old park. Apparently people got the opportunity to buy public land, in some places in return for maintaining the parks for an entrance fee.

"Grandfather" Lenin is everywhere, many of the statues in better state than the towns and villages decaying around them.

One of the beneficiary businesses had been lucky. The old Soviet printing press the owner bought over had been simply abandoned, without the usual looting or vandalism. A babushka operating one of the old offset presses proudly declared that Lenin himself must have used the machine in his time. The 18-colour, A3-format highspeed Rizograph machine in the airconditioned office is an uncomfortable (but very profitable) anachronism. Hooray for disruptive technologies though, this printshop outsources the printing of five local newspapers - and starts their own rag next week.

Marshrutka, Matatu... a boneshaker by any other name

Just like matatus in Kenya, most of urban Kyrgyzstan travels in "marshrutkas." We used to have more vans plying the shorter/narrower routes in Colombo too, but bigger Lanka Ashok Leyland buses force their way down most roads in Colombo now. Just like back home, marshrutkas obligingly stop for anyone anywhere, and I've seen with my own eyes (didn't expect Bradt's Kyrgyzstan to come alive in this way) a marshrutka abandon its route to drop the last passengers of the day off somewhere else.

Marshrutkas here mostly "imported" Mercedes goods vans or relic Soviet vans (I swear I saw one with a badge saying "Latvia" on its grille - no idea if that's the real name - most of them don't have any grilles or badging anymore, makes comparison a tad difficult)

The big sliding door on the side is welded shut, and people have to climb in through the passenger door. This allows another row of seats and helps the driver manage fares, I guess - at least when his son/nephew/brother/cousin is not sitting on a seat made of old wire milk crates. Metal piping is bolted on to the roof for handrails. I always manage to knock some poor babushka or aksakal in the head when I'm moving around.

Business innovation has been on my mind what with the project I've been working on. I was quite pleased to see innovation in the second marshrutka in as many days today - a little magnet stuck on the dashboard to catch all the coins sliding around. Notes are tucked into A/C grilles, in the sun visor, in the cubby holes... The guys should give the vans a good cleaning before they dump them, to snag all the spare change that must be knocking around in there.

Today's marshrutka actually had all its dials working - a first as far as I've seen here. Progress! I hear that Bakiev, the president, has just banned marshrutkas in favor of buses in Bishkek, the capital.

Driving a desk again

Gah, the day I don't lug my camera and lenses to work, there's an unusual cloud formation outside. Looks like Aurora Borealis, maybe another KC-135 dumped its fuel today.

Cranking out the reports on my internship - an evaluation of the Cluster Endowment Fund (CEF), an interesting program under MercyCorp's Collaborative Development Initiative (CDI). Funded by USAID.

Testing one... testing the other one...

Let's see how this stuff works, then.

Ok, enough kidding around, bye bye MSN and Facebook pseudo-blogging, hello Blogger.

Stardate August 7th, 2008. Day 26 in Kyrgyzstan.

I'm here in Osh, Kyrgyzstan on my Global Management Immersion Experience (GMIX) internship with MercyCorps. Halfway through my MBA at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

Been working on an evaluation of a project here in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Involves a lot of travelling by Lada Niva, and opportunities to take lots of photographs - though I usually feel too bad to get the obliging drivers to stop everytime I see a nice composition - definitely not hardcore enough to be a serious photographer.
Why start this blog only now, with just over a week left in my internship? Well, I was in the field most of the time before, plus we were behind pretty draconian firewall policies most of the time I did make it to regional offices. The IT guy here (shared with Kompanion - more on that later, hopefully) finally relented as I need to get to so many shady sites like the Stanford student systems etc.