Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Most Popular Song In The World

Based on our experience traveling for almost nine months, we have conclusively identified the Most Popular Song In The World.

We heard it in Australia and New Zealand and Thailand and India. In taxis and buses and hotel lobbies and a Chinese IMAX theater. We’ve heard the Mexican version, the Muzak version, and a live band version. Plus, a 10-year-old Nepali boy insisted on singing it to us.

Take a guess: what is the Most Popular Song In The World? It’s a song most of you have heard… but not as often as we’ve heard it.

A fabulous cash prize will be awarded for the first correct answer posted here or on Facebook! What’s your guess?

June 2012 – Photos of the Day

And… we’re home! We suspended Photo of the Day during our summer break, and now it’s back for our trip to the Southwestern USA.

June 5, 2012

Hello, Milwaukee. Hey, we can see our house from here! Oh wait, we sold our house, and our cars, and most of our stuff…

June 4, 2012

Relaxing on our last day in Beijing

The four pillars of New Beijing… and Ken

June 3, 2012

Mao’s house

June 2, 2012

Great friends on the Great Wall

June 1, 2012

Tiananmen Square… always so welcoming

Check out the Photos of the Day from previous months:

January 2012 photos

February 2012 photos

March 2012 photos

April 2012 photos 

May 2012 photos

India: Land of the Infinite Stare

I noticed it right away in Mumbai. Karen likewise in Jaipur. It was our constant companion throughout India. The Infinite Stare.

Wherever we went- train station, museum, market- Indians would stare at us. A cold, hard stare. Maybe Indian culture assigns a different meaning or nuance to staring. For us, it was creepy.

At first, I wondered: Is that guy staring at me…
… because I’m white and he hates the British?
… because he’s surprised to see a tourist here?
… because he’s evaluating whether he can easily pickpocket me?

Karen suggested we try various responses to the stare. Meet the starer’s eyes and give a little smile. Or a quick “howyadoin’, bro” nod. Or just stare back at him or her. The only response we ever got was the person turning away. Never a returned smile or an “oh, I didn’t realize I was staring” chuckle.

Needless to say, this trait does not make one feel welcome at the train station, museum, market, or wherever. Never in our India travels did I feel unsafe; I never felt like I was going to get mugged. But seldom did I feel welcome, or that the man on the street was thrilled about me hanging around town for a few days.

One of the bellmen at my hotel in Mumbai belongs in the Infinite Stare Hall of Fame. Perhaps he hated the British, perhaps I wasn’t tipping him often enough. (Side story as an example: I came back one night and went to the front desk to get my key, but there was no one there. I asked the bellman for my key. He said the manager would be there shortly, so I waited. No, no, said the bellman, go upstairs, I’ll bring it to you. That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I go stand in the dimly-lit hallway outside my locked room, so he could bring me the key and then stand there waiting for a tip? I hung around until the manager arrived, to the bellman’s dismay.)

There was a window in the hallway next to my room, where the bellmen liked to sit to get some fresh air. The Hall-of-Famer sat there often. I could walk from the shared bathroom at the far end of the hall to my room and be treated to the Infinite Stare the entire way. What was going through this dude’s mind? Did I detect a hint of bemusement? A grain of hatred? No… just nothing. A cold, hard stare. You can see why I was happy to leave the ironically-named Welcome House hotel.

Customer service didn’t seem to be a priority for those serving customers. The greeting at a front desk or ticket booth was never a hello or a smile, just a dull recitation like “You want to order food?” At first, I theorized that our waiter’s recalcitrance was due to his not knowing much English, but the pattern repeated itself many more times, pushing it squarely into the “cultural difference” category. At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, the morose man at the desk didn’t utter a sound- good thing prices were clearly posted. The guy collecting money on the bus, the girl selling bottled water- rarely did they offer a smile or a greeting. When one was offered, it made our day.

I’m certainly not one who wants to see my own culture replicated around to globe (for one thing, I don’t think the planet can support the creation of that many McDonald’s hamburgers). But cultural sensitivity can only excuse so much, and some of these low-level hassles are just plain bad service. When a member of our tour group is told after 40 minutes that the kitchen can’t make the dish she ordered- that’s bad service. When some people at the table are receiving their bills while others haven’t been served food yet, the system is broken. When a taxi driver refuses to use the meter, despite his city’s legal requirement that he do so, well, he’s just being a jerk.

We did (thankfully!) encounter some friendly people. There was the guy who approached me at Churchgate train station before my Dharavi tour. Yes, it turned out he was selling something (“You should come to the racetrack with me”), but once I made it clear I wasn’t interested, he hung around and we had a wide-ranging conversation. He asked about US politics: “Can Rick Santorum really become the Republican presidential nominee?” No, I said firmly, hoping my trust in American sanity wasn’t misplaced. I asked about Indian politics, leading to a discussion about corruption and electoral disenfranchisement. We each named our favorite Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Yes, I have some of each: for sheer over-the-topness, check out Om Shanti Om.

Occasionally, we even received good customer service. On our first evening in Mumbai, we were killed with kindness: a hotel let us make a Skype call for free, and the server at a restaurant went out of his way to make our meal pleasant. Of course, the hotel was the Marriott and the restaurant was Pizza Hut, so I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of Indian warm-heartedness or American job-training.

I want to remember beautiful and intriguing India. The soaring minarets of the Taj Mahal, the jammed trains of Mumbai, the moving Ghandi memorials of Delhi. But I don’t look at India through rose-colored glasses. I also remember that rivers of black sludge flow outside tourist hotels, that skyscrapers loom over ramshackle slums. And that we were greeted on Day One and sent on our way on Day Twenty with the Infinite Stare.

W.W.G.D.?

I’m probably not breaking new literary ground by saying this: Gandhi was an amazing guy.

Before this trip, I had seen the Hollywood movie and knew a bit of Indian history. Learning more about his life was a priority for me in Mumbai and Delhi. As I walked through the cramped hallways of Mani Bhavan and saw his small living area in Gandhi Smriti, the icon turned into a real person for me. I marveled anew at his story.

This guy didn’t just eloquently talk the talk, he undeniably walked the walk, casting aside worldly possessions to advocate for the poor. It casts a hard light on the politicians and the, well, all of us who claim to care about the less fortunate (I say, typing the words on a laptop made by the less fortunate, working under questionable circumstances).

As I toured India, from the slums of Mumbai to the toxic water of the Ganges, I often wondered: were he alive today, What Would Gandhi Do? He said:

I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, and India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony… There can be no room in such India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs… Women will enjoy the same rights as men… This is the India of my dreams.

That India certainly doesn’t exist today. The big picture is discouraging: government corruption renders the most well-intentioned efforts ineffective. A billion people stretch infrastructure and environmental resources to their limits. Money flows through the country: a torrent for some, a trickle for others.

What we saw at street level was more illuminating than any GDP number. People living on the sidewalks, children begging in the streets. So much garbage, dirt, pollution.

One Indian I spoke to- an IT professional for a multinational company- said that eventually there will be a revolution. He calmly predicted that when enough people feel disenfranchised, this country will explode. Who will lead the march? Do Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and negotiation have a place in the 21st century, or will the uprising look more like Syria does right now?

I’m not looking down on India here: the US isn’t exactly the gold standard in equality and environmental stewardship. If there’s an afterlife, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and a few founding fathers are standing side-by-side, shaking their heads.

Gandhi also said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house, as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.

One reason Karen and I embarked on this journey was to blow around in a few cultures ourselves (we’ve even been temporarily knocked off our feet once or twice). What an image: new cultures swirling around a solid foundation. In this era of building 20-foot-tall fences and blaming immigrants for a host of problems (wow, Mexican busboys must wield enormous power), what would Gandhi think?

In our darker moments, Karen and I sometimes come up with spoof tourism slogans, like “Cambodia: There’s Always Something” or “Thailand: Trust No One.” In trying to assess India’s current situation, I tried out the slogan “India: It’s Too Late.” Want to clean up the garbage? It’s too late- the piles are already too high. Want a transportation system that can handle the traffic? It’s too late- the roads and the rails were laid out a hundred years ago, and you’re stuck with them.

To a weary tourist, an honest politician, or an underpaid factory worker, it may indeed seem too late. But I hope that slogan is proven wrong- sooner than later. The problems are daunting. The numbers are staggering. But these are human beings we’re talking about, and hope can come from the least likely places.

No one expected a London-educated lawyer to bring the British Empire to its knees. I’m sure the 1.2 billion people of India have a few surprises in store for us. Hopefully, the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi will inspire some of them, as it inspires people around the world.

Toilets: India Edition

Toilets + India = viewer discretion is advised.

The toilet situation in India is startling, at least for those of us accustomed to indoor plumbing. A newspaper article celebrated the country’s improving living standards, noting that 47% of Indians now have a toilet inside their house, up from 36.4%.

A Hindustan Times headline also caught our attention: Good news from census: Indians better off, but ignore sanitation. It reports that “Indians enjoy a better standard of living than a decade ago but they are spending more on TV sets and mobile phones rather than sanitation.” Come to think of it, the televisions we encountered in India did work better than the toilets.

Then there’s the water. Back in Thailand, we started treating tap water with iodine and stopped buying so many plastic water bottles. In India, we severely scaled back our eco-initiative. We had seen too much. People pooping in the streets, corpses floating in the river that supplies water to almost half the nation… I’ll stick with bottled water, thank you. The census also found that 43.5% of Indians use the tap as a source of drinking water. They’re braver than I.

The labels on those plastic water bottles ask that you crush them when empty. At first, I thought it was so they would take up less space in landfills (or along the side of the road), but I was later informed that beating up the bottles prevents enterprising people from filling them with tap water and reselling them.

Crushing bottles... it's not just safer, it's fun!

Despite all our precautions, Karen and I joined legions of travelers before us and got sick in India. Multiple times. Suffice it to say: we know Indian toilets a bit more intimately than we’d like.

That’s Using Your Head: Dabbawala Edition

Speaking of carrying things on your head, the dabbawalas of Mumbai are definitely in the running for the head-hauling crown.

Every weekday, they deliver more than 175,000 tiffins (containers of hot food) to office workers at lunchtime. In Indians’ never-ending quest to do things in the most surprising way possible, the dabbawalas carry the tiffins on their heads, sort them (in the middle of a busy street, of course), and deliver them with stunning accuracy.

To quote Forbes.com:

Forbes Magazine awarded its Six Sigma certification in 2001 to the Dabbawalas based on a 99.999999 percent delivery accuracy rate (1 error for every 16 million transactions).

The dabbawalas have also been certified ISO 9001:2000. Now that’s using your head!

That’s Using Your Head

Back in Cambodia, I was amazed at what the locals could carry on their motorbikes.

As we traveled through India and Nepal, my amazement shifted to what they could carry on their heads.

Call me crazy, but I’d rather support a heavy load with the trunk of my body than my forehead, though I noticed that a small minority of haulers use backpack-style straps in addition to their noggins.

Which balancing act do you find most impressive? Click on a photo to see it full size.

You won’t be seeing us carrying our bags like this the next time we go to a train station. Leave that to the porters.

P.S. Sorry for using the most obvious title possible for this post, but really, how could I resist?