Friday, January 27, 2012

Toby update

It's been a little while since I've written about the kids, and seeing as it was Toby's ninth birthday on Wednesday, I thought it was time for an update.

Actually both the kids are doing really well still, but I'm going to focus on the birthday boy. He is still really enjoying school, and each morning he gets to the bus stop at least ten minutes before the bus comes so that he can hang out with his friends and climb trees. Last week I was finishing my morning run and passed by the other side of the street from the bus stop, and saw him horsing around with his buddies - he was having a grand time. He seems to be doing well at school too, judging by the quality of his homework and although he never really wants to do it, it seems to be a lot less of a struggle these days. He's always liked doing math and other things where the answers are either right or wrong; the challenge was often in more creative topics where he didn't like the ambiguity, but he's getting through it.

One things we're really liking about his school is that there's a really good balance of academic and sports, and Toby's enjoying that too. Last term his chosen sport was tennis, but seeing as he already does taekwondo and swimming we thought it would be good for him to do a team sport this term, so he's signed up for soccer (which he already insists is called football now). His reports of matches seem a little random, including kids switching teams partway through matches, but it sounded like on his first session he scored a winning hat-trick, and the following week in goal he saved every shot. Assuming this all to be true, I guess he's doing well! He's also enjoying swimming class, and a couple of weeks ago was in an inter-school swimming tournament where he won his backstroke heat, and came fourth in the final which he was pleased with, and most importantly really enjoyed the experience.

Anyway, he seems quite happy to be nine. Somehow he seems bigger than he was last week! He got great presents from family, including a box set of Tintin books, some more Asterix books to add to his collection, and DVDs of Harry Potter 3 and 4. I watched some of part 3 with him last night, and it was a treat to see his face and how into it he was.

One thing we didn't know about is that in Indian schools apparently on your birthday you don't need to wear school uniform, but he was fine being in uniform on Wednesday. Today is the last Friday of the month, so they have "mufti day" where the kids can wear casual clothes, or they can dress in the theme of the day. This month it's role models, so Toby decided he would wear a red t-shirt and khaki trousers, so that he looked like a Target team member, just like his dad. Very flattering!

Countries for Expats

One of my friends here found this article in Forbes about countries for expats, which I thought you might like to see. Overall it looks like Australia and New Zealand come in very high. And here’s what they had to say about India for countries most challenging for expats:

India ranked in last place for the second year in a row.

“India is simply a minefield of relentless mental, emotional and practical daily challenges for most non-Indians,” according to Denmark native Pia Mollback-Verbic, the director of a Mumbai-based qualitative market research firm who relocated there via the U.S. in 2007. “It’s nothing less than a riddling obstacle course, which only can be navigated with a healthy dose of humor, expansive capacity for patience, and tolerance for the illogical.”

Sounds about right to me, and I think this explains why I'm totally exhausted by Thursday morning every week!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


I haven't been shopping here in ages, partly because Emma has been taking care of the household things so well, and partly because my long work hours, including a couple of hours of evening calls two or three times a week and my travel schedule, have meant that I haven't really had time. Today we decided to go out to a new mall which just opened and is fairly close to where we lived - Phoenix Market City. As you can see from the website it's pretty nice, and while it's still filling up it has some decent stores, including Zara, Marks and Spencer, Aldo, Bebe, and some restaurants - our first California Pizza Kitchen being one of them. Not exactly the high life - certainly not the amazing shopping we saw in Hong Kong - but not bad.

We had a good time looking around and a really good lunch at Cafe Nero, which is a local French-style chain, and got a couple of shirts for the kids at Zara. Then Dara and I went to a couple of shops to get specific things we needed, like a new speaker thing for iPods as our current one is on the wane, when I realized the annoying side of Indian shopping.

There's always tons of security at Indian malls - you have to go through metal detectors to get into the store (although they never seem to beep, and on the rare occasions they do, nobody does anything) and there's security guards at every entrance. I suppose with Things These Days it's kind of fair enough. However what really bugs me is the fake security at loads of stores. This starts with the fact that many shops make you leave any bags at a bag drop place round the corner from the main door. I always get kind of riled at this but I was particularly maddened by it today, when Dara and I were going to go into Reliance Digital to get iPod speakers, and as soon as I walked in, carrying a very small bag from Zara, the "security" guy at the door barked at me to leave my bag at the bag drop place. Everything at Reliance is either locked in a display cabinet, or it's a big TV which would be impossible to get into a 6" x 10" bag, but apparently I look like some kind of criminal so I had to leave my bag if I wanted to enter the store. So I left. Sale lost to the jobsworths at Reliance. Congratulations, guys.

While Dara and I were apparently shiftily shopping, Emma and Toby had gone to the supermarket in the mall to get some things - it's actually a really nice supermarket with tons of fresh stuff really nicely displayed. However once again at the door the little security guy told me I couldn't go in if I was carrying my little bag. I was pretty mad by this point by this ridiculous nonsense but I took my bag round to the bag drop place and slammed it on the counter. The guys behind the desk didn't really seem to notice my hissy fit but it was a little cathartic for me I suppose. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd just refused to drop my bag off - would he have tackled me or something? But I had to go in because Emma and Toby were already in there and didn't want to cause too much fuss because Dara was with me.

This kind of thing is made worse by the fact that there's always another "security" guy at the exit of supermarkets who has to check your receipt and for some reason punch a hole in it. I have no idea what he's actually checking for - at the checkout the assistant will have already bagged your stuff, and in the case of Food Bazaar will have tied the bags and even put zip ties around the top, so nobody can even see in the bag. But oh no, man in uniform has to make you stop and get your receipt checked. Again I'm not sure what would happen if you just ignored him - I must try sometime - and maybe that'll be another blog post.

Monday, January 16, 2012


I must confess to something bad which I've done since I arrived in India. I've gained a few pounds. Not a million, but a few, as a consequence of not running four or five times a week as I was doing in Minneapolis, and the fact that I really like the food here. Plus I'm driven door-to-door to and from work every day, so any exercise isn't really happening. I need to get moving a bit more.

What makes me feel especially bad about this, however, is that I work in a city which is booming because of companies like mine, and at least for somewhat well-off people the food is good and it's plentiful. But of course it's not like that throughout India, or even throughout Bangalore. In fact a recent study found that an almost unbelievable 42 percent of Indian children under age 5 suffer from malnutrition. Think about that for a moment. With over a billion people in this country and what seems like cheap and plentiful food, tens of millions of children don't have enough to eat. This results in all kinds of things: stunted growth and lack of education being key. In fact 20 percent of all Indians are malnourished, worse than many developing African countries. The most recent "Global Hunger Index" shows that two-thirds of the 122 developing countries studied had reduced hunger levels in recent years, but that hunger levels in India have increased.

India does have a large food program, but of course like almost all other government programs here it's rife with corruption and mismanagement. You can see evidence of government corruption and ineptitude almost everywhere, especially the pitiful state of roads and transport, the piles of trash everywhere, the crappy (literally) water supply, the shaky electricity supplies, the obscene wealth of politicians, and ineffectiveness and indifference of government officials you interact with. Almost every day I get mad at the traffic and how long my commute takes, and when we're travelling we find that tourist facilities are pretty pathetic - those are our little frustrations. But that's really nothing compared to the important things, like starving children.

Another thing which got me thinking about this was on my recent trip to Lucknow, interviewing business school graduates. We had them do group discussions, and one of the questions was whether the amount of money in cricket is impacting other sports. The really surprising thing for me was how many of them talked about the government's investment in cricket and the government as a solution to funding other sports. Not one person talked about what the government's real priorities could be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Work travel

In the last week I've been zooming about for work to a couple of cities in India, visiting college campuses. Last Friday I went to Hyderabad, which is about 6 hours' drive from Bangalore, or an hour on the plane (which was my mode of transport). It was a really long day, getting up at 5am and not getting home till 1am, but interesting to go to a new town and to visit the business school campus which was very new and smart. What I saw of Hyderabad seemed pretty nice - good roads and interesting rocky scenery - and although it's not that far from Bangalore it seemed a lot more northern India, with the houses looking a lot more middle eastern, more mosques, and signs in Urdu as well as English and Hindi.

After a weekend of recovery, I went to another business school on Monday, this time in Lucknow, which is near New Dehli. This meant a 2 1/2 hour flight to Delhi, and another hour to Lucknow. Although it's the capital of Uttar Pradesh it did seem a lot more shambolic than Bangalore, although we drove past some pretty impressive buildings and parks. The roads were a lot more crumbly, the traffic was much less car-based (lots of horses, oxen, bike rickshaws etc) and lots of roadsite tents. The college campus was older than the one in Hyderabad, but in a nice big estate - all very green, and I saw a couple of peacocks wandering around. The main problem was that it was really cold and foggy, only about 15C, and there wasn't much heating in the rooms, so a rather shivery day. Long days too - leaving the house at 7am Monday, working and interviewing till 11:30 that night, starting again at 8am Tuesday and not getting home till about 1am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Unfortunately I didn't get to see much of either place, but I did stop at a market in Lucknow to get a couple of shirts for Emma, and tried some delicious food from a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe on the way to the airport.

The main challenge of the trips were the way people behave on the planes here. The pushing and shoving in the airports is insane, in every line. It's a battle to get through security, and the security guards really frisk you - it's rather over-personal. Lucknow airport is pretty rough and ready, kind of like Bangalore's used to be, with loads of mosquitos and disgusting toilets. It's sort of an adventure but also kind of gross. Also as soon as the plane lands loads of people undo their seatbelts, which seems crazy to me - even when the plane is taxiing you can have sudden stops, and surely it's not too uncomfortable to wear a belt for a few minutes till the plane has stopped? And when the plane does stop everyone jumps up and starts getting their bags down much more aggressively than plane travelers in the US do, to the extent that a guy hit me in the head with his elbow and his bag, and I almost punched him back. I should be used to the fact that there's not much personal space here, but it was a tad over-crowded.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


I spend a ton of time in the car in India - it takes around an hour to and from work every day, sometimes considerably more. Some of my friends are able to work on their laptops while they're commuting, but with all the bumps and potholes I can hardly look at my phone's screen for more than 20 seconds. So apart from chatting with Mahesh, my driver, I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. Here's a list of what I am listening to these days:

From the stable: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (formerly The Sound of Young America - a great list of interviews with popular culture figures); the Judge John Hodgman podcast, and My Brother, My Brother and Me

Friday Night Comedy from the BBC - best when it's The News Quiz

Also from the BBC: The Infinite Monkey Cage - comedy and geeky science

The Moth - storytelling live on stage

Do you have suggestions for any others I might enjoy?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tooth Fairy and Science

While we were on vacation Toby mentioned several times that one of his molars was loose. I was a bit skeptical - I thought that you would be older than 8 before losing a back tooth, but he was convinced. Then the night we got home he yelled out that the tooth had come out, and sure enough there was one healthy molar, with a new one already growing in the gap in his gum. He put the tooth in a little plastic bag and put that under his pillow for the tooth fairy.

We weren't sure if the tooth fairy visits kids in India, or even what the going rate is for a tooth here - it turns out that yes she does visit, and Rs100 (about 2 USD) is the rate. When Emma told Stella, our housekeeper, about this, Stella was kind of amazed at the tooth fairy thing - apparently Indian kids bury their teeth in the ground, although I'm not sure if they get anything for this.

At this point I should mention that Toby is a highly rational person - he's always been very literal and he's really into science and learning about the world and what makes sense. He's had some great questions about gravity lately, so I suggested this evening that he should read the chapter "How Stars Work" in the wonderful book "The Magic of Reality" by Richard Dawkins, some of which Toby had already read and enjoyed. This chapter has some cool stuff about the cosmos, but the neat thing was the questions it brought out in Toby - like if you're on the other side of the Earth from the Sun, does the Sun's gravity pull you through the Earth? Or how were the planets formed, and have they always had the same orbits?

Anyway, we've been a bit surprised at how Mr. Rational was so into the idea of Santa visiting us in our Disney hotel, and the tooth fairy visiting this week. Emma in the end just asked him outright if he really believes in the tooth fairy. His answer, after a bit of a pause, "When I have a loose tooth I do."

Ocean Park

New Year's Eve dawned sunny and mild, so we decided to spend the day at Hong Kong's biggest theme park (yes, bigger than Disney) - Ocean Park. After a healthy McDonald's breakfast we caught the ferry across the harbour, then the express bus to the park - a nice easy trip.

The park's a little strange (as you may have seen from their odd and very slow website) in that it's a bit of a mish mash of styles and stuff:

Main park plaza
But at the same time it was fun that it had so many things to do. On the educational side there's a pretty decent aquarium and a huge panda enclosure:

Happy panda

Red panda
Lots of info about conservation, which is a good thing. They also had a nice Chinese garden area:

and in the main section a lot of rides and a playground for little kids. Dara was obsessed with the frog hopper ride:

Strange dragon statue thing

Our favorite moment was when the kids shouted "Wind the frog!" Nice movie quote
They spent a long time on these rides, which was really fun for them. Once we peeled them away it was time to visit the other side of the park, which we'd seen from the bus tour a couple of days before as we went past Repulse Bay. It's on the other side of the mountain and built into the cliffs next to the South China Sea, and to get there you have to take a cable car, with really stunning views. Having said that I'm not great at all with heights so this was a Big Deal for me, in fact I'm getting sweaty palms just writing about this. So I'll let the photos speak for themselves before I short-curcuit the keyboard:

The takeoff point

View as we left the cable car station

Toby spent his time telling me that it was really fun and not scary

They're happy because they don't mind heights

Looking up the mountain

I'm sure climbing the stairs would have been worse

View across Repulse Bay

Traversing the side of the cliffs

The ride was a fair bit longer than we had expected

I kept taking photos to keep my mind off the height

Not looking nervous at all

By this point I had sweat running down my arms from my hands

Obviously we made it safe and sound, and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. My rational side reminded me that there were loads of cable cars going back and forth all the time, and to enjoy the amazing view of the bay and the South China Sea, but the nonsense side was still a bit freaked out.

Anyway, this side of the park was a bit more exciting - lots of amazing looking rollercoasters and big rides. Even Toby the daredevil wasn't about to try the really extreme ones, but he did go on a whirly thing:

Dara used the time more for photo opportunities:

After a spot of lunch we made it to the auditorium to see the dolphin and sealion show. I never know what I think of these - I know the theory is that the dolphins enjoy doing this kind of thing, but who can say for sure. Anyway it was fairly well done, not quite Seaworld level but still pretty good, and the kids enjoyed it. I think for Emma and me the band playing before the show was the highlight:

Amazing view from the auditorium

Cha-cha versions of Christmas carols

The drummer was awesome. I've never seen a pedal-operated cowbell before!
 Eventually it was time to go back to the main park. It turned out there's a train ride through the mountain, and it was done in a really awesome Captain Nemo/steampunk way:

Front of the train

Interior of the train

Train gateway
Dara insisted on going back to the frog jump ride, and we also went on the kids' ferris wheel and a couple of very sedate carousels before watching the Vegas-style lighted fountain show, then getting on the bus home. Unfortunately the bus didn't go down to the ferry piers, probably because of the New Year's Eve celebrations, so we had to get off at the Admiralty stop. Emma had a brainwave for us to take the MTR train back to Kowloon, as it's an underground system at that point, and it worked a treat. It was really packed but great atmosphere as it was about 8pm by that point and there were a lot of partyers out. We had some delicious room service food and a bottle of champagne in our room, then took the very tired kids out to the street for midnight. Again, tons and tons of people, but all really fun and good natured. Here we are in the hotel lobby at about 12:20