How Dangerous is Delhi?

29 Mar

For an instant yesterday, the most read article on New York Times online was one on Delhi’s rape situation and reputation as the most dangerous city in India for women, even more so than Mumbai, India’s largest and most dense, population-wise, city.  This article scared the daylights out of my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate who came to India recently and left me wondering again how this should affect my social life.  We had both read the brutal rape and murder cases lining the local newspapers every day.  Brutal, because the rape cases were usually gang-rapes and the details (this link is a bit old, but still representative of today) were too lurid to occur on a regular basis.  The majority of rapes in the United States are perpetrated by people who know the victim–a less random event.  Nevertheless, I considered the focus on rape & murder cases as part of the sensationalist journalism prevalent in Delhi, which also dedicate front-page headlines to Bollywood gossip and spend little time on actual news, such as the Libyan revolt.  (If you are in Delhi, the Times of India is the lone exception.)

To promote security, my dormitory (called hostel in Indian-English), like most in India, has strict rules.  You must be back before 8:30 p.m. and if you will stay out past then, then stay the entire night out.  The hostel doesn’t trust rickshaws or any form of transportation in the night.  Both the parents and the girls in my hostel, including my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate, appreciate these rules and “security” is the top reason they have chosen to live at the hostel.  My female classmates, who live with their parents outside the hostel, make sure to get home before sundown, cutting short any hang-out time.  Indian females generally prefer to travel with a male companion for safety, which explains why the compartment cars of the Metro are jam-packed with men, noses pressed against the windows, and the women-only cars are practically empty.  Only the wealthier can afford to stay out late, because they have drivers or own a car.

During the Indian festival of Holi, my hostel banned venturing outside in daylight.  Holi, the festival of color, is supposed to be Carnaval-like, a merry splattering of people in organic paint that takes months to scrub off your skin and takes never to be scrubbed off your clothes. But it can turn ugly in Delhi.  Sometimes, people throw rotten eggs & nasty waste instead of color; people drink; there are increased gropings.  My friend met a person headed to the Netherlands for an eye operation because she was hit by a sharp object during Holi.  It’s hard for me to judge how serious the damage can be on Holi.  The first list is typical of any public celebration.  The second one is a bit extreme, and also an isolated case.  My hostelmates, all of them, confirmed the wiseness of staying indoors during Holi, citing cases of how sometimes, people pretended to be drunk just so they can cause extra mischief.   There were no reports of murder or rape in the next day’s papers.*  I suspect that Holi is probably just as safe as Carnaval in Bolivia or Halloween in NYC:  do venture outside, but take some caution.

I also suspect that Indians take a little more caution than perhaps Westerners do.   Often, my classmates prefer to stay indoors or try to prevent me from venturing out at certain times and places, saying that it’s dangerous, but unable to qualify the danger.  (Often, I do it anyways, and everything is okay, as it should be.)  They seem to hear a few stories and structure their fear around those sometimes isolated events. I can understand. In a conservative society, preserving virginity is important.  My Dutch-Afghani friend, a Muslim self-described as “very Asian”, tells me she would rather be murdered than raped.  While my Spanish friend and I shrugged off quick gropes at crowded tourist sites (and temples!), she was furious for us, saying that she would yell at anybody who tried to touch us or her.  Girls at school don’t hesitate to call our administrator to report “ragging” (verbal harassment) by drunks they encounter while walking to school.

The commonness of groping, ragging and general harassment of women in Delhi speaks to the repression of Indian men in society.  Gender lines are severely drawn.  In classrooms, men and women sit on different sides.  No touching between men and women, which is quite ordinary in most societies, but strange given how touchy-feely Indians are (anybody seeing men hold hands here knows what I’m talking about.)  Most of the girls I know have never dated a boy, though they are given complete freedom by their parents, and choose an arranged marriage over a love marriage.  They are confused and curious on notions of love, but shy to experience it for themselves.  An Australian-educated Indian once said, laughing but serious, “Indian men are sleazy because they are repressed!”

One day, as I forgot and wore shorts in a Muslim district, I caught boys staring at my legs, not sleazily but in curiousity, and other older men took pictures, perhaps in a sleazy way.  My first reaction was to cover my legs, but then I thought defiantly, let them!  Perhaps by making it more common, women’s legs can be liberated, men can be less repressed, and ragging will decrease.


Living Next to 3 Slums

19 Mar

TERI University’s brochure boasts that TERI, where I live at the campus dorm, is located in one of Delhi’s most prestigious and posh districts: Vasant Kunj.  It is a fifteen minute walk from Dior and Armani shops at DLF Mall (a consortium of 3 malls) and the Grand Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel where Bollywood celebrities and Nelson Mandela’s grandson have stayed.  BMWs regularly pass by while dropping off students at the private Delhi Public School.  Monthly rental rates for a room range from Rs.12,000 – 25,000/mo, about 4x higher than rental rates in other large Indian cities such as Bangalore, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Chennai, and is comparable to Mumbai (Bombay.)

Vasant Kunj is also a land of juxtapositions. The fifteen-minute walk to the Grand Hotel is along a urine-soaked isolated road in disrepair with rickshaw drivers parked on the side for restroom stops.  The sidewalk is covered with an overgrowth of weeds and prickly bushes so that pedestrians (the brave ones) are forced to walk on the road with cars speeding by so close that the exhaust scorches your legs and the extended honking scorches your ears. The road becomes miraculously manicured within a few feet of the hotel.  Some BMWs drive home to darkly gray cemented apartments which resemble the cookie cutter ones of communist China.  There are no street lamps in the one-mile radius of TERI University.  In fact, Vasant Kunj used to be known as “Murder Kunj” for the high number of murders and rapes which have occured.  My dorm raised its curfew to 7:30 p.m. after a dead body was found in the vicinity last year.  Just recently have lights been installed on the highway the DLF Mall is located on, because two women were murdered, but not raped, on the road.

Along that road and nestled in Vasant Kunj are a number of slums.  This is unsurprising because in cities with high land values, many poor citizens have no choice but to illegally squat.  Eighty-million people, about 8% of India, live in slums.  In Delhi, 52% of the population lives in slums.  This number will likely increase steadily as the Indian government continues its plan to convert a larger percentage of its population to city-dwellers.  Delhi’s government walks a wobbily tightrope between not recognizing these illegal settlements and catering to their demands, as slum-dwellers are a large and important voting block.  It is hard to push them off the land.  During the Commonwealth games and Obama’s visit in late 2010, city officials, unable to evacuate the slums, simply covered the one next to the DLF mall in Vasant Kunj with a white cloth.  I used to do the same with the clutter in my room when my mom inspected it. Because of the slums’ illegality, the government (or any non-profit/organization) cannot construct proper infrastructure such as water pipes and taps, but they do deliver tankers of free water to each slum everyday.

Daily water tanker from the government delivers to a slum in a wealthy neighborhood, East Kailash

I can work at the computer lab while watching the daily life of squatters outside

I visited the DEK slum, a settlement of 1,000 households about a kilometer from the university, as part of a class project.  Initially, my groupmates tried to prevent me from entering with them, insisting on a nebulous danger inside a family community in broad daylight.  But as I joined my other groupmates, already inside the slum, slum-dwellers were friendly, offering chai, and eager to talk about their problems.  One woman, barefooted and wearing gold jewelry, shared her story that she had moved to the slum only because her children were going to school nearby.  She had the cell-phone numbers of politicans in Delhi whom she called when the water tankers weren’t arriving on time.  She mentioned that a few slum residents had enough money to construct additional housing, but weren’t allowed to.  This was a little confusing, as it seemed that the housing already there was illegal as well.

It’s obvious that best solution for slums lies with the government.  Give them property rights.  Build low-cost housing.  But this is easier said than done in a country where so many of its problems (and assets) lies with the sheer size of its population.

Rolling your Poo (There’s no “In” in this sentence)

15 Feb

This is a supercool, not to mention super-practical, idea.  How cute that you can cart your own poo!

XRunner Model....a BladeRunner for Toilets.

Note to myself

8 Feb

I’ve been thinking.  A bit.  Randomly.  It’s fun.  It kinda feels good after busily occupying myself all day on media-consuming or self-improvement tasks.  Like a starving maniac gorging himself on trash, my mind frantically thought and tripped over itself with a stream of thoughts, novel at the moment, but which I’ll probably reclassify as silly or dumb-as-hell in a few moments.  This is a note to myself to flesh this stuff out:

  • Is working in development worth it? After a year in the field, a worn me said no.  I spent too much time in non-profits, too much time whoring for funding and too much time fighting, whether against local politics, poor management, inefficiency, or convincing people to take help.  I saw, repeatedly, how most projects succeeded when implemented but was left in disarray by the local community two or three years later because a one-year project can’t change attitudes.  Changing attitudes is the solution to poverty. If we can convince the poor to work together to build infrastructure, that they have the power to change their situation, miracles would happen.  But exhausted from convincing individuals individually, I thought large-impact, technology-driven private solutions was the answer.  Grass-roots takes too long and is often not scalable (depends on a lot of local factors, “attitudes” being key among them.)  But all it takes is a few successful small initiatives to change your mind.  For a great idea, I’ll take up the fight again.
  • The biggest challenge India faces is corruption. Despite what people say about its educational system, India is filled with brilliant thinkers.  They claim wacky ideas proliferate b/c India is a democracy (unlike China.)  But the large force of activists still cannot overcome commonplace corruption.  Over 30% of India’s wealth is stashed away in Switzerland.  The news stories I read daily about the local mafia restricting the poor’s access to food or government officials embezzling welfare funds are sad.  For the income gap to be narrowed, corruption must be lowered. India’s problems can be traced to its large population size. How does competition look like when you’re a country of 1 billion and not Communist?  Pretty tough.  The chances of getting into JNU, second-tier to IIT, are harder than that of Harvard.  The chances of getting a civil service job are 0.01%: 1,000,000 applicants and 100 spots.  When the odds are that low and the stakes that high, corruption comes.  India could use public sponsoring of more universities to lower competition.
  • Arbitrage overpriced bath products for local business opportunities: There is a remarkable difference b/w the cost of goods in Bolivia and India, both on the poorer side of developing countries.  Phone in India: 10 cents for 5 minutes; in Bolivia:  $1.14 for 5 minutes.  Rent in Bolivia:  $110/mo. for prime area;  in India: $700 for prime area.  This can be explained by the fact that a dense population has its advantages (cheaper telephone bills) and its disadvantages (more expensive rent).  But the most interesting price difference is for bath products.  In Bolivia, a bar of soap is 1/2 the U.S. price, whereas in India, it is about equivalent to U.S. prices.  It should be relatively cheap to produce soap locally.  If a local company could brand itself to the same popularity of L’Oreal and foreign brands or produce the same quality of product, it stands to make a good deal of profit.
  • Portals are what the internet needs. We’re in an age of too much information.  Google made its money tagging the information.  The next step is organizing the information, keeping only high-quality content, and making sure people know where it is.  I spend too much searching for good class notes on steam phases.  I finally found them spread across 4 Google search pages.  If only there was a portal that had it all in one location and ranked/rated.  Likewise for travel.  If only there was a site with bus schedules and nitty-gritty travel details.
  • Raghuram Rajan sums up my philosophy precisely when he states that Capitalism works only when there is a level playing field. Yes, level the playing field and let there be fair competition.

Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) Impressions

5 Feb

While TERI’s 11th annual sustainability summit showcased many VIPs (so many former prime ministers, nobel laureates, and nonprofit bigwigs showed up that they were crammed together on one panel and spread across other panels…just see this list of speakers), I left a little disappointed. Admittedly, this was largely a conference on climate change and carbon emissions reduction, an informal Copenhagen without the stressful negotiating and country-protectionism, a discussion including the theoretics of academics and the vagueness of politicians, and thus, the topic was out of my knowledge scope (the most I know or cared to know about Cancún was that nothing happened.)

This year’s theme, “Tapping Local Initiatives and Tackling Global Inertia” promised great fodder for lively debate, but it became apparent that speaker inertia was a problem: each speech was a platform for the country’s propaganda of its environmental programs and I’m not sure if real issues were addressed. Well, a few audience members tried to bring them up, throwing out softball questions such as “What are the possibilities for local solutions to reduce carbon emissions?” and were dismissed by answers such as “That issue is too complicated to address here.” I will not mention the speech of the Guatemalan minister of the environment who appeared as if he’d just come from an opium den. The conference’s political and academic focus was a gripe for TERI students–I suppose we expected tangible results, conclusions and outlines of next steps–while it was a boon for industry attendees, who expect much global inertia (more than a few snarky comments were made about the U.S.’s refusal to participate in Kyoto and notably, representation from the U.S. government was lacking). A director with the Ministry of Environment in Japan remarked to me that the conference was delightfully light after the tough negotiations and standoffs at Cancún. Another veteran of the industry told me that he enjoyed the conference although they’d been talking about the same issues for 20 years.

Themes/Ideas from the one day that I attended of the conference:

  • Global Inertia is preventing action on climate change.  We cannot go on protecting our own country’s right to pollute and must think of the smaller countries.  A carbon cap on pollution per capita would help solve this, but the U.S. would never agree to it.  It must be noted that though the Indian Minister of Environment is most outspoken on this subject of global collaboration, he admitted that his purpose at Cancun was to protect India….political realities here.
  • One Global Carbon Price.  A bold idea. This would eliminate cross-pollution where one factory simply moves their operations to another country, but you can imagine the high cost of development for developing countries.
  • Continued Stalling on Climate Change Issues. Predicting of continued debates over legally binding agreements to cut emissions, how much to cut by (2 degree vs. 1.5 degree change), and when to cut.
  • Include Marine Biology in Carbon Counting. Much of the focus has been on land, in the forests, algae and plants.  Marine biology is equally affected by carbon buildup.


A guide to Buena Vista and San José de Chiquitos

21 Jan

This route is completely off the beaten path and this time, it’s the road less traveled for a reason.

The Lonely Planet claim that San José “merits a visit even if you miss all the others”?  Bullocks!  The reaction I got when I told locals that I went to San José was one of bewilderment. Apparently, San Xavier and then Concepción is the recommended route; not only is less travel time but the transportation is much easier, contrary to Lonely Planet reports.  San José can be seen in less than 2 hours and though there is a scenic outlook atop a 3-hr hill climb, it’s much too hot and humid to do anything but splay in your hotel room with the fan on.  They do make good textiles though, cotton-woven purses made from looms, but I hear that the artesanías in Concepción are much more interesting.  The “neighorhood of artisans” marked on the tourist map is nothing more than private houses, but the women inside are incredibly friendly and willing to show you how they weave.  All of the people I met in San José are incredibly nice, from the hotel owner to the tourist agency to the people working inside the church to the salteña vendor.  When I arrived from Buena Vista with a warty hand of mosquito bites, the tourist agency gave me medicine.  When I got burnt badly by a too-hot salteña, the church tour guide rushed off to find burn medicine.  When I returned to tell the salteña vendor that his salteñas were too hot, he took me out to lunch and showed me around the town.  Apparently, gasoline is smuggled to Brazil from here and hence, they also sell it in 2-liter coke-bottles!

Buena Vista is the launch point for more interesting Parque Amboro sites than you can see from Semaipata.  However, because there are not many tourists here (I was the only one there at the time) and because the drive is much muddier and longer, the price for a tour is steeper, around $100/day and you will want a minimum of 2 days.  Although I did not go on the tour, I had a thoroughly good time, visiting the Buena Vista coffee plantation (alledgedly the largest coffee exporter in Bolivia and they supply base beans for Starbucks), accidently eating some species in low population (in my defense, a referred friend recommended the dishes to me!  And they told me that the jochi was a kind of pig, so I really thought that there were a lot of them out there and did not know that they breed only one youngin once a year), and going bird-watching/hiking in the 43-hectare forest plot of land adjacent to that of famed birdologist Robin Clarke. I caught ticks in the end, the effects of which I’m still feeling one month later, but I hear that all forests have ticks, even in Rurrenabaque.  In an update, if you got bitten by ticks here, you will probably not have Lyme Disease.  I got myself tested and it was negative.  Phew!

After bees got stuck for 5 minutes in my humidity-inflamed hair.

José's adorable son, Andreas

Trip Details:

Buena Vista

  • Transportation:  From Cochabamba, you can take the bus to Santa Cruz and ask to be dropped off at Buena Vista.  They will drop you off at a gasoline station and from there it is only a 5-block walk straight down to hit the main plaza.
  • Lodging: La Casona is nice and cheap but there are no locks on the doors. I stayed at Residencial Nadia which was quite comfortable and included a private bathroom.
  • Guides: I left my notebook of numbers and names at home, so forgive me for being vague.  A good guide for Parque Amboro is the large office on the corner, right opposite to the Internet/telefone place on the corner and on the same street as Residencial Nadia.  There is large advertisement of Robin Clarke’s lodging in the office and tons of pictures.  The owner is exceptionally nice and polite to the whole town.  If you’re looking to do a little birdwatching, José is an excellent guide and man.  He is very knowledgable in tree and bird species and not only can easily identify all birds by their calls, but he can scout one out for you.  The only possible downside is that he has an extremely cute and adorable 3-year old son who, being an adorable kid, can make a bit of racket in the forest and scare away wildlife.  But in the fall, a lot of birds and toucans stop by José’s house.  He has also built a comfortable guest house and will prepare you meals gladly.  José is German and speaks Spanish and no English.  A 3-hr tour will cost about Bs.70.  His email address is:
  • Coffee Plantation: Hacienda El Cafetal is one of the highlights of Buena Vista., especially if you’re interested in seeing how coffee is cultivated.  It’s not the best coffee in Bolivia, due to the sandy soil (In fact the company produces most of its coffee in the Yungas and keeps the plantation in Buena Vista for tours.)  You can call the office from Buena Vista and they will pick you up.

San José de Chiquitos

  • Transportation: You can take the 6-hr train from Santa Cruz.  Normal class is Bs.22 while first class is Bs.50.   Impressively and unlike the rest of Bolivia, there is plenty of food offered for sale on this ride.  You will not go hungry.
  • Lodging: Hotel Turubó is highly recommended.  Not only is the owner extremely nice, but so are the rooms and it is about Bs.70 for a single with a private bath.  (less pricey than what Lonely Planet mentions).  I accidently left my external harddrive here and they recovered it and shipped it to Santa Cruz.
  • Hospital: In case you have funkiness stemming from the jungle in Buena Vista, there is a nice hospital and clinic located here.  Except it is only open for appointments around 3 p.m. but you have to show up at 1:30 p.m. to get a ticket for the appointment.

A guide to Uyuni

18 Jan

Uyuni, Bolivia’s signature attraction, is the largest salt-flat in the world and probably the only natural resource which Bolivia has managed to not lose to its neighbors.  Depending if your source is the Bolivia government or international experts, the salt flats also hold 33% or 50% of the world’s lithium supply, which is under plans to be extracted soon without the help of North Korea, China, or any foreign companies or experts.

Much like what I felt when I saw Rome, I felt a bit underwhelmed when I finally made the trip, after 10 months of being in Bolivia.  People idealize the place.  The photos idealize the place. Its beauty really depends when you see it.  Although there is a risk of your car getting stuck, the rainy season is the best, though horribly cold.  Compare this gorgeous rainy-season photo which I stole from a friend to when I went:

Me running with troll hair and tummy showing...v.Sports Illustrated-like!

The Journey From Cochabamba:  Trip Details

  1. The Lonely Planet Guide from 2010 is spot on, except for the lecture about the dangers of being cheap.  All the tours are really the same.
  2. I took the 10:30 a.m. bus from Cocha to Oruro on Friday, arriving in Oruro at 3:00 p.m. (always allow a hour more than what the bus operators tell you the arrival time will be) and caught the 3:30 Expreso del Sur train to Uyuni just in time.  The ride was quite comfortable, not cold at all!  Btw, it is possible to turn your chairs around to face the direction that the train is going.  There’s a dining cabin on the train, though pricey, average meal ~Bs.30.  Bus ticket to Oruro: Bs.25.; Second-class ticket train ticket: Bs. 56.
  3. The train arrived in Uyuni at 11:00 p.m.  and I holed up in Hotel Avenida for the night, which was excellently clean (no electricity sockets though) and a block away from the train station.  I’m usually afraid of entering towns at night, but there’s a ton of people surrounding you from the train and tour agencies accosting you at night, so safety in numbers.  There is cell-phone reception on the train, so I made a reservation for Hotel Avenida ahead of time, though there were a few vacancies still left this time of the year.  One night at Hotel Avenida with a shared bathroom but single room: Bs.30.  Shampoo: Bs.2; Note: you can buy only showers at Hotel Avenida which is useful coming back from the trip in between the hours before taking a night-bus to the next destination.  Bs. 10.
  4. Trying to decide between tour agencies:  This may be tough to do because everyone will tell you small lies and they will also tell you that the other agency is lying.  The best way is to find some people who have just gotten back from the trip and ask them how it was.  Usually trips come back around 3-5 p.m.
  5. There are rarely any 4-day trips to Tupiza.
  6. Tour Agency:  Oasis was excellent.  Ask for Omar, the driver.  It is a bit pricier than other agencies (Bs.700 vs. Bs. 560) and the difference is the food, though they will tell you that they go on a different route than other people (this is not particularly true.)  Also, the credit card machine does not really work; bring cash. You can ask to see a copy of the menú.  I remember we were eating chicken milanese while others were eating canned tuna.  And Omar does not get drunk or isn’t late, which is what happened to a few other agencies along our trip.  But you may want to bring a USB of your music, as Omar is a fan of the Backstreet Boys.  Omar does not speak English.
  7. The Cold:  Not too bad!  At least in December, in the summer.  The first night was perfectly warm inside a salt hotel, which had a shower that cost Bs.10.  The second night was a bit chillier (I woke up time to time from the cold and might have gone into a fetal position), but bearable inside a more shack-like hotel without a shower.  I didn’t use a sleeping bag.  Recommend to bring:  a windbreaker (lots of wind, that will give you hair whiplash as well), and sunscreen (I got a bit sunburnt).  And the hot springs is absolutely lovely and warming.
  8. You can be dropped off at the border of Chile around 8:30 am. on the third day and won’t miss a thing of the tour, b/c the rest is a loong drive back.  The only stop, San Cristóbal, is a mining town where you only see the store.
  9. If you’re in a hurry, don’t eat at the Italian Pizza Restaurant filled with gringos and country flags.  It takes about 1 hr and half to get a pizza.
  10. To get back to Cocha:  I took the 8:00 p.m. bus, which is supposed to arrive in Oruro around 3:30 a.m. and then you can immediately catch another bus to Cocha.  This didn’t happen to me, because I accidentally bought a ticket from the wrong company (16 de Julio [Bs.40] instead of TransOmar [Bs.70]…there were right next to each other! And of course, I fell for the guy yelling Oruro!).  On the way, two of our tires fell flat and the spare tire was also bad.  Luckily, there were two buses behind us and we borrowed a tire from each and a team of 8 confused people screwed the tires on over the course of an hour and some debates.  We arrived in Oruro at 5:30 a.m. and luckily, there was one TransAzul bus to Cocha departing at 5:40 (the next one is at 7:40).   The bus-ride was a little chilly but not as horrendous as the Lonely Planet makes it out to be.   I arrived in Cocha at 10:30 a.m. and took an hour bath.