Author Archive

Where???, Part 2

December 4, 2007

The other morning, I had a typical taxi experience.  I told the driver where to take me.  He clearly recognized the name of the neighborhood but not the landmark I had provided.  He began driving and as we got closer to the neighborhood, he started asking me for directions.  At least I’m pretty sure that’s what he was asking for, because he didn’t speak English.  This is where it began to seem pretty ridiculous to me.  I have no idea how to get around this huge city yet—most streets look equally chaotic to me.  The idea of me giving directions to anyone is laughable; I rely on the taxi drivers to know how to get me to where I’m going.  So here I was in a moving cab, trying to guess what street to take when I had no idea where we were or how to get to my destination, and trying to give some sort of directions in English, which the driver didn’t understand.  It was definitely like the blind leading the deaf—though I could qualify as both the blind and the deaf in this case.  Yet somehow we made it.  I don’t know how this works, but it usually does.  I’m learning several things here—that I should probably pick up some basic Hindi; that even without Hindi, pantomiming often does the trick; and that somehow, communication transcends language barriers.  And that moving to a big city in a foreign country is often, and in many ways, a very humbling experience.

You Can’t Hear Me Right Now

November 28, 2007

My cell phone stopped working this weekend.  I was pretty proud of it—a sleek looking Vodafone model that fit easily in my pocket.  But when I tried to use it on Sunday, the screen was frozen.  I was attending a wedding in a village in southern India, where many helpful people fiddled with the phone but could not get it to work.

So I started looking around for a Vodafone store, though I thought my chances were slim.  After all, I was in a small village outside a somewhat larger town about two hours from the closest major city.  As we drove through the village, I started looking at the stores we were passing and was surprised by how many were advertising Airtel, the cellular service I have on my phone.  There were many red Airtel banners flying outside all kinds of small shops where cell phone owners can purchase minutes for their phones.  A few also had Vodafone signs, signaling that they carry cell phones.  As it was a Sunday afternoon, all of the stores selling phones were closed.  Still, I was impressed with the reach of cell phone services here.  When I’ve traveled in Africa, I’ve seen Coca Cola signs everywhere, even in the most remote villages.  Here, at least in rural Kerala, it was signs for cell phones and mobile services that suddenly jumped out at me. 

How to distribute goods and services to rural areas in developing countries is a big concern.  Cell phone companies seem to be finding a way here, at least from what I’ve seen in my limited travels.  It would be interesting to hear how they’ve succeeded in setting up franchises and what lessons they’ve learned in reaching out to the base of the pyramid.

Mmmm… Good

November 27, 2007

Yesterday I played with my food.  At least that’s what it felt like I was doing as I dipped my fingers into the pile of rice and started mixing in a variety of sauces, making sure all the rice was well-coated.  This was fun!  Then I tried to scoop up some of the rice and sauce with my fingers and stick it into my mouth without spilling it all over myself.  This was more challenging. 

I was in Cochin in the southern Indian state of Kerala for work meetings, and my colleagues had taken me out for a traditional Keralan lunch.  We each had a green banana leaf laid flat in front of us, and waiters came by to deposit a huge mound of rice on each leaf.  They then ladled out spoonfuls of different sauces—actually, more like stews—from the pots they were carrying.  Each sauce/stew was a different color and was composed of vegetables and a variety of spices.  We all rolled up our sleeves and got to work.  I can’t provide any more detail about the food (I’m still trying to get the hang of food names here), but everything was delicious, even eaten off of my fingers.  And, thankfully, it was not too spicy.  I ate until I could eat no more.  I find food one of the best ways to experience a new culture, and to date in India I’ve been diving right in.

The Sound of Sirens

November 21, 2007

I could hear the siren approaching from behind me, but I couldn’t see what it was coming from—cars were squeezed five and even six across in the three lanes of the road.  Lane lines don’t mean much here in Mumbai.  Then an ambulance emerged, crossing over the median and driving straight into the oncoming nighttime traffic.  It was just like a movie car chase scene where the lead car tries to escape by driving against traffic.  Only this wasn’t a movie—it’s daily life here in a traffic-clogged city.  The ambulance driver was waving his arm outside the window, motioning cars to make way—and they were slowly, grudgingly doing so.

Before heading to Mumbai to work for 1298, a private ambulance company that provides free service to the poorest (1298 is the telephone number you call for one of their ambulances), one of the most common questions I was asked was how ambulances can get around in such a congested city.  Why bother calling an ambulance if it’s going to be stuck in traffic just like everyone else? 

The answer is that, if you’re going be stuck in traffic on your way to a hospital, you are much better off in an ambulance with life-support equipment and a doctor.  A taxi or a private car won’t get you there any faster, and it won’t have a resuscitation kit or a defibrillator (at least none of the taxis I’ve ridden in are so equipped…).  My colleagues at 1298 tell me that a culture of making way for ambulances is beginning to emerge here, though apparently there is no government regulation requiring vehicles to pull aside.  One of the challenges facing 1298 is how to speed up another sort of cultural change—encouraging people to call ambulances during an emergency rather than getting into the nearest vehicle to make the trip to a hospital.  I’ll be writing more about how 1298 is marketing its services over the coming months.


November 19, 2007

Blank stares.  Gesturing.  Questions in Hindi (or maybe it’s Marathi—I don’t know since I can’t speak either).  I’ve been getting everything except a look of recognition from taxi drivers when I ask them to drive me home. 

Since I live in the suburbs of Mumbai, I’ve been commuting to work by taxi.  Taxis are plentiful, as are auto rickshaws—but the cheaper rickshaws aren’t allowed to enter the part of the city where I work.  So I’ve been taking the regular taxis.  They have fare meters, but they’re outdated and the drivers use a conversion chart which multiplies the displayed fare by a factor of roughly 13 to get the actual fare (just when you thought the taxi zones in Washington, DC were as confusing as it gets…).  A kind colleague gave me a copy of the fare conversion chart—a useful thing to have to ensure honesty among the drivers.

While the taxi drivers have been able to get me to my office, not one has yet been able to get me home without stopping to ask several people on the way.  This is partly because many of the drivers speak very little English and we have a mutually difficult time understanding each other’s accents.  I think the bigger reason, though, is the lack of regular street addresses where I live.  My address, such as it is, goes on for eight lines, describing the housing complex, the name of the complex across the street, the neighborhood, etc. 

The key to giving directions in this huge city is to use landmarks.  So, after first saying that I want to go to the Kalina neighborhood in the Santa Cruz area near the airport, I then say that I’m near Mumbai University and across from the Honda showroom.  The first part drivers recognize, but the part about the showroom draws quizzical looks.  Each time, the driver ends up taking the sheet of paper I carry with me that has my address written on it and shows it to the nearest passers by.  After several additional wrong turns, we finally arrive.  And so far, each time we’ve approached from a different direction and on a different road.  (I really need a compass.)  All this makes me wonder about the inefficiencies of doing business in such a large city with no systematic addresses.  The key, it seems, is to rely on knowledgeable locals.  For foreigners like me, it’s often the completely unexpected things that we find we take for granted. 

Toweling Off in Mumbai

November 19, 2007

Who knew a good towel could be so hard to come by? I arrived in Mumbai on Friday morning to begin my work at 1298, a private ambulance company. I’m staying temporarily in an apartment in the suburbs while I look for more permanent housing, and I quickly realized one of the items I’d forgotten to bring—a towel. Mumbai is a city of over 15 million people, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find one.  On Sunday, my day off, I walked around my neighborhood, but no luck—it’s a middle class suburb of multi-story apartment buildings, but not much in the way of shops. So, I figured it was time to try out the Indian train system and take a ride to downtown Mumbai.

After the half-hour trip, I got off at the end of the train line in historic south Mumbai, filled with old Victorian buildings and, like the rest of the city, tons of people and vehicles.  Just outside the train station, the sidewalks were filled with vendors selling every sort of clothing, from shoes and sandals to sweaters (can’t imagine wearing one of those in the tropical heat here…) and jeans.  I figured I was in luck—it shouldn’t be too hard to find a towel here.

Within a couple of blocks, I spotted a towel vendor on a street corner.  Among the brightly colored models depicting strange cartoon characters, I found a few standard towels and settled on a dark blue one.  This is when I decided I’d try my hand at bargaining.  The vendor offered 100 rupees (about $2.50); I countered with 60. He explained that there’s one price for the medium-sized towel I wanted, and that it’s 100 rupees. I told him I thought that was too expensive and repeated my 60-rupee offer. He again declined, at which point I thanked him and made a move to walk away. Usually at this point the bargaining begins, or so I thought. Instead, he called my bluff and let me walk away.  No big deal—there would surely be another vendor just around the corner.  After a half hour of walking past every conceivable clothing item for sale (more pants, more shoes, underwear, socks, etc.) and many non-clothing items, and still no towel in sight, I caved and returned to my towel guy, paying the full 100 rupees.

Proud of my purchase (if not of my bargaining skills), I tried out my towel this morning after showering.  When I was done toweling off, I looked like a smurf. Completely covered in blue lint and blue dye.  So I decided it might have been wise to wash the towel first. I pulled out a bucket, added some soap, washed the towel, and found that the water had turned a deep blue in color—along with my hands. A second wash produced just as much blue water. Lessons?  Don’t buy a blue towel—go with white or something skin-colored.  And while things may be relatively inexpensive here, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be of high quality.  There’s a cost/quality tradeoff here as elsewhere.  As clichéd as it is, you often do get what you pay for…

Impoverished Eating

October 2, 2007



Food.  All I could think of was food.  It was 2pm and I was starving—and I had $5 to spend on lunch in New York City.  I had spent all morning sitting in the Brooklyn food stamp office, waiting in an interminable line for an interview with a social worker.  I gave up after two hours as my stomach started to growl and it appeared that another couple of hours of waiting were between me and that interview.  I was there as part of an experiential learning day last week, when my fellow Fellows and I went out into New York City to see what it takes to access social services—such as food stamps, shelter for the night, medical care, or unemployment benefits.  At the beginning of the day we left everything in the office except our IDs, and departed with only a $5 bill and a subway card to see us through the day.


With that $5, I started searching for something affordable, filling, and high in calories for a quick lunch.  Nutrition was at the bottom of my list of priorities.  By 2pm, I was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and decided my best bet would be a fast food joint.  With none in site and the grumbling in my stomach growing louder, I settled for a slice of cheese pizza ($2.25) and a can of ginger ale ($1.25), leaving $1.50 as an emergency reserve.  I had hoped that meal would be filling, but by the time I returned to the office at 5pm to share stories with the other Fellows, my energy reserves were completely depleted and I was ready to feast on whatever food I could get my hands on (a bowl of M&Ms in the office met my criteria).  My lunchtime experience reminded me of a great article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine.  Among other issues, he discusses the question of why the poorest in the U.S. are the most likely to be overweight and looks at the role of the farm bill in the way we over-eat.  It is a great illustration of the unintended consequences that policymaking can have on public health.