September 23, 2010
A few weeks ago, I was explaining this math problem to a class:
How many ways can five people sit around a five-sided table, if any seating arrangement is judged to be the same if each person has the same people on both his or her right and left?
If the question were just “How many ways can five people sit around a five-sided table?”, the answer would be 5!, or 5×4x3×2x1 = 120. But if “any seating arrangement is judged to be the same if each person has the same people on both his or her right and left,” then the 120 figure represents massive overcounting. Imagine five people named A, B, C, D, and E sitting around the table. Now imagine that everyone gets up and moves one seat to his or her left. We’ve counted that as a separate arrangement, but the problem says it isn’t. So, by how many times have we overcounted? Well, how many ways can A, B, C, D, and E do a Chinese fire drill? Five, of course. Divide 120 by 5 to get the answer, 24.
I wanted to say “Chinese fire drill” to the class, but I didn’t, because I was pretty sure that’s racist. As it turns out, the thing I actually said about everybody moving one seat to his or her left is actually better, since apparently a Chinese fire drill is somewhat less regimented than I thought. According to Wikipedia:
Popular in the United States during the 1960s, a Chinese fire drill is a gag performed by a vehicle’s occupants when stopped at a traffic light, especially when there is a need to change drivers or procure something from the trunk: Before the light changes to green, each occupant gets out, runs around the vehicle, and gets back inside (but not necessarily in his original seat). If one of the participants lags, the others may drive off without him.
This seems to imply that sometimes the participants would end up back in their original seats, rather than merely moving over one spot. In any case, why is it a “Chinese” fire drill? Also from Wikipedia, an excellent anecdote!
The term is alleged to have originated in the early 1900s, when a ship manned by British officers and a Chinese crew practiced a fire drill in the engine room. The bucket brigade drew water from the starboard side, took it to the engine room, and threw it onto the fire. A separate crew hauled the accumulated water to the main deck and heaved the water over the port side. The drill went according to plan until the orders became confused in translation. The bucket brigade began to draw the water from the starboard side, run over to the port side, and, then, throw the water overboard, bypassing the engine room completely.
While the idea of a fire drill that bypasses the fire is quite funny, it’s hardly fair to pin the problem on the Chinese. We might as well call it a “poor translation fire drill” or, obviously, a “British fire drill.”
Also from Wikipedia:
Around the time of World War I, British English’s adjective Chinese had a slang meaning of “confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand.” Other examples include:
“Chinese puzzle,” a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution
“Chinese auction,” a “penny social”
“Chinese national anthem,” an explosion
“Chinese landing,” a clumsy landing
“Chinese ace,” an inept pilot, derived from the term One Wing Low (which sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique.
Yep, so that sounds pretty racist.
Anyone want to propose a new name for the “Chinese fire drill”?
September 17, 2010
September 13, 2010
A lively neighborhood in Bangalore:
What a good name for a restaurant!
At the airport: just say no to touts! In American English, tout is a verb, but in British (and, consequently, Indian) English, a tout is “any person who solicits business or employment in an importune manner.”
Apparently, all of the magazines are about kittens.
An article in a business magazine regarding the historic decision to introduce bathrooms on trains:
This fruit was new to me. It’s not very practical. All the delicious bits are around the seeds. There’s no way to eat this other than to suck on the seeds and then spit them out.
Hotel breakfast in Goa. I really, really love coconut chutney (it’s covering the iddly). The green stuff is halwah. Apparently, there are a lot of kinds of halwah. Also involved here: sambar, of course, for the iddly; some kind of vermicelli salad, a thing that was basically cornbread, some bread, and some other kind of mashed-up thing. It was delicious. I love hotel breakfasts.
I wanted to swim in the pool, but hadn’t brought my swimsuit. The hotel shop sold swimsuits, but most were much too large for me, and also of the “frock” variety: Indian women apparently swim in dress-type swimsuits with black bike shorts attached underneath. I bought the only suit in my size. It was powerfully cheesy, with little pink cartoon hearts. I tried to take a picture that was more “Look at this cheesy swimsuit!” than “Look at me in a bathing suit!”
More pictures from Fort Aguada in Goa:
That’s it! It’s nice to be back in New York where good espresso abounds.
September 10, 2010
September 8, 2010
I made an appointment at a spa. I never go to spas. I occasionally will get a massage when I am so tense that my neck actually hurts, but I rarely do such a thing for fun. I figured that if I were ever in my life going to go all-out and get a day-long spa package, a resort in India in the off-season would be the time and place. So I signed up for a five-hour package that involved a body scrub (the woman took one look at me and said my skin would be too sensitive for the “masala” scrub, so I ended up with the coconut scrub), a one-hour facial, a massage, and a manicure/pedicure. Here’s where they keep the spa. Isn’t it gorgeous?
Yes, so it turns out that if you rub food on me for an hour, it will make me want to punch you. Seriously, once you get scrubbed with coconut, you just have to get in the shower and wash it all off yourself. Hardly worth it. Also, the coconut that gets rubbed on your back is kind of cold and gross by the time you turn over to get coconut rubbed on your front. Disgusting. And then the fruit facial? THAT WOMAN PUT FRUIT IN MY TEAR DUCTS. And it got up my nose. It was horrible. And as soon as I thought it was over (the fruit was off), THERE WAS ANOTHER FUCKING ROUND OF FRUIT. My subsequent Twitter posts:
September 7, 2010
After a few days in Bangalore, I was concerned that the omnipresent dust would ruin all my pairs of disposable contacts before my trip was through. (Seriously, spend a day or two in Bangalore and then clean your ears with a Q-tip. It’s dusty).
Also, the bed and breakfast I was staying in was making me profoundly peeved. One reason I had picked it over a conventional hotel is that I was under the impression that the couple that runs the place would be around to help me figure out India-related stuff. Various reviews have talked about how helpful they are. I never saw them at all, though (I’d recognize them from the pictures). Instead, the man who ostensibly runs the place does not really speak English, and will answer “yes” to nearly any question. Questions he was not able to comprehend:
“Is the Bull Temple too far to take an autorickshaw? Should I hire a car instead?” (Answer: “30 minutes”)
“May I have some juice, please?” (No juice forthcoming).
“If the bad smell in my room is still bad when I come back at night, can you move me to a new room?” (Answer: “Yes…”, but it was clear from his terrified expression that he had no idea what I was saying).
“Can that window in my bathroom be closed?” (Answer: “Yes,” but that was totally incorrect and he made no move to attempt to close the window, because he actually had no idea what ”Can that window in my bathroom be closed?” meant).
The power frequently went out, as did the internet connection. The front desk guy just sort of shrugged about the internet, and told me that the guy who fixes it is far away. Oh, and the desk chair in my room was a plastic lawn chair.
So, I took my computer from my room to an outdoor picnic table where the internet did work, went on Orbitz, and startling Googling other places I could be. I had been in India for days and not really eaten anything delicious, so I was even considering changing my flight back to hit up Luxembourg or something (it’s nice to split a 20-hour flight into two 10-hour flights). As it turns out, none of the European options were practical, so I turned to local flights within India. It was getting late in the day and I realized I was missing flights as I was searching. I had heard someone mention that Goa was nice, and when I looked it up on Orbitz, I discovered that the last daytime flight left in three hours! I really had no idea what was in Goa, so I Googled enough to read “beaches” and “historical sites,” and bought the ticket.
I grew up on Mediterranean Navy bases (I was born in Rota, Spain, and later lived in La Maddalena, Italy), and something about Goa — which was once colonized by the Portuguese, and seemingly hasn’t updated any of its vehicles or signs since the ’80s — seemed very familiar.
Leaving the airport in a super old-school white van-taxi:
Tropical greenery! India is a large country, and judging it by Bangalore is sort of like judging America by Detroit. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve visited the Detroit and then the Hawaii of India.
At the Fort Aguada beach resort I was greeted by a beautiful woman who put a shell necklace around my neck, and then brought me some juice on a tray. For real? It was the off-season (gray, rainy), so I got upgraded to a cottage, but by cottage, I mean a five-star hotel room with a fancy glass-encased shower and air conditioning pre-set to frigid and jazz playing on the sound system and a mini-bar full of vodka and Toblerone bars and a front yard with an actual hammock strung between two actual palm trees. I would recommend this exact place for your honeymoon, should you have one. ($118 a night last-minute on Orbitz!) In my room:
This was the view from outside my cottage:
That big round thing is the fort built by the Portuguese. Apparently, as a vestige of colonization, some Indians in Goa have green eyes. Here’s a view from the main hotel:
And from the beach:
I love when rocks are really mossy, like characters on Sesame Street.
You can get all up on that fort thing! At this point, I wished I had a six-year-old son so I could point out to him that this is where you shoot guns from! I mean, I’m against both gender stereotypes and violence, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that little boys totally lose their shit over stuff like that.
Inside the big round part!
In the big round part, two young local guys asked “Photo?” I dutifully took a phone from one of them and snapped a picture of them together. But that wasn’t what they wanted: they wanted to be photographed with me. I laughed and stood around while each one took a photo of the other one with me. They didn’t try to put their arms around me or anything. It was cool. I said goodbye and walked on, when another group of young guys got really excited, ran off to get a camera, and came back wanting more photos. I was finding it sort of hilarious, and again, no one was acting creepy or trying to touch me (and there were lifeguards around), so I stood for six or eight more pictures. I finally asked one of the guys “Why?” and he smiled and said “Different nationality.”
September 5, 2010
When I hired an autorickshaw driver to take me to the Hare Krishna temple, he was really excited that I looked exactly like a pale-skinned meal ticket! He was kind of an asshole.
I let him talk me into the can’t-miss parliament, where I let him talk me into paying some guy to take these photos.
The driver really liked this one, which he imitated by crossing his ankles like this:
Here are some people outside the parliament:
Then we went to the Bangalore Palace, also known as the venue of historic Iron Maiden and Megadeath concerts. Here is a row of tuk-tuks outside the palace:
Inside, the driver arranged for a tour guide (there was clearly a system of kickbacks in place), and soon thereafter took my picture with several stools made from elephant feet. I wanted to make a sad face (it was sad!), but I thought the tour guide would find it rude. So I tried to make a neutral face.
The tour guide did a lot of pointing to black and white photos on the wall and saying things like “King father!” and “King grandfather!” The king’s father killed this bison.
Here is the current “king of Bangalore,” as portrayed on a mural near the palace.
He has no ruling power, of course. Just a couple of cool houses. The better one’s in Mysore, so he rents this one out for heavy metal concerts.
Here’s me in the palace garden:
My driver said I was “plain” and then rather unconvincingly said, “It’s nice. Nice face.” I got this in the Middle East in 2007 — a vendor I had struck up a conversation with interrupted me with the question that had clearly been bothering him for some minutes: “Why are you so simple?!” He didn’t mean mentally; he meant that I wasn’t covered in jewelry, makeup, bright and sparkly clothing, etc. I said, “This is what it looks like when women have jobs.” (This was in Bahrain, and obviously women with jobs dress in a wide variety of fashions, but that was just what came out. I do not look like a living doll because I have things to do, thankyouverymuch. No offense to employed women who are also very sparkly).
Things my driver tried to sell me on during our trip: professional photos from his buddies outside the parliament hall (sold), a trip to the Bangalore palace (sold), rugs and handicrafts (no), a trip to the botanical gardens (no), getting out of the car to take photos in front of the wall keeping us out of the cricket fields (no), a trip to the pharmacy for a special pill that would solve my runny nose (no), more sightseeing tomorrow (no). Oh, and when I said I was done and just wanted to go back to my hotel because I was tired: a trip to a massage place (no).
September 2, 2010
I once considered writing a book entitled “How to Make $30,000 a Year and Sleep as Late as You Want.” Small, quantified claims are so much more credible than “Make a Million Dollars While You Sleep!”, “The Ten- Minute Workweek,” “7-Minute Abs,” etc.
(Now, I’m thinking about “How to Make Six Figures While Loitering in Foreign Coffee Shops.”)
So, while it would certainly be fun to make an extra $10,000 per month, that’s pretty difficult to do, even with a sex tape. But $100 a month? Here are some ideas. More >>
August 31, 2010
Sometimes a male (?) caterpillar and a female (?) caterpillar love each other very much, and also are exhibitionists and like to be watched by a worm.
Photo taken in Goa, India.
August 30, 2010
August 30, 2010
Having trouble concentrating long enough to really get things done?
There are totally solutions for that.
It occurred to me to write this column when I read a friend’s Facebook status update: “Just completed my third pomodoro!” Um … like the pasta? I Googled. It turns out that there is something called the Pomodoro Technique.
According to the website, “The Pomodoro Technique™ has been used successfully by many different kinds of people doing all sorts of activities: from software developers to schoolchildren; from university students to lawyers and executives; whether organizing events, doing project management or getting homework done on time.”
“Pomodoro” is, in fact, the Italian word for “tomato.” More >>
August 25, 2010
A picture from the back of the autorickshaw I took around Bangalore. An autorickshaw is a bit like a three-wheeled golf cart. Or a golf cart body mounted on a motorcycle.
I went to the Hare Krishna temple — you file through a long line separated from other lines with metal dividers, very much like the system of lines used by amusement parks to shuffle people onto a roller coaster, although this one was much faster-moving. In the line, a bunch of unaccompanied little girls stared right at me and started giggling. I said “hi,” and some of the little girls seemed excited to have some further interaction (they made a point of keeping up with me for awhile), although I did hear one little girl behind me say “Hiiii” in what must have been her idea of an American accent — kind of a cowboy drawl.
You check your shoes (for 1 rupee — about 2 cents) before going into the temple. They give you a crazy old fraying bag to put them in, and then hang the bag on a giant hook that just stabs right through the fabric (probably why all the bags are fraying). You have to check your purse or backpack separately. That was free, and there was a security woman sitting at a little table with a log book. She took my name and asked if there was a camera inside. Then she asked where I was from, just for her own curiosity, it seemed. I said “New York,” and a man standing next to her misheard it as “Iraq,” which he took with some surprise. The woman corrected him with a smile: “New York! Not Iraq.”
I don’t know how most Hindu temples work, but at this one, you file through the entire thing single file, with the metal dividers, like a roller coaster line. We filed up the steps leading to the temple, and then we filed in and out of a small room containing a recessed statue of a god. The statue was behind glass, and surrounded with lots of other … decorative implements. It was extremely baroque. By which I mean everything was gold, including the god himself, and the frame around him, and a whole lot of other stuff. The line did a sort of U-turn, so when your place in line was right in front of the god, you stopped and prayed, and then continued shuffling through the line. The people behind me were glad that I just looked and nodded politely (I think) and continued on my way — kind of the same feeling you have when you’re in a long line at Starbucks and the person in front of you gives up and leaves, and you’re like, well, this line just got a little bit shorter.
Then the exact same thing happened again — another golden god-cupola.
And then we were in the main temple, which was a much larger version of the same thing, but with a large open space in the middle for people who wanted to sit on the floor and pray. So you filed single-file to the very front of the room, kind of blocking the view of the people on the floor. At the front was an enormous ornate gold … cabinet-like thing that held three different exhibits, each of which held a god or gods (Krishna in the middle). Some people got down on the floor and prayed (very quickly) even though we were shuffling through in single-file.
Once you got past the gods, the metal line-dividers finally ended, and you could join the people on the floor or shuffle out through various gift shops and sweet shops.
One online review of the temple, presumably from a Hindu or at least someone who has been to many temples, said that this part was too commercial. I see how a person would think that. You could buy all kinds of Krishna-gear and cakes. There is a Little Krishna DVD series for children, featuring a tiny, adorable blue Krishna. I’m pretty sure one of the posters for this was either making a winking reference to, or else just ripping off, the iconography of Avatar (you know … blue and all).
At the end of all the things to buy (really, the amount of real estate given to the world’s-fair portion was at least equal to that given to the religious part), a man with a giant vat of food gave everyone some yellow dal (with rice cooked in) in a tiny bowl made of a leaf. I watched other people for the protocol: you could squeeze the food into your mouth from the bowl, or use your fingers.
I retrieved my shoes, made use of a radically different bathroom system, and left thinking, wow, if all Hindu temples are like this, then this is the sort of religion you really wouldn’t bother becoming an atheist from. You’re in, you’re out, it’s like a fun day at the park. Who would object to that? (There was a posted calendar of lectures and festivals and things. But I don’t think that you’re supposed to show up once a week and sit on a hard-backed bench for more than an hour while someone tells you you’re living your life wrong and suffering from evil inner thoughts, besides).
August 24, 2010
A design made in flour on the street outside a police official’s office.
Message on the Citibank ATM: “Your transaction is getting done.”
A jewelry store called “Forever 21.” A clothing store called “Forever New.” An electronics store holding a “Non-Violent Sale.” Another store holding a “Mouth-Shutting Sale.” McDonald’s sells only chicken sandwiches.
I bought a toothbrush; the package says “inspired by the design of your finger.”
A lingerie store called “Choosy Cherry.” Umm.
Vendors think I would be really excited to buy pashminas. (I was kind of excited about that when I moved to New York in 2003, but I’ve had my fill!)
Weirdly, I had a hard time finding, um, Indian food in Bangalore. Lots of fast food, but the only nice-looking sit-down places (where it doesn’t seem too weird, just moderately weird, to be a woman alone) were in hotels. Maybe it’s just not a restaurant culture — different countries don’t just have different types of restaurants, they have wildly different densities of restaurants. In Argentina, for instance, people sometimes go to cafes multiple times a day; consequently, Buenos Aires has as many restaurants per square mile as New York. In some cultures (probably those where women are less likely to work), people just eat at home a lot more. And in some cultures, people just don’t care about a restaurant’s atmosphere as much as in others. I’m willing to travel 30 minutes in an autorickshaw to eat the best food, but it’s hard to hunt down. After taking a driver’s recommendation for “best dosa,” I ended up in a place with neon-yellow lighting, zero women, and okay dosa. Best meal so far was at the Hare Krishna temple: boy, do they love to cook with coconut. “Bangalore’s only Sattvic cuisine.” OK!
It’s high in prana!
In a shopping mall, a young woman in a lovely sari was holding an adorable baby wearing bangles, anklets, and FULL EYELINER. Dark, black kohl eyeliner both above and below her eyes. ON A BABY. It looked strangely amazing. I mean, if an American put eyeliner on a baby, I would say that person was insane, and then deplore that we have reality shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras.” But, somehow, this baby looked better than I’ve ever looked. Since then, I’ve seen tons of barefoot little girls with jangly silver ankle bracelets and tiny, precious little bangles on their wrists. I kind of love it.
I have seen two young white women in saris, and both kind of shot me dagger eyes. I think each of us thinks the other one is embarrassing both of us.
August 23, 2010
If you want to order two waters, what you want is “water-water.”
As all visitors to India note with some surprise, the “bobblehead” gesture means “I get it.” It does not mean “so-so” or “maybe” which is what an American might assume from someone moving his head in a figure-eight pattern. (Although one published source says the head-bobble can mean “I don’t care!”)
One of the most striking features of India is the incredible underutilization of human capital — everywhere, security guards who do nothing but sit all day, guarding something that is not exactly under siege, such as a high school or a clothing store. Or, a coconut cart manned by three men where one would be more than enough. An empty coffee shop with two people behind the counter plus a waiter — if you want takeaway, the waiter will get your order and repeat it to the guy behind the counter. It’s nice to have wait service sometimes, but the (apparently) incredibly cheap cost of labor can’t be fun for those working.
In India, showing your shoulders is considered somewhat provocative. However, everyone’s grandmother is wearing a sari top that exposes rolls of back fat. The Air India flight attendants wear sari-like uniforms that allow anyone sitting down (at stomach-height) to see their stomachs. At a restaurant, I saw a white woman with old-school mom hair wearing a gorgeous sari (it looked weird on her, but she was very tanned, so it at least looked like she’d been here awhile and not like she’d arrived yesterday and decided to wear a sari). Every time she got up, she had to readjust all her fabric to cover her wobbly stomach. Goes to show that our ideas of modesty are all a bit arbitrary.
There are virtually no ATMs. They are very, very hard to find — only inside a bank location, never freestanding. People seem to pay for a lot of things with their mobile accounts — a billboard suggests that, “If you love just one thing” (image: handsome man holding a baby in a way that seems to really be straining his bulging biceps), you can subscribe to Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter alone for 10 rupees/month. I can’t seem to buy WiFi at an internet cafe without a working mobile — I’m at a cafe now and paid for wireless with my credit card, but then they send the password to your mobile. The coffeeshop waiter gave me his mobile number, so I’m writing this while waiting for him to receive a text message with the password I paid for. It’s been awhile. I’ve got a paneer sandwich and a pot of chai to work on while I compose this list.
A wall that says “Do not urinate” on it every ten feet is kind of worse than a wall that people urinate on. At least a wall that people urinate on is nice after every rainfall. I mean, would you want to own a bucket that said “Do not shit in this bucket,” even if it were the cleanest bucket in town?
August 23, 2010
When you take a taxi, how many times does the driver typically honk his horn? In my NYC cab experience, often not at all — so, on average, about 0.5 times per trip. In Bangalore, any cab ride will involve a horn being honked at least 30 times. People honk their horns basically just anytime they are physically close enough to a car to do so. If you are walking on the sidewalk in a quiet residential neighborhood and a single car begins to make its way up the street towards you at a reasonable speed, it will honk at you anyway, just in case you are Helen fucking Keller.
At no point will you get to walk on more than 20 feet of continuous sidewalk without stepping out into the street because of giant slabs of broken concrete, huge piles of dirt and debris, or simple discontinuance of the sidewalk. And don’t get me wrong: there are pedestrians absolutely everywhere. It’s not like LA, which has minimal sidewalks because hardly anyone walks. Everyone is walking, often barefoot, and in the street. This only increases the honking.
There are no crosswalks in Bangalore. I mean, there are places where white lines are painted on the street, but there are no streetlights accompanying these crosswalks, nor do cars stop to let anyone cross. So you have to take your chance to run across the street whenever an opening appears. There is a good chance you will get hit by a motorcycle.
Plenty of women ride motorcycles, and not in a tough-biker-chick way at all. I saw a family of four on a single motorcycle — dad driving, four-year-old in front of him, mom behind, holding husband in one arm and baby in the other. Everyone’s grandmother calmly rides (sidesaddle!) on the back of a motor scooter as death-defying driving feats occur all around her.