Category Archives: Tips

In Transit

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Photo Kim Meyer

The return trip was long. At one in the morning I bid Sajjad farewell, handed him the keys to my trusty bike – a thank you for everything – and hopped in the cab. The familiar ride to Mumbai was spent in deep thought, traversing from the silent silhouettes of the Pune hills to the ever bustling streets of Mumbai. With every passing landmark the end of a very special episode in my life drew closer.

Seventeen hours later I stood outside the Helsinki terminal, up for thirty-six, being lulled by the pale spring sunlight. A fresh Nordic breeze was swirling about. And there, next to me, were my parents and brothers – a long-awaited reunion. I couldn’t grasp it all.

We loaded my bags into the car and headed for my apartment.

Wood.

Every home has its own scent. Most people don’t know what exact scent their home has, but stay away for long enough and you’ll notice it when you come back.

Newly chopped wood. That’s what my home smells like.

It looked mostly like I had left it. I set down my suitcase and rucksack on the living room floor and unloaded my goods: 45 kilos of scarfs, suits, Kurtas, shirts, shoes, trinkets, hookahs – and mementos.

One by one I placed the pieces on my shelf.

The Apophyllite crystal, dug from the hills of Pune.

The statue of meditating Buddha, ever mindful; a silent reminder of the barren and majestic landscapes of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Ganesha – a gift from the café I frequented; a thank you for all those scorching afternoons I sat on the terrace, sipping a cold hazelnut twist and marveling at the crazyness of it all.

And the jade dragon that, every time I’d invite it to, would take me back to those alluring streets of Hong Kong.

I gazed at the items for a moment, listening. They gazed back, in silence; memories that are mute for now, much too young. With time they would make themselves heard; those sounds need to travel before there is an echo.

I glanced around the apartment. The silence wasn’t just limited to the mementos, it was everywhere. And it was deafening. There wasn’t a single moment during the last seven months when I experienced silence like this. No more loud traffic, barking dogs or hums of rickety appliances. This, and much else, might take some getting used to.

And it did. To be honest, the first week was rough. There was the relief of being back home, of course – but there was also this constant feeling of something being a bit off. Everything was pretty much the same: Helsinki, my home, the office and the people. But I wasn’t – or at least I didn’t feel like it. I was trying to fall into the same slot I used to be in, but noticed that I don’t seem to fit anymore. The divide between here and there too broad, I felt like I was somewhere in-between. Stuck in transit, with no place where I’d truly belong. It’s a strange, unsettling feeling.

Reverse culture shock. They warned me about this, but I thought it would be a piece of cake. In many ways it’s worse than the actual one: when you’re abroad, you’re to some extent mentally prepared for things to be different. When you return you just expect to go back to how it was. But you can’t, it’s not that easy. It just doesn’t feel like it used to. That return flight may have landed two weeks ago, but I have yet to arrive.

Good news is that it’s temporary. Day by day, act by act, I gravitate back towards the life I used to live. This too shall pass, and with time I will, again, feel at home.

But now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to walk the dog.

Q&A

I asked my friends on Facebook if they have something they’d like to know about my stay in India. This is what they came up with – I promised to answer all, which perhaps explains the one about the passage of time.

Highlights?
Definitely all the trips around the country and beyond: Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, Varanasi, Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal and Hong Kong will also live with me for a very long time. So much beautiful scenery and enriching experiences that I haven’t even had the time to comprehend it all yet. Same goes for the more local, mundane stuff here in Pune. It’s all routine for a few more days, and therefore something I’m still blind to, but once I get back I think I’ll be able to pinpoint all those good things that make this a special place and culture.

Low points?
Coming to terms with a foreign culture and its strange ways is a challenge. There have been moments when I’ve been frustrated at how things work – or don’t – and the general way people can be. Being more or less alone in this process gives it more personal depth, but there have been times when I’ve had to go into myself and find the strength and focus in order to keep a positive vibe.

What will you miss?
On an everyday basis there is a certain atmosphere of freedom, in a strange way. Even though there is a lot of chaos and randomness, it’s perhaps that same unpredictability that makes a lot of room – and need – for improvisation. This might sound abstract – and ironic considering all the bureaucracy – but there simply isn’t the same kind of strict big brother setting here as we have in Finland. It is also within this frame that making all those trips has been fun – you never know how the day is going to turn out.

What’s the biggest a-ha moment? 
Dealing with people here in general, especially rickshaw drivers: since it’s a matter of asking if he’s willing to go where you want to go – not all do, for one reason or another – and negotiating over fare, it’s not as simple as just getting a cab in Finland. Also, being more assertive yet diplomatic. It’s a kind of strange dominance struggle: will the cabbie take me where I want to go, and for a fair price, or will he win by getting me to agree to a overly high fare. And for that you need to be prepared to turn your back and walk to the next rickshaw. If you’re out of luck and there is none around, then you might have to pay almost whatever he asks for. There are a lot of good cabs, but many if not most are just out to milk the cow as much as possible – and will be quite obnoxious while doing so.

Another thing is negotiating my way through traffic on a bicycle, getting the pulse of the flow, being aware of my surroundings and maneuvering based on that. In Finland that is no problem since people drive according to a common set of rules. Here, however, there are no certain vectors: if it’s not a car coming up the wrong side of the road, it might be one suddenly swerving in front of you and hitting the brakes, or a motorcycle bolting in from a sidewalk. You can trust your own actions, but treat all others in traffic as dangerous idiots. They often are.

Has your perspective shifted?
Certainly, yes. How, exactly, might be too early to say since I’m still in the middle of it all. These things need to simmer a bit; the dust needs to settle before it clears up. Seeing all the different places, vast amount of people and brief glimpses of how their lives are has been eye-opening – it has allowed me to see a part of the global community that was previously quite unknown to me. Witnessing poverty, misery and death is also a sobering experience – a welcome reminder of how life can be.

What are the most attractive aspects of India (or culture)? 
India is a vast subcontinent that offers a limitless treasure chest to the avid photographer. Saturated colors, alluring scenery and people that are not camera shy. Landscapes vary from sandy beaches and lush jungles to barren deserts and snow tipped mountains. And it’s all available within the same country, a very affordable flight ticket away. As the scenery varies, so do the people: it’s more a matter of a group of subcultures than a national culture. Every area has its charming attributes. India as a whole is a pleasure to explore.

What was still difficult to adjust to after 190 days?
Traffic, and the ceaseless honking. You can cope with it and get where you’re trying to go, but it still gets on the nerves. The flaws in infrastructure is also something that rears its ugly head quite often: if it’s not the power going out for the umpteenth time that day, it’s the water.

190 days already? :oO WTF is wrong with the passage of time?
Time is an indefinite continued progress of what has happened, what is happening now, and what is in the future. This way to perceive the continuum is unique for us humans – animals do not think much about it: they have past experiences which they, when applicable, base their decisions on in the now. However, they seldom, if ever, worry about tomorrow. This establishes that time, as a concept, is relative. The way we observe the passage of time varies also on an individual basis and according to what the person is doing and feeling at that moment. This has resulted in such idioms as “time flies when you’re having fun”, “just killing time” and many other. So it’s not just relative, it’s also subjective.

In fact, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with the passage of time as far as we know, it’s just us being bothered about that it indeed does.

What is the most memorable photo you took during your trip? (not “the best” photographically, but the one you’ll remember)
There are a couple photos I’ve snapped along the way that carry more meaning than just the aesthetic value. The one that comes out on top would have to be from the crematorium in Varanasi, because the situation for me as an outsider was a bit flammable and the scene itself emotionally loaded. I’m glad I got a good shot.

Honorable mentions go to:

  • Flight to Lukla – Seeing the sun rise over the Himalayan mountain range from a small prop plane was surreal and moving
  • Gulab Jamun Man – A quite charismatic man with an aura of serenity
  • Hong Kong – Getting past the heavy foliage up on Victoria Peak and having the whole Hong Kong cityscape open up at once, and in the golden hour of dusk at that, was one of those rare moments when I actually stopped in my tracks and said… wow

What was the biggest thing in terms of cultural shock in good or bad and how did you absorb it?
Perhaps it was the fact that this is still a developing nation – something that is manifested both in the culture and the underlying infrastructure. Most of the things I’ve grown used to, and in that way accepted as part of the way things are here, but it still can be frustrating at times. I think the article I wrote for the JWT blog shines light on the different stages of that coping process.

Also are you learning any of the local languages? Quantity and reason why/why not.
One thing worth noting is that India is in many ways more like a huge ensemble of states than a single nation. It was not that long ago, relatively speaking, that the maharajas agreed to join the states under a common rule. This means that both the subcultures and languages vary by region. There are at least 28 different languages across the subcontinent, and as many character sets. Learning any of these regional languages would have given marginal practical advantages, especially considering that as a result of the British colonization many know some level of English here.

However, if there is any non-English language here that can be considered a lingua franca it would be Hindi. And I did learn some basic phrases in it, but in everyday life English quickly became the default. Knowing some cursewords in local languages can be useful though – especially when dealing with rickshaw drivers or pestering scoundrels.

Welcome Back

I have to say, the new T2 terminal at Mumbai international looks quite nice. They could, however, use slightly better signage – after getting my tourist visa and backpack, I stood outside trying to find the prepaid taxi station. There were practically no signs that lead me anywhere in particular. Time was about two in the night, and I still had to get to Dadar East – the bus station that busses to Pune leave from – and sit in a bus for three hours before being even close to the apartment.

A guy came up to me and asked me where I was going. He was a, shall we say, freelancing cab driver, willing to drive people for prices slightly lower than the prepaid ones. The normal fare from the airport to Dadar East is somewhere in the vicinity of 300 rupees.

So this guy, probably thinking it was my first time there, looked at me and said he could drive me for thirty-five hundred rupees.

Now, I’m the kind of guy that easily defaults to a look of skepticism. This usually results in me having big wrinkles on my forehead. But this is a good thing: I was told by a sikh in Hong Kong that it means good luck. Especially if there are three distinct lines.

But I digress. With a look of something between a frown and a smile, I asked the guy: wait, did you just say three five zero zero rupees to Dadar East? Really?

He nodded enthusiastically. Yeah!

That’s quite a profit margin these guys are aiming for. A one thousand percent fare hike.

Sensing my not too subtle disbelief, he gave me a special offer: but you, I can drive there for 1500 rupees. I told him that was still a bit more than I was willing to pay. With that kind of money I could get a cab all the way to Pune.

He didn’t have much to say to that, I think he was sensing that this fish wouldn’t bite the hook. So I told him I’d been there a couple of times and knew by now what the standard fares were, bid him farewell and continued my way down to the prepaid taxi station – now that I had figured out where it was.

Entering the elevator, I was joined by a fellow foreigner being chased by another scoundrel. Where do you want to go, I give you good price, the driver said. I advised the foreigner to ignore those and just go with prepaids. He agreed. Another swindle averted.

Besides that, getting the taxi to Dadar East went without problems. Although I did have to deal with the regular helpers, meaning the guys who show you which cab you have the reservation with – in exchange for some money of course. He insisted on foreign currency, but I tried telling him that since I live in the country I had none, he was just going to have to take the 50 rupees or leave it.

Perhaps you can sense my slight frustration. Hong Kong was such a breath of fresh air: no hassles and no-one trying to con me out of anything. Here I’m, immediately after arrival, tagged as game and harassed with several requests for money in one form or the other.

We rolled up to Dadar East. It was silent and deserted. I stepped out of the cab and looked around;  there didn’t seem to be any busses around, at all. Apparently I had been misinformed regarding the nightly departures.

A guy was walking down the street, came up to me and confirmed this; the next bus was leaving at six – in four hours.

Great. So there I was, stuck in downtown Mumbai, in the middle of the night, with no way to get to Pune.

While I stood there, reviewing my options, the man continued: You want a taxi? There I went with that skeptical frown again. How much? Four hundred, one seat, A/C cab.

Four hundred is actually a good deal. Really good. I had to double-check that we’re talking about getting a cab, to Pune, now. Yes.

Sounds good, I said, let’s go.

The guy calls someone, and within a minute a car drives up. It was not a cab, it was a regular car. Squeaky and run down, it looked like it had been used for road races for the last two years. The driver sat low, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear stick, a real slick jock. Next to him was someone I reckon was a passenger and, color me surprised, the back seat had two more! So the only space remaining was this narrow half-seat in the middle. And the guys sitting at the sides weren’t small ones, either.

I looked at the man who arranged this, asked him if this was it, if this was my ride. Yes.

Well, that explains the cheap fare. Car didn’t seem to have A/C but I let it slide.

Ok, fine, unlicensed cab it is then. I threw the large backpack in the trunk and hopped in. Despite me being the tallest one, the other passengers weren’t terribly interested in changing seats. I squeezed myself into the middle seat. Looked like I had to hunch over a bit for the entire trip unless I fancied hitting my head on the slightly collapsed roof.

It wasn’t convenient but it was the best option I had. So off we went, down the Mumbai overpass. Meanwhile I struck up a conversation with my temporary neighbours. They were both indeed on their way to Pune as well, for some work thing. How long they had been waiting in the cab was unclear, but I still find it wonderfully random to get, on a few minutes notice, an almost fully loaded unlicensed cab, in the middle of the night, to go somewhere 150 km away.

Soon enough we were heading towards Navi-Mumbai, and from there into the mute silhouettes of the Pune highlands. There are practically no streetlights, so all illumination is from other vehicles. This makes it all a bit eerie somehow.

The drive took about two and a half hours. I couldn’t move, at all. By the time I stepped out on Baner Main Road, in Pune, my right thigh was almost cramping. The clock was a little to five, sun was getting up in an hour or so. No people in sight, only packs of street dogs roaming freely.

A while later I arrive at the Vasant Vihar Towers. The gates are closed during the night, with the guards sleeping out in the yard. I clonked on the gate a few times in an attempt to wake them up, but they wouldn’t even stir.

Ah, whatever, I thought and chucked my backpack over the wall, and climbed over. Well this night was fun. Laughed by myself all the way to the elevator.

Good to be back after all – even if only for a while.

Suit Up – Part 3: The Black Mandarin

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As the final part of my project to augment my formal wardrobe – the previous ones being measurements and fabric selections, and the classic grey suit – I decided to go for something a bit different and, with western fashion in mind, contemporary: a Chinese suit, also called a mandarin suit. No, not like the citrus fruit, those are for Halloween – and I don’t think they come in jet black like this one does.

As far as the style goes, it’s much simpler than the western suits; the jacket, also known as a Bangala, is closed all the way up to the upright mandarin collar, and should stay that way while you wear it. You don’t unbutton it when sitting down, like you would with a classic one.

Underneath is a shirt with a mandarin collar – ties or other accessories are not used. There is a breast pocket where you can put a neatly folded handkerchief, but the main principle is that the entirety should be kept simple and elegant.

That’s why the texture of the fabric is important, since it has a slightly more important role than in the classic suit. For this one I opted for a lightly striped pattern, which from afar looks like a uniform texture but up-close has a more detailed motif. Going for a plain fabric could result in an overly simplistic and borderline boring look.

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The suit is surprisingly comfortable and the fact that you don’t wear a tie is a big bonus. It might make me look like a Bond -villain, but I’m looking forward to donning this the next time I’m supposed to wear a dark suit.

Big thanks to Raymond’s in Phoenix Mall at Pune, especially to the master tailor. If you decide to drop by, listen to his advices and remember to address him by his title – he’s earned it.

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Props to Sajjad for the photos.

Pomegranate

I have something to confess: I’ve never deseeded a pomegranate. Some say it’s the easiest thing ever, others advise to make yourself comfortable as it will take a while.

So I decided to give it a try.

For those equally uninitiated into the ways of the pomegranate as me, it’s a fruit with a thick reddish skin and contains seeds. The seeds are in clusters, separated by membranes. The tricky part with peeling or deseeding a pomegranate is to do it without breaking the seeds, as they are quite juicy and will just make a red mess of everything. Don’t wear white.

One popular way of peeling or deseeding a pomegranate is to start by dividing the fruit into four sections. The cuts should go just a tad below the surface. After that, slice off the hat. It doesn’t contain seeds and will grant you easy access to the inside of the fruit. Then, using your fingers, lightly bend out the four sections. The cluster membranes should make sure that everything stays intact. After that it’s just a matter of picking out the seeds and separating them from the membranes in whichever way you see fit – some use a spoon, others pick by hand.

Enjoy.

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Update: I’ve been informed that there are at least these alternative ways of deseeding a pomegranate:

  • Slice it in half, put the halves on a plate with the inside down, and tap with a wooden spoon on the outside – the seeds will fall out
  • Just tear it open and pick out the seeds