Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adventures in Indian Waters

Before leaving on a trip to India, friends, guidebooks, and common sense all agreed on one thing: drink bottled water. Great – check – no problem. I can manage that.

Also, agreed the experts, make sure the safety seal is, well, sealed. People trying to make a quick buck will sometimes refill bottles and sell them as new. Okay, check the seal – check.

Dutifully following these tips, I drank bottled water through the airport that I had snagged on the plane and, after arriving at our Kolkata hotel, opened the complimentary bottle of water in the room.

Himalayan Water, it proclaimed – "savour the taste it took the Himalayas 20 years to make." Sounds good. Bottle: check. Safety seal intact: check.

Except there was one small problem.

It may have taken 20 years for the Himalayas to make this water, but it too one pass through an Indian bottling plant to completely ruin it. Opening the water, an unmistakable waft of petroleum greeted my nose. Having worked in a store where we regularly unpacked shipments of products from India, I knew this particular smell quite well. It inhabited the wrapping papers and boxes, it emanated from the cheap cellophane box tape, and after a short time removing and unwrapping items, it coated your hands in a greasy petrochemical film.

Was it the outside of the bottle I was smelling? No, the smell seemed to come from the water itself. I nervously sipped the water. It tasted like water. With a diesel aftertaste.

I showed it to Maggie. "Am I crazy here?"

"Not at all. I honestly think you could ignite the vapors coming off of this thing."

I poked around for something else to drink, but my only other option was a can of Sprite in the minibar. Under normal circumstances I would never take anything out of a minibar except to make room for my own food, but I was really thirsty. Down went the Sprite, tasting, happily, like Sprite without the slightest hint of diesel.

In the hotel bar shortly thereafter, I asked the bartender if they had any other water options — anything but Himalayan Water. No dice. How about sparkling water?

He thought for a second. "We have this," he said, producing a bottle of Kinley Soda Water from behind the bar, "but we don't serve this. It is only used for mixing drinks."

"Could I have one?" I asked, curious to try it.

"Oh no, you don't want this. Would you like a Sprite?"

"Gin and tonic, please."

Settling down for dinner in the hotel restaurant next to the bar, I tried again with the first waiter that approached. I was, admittedly, pushing my luck, but couldn't have imagined the dinner theater that followed.

[Enter Waiter 1]

Me: [Hopeful] "Do you have sparkling water, fizzy water? Anything like that?"

Waiter 1: [Nods head, smiles.] "Oh no, I am sorry, we do not. Would you like a bottled water?"

Me: [Resigned to drink nothing but Sprite for the next week] "No thanks. I guess I'll just have a Sprite."

[Waiter 1 exits stage left in search of Sprite. After a few minutes, Waiter 2 enters]

Waiter 2: "I am sorry sir, we don't have Sprite."

Me: "Really? I had one in my room earlier, and they just offered me one in the bar next door."

Waiter 2: "I am sorry sir, would you like a mineral water instead?"

Me: "Do you have fizzy water?"

Waiter 2: "Oh yes, I will go get one for you now."

[Waiter 2 exits; Waiter 1 returns holding a bottle of Himalayan Water]

Me: "Actually, I don't want that. I think the other waiter was going to bring some fizzy water."

Waiter 1: [Looks confused] "I am sorry, we don't have fizzy water. Would you like a Sprite instead?"

Me: [Also confused] "Yes. Yes I would."

[Waiter 1 leaves Himalayan Water on the table, exits. Waiter 3 enters carrying an open bottle of Kinley Soda Water, which he proceeds to pour into a glass in front of me. It is preposterously carbonated, throwing little spits of water into the air in all directions. Waiter 3 exits.

I drink cautiously. Very fizzy, but tastes just fine. Maggie tries to drink, but is immediately blinded by the spatter on her glasses.]

Maggie: "I'm not drinking that. It scares me."

[Waiter 2 enters.]

Waiter 2: "I'm sorry sir, we don't have any Sprite. [Ignores bottle of Himalayan Water and Kinley soda on the table.] Would you like a bottle of water?"

Me: "All set there, thanks."

Maybe it was just the bottle upstairs, I thought, and cracked open the new bottle of Himalayan Water. It smelled like a gas station puddle. I sipped, I winced, fully aware that experienced India travelers would simply shrug and say "Welcome to India." After all, what's a week of drinking petroleum tainted water in the scheme of things?

Recently, while watching The Bourne Supremacy, I noticed Jason Bourne drinking from a bottle of Himalayan Water in the opening scenes in Goa. In the same scene, Bourne's girlfriend is tragically shot and killed, but instead of feeling sorry for Bourne, I just felt sorry for Matt Damon's mouth.

[Photos: Himalayan Water by Douglas LeMoines; Kinley Soda by Bron V]

Monday, November 15, 2010

Your Chance to Win an iPad

Let's keep this simple: you bid just $10, your $10 goes to an awesome charity that's building a village in India, and you get a pretty good chance to win a snazzy new iPad.

An iPad very much like this one could be yours for only $10

In last year's Passports with Purpose fundraising drive, I bid $10 on a trip and another $10 on a stroller. I won neither, but for a mere $20 I helped build a school in Cambodia currently serving about 400 kids, with books, teachers, a school nurse, a food garden and a drinking water well (check out some photos of the school here). Best $20 I ever spent. This year I'll be bidding on a few prizes again and I'm putting up a prize of my own as well, the aforementioned iPad (see details below).

So who are these Passports with Purpose folks and how does it all work? PwP was started in 2008 by four travel bloggers (Debbie Dubrow, Pam Mandel, Beth Whitman and Michelle Duffy) as a way to build community among travel bloggers and to give back to the places we, as travelers, visit.

The concept has proven wonderful in its simplicity and effectiveness: travel bloggers procure prizes for people to bid on, they spread the word through their social networks, people bid on prizes at $10 per bid (tax deductible), and the money goes straight to the charity of the year. Last year, over $30,000 was raised through PwP and some school kids are enjoying the results right now.

This year, PwP is supporting LAFTI, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of the Dalit (untouchable) population in India. The fundraising goal this year is even higher: $50,000, money that will go toward building a village in India, providing homes to people who have never had a roof over their heads. See more details about the project on the Passports with Purpose website.

I know some of the PwP founders personally and can vouch for them being sincere, passionate, cupcake-loving and all-around excellent people. They also write some fantastic blogs that you should check out. Don't just take it from me, check out the PwP website and the sites of the dozens of travel bloggers involved this year and in previous years.

If you have an iPad already, or simply don't want one, there are dozens of other great items to bid on and support Passports with Purpose.

The Prize:

A shiny new Apple iPad 16 GB Wi-Fi + 3G

About the prize, plus BONUS prizes*:

This lovely iPad comes all the way from Australia, where they not only have large bouncy marsupials, but nifty tablet computers made by Apple as well. I won this iPad recently in a staff writing contest at Lonely Planet, and, while I love how pretty and fun it is, and identify with the early adopter crowd, I know for a fact that it could be doing more good raising money for charity than it ever could do in my hands.

Because the Australian version did not include the free Winnie the Pooh ebook that seems to come with US models – an exclusion that is morally wrong – I have added this in order to not deprive the winner of great literature involving heffalumps. I have removed the mp3 of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" that comes standard on all Australian electronic devices.** Being an Australian model, it came with a plug that only works in Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tokelau. Whoever wins, I'll throw in a power adapter for your country (if they happen to be from Tokelau, so much the better).

Sound good? If so, click here to bid on the iPad and any other PwP prize!

You can bid more than once, and bid on as many items as you like. It all goes to support this year's charity, and every bid makes it more likely that you'll win a prize!

Thanks to this year's generous sponsors of PwP: BootsnAll, LiveMocha, Round the World with Us, HomeAway, Traveller’s Point, Hostelling International, Quintess, Raveable, TravelPost, and Uptake. Thanks as well to Lonely Planet for quite unintentionally providing the prize that I'm putting up this year.

* Bonus prizes include a Winnie the Pooh ebook and a regional power adapter.
**This might be a rumor.

Pooh has volunteered to eat an entire jar of honey for every $10 donated to PwP

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Soda vs. Pop

Do you know that feeling of jealousy when someone else has a great idea you wish you had thought of yourself? This happened to me recently when I stumbled across the brilliant web-based scientific study Pop vs. Soda, an attempt to answer once and for all the geographic breakdown of who uses "pop" and who uses "soda" in the US.

If you're not from the US, this undoubtedly sounds somewhat trivial, but this is a long-lasting debate in the US over a product that, for better or worse, is an everyday part of most Americans' lives.

Growing up in California, solid "soda" country, I thought for a long time that "pop" was only used by the elderly and Minnesotans. Clearly I was wrong: pop is huge. Looking at the responses to the survey, there are also a fair number of indecisive fence-sitters out there that use the redundant term "soda pop" and others that prefer other terms like "soft drink" blurring the boundaries, but the geographic pattern is clear nonetheless.

The fact that "Coke" has become a synonym for soda as a whole (an intriguing instance of synecdoche) in the South is, to me, a surprise. If I ordered a Coke in a Memphis diner and the waitress asked me "What kind?" I'd assume she was asking "Regular or diet?" The idea that "7-Up" or "root beer" would be equally acceptable answers blows my mind.

There are a few as yet unexplained mysteries in the Pop vs. Soda data set:

Mystery #1: The St. Louis soda bubble

Soda is predominant in California, Arizona and the Northeast, with pop and Coke fighting it out in between. One notable exception is a large soda bubble in the middle of the country hovering over St. Louis and surrounding counties, wedged between Coke to the south and pop to the north. What accounts for this?

Mystery #2: Chicago Pop vs. Milwaukee Soda

Less than 100 miles separates downtown Chicago from downtown Milwaukee, and yet one favors pop while the other favors soda.

For a brief moment, I wondered if beer might be explain both of these mysteries somehow, as both St. Louis and Milwaukee are big beer producing cities. Sadly, I can't find any strong reasoning to support that connection (although the German word for soda is, if I'm not mistaken, "soda"), and Golden, Colorado, home of Coors, sits in a decidedly pop-favoring county.

If you haven't taken the survey yet yourself, I'd strongly recommend that you pop go over to Pop vs. Soda now and add to the data set. And if you can burst the bubble on one of these mysteries, feel free to chime in below.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One ice cube

On her first day on the job, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines received a word of caution from another member of the flight crew, "The passengers are generally pretty nice, just watch out for the Californians."

Being from California herself, the new flight attendant asked, "What do you mean? What's wrong with the Californians?"

"Well," explained the experienced flight attendant, "they always want something very specific, like a Diet Coke with lemon, and one ice cube instead of two."

More than one ice cube

While order modifications might be a bit annoying when you're trying to work your way efficiently through a cabin, most flight attendants would probably agree that there are worse things that could happen on airplanes than a passenger asking for a specific number of ice cubes in a drink. In fact, I would gladly give someone just one ice cube in exchange for evidence that they're actually thinking about and experiencing the world around them.

"Last time they gave me 5 ice cubes and left room for almost no liquid, so this time I'll ask for just one ice cube. More liquid, a little bit of cool ice, that sounds about right."

"This Diet Coke tastes like crap, a little lemon would go a long way towards making it taste like something I should be ingesting on purpose."

Those are perfectly reasonable lines of thinking to me. A person that repeatedly gets annoyed by too much ice or crap-tasting diet cola and never tries to fix the problem isn't being polite, they're just being dense.

Two questions:
1) Is hyper-discerning taste to the point of being annoying to others a Californian trait? I'm Californian, so I'd like to know how much I'm bothering the rest of the world every time I ask for no guacamole on my burrito or walk an extra 3 blocks out of my way to get to the good coffee shop.

2) While I'm in favor of people having discerning tastes, perhaps there's a balance to be sought? After hearing more and more people with bizarrely specific food orders lately, I'm starting to wonder: have we reached a point of too much choice in Western society?

Today I overheard an order for "a medium decaf non-fat extra-hot latte", and recently a man in front of me ordered "an extra-large mocha, but hold the whipped cream 'cuz I'm trying to watch my weight". Starbucks has made preposterously complex orders into a fashion statement. In fact the only thing that ever seems to faze a Starbucks barista is an overly simple order. Order a single cappuccino at Starbucks next time just to enjoy the 10 seconds of confused blinking while the barista waits for you to add a litany of modifications to the beverage. Ordering an extra-hot wet half-calf skinny venti quad caramel macchiato no whip with legs is almost boringly normal by comparison.

On one hand, you have to give Starbucks credit for making people personally identify with ultra-complicated beverages that all taste like frothy scalded milk. On the other hand, it makes me wonder what larger effects this might have. Would we be better off with less choice and more room for compromise?

[Photo by Chrysaora]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Atoms: They Crunk Like That

I have a friend who goes through phases of collecting unusual found objects. At one point it was buttons found on the pavement, for a while it was pictures of fire hydrants and ice cream trucks from around the world, and then it was discarded notes and shopping lists.

In case you're thinking that this "friend" is me, I'll come clean with my own list of odd collections I've had over the years: corks, found keys (one I actually stole from a church while waiting to sing with a boys choir, so that one doesn't really count as "found"), coins, Garbage Pail Kids, yo-yos, and, in recent years, hideous refrigerator magnets and squashed pennies. All of these, but not discarded notes.

But this time I couldn't help myself. Walking near Oakland's Morcom Amphitheater of Roses (despite it's dotcom-sounding name, it's actually named after former Oakland Mayor Fred Morcom), a piece of paper covered in handwriting caught my eye. The word "neutron" jumped out — this was clearly not your average discarded shopping list.

It was a handwritten rap about about chemistry, written most likely by a high school chemistry student with the unfortunate contribution by his father. The rap goes as follows (please add your own beat-boxing while you read):

I got the protons,
protons and the neutrons.
The nucleus, I suppose
I just want to be an atom.

Protons have a positive charge,
Electrons have a negative charge,
Neutrons have a neutral charge.

[Enter father with nice handwriting. Note how this part is OMG so lame.]

I'm the Dad, my name is Nucleus.
I got two sons Proton & Neutron.

[Father exits. Thankfully.]

Electrons on the outside
in the electron shell.
Atoms are everywhere,
even Taco Bell.

Ya, our atoms crunk like that,
Didn't you see the atomic #,
We rock like that.

Never sit on less than 24 chrome,
if you're not an atom,
go back home.

If only all scraps of paper on the ground were this interesting. And if you've lost your chemistry homework, feel free to drop me an email.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The urban forest for the trees

Not far from where I live is a stretch of sidewalk that has been reduced to one narrow path by a garden encroaching from both sides. The corner house doesn't have much room for a large garden, so they've taken over the strip along the curb and packed in as many plants as possible. The garden rarely gets trimmed back, so at points you have to duck and dodge to avoid the branches and leaves. I could easily walk on the other side of the street, but I always head for this mini-forest on purpose, even crossing over out of my way to get the chance to walk through and admire the plants and see what's in bloom.

The garden gets a little out of control, and it's probably in violation of some city code, but I think it's fantastic. The gardeners picked some wonderful plants, mostly California natives: towering matilija poppies looking like fried eggs on stilts, scrub oaks, flannelbush, fragrant purple sages, ragged bonsai-like manzanitas.

Matilija poppies

Cleveland sage

Landscape architects would probably shudder at the overcrowding and lack of consistent vision, but the wildness of the garden is what makes it so wonderful. It's a small gift to the world from the gardeners: for a half of a city block you're on a forest path buzzing with happy bees.

Tree mallow in bloom

I walked this way yesterday, leaning into a large bunchgrass to let a woman and her small children by coming the other way. She paused briefly to say thanks, but then she frowned. "This garden" she said, shaking her head in disapproval, "I can't believe they let it get like this."

"Really?" I asked, coming to the defense of the plants and the planters, "I like it. I think it's beautiful what they've done."

"These people are just so inconsiderate. They come and go by the back entrance and never even walk on this part of the sidewalk. They don't know how much of a nuisance it is to people with kids and strollers." The kids had toddled ahead, happily grazing their hands along the plants as they walked.

"I suppose..." I said, trying but mostly failing to see it from her perspective. "To me it's like a mini-forest in the middle of the city."

She didn't buy it; she shrugged and continued in the other direction.

It seemed a funny thing to get upset about, especially in the springtime with all of the flowers in bloom, and no one was forcing her to walk down that side of the street. I can see her point to a degree, in fact I recall once getting angry at an overhanging Japanese maple that I walked into mid-sneeze: how dare it be right in my path at that very moment? Stupid tree. But if she had just looked down at the wonder in her kids' faces as they strolled along this path through a towering gallery of plants many times their height, I think she would have quickly cast aside her gripes and seen the forest for the trees.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Know Your Gestures

Our van twisted up the mountain through tea plantations on the road to Tanah Rata. It was gray and drizzly, and in the dry warmth of the van I felt sorry for the two soggy backpackers we passed trying to hitch a ride in the opposite direction. They were obviously Westerners: ginormous backpacks, shorts, bandanas, thumbs up in the air trying to flag down a ride as cars hurtled by.

Tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands

Warm and dry in the van, I didn't envy their situation, but I couldn't help laughing a little at their predicament when I thought back to the passage I had read in the guidebook on the long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The thumbs-up, unlike in the US where it means "good" or "way to go," in many parts of the world including Malaysia, can look like you're telling someone to go stick a thumb up their ass.

Needless to say, telling someone to stick a thumb up their ass is not the best way to get a ride from a stranger.

The following day, I was on my own in Tanah Rata taking a day to rest and do some laundry. I had passed a laundry service the previous day, and I walked there in the morning with a big bag of jungle-dirtied and leech-wound-stained clothes. The door was closed and locked when I got there, and I hunted around unable to find any posted hours.

A local man was passing by and noticed my confusion. "They're closed now," he said, guessing that I spoke English.

"Do you know what time they open?" I asked him.

"They open at 10," he said.

And then it happened. In a completely involuntary motion, I gave him a beaming smile, thanked him, and laid a big fat thumbs-up on him.

He froze and his face fell as I walked away. I spun around and was half a block away happily staring at a cart piled high with durian before I realized what I had done.

"Oh no," I thought, looking back to see if he was still there. He had disappeared. "Did he think what I think he thinks? I hope he just took me for an idiot tourist and wasn't offended. Aw hell, he looked pretty offended. Do I actually use the thumbs-up? If so, what a choice time to use it. I really don't think of myself as a thumbs-upper."

It's as if conversation had gone like this:

Helpful man: "They're closed now."

Me: "Do you know what time they open?"

Helpful man: "They open at 10."

Me: "Great, thanks. Oh, by the way... up yours old man!"

That was it — no more. That was absolutely the last time I would use a thumbs-up on this trip. I would not offend another person with my reckless digit. That was the plan, but to my horror, the involuntary thumbs-upping continued over the next few weeks, making it all too apparent that I use the gesture far more frequently than I ever would have guessed.

To the woman serving me noodles at a floating restaurant in Kuala Tahan, "These noodles are delicious! Screw you, you old bag!"

Floating restaurants at Kuala Tahan

At the Muzium Perhutanan, a museum at the remote hill station of Gunung Jerai in northern Malaysia most famous for a large fossilized elephant turd, "Thanks for letting us in to look even though you were closed! Stick a thumb where that turd came from!"

It got so bad that I was fighting my own hand like a parody of Dr. Strangelove by the end of the trip and watching it out of the corner of my eye for any suspicious activity. It's one thing to know about gestures and their meanings in other cultures, but breaking an unconscious habit is another matter entirely.

Now that I'm safely ensconced in a thumbs-up-friendly society, I couldn't even tell you if I've kicked the habit. So if I ever unconsciously give you a thumbs up, feel free to flip me the bird — even if I don't understand, I'll deserve it.