Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eating out in Bangkok

I'm blogging up a storm today, but I have time to kill till my train leaves, so I wanted to make one more Bangkok post.

Although Bangkok has a lot to offer, amazing history, a swinging, liberal nightlife, world-class shopping, the highlight for me has been the street food. Every corner, alley, and road is populated by a small army of push-carts and hole in the wall restaurants that dish up a spectrum of Thai cuisine. Different places specialize in different things; some carts only dish up phat thai, or duck soup, whereas other's specialize in seafood, or coffee. Moreover, this is a city which sets it watch by its meal times. The same cart might serve different things at different meal times, and one can almost track the time of day by sighting the change meals dished up on the street. Morning time, with the busy Bangkok commute (easily reminiscent of NYC), sees carts dishing up fresh fruit, fried dough, buttered toast, iced Thai coffee, a panoply of seafood curries, smoked fish on skewers, and much more, all of it in small plastic bags, ready to grab and go. As the day wears on, the same stalls might switch to a different sort of dish or cuisine altogether, and as such, may attract a different set of Thais, and the same switch may happen at dinner. Probably the most spectacular items are those with the seafood. The amount of seafood that Bangkok consumes is dizzying (I wonder if it's even ecologically sustainable). Fish, crabs, shrimp, prawns, lobster, squid, octopus, eel, seaweed, you name it, they serve it, at almost 80% of the stall.s

I've never seen a city with such a culture of cuisine. Most remarkably, Bankokians know they're spoiled for choice, quality, and price (meals are ridiculously cheap; I can have two entrees, and a drink for 100 baht, or about $3), and as such, plan they're day around meal times, often trying to squeeze in four, even five meals. They'll exchange the locations of favorite stalls, plan outings for food, and make office outings for lunch. It's a wonder there are so few fat Thais.

God works for Google

I thought this was really funny; I'm writing an email to my dad on Gmail, a short two-liner, and I mention that I'm heading to Northern Thailand. Google adverts immediately displays the following:

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Feng Shui Horoscope
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N. Thailand is famous for being Hippy-ville, but I didn't expect Google to be so spot on with their product placement. Just more proof that God is indeed working for Google.

Northward Bound

The Big Mango has been good to me, but I need to get out of the city, so last night, at 12:30 AM, I booked my ticket to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city, much smaller than Bankok, but charming in its own right.

My last few days in Bangkok were good. On Monday, I headed out with a Canadian friend I met at the hostel. As curious at it seems, we went to China Town, as Thailand has a very significant minority of Chinese immigrants. The C-town district is even more crowded than the rest of Bangkok, and is a charmingly chaotic mix of markets, temples, and larger businesses. We made our way through claustrophobic market paths for most of the morning, sharing 14 inch footpaths crammed between stalls with thousands of other pedestrians and the occasional motorcycle. Later, we found ourselves in a residential district of C-town, no more spacious (it looked like a rabbit warren), but populated by an interesting array of characters (old timers at their favorite green tea watering holes, kids playing about, delivery scooters passing through, and the ever-present, morbidly obese Bangkok dogs).

Later, we made our way to two Buddhist temples, and saw the world's largest solid gold Buddha (very bling-bling, Snoop Dogg would've approved). Thailand's religion is puzzling in that respect. Buddhism, at its purest, is an atheistic religion, more a paradigm, a cosmology, than a mode of worship. As such, idols, gods, and worldly riches (as might be typified by a giant gold buddha), are really not encouraged. But daily worship in Thailand really follows lines seen anywhere else in the world. People pray to giant idols representing the Buddha, make donations to the monks (fascinating to watch; early morning in Bangkok finds monks making their way through the city to recieve alms from shop owners), and generally worship in a manner befitting of the best monotheists. I even saw a special stall selling ready-made donations, which morning street path commuters purchased and presented to the attending monks. I suppose this sort of co-option of religion, and re-direction from its founder's directives, takes place everywhere, so much so that neuroscientists are looking for and studying "religious centers" in the brain (just the way language centers might be studied).

In the afternoon, my Canuck and I headed to a famous expat house, built by an American architect who first visited Thailand as a soldier during WWII, later returned, single handedly revived the Thai silk Industry, and then mysteriously disappeared in 1957 while wandering Cambodia. I took the initiative by suggesting we take the Skytrain, promptly got us lost, and we ended up walking several miles in the searing, 90+ plus, Bangkok heat. When we got there, it was apparent, his life story was far more interesting than the house, but still worth a visit.

In the evening, I headed on what turned out to be a date with a CSer I had met the night before, a charming Philliphina woman who has been based in Thailand for the last few years. She took me to a lovely restaurant on the river (it was called "In Love," which made me start to think it was a date). Later we headed to Kh. San road, and ended the night in the early hours in front of the Grand Palace, sharing the night with stray cats, and the sleeping homeless.

Tuesday saw me pretty much sleep the day away (14 hours!), which I felt guilty about, but I suppose I needed it....

Yesterday, I saw the Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha, and old Thai capital, all absolutely stunning. The Grand Palace has some of the most exquisite imperial architecture and inlay detail that I've ever seen! And the reclining Buddha was massive (46m long). The old Thai capital was also remarkable, but VERY phallic. Kind of makes you wonder if the guy who built was compensating....

And today, I head to Chiang Mai, and northern Thailand. Most people opt for hill-tribe trekking in those parts, but after reading more about the contexts, and touristy nature of the industry, I've opted for taking a motorcycle journey through the isolated highlands (don't tell my parents till I get back if you read this ;). Pictures will come soon. And for all my friends and family who are good enough to indulge me by reading this blog, many of you are in my thoughts ;)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sleepless in Bangkok

It's about 5:30 AM here, but I can't seem to fall asleep. Last night was a lot of fun. I made it to Khao San Road, and after seeing it, was extremely thankful I'm not staying there (though most backpackers do). Once upon a time, it catered to seasoned backpackers, but if yesterday was any indication, it's more of a carnival, populated by American fast food chains, Thai bars, and hostels. It's stil worth a visit though.

The night got much more interesting when a woman I befriended on CSurfing informed me of an impromptu meeting of CSers at a hotel bar. I hopped in a tuk-tuk, and made my way across the city to join them around 10:30 PM. Halfway there, a rainstorm broke out, and tuk tuks are VERY exposed as I found out, particularly when a Corolla speed past us, completely drenching me. I was a shivering mess by the time I arrived at a very posh five star hotel, where the staff stared at me in complete bewilderment and the tuk tuk driver couldn't stop laughing (he was completely dry somehow). But I love rain, and it was a hell of a ride.

I met the CSers, a dozen or so people, some living in Bangkok, some passing through, some Thais, and a lot of other nationalities. After the hotel closed, we headed to one of the CSers rooms (it was actually just one room, and a bunch of us crowded in). We spent the rest of the night there talking Thai nationalism, and discussing the sex industry.

The conversation about the sex industry was particularly fascinating. One of the women present has been working with EMPOWER, an NGO that help sex workers. In the course of conversation, Chanelle informed me that there was actually very little trafficking, and the sex workers she taught were actually in the trade by choice. She had come thinking the same as I had, that most of the women were forced into it, but had learned that the excellent compensation (3-4 times what a women of the same education could earn otherwise, essentially hazard pay to offset the dangers of working in the industry) and fairly acceptable work environment attracted women completly of their own will. Though I can't be certain her story represents the whole picture, I'm inclined to believe she's correct.

The night ended with me wandering home to my hostel through streets populated by cats, roaches and rats, with a stop to pick up a shrimp burger at a Seven-11.

The City of Angels

Apparently, that's Bangkok alternate appellation. I've been here for about 12 hours now, and it's great. This is a huge city, where everything is maximum. The most surprising thing to me is that Bangkok resembles the capital of middle-income country more than a third world nation; I rode the gleaming air-con Skytrain this afternoon to a shiny new shopping center to pick up a new cell phone, hardly my conception of grueling overland Asia travel.

But I'm not disappointed. The way to this man's heart is through his stomach, and I'm falling in love with Thai food. The food here sparkles with myriad tastes, lemongrass, basil, pepper, and meal times are dazzling, sweat-inducing riots (the food is spicy indeed).

Apart from food, I haven't done much (my friends won't be surprised). I spent most of the day taking it easy. The only other thing worthy of note is the blatancy of sex tourism here. I've seen numerous couples, rather average looking foreign men, with absolutely stunning Thai women (or men in a few cases). There seems to be little shame in it, and I myself have been approached about five times already, asking if I want a "happy massage." I declined, but I might already have a Thai boyfriend. I got a haircut today, and a guy at the salon got my phone number so we can go clubbing on Friday. A really nice guy, but with a haircut like his, there's little chance he's not gay. I just hope he simply wants to be friends, because otherwise, he's knocking at the wrong door.

Now, I'm off to Khao San road, SE Asia's most famous backpacker enclave which caters to backpackers tastes with an eclectic mix of authenticism and campiness. At night, it comes alive, as backpackers and hip Thais crowd into its dingy bars, and tonight, I plan to join the crowds. I'll let you know how it goes ;)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Running from the law

I really hate Indian cops. They’re not all bad, but a lot of them are super sleazy. Take Saturday night for example. I’m trying to make a yellow light, and one of the traffic cops at this giant intersection flags me to stop. I normally wouldn’t (nobody does after all….), but I was in a law-abiding mood, so I did. As soon as I did, the bastard waves me into a line of cars to be fined. He intentionally stopped me over a pedestrian cross-walk, which is a finable offence. I got in the line, and a sub-inspector asked me to get out my registration papers and license. While I searched for the papers (which I almost certainly didn’t have), I handed him my Minnesota licensed, and lied, saying it was an international license. He was a little brighter than the average cop, and so he asked, “Where does it say international?” I was impressed; normally, they just stare at the card quizzically and then hand it back. In a last ditch effort, I pointed at the biggest word I could find on the card (“recreational”) and said that was the “international” marking. I guessed correctly that he couldn’t read English, and he handed my license back to me. He was still going to fine me (or more likely, try to get a bribe) though, and I was quite pissed about it. They actually try to scope out people who look like suckers (e.g. me), and then do just what they had done to me, basically a scam. No longer in a law-abiding mood, I pretended to rustle through a pile of papers while the sub-inspector wandered over to his supervisor. As soon as he was far enough, I floored the accelerator, and gunned it out of there. Thankfully, I broke my rear license plate the week before, so he couldn’t get my number as I sped off. After three months here, I have assimilated a very Indian affinity for bending, if not breaking the law.

I hate the cops, but I love this country ;)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Long time, No Post

I haven't written in a while as not a terrible lot has happened. I've entered early retirement with my work at Shaktishifa, and have been spending most of my time tying up loose ends before I head to Thailand. Also, have been hanging out with three Jewish women I met through the website Couch Surfing, all here in Hyderabad as part of a world service fellowship.

Apart from loose ends and Jewish women, I met with my future co-worker from JPAL/CMF. I was already quite excited about the job, but am even more so after meeting Theresa; she's a charming Chinese-American woman who worked at the US Government Accountability Office before joining CMF. I'll actually be working with her on the health insurance evaluation that CMF is running in Karnataka (a state east of Andrha Pradesh), which is a good bit of luck, because normally research associates are all alone in the field. My posting is also really convenient; I'm based in Hyderabad and will need to make field visits every other week, if not every week, but the field assignments are entirely based out of Gulbarga, a city of 400,000 about 5 hours by train from Hyderabad ( I was worried I was going to be in a town of ~20,000 like Jamkhed again). Finally, I was really happy to know that JPAL/CMF are both staffed by a lot of young 20-somethings, all passionate about their jobs, but very fun-loving as well. Indeed, each organization holds an institute wide retreat every two months, which is basically just involves transporting everyone to one city and having a big party. Best part: I'm considered an employee of both institutes, so I get two parties ;)

That's about it. The only other interesting thing (to me at least) is that I (sort of) have two new pets here in Hyderabad, Elmer and Mr. Big.

Elmer is a garden-variety (literally) frog who hopped his way into our lives as little more than a tadpole. My first meeting with him, on the stairway inside the house, almost led to his expulsion (I assumed he got lost and wandered into the house), but the cook stopped me, saying "Ye gahr iska be hai" ("this is house t0o you know..."). He lives in a potted plant at the foot of the stairs (see the pictures), sleeping by day, and hunting house-hold creepy crawlies by night. Occasionally, we'll hear him looking for a girlfriend, emitting a sad croak or two. There is no Ms. Elmer, which must be puzzling to him, as he lives in this swank home in Banjara Hills.

As for Mr. Big, he's a tiny little, I think, weaver bird who's fallen in love with his own reflection. If I leave the windows to my bedroom open, he'll dart in during the day, and sit in front of the dresser, romancing the mirror and shitting everywhere in the process. And if I don't open the windows, he sits outside the house, singing incessantly till I do. Although a bit dumb, he's quite fearless, and will puff up and flap his feathers if I disturb his "sexy-time."

Photos of both my friends are below.

Photos of both my friends are attached.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Now for the fun part...

Although I'm excited about this new job, I more excited about the upcoming trip I have planned. I've hardly wandered during this "wanderjahr," and before I get tied down, I've decided to take a two month backpacking trip across SE Asia. I'm flying to Bangkok on April 30, from where I'll head to Chiang Mai (trekking and Thai cooking classes), and then to the peninsular southeastern coast (beaches). After Thailand, I'll spend a few days in Malaysia or Singapore, mainly to get to Bali, from where I'll spend a month exploring Indonesia's world-class surf breaks. Late June will see me back in Hyderabad. If you have any recommendations, please do pass them along, and if you'd like to join me, I'd love the company (though I'm not alone, two cousins are traveling with me).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A "real" job

March was more than a little bipolar, but it ended on a high note. Late last night, I found a highly anticipated email from Esther Duflo, one of the director's of the Poverty Action Lab (PAL), offering me a position as a research associate with her organization.
PAL is one of several nuclei which are giving rise to a new paradigm within international development. For over 50 years, development “experts” at the World Bank, UN, IMF, etc. have offered a multitude of recommendations that are based on absurdly limited data. In a sense, development, which is in it infancy, is not altogether different from the state of modern medicine a few hundred years ago, when doctors would widely prescribe remedies such as leeches with no basis for their efficacy. To remedy the problem, a number of economists, based out institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, and LSE have proposed that like medicine, development adopt randomized control trials as the benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of interventions. Although various groups within the paradigm have their own opinions about methodologies, the concept is the same. Hence, all of these groups are running randomized control trials evaluating a panoply of development interventions, from microfinance to police training programs, assessing their effectiveness with hard data. Although applying randomized control design in a development setting is far more complex than in a laboratory, I think it’s a great idea.
I discovered PAL purely by chance. While I was searching for a survey instrument that I could adapt for monitoring/evaluation of the community health program at the clinic, I ran across their website. After reading a little, as with any interesting organization, I check their job opportunities, and found a number of positions based in India! I slapped together an application to meet the deadline for submissions, which was two days later (I am hugely indebted to my previous supervisors, Lisa Broek, Joan Toohey, and Jon Roesler for submitting letters of rec within two days).
After a phone interview with the directors of PAL, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. I was offered a Hyderabad-based position (which is ideal, since I really didn’t want to be out in rural India for a year) working on an evaluation of a health insurance intervention.

The links for PAL and CMF follow, as does an interview with Esther Duflo: