Agra-vating

Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and for the tourist in India that’s about all it is. Besides textile manufacture and marble-carvers, there’s not much else to the small town that is Agra besides the Fort, and the beckoning influence of the Taj has made Agra the ultimate tourist pit, with all its accompanying comforts and horrors.

Most people come for a single day before leaving, but convinced Agra had something more to offer, I booked trains that gave me a 2.5 day stay. I was wrong. Yes, there’s the Red Fort a few kilometers from the center of town, but really its just the Taj.

Besides not being able to resist the pun in “Agra-vating”, I also titled this post that because of how frustrating it is to deal with the locals in Agra, especially near the Taj. You can’t walk ten steps without someone pestering you asking if you need a hotel, if you want a rickshaw or internet or hashish or bottled water or a tour or to visit their store.

Having traveled in India for more than two months, at this point I’ve developed some unofficial “rules” for dealing with street hawkers. Basically, I’ll acknowledge them and say “no” twice, each time leaving little doubt as to the seriousness of my “no”.  The third time I have to say “no” I say it harshly. There is no fourth time.

In Agra, the requests were so overwhelming that this methodology no longer worked, and I got by with the help of hand-gestures, head-shakes, and by totally ignoring requests. As a human being, I feel its important to acknowledge other humans when they ask for your attention, but there’s a limit to everything and Agra illustrated that quite clearly for me.

As usual, I spent about half my two-day stay camped out in a coffee shop a few kilometers from the center of town, but the restaurant next to my hotel had a nice view of the Taj and I made sure to be there in time for some sunset dining each night.

On the second day, I ponied up the 750 Rupees (~$15) to visit the Taj, and its here that my cynicism ends. Its hard to deny that the Taj Mahal is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, and there’s certainly a reason that hundreds of thousands of tourists make their way here each year. It was created to mourn the loss of a 17th Century King’s wife, and the beautiful and magnificent symmetry of the building certainly makes it worthy of spending a half-hour sitting on a bench and beholding this architectural masterpiece.

One thing interesting about the Taj is that on each side of it there is a giant mosque, perfectly symmetrical with the mosque on the other side. Anywhere else,  and these mosques would be visit-worthy freestanding mosques of their own. Next to the Taj, they complement and magnify its glory.

The Taj Mahal is a mosque, and as such you can’t wear your shoes inside. Instead, they sell cotton shoe covers that you pull over your shoes. It felt like cheating actually, since I was still wearing my shoes, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Indians cutting a few corners to save me some trouble.

The inside of the Taj is underwhelming and plain in many respects, but in my simplistic and under-developed sense of aesthetic appreciation this is entirely appropriate.

After 2.5 days in Agra I was quite ready to leave. I hopped on the train for a 12 hour ride west, where I’d head to see the wonders of Jaipur.

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Delhi-cious

I have to admit, the 33-hour train ride was actually quite pleasant, except for one little incident midway through. The monsoon rain had caused a landslide on the tracks, and after 6 hours we’d have to get off the train and take a 2 hour busride to the next station. Didn’t sound too bad.

The problem was the way the crowd disembarked the train and got onto the bus. You’d have thought it was the last bus out of Auschwitz- there was a mob of people pushing and shoving and fighting in the mud to get on the bus. The problem was that we all were on the same train, and it wasn’t leaving without us. Getting on the bus now or later wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere any faster, and instead it just caused confusion and discomfort. I could only force a smile and take a picture.

I'm sure there was a reason for this madness, but it eludes me.

After the 3-hour detour, all was good. I was in AC-2, which means that the car I was in had AC and each compartment only had four bunks in it, as opposed to six in AC-3. The fact that there was no one else in my cabin for the entire second day made things even more pleasant, and I was able to spend most of the second day tapping away on my laptop.

My "office" on the train ride

I arrived at the train station in India’s capital near midnight and made it to the hostel district by rickshaw 30 minutes later I was greeted by a scene that looked like it was straight out of some end of days movie. Huge mounds of rubble lined both sides of the street, with mud and dirt and trash everywhere.

No, the world hasn't ended, Delhi is just in the middle of a cleaning process.

As I found out later, usually its not as bad as it was then. In fact, they were renovating the area in preparation for the Commonwealth Games (CWG: or, Congress Wealth Scam as one street sign suggested). Kind of like how your room gets dirtier when you first start cleaning it… except about a million times worse, and it never actually gets totally clean.

Delhi-acolypse

I ended up spending four days in Delhi. As per usual, I spent the majority of my days in a coffee shop. My friend Lauren from school recommended Kahn Market, and so every morning I’d take a tuk-tuk to the south of the city and post up in the airconditioned café.

Lauren told me about a party at the journalist society in Delhi on Thursday nights, and after a long day of café’ing I took the thirty-minute ride to the address I found on the internet. Long story short, it took another thirty minutes to find the place, but eventually we did.

Upon arrival, I was told that just two weeks before they had instituted a new policy: if you weren’t a member of the club, you couldn’t enter. Apparently it had become a huge party scene and they had begun to get in trouble with the police. I was told I had to leave.

I’d just spent an hour getting here and I wasn’t ready to accept “no” as an answer. I asked to speak to the manager. Waiting for him to arrive, I was eager to find out if I could smooth-talk my way inside.

Upon arrival, the manager told me only members were allowed. I was determined not to lie to  him, but I also wasn’t going to accept “no”. He asked if I was a reporter, or if I knew anyone that was a member, or if I had anything to do with the media. I told him “no”, but that these days the media isn’t just about reporters. I told him that I’m the CEO of a web company and that I have a blog, insisting that in the 21st Century the lines were blurred and that I was as much a member of the new participatory media as anyone. “I’m important, goddamnit!” I was telling him with my eyes.

I’m not sure exactly what did it, but I think it was my obvious determination. He finally said that I could enter, but that if I wanted to come back next week I’d need to get a board member to sign for me. “There are about twenty of them here right now so it shouldn’t be a problem” he assured me. At this point I did lie, telling him that before next week I’d get it all sorted out. It was a small lie though, aimed to assuage his conscious for letting me in rather than covering my tracks or obscuring my motives.

I had a blast once inside, despite the fact that there were only 20 people or so there. It was a party for journalist, perhaps my favorite species on the planet because of their natural curiosity, intelligence (usually), and several other self-selecting filters that make someone want to be a journalist. They didn’t seem to mind too much that a non journalist had infiltrated the party, and by the time I left at 1am I’d met a lot of interesting people.

The next night I met Lauren’t friend from Delhi near “Defense Colony”, an area in south Delhi popular with expats and foreigners. The particular square we met at was a nice break from the madness of the rest of Delhi, and John and I enjoyed some good food and beers while talking about life abroad and making fun of Lauren behind her back 😉 .

The day before I left Delhi, I decided to “take the tour”. I went to visit the Central Mosque, but was denied entrance because it was prayer time. Next I wandered around the Red Fort, before hopping on a rickshaw for a two-hour ride through the crowded, crazy, and colorful streets of Old Delhi.

After four days, I decided to head east to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Overall I liked Delhi, though in just four days I barely got to know her. At some point I’m sure I’ll be back.

Leaving Delhi....Guy in the Foreground Cools Off

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Goa’ing, Goa’ing, Gone

Water rising outside my hotel in Goa

The train from Hampi to Goa wasn’t half-bad, and arriving back in Goa my first order of business was to secure a new laptop power chord. Without a laptop to do my work, I was impotent; like a violinist without a violin or a soccer player without legs. Emerging from the bus to Panaji following the train ride, I was fortunate to pass a store with an “HP” sign along the façade; ten minutes later and I emerged knowing that a new power chord would be delivered to me within 24 hours. Score.

I’d spent my previous time in Goa in Aranjuna beach, which at this time of year is practically vacant thanks to the monsoon. This time I took a taxi to Vasco de Gama, where I put up in a local hotel for two nights while awaiting my laptop chord, spending my time reading and watching Inception in the evening. The next day my power chord arrived, and after being offline for so many days I decided to put up in a hotel with a desk in t

he room and a wifi connection, which Google helped me arrange rather quickly.

The next four days were spent pent up in a reasonably comfortable room, hiding from the monsoon and fully engaged in getting work done. I was loving the cleanliness, the hot shower, and the wifi access, and the four days passed in a flash.

After four days I had to return to my original guesthouse, where a replacement video camera I had ordered was being delivered from home. On return to the Evershine guesthouse, I found my camera waiting along with a stack of fresh clothes I’d left during the trip to Hampi. The next three days were spent in a similar fashion to the previous four, with one difference. In addition to working most of the day, I had the beloved motorcycle I had previously rented back, and now I was armed with a video camera.

During the days, as soon as the skies cleared up I would run and change clothes, grab the video camera and take off on the bike. The results is the video you see below.

[to be updated within a week when I’ve uploaded the video to Youtube!]

Despite my crush on the motorcycle, by this time I’d spent nearly 10 days in Goa, more than enough according to the internal schedule I had in mind. It was time to start moving again, and for now I was ready to conclude the southern part of my Indian travels.

My train ride to Delhi was at 2:30pm, and the taxi suggested they pick me up at 1:40 so I’d make it in time. We left promptly at 1:40, but soon after we’d left I started hearing things I didn’t want to hear from the taxi driver, especially after I’d just paid $50 for a train ticket. Things like “Oh man the traffic is bad” and “Why did you leave at 1:40?” and “Uh oh”.

I’d broken a promise to myself and let a taxi driver determine my schedule, and not only was I going to miss my train but I was going to have spent 3 hours and $20 just driving to the train station only to return back to Goa just to do it all over again. Fart.

I watched as the clock hit 2:40 when we pulled into the train station, and I was ten minutes late. I threw on my backpacks and took off through the driving rain, running up the platform frantically looking for any sign that the train might not have arrived yet.

Ten minutes late and I was five minutes early.

For once, I was thrilled that the train was late. Five minutes after I arrived, and 15 minutes late, the train showed up and I was off on a 30hr journey to Delhi.

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Thrills Without Spills in Quiet Hampi

I won’t bore you with the entire details of my three-day excursion to Hampi, but I’ll give you the cliff notes and then share the story of a four-hour motorcycle trip I took.

  • Took the train. Note to self: never take the bus again.
  • Hampi is a rural town that was once the former capital of a kingdom in India. Its ruins include hundreds of temples made half a millenia ago.

    Overlooking ruins with the small town of Hampi just beyond.

  • There was no wifi anywhere in the town (trust me, I looked EVERYWHERE), so ended up paying 100Rs ($2) per day for a cozy one-room accomodation with a mildly disgusting toilet and cold water, naturally.
  • My laptop went dead the second day, and I was able to figure out that I just needed a new charger. My 110v charger was no match for these 220v outlets. It took me four days to get a new charger, which I did back in Goa a few days later.
  • Hampi is alcohol-free. As in the hotel attendant said we’d be thrown in jail. I’m not sure if I believe that, but we did have to walk to the police station and register our names upon arrival. There are two ways around that, one being that restaurants in a neighboring town, ~5miles away, serve beer. In addition, there’s a certain restaurant that serves a certain cocktail if you ask nicely. I’d hate to get that establishment in trouble, so that’s all I’ll say.
  • I made the trip with three friends: Anders (20, Dutch novelist of fantasy/philosophy novels, twice published and currently at work on a third; Robert (29, Kiwi software programmer on a pan-Asia trip for two years and 20+ countries); and Aline (35, French teacher on summer holiday for two months). We met at a guesthouse in Goa, and had all independently chosen Hampi as our next destination . It was great company.

During my last day, I decided to rent a motorcycle and tour Hampi’s ruins myself. I’d been hassled enough that I knew all the places in town to get one, and five minutes after leaving my hotel I was $8 poorer and one motorcycle richer.

There are two sides of the river in Hampi, and I’d only explored one. I decided that I’d go put the motorcycle on the boat that makes the crossing and all would be good. To get down to the dock, you have to descend a steep and narrow staircase. You can neither stop nor go left or right more than a foot for the entire way down. It turns out going down isn’t the problem.

The boatman always waits for 10 people before leaving, and after waiting for 10 minutes with him on the other side, I got sick of waiting and decided to turn back. There was plenty to see on this side of the river, why should I waste a precious thirty minutes sitting around.

Going back meant ascending the treacherous stairs, but I’d have to at some point anyways and it might as well be now. As I drove the motorcycle across the rocks and to the base of the stairs, everyone in the area stopped what they were doing, stood up, and turned to see how I would fare. You’d have thought Evil Knievel was about to jump across the Grand Canyon with a rocket on his back.

There was a good reason they were watching. The 125cc motorcycle I was riding definitely had the potential to get me up the stairs, but it was a fine line. If I were to stall out going up the slope, I would immediately go into reverse. Momentum can turn on you in a second, and once you even start slowing it can be impossibly to regain acceleration. On such a narrow path, inevitably the bike would fall of the ledge, taking me with it. A fall backwards with a 600lb bike on top of me down steep concrete stairs would not have been a good thing.

To get up successfully, I’d have to get a strong start with the six feet I had before the beginning of the ramp, and then keep it full throttle all the way up. The biggest obstacle was that the ramp does a zig zag at one landing. The landing is small, so you can’t stop and then restart again; you’ve got to keep moving.

You can see a few of the people that watched here on the left, the rest are hidden behind the temple on the left. On the right, you can see the stairs, the ramp, and the zig zag.

My heart was racing with excitement and fear. With a crowd of maybe 40 watching, I revved the engine before kicking it into first gear, leaning forward in the seat to keep the bike from falling straight back on top of me on the steep climb.

It went by in a flash. There really was no time to think about anything other than “lean forward, full throttle, stay on the path.”

When I got to the top, I turned around to see the crowd abuzz. They were obviously disappointed at my avoidance of catastrophe.  There was no applause, but I raised my hands over my head triumphantly anyways.

I drove off, and began a long ride on some great motorcycle roads with ancient and beautiful scenery. Both green and with large rock formations, Hampi felt like a mix between Florida and Arizona.

After about 20 miles, I came across what I dreaded the most: the police.

Police and safety were my biggest concerns getting the bike, not necessarily in that order. Police in India are notorious for extracting bribes out of foreigners. The number one violation: no international drivers license. I have a Georgia driver’s license (and a motorcycle license at that), but not having an international ones is grounds for a 1000Rs fine ($20). Instead of filing the paperwork and giving $20 to the state, often a 500Rs bribe is accepted instead.

Back to what happened, as I pulled over the policeman waved me down. He asked for my driver’s license. Gulp. [smile] “I have a driver’s license. But, its not on me. It’s a motorcycle license. And its from the USA.” He would have been completely justified to levy a 1000Rs fine or bribe from me right there, and I was just waiting to watch things unfold and see how this goes down.

To my utter surprise, he told me to go on. I didn’t give him a chance to think twice about it, and drove through as confused as I was thrilled. I’d never heard the version where they let the tourist go.

I may have found an explanation though. At the end of the road was a standing area, and after parking my bike I walked over and was drawn into a conversation with three men: a businessman, an engineer, and (AHA) a local politician. Before I knew their professions, I mentioned that I was thankful that I didn’t just have to bribe the police. Looking back though, I wonder if the police were worried I would say something to the politician, who they doubtless knew had passed through just recently.

After a chat, they advised me to take the bike across the river on a different boat that was just around the corner. I wasn’t sure, but they insisted and I relented.

The “different boat”, however, is not a different boat. Its a wooden raft, paddled by two guys with sticks, with a pool of water slowly filling the middle. Just look at them!

After two hours, I recrossed the river and headed back to town  before dark. As I rounded the corner, a guy in a police uniform waved me down. There was no way I was going to get lucky twice, and I attributed my luck to the fates. I dutifully pulled over, trying to phrase my response to the inevitable question of a drivers license. Turns out, all he wanted was a ride into town, for a reason that still escapes me. Phew.

Back in town, I dropped by the Mango Tree restaurant to try and say goodbye to some friends that were leaving. I was too late, so I returned the bike, ultimately thrilled that I’d avoided health and legal troubles during the four-hour trip.

Path to Mango Tree Restaurant

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Where the Sun Don’t Shine

After a little over a week in Hyderabad, I had a decision to make. I could either take a train to Delhi and head on a northern route that would take me on a long loop up to Nepal and then back down south towards Mumbai. That would involve at least 4 weeks, and maybe as much as 10 weeks, of traveling around living out of my suitcase before getting a chance to catch my breath in Mumbai.

The other option was to head east, to Goa, before heading north to Mumbai. Those familiar with Goa know it has the sunny, relatively-prosperous beach area where tourists descend upon for the peaceful beaches in the south or the party and late-night scene in the northern beaches. Goa is a destination for both local and foreign tourists, and has a reputation for having some of the most kind and welcoming local residents in India. It has the visible remnants of the Portuguese, who conquered and rule from Goa for a time in the 16th century.

Aranjuna Beach area

Goa had occupied a place in my imagination long before coming to India, and after several weeks of traveling in more-hectic places I decided to opt for Goa; the northern spots could wait for later. There  was the small matter of “monsoon season”, but no big deal if it rains a few hours every day.

The fifteen hour busride from Hyderabad could have been worse, but as soon as I hopped off the bus I immediately began to question my casual disregard for the fact that there it was monsoon season. The sky was dark and the rain heavy, and the 25km ride to the guest house I was staying at promised nothing but more rain.

And so it was, for the next five days it literally rained 22 hours per day. Every day. Not only did the rain make it difficult to get around, especially on a rented motorcycle, but it also meant that at least 75% of establishments were closed for business. Those that were open were perhaps at 10% capacity, and as a result Goa felt more like a ghost town than the popular beach town I had expected.

Evershine Guesthouse, one of the few places with wifi and guests at Aranjuna beach in Goa

Due to the rain, my activities were pretty limited while in Goa. The two main things I did were 1) work from either the guesthouse (which had Wifi) or a TexMex restaurant I found that also had wifi, 2) Take advantage of the brief periods without rain and take the rented motorcycle out for a spin. However, these “spins” were inevitably interrupted by an ambush from the clouds, leaving me driving back to the guesthouse with my head at odd angles and getting pelted on the face with stinging gusts of rain.

Vroom Vroom. Portuguese fort (Fort Aguada) in the background.

If anything, the rain was good for keeping me in my room working, which is my main focus anyways. The guesthouse I was at, because it had such good reviews online, was one of the few that had any other guests. Over five days I met maybe a dozen or so other travelers, and in the late evenings we’d sometimes sit and play cards. However, their traveler priorities were quite different than mine and so I was often shut up in my room while they sat around outside, but all the same it was nice to meet and swap stories with some fellow travelers.

After three days, the rain was taking its toll on morale. I really liked Goa and could see its charm, but the rain had made it but a shadow of what it is the other 9 months of the year. As it happened, myself and three others all had the idea to go to Hampi, another Southeast India destination, and so we collectively booked train tickets. At 6am on a Thursday, we caught the 1.5 hour cab ride to the train station for the 7-hour ride that would get us to the place where we could take another 1.5 hour ride to Hampi.

You can't wait until its sunny to swim in the Goan monsoon.

I will have to go back through Goa on my way to Mumbai, so I wouldn’t be gone for long. Anyways, Goa and I weren’t finished:  I knew that I’d have to return in several months so as to give Goa a chance to redeem herself and remind me why I had wanted to come in the first place.

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Hyderabad Part 2: Business and Pleasure

I had expected to leave Hyderabad almost immediately after Seth Godin’s talk, but Mr. E’s roommates had recently moved out and left me an empty bedroom (and bed), and Mr. E’s invitation to stay a few more (free) nights at his apartment were quite appealing.

Hyderabad Street at Night

I spent the next six days at his apartment, and for the most part the days followed a similar pattern: wake up, work for a few hours, get lunch, work, Mr. E comes home, watch a James Bond movie/ watch the World Cup, drink a beer, work, the bed. It was just what I needed. That said, every day was an exception to this pattern somehow, including the following exceptional exceptions:

  • On Saturday night I went to a party with the “King” of India. Actually, that was just what this one girl kept calling the host. It had something to do with being related to the former king that had ruled the area that is now Hyderabad. His house was fantastic, and the party was the most fun that I’ve been to India so far. It was an interesting crowd to be sure, an eclectic mix of Indian locals, foreign workers and interns and grad students, and wide-eyed travelers. What else can I say, it was just a party!


    This was a few moments before I ate a *really* hot pepper.

  • On Wednesday, two Googlers I’d met (Megha and Pranav) invited me to visit the Google office and have lunch. Well-aware of Google’s famous lunches and eager to spend more time with Meha and Pranav, I made the 30-minute trip across town in just under 50 minutes, and was treated to a great lunch: gourmet grilled sandwich, have-it-my-way pasta, and then another sandwich. All in all, the Google office was about what I expected and was very similar to the ones I’ve visited in Mountain View and London: spacious, easygoing atmosphere, great food, drinks & massage chairs & gyms & music instruments hidden throughout. It was a great afternoon, and Pranav and Megha were engaging and interesting hosts.
  • Mr. E and I spent a few hours on Sunday with me recording video from the back of his motorcycle. We took a drive around Hyderabad and ultimately into the center of old town. I couldn’t count with a computer how many stares and waves and glances I got from the people being filmed by the strange-looking foreigner. At the center of town, Charminar, Hyderabad’s most famous monument and known as the “Mosque of the Four Temples”,  had been closed for several minutes when we got there, but as soon as the attendants saw us we were pushed through the crowd and let into the gate. Why? Because our fee was 100Rs ($1.10) while the average Indian only had to pay 5Rs.

    'Charminar, the Mosque of the Four Temples", built in 1561

  • I watched the four World Cup games played at different locations: Saturday night at supposedly *the* hip Hyderabad bar, which was a blast because I got to meet up with others I had met at the other party. I watched the Argentina vs. Germany game I watched at a local Taj hotel where I lost six out six individual and unique bets on the Argentina vs Germany game.

Hyderabad was a city that would have been easy to write off and leave immediately had I not known Mr. E, and through him a lot of interesting locals and places to go. Instead of being a simple pit stop on my way to somewhere else, I left with some great memories and rested from a few days of staying put.

On the last day, I met Mr. E at his office which was near the bus station I’d need to go to. I was dropped off near a landmark he’d given me for his office, and what I thought would be some quick coordination to get inside ended up being a 90 minute affair. I was walking around in the sweltering heat amidst a sea of activity carrying my 35lb travel backpack along with the backpack with my mobile office inside. I was pestered throughout, and was drenched in sweat and frustrated in matter of minutes. Finally, after what had seemed like hours, and after atleast 3km worth of walking down a .5km stretch of street, I found it. I went inside, met some colleagues, and then worked for a few hours while I had time. After a bit, Mr. E helped me carry my stuff to the bus stop, we said our goodbye’s and I was on my way.

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Hyderabad Part 1: Meeting Two Personal Heroes

Spiral Staircase in Hyderabad Alley

I had never heard of Hyderabad before I got to India, though it is India’s 6th largest city with over 4 million residents, and occupies a prominent place in the center of southern India. Even  so, I hadn’t planned to go until I got an email in early June. It was from Seth Godin’s blog, and said he’d be giving a speech in Hyderabad July 7th. Tickets  were $50, and I rushed to purchase mine since they were limited to just 100 available for purchase, and my rush paid off because I got an email a week later confirming my attendance.

Image representing Seth Godin as depicted in C...
Image by http://www.prestonlee.com/archives/67 via CrunchBase

So I adjusted my plans a bit and set things up so that I’d arrive in Hyderabad two  days before the event. Before arriving, for the first time ever I set up a place to stay through Couchsurfing. Nearly 11 years old, Couchsuring is a way to find people that have a couch you can sleep on wherever you’re heading. Not only is it free, but its a great way to meet some locals wherever you’re going. Find out more at couchsurfing.com .

My host was someone I can’t name, as I explained before. Ill call him Mr. E. Mr. E is an American and has been in Hyderabad for nearly 10 months, starting out as a student but quitting when he realized how terrible the school he was at was. Now he’s working a tech company doing computer programming and design for a new product they’re launching.

Not only did we get along, but our shared interest in tech stuff, mischief, and living abroad led to many a spirited conversation on said topics. It was great knowing someone who knew the ropes of Hyderabad, making a new friend, and not spending nights alone in a hotel room. Not to mention an apartment with Wifi where I could spend my days working to my heart’s content (or my brain’s limits). Lastly, it was a free place to stay!

My main purpose in Hyderabad, however, was to meet Seth Godin. Not only do I revere his marketing brilliance, but I also wanted to pitch him a new project I’m launching soon: www.theInteract.net .

One of the things theInteract does is to enable  people with large followings, such as Seth Godin, to create virtual meetup events where their followers can meet and interact with each other over videochat. Seth Godin, for instance, might email his blog followers a message telling them to go to www.theinteract.net/sethgodin at 8pm on Tuesday for one hour. During that time, they could meet other members of Seth’s Tribe, as he calls it, or also participate in a brainstorming session directed by Seth.

To prepare, my partner Nat and I put together a presentation for Seth and put it up on special page created just for him at theinteract.net. There would be 300 people at the event, and with 1 hour of mingling time post-event, I figured I had about 12 seconds to talk to him, hardly enough to pitch him. So instead, I wrote the special web address on a business card, with the intention of giving him a 10-second pitch and then directing him to special address where he could view the presentation.

Arriving at the Indian School of Business

At the Indian School of Business

Fast forward to July 7th, the day of the event. I made it a point to arrive two hours early, fearing some kind of catastrophe that would delay me and put an end to weeks worth of careful plans. I was one of the very first people to arrive, and to my delight when I entered the auditorium Seth was up on stage setting up his laptop and ordering around the staff that were there to get things ready.

Seth Doing His Thing

I had assumed that I’d have several more hours to fine-tune those precious 25 words I’d have, but I quickly realized that the time was now. When it looked like he wasn’t busy for a few seconds, I hopped up on stage, walked over and stuck my hand out. I don’t remember the exact exchange, but it went something like this:

Me: “Hi, Seth. Its a great pleasure to meet you, I’m looking forward to the talk.”

Seth: “Thank you. Are you a student here?”

Me: “No, I’m an entrepreneur traveling through India. I’ve wanted to travel here for quite awhile, and since all I need is the internet to do my work, I figured why not spend some time in India.”

Seth: “Oh, that’s great. What are you working on?”

Me: “Two main projects. A company that offers crash-course language instruction for travelers, and one that allows people such as yourself to host virtual meetups for their followers over videochat.”

Seth: “That sounds interesting.”

[conversation waning, he’s got stuff to do and I don’t quite feel free to go on talking about myself]

Me: “I know you’re busy, but if you’ve got any spare moments in the next few days I’d love to send you a short presentation on theInteract.” [hands business card with special web address for Seth written on it.]

Seth: “Uh sure. I’m very busy, but just send me an email and maybe I can check it out.”

Me: “Thanks so much, it was great talking to you and I’m looking forward to the talk.”

And that was it. I’m embarrassed to admit that my voice was audible nervous when talking to him. It wasn’t terrible, but it was noticeable. Ah well, I made my point and he did indeed check out the presentation (more on that later).

He was busy enough at the time that I didn’t want to ask him to pose for a photograph. However, a few minutes later I realized that I’d seriously regret it if I didn’t have some kind of picture proof. I hopped up on stage and had one of the ladies hosting the event snap a picture with Seth in the background. Kind of goofy, but better than nothing.

As I sat waiting for the talk to begin, I was sitting two seats away from a wiry kid that obviously wasn’t Indian. After a few minutes we started talking, and I soon found out that this was Seth’s 17-year-old son. I wasn’t surprised to find that he was sharp kid, had already started a few micro-businesses, and seemed to have a good head on his shoulder. I felt a little awkward, though, because it felt a little sketchy to pitch to someone and then get all buddy-buddy with their kid.

It was fine though, and it was interesting to hear his take on India and traveling with his dad. Right before the talk began, just across the aisle sat a man that looked oddly familiar to me. I couldn’t place, but we exchanged smiles and he introduced himself as “Chris.” I briefly told him what I was doing and he responded “Only in the 21st Century!”, to which I nodded in agreement.

Then the talk began, and some of the first words in the introduction was acknowledgment to two special attendees: Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of the Acument Fund, which was the event sponsor; and Chris Anderson, the guy I had just spoken with, the Curator of the TED Conferences. (Check out Ted.com right now if you’ve never heard of it!)

I immediately started laughing to myself. Not only had I met Seth Godin, but also Chris Anderson, Curator of one of my favorite organizations in the world. All in a day’s work.

The talk itself was good, though he mainly recounted a lot of points and anecdotes from Linchpin, his latest book. A lot of Linchpin is about finding and doing work that sets you apart from others; Seth’s argument is that technology, globalization, etc. have transformed how we work and who is valuable, and that if you don’t demonstrate your value to others then you’re bound to drudgery and job insecurity. This is great for many, many people, but to a cigarette vendor in India struggling to make ends meet, much of his advice isn’t too practical.

It was great for me though. At one point early in the talk, Seth brought up the example of “the entrepreneur traveling the world with his laptop and an internet connection,” and I’m 100% certain he stared right at me for the duration of that sentence.

I had been curious as to what Seth’s personality would be like, and though I had a limited interaction with him I found him to be sharp and to-the-point. He’s a busy guy and doesn’t fool around. His jokes were subtle and his talk not without humor, but I could more easily imagine grabbing a coffee with him than a beer.

Afterwards, I was eager to speak to Chris Anderson some more since we’d only talked briefly before. We had a nice chat for a few minutes, but I had to make way for others that had lined up so it was pretty short. I basically told him “thank you” for TED on behalf of  humanity, told him what I was doing in India and about each of each of the projects I’m working on. I also told him that it was a life goal of mine to be invited to speak at a TED conference (as if he doesn’t hear that every day). He mentioned TEDx, which is basically locally-organized TED talks that help the main TED Conference  find interesting speakers. He was suggesting that this might be a good venue for me to talk, so I’m not sure if he fully understood that I was telling him I was looking to talk at THE TED Conference in San Francisco. As I said, people were waiting, but he gave me his email address and I told him that I’d shoot him an email sometime.

After the event, I wandered outside to the hall where refreshments were being  served and the audience could mingle. As soon as I walked outside, I heard someone  call out my name. I turned around, and standing in front of me was none other than Priya, a fellow Brown ’08er who was working at the Acument Fund in Hyderabad. We’d been in a six-person seminar on Education our junior year, and needless to say we were both pretty shocked to run into each other in Hyderabd. Outside, I also met a lot of other interesting people, including business execs, students at ISB (the Indian School of Business, where the event was held), as well as some folks working at the Acumen Fund.

I hitched a ride back town with a group from the Acumen Fund, mostly constituted of summer interns. They were an impressive lot: students at Stanford GSB, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Columbia, etc. I’d run into these folks a few days later at a house party, but I’ll save that for next time.

All in all, it was an amazing day, and I returned back to Mr. E’s house with a head rushing with thoughts.

As for my pitch to Seth? I followed up the next day and emailed him the link as he’d requested, and later that evening got a reply. “No I’m not interested in the moment, but I enjoyed the presentation.”

Rats. In the end, in a weird way, this turned out to be a good thing, as it lead to a few insights/revelations about our product that I hadn’t fully-grasped so far. I won’t go into it here, but it wasn’t a total loss, and could hardly detract from the day as a whole.

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Thoughts On Traveling in India #1

A Scene Set in Hyderabad. The back of the truck says "Justice Through Science"

Some random thoughts on traveling in India so far:

  • The Indian head-wobble is hilarious to me. Its basically an up and down and side to side head movement while listening or talking. It took me awhile to figure out what it means, and it means something along the lines of “Yes and No. Neither Yes nor No. Not Maybe. I’m listening to you. Whatever.” Something like that. Finally getting used to it, even do it a bit myself.
  • Cows are sacred in India, so you’ll see them wandering around everywhere. They’ll block the road, eat your grass, crap where they please.
  • Buy a roll of toilet paper and take it with you wherever. You’re absolutely not guaranteed to find some, and unless you want to use your hand and a bucket of water you’ll regret it if you don’t.
  • Mosquitoes galore. Get used to it.
  • I didn’t realize before I came that maybe 95% of Indian marriages are arranged. I’ve talked about this with a few people, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Love marriages fit more closely with my idea of what a marriage should be, obviously, but arranged marriages are more closely aligned with a sense of spousal duty and the Indian caste system. Many are glad for it, but its seems weird to me to never meet your spouse before your marriage. Sometimes there is “arranged dating”, which at least gives you some choice.
  • Indians are really tough on wait staff. Ordering is like an unfriendly negotiation with the orderer having the upper-hand. If you’re a waiter, expect to be harassed about every little thing: how spicy it is, what’s in it, how the waiter from last time messed up, etc. I actually enjoyed my time as a waiter at the Macaroni Grill (though I hated my boss, seriously she was b****), but there’s no way I’d enjoy it here.
  • “Monsoon” and “Monsoon Season” were abstract ideas that meant nothing to me before coming to Goa, even though I knew they both applied. No longer. It rains 22 hours/day here. As soon as it stops raining, I hop on my motorycle and take off to wander around. I’ve ridden around in the rain some as well, because the police here are fair weather police. And if they see a foreigner riding a motorcycle, they’ll pull you over on some BS and you’ll have to bribe them for $6. Hasn’t happened yet, and I’m trying to avoid it by taking the small roads and riding in the rain.
  • CouchSurfing is an awesome resource to meet locals, which is imperative when traveling. Locals know where to go to eat, where the party’s at, which sites to see, how to get from place to place, where to buy toilet paper, and how much to pay for things. Plus, “traveling alone” doesn’t mean being by yourself all the time. Run with the locals and you’re bound to meet some interesting people and make some friends.
  • You need to learn to bargain and how much things generally cost pretty quickly, otherwise you’ll be taken advantage of like whoa. Especially when riding in rickshaws, you want to get them to use the meter. The best way to do this is not to answer their question “Where are you going?”, but instead say first “Do you have a meter?” Insist on a positive response, and give them about three seconds to say “Yes”. Otherwise start walking away, and most of the time they’ll say OK, and if they don’t then you don’t want to use them anyways. Still, a tip of 20 Rupees ($.40) at the end of the ride means that you depart on good terms and the world is just a slightly better place.
  • The people you meet in a place make all the difference. For example, if I hadn’t met the friends I made in Hyderabad, I probably wouldn’t have liked it much. Instead, I had a great time and have some great memories of Hyderabad.
  • Its really easy to meet people, locals or foreigners, if you want. You just walk up to them, smile, and say “Hi”. Its that easy. I don’t remember this working so easily back home. We’re all so busy, we have enough friends already, and in some ways we’re social cowards. Our loss.
  • One night in Bangalore I decided to wander around outside my hotel at 3am. I was basically surrounded by a few people that threw some veiled threats at me, but I told them I only had 200Rs on me (~$4) and they left me alone. I’m not 100% sure they intended to rob me, but I’m 30% sure which is enough. I bought a silver rounded paperweight that I carry on me now. If I threw at someone, it would hurt really bad. Not planning on using it, and generally India is a really safe place and the people fantastically-nice, but like anywhere there are bad apples. Better safe than sorry that you’re laptop and wallet are now gone.

More thoughts to come, but these are some of the observations that I remember so far.

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For Adventurers

In Hyderabad I’ve been staying with a friend whose name I won’t mention for reasons that will be apparent quite soon. He attended Case Western University and is what many of you might call a “nerd” for his appreciation and passion for technology.

A few days ago, we had a fascinating conversation about shenanigans during our college years. While I won’t go into my own experiences, what he had to share about his adventures as an adventurer was fascinating.

What follows is a list of the different types of things he did, most of which were legal, all of which were awesome.

  • Elevator Surfing
    • The basic idea is that you break into an elevator shaft, open the elevator doors at the level you’re at, bring the elevator to the floor below, and then ride on the top of the elevator up and down the elevator shaft.
    • If you’ve ever seen Mission Impossible 1, then you’ll understand the danger. If the elevator goes to the very top of the shaft, you’ll be crushed between it and the top of the building. However, most modern elevators have built-in systems that prevent this, and anyways elevators are built to accomodate maintenance men and so there’s space between the top of the shaft and the highest point the elevator can go.
    • To get on top of the elevator, you need to mess with the mechanism that basically tells the elevator that the outer door is closed. Usually its some kind of lever on the door. You tie a string to it, call the elevator to the floor below you, and then pull the lever to open the door.
    • Once you get on top of the elevator, there’s a control system that allows you to go up and down. Since most buildings were built decades ago, its quite interesting to explore a building’s interior by riding up and down the elevator shaft.
    • Once, he and a friend took the elevator up to the top floor. Unfortunately, there was a safety system that basically shut down the entire shaft if the elevator went to the top. The power was out, and they were stuck on the top floor on top of an elevator. After hours of tinkering, they were finally able to activate a switch that opened the elevator doors. After dropping down into the elevator, they were able to slide out of an 8-inch opening between the ceiling of the floor below them and the floor of the elevator.
    • They left the elevator that way, went down the stairs, and finally made it out in one piece.
  • Steam Pipe Traveling
    • Boilers are expensive, and so Universities often have a central boiler that controls heat for the rest of campus. The steam travels through underground tunnels, and the steam pipes themselves are isolated within each tunnel.
    • Thus, steam pipes are fascinating ways to navigate around campus underground. The key is finding and getting into an entrance point, but once you do that you can basically explore the entire campus underground.
    • They key danger is that some steampipes let off extra steam every minute or so, and if you’re in their path you’ll be cooked under super-hot steam. They key is to go slowly, and stop every twenty seconds or so to see if any pipes ahead let off steam.
  • Drainage System Exploring
    • There are two types of drainage systems in cities. One is for water: think the gutters along streets and the path that shower-water takes. There’s also a sewer system for toilets, which is different. If the sewer system overflows, then it goes into the drainage system, but normally they are kept very sepearate.
    • If you can locate where the drainage system is in a city, you can enter and wander around miles of underground tunnels!
    • The biggest danger is rain. Rain can make an 8-ft fall drainage pipe fill within minutes, and in that case you’ll drown. To successfully navigate the system, and not be a dumbass, you need to both 1) check the weather forecast to make sure there’s no chance of rain, and 2) at different points in the pipes, you can climb to right below the surface and check out the sky. If there’s any chance of rain, scram.
    • There’s a clever way to identify the drainage system. In many cities, there will be a series of parks that are on top of it, because you can’t allow development over the center of it. The reason is that they need to be accessible for repairs, and you can’t do that if a house is on top of it. So, you just have to find an area where there’s a series of parks/open spaces aligned in a somewhat straight line.
    • If you look at a satellite view, it can be hard to tell where it is. However, if you use Google Maps view, its much easier to identify because there is less clutter. The key is finding a narrow path of parks on Google Maps. Once you find this, you’ve basically got to explore the area to find a point of entry. Below is an example of one particular drainage area, both in Google Maps Satellite view and Earth view.

      View of Cleveland in Satellite View. Difficult to Identify Drainage Pipes

      Much better in map view. There are actually TWO in this one.

  • ID Card Replication
    • One of Mr. X’s friends at university reverse-engineered the swipe cards to be able to access every building at the school.
    • Basically, by getting a swiper he was able to figure out the basic key that determined whether you were allowed entry. They key part was that it included the person’s Social Security number. Using Google, this person fortuitously found the University President’s SS number.
    • Using this information, they were able to create their own card that had the same permissions as the University President. This gave them access to every single building on campus.
    • A few weeks later, the University’s security department caught on, noting how strange it was that the President was going into student dormitories and such at weird times. They promptly changed the system, and that reign of terror was abruptly discontinued.

What adventuring stories do you have?

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Soccer Recollections

Playing Some Soccer on a Beach in Bangladesh

Over the past month or so the World Cup has brought soccer to the forefront of everyone’s minds, including us “football”-loathing Americans. I played organized soccer for nearly 16 years (whether YMCA, club, high school, or intramurals in college), I was a soccer referee for 3 years in high school, and I even coached a team of five and six-year-olds for two seasons.

As a result of my long history with the sport, the past month of World Cup soccer has often left me reminiscing over these “glory” days, and I thought I’d share a few recollections. These are somewhat random, but I’ve ordered them under Playing, Refereeing, and Coaching.

Playing

  • “I’m sure they didn’t mean to!”
    • My favorite part about playing club soccer when I was younger was the team cameraderie. My teammates were my best friends, and there was nothing more fun than having all of our families make a seven hour drive to put up in a hotel and play in a tournament.
    • One tournament was in Greensboro, NC. It was the Hooter’s Tournament, and I was 13. After our last match one day, we all went out to Applebees. Us kids finished eating way before the parents, so we left the table and wandered around outside.
    • I had just gotten outside and was walking on the sidewalk when all of a sudden I heard a sickening *crunch*. I looked down, and to my dismay I’d stepped on a baby bird. I looked up, and sure enough there was a birds nest on the roof full of little chicks.
    • I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what to do. Just a few minutes later, some of my teammates emerged and one of them saw the bird. They immediately shouted and pointed it out to everyone else.
    • Noone knew who had stepped on it, and none assumed it was one of us. Immediately everyone started saying things like “Who could have done this?!” “They must have been evil!”, etc.
    • All I remember saying was (in a very meek voice): “I’m sure they didn’t meeaaan to!” I felt terrible, and to this day that memory is seared in my conscious.
  • A cheap shot elbow to the face, some stitches, and a little surgery
    • During one game in high school, when I was 15, there was a particular sweeper on the other team that I just didn’t get along with. He had been talking shit to some of the players on my team, and so him and I had started to jab back and forth.
    • Sweeper is generally a leadership position, but it was clear that this guy had no respect from his teammates, and so I was constantly making fun of him for that while he was complaining about my big ears. Then, at one point in the game, he came up behind me and punched me hard in the middle of my back when the ref wasn’t looking. I turned around and punched him right back in the chest, and then he started screaming “Ref! Ref!” It made me sick.
    • Not ten minutes later, a ball was played over our heads. I had to turn to start running, and just as my head swung around PHWACK! He had thrown his elbow into my nose, and I was on the ground with a ridiculous amount of blood pouring down my face.
    • As I got to my feet, he had run to the other side of the field, because it was obvious that I was going to come after him. As soon as my mom saw this, she started running down the hill and onto the field. I had put both of my middle fingers in the air and was screaming every curse word I knew at this guy who had just cheap-shotted me in the face.
    • I ended up needing 8 stitches on the inside of my nose, as well as surgery to straighten it. My best friend on the team, Matt, got a red card on the next play for a vicious tackle on the same guy. That’s what friends do for each other.
    • All that said, 9 years later I’ve learned enough to understand that violence ain’t cool, and neither is cussing at someone while giving them the two-handed bird in front of your mom, even if you’re in shock and blood is pouring down your face.
    • When I was younger I always hated that he got the “best” of that interaction. And he did, if you think there’s honor in elbowing someone in the face when they’re not looking.
  • There will be thrown grass, and mayhem
    • My high school club team was tied for first in our league, and one of our last games was against our rivals from Dublin, Georgia. They feed their children quite well in rural Dublin, and those kids outweighed us by 20lbs a person and were atleast 6 inches taller on average.
    • After getting down 2-0, we came back and were winning 3-2 with just a few minutes to play. The Dublin players were furious, and none more than their stopper who was atleast 6 feet tall and a full head taller than me. I was running down the line ahead of a thrown in, and when I tried to jump pass the guy he stuck his elbows out, planted them on my chest and drove me into the ground.
    • Laying there on the ground, I couldn’t have been more furious. I grabbed a handful of grass in each hand, stood up, and launched the two handfuls of dirt and grass right into the guy’s face. Before I knew it, the entire parents’ bench for the other team was running down the hill and onto the soccer field howling in protest.
    • Less than two minutes later, the ref called the game five minutes earlier than they should have because every single play was a vicious foul. My team and parents feared for my safety for my role in the whole debacle, so I was quickly escorted to the car and driven home.
    • The other team appealed for a rematch to the state soccer association but was refused, and we took our #1 seed to the state tournament.

Refereeing

  • As a referee, The worst group of parents, inevitably and consistently, were the Under-10 parents. Every match was a fight to the death, and every throw-in was a direct reflection of the moral and social character of their precious child. Under-10 was the hardest to ref, because you didn’t get sideline referees and the field was quite big. As a result, you’re bound to make some calls with limited information. And God help you when you do, because those parents will be calling for you to be strung from your toes and whipped in the center of town. Doesn’t matter that you’re just a 16-year-old kid trying to make a few bucks.
  • There are few things more enjoyable as a referee than giving someone a card. A yellow card, or if you’re lucky a red card, reminds everyone who’s in charge. In a game where you’re constantly being berated by players, coaches, and fans, sometimes its nice to remind them who’s the boss.
  • No matter how quickly they appear to shrug it off, every ref loves to be told that they did a good job.
  • Refs got paid the age level plus 7 for recreational games, and age plus 11 for club games. So for a club match between U-12s (Under-12s), you’d get $23. Not bad, though I’m sure inflation has driven it up since then. Linemen got age plus 1, typically.
  • The lady who governed and assigned the referrees when I played was eventually fired from the soccer association, along with her husband! They were basically accused of giving all the center ref games (that is, the ones that paid the most) to their children and friends, which wasn’t fair to the other refs who would make substantially less.

Coaching

  • Coaching was awesome. However, when you’re coaching 6-year-olds, you’re not exactly planning tactical invasions. Instead, you’re trying to teach little kids the very basics of the game.
  • When I started coaching, it was in the middle of the season. That meant that when the “draft” happened, I got the kids that had never played before and that didn’t go through tryouts to be drafted. This was a significant disadvantage, and meant that I got the kids that noone else really wanted.
  • Teaching 5-year-olds the rules of soccer is a lot like teaching 12-year-olds ancient philosophy: it requires a lot of creativity and persistence. What I learned was that to teach kids the rules, you had to make everything a game.
  • For example, to teach the kids how to do a proper throw-in, I would line them up, each with ball in their hand. I would go down the line, and if they did the throw-in correctly, I would let it hit my head and then I would dramatically fall to the ground as if they’d severely injured me. If they did the technique the wrong way, I’d simply catch it with my hands and throw it back. It’s amazing how effectively this worked.
  • You also had to make practice fun, so the last 10 minutes (or 15%) of practice was devoted to duck-duck-goose. It doesn’t matter that duck-duck-goose has nothing to do with soccer. The point was that it made soccer practice fun, and encourage the kids to want to come back twice a week.
  • My second season with my team we won EVERY game, against over 8 opponents. Not only did I have the scraps of the litter (since my team was assembled mid-season with the smallest of kids), but we’d also had 4 months less of practice. There was no final tournament, but after we won our last (and every) game, I couldn’t have been prouder of our rag-tag team. We beat every team, including teams that had kids that had played twice as long as our team, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
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