Friday, December 30, 2011

I see dead people

It is a strange fact that the best people to visit in Delhi are dead. Since Hindu death rituals involve cremation, rather than burial, only the tombs of India's Islamic rulers survive as monuments to its history. Oddly, there are very few examples of palaces for these ancient rulers with even the Taj Mahal --India's most famous landmark-- being a mausoleum built for the third wife of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. One is forced to conclude that each ruler dedicated his time to building the most magnificent resting place possible, while camped at the construction site in a degradable mud hut.

The fee to entre the main tourist sites around India is two tiered, with the fee for foreigners typically over a factor of ten higher than that for Indians. Still, even with this discrepancy, the cost was not unreasonable being typically 250 rupees or about $5. (The Taj Mahal was the high exception at 750 rupees for foreigners but then... it was the Taj Mahal). I didn't feel this difference was unfair, since maintenance of these buildings must be fairly phenomenal yet a single price would mean most locals couldn't enjoy their own city. My friend pointed out the only possible problem would be for visitors from countries such as Sri Lanka, whose economy was weaker than India's own. Possibly, the solution would be for them to claim to be local. With 1,652 mother tongues recorded in the Indian 1961 census, it would be hard to prove otherwise.

We started our exploration of India's great dead at the Qutub Minar: a tower 72.5 meters high made of red sandstone with decorative elements reflecting both Islamic and Hindu styles. Its construction was begun by the first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aibak in 1192 and completed by his slave-turned-son-in-law and third Sultan, Iltutmish (and you thought America was the land of opportunity). The latter's tomb is in the same complex along with a few other Sultan's.

From there, we moved onto Lodi Gardens where multiple tombs from the 15th century lie in extensive gardens where families were picnicking and other... uh, soon-to-be-families... were doing slightly more than picnicking. Like in Chile, children in India typically live with their families until marriage, making the possibility of 'getting a room' rather slim. Also like Chile, there are stray, but friendly, dogs everywhere. Woof.

Next we visited Emperor Humayun's tomb, commissioned in 1562 by the Emperor's wife. Not only does this vast building contain the impressive resting place of the above mentioned deceased, but its plinth houses a further fifty-six cells in which rest over 100 other gravestones. Slightly strangely, these hangers-on are not all neatly stashed away inside the rooms but a select few seem randomly dropped outside the door as if left there by mistake. I suggested this was laziness on behalf of the people charged to do the burying while my friend opted for a building error like in 'Sim City' where you mistakenly place objects with an accidental click of a mouse button.

Some tombs, like the one above, were built by the grieving loved ones of the deceased as either a loving memorial or out of desire to maintain their own status. More tombs, however, were built by their owner during his lifetime. This seems a somewhat morbid occupation for a king, and doubly odd since no sign of where he might have lived in life survives.

The one exception to this is the Red Fort in Delhi. Outside, it appears to be a stronghold in red sandstone but, rather like a cream filled chocolate, once through its forbidding walls you reach an area of extravagant pleasure in white marble. Built in the 17th century, it was the residence of the royal family, with open walled buildings through which waterways ran. Clearly, one was suppose to laze by the pool side and.... think about the tomb you wanted to construct.

[Top image, clockwise from top left: the Qutub Minar, Lodi gardens, the Red Fort in Delhi and Humayun's tomb]

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


We were at one of the main tourist sites of Delhi and I was being mauled by children.


"Take my photo!"

"And me!"

"Us! Us!"

It was good that my friend had warned me this might happen or I might have suspected such enthusiasm was a distraction to lift my purse; not an uncommon occurrence in parts of southern Europe. However, these children genuinely wanted to say hello to the foreigner, shake hands and have their photo taken. Some of them approached shyly in ones and twos and held out their hand with a polite 'hello', but others decided numbers were the key and surrounded me in an excited bubble.

"These are not private schools," my friend explained. "Their families are not so well off so they might not have seen a camera many times before."

I was surprised by this since the children were all dressed in immaculate uniforms that looked better than most of the private schools at home. There were several different schools visiting this site today, with the group currently accosting me wearing western-style white shirts and dark blue sweaters. Another group that were due to jump me in about 3 minutes wore white shalwar kameez --traditional dress consisting of loose trousers covered with a thigh-length tunic-- and a burgundy school sweater over the top.

Presentation, my friend explained, is important in Indian schools and there are monitors appointed to check the children arrive dressed neatly.

It was still impressive. To me, white trousers and a day trip did not equal long standing aesthetic bliss but apparently India manages it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Things never to be experienced

"I finally got confirmation of your room reservation this morning." The friend I was visiting in India told me once we has piled into an airport taxi. "If I hadn't, I would have had to put you in my friend's room but... then you would have had to deal with the toilets."

"I'm sure I could have managed." I told her with cheerful bravado.

"No." She shook her head adamantly. "Some things should not be experienced."

Probably best not to over think that one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

India welcomes clean people

"We will now begin a disinfectant spray. This is government regulations."

I straightened from the slumped position in my seat that I had gradually sunk into during the flight connection from Hong Kong to Delhi. Sprayed?! What was the implication here? I had showered that morning! Admittedly, given the length of the flight from Sapporo and the different time zones, 'that morning' was a slightly vague concept but I was clean! Probably.

(I was to learn later that no one would think this was true, since there was a belief in India that people from cold countries didn't bother washing nearly as much as they should.)

Flight attendants started to walk down the aisles holding three smoking canisters that resembled the cockroach bomb I had used in my apartment in New York. This unfortunate analogy didn't help my feeling of affrontation. The smell from the smoke was sickly sweet and those with contact lenses were advised to close their eyes. I coughed.

It amused me that such precautions were necessary for India; a country whose big cities battled against congested traffic and pollution. In fact, it seemed more the sort of precaution that Japan might introduce. I hoped no one suggested it to them.

Oddly, the same de-roaching process was repeated on the way out. Seemingly, not only was it forbidden to remove the currency from the country but also any top secret germs you might have stolen while in residence.

However, for now it was over and with a bump, we had landed in India. One plane of squeaky clean passengers safe for admission.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Slippery grips

I have discovered the all-time greatest invention in the world.

... if you live in a snow filled city with an ethos that suggests snowploughs are for the weak.

It is true that the heaps of powdery white flakes in Sapporo interspersed with trees covered in Christmas lights have a story book beauty. But no Disney princess ever stepped outside to slide across the street on her backside and break every bone in her skinny body. After a month of snow, I concluded that this was the most unrealistic part of fairy tales; Cinderella should have attended the ball on crutches and the Sleeping Beauty laid in traction on her bed.

The main roads through Sapporo are scrapped by snowploughs yet, compared to Canada, still seem buried for a large part of the day. I'm unsure whether this is a reflection of the relative quantities of snow in Sapporo versus Toronto or a nature-produced traffic calming measure encouraged by the Hokkaido government.

Pavements, by contrast, are not cleared at all. There is no obligation by home owners to clear the walkway in front of their house and --with the exception of the fronts of some businesses or apartment complexes-- the snow mounts up to form a bumpy slick causeway.

There isn't an easy solution to this. While I lived in Canada, I was legally obliged to clear the pavement around my apartment. This was a good (if tedious) idea in principal, but I often found that the thin layer of ice that would appear a minute after clearing was more deadly to traverse than the snow. Indeed, the hardest area on which to walk in Sapporo are the clearer roads which often are covered in black ice. Typically, within this category, the most treacherous surface are the white lines of the pedestrian crossing; a fact that makes me convinced all the city officials go to the southern island of Kyushu over the winter.

Work has become a dangerous expedition. Lunch, doubly so.

Then I saw the solution. Hanging up in the University's bookstore were a pair of crampon-esque attachments. Consisting of studs affixed to a rubber strap, these snap over the soles of your shoes to provide a better grip on snow covered surfaces. Amazingly, not only do they fit my shoes easily, they also make a significant difference, halving the time it now takes me to get anywhere in the city.

Admittedly, there is not much that can help you with ice on roadways, but for the slippery snow piles on the pavements they are unbeatable.

I was so much in love with this clothing addition, I've brought them to India. You can NEVER TELL when you might need such items. Armageddon? Bring it on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Covering options

In preparation for my trip next week, I needed to buy travel insurance. Since I would be away from Japan for almost three months in total, health coverage was my primary concern along with an extra boost in case one of my 101 connecting flights left me checking airport vending machines for a turkey Christmas dinner.

Hokkaido University sold such insurance packages and so on Thursday afternoon, I skidded across to the appropriate building. With me, I towed one of my friends to act as a translator, all the while assuring her that buying travel insurance was first class practice for writing her thesis, the draft of which was due the following week.

At the appropriate desk, we examined the brochure of options. My type of trip had a choice of three different packages for coverage. Each of these included a set amount for health costs, lost luggage, missed flight and --on a cheerful note-- compensation for death by illness and death by wounding.

The first three of these categories had different maximum amounts, depending on the option you selected. This was all good and understandable; depending on the number of flight
connections you would make, the value of your luggage and your
propensity for tightrope walking without a safety harness, you might
want more or less coverage in these areas. What was rather more perplexing was that while 'death by illness' had the same fixed amount in all cases, you could select different sums for 'death by wounding'.

Now, let us think about the thought process that must go into such a decision. Presumably, it starts as follows:

"Hmm. Yes, it is rather likely I will be stabbed to death in a dark alleyway on this visit."

OK, there are probably circumstances in which such a conclusion is inevitable. However, SURELY most people would CANCEL THEIR TRIP as opposed to thinking:

"I better take out the extended coverage for death by knifing in dark alleyways."

But no! Apparently, there are a whole class of people who, faced with probable death by violent homicide, consider the prudent course of action to take out more insurance.


I kept to the basic level of insurance for this nicety and pocketed the extra cash. Then I spent it. That's how to live, people.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cutting it fine

One morning I looked in the mirror and realised something profound:

I looked like a hedgehog.

For me, the state of my hair is a step function; everything is just fine until EXPLODING SPINY HEDGEPIGS! It's really not. This is probably more a reflection of my tolerance level than the actual process of hairstyle degradation but then, I only got furniture a couple of weeks ago so I think I can be forgiven for having my mind on other matters.

There was also the fact that I could see a trip to the salon going horribly and awfully wrong. For a start, I wasn't yet at the stage where I could have a remotely useful conversation about such a topic in Japanese. I knew the word for 'cut' and for 'hair' but that much was probably deducible from my presence in the shop. I suspected that, even with a photo, any hairdresser would feel anxious about wielding items with (quickly) irreversible effects without more than optimistic finger snipping motions from their client. 

Then there was the fact that my hair wasn't typical of the local population. Quite how different Asian and Western hair was for a stylist was a mystery. I wouldn't have thought my hair was particularly tricky; it has a slight wave and a cowslick but it's not a pile of tight ringlets. Still, since I had yet to meet the Japanese pop star of my dreams, I hadn't had the opportunity to run my fingers through other locks to find out.

Being as it was the beginning of December, I could have gritted my teeth for another few weeks and just had it cut in the UK. However, this did not really seem like a long-term solution. Instead, I sent a message to a fellow Sapporo blogger who was originally from South Africa. She had an inviting button on her website labelled 'Ask' which was probably designed to instigate insightful questions such as 'What are your views on the Japanese economy?' or 'Is teaching abroad challenging?' or maybe 'Do you miss zebras?'. What she got from me was 'Do you know of an English speaking hairdresser in Sapporo?' Mundane but oh, what an amazingly affirmative answer! I made an appointment the following weekend and a mental note to ask about zebras later.

Rie from 'Earth' salon trained in London and had lived there for ten years. She was therefore fluent in English, used to Western hair and knew some aspects of the Japanese hairdressing experience would take me by surprise. Like the fact they cover your face with a towel while they wash your hair. Had she not warned me, I might have taken that rather personally.

After the shampoo came a massage. This wasn't just a scalp rub during the wash, but a head, neck and shoulder kneading that lasted about ten minutes. To be honest, I wasn't wearing the best sweater for this; it was a thick white fleece that the girl performing the massage declared was 'fuwa-fuwa', a Japanese onomatopoeia (read: peculiar sound) used for all things furry.

"Have you heard of Reiki?" Rie asked me when she returned. "People say it's Japanese, but we've never heard of it! Reiki?" she asked the girl massaging my shoulders. She got a completely blank look in return. "See?"

Rie took over and began to cut my hair. "When I first moved to London," she told me. "I was too scared to go to a salon because I didn't speak English at the time. Did you feel the same?"

... was there something about my current hair style that suggested the answer to this might be yes?

Rie told me that not only is Asian hair a very different texture from my own Caucasian strands but also the head shape is distinct, being typically flatter at the back. This makes the cut a significantly tailored process. She took a brief note of my photo but then went her own direction, sweeping my hair towards the front. I went slightly cross-eyed as a lock fell between by eyes. She gave it a trim.

"Your hair doesn't want to fall in a parting, it wants to go in a swirl."

I hoped this wasn't a new bodily commentary about the state of my life.

At the end of the cut, I was offered another rinse, but since everything had been beautifully styled I declined. Peaking in the mirror on the way out, I thought the result was slightly Asian.... you know, in a blond haired, blue eyed, pointy nosed sort of way. Maybe it will help with my language skills. Beats talking to a hedgehog in any case.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Silver & Rupees

Banks in Japan have not yet taken to the notion of convenient opening hours. This includes CitiBank which, despite being a branch of an American business, has hours only between 9am and 3pm, Monday to Friday.

It was therefore Friday lunchtime when I slipped my way along the snow-packed street to see if I could acquire some Indian rupees for my trip in two weeks.

The answer was no.

But the woman at the branch did give me a map, directing me to the location of a currency exchange two blocks further south. Sliding along the ice and thinking this was almost thick enough for skates, I arrived at the "Travelex" kiosk, which was hidden inside a different bank, tucked out of sight of the entrance between the ATM and toilets, as if it were rather an embarrassing act to want to change Japanese Yen for any other currency.

Given the current state of the Euro, I could see where they were coming from.

"I'd like to exchange Yen for Indian rupees," I told the lady at the counter.

She checked her computer system, but then shook her head. "I'm sorry, we do not offer Indian rupees."

"... Can you not order them?" I could understand not having all currencies in stock, but surely they could be acquired.

Again she shook her head. "We do not offer them," she repeated. "I have Indonesian rupiah."

I appreciated the effort at a compromise, but unfortunately this was going to be an area where I stubbornly stuck to my original request quite beyond all reason.

"I really need Indian rupees," I persisted. "Since I'm going to India."

"Ah," the woman nodded as if agreeing this would be a problem. "You cannot get them in Japan."

No where in Japan?! I didn't quite know what to say to such blanket authority so I thanked her and left. It was only when I was half way back to campus (this taking a considerable period of time due to the weather) that I remembered reading on the website for 'The Rough Guide' that rupees were not supposed to be taken out of India. The guide had focussed on visitors with spare change and had said that, while this rule was not strictly enforced, there were currency exchanges at the airport for this reason. It had not occurred to me before now that such a rule would prevent me taking out cash in advance.

This wasn't a particular problem; since I was travelling to Delhi, any major bank in the city would likely accept either cash or credit card.

Clearly, this was just simply a case where it doesn't pay to be too organised. Literally.