The Monsoon Diaries

Here I will post my thoughts, questions, concerns, etc. that arise during my three month stay in Bengaluru, India as a reporting intern for Citizen Matters, all thanks to the University of Washington’s Foreign Intrigue scholarship. 

August 30: As a foreign woman traveling India, my response to Mahesh Sharma’s “no skirts” comment

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“Mahesh Sharma’s advisory for tourists: No short skirts, no travelling alone at night.”

This headline has probably already made its way to your Facebook and Twitter feed and back again in the last 48 hours. It’s referring to comments made by Union Minister Mahesh Sharma during a press conference on Sunday at the popular tourist destination, Agra. Sharma warned female foreigners against wearing skirts or venturing “out alone at night in small cities” in India.

His statement mimicked the existing sexist rhetoric rampant in international dialogues around crimes against women: It’s the woman’s fault. Her clothes were some sort of provocation. Why was she out alone? She was travelling alone? Women shouldn’t travel alone. Women should be afraid.

Sharma’s comments followed a week of international debate concerning the burkini in France. Both the burkini and Sharma’s comments serve as a reminder, as if we needed one, of just how closely women’s bodies and what they choose to adorn them with are policed.

Sharma has since “clarified” his comments: “I was speaking about religious places, like temples. I did not comment on what women should wear or not. I am the father of two daughters, I cannot put a ban on what women wear…Such a ban is unimaginable, but it is not a crime to be cautious. Different countries issue advisories from time to time, but I never said change anyone’s way of dressing.”

Not sure what his two daughters have to do with his insinuation that foreign women dressed a certain way are asking for it, but good that he did attempt to ameliorate what was said.

Let me be clear, foreigners travelling India, like myself, should absolutely be respectful of the culture and that respect should absolutely translate into what they chose to put on their body. The issue of respecting or disrespecting Indian culture as a traveller however, is entirely separate from the issue of crimes against women, foreign or not. Treating these two issues as if they are somehow interconnected is what makes his statement so problematic.

A women who disrespects Indian culture via her clothes isn’t asking to be assaulted. A woman who does everything she can to assimilate, to blend in with locals is not protected from assault. Let me be the billionth women to exclaim: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT SHE IS WEARING.

As Sharma emphasized, Indian and Western culture are different, of course. For me, that has sometimes meant dressing somewhat more conservatively than I normally would and being cautious when I am out at night, especially when I am travelling outside of Bengaluru. But for the most part, as a woman—who no matter what her surroundings are, always has to be more careful and aware than her male peers—my habits have not had to change much.

I came from living in a large American city to a large Indian city. I was very cautious when I was out alone at night in Seattle in the exact same way I am here. I am approached my strange men in India, just as I was approached by strange men in the U.S. and in both countries, I employ the same tactics to be rid of them. Yes, it is unfortunate that I even have such tactics, but that is the reality. The point is, sexism is global and sexism doesn’t really care what you’re wearing.

Women are not only expected to take the normal precautions to keep ourselves out of dangerous situations, we are expected to go that extra mile and ensure our attitudes, our words and our clothes don’t encourage someone else to put as in a dangerous situation. We are expected to be hyper-aware all the time. We are constantly flooded with horror-stories, dos and don’ts, listacles of how to do something safe, which will likely be an activity inherently safe for men, e.g. riding the bus.

I can’t tell you how many articles I read titled something like “How to Backpack India Solo While Female.”

We are already doing enough. To imply that our outfits will be the cause of any crime against us is harmful and counter-productive. It does nothing to target the source of these crimes.

Sharma’s fueling the fear many foreign and Indian women already have of exploring India. If you are smart and careful you will be fine travelling India solo. I know this, I am doing it, I’ve been doing it, and I am absolutely fine.

Before leaving for India, I was given a lot of advice, mostly unsolicited. The most common piece of advice was to never tell anyone you meet that you are travelling alone: “You have to tell them you have friends waiting for you at the hostel, or better, your husband is waiting there to meet you!”

I’ve yet to claim an imaginary husband because that, for me, crosses the line of just trying to be safe to losing my self respect, but I have said many times that I have friends waiting. Each time I do, I feel a ping of guilt for lying to basically everyone I meet. It’s incredibly frustrating to think if I were a young man, I wouldn’t have to lie. I wouldn’t have to think so much about my safety all the time. It wouldn’t be a factor in nearly every decision I make at home or abroad. I could just be.

Everyday women all over the world have to fight the fear mongering that limits their ability to live as freely as men. Political leaders, like Sharma, should do their part to discourage this fear mongering, and encourage women to travel India, foreign and Indian women alike. Sharma’s energy should be spent developing ways to stop men from assaulting women, whether she’s running down the street naked or in a burka.

 

August 11: In India and still talking about Donald Trump

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Initially, this piece had nothing to do with Donald Trump. It had nothing to with American politics whatsoever. I set out to write about my experience visiting an office and a local university in Bengaluru. I thought, maybe I will discuss outsourcing or the importance of community journalism. But once I started writing, what I needed to say became clear. I needed to write about Donald Trump.

Last week I visited an American company whose Indian staff generates lecture and homework content for American universities. I talked with a group of employees. They asked how I was adjusting to life in Bengaluru and why Americans don’t use pressure cookers—they are preparing for a month-long training session in California and needed to know whether they should just pack their own. I answered their questions about Irvine and explained my confusion with the Indian head shake. We covered the basics and then.

“Who are you voting for,” one of them asked me, referring to the American presidential election this November. This was not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last time, I have been asked this question since arriving in India. Don’t get me wrong, I invite the question. I hope by answering this question and engaging in a dialogue with those that ask, I’ll show them not all Americans are narcissistic bigots, supportive of globalization only when convenient.

I answer the question, forthright, adding a disparaging joke about Trump.

Talk of Trump quickly transitioned into a discussion around outsourcing. Trump’s anti-outsourcing rhetoric hasn’t fallen on deaf ears in India—known for its booming outsourcing industry. Some were defensive. What would happen to India if a U.S. president “ended outsourcing,” an idea Trump has indiscreetly toyed with. Indian media have covered this, explaining the negative impacts a Trump presidency would have on the subcontinent. The hits the IT and automobile industry would take are frequently discussed, as are what his xenophobia would mean for H-1B visa applicants and international security efforts.

The Wire wrote a piece earlier this year on how Trump’s “globophobia” would be a “blow to India.”

Trump’s protectionist wild talk is disconcerting,” Uttara Choudhury wrote. “Trump has hit a sensitive American nerve on fears of what is derisively called “globophobia.” Sadly, what muscle-flexing Trump doesn’t tell voters is that the American people will finally end up paying these taxes, which, as with any levies, will be embedded in the price of the product.”

And this, written by Seema Sirohi in Scroll, is my favorite passage from any story on India and Donald Trump: “So what would a Trump presidency mean for India? There is no concrete answer yet – only attempts to glean meaning from half-completed sentences delivered in a distracted, rambling style that jumps topics like a grasshopper.”

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It’s as nice to see Indian media harping on Trump as it is to develop a common bond with someone here over a mutual loathing of the guy. Trump’s toxic masculinity, misogynistic comments, racism, bigotry, and inability to articulate (Hey! He’s not a “professor in grammar!”), are often enough to get a person, American or not, to abhor him. And if that’s not enough, his anti-globalization remarks will do it.

Given the frequency of the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton questions, I was not surprised when I was once again asked about Trump a few days later, this time by a college student. During a visit to a university in Bengaluru for a journalism workshop hosted by Citizen Matters and Radio Active, I spoke briefly to students about the process of writing a story, pretending all the while that I myself wasn’t in their shoes five minutes ago. But before the leaders of the workshop delved into interviewing and pitching, the founder of Citizen Matters gave a talk on the basics of solution journalism. As she was highlighting its connection to spreading awareness around local issues, a debate around voting began to brew.

In Bengaluru voting participation is less than stellar; the voter turnout is around 50 percent in a given neighborhood on average, according to my colleagues here at Citizen Matters. For a few minutes students debated the importance of voting. Then I, as an American unfamiliar with Bengaluru politics, was asked to share my perspective on voting. I mumbled something about how it’s your civic duty to vote and am immediately asked a follow-up: what are Americans opposed to both Clinton and Trump doing? Why should they vote if they don’t like either candidate? I stand by my statement. Everyone should vote, still. If everyone says their vote doesn’t matter then, well, that’s how Trump becomes president.

I’m not sure this audience realized how common that question, why vote if you dislike either candidate, is debated in the U.S. After Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, officially dropping out of the race for president, many people I know exclaimed, via Facebook of course, that they would not be voting at all. That “if Bernie wasn’t in the race, well… the whole thing is corrupt anyway and my vote counts for nothing! “Bernie or bust!” I’ve been involved in or overheard this debate many, many, many, many times. The difference in discussing this in the Bengaluru classroom vs. with a group of me peers in Seattle, was the level of discomfort that’s usually present in these conversations was absent.

Talking to Bengalureans about the American election and gaining an understanding of their perspective on the process has been enlightening. Of course I knew prior to coming to India that the outcome of the American presidential election was of global importance, as it has global impacts. When I studied in Serbia two years ago, I was asked frequently about White racism and racial tension between African Americans and White Americans in the U.S. It was 2014, unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown had just been murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests erupted in Ferguson and made headlines across the world. That’s when I learned not only Americans were watching America and American politics, the world was watching.

The newspaper headlines in Serbia that summer initiated many conversations with strangers. I talked to Serbians about the militarization of the American police and police violence, granted I am white and was 20-years-old at the time, I couldn’t contribute to the dialogue, but I answered their questions nonetheless. The things they asked me I’d never been asked before, they were so direct, and this directness was mind-opening.

When you’re abroad, I’ve learned, the sensitivity and desire to be politically-correct that normally hovers over a conversation around politics in the U.S. is gone. There’s no beating around the bush, why should there be? This means refreshingly truthful dialogues around candidates and issues can be had. As in many countries, politics in the U.S. are incredibly divisive; we are encouraged to avoid discussing hot-button issues, even with close friends. Being in an environment entirely absent of these unspoken rules and norms I’m accustomed to means I am able to engage and debate in a new way and without fear of judgement.

Of course, many Bengalureans have their favorite candidate and many dislike Trump, but because they haven’t had a steady media diet (more like force-feeding) of Trump and Clinton for months and months, their take on the election, on Donald Trump, is distinct. These conversations, both in India and in Serbia have taught me a lot about how America is perceived globally, and the position it holds in global politics. During that classroom visit, none of the journalism students could name the Bengaluru mayor or the BBMP commissioner. I am told this is not as telling as it seemed to me, “the mayor doesn’t really do anything.” Fair, but I bet every single one of them could name the American Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. Who knows, maybe that’s just because this year we have “The Donald” and the first female nominee in U.S. history, it is a particularly entertaining show after all.

 

August 8: Bengaluru, for me, a lesson in garbology

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I’ve been thinking a lot about garbage.

Every day I find myself pondering Bengaluru’s garbage plight. If you don’t live here, here’s a quick summary: there is a lot of garbage on the streets, sometimes so much it looks like a miniature landfill is just hanging out, uninvited, on your street corner. There aren’t public garbage bins because in 2000 they were banned in favor of an entirely different approach to waste management.

The Ugly Indian explained it well in an article they wrote for Citizen Matters: “[Chief Minister SM Krishna] banned the street dustbin, and set up a door-to-door garbage collection system – using pushcarts and small three-wheeler autos. It was made illegal to dump garbage on street corners, people had to retain their daily garbage at home till the pickup person came to their home to collect. It was a total change in approach – a radical change of the way things had been for decades. It’s a good system, an ambitious system, but people are bad…Old habits die hard.”

So you get the idea. There are no garbage bins, and despite the fact it is illegal to dump waste on the street, people are doing it anyway.

You can’t hide from garbage here and because of that I’ve never been so up close and personal with garbage in my life. Back home public garbage cans are entirely ubiquitous, here I stop in my tracks at the sight of one, utterly surprised to see it. When I first got here six weeks ago I was repeatedly puzzled when I had no place to throw away a gum wrapper, a coffee cup, or a banana peel. Now, I’m used to this absence and fortunately for me, the waste at my place of residence is picked up everyday, something not every Bengalurean can say. So, it’s not as though I am saying the garbage cans need to come back now. The problem, I’ve come to learn, is much too complex and systemic to be solved simply with the reimplementation of garbage bins. And I will stop here at attempting to explain just exactly how complicated the garbage issue is because it is far beyond my level of local knowledge.

Living in Bengaluru has not only made garbage interesting to me, but it’s also made me realize my own role in all of this, a role I’ve ignored back home. It’s made me think about how I can produce less trash, how I can contribute less to the miniature landfills sprinkled throughout Koramangala and to the landfills that are rapidly filling in the United States. It has also allowed me to develop a more comprehensive understanding of why garbage, waste management, and waste segregation are critical elements of public infrastructure. Yeah, I know these aren’t sexy topics, but they really should be because there are few things more important, (idea for future blog post: How To Make Garbology Sexy).

If you’re wondering how I got to this point, I would say the first step in this garbage-awakening was the cows. Of course the cows, always the cows. The infamous Bengaluru cows which I speak and write of often roam the city freely and inevitably find themselves knee-deep in garbage piles. (Hey, they are cows, the can’t resist!) Well, sometimes these same cows eat the garbage. Sometimes in that garbage is plastic. And sometimes that plastic kills that cow.  

Of course there are a number of reasons why plastic is damaging to our environment and why plastic bags have been banned in a number of cities across the globe, this—the image of a cow dying of plastic consumption—was just a particularly explicit and irking example of the evils of plastic and garbage piles.

So, I’m learning about these evils, the importance of waste segregation, the upsides and unfortunately, downsides, of having public garbage bins. But why did it take me coming all the way to Bengaluru, India to learn about this stuff, which is equally important in the U.S.? Well the answer is pretty obvious. In the U.S., garbage doesn’t turn my route to work into an obstacle course. In the U.S., if I want to avoid garbage and evaluating my carbon footprint, I can easily turn a blind eye. In the U.S., garbage is out of your hair forever once you throw something away in your stainless steel garbage can you don’t even have to kneel down to open because you can just step on it with like, one toe. I don’t have to think about garbage, ever.

When I was younger and the plastic bag ban was implemented in Seattle, where I’m from, I didn’t think anything of it. I had a vague understanding that plastic was “bad for the environment,” a phrase I heard often but couldn’t actually make any valuable sense of. Stores across the city started charging for bags and I complied, paying the small fee instead of investing in reusable bags. I was and am spoiled by growing up in a clean city. Seattle values sustainability and environmentally-friendly-everything more than most American cities, because of this, I’ve never been concerned about my own impact on the environment; I assumed others were worrying about that for me. I expected my city to be clean whether or not I contributed to making it so.  

But I should contribute and I should think about garbage. I should know where my garbage is going and how I can minimize the amount of garbage I produce. I shouldn’t be entirely complacent, uneducated, and uninvolved with waste management. It’s too bad that I, having grown up in a city that is a hot-spot for environmentalists, hadn’t taken any interest in garbage before coming here. Seriously, I had no idea how complex, political, messy, confusing, scary, gross, frustrating, and surprising of a topic it is. I told you, I’ve been thinking a lot about garbage.

 

July 21: Confessions of a mono-linguist 

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I am here to apologize to all the Indians, the Kannadigas I’ve met in the last three weeks. Immediately upon meeting you, you either spoke to me in English, with the assumption that of course I wouldn’t be familiar with your language. Or, you asked if I spoke Hindi, and when you learned I didn’t, you jumped right into English with no apparent judgement. India, I am grateful for your linguistic abilities and I am sorry for my linguistic limitations. 

I studied French for several years, but I am only fluent in English. Meanwhile, every single person I’ve met in India thus far speaks at least two languages fluently. The vast majority speak three and the remaining speak four or more. I wrote a story this week about Bengalureans using apps to teach Kannada, the official language of the state, Karnataka. Naturally, I talked with people who are very passionate about learning languages. I listened to them list off the languages they knew while I soaked in all the guilt only a mono-linguist surrounded by polyglots can feel.

The remnants of colonialism still present in this country make being an English-only speaker a conflicting experience. I went to see professor Janaki Nair of Jawaharlal Nehru University speak about the current issues in the public university system in India and she made it clear that English is much more than a language in India. It’s a political system, a judicial system, maybe a sign of status or class, a symbol of power, a hegemonic force. Another person I talked to urged for the “decolonization” of education, in other words, halting the practice of Indian public universities teaching primarily in English.

I’ve had people ask: Why are Americans so unadaptable to change? Why must we change, while America stays the same? Why don’t Americans learn other languages?  Of course, many Americans do learn other languages, but the reality is the majority don’t. Instead, we expect anyone who comes to the United States to speak English; we even expect for foreigners to know English when we travel abroad. Again, I can’t speak for all Americans, but I am confident that many have that expectation.

To any Americans reading this, understand that Hindi isn’t even the dominant or official language in Bengaluru. So, the norm it seems, is to know Kannada, to be at least conversational, probably fluent in Hindi, fluent in English, and fluent in one or two or three other Indian languages—there are 22 official languages in India and many more unofficial languages spoken. It’s just normal to be trilingual.

On a daily basis, I hear my housemates speak to each other in their mother tongue and in English. More often than not, one sentence will be spliced with multiple languages. When I listen to some of the popular music here, I notice the same thing. One song that has played on several of my rides around the city, “Sooraj Dooba Hain,” is mostly in Hindi but has interjections in English. When I watch TV in our apartment, again I hear the same thing, except of course when How I Met Your Mother or Everybody Loves Raymond is on. Just recently, I was watching India’s Next Top Model; the judges on that show will hop back and forth from Hindi to English. Again, to any Americans reading this, can you imagine if any of our TV shows did that? What if America’s Next Top Model or The Voice judges spoke in both Spanish and English intermittently?

The U.S. has more Spanish speakers than Spain, 41 million, yet no one would say it’s the norm to know Spanish, to be able to converse with a native Spanish speaker. Of course many kids study Spanish, but it isn’t made a priority. My younger brother complains about having to learn Spanish at his high school. Spanish he will probably forget by the time he is my age, having not put it to any use. He isn’t taught why it is he should learn Spanish, or why he should want to learn Spanish. Instead, he is just told if you want to graduate, you have to take X amount of Spanish courses. Perhaps if there was more of an emphasis on the human to human benefit of being able to communicate in a foreign language, there would be less resistance and more excitement associated with language learning.

When it comes to studying a foreign language in the U.S., and I am a perfect example of this, European languages seem to be the go-to. The Atlantic touches on this: “In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally,193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.”

One of my sources for my last story, Vikram Cannanure, a web developer currently based in the U.S., told me in his experience developing a connection with someone starts when you are able to speak to them in their language. Americans, like myself, take this for granted because English is so widespread. We rarely have to work to form that connection because others are doing that work for us. So again, to all the Kannadigas I’ve met, I am sorry for my inability to communicate with you in your mother tongue, thank you for welcoming me nonetheless.

 

July 13, 2016: Looking past the black spots

Today marks my 12th day in Bengaluru and I am proud to say my desire to take pictures of every single passing cow has subsided.

Since arriving the weekend before last, I filled my phone’s camera roll with photos of cattle, likely confusing many passersby who have shared the roads with these guys their whole lives. I laughed out loud on several occasions, like when a large group of them walked right past my gate one evening, or when I moved out of the way of one only to have it move the same way putting me right back in the center of its route. But now I understand, Bengaluru belongs to the cows just as much as it belongs to Bengalureans. Vegetarians rejoice.

Now that I have seen rats, goats, chickens, a horse, and more stray dogs than I can count—mammals as roadside attractions is the new normal. It’s great. But don’t get me wrong, Bengaluru is much more than its animal population. It’s a city packed to the brim with people whose hospitality and willingness to share cups of chai and meals with me on a daily basis continues to surprise me. It’s so full of beauty that it’s difficult for me to walk 10 feet without stopping to take a picture. In fact, I have probably risked being run over by an auto or motor bike more than 100 times because of my stops to capture the street-side coconut vendor, or the guy selling cotton candy to drivers, or the baby goat sleeping underneath a car.

Those pictures, although a bit risky, are important. Sooner than I would like, they will become distant memories of my time spent in this so-chaotic-it’s-poetic city.

A few days ago I took a photo during my walk home from work on Jakkasandra road. It captured three women dressed stunningly in their brightly-colored sarees standing next to a large pile of trash. Not quite a black spot, but an abandoned, large pile of trash nonetheless. Both things, sarees and trash piles, are commonplace here—arguably as commonplace as cows. For me, this juxtaposition illustrated perfectly something I had been feeling since my arrival but didn’t exactly know how to articulate. That Bengaluru, maybe India in general, has mastered the art of being so beautiful, yet so ugly all at once.

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To see so much beauty in what are normally the more monotonous parts of my everyday life is not only a blessing, but it’s a lot of fun. Here, every building is painted a bright yellow or blue or red or pink. Clothes hang on lines outside of every residence on my block, flowing in the wind, just screaming to be photographed. People prepare for the monsoon with rainbow umbrellas as if gunning for a spot on a Bengaluru postcard. Kids play in the quiet side-streets, running barefoot while a stray dog relaxes on its cement throne. The food more often resembles a water-color painting than not, very dissimilar to the food I have grown accustomed to. And the fruit-wagons that occupy my entire route home look like they came straight out of someone’s imagination of what they think India would look like.

Those people don’t usually imagine the ugly side of India. The part that kind of makes you want to rip out everyone’s car horns because anytime you approach traffic the ear-piercing sound makes you want to crawl into bed with noise-cancelling headphones and never leave. Or when you have to cover your face with your scarf as you walk past a black spot that for some reason, always seems to have one lost shoe mixed into it. Or when you, while peering out the window of an Uber, pass by dozens, probably hundreds, of families living under tarps/makeshift tents, awakening you from the comfort of your own privilege.

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Those parts, as uncomfortable as they may make a foreigner with so little local knowledge and context, are just as much a part of Bengaluru—of India’s identity—as are the sarees, pinches of ginger in cups of tea, sliced mango in the afternoon, or the taste of dosa in the morning. Bengaluru is exposed. Like my classmate and former Citizen Matters intern Holly Thorpe wrote last summer, it is “a city that refuses to be ignored.” Indeed it is. A few walks around Koramangala and you can see up-close and first-hand many of the problems that plague this city as it navigates its way through an intense period of population growth. Everything in Bengaluru, it seems, is out in the open.

My first week here consisted of several semi-long walks to McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts, where I was rescued by somewhat “American” style coffee (I have now learned to love instant coffee, but that’s another story.) Anyway, on all of those mornings, I was captured by yet another juxtaposition of “modernity” (which I put in quotes because it is an incredibly subjective term), or capitalism, depending on how you look at it, and poverty. I would see young men or women racing off to work at HP, or Amazon, or Flipkart, or some start-up, pass by a family with no roof, no electricity, no plumbing. A homeless family living in a hut in Koramangala, which has been dubbed by some “India’s hottest startup neighborhood.”

Those moments of complete and total polarity—in every sense of the word—construct a part of Bengaluru’s identity. At least, in my very uninformed, brand-new to Bengaluru opinion. Bengaluru is a city caught in the middle of tech-boom, leaving many richer than they were before and leaving many behind. It’s a fascinating, and at times, upsetting dichotomy.

 

July 5, 2016: Can two cities find common ground over ‘Amageddon?’

 

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After finding out I would be coming to Bengaluru, an Indian city I knew just as the “Silicon Valley of India,” Having grown up in Seattle, I became fascinated with the idea of comparing my hometown to B’luru. The differences between these two cities, 8,000 miles/13,000 kilometers apart, are stark (food, geography, language, ethnicity, weather, traditions, you name it). Finding the similarities, I thought, would be more of a challenge.

The questions I had in mind: do Bengalureans romanticize their pre-tech past as much as Seattleites do? Do they long for a time when young men, tech-badges in tow, weren’t found on every corner? How are tech-transplants/migrants perceived here? Would you ever spot an altercation between a long-time resident  and a tech-transplant in a bar or shop like you might in Seattle? Or, are Bengalureans grateful for the tech-boom, which of course has brought hundreds of thousands of jobs to the city, much like it has in Seattle?

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Unfortunately for me, being the millennial, 22-year-old baby that I am, I missed out on the often romanticized pre-tech Seattle. I can’t relate to most of the grunge, Kurt Cobain-era, sans-Starbucks on every corner-Seattle stories that many over the age of 30 regularly spout. I am exactly three weeks older than Amazon (founded in Seattle in 1994) — today, coincidentally, is Amazon’s 22nd birthday — so I can’t and won’t preach about Seattle’s good ole days.

But much like a slightly younger sibling, I watched Amazon grow up. I watched it develop, little by little, until suddenly South Lake Union, one of Seattle’s neighborhoods, became Amazonia. I went to the Seattle-based University of Washington, whose computer science school can’t keep up with the demand and where it seems one of every three students wants to or does go to work at Amazon. I am one of many in a generation whose Seattle is in part defined by Amazon and the IT sector in general. Still, what do I really know about Seattle pre-tech?  What do I know about the world pre-tech? Maybe nothing. But that’s ok, I have the Internet to help me out, and like many Seattleites, I have many friends whose favorite past-time is to hate on Amazon, to comment on the growing art vs. tech dichotomy in Seattle.

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An Amazon building under construction in Seattle.

I don’t know the exact percentage of Bengalureans working in tech, but considering there are nearly 1,000, maybe more at this point, IT firms located here, you can imagine it’s a pretty big chunk. As of last year, Bengaluru placed 15th on the Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking, (Seattle ranked 8th), and had the second fastest growing  ecosystem and the youngest entrepreneurs, which suggests the city is likely to continue moving up that roster. Watch out, Seattle.

Seattle and Bengaluru are both tech cities. Two cities, depending on how you look at it, that have either bore the brunt of the tech boom or have experienced significant economic growth because of it. They are two of just a handful of world cities that are now known for their contributions to tech. Two cities that people from all over their respective countries, and beyond, now move to, to land a job in the IT field. Seattle and B’luru have both experienced Amageddon, a term coined by Seattle-writer Jeff Reifman to denote the conflict between Amazon/IT and culture. How interesting for me that I have the opportunity to get to know both of these places.

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So just how has ‘Amageddon’ similarly impacted each place?

In Seattle, long time residents are being forced out due to rising rents. Locals, including myself, have watched as high-rise apartments shot up in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood in Seattle known as an LGBT safe-space, an artist’s mecca—not a coder’s paradise. But many who have made Capitol Hill their home have had to leave, unable to match Amazon employees salaries, unable to pay the desired rents.

But gentrification isn’t the only problem. The wealth gap in the city is undoubtedly growing, and traffic (Bengalureans can relate, although Seattle doesn’t hold a candle to B’luru traffic) is getting worse by the day. 

Amazon and Microsoft and the hundreds of small startups have attracted thousands of tech-transplants, but they have also hired locals. And they have put a lot of money into the Seattle economy (yes, as much as many Seattleites don’t want to admit it, many techies do shop local).

Amazon is Seattle’s favorite scapegoat,  but tech companies can’t be blamed for all of Seattle’s problems.

The same can be said for Bengaluru. Although some of B’luru’s greatest problems, traffic for example, are a direct result of the massive population increase which, in turn, is a direct result of the tech-boom, much of their problems are more likely the result of political inaction and a lack of infrastructure necessary to support their growing population. You can’t really blame Amazon for all that.

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So, do the Bengalureans, the ones who were not involved in the tech boom, miss the Bengaluru they once knew, the one whose population was half the size it is now? How do Bengalureans maintain a connection to that time, to their city’s past? To the B’luru before Microsoft? Before Amazon?Before it had one of the greatest startup ecosystems in the world?

Can Seattle offer Bengaluru any words of wisdom? Or vice-versa? Can Seattle offer B’luru any advice on how to stop, or rather, make the best of ‘Amageddon?’

 

Day 1, July 3, 2016: What are you doing there, horse?

I wrote the following during my hour and a half cab ride from Kempegowda Airport to Koramangala. A ride which I thought was long, but later found out from my new roommate, that it takes one hour to get pretty much anywhere in Bengaluru. Traffic, she explained. To my surprise, the cab ride and my observations during, provided me enough content for an entire blog post. So here it is.

Answer me this: how does one A. ride side saddle on a motor bike holding on with just one hand and not fall off? B. Text while riding on the back of a motor bike at full speed? C. SLEEP on the back of a motor bike at full speed? (This was a full-grown man, not a child, which I think would have confused me much less). (UPDATE: Now that I have ridden on the back of a bike I can now say you do not need strong thighs.)

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Those riding on the back of those bikes are either fearless or insanely over-trusting of their drivers. Those riding in the passenger seat without holding on for dear life, let alone holding on at all, either have insanely strong thigh muscles, or again, they’re just fearless.

I envy their bravery a bit, their ability to feel, or at least look like they feel, at ease while meandering through dozens of death traps, somehow silencing the hundreds of honks per minute. These drivers’ multi-tasking skills are something to praise. Not only the motor bike drivers, but also car-drivers, who I spotted doing a number of things while driving. My cab driver for example, texted, talked, and drank out of his liter of Sprite several times throughout our journey. Yeah, maybe that’s normal behavior for any driver, but if you saw the traffic here you’d understand why it’s impressive they can do things like that without also dying at the wheel.

After I finished a lengthy internal debate about whether maybe the rate of traffic-related deaths in India is actually much lower than somewhere like the U.S. (because they are taught to drive in such a way… Kind of comparing that hypothesis to the theory that Western European teens don’t drink as much as American teens because they grow up with a more healthy relationship with alcohol? I don’t know, I couldn’t quite get there.), I saw a horse.

This horse was about an inch from the road. Just standing there, on the side walk. What are you doing there, horse? I thought. I, of course, expected to see animals: chickens, goats, dogs, cows. But I must say, I didn’t expect the first animal I saw to be a large horse.

I’m still confused about that horse.

I’m not sure what it is about seeing large farm animals on or near the road that is so shocking. I knew I was going to see them. I knew they would be as commonplace as Starbucks Coffee cups are in Seattle. Yet, each cow I see mixed in with a group of locals still causes my jaw to drop. I mean it really is hilarious to see a cow just going about its business, tied to nothing, seemingly autonomous.

Autonomous cows, if you have such freedom, why not chose a better spot to loiter than the road medians? Such a precarious choice.

That’s all I have to say about the various animals I spotted today. But I can promise I will have many more thoughts about these guys.

I’ll finish my first post with a few more photos from my first day. This is my PG, somewhat like what we would consider a hostel. The first photo is of my bed, the second is the view from my front door (I’m on the fourth floor), and the third is my first Indian meal. IMG_8608IMG_861113589018_10210509464159512_1606550227_o

 

 

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