Archived entries for India

Research Travel

In the last two weeks I’ve been to 8 cities in 7 different Indian states: Panaji (Goa), Bangalore (Karnataka), Madura and Sivakasi (Tamil Nadu), Amritsar (Punjab), New Delhi (Delhi), Ahmedabad (Gujarat), and Mumbai (Maharashtra). The trip spanned the north-south axis of the country, from the southern tip near Sri Lanka to the northwestern edge only 25 miles from Pakistan. It was fascinating to see how each area was different, with one of the major differences being language. In Mumbai most things are written in Hindi and English, with just a few signs in Marathi. This contrasted with the smaller cities where signs were much more likely to also include the local language.

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I tried to make the most of the trip, kicking it off with a 3 day vacation to Goa and staying an extra day in Madauri to see the temples there. I’m glad I did, because all the other cities were nothing more than a blur. Moving around in India can be difficult and frustrating, spending 3 hours in a car to fight your way across town for a 45 minute interview. Outside the car my time was spent in homes, hotels, and hospitals. The medical facilities we did research in ranged wildly, from fancy corporate centers that looked passably sterile to extremely dirty and sad government hospitals providing free care to the poor. It’s been a whirlwind fortnight that exposed me to so much, but was also just brutal at times with 15 hour days being the norm and always spending them with an entourage of 7 or 8, including 3 clients.

One of the crazier things I was exposed to during research was watching a live surgery, a bi-lateral (both knees) total knee replacement . I stood on the side of the operating theatre in my scrubs, taking photos and notes and trying not to get in the way. Before going in I was worried about passing out or getting nauseous, but it turned out to be less gross than I expected. It is amazing what surgeons do, and at the same time scary how straight-forward it is, almost like carpentry on the human body. It’s not uncommon for the patients in India to be only partially anesthetized, usually with an epidural. That means they can hear the cut of their bones, the smell of their flesh cauterizing, the sound of a hammer pounding an implant into their femur, and the doctors saying “Oh fuck!” when something goes wrong. I can’t imagine what that must be like.

The intensity of the last two weeks has wiped me out, to the point that I’m laying low and staying mostly inside my apartment this weekend. I needed a couple of a days without the jostling of travel and the stress of constantly new encounters. I love doing and seeing so many new things, but I’m physically and mentally spent.

Miscellaneous India Notes

I always picture myself on a map, whether I’m travelling across a city or relating myself to the world. I’ve been in India long enough now that I picture myself here, and I find myself mentally centering the world map around India. For so long my mental image of a map has been centered on the US, so it’s interesting to feel the weight of the Middle East just to the west and China to the north.


It’s very humbling to constantly encounter new things, or familiar things that work in different ways. Normal actions like standing in line need to be approached with a different attitude. There are lots of new systems to learn the rules for, and a lack of any kind of system where I’m used to having one. I’m not able to operate on auto-pilot here, I have to keep my observation skills on high alert.


I’ve noticed that there are ads and billboards for very basic products here that I’m not used to seeing. Prime ad space is often showcasing things like cement, pipes, or steel. My in-flight magazines had a full-page ad for motors. That reminded me of the ads from the early 1900s in American where they would sell motors that you could hook up to attachments in a multi-purpose way — which was cheaper and more flexible than specific devices that only did one task. Of course there are also tons of ads for 3G cards, computers, and luxury goods.


Apartment’s here are very modular, with very little built into the infrastructure of the building itself. There is rarely central air; each room has a separate A/C unit mounted on the wall with a remote control. Washing machines are hooked up to water, but the drain is a just a standard one in the floor that you have to put the tube into each time and remove afterwards. Cooking gas is bought in cylinders that are delivered to your house instead of a permanent gas line hookup. All of this leads to cheaper construction and the choice of not having those luxuries if you can’t afford them.


I keep noticing people doing things in a very difficult manner because they lack the proper tool. This makes sense when people just can’t afford good equipment. There are however some everyday actions which seem unnecessarily difficult given extremely inexpensive solutions that could make them easier. One is sweeping — I see so many people hunched over sweeping with what are basically broom heads; I’ve never seen brooms with handles on them.

The second is drying clothes, which are draped over all manner of items from cars to roofs to fences. I even see people drying their clothes by just laying them on the pavement. What I rarely see is a clothes line; just a simple piece of twine or rope would seem to make the whole process much easier.

Does anyone have any cultural understanding about these two examples in particular?


I’m in Goa a long weekend, a tiny state south of Mumbai on the west coast of India. I’m staying in Panaji, the capital, which is precisely like transitioning from New York City to Savannah, Georgia. It’s a small city, situated on a large river that feeds into the sea. It’s the off season, due to the monsoons, so it’s not very populated right now. Contributing to the slower pace is the fact that the Ganesh Chaturthi holiday is happening now, so many shops have been closed since Thursday.

Goa is beautiful and unique. The influence of the Portuguese, who occupied until 1961, is still strongly evident in the architecture. I’m staying near the old quarter, which feels like a transplanted European city in a tropical landscape. The streets are narrow, the houses are quaint, and scooters are the primary form of transportation. Many of the buildings have balconies overlooking the street, including Cafe Venite, which has quickly become my favorite restaurant here. I’ve really enjoyed sitting on the tiny balcony overlooking the street and trying out traditional Goan food like fish curry and chicken xacuti.

Goa has an amazing number of old churches, from impressive landmarks like Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church to tiny neighborhood chapels that fill up after a dozen people. The most famous churches are in Old Goa, about 5 miles outside of the Panaji, which used to be the capital during the 1500s. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site now and a handful of original churches have been well preserved. I went there today, and it was both striking and odd to experience architecture that feels so foreign to it’s location. At times I honestly felt like I was in Europe until I exited into lush tropical foliage.

Besides churches, Goa is famous for it’s beaches. These are pretty sparse this time of year due to the aforementioned monsoon, which sprung up multiple times today. At one point I was crouched on the sand, maybe 30 feet from the waves, with my umbrella acting as a insufficient roof for my huddled body. My only goal was to keep my camera and phone dry, and that minmum accomplishment was all I managed as the rest of me was thoroughly waterlogged. The rains struck numerous times today with that kind of intensity, but there were enough clear skys in-between to give me a serious sunburn.

I have one more day here to relax before beginning an intense round of fieldwork that will keep me on the road for the next two weeks. I fly to Bangalore very early on Monday to kick it off. It’s likely that the work travel will leave little time for sightseeing, but I’m excited to get even a basic feel for some different cities. So far Goa has been fantastic, and India is living up to what I’ve heard about each area being unique.

I have a lot of images to add to Flickr once I get back from research travel, but here are a few quick-and-dirty photos.

Physicality and Privacy

I’ve been noticing strange numbers written on the walls outside of most apartment doors, and only recently learned what they mean. Apparently it’s census data, marking the number of occupants in an apartment by physically writing on their wall and attaching an official stamp. In the The States, people would definitely freak out about someone writing on their wall, but I imagine there would also be concerns about the privacy implications of broadcasting how many people live at an address.

Census data is written directly on the walls outside of each apartment door

These kinds of practices are normal here though, perhaps because there are so many people with no standardized national ID system. The physical, local, and ad-hoc solution tends to win out. Another example of this is what I’ve learned about voting in India. Apparently when you cast your ballot you are marked on your fingernail with permanent ink. It’s a physical way to avoid double voting and will grow out before the next election. It also has the same privacy issues since it broadcasts to everyone whether or not you voted.

I’m keeping an eye out for more examples that fit with this kind of pattern in India. Let me know if you’ve heard of others.

Rainy Day Bombay

It’s been raining for well over 24 hours now. I’m not sure exactly when it started since my flight landed yesterday in a downpour and it hasn’t let up since. I took the opportunity to have an inside day, the first since I’ve been here that I didn’t leave the house at all. It might also be because this is the first day I’ve lived alone; A. and M. moved to their new apartment and R. doesn’t come for another couple of weeks. In Chicago I’ve gotten very used to living alone. It can be good to stay with other people since everything is so new here, but in such a crowded city it’s also nice to have an option for solitude.

I spent most of the last week in Gurgaon, a suburb just south of New Dehli, which is quite different from Bombay. I’m not a fan of suburbs in the US, and the distaste extends to India. Gurgaon is full of office buildings, hotels, and malls. I was shuttled between the three in a car and never even got a chance to walk the streets. The hotel experience was pleasant enough, but in a global kind of way where I could have been anywhere in the world if it wasn’t for the idlis at the breakfast buffet. It made me feel lucky that the IDEO office is in such an interesting neighborhood.

If I had gone into Delhi I would have most likely seen the giant rallies in support of Anna Hazare, a Gandhian who has been fasting in support of creating a strict anti-corruption law called a Lokpal. Giant crowds have been a constant presence in the city, and smaller marches have been happening all over the country. In Mumbai they were prevalent enough for me to have a small faction pass directly under my apartment last week. Just now, breaking news, the parliament has given in to his demands and he plans to break his fast in the morning. It will have lasted for 12 days, which is amazing considering that Anna is 74 years old.

On Friday we drove to Jaipur, which we thought would take 3.5 hours but ended up taking six. The drive took us through towns and villages, good roads and terrible. Most of it was in Rajasthan, an Indian state I’m thinking about spending more time in when I take a vacation in October. For me, one of the more noticeable and interesting aspects of the drive were the camels. They were being used mainly like horses, pulling carts or equipment. I guess they’re very common in that region, which has large desert on it’s western border with Pakistan.

I just put some new photos up on Flickr, but I’ve accumulated a bit of a backlog that I still need to share. I while ago I switched to shooting only RAW images, which gives me a lot more flexibility in how I can manipulate them after shooting, but requires that I “develop” each one since a RAW image is sort of like a digital negative that needs to be worked with. I’ve always been reluctant to shoot in RAW since the images are 4-5 times the file size and require the extra processing step. I’m a complete convert now though, and I wish I had tried it sooner. It’s amazing what you can do afterwards in Lightroom, rescuing an over- or under-exposed photograph that I would have been scrapped before. It’s also fun to do the developing, to consciously study each photograph and work through the possibilites. It has some of the positive aspects of the traditional darkroom, without worrying about mixing the fixer wrong.

Sick and Working

I’ve been a bit sick this week, though I’m nearly back to 100% after the worst of it yesterday when I hardly ate anything. Overall I feel lucky that it hasn’t been worse, given some stories I’ve heard, but I wish I knew what caused it. I’m very careful about water and I haven’t been eating from roadside stands. I do eat out at restaurants from time to time, but they seem clean. Maybe it’s just unavoidable to a certain degree.

I’ve been doing various things at work since I arrived in India, but this week I started my first real project. My environment may be different, but the design process and familiar feel of a project starting remains the same. I know this means I’ll be very busy soon, but it’s good to start digging into a design challenge. The project requires solutions that are specific to the Indian context, which should be really interesting and eye-opening.

This project also means that I’ll be travelling outside of Mumbai for work. I’ll be in Delhi most of next week, spending Friday in Jaipur before heading back to Mumbai for the weekend. In September I’ll go to a variety of places in the north and south, rural and urban. It should be fun to see new parts of the country, even if I’m only passing through during research.

Street Food

India has the most lively street food culture I’ve ever witnessed, though I’ve been too nervous to try any of it until I’m sure my stomach can handle it. On Saturday I went to a restaurant called Swati Snacks that is known for serving all the street food favorites in an sanitary manner. It was seriously good, so I’ll definitely be going back.

I had the Panki Chatni, which is a thin rice pancake served between banana leaves, and a Vada Pav, which is the most famous Mumbai street food, composed of a spiced potato patty served on a bun. The former was delicious and light, the latter was good but maybe a bit too much carb-on-carb (even for me!). I can see why it’s popular on the street in terms of calories per rupee.

Sorry for the poor photo quality, these were quick iPhone snaps.

Food here is also tricky, because there are so many restrictions within the various cultures that make up India. A great example of this is the image below: a drop-down menu to select your food preference on a Indian airline. I feel confident in saying that United could never handle this kind of complexity.

Life on the street

It’s an old adage that in a city, life happens on the street. Never have I witnessed that phrase in such a literal manner as in Mumbai. Commerce of all kinds, socializing, eating, playing, praying, and sleeping happen either in the road or in structures that are as much outside as inside.

There are of course Mumbaikars who live in the exact opposite manner, existing almost entirely inside their apartments, offices, restaurants, or vehicles. They experience the street mainly as congestion as they shuttle between these air conditioned environments.

These are extremes, and most people probably live somewhere in the middle. Still, it’s something I’ve been reflecting on because it’s impossible not to notice the difference between inside and outside space here. I’ve been trying to understand both by choosing to walk whenever I can. The street can be hot, wet, dirty, smelly, and crowded. Inside spaces are often cool, clean, modern, and (relatively) quiet. It’s a frequent commentary on Mumbai that rich and poor are intermingled and on top of each other, but to see firsthand how it plays out through inside and outside has been interesting for me.

As an aside—you can actually find small patches of quiet, clean, and peaceful outdoor spaces in the parks. I’m lucky enough to have one directly next to my apartment. They usually have playground equipment, grassy areas, and a walking path for people to get exercise without the constant stress of avoiding traffic. They accomplish this through a small admission charge, usually Rs.2, which is under 5 cents.

It feels odd, getting used to this urban fabric. To spend an afternoon reading and drinking cappuccino at a coffee shop before walking home amid honking, holes, trash, heat, and mess. To see a man getting a shave while crouched in the dirt next to an upscale bar. To have all of my senses overloaded to a breaking point before slipping into a quiet movie theatre and enjoying a bucket of popcorn in the stadium seats.

Even though some of the adjectives I’m using seem unappealing, I truly enjoy the street here. It’s where things are most different from what I’m used to and where I’m surprised every minute.

One of the disappointments though is the general approach to trash. I’m not in a position to assign blame, so these are simply observations. People of all classes and status litter constantly. From tossing food wrappers into the gutter to throwing the cob of a finished ear of corn into the sea. The problem is compounded, or maybe even encouraged by the lack of public waste bins or a system to empty them. I see garbage trucks scooping heaps of trash into their compactors by hand, but it’s a partial process at best. Chicago has it’s alleys to hide the trash bins, NYC picks it’s sidewalks clean of trash bags every morning, but Mumbai has not yet found a solution that works for its overwhelming scale and complex street life.

Mobile Spam

I have a separate mobile phone here, an old Nokia with a Mumbai SIM card in someone else’s name because you have to be a citizen to get a phone number. I also carry my iPhone for internet access since it has an unlimited international data plan. Only one person has ever legitimately texted or called me on my Nokia, but every day I get at least 3 spam messages.

This never happens in the US, and thank god since we pay for our incoming texts and calls on most plans. Everything incoming is free here, but this is still super annoying. It’s to the point where I don’t even check when I hear that I got a new message since the signal to noise ratio is so high.

When I first got the phone I was getting these spam messages along with lots of daily trivia: questions about India mythology, celebrity quizzes, and riddles. I thought these were spam at first too, but a co-worker showed me how you could turn them off through deeply buried settings in the phone. Oddly, I’ve been told that many people actually like these messages. Maybe it has to do with the mobile being the primary source of connectivity and information, like how getting physical mail used to be exciting even when it was just a mass mailed catalog.

The other fun thing is that I’m having to learn T9 texting all over again. I’m crazy slow and have regained empathy for my old-school friends who respond to my long, grammatically correct texts with a simple “k”.

Mumbai Local Trains

I took the train for the first time yesterday. In most cities this task would not prompt congratulations from multiple locals, but the density of Mumbai is pretty unique. I went on a weekend to avoid the rush hour crush and for the most part the trip fine, really fun actually. I’m a sucker for train travel, my second favorite way to get around after walking.

There are multiple classes and types of train cars. To begin with, there are first and second class cars. I took first class, which is over 10 times as expensive but still less than $1.25 to ride to the end of the line. It’s much less crowded than second class, which seems like a heavily subsidized price to make transportation accessible to everyone. There are also separate cars for women, senior citizens, and the disabled.

There are no printed or electronic routes in the cars themselves, but I had one on my iPhone so that was okay. A loudspeaker announces the next stop almost constantly so once you’re familiar with the options it’s easy enough. Some stops have platforms on different sides, which is a bit tricky since you need to make sure you can get over to the right side when it’s crowded.

The doors on both sides of the car are kept open most of the time. When it’s crowded, people hang out the side of the car, which is super fun and honestly doesn’t feel that unsafe. It was raining for part of my ride, and the mist coming in from the doors was cooled everything down.

My only bad experience on the train was getting off at the Bandra stop when I came back home. The train car had been steadily filling since we left Churchgate and was wall-to-wall at this point. Luckily I was positioned on the correct side to get off, right near the open door, and started to step off as the train slowed to a stop. The problem was that five guys bum rushed the train before we even stopped, forcing me back inside and crushing me into a corner. I kept telling them that I had to get off, that there was plenty of time, but they wouldn’t budge. One guy even suggested I get off at the next stop. I sort of panicked and ended up being able to force my way out by taking hold of the door as leverage. It definitely frazzled me a bit.

I’m going to keep riding the trains, they seem like a fabulous way to get around quickly and cheaply. This first trip taught me that I need to have a strategy, and need to be very aggressive about getting off. It’s a common theme here, there is no concept of right-of-way on the street and contrary to my logical expectation nobody is going to let people off before they try to board a train. I’m not normally an aggressive person, I like to know the rules of a system and operate smoothly within it, but that approach won’t work in Mumbai.

Below is a video I took one night last week. Near the end you can see the standard boarding procedure of jumping on even though there’s really no room and the train has already started moving.