Thursday, December 23, 2010

Vestigial Security

When you come to India,  you immediately notice is all he security.  You are first welcomed at the airport by an Army Soldier with assault rifle.  To enter our gated and barb-wired walled community,  you must pass a check point with no less than 6 security guards who pop the trunk and look beneath the engine.   When you go to the Office or Mall,  same routine.  The hotels even have the fancy vertical bars, big enough  which to stop a tank,  which disappear into the ground to let you proceed once you pass security.     Any place worthwhile is surrounded by barb wire walls or at least broken glass embedded on the top.  So, why all the security ? 

Security likes cameras about as much as Sean Penn.  Here is a rare photo in their natural habitat.  Nolan nicknamed the guy in blue 'The General".
While the US had 9/11,  India had 26/11.  This is the November 26th ‘invasion’ of Mumbai where a group of terrorists based in Pakistan shot up key Western parts of the city, killed 175 people and injured another 300+.  Of course,  we knew about this before coming.  But no one mentioned that Bangalore has also had it’s fair share of bombings.  Last Spring,  a terrorist who was upset with the local police,  set off 8 bombs at bus stops across the city within the span of 45 minutes.  Luckily no one as hurt because he wanted to avoid rush hour traffic and nobody was at the stops when they went off.  He hit the local cricket stadium a couple months later as a follow up before being caught.  A few other organized terror groups exist,  but not much action in Bangalore. 
As an aside,  be thankful of US police.  They are alomst all honest, community minded,  trustworthy and helpful (if you’re older than 25).  Here the police play both Cop and a Mobster.  Not much law enforcement happens without a little something for the police.  Bribes are expected.   There is even a website called to anonymously report and record bribes.  The police top the charts. 
So you can understand the need for security,  particularly private paid security.    But we eventually realized these guards are just for show.  What looks impressive is in reality much different.  
A friend,  after passing his office security checkpoint,  joked with the security guard that the bomb was really in his back pack.  Everyone had a laugh.  Try that one with Homeland Security next time you fly.  
When we first hired our maid,  she didn’t get her security gate pass until weeks afterward.  We told her to just walk through security,  keep her head down and don’t make eye contact.  No problem.  It worked everyday for 2 weeks.  Did they use Hogan’s Heroes as a training film ? 
Metal detectors are common at the mall, hospital and health club.  I set off the metal detector every time.  The only guy who moves is the one who turns off the annoying alarm.  I don’t even slow down anymore.   It would be cheaper to buy a door frame and paint it black.  
We don’t worry.   Statistically speaking,  we are much more likely to be hurt by the crazy traffic than by a crazy terrorist.   

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Kids are All Right

So I've written some about myself,  but people seem much more interested in the kids.  So here's the low down.  
The new school is tough.  The International School, Bangalore (TISB) is a British school and most Americans find their approach heavy-handed and disciplinarian.  Becky and I both went to Catholic school, so no problem.  As a result, the other students are either European or Americans of Indian Origin.  When the blond Schmitt kids arrived, everyone asked them where in Germany they lived -- usually in German.  It's still a little confusing to their peers (and some teachers).  On 'heritage day' most kids wore Sarees, Khaftans,  Leiderhosen, or other 'costumes' to reflect their nationality.  Our kids wore Jeans and T-Shirts.
The school bus, a first for these Grosse Pointe kids,  picks up at the end of the street each day at 7:30am.  Since they were the last kids to sign up for the bus route,  they were assigned the last seats on the bus.  The rear-most seats combined with the numerous speed bumps (they work better than stop signs to slow traffic) and a lead foot bus driver make for a vertebrae compacting ride.  They can regularly get 1-2 feet of air off the seats,  if traffic allows.  
Will is in 9th grade and besides cutting his hair and pulling up his pants,  has made quite an adjustment.  Its been a different house, country, school, friends and curriculum (IGSCE) combined with school on Saturday.  The Brits don't hold back.  The course load is heavy.  He has Biology,  Physics, Advanced Algebra and Chemistry for starters.  Of course the Indian culture is not happy unless there is a minimum of 2 hours homework each day.  He sleeps on Sundays to recover.  We're quite proud of him. 
Will is getting Tall. 
Will has made the easiest adjustment to the spicy food. (even when we tell our cook Soudha to make it for a baby's mouth).  Will can't get enough spice.  Nolan and Emma'a mouths will be in flames and Will says,  "a little plain".  
Will has also made it out on the town several times with his friends after school Saturdays.  Movies, go-carting, the mall etc...  As a Parent it's a little unnerving to send him off with his friends into a foreign city and the only adults present are the drivers.
Emma has already made many friends (and some drama) in the neighborhood and at school.  Typical stuff -- riding bikes in the neighborhood, board games and movies at her friends' house.  She loves to be the center of attention and being a blond American girl in India,  she gets all the attention she wants. Emma will actually stay after school to pal around with her friends who board at the school.  She actually finds India “as boring as back home” and want to be a boarder at the school.  She expected more excitement and less gated community suburbia. 

Nolan and Emma share a cold one with Javeed. 
Her fashion sense has been a little repressed since she started wearing uniforms.  She has taken up the guitar and we hope to have her play a Christmas carol.  (Christmas music is a little hard to come by.)
Nolan also does very well in school,  but finds it a little boring.  He's much more focussed on extracurriculars and schoolwork is just something to pass the time.  For example,  he led the class in  a game of "lets see who can slide farthest across this mud puddle".  Not sure if he won, but was Top 3 based on his clothes alone.  He plays goalie and half back on the school soccer team.  

Overall they are well adjusted,  miss their friends and Taco Bell.   On a recent school day off,  we made the trek across town to eat at the only Taco Bell in Bangalore.  They hardly even liked Taco Bell in the US.  It's funny what you miss.
I thought I discovered another Taco Bell in Bangalore,
but it was only a mobile phone store. 

Monday, November 15, 2010


Diwali is a celebration of knowledge (light) conquering ignorance (darkness). It is the loudest holiday I have ever seen. It has elements of Christmas: a week-long holiday with big gift giving, holiday bonuses, and plenty of holiday lights. Diwali takes it to the next level and throws in 4th of July fireworks. We're not talking well regulated community funded professional displays. It's everyman for himself. Indians purchased 920 million 'crackers' this year in the week preceding Diwali. A cracker is anything from a bottle rocket to a full blown 500-ft. mortar. The sky is truly the limit. The 'cracker houses' that sell them are still doing a brisk business a week a later.

Unlike the USA, you are more than welcome to hurt, maim or kill yourself in India. Drugs need no prescription. (And they are MUCH cheaper here). You can legally load a family of 4 onto a motorcycle so long as someone has a helmet. You can have any seat on a public bus, including atop the roof or hanging off the side. Having come form a Petrochemical company that is ultra-safety conscious, I cringe just thinking about the safety level of those 'crackers'. Needless to say, we've not purchased any.

That's not a backpack between the driver and his wife, it's his son.

With the locals armed with 920 Million rounds of explosives, we were advised by friends down the street that we should leave town for a couple days if we expected to get any sleep. They were right. Think "Shock & Awe", Baghdad 2002. It's actually quite spectacular for the first hour or so. After that, it's just hard to hear the TV.

We left town and headed to Mysore, a tourist town nearby. I'm not sure we escaped any fireworks, but were able to take in the attractions. Some pictures are attached for your viewing pleasure. It's all fairly standard historical stuff - except you need to pay a guy a couple rupees to watch your shoes while you get to walk around in your bare feet.
The Official Family Photo under a Banyon Tree.
40 acres under a single tree.
Just before the picture:
A behind the scenes shot of Will getting an earful from his Mom. 

St. Philomena Basilica in Mysore, India.

Loading up the School bus at St.Philomena's.

We counted 11 kids.  Imagine how many can fit into a VW Bug.  

Note the Trash Inspector on top of the garbage can.
Monkeys are Raccoons with attitude. 
Mysore's Palace.

Bulls get to park wherever they wish.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bounty from the Sea

Imagine Christmas and winning the lottery all on the same dayThis is how we felt when our ocean shipment arrived after 3 months in transitIt was just a few bikes, mattresses, food and various sporting equipment.   No big deal ? Big deal.
After:  A real bed.
 (I had no input on the bedspread.)
Before:Sleeping on dirigibles.

When you've been sleeping on a either a futon or an air mattress for two months,  a genuine honest to goodness american pillow top mattress is heaven.   As if we moved out of a cave and into the Four Seasons.  No more camping,  we're home now.  The fluffy american mattresses did prove a challenge for the Indian stairwell and movers.    So,  in true Indian fashion, the problem was solved with sheer manpower.   The upstairs bedrooms have exterior balconies.  With three guys on the bottom and two at the top,  the mattresses were hoisted over the railing and flipped onto the beds.

Mattress Toss.

The arrival of the sporting goods means outside fun.  We finally made good use of our dead end street.   Our first big street action was a cricket match and it happened on the 8th day of Dasara.  As everyone knows,  the 8th day of Dasara means car pooja.   Pooja, a Hindu prayer offering,  is made to receive the blessings of a particular Hindu god.

Smashing Pumpkins. India style.

Due the importance of the car, even our Muslim driver,  Javeed,  thought it necessary to 'make car pooja'.  He brought along his two sons that day,  both on the back of his motorcycle.   Sahil and Nadeem joined Will,  Nolan and I in a game of street cricket while Javeed meticulously cleaned and decorated the car.   We stopped when Javeed smashed a pumpkin on the driveway in front of the car.  And then a coconut (after a few tries).  The finale was the squishing of lemons under each tire by running them over.  David Letterman would have been proud.  We all posed for pictures afterwards.  
Becky and I.
Nadeem, Javeed & Will.
Left to Right: Sahil, Nadeem,
Will, Emma & Nolan

While several care packages took the edge off our cravings, the American food brought joy to all.  Nolan was most excited to get NutellaHe puts in on on Chapati, Vegetables,  Bananas and others things where it actually tastes goodHe may stop eating altogether when we run outSame goes for Will, but his choice condiment is Peanut Butter.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Small Chipmunk.  Big noise.
The flora and fauna here in India are a bit different than North America.   There are certainly more similarities than differences,  but the differences are significant.  The birds look to be standard issue,  Ravens,  Pigeons, and Sparrows;  but they seem to be outfitted with an internal loudspeaker.  It's hard to sleep past dawn even with the windows shut.   Actually the birds are only partially responsible for the din at dawn.  The chipmunks here have a piercing chirp (something like a Blue Jay),  but they chirp incessantly for a few minutes at a time.  

Wild monkeys take take the most getting used to.  They come in all sizes from 3 foot adults on down.   The monkeys are a littler harder to spot than the rest of the wild mammals because the monkeys tend to hang out in the trees and move quickly when there is food to be had.  The kids school,  The International School of Bangalore,  is out in country and surrounded by trees.  The scaffolding on the addition under construction makes a great jungle gym.  They move from the trees to the scaffolding and into the classrooms with ease.  

Real Monkeys are hard to photograph with a slow camera.
The best I can do is this guy in the green shirt.

It is common for the monkey to come into the classroom looking for a snack.  So common,  sometimes the teachers don't even stop class.  The kids had to tell me this about 3 times before I believed.  Cheetos are a favorite.  Fortunately,  these are typically the small monkeys.  The big adults don't come into school unless the classroom is empty.

The big monkeys hang out at the "Tuck Shop".  This is the on-campus snack shop the kids go to after school for chips and candy.  The adults will hang out here looking for scraps.  One of Will's friends,  who is a little too afraid of the monkeys, ran when surprised and lost both his chips and wallet.   He got the wallet back after the Monkey couldn't eat it.             

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Saturday,  the family did the first official sightseeing tour.  Our initial plans to travel to Mysore, a historic city nearby, were cancelled by a Supreme Court judgement that shut down the country for 2 days due to fears of unrest.  We just go with the flow,  but evidently "fears of unrest" just occur from time to time.  Since the fear was over,  we thought we should check out the local Bangalore sights.  

We went to Lalbagh Botanical Garden;  Bangalore's version of Central Park.  It was our first time fully exposed to the general public as a family and we attracted a lot of attention.  Within 10-minutes of our arrival,  we were asked to pose for pictures with people.   Becky and I are used to people staring when we go out,  but less so for the kids.   Becky's blond hair brings them in,  but it's the blond kids with blue eyes that really amazes people.  All the pictures and swarming people freaked out the kids,  so we had to keep on the move and get to a less populated place in the park.  

Yes, the guy on the left is standing, 
Not sure what happens to all these pictures,  but I haven't been tagged on Facebook yet.  I suppose these Indians are taking home pictures of me to show their friends,  "Look at this pasty foreigner we found at the park.  There was a whole family of them.  So cute."     

We found a shady area within the park and got out the drinks and chips.  After a few Pringles, we busted out the frisbee (courtesy of Pi R Squared, a group of elitist Washington DC Flying Disc Club enthusiasts).  We could not have attracted more attention if we were handling out cash.  The park actually seemed to get quiet.   The crowd started to return.  

Indians in general a very friendly and their kids are not shy.  "Can I throw flying saucer ?"  First time throwers are not accurate and after a few diving catches to save a baby and woman with a cane,  it was time to pack up the gear and head home.    

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dude Looks like a Lady

Homosexuals are not openly accepted in Indian society.  Ironically, the cross dressing variety are some of the better paid members of society.   They work the traffic lights,  just like the beggars do, moving from vehicle to vehicle.   Unlike the beggars,  everyone gives them money. 

I was amazed when I first saw this.  I thought they were women dressed in Saris,  until I saw a 5 o'clock shadow and Adam's apple.  I've never seen anyone give money to a beggar,  but everyone gave to the gays.  Even our driver had a few rupees ready.  When asked why,  he explained if people don't give,  the gays will 'make trouble'.  Trouble means kissing a man or lifting up their Sari and dancing.  They can make 1500 rupees a day -- about 3 times that of our highly skilled english speaking and writing driver.  I'm told they can make even more in the red-light district.  Then I stopped asking questions. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Staff

Americans pride themselves on getting the job done.    We have a can-do attitude and getting your hands dirty is a good thing.   Hired help is a foreign concept, but common here.  We are adjusting to this new concept.   We hired a Driver, Maid,  Gardener and Cook.  I assure you they are all very much needed.

Indian Traffic
A driver is a safety necessity.  After weeks of observation,  I'm just now starting to see some order to the madness of India's streets.   The larger the vehicle,  the greater the right of way.   In reality, driving is the least of Javeed's skills.  He is also our translator, advocate, advisor, teacher, fixer, shopper and chief of staff.    

The dust of India keeps Sudha,  our maid, busy 6 hours each day just keeping things tidy.  When we arrived,  the house hadn't been cleaned for 3-weeks and our feet were stained black just from the dust on the floor.  Sudha also has many talents.  I never knew underwear could be folded and pressed.  It's amazing how many T-Shirts can fit into a single drawer when they're ironed. 
Indian Lawn Mower Blade

Manpower is plentiful.  It's part what makes India great,  but also what holds it back.   There's no need for labor saving devices.  Our lawn service cuts grass by hand with a small blade.  A lawn crew is half a dozen people squatting on your front lawn pulling weeks and cutting grass for the afternoon.  When Tata came to install our satellite TV,  I expected a panel van,  but it was two guys on a motorcycle.  One drove while the other held the satellite dish and drill.  

Indian Lawn Mowers

Having a Cook is also a must.  I personally tried my hand at it for the first couple weeks,  but when family morale dropped dangerously low,  something had to be done.  My American cooking skills we no match for Indian ingredients.   Everything here is done from scratch.  The only processed food is imported and expensive.   For example,  I can make Spaghetti and Meatballs,  but the sauce comes from a jar and the meatballs come from frozen foods.  Indians just don't eat processed food.  Their cooks to do all the processing.

While imported foods (Tomato Sauce, Bacon, Cheddar Cheese, Cereal and Pop Tarts) are expensive,  other foods are ridiculously cheap.  Tomatoes are 4 cents a piece.  Eggs are 12 cents.   However,  everything is somewhat smaller than what I am used to seeing.  I was a little shocked when I asked what a particular fruit was called and then told it was a Watermelon.  It was  the size of a basketball -- and it had seeds too.  So do grapes and cucumbers.  The kids are repulsed.  "Daaaad,  there's something hard in this grape."     

In the spirit of full disclosure,  we're actually having a mini-Master Chef India contest.  We found two cooks we liked,  Sarithe and Sudha.    Sarithe cooked last week and Sudha is cooking this week.   Winner to be decided Saturday.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ebony Bistro: A One Time Tradition

Tradition and routine help give order to our lives.   Traditions give us something to look forward to.  Most importantly for us,  it brings a little order the choas of uprooting our life to live on the other side of the planet.  So we decided to continue a weekly tradition from Grosse Pointe.   Church and food.  After services,  we'd usually hit a Coney island or sometimes Farms Market Pizza,  but the emphassis was always on a fun meal together.  

Of course, nothing is more traditional that a Catholic mass.  The Holy Roman Church invented the franchise concept.   There is nothing more consistent the world over than a Catholic Mass.  It's more consistent than a McDonald's hamburger (which McD's does not sell in India).  From the first Alleluiah to the last Amen,  the script is the same.    

Our first church services in India were what we expected,  but still surprising.   The church was a basically a metal roofed Quonset hut with large entrances on all sides for good ventilation.  When it rained on the metal roof,  you could hardly hear the person next to you and forget about hearing the priest.   Like McD's Japanese teriaki burger, every good franchise has some necessary adaption of local culture.   Here, Mary wears a Sari.   There is no handshake of peace,  they have a "Namaste" of peace (head bow with hands together at the chest).  Jesus is still white.        

It's off to dinner.   The speedy 5:30 pm services let out at 6pm  -- the lack of a fancy organ has some advantages.   Emma wanted Thai and had a 7pm reservations at he nearest Thai place.  It was at the country club of a neighboring gated community.   Within the club house,  the famous Ebony Bistro opened a satellite location which is much more convenient than the hour drive to the original in downtown B'lore.

Now, Indian dinner is typically served around 8pm and even later on weekends.  We knew 6pm was early and were not surprised when we were the only customers.   There was some confusion with the bartender and waiter at first,  but this was all in Kanada (the local tongue) and I figured it was due to our early arrival.  We were quickly seated at a nice large table with a white tablecloth and a significant wobble.  Things just didn't seem right.  The lighting and decor looked more like a lobby or classroom.   Something was odd, but was it real or just India? 

After ordering a round of drinks,  things went from suspicious to strange.  The waiter handed us 3 menus and left.  Why are they only giving us 3 menus when there are 5 of us ? Is he coming back with some Kids' menus ? And while similar,  none of the menus were the same.   One was stapled,  one bound with string and the last looked like a term paper jacket.  The menus had common pages, but only one menu had appetizers,  one had a Italian page and a wine list,  the other menu had several Indian dishes the others didn't. 

The bartender served the drinks along with an explanation.  The Ebony Bistro closed several months ago,  but they were still glad to serve us.   The guy who took the reservation, the one at the front desk who gave us directions and the host who seated us all forgot to mention this fact.  We were assured many times we could have anything on or off the menu we wanted -- including steak, meat loaf and lasagna.   (These, along with Pop-Tarts are the stereotypical Western dishes.)  So, the restaurant closed 3 months ago and you can still make us anything we want at a moment's notice ? 

Since we were already dealt drinks,  we decided to play out the hand and eat.   We ordered a spring roll and chicken satay to start,  which both came relatively quickly.  The entrees took some time,  but we've learned to be patient. Although we had the sole attention of the entire kitchen staff,  the sense of urgency to get things done is less than in the US.  This is normal.

The food was better than average and the bill was reasonable.   We assumed the food came from the country club's kitchen.   

We ordered Chinese take-out the following Friday.  The spring roll looked and tasted familiar.  Too familiar.  I wouldn't put it past them if the kitchen was a collection of take out menus and the busboy doubled as the pick up man.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ride of the Fogger

Each evening in the upstanding community of Palm Meadows, the Mosquito Fogger rides.  His highly specialized skill is to ride a bike down the streets at dusk wearing a mask.  I've not seen anything like it.  

The fog machine rides on top his rear fender throwing a deadly tail of smog.  As soon as he starts the machine, he rides like he's being chased.  Weaving in and out of traffic,  it's fun to watch.  Like a stunt plane at an airshow.  Until we realized India may not be so hip on carcinogens. Could they be using DDT? At that point we ran and shut the doors.       

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Bizarre Bazaar

Entrance to the Bazaar

On our Bangalore arrival,  we moved directly from the airport to our new house.     We found our supposedly furnished house was indeed a house,  but not furnished.   No pots,  pans silverware, bedding,  etc...  After a few days of indoor camping and wrangling with the realtor,   they agreed to provide us with some rental gear until our shipments come.
We arrived at the rental place,  a market bazaar in the Islamic section of Bangalore.  When you think of a 3rd world city street,  this is it.  The street is jammed with people and vendor stalls while motorcycles and 3-wheeled auto taxies zoomed through the crowd.  The smell is a mixture of nutmeg, cigarette smoke, diesel  exhaust with the occasional waft of sewage.   
It is not a place for women and children.  Javeed,  our trusty driver,  and I went to get the furnishings and left Becky and the kids safely in the car.  After a little searching,  we found the right guy,  but he had no idea what we were talking about.  After a few phone calls and some tea,  we straightened things out.  This whole process,  including the initial confusion,  is standard operating procedure for India.  We were then escorted down the street and told to pick out the wares we wanted.

Meanwhile,  Becky and the kids were safe back at the car.   Nearby,  a wild dog and a raven got into a tug of war over slimy piece of roadkill.    We know it was slimy because the bird won and while taking off with it's prize,  the roadkill slapped into the side window of the car and smeared slime across the window and roof.

So far, the kids have had no nightmares about flying roadkill, yet.

What's a sub-continent anyway ?

My wife, Becky, recently took a new assignment with Accenture. We always wanted to live overseas and with our son Will ready to start High School, it was the last opportunity. So, we loaded up the truck and moved to Bangalore. India, that is.  The sub-continent.  Home of silk, spice, shampoo and pajamas. 

With Becky hard at work, I am left to set up shop and then look for work, adventure or what finds me first. Once the help is hired (driver, maid, cook), the kids adjusted to their new school, I will be on my way... 

To avoid mindless Facebook updates, the story of the India Schmitts will be chronicled here.