Language Progress

(by John)

I have been studying the local Indian language, Kannada, for five months now. Instead of being self-deprecating, I will just say that Kannada is hard to learn. I long for easily understood grammar rules like how to conjugate -re vs -er verbs in French. I’m sure the rules exist in Kannada, I just can’t find them.

So I wing it mostly for verb endings. I have basic rules that I follow like “add an -a to the verb if it’s a question”, “add a -de if it’s past tense”, “add an -ini” if it’s future tense. These aren’t real rules, these are just best guesses to throw something out there. It’s right maybe 40-50% of the time, which is better than not trying to conjugate the verb at all. In addition to no grammar resources, there are no vocabulary resources. Google translate is wrong most of the time and it doesn’t tell you whether the translation is a noun, verb, adverb or adjective. There is another Kannada specific site that gives you tons of possible words to choose from. So I have no resources except my tutor and native speakers. So I ask people- “What is the word for light? as in ‘the box is light, not heavy’?” (as opposed to light vs. dark, etc.)

And trying to understand the rapid fire conversations I overhear is pretty much impossible, though instead of just hearing nonsense, what I now hear is something like-

“blah blah blah he blah blah blah store blah blah blah blah today blah blah blah went blah blah blah it was good and blah blah blah the rain blah blah blah why blah blah so then blah blah blah I said again blah blah blah tomorrow

so that’s progress, but it doesn’t help me much.  I have had a few opportunities to try to speak out of necessity, like when Sarah’s lost luggage was being delivered by a courier that only spoke Kannada.  I got on the phone with him and said that I spoke a little, so please speak slowly and of course he didn’t.  But I was able to ask “Where are you now?” and understand that he was still far away, but I couldn’t give directions because I didn’t know street names, nor words like “housing complex” and “security gate”.    So speaking and understanding a little didn’t help much.

Not many native Bangaloreans seem impressed with my language learning either.  So the whole myth of “speak a few words and people will love your effort!” seems not to be true in my experience.  I’ve struck up conversations with strangers probably only 4-5 times.  Twice I’ve gotten the response back (in English) “Why are you bothering to learn Kannada?  It won’t help you anywhere but Bangalore.  You should learn Hindi.”

However, I spoke to the guy that rakes our lawn the other day- he comes by once or twice a week and he always smiles and waves to me, so I went out and said to him- “Namascara- hegideera?” (“hello- how are you?”) and he stopped raking and said “Kannada???” and I said “Naanu swolpa tingalinda Kannada kaliyutidini” (“I’ve been learning Kannada for a few months”) and he dropped his rake and walked over and shook my hand and said “Kannada! Your Kannada good!”  So that’s enough reward for me to keep plugging along!

The garbage dog’s special treat

(by John)

Yesterday we were driving to the house dedication ceremony our driver Revanna was having at his village about 3 hours outside of Bangalore. We hired a backup driver and minivan to take us to the ceremony and the new driver’s start/stop lurch-y driving getting out of the city was too much for Nolan’s stomach.    We had prepared for this by bringing a sturdy plastic bag in the car with us.  Sarah was sitting beside Nolan and got the bag in front of his face just in time.   I asked the driver to pull over in case Nolan was still sick.  We pulled over just past a busy intersection, enough off the road to safely get out of the van.  We were stopped right beside what looked like a mini-landfill in the ditch beside the road with typical emaciated stray dogs roaming through the garbage looking for food.  I was trying to place my body between Nolan and the dogs in case they were aggressive, but they seemed uninterested in us and went about their scavenging.

When I was sure Nolan was okay and done, I put him back in the van and was left holding the plastic bag of vomit that Nolan had half filled in the van before we stopped.  I was having a serious ethical dilemma– do I just toss the bag on the side of the road with the rest of the garbage? or do I dump it and rinse it with our bottled drinking water and pack it with us?  The driver made it clear to me that he didn’t want the bag back in his car and seemed perplexed as to what the problem of just throwing it on the street was.  I always try not to judge India or Indians in terms of how they treat the complicated issues of garbage and recycling.  I am definitely no cultural imperialist and I try to at least do my part not to contribute to the problem by meticulously recycling and separating garbage by type/kind as requested in our neighborhood.   So I was really torn as to what to do.   Sarah was similarly vexed and we were passing back and forth half sentences over the traffic noise “Should we dump it…”, “We have water to rinse…”, “What if he needs it again…”, “Maybe the driver…”, etc.

My rationalization skills are legendary and they didn’t fail me in the end– I decided to leave the bag because (1) the smell in the car might cause more sickness (2) the driver might be mad at me and (3) it was a sturdy plastic bag and I was convinced that someone would find it, rinse it out and make use of it.   What I didn’t count on was the moment I set it down in the trash one of the stray dogs came happily trotting over to check out the bag.  Sarah and I exchanged a quick glance of “OMG is this really going to happen?!” just as the dog dropped his head in the bag and we drove away.

John’s big content-less post on Thailand (but lots of pictures)

I haven’t posted to this blog in 2 months because I keep thinking “I can’t post anything until I post on our week in Thailand, but that will take too long and require more than one post, so forget it”.   So I figured either the blog would die or I would post about Thailand.  So I decided to post about Thailand.   What has stayed with me most about Thailand was the initial impression I got  taking a taxi from the airport to our hotel downtown, and that was how modern and calm it seemed compared to Bangalore.   I guess it was reverse culture-shock where your brain is used to insane levels of noise and chaos and that becomes your new normal.  So when you expose it to anything less than an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, whatever that is seems calm.

We stayed in Bangkok for 4 nights, then flew to Phuket for 3 nights, then flew from Phuket to Bangalore.

Here are all our pictures with captions.  That’s it.  That’s my post on a week in Thailand.

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Hotel Shangri-La in Bangkok. Pool was nice. Hotel was right on the river.
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Huge Ferris wheel in Bangkok. I (John) actually went on it and embarrassed myself in front of my children by half-freaking out on the verge of a panic attack due to fear of heights. Kids said “Mommy- is Daddy being serious or playing a joke?” God I hate heights!
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Nolan, unlike his Dad, has no fears of anything and loved the Ferris wheel and didn’t want to get off, ever.
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Roller carts that were fun at same place as Ferris wheel.
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Playing in a real Thai boxing ring with the kids.
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Took a river cruise in a private long boat. I didn’t want to wear life jacket but decided to be a role model for the kids who also didn’t want to wear one! HOT!
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View from river cruise.
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Did a night dinner cruise on river. The boats were all lit up like floating Christmas trees on the river.
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Figured out how to take the train around Bangkok. Pretty easy when you have correct change!
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No apologies for indulging in Starbucks wherever we find one. I allow the kids to drink it too, which is probably making them addicts at too young an age…
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Aquarium in Bangkok had a “shark tunnel”, which Nolan still talks about!
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Self explanatory!
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Nolan loved the penguins.
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Reclining Buddha.
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Some palace
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Some statue
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Another statue/palace thing.
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A big statue/palace thing.
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Selfie arriving at Phuket hotel.
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Kids chilling at Phuket hotel bar. I hope that’s not alcohol Emily is drinking…
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Nolan never wanted to leave pool. John loved it because it was almost like a hot tub temperature-wise.
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View from beach back up towards hotel.
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The privacy of the beach was worth the whole trip. Waves were strong though– red flags out most of the trip.
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Hank and Emily at sunset building sand castles.

Navu means “we”, you idiot!

(by John)

I have been trying to learn the local language, Kannada, for the past 5 weeks, mostly from my driver but also using a text book and watching TV.  I’ve picked up the occasional word or phrase and can say things like “My name is John”, “My wife’s name is Sarah”, “Can I have the bill please?” and “That car is red”.  Today I began a language tutoring program of 1-1/2 hours each morning with a Skype tutor, 5 days a week, for 14 weeks!

Sarah’s company contracted Berlitz to do the tutoring– it was available for the entire family, but no one else has the time nor interest to take advantage of the program but I promised myself that I would learn Kannada before we moved here, so I signed up for the program.

I have always felt like a foreign language failure- from taking 4 years of high school French and one semester in college and not being able to order a coffee in Paris, to living in Germany for 2 years and only picking up “survival German” and never being able to have anything but the simplest conversation in German.  I vowed this time would be different.  I’m getting too old to fail, I have only so many years left before there’s no point in even trying.  I refuse to die monolingual!

I know my weakness in foreign languages and it is not that I don’t have an “ear” for them or my memory isn’t good enough, it is that I don’t like looking stupid.  That’s it.  In Germany I was a perfectionist and I wouldn’t utter a sentence unless I knew, in advance, that it was exactly correct.  And if it wasn’t, and I was corrected, I was embarrassed.  I had an Italian friend who started learning German at the same time I did, and he was the opposite.  He boldly spit out wrong words, wrong tenses, wrong gendered adjectives and would laugh at himself along the way.  He succeeded wildly while I failed.  I envied him and I promised myself I would be willing to look stupid in India and babble and just try my best without regard for my ego.

So that’s my goal.  To look stupid and fail and be corrected but to keep at it.  I succeeded at the looking stupid and failing part today during my tutoring session.

The highlight (lowlight?) was making my tutor break her “immersion promise” where she wouldn’t use any English and we would only use Kannada.  I got her to break it within the first 10 minutes!  She said “Nanu” and pointed to herself, I knew that meant “I”, so we were off to a good start.  Then she said “Neevu” and pointed to me, which I knew meant “you”.  So then she pointed to herself, then to me, then clasped her hands together and said “Navu”.   And asked (in Kannada) if I understood.  I just stared at her.  Deer in the headlights would be an appropriate idiom.  Then again- with gesturing– “Nanu”, “Neevu”, and the hand clasping “Navu”, do I understand?

Because I could see my video image on Skype, I could actually see the non-comprehension on my face.  I looked like I was about to start drooling.  Just a blank stare.  Seeing my blank face made my anxiety increase and I started scratching under my armpits like I was a flustered monkey.  Nanu-Neevu-Navu, Nanu-Neevu-Navu.  Do I understand?   Nanu-Neevu-Navu, Nanu-Neevu-Navu.  Do I understand?  My mind was panicked, illogical and racing– “Is she asking me if I’m married? does she want to hold hands? I, you, what?  I, you, what?  what the hell does Navu mean??”, she eventually relented and said “We– Navu means we”.  She didn’t say it, but there was a definite “You idiot!” at the end of her sentence– implied but unspoken.

Ordering pizza

(By Sarah)

As a “treat” for the kids last weekend, we decided to order pizza from Pizza Hut for dinner. First step -figure out the menu…we searched online and went through all the veg and non-veg choices and finally found a cheese (margherita) and pepperoni pizza.  There were two different numbers for our section of Bangalore, so I dialed the first one…

person 1 – “Hello, Pizza Hut.  Is this for pick up or home delivery?”

me : “home delivery.”

person 1 – “What city?”

me (thinking I’d already called the Bangalore number) “Whitefield”

person 1 – “In Bangalore?”

me “Yes”.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting

person 1 – “Which location are you closest to?”

me “.Ummmm..”

person1 – “Whitefield or ITPL?”

Me “I don’t know.  I can tell you my address….”

person 1 – “Please let me transfer your call”

person 2 – “….Hello, Pizza Hut.  Is this for pick up or home delivery”

Back to square one. I proceed to tell them that I want home delivery (again). Then we go through the city question (again) and I know now to say Bangalore first. And back to the location.  Is ask them to tell ME which location is closer based on my address, because I don’t know.

person 2 – “Please let me transfer your call”

Me – “NO!  Wait!!”  too late

Person 3: “Hello, Pizza Hut.  is this for pick up or home delivery?”

me – “I’ve already talked to 2 other people.  This is for home delivery.”

Person 3 – “What city?”

me (smarter this time) – I tell them Bangalore and that I’ve already talked to 2 other people.  I explain that I just moved, I don’t know which location is closer, I just want to order pizza.  We go through a long conversation about where the nearby mall is, how far in km it is from us…and then I get the dreaded “Please let me transfer your call.”  Enter person 4.  We go through the first few questions and this time  I decide to just pick one of the locations.  I am very firm, saying it’s Whitefield location, no doubt in my voice.

person 4 – “What is the nearest landmark?”

me  (thinking, isn’t this the part where i just give my address?) “…Ummm, can i just give you my address?”

person 4 – “…”

i proceed to give them my address.  i then am asked again for the landmark.  i say “Um, there’s a nature’s basket (small grocery store) across the street?”

person 4 – “Please let me transfer your call”

me – “NOOOOoooooooo!!!!!”

person 5 – “Hello, Pizza Hut.  is this for pick up or home delivery?”

We go through the same questions and this time someone knows the place we live!!  I get to the ordering part and am so happy to be able to ask for a cheese and pepperoni pizza. total time: 25 minutes for ordering and 15 for delivery 🙂

That pizza never tasted so good.

Can you hear me now?

Before I write about the insanity known as “Trying to purchase Airtel mobile phone service in India”, I need to make the point that this experience was not representative of most of my other interactions with Indian vendors or institutions.  I had read and heard about how hard it is to get internet, electricity, TV, etc. hooked up and turned on here, but was surprised with the ease and efficiency that most of it happened.  And I have seen Indian examples of entrepreneurship and on-the-spot problem solving that would make Ayn Rand proud.

Example- buying school uniforms for the kids at the designated shop in Bangalore two weeks ago, Hank’s pants were a bit too long, so we figured we’d just deal with it.  But the owner of the shop took the pants, waved someone over, handed them the pants and said something in the local language (Kannada) and that person made a call on his mobile phone.  Less than 5 minutes later another man rode up to the shop on his motorcycle, ran in with his helmet still on, grabbed the pants and rode away.   Less than 10 minutes after that, as we were checking out, the motorcycle man rode back with the pants.  He had taken them to a local tailor and had them perfectly hemmed.  The uniform shop owner charged us nothing and acted like it was par for the course, which I’m sure it was.  He was a man that got things done.  If it were up to me, I’d put that man in charge of Airtel.

On to the phones– purchasing the actual phones was trivially easy.  I went and picked out 3 Samsung phones at a store at the local mall. One for me, one for Hank, and one for Emily.  Not the Galaxy Note phones they wanted, but lower end, but still nice phones.  The kids didn’t have phones in the U.S. but I wanted them to be able to contact me at any time over here.  Anyhow, picked out the phones, paid for them, brought them home.  Easy.  Activating them the next day?  Not so easy.

First of all I had to choose a service provider.  Airtel, by reputation, seemed to be the least worst.  So I went with our driver Revanna (who not only drives me in the crazy traffic, but is my interpreter and guide– he too is a man that gets things done) to the nearest Airtel shop a couple miles from our house.  Inside the shop was, to my eyes, pure chaos.  Three Airtel reps sat behind desks and 8-10 customers either stood or sat in chairs in front of the desks– there was no “line/queue” and I had no idea what was going on or what to do.  Revanna grabbed an unused chair and told me to sit in front of one of the desks and he interrupted an Airtel rep talking to another customer and started speaking fast (in Kannada) and pointing to me.  The interruption would have been rude in the U.S., but it seemed normal here- if you don’t speak up, you get ignored.

Eventually I was presented with a bunch of pamphlets and Revanna gave a female rep in front of me all my paperwork (6 passport photos, 3 copies of my Indian visa, 3 copies of my passport, 3 copies of my FRRO (more official Indian paperwork), and a copy of my house lease)  The pamphlet was indecipherable, even though it was in English, with many different calling plans listed. I tried to make sense of the plans and convert from rupees to dollars for each one.  Eventually I settled on the “Family Plan”, but it made no sense that it was $25 per month for all three phones (total due to Airtel each month=$25).  It would be 5-7x that in the U.S., so I assumed I misinterpreted it, but the price was correct.  After I selected the plan I was told I now had 90 “packs” to spend (?) and I asked what a “pack” was?  It turned out, a pack could be 200 text messages, or 30 minutes local calls, or 120MB of 3G data, etc.  So I had to pick out how many packs I wanted of each.  And I had to do it in my head on the spot.  So I did my best math estimations for how many text messages kids might send per month, plus 3G, etc. and just guessed.

The rep took my applications (one per phone) and stapled my picture, passport copy, visa copy, and FRRO copy to each one.  I figured if someone wanted to steal my identity, they had more than enough info right there with each application.  The Airtel rep gave me three SIM cards and told me to put them in the phones and they would be active in 24 hours, so I thought I was done.

One day passed, two days, three days, and phones still didn’t work.  Revanna called Airtel for me no less than eight times and each time it was “just 12 more hours sir”.  Finally we went back in and saw the same rep.  I saw my photo stapled to the application on her desk- excactly where she put it 3 days ago!  Nothing had been done.  So we got the “12 more hours” once again.  Two days after that Revanna told me to give him the SIM cards out of the phones, so I did.  Apparently he went in and put them on the reps desk and demanded my deposit back and said we were going elsewhere.  This finally started the wheels in motion.  That afternoon, a man on a motorcycle came to my house and told me he was from Airtel and he was there to verify my address in person.  He didn’t even ask for ID, just asked “Are you Mr. John?” and when I said yes, he left.

12 hour later my SIM card was working, but I still couldn’t make calls.  I had to call Airtel and verify I was who I said I was.  So I called them.  They asked my name and I said “John Moran”.  They said “Please call back in 2 days sir” and hung up.  I called again and got another rep and explained the last one just hung up on me.  They asked me my name as I had entered it on the official Airtel application.  I said “John Frank Moran” and they said “Good. Now what is your father’s name?” and I said “What?” and they said “What is your father’s name?” and I said “Almost the same – John Francis Moran” and the same thing happened “Please call back in 2 days sir” and they hung up.  So I gave up for the day.

That night I recalled reading a blog post by a fellow expat and I recalled him saying how he had to tell Airtel the EXACT wording off his FRRO government form or there would be issues. Inspired, I found my government paperwork the next day and called again.  This time I read off the same script they were reading from and I got all the way to “email” address after getting past name, father’s name, and 5 long lines of my Indian home address, and without thinking I gave them my email and I looked down at the FRRO and I saw it was Sarah’s email on the document, and in slow motion terror I said “Noooo!! That’s not the email, this is..” and I heard “in 2 days” before the line went dead.   Again inspired by my close call to actually having phone service, I called back, and this time made it through the gauntlet of questions and got my phone turned on!

I could type for 2 more pages describing how I had to go through the exact same process for each additional phone, including the same man on the motorcycle coming to my house two more times to make sure I was still “Mr. John”, but you get the picture!

I told the kids if they ever lose their phone I am not going through that again, so they better take care of them!

Lions, Tigers, and Bears (and Butterflies)

Today we took a family outing to Bannerghatta National Park, about an hour and a half from our house.  We booked a private safari with guide to drive us through the park in something similar to a minivan.  Nolan loved it because we didn’t have to wear seat belts and the guide/driver would go fast around corners to make Nolan scream- which made Sarah and I a bit nervous as there was nothing to prevent the van from rolling down an embankment.  I had visions of crocodiles and tigers rushing to the crash site to see what was for lunch.

We saw some elephants cooling off in the water– this is a picture of some worker throwing rocks at the water behind the elephants to get them to go out further, not sure why-2015-01-24 01.45.13

Next were some Indian Sloth Bears, which I had never seen before.  They were just walking up and down the road, which varied between broken pavement and dirt/rocks.

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Next we saw some lions who mostly just laid around.   There was no fence or barrier between the van and the lions, which the kids loved.

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Then we saw some white tigers, this one staying cool in the water-

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The scariest part of the safari was the tigers roaming the dirt roads, coming right up to the vehicle.  I had some genuine adrenaline rushes because they seemed aggressive and not happy with our presence on their turf.  I was convinced they might lunge at the van any moment.  Googling the park and tiger aggression after we got home we read that in 1992 one of these tigers in this park killed a 5 year old girl who had stepped out onto the running boards of the vehicle on the same safari, so maybe my fears weren’t entirely unfounded.  Below is a picture of the aggressive one following us down the road.

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After the safari we went into the zoo at the park entrance and walked around, but it was a bit of a letdown after the tigers. 2015-01-24 03.15.23 2015-01-24 00.59.03

(under protest I am posting some pictures of the Butterfly exhibit at Sarah’s request)

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The most interesting thing about the butterflies was the walk to their enclosure– you had to walk a gauntlet of monkeys harassing the zoo goers.  They were macaques of some sort.   An Indian man warned Emily not to walk by carrying her orange juice because the monkeys were aggressive and would go after any food or drink.  I had a plastic bottle of Pepsi that I shoved in my pants pocket and got by them on the way in.  On the way out, we were warily walking through them when one of them jumped at me going for my Pepsi!  I had Nolan on my shoulders and Hank was holding my shirt from behind using me as a human shield.  I jumped back and then hissed at it like a cat, which did nothing to scare him, and then Sarah clapped and yelled, which spooked him enough for us to hurry by, and I was hurrying!  I had read about all the nasty complications that can result from a monkey bite and I didn’t want any part of that.  Emily said “Daddy you almost got us bit for a stupid Pepsi!”, which was true.

All in all it was an exciting outing.  It wasn’t true wilderness, but it was wild enough.  On a scale of 1 to 10 of wild animal encounters that I have experienced in my life, with 1 being a zoo, 3 being Disney’s Animal Kingdom safari and 10 being tent camping in Kenya, I would rate this trip’s wildness a 5 or 6.