Category Archives: Travel & Experiences
Conversations with co-travellers
A journey from Delhi to Jakarta. What’s so special about that? Two flights, some time to kill at Changi. Ho hum….
I’m not one to think like this before a journey starts. I’m always super excited about travel but some journeys are made special by the people you meet and the conversations you have. This one certainly was. Trying to sum them the best I can….
Conversation #1 : book buying advice from a stranger
When someone stands next to you at WH Smith and proclaims that a particular title is ‘the best book in the world’, it’s hard not to pull his leg right? “The best book in the world?” I challenge him. “For now…” says he, with a twinkle in his eye. He is recommending to me Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis and I’m skeptical as hell. It sounds very pseudo self-improvement to me, a genre I detest but he protests vehemently, saying it’s just the opposite. At this point we are joined by a 50-something Indian woman who announces her absolute dismay that the book section of the store has been slashed by half. “Change your name!” she cries, waving her hands about at the shop attendants, who launch into a long babble by way of explanations. As I bill and leave, I hear hip Aunty offer free book advice to the free book advice giver!
Conversation #2 : dreams never die
Looking for a place to drink my coffee, I end up sharing a table with X. I have no intention of chatting but his gentle face and curious smile draws me in and I venture to ask about where he is from and where he is going. Over the next half hour, I hear a story of innovation, ambition, pride and disappointment that moves me. X is from Sydney, Australia. After winning a food innovation award for odourless garlic in 1990, he embarks on a journey of entrepreneurship, manufacturing and selling cosmetic and food products made from garlic, which he believes has medicinal properties especially in regulating respiratory conditions like asthma among other diseases. From what I gather, the business environment changed and one way or the other he ended up losing his business. Now, in the end years of his working life, he is trying to revive his business and traveling to explore partnerships in manufacturing technology, marketing and distribution. He is thinking of new markets and is fascinated to hear about the popularity of Ayurvedic and natural cosmetics and food in india. X is well read and reasonably well travelled but old world, still hoping to sell his ideas basis a spiral bound documentation of his past success.
We talk about brain drain and economic policy, jobs and aspirations, the world order. I’m struck by his optimism and how his eyes light up when I ask if he has a sample of his product! He pulls out a small box of cream and I rub some on my arm. It’s anti ageing and full of garlic, all natural and aromatic too. He glows with pride as he sees how pleasantly surprised I am. “You gotta have a dream” he says “to do something for your country”. Clearly it’s not profit but something larger that drives him. And the fact that his beautiful wife and daughter have used his products for years is endorsement enough! His parting shot to me: “it was lovely to meet someone who thinks and cares”!
Conversation #3 : fearless parenting
The guy sitting next to me asks to borrow some part of my gigantic copy of The Strait Times and I comply. We start talking. Careers, business, the state of Indian roads, politics…staple conversation for two educated urban Indians meeting on a plane. We even speak about cultural aspects of doing business in south east Asia and I hear him eagerly, soaking in information that might help the project we are starting in Indonesia. And then I ask him about his family. It’s a different guy talking now. A father with a five year old son and a two month old daughter. And we talk about how it’s fear and paranoia that drives modern parenting. To my utter surprise, he agrees with me about how we need to change that and give our kids the chance to find their own survival mechanisms. We argue as well. He loves the tech solutions- get the kid a phone and data card and google maps will be the solution! I argue for a belief system that trusts people, even strangers. It is a delightful and intelligent conversation that I enjoy.
I end the long day with another long conversation with my dear friend and project partner Greg. This one meanders all over the place like it does with us but hovers somewhere around the themes we work on nevertheless. We can’t be blamed for losing focus! I go to bed and wake up a few times at night, excited for dawn. And here it is….
Exploring Javanese cuisine in Surabaya
Indian cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is perhaps possible to live an entire year without repeating dishes if one had unlimited access to cuisines from across my country. I’ve been lucky to have reasonable exposure to food from many parts of India. And so, even though I’m not a foodie and that is something I must emphasize, I found myself looking out for the food I ate in these two back-to-back trips to Indonesia I’ve made.
Javanese cuisine, I realized, is incredibly diverse with a mix of influences- Arab, Chinese, Indian and European. Friends I made on my recent trip to Surabaya in Eastern Java told me I’m lucky to be Indian and tolerant to spices so I could enjoy this diversity. And enjoy I did!
My first meal in Surabaya, had with French and Indian colleagues, was a tentative exploration. To my delight, I tasted tamarind in the Sayur Asem curry we ate which tasted remarkably similar to the rasam my grandmother used to rustle up! I later realised that asem (tamarind) is a popular taste to look out for in this part of the world. We also sampled lontong, or rice cake, made out of steaming rice pressed into banana leaves, though we clearly were not aware of the right combinations as yet. Fruit juices are a big deal in Java and I tasted soursap (jus sirsak) for the first time, opting for the unsweetened version since a generous dollop of sugar is normal in these parts!
At the grand dinner that the Mayor of Surabaya threw for the delegates of the Habitat III Prepcom3 conference, I was urged by my friend Ashok who is intimately familiar with Surabaya’s secrets, to try rawon, a delicately flavoured beef broth with moong dal sprouts, sambal and kluwak nuts topped with pieces of roast beef. My friend Ashok graciously took it upon himself to be our guide in Surabaya, having the known the city for a long time, and this was the first of his many culinary recommendations.
At lunch on Day 2, I tried the lontong lodeh, that had rice cakes in a vegetarian curry with jackfruit and beans in coconut milk broth. This signature dish, commonly eaten during Id-ul-Fitri celebrations I later realized, became a hit with the vegetarians in the group, though us non-vegetarians added on a sprinkling of meat on top.
Dinner on Day 2 was simply out of this world, with Ashok (he had taken on the grand role of food guide by now for a bunch of us) introducing me to the famous Padang cuisine. Now, this is not just about taste, but also about the style! In a padang style restaurant, you would be confronted with a mountain of dishes being placed in front of you. Each dish is only a small bowl and you are given a larger plate with some boiled rice. You eat what you want and leave the rest and you’re charged for what you dig into only. It’s a fascinating practice, allowing you to intake the sight and smells of a larger variety while eating what you prefer. The spread included boiled greens including the tasty cassava leaves, chicken, fish, squid, the slow-cooked and really tasty beef redang and dishes with hooves and internal organs as well. Spicy and coconut milk based, padang food hit the sweet spot as far as I was concerned! I was one happy girl that night and a post dinner stroll through the city to spend a few hours in a homely little pub with live music only added to the appeal!
Day 3 was spent on the streets of Surabaya visiting traditional neighbourhoods called kampungs (more on this later). We ended up at ANDA Fit, a well-known establishment that boasts of authentic Javenese cuisine. Here, we were introduced to another defining flavour, the tomato and chilli based penyet that is eaten in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. We had it with the signature tempe, made of fermented soy beans. The gule kambing, or mutton in coconut milk, accompanied by a ginger-based warm drink (wedang jahe) was definitely something to write home about!
Advice for Bali: Get off the beaten track, if you can!
The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!
Sweet and sour escapades in Bali
This short trip to Bali presented a set of varied and interesting experiences. I had heard from friends and family about the quaint Balinese worship rituals and sure enough, the carved stone statues and beautifully decorated offerings to the Gods and demon spirits were everywhere. So was the tourist-oriented commerce with its plethora of souvenirs and knick-knacks, though the large number of designer clothing and accessory stores with high quality products and tasteful displays were the icing on the cake during our sojourns through Seminyak and Kuta. And, of course, there was the glorious sea!
We had done little advance planning for this trip, and I had the sense of floating from experience to experience over the three days we were in Bali. And because we had known each other so long, we were able to laugh at the imperfect decisions just as well as we savored the ones that turned out well. Which is just as travel ought to be, spontaneous and rich in detail, and stress free to boot! Presenting a set of small stories from our Bali sojourn….
The kindness of strangers
Bali offered us the perfect escape into anonymity, allowing us to have a reckless element to our capers on the beach. One evening, a couple of us were caught in strong currents and taken a tad further out to see than we had anticipated. Reaching the shore rather breathless (and a bit shaken) after a strenuous swim back, we were touched to find that the man from whom we were renting our deck chairs was already in the water, genuinely concerned for us and ready to get help!
Laughing at ourselves
One night, we ventured into Kuta to sample the nightlife and got lost trying to walk our way to Hard Rock Hotel. Now this is hard to do in Kuta, which is small and linear, but clearly we have talent! After resorting to an exorbitant cab ride to get to our destination, we caught the last one and a half songs of a talented rock band at Centrestage, in Hard Rock Hotel. After the band wound up and we downed the drinks we had hastily ordered, we moved to Hard Rock Café, only to find that the live band there, the one producing screechy noises in a language that was hard to identify, was also on its last song. And so, much amused by our pathetic attempts to enjoy Kuta’s nightlife, we spent a few silent and awestruck moments on the beach, watching the bright moon and sparkling stars reflected in the rhythmic waves, before heading back to the hotel.
For happy senses, go to the local Warungs
With two vegetarians in our midst, one of them prone to a number of allergies, we were slightly skeptical about food. We need not have been. We delighted in the local Warungs (equivalents of dhabas in India) as well as the streetside cafes and restaurants we found. The Warungs specialised in local Balinese and Indonesian food. Our first meal, in the tiny Warung opposite our hotel, was chosen from a limited menu but was deliciously prepared, happily customised and served with side dishes of conversation and friendliness! My favourite meal in Bali it was. Warung Ocha in Seminyak allowed you to pick what you wanted from a buffet and the most tasteful dishes were the salads and veggie stir fries.
There’s also a lot to be said for the highly developed sense of aesthetics in Bali and the sinple Warungs capture this well. In Ocha, the landscaping and interplay of indoor and oudoor spaces would put most high-end restaurants to shame! Warung Damar in Kuta was more upmarket and the beef redang and veggie gado gado were memorable. Dinner at La Sal, the Spanish eatery down the road, with its sense of space, stood out for its careful preparation and assembly.
Unexpected celebrity status
That Indian cinema is popular worldwide is not news. Two young girls who offered us a share of the their offerings at Tirta Empul giggled about Salman Khan and Shahrukh. But we were all rather surprised that soap operas from Indian television seemed to really capture the Balinese imagination.
Wayan, our taxi driver for the day trip we took to Mount Batur, had me down as his contact person. Even as we discussed how common his name was in Bali, he expressed how delighted he was to have met a person called Mukta in person! Now this was a bit strange, as mine isn’t a particularly common Indian name. He murmured something about Mukta being a character in a daily Hindi soap called Utaran that he watched (dubbed in Bahasa, of course). At the buffet lunch we ate that day, our server Putu (another common name in Bali), was ecstatic when I introduced myself. She beckoned to her friends in excitement, pointing to me and saying “Mukta Rathore, Mukta Rathore…” once again referring to the character in the soap. I sure did not expect to be a celebrity in Bali!
So much more than a vacation
I’m still a bit disbelieving that we pulled off a vacation in Bali as a reunion of our gang at the School of Planning and Architecture and though it was disappointing that more of our inner circle of friends could not make the trip owing to family and work commitments, I’m glad this short break worked out. Traveling for two days and vacationing for three has certainly taken a toll on our sleep cycle and exhaustion levels, but we’ve all come back richer and wiser for making the effort. Reconnecting with friends who know you well, sometime even a tad better than you know yourself, has the peculiar ability of bringing the most challenging aspects of your life into sharp focus even as you revel in gratitude for everything that has worked out well.
For me, the intense discussions we had on an astonishing variety subjects—politics, gender, sexual freedom, family and social structures, tourism, food chauvinism—were not merely informative (on the last night entertaining too, as two among the four of us proceeded to have an enormous noisy contest over the popularity of food from two different regions in India while the other two alternated between collapsing in giggles and worrying about the neighbors waking up and yelling at us!). They helped me look inwards and overhaul some assumptions I’ve been making in life, re-evaluate some priorities, refocus. As I flew the last leg toward home, I realized that experiencing Bali like that, among friends who are well read and intelligent (and opinionated may I add, with the caveat that I wouldn’t have them any other way!) added a certain variety and sharpness to my own perspectives.
Moreover, it made me realize how much strength it’s possible to draw from people you know. To hear about how each friend faced a particular set of adversities is hugely educational. More than that, it is reassuring that I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are die hard optimists, rock solid in their ethics and belief systems (even if rather varied), non-judgemental as well as unconditionally supportive to each other.
In the end, this trip to Bali for which I risked a precious working week and some, was not just a vacation. It was so much more!
An Uber tale from Udaipur
An interesting experience with Uber last evening in Udaipur, where we are attending a dear friend’s wedding. Do read it in the context of this piece that underscores the concerns of operators in small cities across India and reminds us that the ‘bharosa’ that comes in with informal practices is often what makes systems tick in our country.
So last night we call an Uber to our hotel. As we get comfy and name our destination, the driver’s face falls. The destination is out of his range of coverage, he informs us. No amount of cajoling, offering extra money, nothing will make him go there. But he offers to drop us to the nearest intersection from where we request our friend to send us a car.
The intersection is rather deserted, but lit, and our driver is genuinely concerned about our comfort and safety. He is also visibly distressed about having to do this, but a recent Uber joinee and clearly not comfortable with taking risks as yet. Most of all, he is very relieved that we are not making a fuss. “Uber ke customers samajhte hain (Uber customers understand),” he tells us, in defense of his decision to drive Uber instead of Ola, the more popular app-based cab operator in these parts. Ola would probably have taken us to our destination, he adds, laughing!
Clearly, provisions for flexibility are a double edged sword for tech-enabled services. What is a higher priority- customer service or control over drivers who are expected to game the system? In a country where gaming the system is the system, it is quite a hilarious situation!
The Happy People of Shiuwei #ShenzhenDiaries
If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.
As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).
Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.
Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!
For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter, Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.
Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).
It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.
Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen
Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!
Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.
The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.
What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).
Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.
Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation
I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.
Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.
Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.
We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.