Climbing Parvati

Last night I left work early to go visit Parvati Darshan (Parvati Hill), one of the major attractions in Pune. Parvati is 260 foot high hill right in the center of town. You have to climb 103 steps from street level to the summit. It’s good exercise. Last week a young man set a new record by climbing Parvati Hill over 100 times in 24 hours.

Parvati steps

The views are worth it though – from the top of the hill, you can see all of Pune spread out below. I could even see all the way to Fort Sinhagad, on a mountain top about 30 km away.

On the summit are 5 different Hindu temples:

Parvati temple enclave

I couldn’t visit all the temples, because Monday was a holy day, and there were special ceremonies going on.

There’s also a small Peshwa Museum,  containing paintings and artifacts from when the Peshwa ruled this area. Which was only a little over a century – from overthrowing the Mughals in late 17th century until early 19th century occupation by the British. The museum is housed in part of a former Peshwa palace. It’s a small collection, and not very well maintained. But we met some local students who were eager to practice their English, so they gave me a running commentary.

Interestingly enough, since the whole area is a holy place, I had to take off my shoes to even enter the museum. So we all padded around in bare feet. I wonder if that would catch on at the Met…

Peshwa museum

It took a long time to get there and back, though Pune’s heavy rush hour traffic. But we went through some interesting neighborhoods. One area was devoted to home improvement stores. Block after block of storefronts selling plywood, locks, and tile. Business was booming, even at 8pm. We also cut through a Muslim neighborhood, with a mosque all decorated in lights. We even drove past a little amusement park, with lots of little rides for the kids.


On Sunday, I again left Pune for the hill station of Lonavala. It’s a town about half-way between Pune and Bombay, and a favorite day trip for people from both towns.

We also visited the Bhaja Caves which are rooms and temples cut out of the rock face by Hinayana monks in the 2nd century BC.

Sinhagad – the Lion Fort

On Saturday, two guys from the office were nice enough to go with me to Sinhagad, a mountain top fort about 30 km from Pune. It was good to get out of the crowds, traffic and pollution of the city. And the countryside is beautiful during monsoon season! The hills are all green, and shrouded with fog.

Sinhagad entrance

Sinhagad views

We drove up a narrow, winding road up to the fort, weaving around trucks and mopeds. You can also climb up to the fort from a town at the base of the mountain. It looked like a tough climb. The folks coming up the path were all soaked and muddy.

We walked around the perimeter of the fort, at times in fog so dense you could not see down the hill. Fortunately, it blew off after an hour or so, and we had a terrific view of all the surrounding hills and countryside.

For hundreds of years, this was a strategic point to control the region. It was the site of a famous battle in 1670 in which forces of the Maratha freedom fighter Shivaji captured the fort from the Moghuls.

There’s a famous story celebrated to this day, about how Shivaji’s top general Tanaji captured the fort. One of the old guides at the fort sang the song for us. They say that Tanaji was a fearsome fighter and a huge man – that he carried a sword that weighed 40 Kilos! (That’s a big hunk of metal)

The story is that on a moonless night Tanaji and 300 men scaled a steep cliff on the unguarded side of the fort. But the cliff was so smooth that Tanaji had to use a giant lizard to climb it.

That’s right.  He tied a rope around the pet lizard and sent it up the cliff. Then while the lizard held tight, he hauled himself up on the rope.

In the fierce fight that followed, they say that Tanaji’s lost an arm, but he still managed to kill another 40 men before dying.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t believe this story. Maybe they just exagerated a little over time. But any lizard big enough to belay a big man on a cliff belongs in a Japanese SciFi movie.

Shivaji is still celebrated in Maharashtra as a wise and powerful ruler, who built forts, infrastructure, and introduced government reforms.

Now only ruins remain of the fort itself. The British destroyed it in 1818. The Maharashtra kings only controlled the region for a little over 100 years, in a brief period between Moghul and British rule.

Get sick early and save time

I’ve read all the traveler’s advice and tried to follow all the rules. But still, I got caught. I got sick on Tuesday afternoon. Stomach, fever & chills – the works. I took some drugs, went to bed that night and slept 10 hours, then got up on Wednesday and taught my class. But I was pretty tired for a couple of days. I think I’m over it now.

But I’m still extra careful about what I eat & drink. I know there are a lot more bugs out there waiting for a chance at me.

Pune street life

I still haven’t seen that much of Pune yet. Sunday my driver pointed out a few sights. He only speaks a few words of English, and I don’t speak any Hindi or Marathi. So he would say “Here prison Gandhi. Here hospital Gandhi die”.

But driving in town is a very exciting experience. There’s always lots of traffic, with a lot of bicycles, motorcycles, 3-wheel motorcycle cabs playing chicken with the cars and buses. Everybody tries to squeeze past whatever vehicle is in front, regardless of whether there’s room. Lane are just a suggestion. And since nobody ever looks behind them, everyone sounds their horn every few seconds – just to let you know they’re there. It’s like driving in a pinball game.

The motorcyclists are absolutely fearless. They’ll squeeze between two big trucks with a couple of inches of clearance. If either truck turned slightly, they’d be crushed. And a lot of cycles carry passengers, looking bored and unconcerned on the back of the bike. Women in saris will ride side-saddle and don’t seem to be hanging on to anything. Some guys have a kid riding on the handlebars and their wife side-saddle in back. I still can’t figure out how anyone survives the commute. And yet it seems to work, after a fashion. Traffic keeps moving, and people get where they need to go.

The contrast between rich and poor are stark. Our office is a six-story modern looking office building in the Pune IT park. On the street next door are other businesses – mostly little shacks made of scrap on the side of the road. But they seem to be doing a brisk business, selling food, cell phones, or the other necessities of life.

On the way to the office we drive past some new glass-fronted buildings, then past squatters camps where pigs, goats and mangy dogs rout for food. Also the Bombay Sappers military base, where the guards all look crisp and clean and very very British. And a couple of high explosive factories right next to residential areas.

Pune – the Oxford of the East

I’m spending 2 weeks at our office in Pune, India. I arrived on Sunday morning, and have not seen much of the area yet. But I did a bit of sight-seeing on Sunday, and have some first impressions.

From the air, Pune is a lot greener than near Delhi. Surrounded by low green hills. And the country side around town doesn’t look bad. But there are a lot of slums in town. And more trash in the streets than I’m used to. Lots of little shacks on the roadside where vendors did brisk business. In some of the shanty towns, the walls were painted with cell phone advertising. And a painted ad on a wall advertised “Learn CAD and EDA”. Pigs and goats routed around nearby.

I supposed Pune is segregated into rich and poor. The biggest office buildings in town are the call centers. They look like modern western office buildings. But squatters live right next door.

I first went off in search of an ATM, which gave me a good appreciation of life on the street in Pune. I also went running in a park nearby, that actually has a running track. I still owe the custodian 4 rupees for that. I was afraid he would lock me in…

I had to dodge motorcycle cabs, demonic drivers and people on the roadside to get there. They all seemed pretty amused. I also used the health club and pool at the hotel. From the pool I could watch constant traffic on the street and hear the constant car horns.

Of course, no Westerner should drive in India. You hire a car and driver instead. My driver came early and was told to take me to see some sights.

The big sight in town is the “Osho Commune“. That’s an ashram that was founded by Osho Rajneesh. Or Two Car Garajee. Or somebody. From the photos it looks like a kind of meditation center meets Los Vegas resort.

Osho auditorium Dancing at Osho

Anyway, I could not get in, which might be a good thing. I might have been lured in by all the singing and dancing. Next time you’d see me I’d be wearing a red robe and handing out flowers in airports.

Instead I walked through a nearby “Osho park” run by the commune. This seems popular with the locals. In fact, it seems to be the prime spot for young lovers to hide out. Every few paces I’d run into another young couple holding hands. Or worse!

The best thing I saw yesterday was the Aga Khan Palace. It’s a fine example of colonial elegance, now a bit run down.

Aga Khan palace Aga Khan palace

This is famous for being where Gandhiji and his wife were imprisoned in 1942. She died there, as did his secretary. Their ashes are interred on the site. You can tour the rooms where they lived. They had a faded setof posters showing pictures and events from his life.

Welcome to Delhi

I arrived in Delhi on Saturday after a 15 hour flight from Chicago. I don’t even want to do something I like for 15 hours, let alone spend it on a plane.

Fortunately, I was staying at the Radisson hotel near the airport, and someone from the hotel was waiting for me when I arrived. We walked out through clouds of diesel exhaust and honking car horns. All kinds of vehicles jam the streets, but amazingly enough, they seem to make progress.

What little I saw of Delhi had the look of “arrested destruction”. Near the airport, lots of half-completed road work projects. Piles of brick and rebar. Fallen columns. Two story buildings with the top floor torn off, like after an earthquake. They looked like rows of broken teeth. But the ground floors had working shops or businesses. Lots of traffic, lots of men lounging by the side of the road. And of course a cow standing calmly in the middle of a freeway on-ramp.

And yet, the system seems to work. I was able to get in and out of Delhi airport without much trouble. After spending an hour and 15 minutes a few days earlier just to get to the American Airlines check-in counter in San Francisco, I was surprised at how smoothly my flights went in India.

Next stop, Pune.

Canadians in Space

The Space Shuttle Endeavour took off on August 8 for a two week mission to work on the International Space Station. It was a perfect liftoff for STS-118, to the relief of all of us watching.

Launch of STS-118

I have a special interest in this shuttle mission, since it carries Canadian astronaut Dave Williams on his second flight into space. Dr. Williams is a Mission Specialist on this flight, and will be making at least 3 space walks to work on the ISS. (A total of about 19 hours!) Dave first flew on shuttle Columbia in 1998, as flight surgeon.

Dave Williams

Dave Williams is also a home-town boy. I first met him at my high school reunion in 2004. Dave did not attend my school – but his wife Cathy did. And she and my sister have stayed friends since then. In fact, my sister and brother in law traveled down to Florida in 1998 to watch Dave’s liftoff.

Dave with my sisters

After seeing the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia crash in 2003, we all know that space flight is dangerous. Dave knows those risks all too well. He and his fellow astronauts helped recover remains of Columbia, and its crew, after the crash. Those people were their friends and colleagues, and as he described it, it was difficult to deal with their loss. But they all volunteered to help with the recovery. It was all they could do to honor the dead.

It’s now four years later, and NASA is still having problems with ice and foam at liftoff. They’ve tried to change the design of the external fuel tank, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the problem. At least they know what to look for. Mission control is studying photographs of a couple of deep gouges on Endeavour’s belly, presumably caused by more falling ice.

Of course, I hope that the damage will be easy to repair, and that Dave and his fellow crew members make it back safely after a successful mission. We’ll be watching and waiting for the next few weeks, and cheering them on.