Scope out the views

Although I’m now officially an old man, I’m still trying to prove otherwise. On Sunday I biked from San Jose to the top of Mt. Hamilton, site of the Lick Observatory. (On a clear day, you can see the domes from Silicon Valley). It’s about a 20 mile, 4200 foot climb to the summit, and 20 back again. It wiped me out. But the Tour of California did Mt Hamilton and Sierra Road on a 120 mile stage into San Jose. Those guys cannot be human.

The ride was worth it though. I finally got to tour the grounds and see the old telescopes: the 36 inch Great Lick Refractor and the 120 inch Shane Reflector. Elegant instruments, from a more civilized age…

The only time I’d been up there was 19 years ago, at night, when the place was closed to visitors. It was the first week that I was in California as a summer intern at Intel. I arrived with two other Canadian graduate students from MIT. We “Three Amigos” had just gone out for dinner with our manager when I caught sight of the domes reflecting the setting sun. I had the bright idea of driving up to the observatory, even though I had no idea how far away it was.

So the three of us piled into the rental car and I drove up the steep switchback road to the summit. It seemed to take hours, and when we finally arrived at the summit, there was nothing to see but “No trespassing” signs. On the way back down, I had to stop while poor John got sick on the side of the road. That was our first ill-advised adventure of the summer, and set the tone for the next few months…

Lick Observatory - Wikipedia
Lick Observatory - Wikipedia

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.

Dopers on wheels

A month ago, Prof. John Hoberman wrote a scathing review of drugs in professional cycling for MSNBC. As the Tour de France collapsed in scandal this week, it’s worth reviewing Dopers on Wheels: The Tour’s sorry history.

Hoberman says that drugs have always been a part of professional cycling, beginning with caffeine and cocaine fuelled six-day races back in the 1890s. These were dangerous experiments on the limits of human performance and the effect of drugs. And little changed in the sport until the Festina drug scandal during the 1998 Tour.

According to journalist and Dr. Hans Halter:

“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now,”

Hoberman is especially critical of the International Cycling Union and cycling teams that publicly condemn drugs, but privately ignore institutional doping. Race organizers might arrest and make examples of individual cyclists, but do little to procecute doctors, trainers and other co-conspirators.

The UCI’s so-called doping controls have been inadequate or even fraudulent, depending on how one views the integrity of its officials.

The UCI leadership, whose doping controls did not produce a single positive before the disaster of the 1998 Tour, remained in office. What’s more, average rider speed has increased steadily since the introduction of (presumably) stricter drug-testing to prevent the use of blood-boosting drugs.

Swiss rider Alex Zülle explained the pressure on cyclists:

“As a rider you feel tied into this system. It’s like being on the highway. The law says there’s a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who in my situation would have done that?”

Cyclists earn less than most professional athletes, yet must train constantly, endure incredible hardship and risk deadly crashes every day. They may never get much recognition, and must support the team leader who gets all the glory. All this to hold on to a spot on a team, the only job that many of them know. It’s no wonder so many are willing to risk so much for an edge over the competition.

Like Charlie Brown and the football

For the past week or so, I’ve been avoiding water cooler conversations at the office, so as not to spoil the surprise. I really don’t want anyone telling me how it all ends. I have to cover my ears and scamper back to my desk, shouting “I’m not listening to you, la la la …”

I’m sure others around the country are doing the same thing. We’re all caught up in this together. No, I don’t care what happened to Tony Soprano or Harry Potter. I’m referring to the Tour de France.

I’ve been recording the Tour on a friend’s DVR, and watching a couple of stages every few days or so. Which means I’m always a few days behind the news. That’s bad enough when there’s a major upset in the race. (Like Vinokourov coming back from the brink to win the Stage 13 time trial, and to conquer the mountains in Stage 15).

It’s a lot worse when there’s a scandal. And boy, do we have a scandal now. First Vinokourov fails a blood doping test. Not only that, but his entire Astana team was forced to withdraw from the Tour. (Taking out a couple of other top riders with him).

Well, that’s a shame. I had been rooting for Vinokourov for a couple of stages. He had come back from a bad crash, rode hurt, cracked in the mountains on Stage 14, then come back from defeat to win a really tough mountain stage.

I cheered him on – just like I cheered for Floyd Landis last year when, after a tough loss, he came back from behind to win a mountain stage, and eventually the tour. At the time, it seemed impossible that he could recover so much time, and reclaim the lead. Maybe it was. Only a few days later, Floyd failed a drug test. And the 2006 tour has been without a winner ever since.

So once again, justice was done. And the Tour caught one of the few cheaters.  Just one bad apple, right?

It got worse. The next day, the Cofidis team withdrew from the race when one of their riders tested positive for synthetic testosterone. And today, the other shoe dropped. Michael Rasmussen, the tour leader, was dismissed by the Rabobank team for failing to take drug tests this past Spring.

What happens now?  The Tour continues, but it’s a shambles. It’s hard to imagine how professional cycling can recover any credibility, after the past few years of drug charges and two disastrous tours. It’s hard to imagine sponsors will continue to fund the teams. Already T-Mobile is rumored ready to pull their support.

And it’s hard to imagine fans will continue to watch, wondering who is juicing, and if anyone is riding clean.

Just a few more bad apples? A few isolated cheaters? Doesn’t seem that way  anymore. And now I felt cheated, for having cheered on these guys. Fool me once, fool me twice…