Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Karauli - not long enough to esplore

The next day, I awoke with my head ringing. Y'see, as we were leaving the Taj Mahal the day before, there had been a loud drumming and a rush of people leaving the river, running into the town waving scarlet-and-gold flags, and carrying an effigy of the goddess Durga riding a tiger. Our guide explained at the time that it was the beginning of Navrati - a nine-day-festival in honour of the goddess's nine incarnations, and people would celebrate by chanting and fasting. And boy, did they chant! I had fallen asleep with the sound from the local temple ringing in my ears, which began to suffer auditory hallucinations. After a few hours the chanting had morphed into Guy Pearce singing "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" from Priscilla, briefly flirted with being "Old King Cole", before settling back to Priscilla for the rest of the holiday.

Flutterbys, roosting

See the lack of tail. On an unrelated note, I have a lovely peacock feather collection now.
Mongoose! Carrying a beetle.
Painted Pheasant (a pet).
After an early morning mongoose-and-peacock-hunt (also squirrels: did I mention the squirrels?),  and breakfast, we walked into town with one of the estate staff as a guide. It was the morning, and quite a lot of children were on their way to school, and were all eager to be photographed and look at their picture on the screen. And it wasn't just the children - this woman (in the yellow and pink sari) came running over waving and smiling and asking me to photograph her and her child and friends:

The sari across the face is for protection from dust and sun.

A temple
Before we saw the palace, our guide declared that it was prayer-time, and proceeded to give us a tour of his local temple whilst simultaneously making his devotions, which was quite nice, although we were a source of much fascination and distraction to the small clusters of children who were supposed to be attending to whatever is the Hindu equivalent of "Sunday School".

Of the three palaces we saw in India, Karauli is the one I would most recommend. Because it's off the beaten tourist path, we had it all to ourselves and were able to see everything. No room was off-limits - from the rooftop view to the maharani's bat-haunted swimming-pool in the basement (out of sight of any men), we were taken anywhere we wanted. And the guide worked at the palace and was able to point out all the little details, such as the hundreds of holes in the courtyard floor which were actually fountains, and similar water-jets were built into pillars, to spray woven-grass curtains and act as air-conditioning. Sadly, the palace was badly neglected after the dismantlement of the British Raj, and much of the gold-leaf artwork and gold-and-silver foil-backed glass has been looted - not to mention (according to our guide) a fire in the 1970s which saw the loss of the store-room where all the tiger-skins and silks were kept - but it's still a wonderful building.

Maharani-eye-view of the audience chamber. She could see out, but was veiled by the stone latticework.
View from the palace
The current palace inhabitants
Wall-painting of a battle. Note the gunner on the left...
...that's right! It was an equal-opportunities army then!
Karauli camel. Sneering. It's what camels do.

Levitation in Agra

To leave Delhi, we joined the throng of other Western tourists and took an early train to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Everyone has seen pictures, but these don't do justice to the layout of the complex - the symmetry of the first giant courtyard, all stone and gravel and earth, the red sandstone walls with the heat pouring off, and the way that as you walk through the baking hot archway suddenly there are gardens beneath you and there is a cool whiteness with water and green grass, and the pinkish-white Taj Mahal seeming to float in a milky-blue sky on the horizon line.

Like I said, there is no way a photograph could capture all this, so I took the obligatory shot, taken through a lull in the crowds. 

In Agra, we were reunited with Raj, our driver from Delhi, and he took us on to Karauli, a lovely little town where we stayed in the Bhanwar Vilas Palace. This place has History. In the 1930s, the local royal family decided to move out of the 600-700-year-old palace, so built themselves a small* out-of-town place which the family now run as a hotel/guesthouse - as well as being local MPs, providing a free school and medical centre for the town, overseeing the restoration work at the palace, managing the conservation of the nearby wildlife sanctuary, organising a co-operative of needlework and other handicrafts amongst the local women, and of course generally managing the estate and farm which is the source of most of the food we ate. When we arrived, the son of the current Maharaja, a direct descendant of Lord Krishna, was directing the eviction of a mongoose from the dining room. I somehow felt that I would like this place.

Peacock moulting season!

*"Small" as in "Downton Abbey in India" small. It easily absorbed a couple of coachloads of Austrians while we were there, and we hardly saw them.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Quantum Delhi

I found Delhi a weird place. Not as bad as the friend who said "If you find anywhere nice in Delhi, then you're not in Delhi any more" had led me to expect, but odd. It felt like two cities inhabiting the same point in the space-time continuum, but slightly out of phase with each other. One city is one of the wealthiest in the world, full of consumerism, high property prices, obligatory car ownership, middle-class aspirations, brand names, western clothing and shopping mall culture; the other city is a city of beggars, roadside shanties and people defecating in the street. And of course in the middle of all this there are ancient monuments and buildings such as can be found in any large city with sufficient history.

Government employees on the way to work. Srsly: the monkey is a "pest controller".

We were treated to a whistle-stop tour of the city, and saw the points that all the tourists have to see, and had a bicycle rickshaw ride, and all that. I had cunningly arranged my wardrobe such that I would be respectable and decent for the Jama Mosque, but I was still required to don a floral hospital gown over my clothing - despite the fact that my clothing was longer and hanging out of the gown. Our guide Manjit (a former Surrey cricketer) apologised and explained that this was a recent requirement - ever since a group of Australians decided to strip off for a photoshoot in the mosque, all women not wearing traditional dress are made to wear the Gown of Shame. Thanks Oz.

Qutub Minar

I quite liked Humayun's Tomb - partly because it is an impressive piece of architecture, but mostly because there was a family of kites I could watch goofing around together as they tried to build a nest.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to plan a holiday

“I’m fed up with work at the moment, so have booked some time off. What last-minute bargains can we get to somewhere sunny in a fortnight’s time?”

“Well, there’s some fantastic deals to be had in Mexico at the moment – oh, but Google says it’s hurricane season down there in October. Otherwise some companies are doing good bargains on certain areas of Thailand.”

“Which areas”

“Um, the areas which are either going to be experiencing the rainy season, or those to which the UK government has advised against all non-essential travel due to people with bombs, or both.”

“How about this 30% off a five-star hotel in Sri Lanka?”

“Would that be on the coast that Lonely Planet says is highly likely to experience heavy rainfall during October?”



“So what we’re saying is that for the same price as a bargain five-star hotel in a hurricane-hit resort in Mexico, we could just pay full-price to get a tailor made tour of India where it’s going to be sunny and warm?”

“Pretty much.”

“No contest then. I wonder if we can get visas and vaccinations sorted out in a fortnight?”

And so it began…

Much to my surprise (having encountered the navigational nightmare that is the Indian Visa Information UK website) the staff in the Indian Visa Centre in London are wonderfully helpful and friendly, and issued us with visas in about three days. And it turned out that we only needed one booster from the NHS, having been stuck full of every inoculation under the sun before we went to Madagascar last year. Admittedly, there was a little mix-up at the clinic as the nurse thought I had come for my smear test and wondered why I was rolling up my sleeves, and I was puzzled when she asked me to remove my underwear, but we managed to clarify matters before things got too out-of-hand.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Women in science

I am not a scientist.

I used to be, but I’m not any more. You see, it’s very hard to be a female scientist. It starts during education – I was educated in the sheltered environment of an all-girls’ school and believed the propaganda we were told – that females were just as good intellectually as males, if not better, and we were entitled to choose whatever career we wanted – even in traditionally-male areas. We were told about “sexism” but because we had never encountered it, we thought it was a thing of the past.

I then went to university, and had to rapidly rethink my worldview. Chemistry tutorials with the Ambisinistrous Professor (he wrote equally illegibly with both hands) were a constant source of frustration as the professor would address all his comments to the males in the group, and change the hand he wrote with so as to screen his writing from the women. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but then I experimented with moving my seat (sometimes even mid-tutorial) and found that he would move as well, to continue to block my view.1 Fine. He was obviously one of these “sexists” I had heard about, but he was obviously a relic from an older era, and his kind were on the verge of extinction.

Wrong. In a recent study,2 researchers sent CVs to employers, asking if the applicant would be considered for employment and mentoring. The CVs were identical apart from the genders. Far more of the female CVs were rejected than the male CVs, but the employers would not admit (probably even to themselves) that they had rejected the female for her gender; no, they would explain that the female was a less-good candidate, see all her flaws here! So not only are women being denied opportunities to advance, but they are also being told that they are more crap than their male equivalents! In order to get anywhere in science, a woman would have to be better than the men, and not believe people who tell her she is crap.

Another major, major hurdle for women trying to make a career out of science is the whole “uterus” thing. I’ve ranted about this before so I won’t go into it in depth, but the upshot is that very few employers are willing to hire someone on a three-year research contract if there’s a chance that they will spend a year of that on maternity leave. Personally, I think equal parental-leave rights would be a great solution, where either parent can take the time off to look after the baby. It might also help break the self-fulfilling cycle of “women are lower paid because they take maternity leave and aren’t as useful to a company” and “women are usually the ones who take maternity leave because they are lower paid than their partners”.

And now the BBC have an article on the fact that more women are needed in technology – together with a lovely mockery of the “Pink it, shrink it” approach taken by some (male) designers when trying to make a female-oriented product (is anyone else remembering the “Bic for her” fun?). The LittleMiss Geek certainly looks like a better campaign than the “Science: It’s a girl thing” one, where people attempted to explain that girls can do science too, because they can wear pink lab coats and investigate the chemistry of lipstick…

Anyway, I am not a scientist. I used to be, but I’m not any more. I was a good scientist (I think), but not an outstandingly brilliant one. I found it incredibly hard to get a job. I don’t know whether this was because I just wasn’t good enough, or because the entire system was inherently stacked against me. All I know is that it would have been nice if the playing field had been level enough for me to find out.
1 Some of you may ask why the women didn’t work together, and sit in a way that meant he couldn’t block both of us. We tried this, and found that he would, if he had to choose, obstruct the most “feminine” woman – so my fellow female tutoree in combat trousers and cropped hair would fare far better than me with long hair and a skirt.