Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bangladesh (March)

After the last couple blogs, you must be saying to yourself “hum, that doesn’t sound so bad.  What is all the fuss about?”  Right?  Well, life always looks good out of the window of a 5 star hotel.  It is the arrival back to reality that tends to hurt…

And my arrival back into Delhi life was not exception.

March was shaping up to be a busy month.  We had already traveled to Udaipur, but I still had trips to Indonesia and Bangladesh to get through before the end of the month.  Indonesia was not an issue, as Singapore airlines bars no expense to ensure that your life is splendid for the time you are with them and generally speaking, Jakarta is a pretty cosmopolitan city.  Bangladesh, though, always proves to be interesting. 

I had been to Bangladesh for the first time in January and, to be honest, it is not unlike India.  I mean, at the end of the day, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians are all basically cur from the same cloth.  It was only the haste to get out of the region (which I now completely understand), that the British divided them up.  Interestingly, though, I found Dhaka to be more tolerable than Delhi.  Traffic is less aggressive, it is actually cleaner and, since it is a Muslim country, rather than Hindu, they serve beef!  The problem with Bangladesh is that you can only fly an Indian airline, Jet Airways, to get there.

Indian Airlines are the most poorly run airlines in the world – and that is saying something considering the existence of Air Italia.  Like most Indian run businesses, there is no real business model; no vision for the company and definitely no investment for the future.  In India, companies are all about today's profit... while there are still profits to be had.  Unfortunately, most of the Indian airlines now operate in a state of bankruptcy, including the national airline, Air India.  How fitting!   

Anyway, as always, while checking in, I specifically ask the desk if the flight is on time.  “Absolutely, sir,” was the answer accompanied by the head bob that indicates anything from "yes" to “I will tell you anything you want to hear.”  I then proceeded to the lounge where the screen tells me the flight is delayed.  Ugh!  In Delhi in the winter, delays are very common due to fog/smog/haze/blowing dust, but when they do not give an estimated boarding time, this indicates something far worse than weather.  Eventually I meandered down to the gate and the gate agent tells me that there is no set time for departure, but I should take a seat and wait. 

Now, nobody, especially me, is in any hurry to get to Bangladesh.  More importantly, no one, particularly me, is wiling to sit and wait endless for the privilege of a second rate airline to shuttle me to Bangladesh.  After about 2 minutes, I decide that enough was enough and that I would go home and catch tomorrows flight to Dhaka.  I was all so simple in my head - I would have an agent rebook my flight, call the driver and after 30 minutes waiting for him, head home.   Oh, how wrong I was.  So, so wrong. 

The one element of Indian life that crushes your soul faster than all others is the amount of non-value added bureaucracy and paperwork there is.  It is incomprehensible.  To be fair, most governments are run by idiots that would not last 10 minutes in the private sector. – would you hire Barney Frank or Joe Biden to run your company?  But in India, they take incompetence and elevate it to the level of functioning morons.  Worse yet, you don’t even have to be a professional bureaucrat to be a bureaucrat, you just have to be associated with one.  Case in point at the highest levels - Sonia Gandhi (yes, of those Gandhis).  Here you have a woman that just because of her last name, is the head of the ruling party.  The best part is that she is not even born into the family, but married into it. To add insult to injury, she is not even Indian – she is Italian!  So think about this, basically some random foreigner is running the ruling party of India simply because she married the right guy. At the lower levels, it works roughly the same way with generation after generation of incompetent Dillweeds holding coveted positions that allow them to suck the populous dry and line their pockets.  To be honest, I have little issue with this, as it is the nature of public servants everywhere, but in most places public servants at least make a small effort to improve the life of those in their charge, if only marginally.  In India, they do not even pay lip service to it.  The narcissistic ethos by which the country lives eliminates any need to be apologetic.  I saw a statistic the other day that said that if Indian government officials returned all the money that has been stolen and was currently sitting in Swiss bank accounts, Indians would not need to pay taxes for 50+ years.  So, the result of this, is that the bureaucracy continues to expand to support the bureaucracy. 

But I digress.

I find an agent sitting quietly at an empty gate and tell him what I want to do.  He points me down a few gates to a gentleman also sitting around doing nothing.  The gentleman then escorts me to another desk where I am handed off to a woman.  She and I then walk back to the security check point where I am ask to sit.  She than takes my passport and boarding card and disappears ... for 1.5 hours.  Yes, for 90 minutes, I am left sitting in a chair next to the metal detectors watching the circus of airport security.

A man finally returns with a document that states I have voluntarily removed myself from the flight.  There are three copies.  I sign all three.  We then proceed to a high counter at the end of the hall where we must find the customs exit form I filled out when I passed through customs.  Yep, the actually form.  The man from the airline and the man from customs dig through what must be thousands of forms until they find finally find it - another 45 minutes gone.

We then proceed to the other side of the hall and sit and wait outside an office.  The is the office of the guy that will take the signed documents and the form, verify that they are corresponding and stamp the documents, form and passport.  By the time he finishes his tea, chatting with his friends and reading the newspaper, we have waited another 30 minutes.  Finally the documents are signed, my exit stamp voided and a special stamp that I "Have been removed from a flight" placed in my passport.  That stamp, unbeknownst to me, will prove to be a serious pain in the ass during future flights.

We are then escorted into the main terminal where you check in for your flights.  Now remember, in India to enter the airport, you must show your itinerary and passport to the crack security guard policing the entrance.  To get out, it is much more difficult.  I must show all the approved documents to two guards sitting inside the door at a card table,  After they verify the documents, I must sign a log.  Then, and only then, may you approach the exit door.  But if you though that was it, you would be wrong.  The outside guard, 5 feet away, cannot directly communicate with the guard sitting at the card table in the entry way, so I am now pig-ponged back and forth between the two until in an apoplectic fit, blow past the outside guard and make a run for the road and my waiting driver.

All in, it took over 4 hours to get from the gate to the road - a distance of roughly a football field.  The flight to Bangladesh, just so you know, left at the 2 hour 45 minute mark.

The best part is that I got to go back the next day and do it all over again!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Udaipur (March)

After Singapore, it was difficult to get back into the life in Delhi.  The winter weather made it even worse.  Although one thinks of India as stifling hot, the winters in Delhi are quite cold and damp.  It will get down in the mid-40s – which does not sound too bad except that everything here is built to stay cool – marble floors, cement walls and no heat - nothing like stepping out of the shower into 50 degree cold.  To make matters worse, the city wraps itself in a gray smoggy blanket that smothers any chance of direct sunlight heating your damp bones. 

To escape this misery, we decided to really treat ourselves with something special.  We broke our usual pattern of leaving India, because we had discovered that one of the 5 best luxury hotels in the world was located just a little over an hours flight from here in city of Udaipur, “The City of Lakes,” in Rajasthan, the “State of Kings.”  It sounded promising!

One of the things that you quickly understand after spending time in India is that, although it is a desperately poor country, the Indian wealthy (acquired mostly through corruption) enjoy being pampered.  I guess they feel it keeps them separated from the people from whom the stole.  So although you can live on $1 a week here (and the majority do), the high-end resorts will charge a king’s ransom and provide an experience that middle-east sultans would envy.  The Udaipur Udaivillas is no exception.

The Udaipur airport is more of a weigh-station, than an airport.  It is located about 45 minutes outside of the city and in Rajasthan, 45 minutes outside the city is in the middle of the dessert.  As we exited the one-room airport, we were cheerfully greeting by a traditionally and colorfully dressed Rajasthani man who took our bags and escorted us to our large, black BMW.  We were received in the car, by an immaculately attired driver dressed in all white, who resembled more of a naval officer than a chauffer.  He gave us the prerequisite cool, perfumed face towels and bottles of water and asked us one simple question: “Would you like to go the entire way by car or take the boat.”  “Why the boat, of course,” we responded and we were off. 

The car drove through the dessert brush for about 30 minutes before signs of civilization began to creep in.  A building here, a shanty there – It was still, after all, India.  The landscape was dramatic with sharp dessert hills covered in brush and tan dirt.  You could have mistaken it for Arizona.  As we approached the ancient city of Udaipur, the roads became more narrow and crowded.  The BMW weaved through the alleyways until coming to rest on an embankment on the edge of town overlooking a large lake.   We were ushered out the car and into a long thin wooden motorboat. 

The boat reminded me of a smaller version of the transportation used on the Jungle Book Ride at Disney World.  There was one seat on either side of the central aisle that flowed between three rows.  The area was shielded by a fringed sun-cover held up by thin metal poles.  We sat down, donned our mandatory life jackets and settled in for the ride.

The boat ride was exquisite.  It was 7:00am and the lake was completely placid.  The sun was just cresting the surrounding mountains to the east and there was barely a sound outside of the chugging of the ancient motor.  Before us, the old city of Udaipur appeared replete with it gates and palaces.  It was an unexpected surprise as I just assumed that the Indians had ruined anything of beauty with corruption, trash and filth.  This city seemed different.  The centerpiece of the city, the City Palace, gleamed in the early morning sun and city seemed peaceful.

Oberoi Udaivillas from the water

Monsoon Palace from the Lake

Maharajah's Island Retreat

Udaipur from the Lake

You really have two choices of accommodations in Udaipur to make it a special journey.  The most popular is the Lake Palace which is an actual maharaja’s palace that has been converted into a hotel.  It sits in the middle of lake and the building is an island in and of itself.  Cool concept, but the research says pretty run down – I think they call it shabby chic.  The other option is our hotel, the Oberoi Udaivillas.

The boat chugged past the Lake Palace Hotel and began heading towards a peninsula capped with a sprawling beige structure resembling a timeworn Rajasthani fortress.  As we motored closer, the forms of the domes and cupolas began to emerge giving the impression of not just a single edifice, but an enclave of buildings and structures.  Regardless of how you describe it, from the water, the illusion was impressive.

We arrived at a small docking area and were chaperoned to a golf cart by another colorfully dressed Rajasthani man for the short ride to the hotel entrance.  Although we found out later, the walk is quite short to the back of the hotel to the lake, the stage-managed arrival through the main entrance was a part of an experience you did not want to miss.

I am not easily impressed by luxury hotels as I have seen my share of great resorts and luxury accommodations, but I have to admit that entering the through the doors of the Udaivillas, both Olga and I understood immediately the difference between other 5 & 6 star resorts and one that is rated as the 5th best in the world. 
Holy crap!

You arrive at the massive entryway of what could easily pass as the ramparts of an ancient Rajasthani fortress.  Beautifully decorated and flanked by two stone elephants and reflect in a large pool, your initial impression is simply “Wow!”  You are greeted by name by the lone traditionally dressed guard at the gate and shown through the portal into the first of many courtyards. 

This first courtyard is unexpected. It is a huge area with a large decorative pool as the centerpiece flanked on all four corners with traditional Rajasthani Chhatris.  Spread across the top of the surface of the pool is an intricate, marble flower pattern on which you can walk – though I image no one does.  To complete the effect, traditional Rajasthani music floats over the dry dessert air.  It is a perfect welcome.

The Entrance

The First Courtyard

You then enter the main building of the hotel through another small open cupola accented by a small traditional fountain and are finally greeted by name by your personal concierge.  There is no front desk, just an ornate lobby poised under a massive dome with several anterooms tucked away on the sides under domes of their own.  It feels more like a maharajah’s palace than a hotel complete with hidden seating areas tucked away in small corners for privacy and views of the lake. 


After a brief greeting, we are whisked away on another adventure to find our room.  Our escort leads us out of the lobby through the candle room (a room with no lights, just a massive amount of candles – in the US we call it a fire hazard, but here, it is just decoration) and into yet another impressive courtyard. 

Second Courtyard

This one is even more lavish than the previous.  Romanesque columns and cypress tress flank the relaxed stream that rolls down a gently graded slope.  The fountain is topped with another traditionally domed building and is meet at the bottom with a reflecting pool emphasized with the sun symbol of the Maharajah of Udaipur.  

One of the many open corridors

We meander through what seems like endless open-air corridors bathed in the morning sun.   Every so often, another courtyard, garden or views of the lake appear in the breaks.  Finally, we arrive at our room. 

The room is large and sprawls into a comfortable bathroom centered with a claw-foot bathtub and a view of the lake.  The overall effect is of a room from the 1930s, but very well appointed and comfortable.  There is a large sitting area to one side and an expansive window seat in a nook on the other.  The pièce de résistance, though, is the patio.

The Room

The room for which we opted is has a private patio that faces the animal conservatory beyond which is the lake.  The patio has two comfortable chaise lounges, a table, an umbrella and a set of stairs that leads into a narrow, semi-private pool that runs the length of that side of the hotel.  It must be 300 yards with a submerged seating area every 100 yards or so as it twists to mirror the exterior curves of the hotel.  Tiled with bright blue tiles, it plays in contrast to the gray dessert brush the frames the lake beyond.

Our Room as seem from the Pool

The Pool as seen from our Room 

Deer in the Nature Preserve

By the time we settled in, it was rounding 8:00am and we were hungry.  We headed down to the restaurant and began a ritual that would last the entire stay.  Mornings were cool, but bright, so you could opt to have breakfast outside in one of the curtained pavilions.  You could enjoy the lake views while the fabric danced on the gentle morning breeze blocking the sun. What a great way to experience Eggs Benedict!

Olga reading the menu at Breakfast

The first day we explored the property and realized that if not for our curiosity of the ancient city of Udaipur, there would be no need to ever leave the hotel.  As we rambled through the property, it seemed endless.  There were courtyards, attached to manicured gardens adjacent to grassy expanses that led to boundless corridors leading to hidden enclaves. All surrounded by the impressive Rajasthani traditional architecture.  There is also a complete nature preserve that surrounds one side of the hotel (with peacocks & deer) and two ancient Maharajah’s hunting lodges hidden on the property. In addition to the semi-private pool that we had, there was another semi-private pool on another side of the hotel, as well as two regular pools for the rest of the hotel.  There was also a three story, impeccably designed spa and numerous shops and restaurants.  We were there for 4 full days and we are not sure if we saw everything. 

The reflecting pool and fountain

Looking up from the lake

The city of Udaipur across the lake

The other semi-private pool

Fountain in the area between the first courtyard and lobby

Another courtyard

The lobby from the backside

One of the two main pools

The Candle Room

Courtyard at night

The other main pool - this one is attached to the Spa

With all the aforementioned amenities, one would expect the place to be buzzing, but in reality, there really are not that many rooms.  You rarely saw another guest and you never saw the hotel staff unless you needed something.  It was peaceful, relaxing and completely stress free.  You could roam about on your own personal adventure, swim in your pool or just grab a bench and read and no one would disturb you. 

Looming across the lake, though, was the city of Udaipur and it would be a shame to come to this part of the world and not see the old city.  Often called the Venice of the East, this 600-year old city sits in the dessert surrounded by mountains.  To supply water to his people, the Maharajah constructed manmade lakes around the city.  The result is a stunning landscape of Rajput palaces, lakes and mountains.

Udaipur looming across the lake

When you live in India, you are not looking for the quintessential Indian experience when you travel, but the best way to maximize the positive and minimize the, well, Indian.   No tuk-tuks (small covered scooters), no “local guides,” no tourist shopping!  I get enough Indian “culture” on my way to work everyday.  Nope, I am looking for the best way to see the city sans the stink, garbage and hawkers.

I figured the hotel concierge would understand what I wanted and, true to form, she did.  We hired a hotel car for the day to take us into the city to see the sights - air-conditioned, plenty of water and cool towels! India always looks a bit better from the window of a BMW. 

We started off with the City Palace which I have been told is a “not-miss” site in Udaipur.  Figuring everyone else has been told the same thing, we arrived as the gates were opening and the crowds were low.  The place was stunning.  It is a massive series of buildings built over the last 500+ years as each maharajah added his own touch and personality, but left his processors’ vision alone.  Each section has the unmolested look and feel of whatever era in which it was built. 

The City Palace

City Palace

City Palace

Note the sun symbol

Front of City Palace

The Lake Palace which is now a hotel as seen from the City Palace

We spent the morning meandering through the palace and then headed down to the one of the oldest temples in the city.  I would have more to say about this, but as we entered the temple grounds, there were the typical Indian “helpers” trying to relieve you of your money.  Having no patience for this, we peeked at the temple and walked back to the car.  

The Temple

We still had a few hours left and asked the driver what he recommended.  He told us that there was an abandoned palace that sat on the top of a mountain not too far from the city.  Apparently, tourist go in the evenings to see the sunset, but in the afternoon is would be deserted.  Sounded like my kind of place. 

Sajjan Garh Palace or, as it is more commonly know, the Monsoon Palace was built in 1884 for the Maharajah to have a place to watch the incoming monsoon clouds.  It sits on the edge of a 3100- foot cliff and has a commanding view of the valley below.  Unlike the City Palace which is still run by the Maharajah’s family, the Monsoon Palace was donated to the Indian Forestry Department, so, like all things under the responsibility of the Indian Government, it has fallen into a state of disrepair.  With a little vision, though, you can see that this place must have been very grand at one point.  The views are breathtaking and the architecture is stunning.  Inside, though, it is just a gutted building with all the former adornments, no doubt, now hanging in the Indian Minister of Forestry’s vacation home somewhere in Switzerland. 

The Monsoon Palace

View from the Monsoon Palace

The Palace

What remains inside


We strolled around the pillage palace for about an hour enjoying the views and the cool mountain breeze.  It was a serene and lonely place with almost no noise except the wind blowing through the empty windows and doorways.

After a brief encounter with some monkeys, we were back in the car, properly toweled and hydrated and cruising back to our hotel.  It was a great day out, but I was looking forward to getting back and taking a dip in my pool. 

Monkey at the Monsoon Palace

The rest of the vacation was pretty much a combination of spa appointments, swimming, eating and taking long walks around the property.  The highlight of each day, though, was dinner.  Dinner was served on the same veranda as breakfast, but without the curtained tents.  The al fresco dining was accompanied by a traditional two man, Rajasthani band consisting of a drummer and a fiddle player.  They churned out the beats of the region providing a sublime background to the illumination of the city of Udaipur at night reflecting off the lake.  It was the perfect end to every evening. 

Olga at dinner with Udaipur illuminated across the lake

We loved our time at the Udaivillas and, unfortunately, the end came much too soon.  The downside of having a great vacation like this is the reality of India tends to hit even harder.  Upon returning to Delhi, it was even more difficult for us to get back into a routine and conversations began to turn to “alternatives.” 

The next few months would prove critical to our decision to stay or leave.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Singapore (February)

The story really starts in February with our trip to Singapore. A few months prior, Olga had attended a Charity function at the Australian Embassy where she won a weekend at the Singapore Intercontinental in one of their Shophouse suites. When you live in Delhi, free hotel rooms in another country is a gift from the Gods (which one of the 330 million, I cannot say).

We decided to extend our trip a few nights as the 6 hour flight to Singapore did not justify only two nights. We figured if we were going, we would at least go for 5 days, as just being somewhere that did not smell like human shit and body odor justified the additional expense!

We left Delhi, as always, under the cover of darkness and a blanket of smog so think you could actually taste it. Yum! We landed in Singapore, on the other hand, under the gentle, clear sunlight and the slight smell of the sea. Our hotel representative met us at the gate ushered us effectively through customs and into our black Mercedes limo for the ride to the hotel. Outside, the city was alive with rush hour traffic flowing orderly across the network of pristine roadways. Inside, the sleek, black car silently wove its way through the city streets as Olga and I admired the mixture of colonial architecture combining seamless with the new modern skyscape of Singapore. It was so different than the run-down, moldy favelas that pass for buildings in Delhi. We were happy!

The hotel is located in the Bugis district of Singapore. In the 1920s, this district was a thriving Peranakans merchant district. The shops were located on the ground floor and the living quarters of the owners and their family on the top. In the 1950s, the area declined and become a huge tourist spot known for its transvestite denizens rather than its merchants. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the area became a huge tourist attraction due to the concentrated transvestite population. In the late 1980s, the district underwent massive urban redevelopment that preserved the unique architecture, but added unique elements such connecting the rooftops with glass and creating air-conditioned, pedestrian shopping areas. The district is a shopping destination for tourist and Singaporeans alike.

Original Shop Houses
Redeveloped Shop House
The front of the hotel was indistinguishable from most of the other buildings, but when you drove into the courtyard away from the traffic on the street, you got a sense for the oasis it provided. Inside, it felt like a gentle combination of older building melded together to give a grand feel. We were escorted to our suite which was in a quiet, slightly segregated wing away from the main building in which the few Shophouse suites were aligned in narrow corridor. Inside the room retained much of the character that one would image the original house had. It had a foyer, a sitting room, a bed room and a large bathroom. The sitting room had the original French doors which led to a small balcony overlooking what was once the street, but was now a glass topped shopping thoroughfare. Even when you stepped outside the room onto the veranda, you were still inside. Brilliant!

After settling in, we set about exploring Singapore over the next few days. As always, our excursions were mostly anchored in food choices. In a city as diverse as Singapore, choosing which great restaurant to patron is a heart-wrenching choice of picking what you want more over just what you want. We choose steak, sushi and BBQ mostly. It may seem like a waste to choose such continental foods in Singapore, but when you live in a city where most of the native dishes look and smell like diarrhea, something recognizable is worth the sacrifice.

Our dining was interspersed with activities that took us all over the city. We spent a glorious morning walking through the Singapore Botanical Gardens with the largest orchid collection in the world. We spent a night at the unique Singapore Night Zoo in which all the animals are nocturnal. We took a cruise and, of course, had the obligatory spa outing. Overall it was fantastic.

And that was the problem…

Watching the Singaporeans shopping for refrigerated, non-toxic vegetables; eating in hygienic restaurants with a choice of food that will not incite your stomach to try and vacate your body; and just being able to go outside without have to scrub like a nuclear clean-up specialist before you can sit on the furniture got us thinking…

What the hell are we doing in India?

It is not like we have not asked ourselves that question before, but this time it was different. There was a sense of disapprobation and indignation. 

It was the beginning of the end.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I'm Back!!

Let me apologize for my lengthy hiatus from the blogosphere, but I was told many times “if you do not have something nice to say, do not say anything at all.” Those of you that know me well, know it is not usually a philosophy to which I adhere rigidly, but in this case I calculated that it may impact my job longevity and personal security, so I opted to follow it – if not just this once.

It is not like things have not been happening and I have not had comments. Actually, Olga and I have been monstrously busy. We went to Singapore in February, Udaipur in March, and Shanghai in April. Outside of that, I have been to Dhaka, Bangladesh and Istanbul, Turkey twice, as well as Jakarta, Indonesia, Shenzhen China and Hong Kong. This is all over the last 6 months. Each time transiting through the Delhi Airport which I now refer to as my own personal hell!

Within Delhi, there has been much transpiring. After a year and half, the chaos here becomes predictable which means your tolerance is greatly reduced. Before, it was a surprise when something stupid happened – now it is just a predictable conclusion.

Through all of this, I have made notes and reminders of the good, the bad and the truly Indian. I have also many times put hand to keyboard, but in the end decided that the stories were simply drowning in negativity and were more personal venting than entertaining blogging.

Let’s be honest, it is not like I have ever been a beacon of optimism and sunshine, but this was a whole different level. My glass half empty philosophy had digressed into a true loathing of my surroundings and more importantly, of the 1.4 billion people that contributed to the majority of my misery. Some of the perspective stories made Edgar Allen Poe’s works look upbeat and cheerful.

Realizing that all this stress was taking a toll not only on my mental & physical health, but on the person about whom I care the most, I tendered my resignation with my current employer to escape the madness. This was last Friday and, to be honest, I feel a tad more positive. So positive, in fact, that I will go back and pull out the highlights of the last 7 months and put them in words.

So welcome to the retrospective journey that led to my decision to quit my job!

Friday, December 9, 2011

A New Expereince in China

Over the last 16 years, I have been to China many, many times.  I have seen China before highways and western hotels and when the only English tourist-vendors knew was a high, screeching "Cheaper, Cheaper."  China is now a modern, dynamic country now that has no resemblance to the old days of of closed boarders and intrusive police, so when I have a new experience in China, it tends to be a little jolting.

For the last week I have been shuttling between Hong Kong and Shenzhen China.  I spent 3 nights in Hong Kong, 1 night in China and then returned yesterday to Hong Kong for the final day of work.  It is not as cool as it sounds as I spend most of my time facilitating meetings around riveting subjects such as Vendor Accountability and Goals & Objectives. 

Typically, when we are transferring from Hong Kong to Shenzhen or back again, we hire a car service to ferry us the distance.  It is not far, about an hour, but you need two licence plates to do it legally - one for Hong Kong and one for China.  These plates are expensive and hard to get, so car services that have them are in demand. 

On this particular trip, we were en route back to Hong Kong when our vehicle, which consisted of the driver, a Indian living in Hong Kong and an Indonesian, were stopped in the middle of the road by the police. In a split second, the driver we pulled out of the car and a plain-clothes policeman jumped in the driver's seat and roared off with us sitting shocked in the back.  About 100 yards down the road, we pulled off the road and the policeman began to interrogate us ... in Mandarin Chinese.  This was a problem due to the aforementioned make up of the group - none of us were Chinese! 

Between all our broken and spotty knowledge of Chinese, we were able to piece together that the line of questioning was about the payment for the vehicle.  The policeman was very interested to know if we were paying for the car ourselves.   Since it was a hired vehicle through the company, we were, in fact, not paying directly for it and answered accordingly.  There were some follow up questions that exceeded our language ability and so, after 30 minutes, he either got what he needed or realized he was never going to get it and returned our driver.

What had actually happened, as we pieced together later, was that the Chinese Government was cracking down on privately registered Hong Kong cars being used as commercial vehicles.  Our answer of "no we are not paying, the company pays," must have been interpreted as "no, this was a company owned car" and therefore met the requirement.  In fact, as we found out later, it was in clear violation of Chinese law and if we had fully answered the question, the results may have been different. 

The life lesson I draw from this is that apparently clear and concise communication is not always the recipe for success.  Sometimes leaving a bit of ambiguity is the difference between a night in the Peninsula Hotel and a Chinese prison. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Making Change

One of the unique aspects of living in a cash based society like India is the value that is placed on change. Not change in "let's make society better," but change in "do you have change for a dollar." There is a strange attachment to smaller denomination bills, like a 10 Rupee note (roughly $0.20) and getting a storekeeper to part with one is sometimes more complicated than the US tax code.

In the United States, if you go into a store and buy something for $2.75 and hand the cashier a ten dollar bill, the cashier, without hesitation, reaches in, counts the change and off you go. In Delhi, if you had the same purchase, the processes takes on a very different tone.  Firs, the cashier will slowly look at the bill and then, as if you have somehow annoyed them by making the purchase, ask if you have change. When you respond "no," the cashier will then stare down at the register for about 30 seconds as if waiting for Lakhshimi herself to make the change for him. When the God of Prosperity does not appear, he will let out of series of sighing breaths culminated with finally reaching into the register and pulling out your change.  Painfully, as if giving over his own flesh, he will hand the change to you.  This all take approximately 3-5 minutes. 

Even Indians find this "dance" to be a little absurd and when Indians finding something absurd, you know you are in a hole different league of strange. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving with the Wrong Indians

It is Thanksgiving again and like the Pilgrims, we, too got to share our Thanksgiving dinner with Indians.  Dining with Indians always brings its unique challenges, but in a buffet situation during an American holiday, in an American setting, things are downright bizarre.

The American Club tried to host events to celebrate the major American holidays.  It is, after all, the American Citizens Support Association.  The 4th of July is a huge outdoor BBQ, while Easter and Thanksgiving tend to be buffets.  In theory, this should be good as the main foods for these celebrations, hamburgers, ham and Turkey respectively, are not readily available in Delhi and is suppose to serve as a slice of home.  In reality, since the Club is managed and staffed by Indians (with loose Embassy oversight), it usually digresses into weird interpretation of what Indians think the holiday should be.  Feature in the Easter brunch, for example was a large plate of, not ham, but ham fat.  Who eats ham fat and what book explained this as an American Easter delicacy?  Anyway, you get the picture - not always executed well. 

This Thanksgiving, the team down at the club actually got the food correct.  The Turkey meat was good, the stuffing, albeit bland and institutional, was passable and they actually had cranberry jelly - you know the kind that comes out of a can with the ridges.  Having spent half my life eating institutional food (let me clarify - boarding school, college, Navy), this type of grub is a walk down memory lane. I had no complaints and woofed down two plate-loads in the tradition of Thanksgiving! 

There were issues though.  The first is the ubiquitous presents of the American passport-holding Indian.  Regardless of the event, these Indians, usually extremely wealthy and with a sense of entitlement that would shame a middle-east dictator, show up in force.  They bring their non-American passport holding Indian friends to show them how American they are.   This means that when they show up there are usually about 20 of them.  The burst through the door and expect the entire restaurant staff to drop what they are doing and accommodate them.  As well, they treat any buffet like a black Friday 70% off event at Wal-mart and jump the buffet like with the alacrity of a pack of pumas.  They are rude, ill mannered and generally disruptive and I am thinking about getting some pepper-spray to keep my place in the next line.  

To give some perspective, I saw an article in the Indian newspaper explaining Thanksgiving.  I am paraphrasing, but it basically said that this the day that we, Americans, give thanks for all our material wealth - nothing about family, health, or friends, just the money.  This is how Indians understand all things and it is why simply working 10 years in the United States and returning to India does not make you an American. It makes you an American passport holder - nothing more.

The second issue with the event was that through the entire meal, we were loudly serenaded by a live Indian band whose lack of talent was only eclipsed by the lack of taste in music.  For hours, we were tortured by the Indian scalping (excuse the pun) of hits from ABBA and Crystal Gayle, to name a few, in harsh Indian accents.  The real musical equivalent of water-boarding, though, came when the duo broke out into their rendition of the Grammy Award-winning Roberta Flack's "Killing me Softly with His Song."  Yep, everything you need to drive your average American ex-pat to the brink of insanity on this day of Thanks.

So, as I write this, four days later, the memory of turkey and stuffing has faded from my mind, the sweet taste of cranberry jelly has faded from my lips, but the haunting sound of Indians singing  "Killing Me Softly" continues to ring in my head!

Happy Thanksgiving!