Sunday, August 5, 2007

Coming Home...

Once again I’m in the Frankfurt airport, only this time – I’m on the way home. Frankfurt is one of the largest, if not the largest airports I’ve ever been in and I didn’t have my traveling co-workers this time to navigate me through. Rebecca is staying in Germany on vacation with her boyfriend and my boss decided to stay an extra day in Bangalore. My only mishap however, was walking into a linen closet in the bathroom as opposed to the exit. Apparently verboten means ‘No’. ;-) I have made my way to my gate now though and I’m in the ‘Gummy Bear’ Lounge again.

It was with mixed feelings that I left Bangalore last night. The airport leaving was worse coming in. You had to run your own bags through the scanner, fight to pick them out amongst everyone else (Indians, I’m convinced, have no concept of standing in line, as evidenced by their complete ignoring of traffic ‘laws’) and then make your way to a counter. There was no business lounge but, here ma’am, have some coffee instead, the man at the counter assured us. There are, literally, two gates where every plane takes off from and we were all packed into the waiting room there. It was, much like the rest of my journey here, quite an experience.

There are some things about India that I want to remember so I’m going to write them here in case I don’t return:

First, if you ever go, pack plenty of chewable pepto-bismol and drink lots of water your first three days. It takes a bit for your body to get acclimated to its new home. Best advice my immunization nurse ever gave me.

Travel during the monsoon season. Yes, it rained here and there but the weather was quite beautiful otherwise. Bangalore, I was told, was renowned for its weather and I believe it. Much more seasonable at 65 to 70 degrees than the humid Virginia weather 85+ than I’m used to. July and August are quite pleasant in Bangalore.

Apparently, if you pick up a few words, they are quite impressed with it. Their faces broke out in the most wide grins when we would greet them with ‘How are you?” or “Thank you” in Kanada.

It was so interesting to exchange ideas and cultures with our hosts. I feel as if I’ve lived in a box most of my life up until this point. The simple act of showing them quarters and how we have states on each quarter, they loved. So we gave them what we had in our pockets. Virginia, North Dakota, and New York.

They have different ideas of cleanliness than we do. Even at fast food places (McDonalds and KFC are prominent here) there are public sinks where everyone washes their hands and faces afterwards. It is custom. Further, they only eat with one hand. It is considered cleaner.

I want to remember the woman in the market who waved me off when I tried to hand her rupees over her husband’s back as I was paying for an item (he was bending down digging for an item for another custom). Apparently, it was her superstition that I was trying to buy her husband too if I handed her money ‘over’ him. I apologized profusely and all was well again.

One of the women happened to name her dog Bingo. When I asked her if she named it after the song or game she had no idea what I was talking about. Rebecca and I began singing the song ‘Bingo’ and they were absolutely delighted. “We did not know, we did not know!’ they exclaimed to us. It was a very funny moment.

The stores there are very big on feedback. After many of our shopping excursions or dining experiences, we were asked to provide feedback and fill out feedback cards. When I commented on this, someone asked me if we did not do this in the states. Well, there are cards on the tables in some places, I told him, but noone ever fills them out and, even if we do I doubt any action is taken upon them.
Finally, I really want to remember what the team and people's attitudes were like. How friendly and unassuming they were and so open to us. Americans are like that but we are so much more stressed on the whole than the Indians are it seems. At least in a lot of areas. The simple act of driving, for example. Road rage is a problem in America whereas Indians just go about their combination Nascar/bumper car commute everyday and seem to take it in stride. When I mentioned I liked chocolate, when I was about to leave, one of the teams presented me with a box of it, one of them having taken time off work to go and get me a sample of Indian chocolate. This is not to say that Americans are not good hosts. :-) I think we are. I just suspect that a lot of this goodwill and attitude carries forth into Indians' everyday lives as well. I think Americans deal with a lot less stress and the Indians, while having so much less on the whole than we do yet many work just as hard, also seem to have less stress than we do.

There were so many things there that I’m sure I’ll remember more later as it was such a big culture change for me. And, despite all the hand washing, I came back with a summer cold. But I would not change the experience for anything and am now encouraged to travel more and I see my perspective on what I once thought of the Indian culture is entirely changed now that I’ve seen it first hand. Thanks to all of you who have read and written to me at I’ll be putting all my pictures up that I did not post here (several) up at Flickr.

Until next time…


Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Working World in Bangalore...

For the past couple of days we have been working ten to twelve hour days so we can get everything done we need to do in the week we are here. Today we worked thirteen. It is hard work and tiring. On top of that, the physical adjustment of being here is harder than I anticipated. I’m not sure if it is the work, the being “out of my time”, the food and climate adjustment that my body is being forced to make or what but I’ve been slightly nauseous every morning and afternoon. It does not subside until around evening. It could also be the breakneck speed and constant starting and stopping my driver puts me through with Indian traffic every morning as well. My co-workers tell me they feel the same and my boss, who has been here five times now, tells me this is a natural reaction to traveling halfway around the world, working hard while you are at it, and with such a drastic culture change involved. We should get beyond it in three to four days. In other words, right about the time we are leaving. Rebecca was very sick today beyond the mild nausea as well. She thinks, perhaps, she should not have had the sherbert she tried last night. And indeed, as I finish this post on Thursday morning, I feel somewhat normal today with no ill effects for the first time.

That aside, however, I would not change the experience I’ve had for anything. I cannot say enough about the Indian people and I’ve such a different perspective on them than I had when I was in “the States”. They are the most polite people I’ve ever met; All very soft-spoken and exceptionally friendly. It was interesting to see how their corporate culture differs from ours.

For example, in the corporate environment (and in the general culture) here there is still very much a hierarchy in place. When I try to obtain answers or feedback from the entire team, they defer to their managers to speak for them. Only when their managers are out of the room do they speak up and joke with me. Unlike America where everyone has an opinion and wants to be heard.

There is also a large “service industry” in place as well inside the corporate buildings. As soon as we step in the elevator, there is a man there who sits on a stool all day and waits for us to tell him what floor.

I will say, “One please.”

And he will reply, everyday, “Yes, ma’am.” In his soft voice.

In the washroom, there is a lady there at the ready with a towel. “Do you require a towel, ma’am?” she will ask. And I will reply, “Yes, please.”

I am told this is the norm for the corporate world as are the free lunches in the cafeteria and the free cappuccino machines. That is a nice change from America.

India seems to be the world of the haves and the have-nots. There is no middle class really so far as I can see. You are either unfortunate enough to be born exceptionally poor or into a good family where you will go to the University, get your degree, and then obtain a good job either in the tech industry or beyond. My counterpart here, Harish told me, it is unthinkable in India to try to obtain a job on his team without a degree. Most people, in fact, have Masters degrees. This, I found interesting, considering two people on my team do not have college degrees and none have Masters.

Harish also told me that it is not uncommon for young Indian professionals to make job jumps for 50% to 100% raises. This is why attrition rates are so high in India at the moment for the tech industry. They move from job to job in search of higher salaries every three to four years if not sooner. Indians from the outlying villages obtain their degrees in Banglore with the intent of moving their way up through various companies with the intent of saving enough money to eventually move back to their homes and start a family. This before retirement age hopefully. “And are you all able to do this normally?” I asked him. “Yes, normally we are.” Judging by some of the conditions I’ve seen in this country, I really cannot blame him.

I asked him about the women in this country when one of Harish’s team leads, Moupiya joined us the next day (Mo-Pee-ya – Piya for short). She told me that single women often live in pairs or in what are called “Pgs”.

“What does PG stand for?” I asked.

“Paying Guest.” She told me. “I am a paying guest in someone’s home. I live in one without rules.” She smiled proudly.


“Yes. Often women have curfews if they live in Pgs. But some do not. I chose this one. I only have to pay for my room. Meals are included.”

“Is it a problem if women are unmarried here for long.”

“Oh, yes.” They both said in unison. “Some marriages are still arranged by families here. But, if a woman by 30 still has not married or had her family arrange one, that is still somewhat frowned upon.”

“But not for men.” I say.

“No.” Harish smiles. “Not for men. Especially if he is trying to further is career.”

Something I found interesting is the Indians follow American politics very closely. They have just elected their second woman leader in fact though some say the position is largely ‘ornamental. Moupiya pointed out that the US is still largely behind in that regard in that we still have not shared our highest office and, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton is seeking to make history with that, many American women do not support her in her quest to further that cause, was how it was put. I smiled. She was not far from wrong. Many women do not feel as if she represents them I told her.

And finally, one other thing I have discovered. I have tried lots of Indian dishes and several of them, I did not much care for (though a few were quite tasty). But a universal truth remains, you can’t go wrong with sugar! Every singe dessert I have tried, I liked! Even dates with syrup. YUM. On Friday, we have another day off that we plan to spend walking around town (Bangalore itself this time instead of a day trip) to do some shopping for people. I have no idea what to buy but I play to buy some stuff. I’ve hardly spent a rupee here so far because everyone insists on treating me. This is good and bad. Because now I will have to do the same for them when I take them to NYC (my boss told me they are coming in Sept. and he wants us to go to Manhattan) in two months. He recommended that I take them to see a Broadway show because that would be a treat. Hey, who am I to argue with the boss, right?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mysore: Home of the Royals

On Sunday morning two staff members from our Bangalore support team presented themselves at the Royal Orchid (our hotel) ready to take us on a day trip. We presented ourselves in the hotel lobby freshly showered and in the same crusty clothes we’d just spent the last 18 hours traveling in. Nothing quite like putting those back on, let me tell you. But I was very glad to realize that I’d packed my camera in my carry-on when Harish (whom I’d met before in the States on his first trip over) and Dikshit (an unfortunate name the 7th grader that still lurks inside of me just won’t let go) told us where we’d be going that day. Mysore (prounounced exactly like it is spelled) is a district two hours southwest of Bangalore and home to the royals and royal palace. There is also a large Hindu temple there that’d we would visit. Were we game? You bet. It seems that the company has provided us a driver for the week too which, I soon found out, is a very good idea.

First of all…driving around in Bangalore is terrifying. There are absolutely no rules whatsoever. None. Zero. Everyone goes at breakneck speed, there are 10 motorcycles to every car (because of the congestion, people buy bikes) and double the “ricks” as they call them for rickshaws. Very few lines exist on the roads. I’ve yet to see one cop. People honk madly and pass at will regardless if there is a car coming in the opposite direction. That car will just have to move. I mean that literally. Our driver ran people off the road several times. I finally got to the point that I just couldn’t look anymore. Harish and Diskshit just laugh at our expressions. “It’s the only way you can get around here,” they insist. At one point, we just missed a man who was lying in the street his leg sprawled nearly into the traffic itself. And speaking of the motorcycles, the women ride side saddle because they wear saris. They hold their children in front of them with no helmets. At one point, I saw a man driving, a woman riding side saddle, the child in between them. And we get bent out of shape because metal slinkies are back on sale.

In addition to out of control traffic, cows wander the streets at will. So far as I could tell, they didn’t belong to anyone. I asked about this. Harish told me that people feed them but generally do not eat them since 90% of Bangalore’s population is Hindu and Hindus consider the cow sacred. I took the opportunity to find out a bit more about the Hindu religion (since I would be visiting a Hindu temple anyway). He told me that Hindus think that cows are used by the Gods and Hindus believe in more than one God. He named several but the more are those that people are used to seeing and represented by the Elephant – Ganeesh and Shreeva – the God with many arms. I asked him, “Used how by the Gods?”

“For transportation, mainly.” He told me. “So, if you kill a cow, you are interfering with the Gods.”

“So, if a cow were to cross the road, right now in front of all this traffic, “ I asked, “Everyone would just drive around it?”

“Yes.” He said.

And indeed, the streets are full of wandering cows. I even saw one in a shop and the owner paid it no mind. I also asked him about the red paint on the foreheads of people in India. “What does this represent?” He told me it was also part of a religious belief. Which religion? Hindu again. What does it mean?

“You can think of it as meditation. When people use the red paint, it shows much devotion and concentration to their beliefs. They are concentrating.” He said. I thought about this a moment then had to ask. “Harish, aren’t you a Hindu?” “Yes.” “So, do you not concentrate very much? I see you do not wear the red dot.” I grin at him. He smiles back, “I am not meditating very much these days.”

“And the turbans people wear. I don’t see very many here. Not Hindu? Muslim?”

“Not Hindu.” He agreed. “But not Muslim either. They are Sikhs (pronounced sick). And underneath their turbans, they have taken a vow not to cut their hair. It is very, very long.”

Finally, I saw something I recognized - something I knew. A car passed us with a bumper sticker: Jesus is Love. “There are Christians here?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh, yes.” Harish said. “Not very many. But some.”

“Are they frowned upon?”

“Not often. Sometimes. If they get too aggressive when they try to convert. But not often.”

Soon enough, we were in the Mysore district. Which, to be honest, didn’t look much different to me from Bangalore. Everything about India speaks to me of crushing poverty. I kept waiting to be out of the ‘poor district’ but you never are. The temple, we are told, is a place of great importance to India and one of the larger one’s so, therefore, a great attraction. Since we are there on a Sunday, the crowds are also expected to be much larger.

The driver drops us off at the base of the hill where we will have to walk to the temple and, for the first time, I feel acutely western and acutely white. We attract immediate attention and stares. There is a statue of a demon God that people are milling around and two young boys immediately rush up to us and begin their sales pitch. They are selling postcards and identify us for what we are: American and money.

“Ma’am, ma’am,” he says to me, “Beautiful postcards for you to take home. Only one American dollar. Just one.”

“Don’t buy anything.” Dikshit immediately warns me. “We’ll be swarmed by them.”

I shake my head and say no thank you but they persist. They follow us all the way up the hill, jabbering the entire way for us to buy their cards. Finally, at the top of the hill, he shouts in frustration, “George Bush is a bad man!” and leaves us alone.
This almost makes me laugh because, after all, I do not disagree with that sentiment.

At the top of the hill, the temple itself is a site to behold.
We are told that we will have to remove our shoes and socks and enter the temple barefoot. I am skeptical about this. There are a whole lot of people here and a whole of dirt. But I don’t want to miss the experience so I comply. Dikshit tells us we will not have to stand in the long line because his grandfather “knows someone”. I’m not sure how I feel about this. How will these Indians feel about these westerners bypassing the line to go into their holy place? But the Indians, polite as I’m realizing they always are, smile and nod and let us pass.

Unfortunately, I could not take pictures inside the temple as it was not allowed but it was very pretty and very different. I do have a shot of me standing outside the temple after I received the priest’s blessing. And no Mom, I’m not converting to Hinduism, but I did receive the blessing so as not to offend.

Finally, to end our day, we went back to where the royals lived in their palace. This is the only wealth I have seen so far to this country other than the hotel that I, myself, am staying in. Not even the worst ghettos of NYC and DC, that until now I thought were pretty bad, compare to the poverty here. The three overwhelming smells here are curry, jasmine, and dirt. Literally. When walking the streets while we waited for the “Palace show” where they turn on the lights to the palace, I had to carefully watch where I was going as, often as not, there are not sidewalks or I’d walk into a car, cow, or mongrel dog. And this is a city. Shanty huts and tents abound and begging is out of control. If you give a rupee to one, you are instantly swarmed and because you are white, they come for you anyway. There was one child, five years old, bone thin who looked at us, held up his hands and was so instantly crying when he saw us (with no mother in sight) I had to wonder if it was an act. Nevertheless, it was a good one that won him 10 rupees. People in the US often complain about taxes and I’m one of them. Having seen this however, I’m reminded just where that tax money goes and should go. Thank God I was born in the US where we have roads with lines, sidewalks, healthcare (such as it is), police and fire stations, and food and drugs are regulated by agencies to protect us. Where I don’t have to wonder if things have been checked out first and I know they are safe because, yes, the government has ensured that. India is a growing country. But it has a long way to go.

At 4:30 a.m., a light tapping came at my door. "Ma'am, your bags have arrived." Came a soft voice. "Oh, thank God." I say. I let him in and thank him profusely as he cuts the wrapping they have tightly wound it with. He is there and gone within 60 seconds after thanking me profusely. I sleepily go back to bed. It only occurs to me the next morning why he was so happy. I tipped him an American dollar. The last one I had left because it was in easy reach on the desk. The equivalent of 40 Rupees when the standard tip is 10. Oh, well. I have my clothes back now and all is well.

Indian food eaten today: Dosa. Good. Sort of like a pancake. Paneer Pochokae. Eh. Chicken Mui something. HOT. But okay. By the end of the week, I have no doubt I will have offended the Hindus by coveting a cow. ;)

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Even when you think you are ready for a 24-hour jaunt halfway round the world, it stretches on forever. It's weird to think that I'm closer to China now than Carolina. The airline tried to get our internal clocks on the new time. They started serving breakfast 1:00 a.m. eastern because it was 9:00 a.m. Frankfurt. I still wasn't ready for it however so I skipped it. By the time I actually landed in Germany I was a zombie because, true to form, I couldn't sleep on the plane and it was 3:00 a.m. eastern.

When you fly business class, you have access to the business lounge so that's where we went to relax for the hour and a half wait we had between boardings. In the business lounge everything is free too apparently. There was, quite literally, an open bar where you could walk up and mix your own drinks. There were two soldiers there who were living it up with the Frankfurt beer at 11:00 a.m. in the morning while everyone else was having at the coffee machine and breakfast bar. I finally just started drinking coffee and sugarless hot chocolate (blasphemy!) figuring if I was going to be up, I might as well commit. There was also a bin full of gummy bears that people were obsessing over. "Oh, my God. These are the best gummy bears ever. Look, there's even gummy larva." says my co-worker. But, despite the fact that indeed they looked a little better than the average gummy bear, I've never been a big fan.

Finally we board and get to do another 7 hour plane ride all over again to Bangalore. By the end of this one, I was really ready to be off the plane. As nice as business class is...the free drinks they serve before you even take off, the hot towels you feel compelled to use even if you don't feel dirty because, well, they are there...and they are hot...the good food...the movies of your choice...the chairs that lay almost all the way down...the fact of the matter are still on a plane..for 24 hours. So by the time we actually arrived in Bangalore, I was really ready to be here. Until we get through customs and are waiting for our bags.

Now this is no modern airport. No big shiny baggage carousels here. Its loud, packed, and hot. Lot's of shouting going on. I look around and see a currency exchange booth and decide that while I'm waiting I'll go exchange a hundred dollars. I get 3800 rupees for my $100. I'm not sure yet how far that will take me. When I get back to the baggage carousel, I notice all the bags are nearly gone and my bag is not there. My co-workers are there and they still do not have their bags either. Worse, they look worried. "All business class bags are out." they tell me. "Ours are missing." I do a quick mental check. Yeah, I'd like to have my bags but my absolute essentials, money, passport, and medications are on me.

We are led over to fill out some paperwork for out missing bags (we all used the same check in person in Washington too - this is a USA mishap I bet!) and are given "essentials" for the night. Hairbrush, t-shirt, toothbrush, shampoo. I have to laugh. They can't lose my bag when I travel to NYC for the night. They have to lose it when I'm halfway round the world for a week.

Finally, we get in a cab and are taken to our hotel, which as far as I can tell sits in the middle of one of the worst slums I've ever seen in my life. A pack of mongrel dogs literally was fighting on the street and then a guarded gate led into a somewhat westernized looking hotel. They man at the desk asked me for my business card. "No card." I say. "My bag was lost."

"Ah." He says. "Would you like coffee in the morning?" I think about this. I've been warned not to drink the water but I wonder if that includes hot water. Surely the heat would burn off any bacteria? I have no idea. I play it safe. No thanks I say regretfully. I make may way up to my room where, thankfully, there is a mini bar. It is 2:00 a.m. in India and around 4:00 in the afternoon in the states. I open the mini bar and take inventory. I have my laptop and the clothes on my back. I have my passport and my American Express. I have this Kingfisher beer. The lights blink off. Then back on. Welcome to the third world.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

It's All Over But the Packing...

Well, I leave on Friday night at 6:00 p.m. I have my Visa in hand and have received my last Hep shot. By the way, it costs a pretty penny to prepare for overseas travel. I'm glad this first trip is on my company. The Visa itself was $173, passport (expedited because the U.S. gov't is incredibly slow) - $160 and I don't even want to know how much my shots were. Anyway, I'm pretty much set at this point except I've not packed yet. I'm a little worried about obtaining the currency but that's my travel OCD surfacing a little early. Everyone keeps assuring me that I'll be fine once I arrive.

So earlier this week I ask in my team in my staff meeting, (they've all been before), 'So, they have cabs, right?'

Because honestly, the biggest thing worrying me is getting around and not being able to speak, well, Indian. Everyone tells me, if you get stuck, find a young person. The older generation is pretty traditional and doesn't speak English but the younger generation is getting pretty westernized.

'Rickshaws, mostly. But some cabs.' One of my Sr. Analysts says.

'Rickshaws....' I say slowly. I have this picture of a little Indian trying to haul my big butt around in a two-wheeled contraption. My team is grinning at me.

'The Indian team is gonna be scared of you.' Someone says.

'What do you mean? I have a naturally sweet and kind disposition.' I am busy googling 'rickshaw' to make sure it is what I think it is and ignore the glances they exchange.

Sure enough...this is a rickshaw.

'Yeah, I'm pretty much gonna need a cab.' I say.

'Uh huh. The Indians are gonna be terrified of you.'


Next time I write, it will be from Bangalore. :-) Until then...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Shots...

Okay, so I remember shots a lot worse than they are. Turns out it wasn't "so bad". :-)

I seem to recall massive needles that, when the liquid is injected, feels as if it is cutting a path right through your muscle (one didn't feel particularly good going in today but it wasn't a HUGE pain). But I think the main concern I had was getting five. For India, you need:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Tetanus, and
Polio Boosters

With follow-up Hep shots in another month and then six months from now too apparently. When I got back to the office, everyone was asking me how the shots were and if I fainted.

Then they told me not to worry about the plane ride either. Apparently, we are to be flown first class for both 9 hour jags. This means lots of room, my own TV, and fresh socks. I found it odd that I get fresh socks but clearly they are not taking any chances that someone might have a foot odor problem and, I gotta be honest. If Travis were flying with me, that would be a blessing. Ha!

One guy told me that filet mignon is served and all the drinks you like of any kind. We have a two-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany where we are encouraged to shower in the executive lounge and where breakfast is also served and then we'll fly another 9 hours into Bangalore with the same sort of service we had on the first flight. All in all, if I have to worry about impending doom in the form of a fiery crash, at least I can be wearing fresh socks on the way down!

Monday, June 4, 2007

Preparing for Bangalore...

For more than two years I avoided India even though my boss kept mentioning I should probably go. Not because I did not want to experience another culture or country other than the United States; I do - and more than just India eventually. Mainly because of what I have to do this Tuesday. My immunization shots. Five of them, all in one day. "Oh, it's not bad.", my staff told me today. I'm sorry but I fail to see how five shots all in one day cannot be, at least, marginally "bad". They will ask you if you faint during shots, they told me. I plan on telling them no but, on the other hand, I've not ever received five at once either so maybe I better lay down. I'm finding that as I get older, it's best just to go ahead and lay down for most things.

Then there's the plane ride. Two separate nine hour jaunts with a layover in Germany is what I'm hearing. No doubt that too will be "not bad". Anyone that has ever prepared for a trip with me knows that I get a little OCDish when I travel. I will pack my bags and then check them a minimum of three times to make sure I have everything. I will go over my itinerary at least five times. I will make sure that my IDs, passports, and all relevant documents are in easy to reach places and then I will double check those places over and over again. I will break into a cold sweat while I stand in the security line because, for some reason, I now think I'm a criminal and they will spot me. I have no idea why this comes out when I travel. And this, mind you, is when I travel domestically. Now that I have to travel internationally, I ought to be in a full fledged Rainman frenzy that will make any security personnel definitely prepare for a strip search by the time I arrive. But I'm not worried because it will be "not bad".

Finally, there is the heat. I attended a Working with Indian Nationals course a month ago, to prepare for when I might go to India (never imagining it was right around the corner) and in that class they gave us a few facts. India is a marketer's dream at the moment because it is a country of billions. And, of those billions, some absurd statistic (around 80 to 90%) is under the age of 19. This is why companies like Coke, Apple, etc., are trying to get footholds there - young market, big sales. Hershey wanted to sell chocolate there. They quickly discovered that chocolate melts in 100+ weather where air conditioning is not the norm.

Let's think about that again...air conditioning is not the norm. So...yeah...five shots, a full day in a plane, and 100+ weather where I'm not allowed to show any leg or wear shorts will not be bad. Other than that...I can't wait. :-)