Saturday, November 28, 2009

The "Looksie"

It's official: I have something in common with Plaxico Burress.  Thankfully, my ability to travel and general sense of personal liberty won't be quite as limited; however, we both should return to mainstream American society at some point in 2011.

It's probably a little anti-climactic to some of our closest friends and I'm sure many are sick of hearing about it, but Lindsay and I are moving to India in January.  In preparation for the big move, Lindsay and I spent the ten days prior to Thanksgiving on our official "looksie" trip to Gurgaon, primarily to find a place to live but also to spend time in the office getting to know our new co-workers.

Lindsay had been back twice this year; however, this was my first trip to India since our six-month assignment from October 2004 - April 2005.  While some things have absolutely changed (Gurgaon has quite figuratively exploded), some things remain much the same ("Friends" is still a staple on Star World TV's "happy hour" in the evening).  The biggest difference between this assignment and the last (other than the duration) is the fact that we'll be living as "true" expats this time around; that is, in the comfort of a fully-serviced apartment close to the office rather than in the comfort of the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi.

As with any trip to India you learn to expect the unexpected and learn to be more patient; however,in the end, the place finds a way to endear itself to you.   That being said, here are the quick hit highlights and observations from our trip....

Ahhhhh, Safety
"Security" is a way of life in India.  I'd estimate that on the average day, a person probably goes through some semblance (or appearance) of a security checkpoint five of six times.

Our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, employed two layer security to gain access to the lobby; however, the layers seem to vary based on the audience.  When driving onto the hotel grounds, we were surprised at the level of care that was taken to ensure the car wasn't wired.  In fact, the car was checked in no fewer than four places: under the car, under the hood, in the trunk, and in the glove box.  All of this in intended to make one feel safe; however, I'm not convinced the guards are trained on what exactly to keep an eye on; however, the rifle carried by one is imposing enough.  In addition, we learned later in the week, with thanks to a former co-worker, Jaideep Agrawal, that when he drove in alone to pick us up that the check was nowhere near as thorough and he was allowed to pass through without the guards looking in the car.

Once you graduate the first check, you then must pass a bag screen and walk through a metal detector to gain entry to the actual hotel.  However, you're not forced to empty your pockets so every person sets off the alarm.  From that point, women are allowed to enter freely and men must survive a check from one of those security wands.  Again, cell phones and whatever else are still in pockets, so the wand alarm would go off each time I walked in the hotel; however, I was never asked to empty my pockets and was allowed free entry to the hotel.

On the bright side, at least they make you walk through the metal detector.  I can remember five years ago walking into the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, seeing metal detectors, and testing the guards by walking around the detector with absolutely no consequence.  This doesn't seem like that big of a deal....except that Hugo Chavez was staying in the hotel at the time.

Other than hotel safety, you'll be relieved to know the future apartment has a similar setup, so don't worry about us.  As a quick tip when you come visit, just look Western and act like you know what you're doing and you should be fine.

Bar Tricks
While physical safety is of primary concern, it was reassuring to see that workplace safety ranks high as well.  We ventured to Ambience Mall for one of Gurgaon's two microbrews for lunch one day (the beer was better than expected, even better (surprisingly) than Kingfisher, the king of good times).  There was a promotional banner hanging high above the bar that needed to come down.  I wasn't sure how they had originally hung the thing; however, we quickly learned how it was coming down when four men emerged with a 12 - 15 foot step ladder though there was nothing to lean the thing against.  Three of the guys stood in the middle of the bar holding the thing vertical and, sure enough, the fourth slowly started climbing the rungs....while the other three supported the base.

He ascended to the top rung (something I wouldn't even do with a stable base) and began yanking on the banner.  When yanking failed to extract the banner, he was forced to descend and took some sort of tool back up with him to help.  Eventually he was successful and the banner came down.  The most surprising part of this sequence was that Lindsay and I seemed to be the only two people transfixed and the only two people that found this somewhat less than safe.

The Crowne Plaza
The Crowne Plaza Gurgaon is a very nice hotel; however, it's very much a business hotel.  In fact, it's quite possible that the only room in the hotel with more than one resident was our's.  Every morning we'd go to the buffet breakfast at G Cafe, which was included with the room, and they'd ask me for my room number.  After I'd reply "4021", they'd ask Lindsay the same question.  She'd reply, "the same", and the hostess (the same each day) always seemed a little skeptical.  At any rate, it took a while for the staff to buy our story and a good six or seven days for them to stop offering us separate checks.

Apparently, poker and gambling has experienced the same growth explosion in India as in the United States.  While waiting for a friend for lunch one day in the lobby, Lindsay and I quite innocently pulled out a deck of cards to pass the time playing gin rummy.  We played one hand and then noticed a member of the staff looking nervously at us.  Lindsay then saw a hostess give that member a nod or a look and he immediately approached us and said, "sir, no cards in open spaces, it's gambling".  Reluctantly, even though there was no money or chips to be seen, we decided it best to sit quietly.  Quite the different cultural experience from a place like Ireland where gambling in the open isn't just accepted, it's basically encouraged.

Ohio State / Michigan
I posted this on Facebook, but approximately two hours before kickoff, we were headed to Delhi for dinner at Olive, one of our favorite restaurants.  At the tollbooth to Delhi on Mehrauli Road, I was suprised to see a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt.  I can say with 99% certainty that he had no idea he was wearing the sweatshirt for a team about to engage in its fiercest and most traditional rivalry.  I can say with 100% certainty that he had no idea that a certain coach from West Virginia has basically killed one side of that rivalry and turned the ferocity of that rivalry down a notch or two.

Northern Spice
My new team at work went out for a team lunch at a traditional northern Indian kebab restuarant.  As usual, the food was phenomenal and plentiful; however, we nearly didn't eat as our table of nine didn't seem to be the waiter's priority.  After ordering (a complex order consisting of "8 non-veg and 1 veg lunch served family style at the table) we thought we were in the clear.  As the minutes passed we began to grow a little impatient.  The waiter came back fifteen or so minutes later and, with a move straight out of "Groundhog's Day", asked if he could take our order.  Awesome.  Everyone at the table immediately asked the waiter to send over his manager.  Not surprisingly, his manager wasn't set to arrive for another two or three hours.

If you've been to India, you've undoubtedly taken part in the ritual of filling out a survey card for service at a hotel or restaurant.  This may have been the first time I haven't seen it offered though that didn't keep one of the more assertive of the bunch to ask for a survey card.  Somewhat surprisingly, they weren't out of cards and she was actually given one.  In our first bit of teambuilding, we jointly redefined the scale and filled out the card.  As we got up from the table, one team member gave the card to the waiter and we could see him reading it as we left the restuarant.  Suffice to say, that card didn't find its way into the waiter's employment record.

The Bucket List
If this trip did nothing else, it made this whole "we're moving to India" thing very, very real.  While we're both extremely excited for the adventure we have in front of us, but the fact that we're moving half way around the world in under 40 days is just a bit more apparent today than it was only a couple of weeks ago.  There are still of lot of logistics to care for; doctor's appointments, tax briefings, and determining which personal items stay and which go to name a few.  In addition, it's tough to find the right balance between spending time with family and friends and striking the right balance between talking about the experience and going about our day to day lives.  That being said, if you come across me between now and January 7th, you absolutely have the right to say, "stop talking about India, you idiot, I know you're going, I know you're excited about it, but let's get to the important stuff --- how do you like the Hawks' chances in the _____ Bowl?" (Note, while I absolutely want the Hawks in the Fiesta, there's something cathartic about the possibility of watching them take down yet another SEC team for 3 hours on New Year's Day....even though Boise State would be a tougher test than the #3 team in the SEC).