Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Move, Part 1

The past week has primarily been one of anticipation and preparation for the move from the comfort and familiarity of the hotel into the relative unknown of the apartment.

On Wednesday, we decided it was time to start the transition from long-term business travelers to expatriates and finally ventured to our first Gurgaon Connection (a social group we joined comprised of expats) event, the weekly tea.  Even though it was located at the hotel we were staying, we had somehow found excuses to not join the first two Wednesdays we were here.  It was a primarily female (besides me, there was only one other dude, an attorney from Washington, D.C.), yet diverse group of people of varied ages and countries of origin.

Move day itself was sadly uneventful.  We both kept waiting for something crazy or unexpected to happen, and nothing really did.  All the finishing touches had been applied and the RO UV water filtration system had actually been installed.  “RO” stands for reverse osmosis and “UV” is like the rays from the sun.  Apparently, it’s the thing that keeps parasites, bacteria, and other unmentionables out of our consumable water and keeps us (hopefully) out of the hospital. 

Our apartment is considered “serviced”.  For those unaware of what that means (as I was until about 23 hours ago), it means that it’s furnished, holds an inventory of daily use items like small kitchen appliances and dishes, gets cleaned six days a week by a nice young gent named Sanjay, includes daily towel service, a daily newspaper (I requested my favorite, the “Hindustan Times”), and four or five different levels of phone numbers to utilize in the event we have issues.  In addition, it sounded like Sanjay will do some level of laundry and also deliver items needing pressing to some person in the basement that will apparently iron for Rs. 2 an item.  A little less than a nickel.

Based on a number of factors on a varying scale of importance, including both the size of the water heaters in the bathrooms and the amount of closet space in the master, we split up on our belongings to give one another space.  The net result is that it feels a little like we’re roommates at this point in time, but I’m sure we’ll grow accustomed to the setup.  Surprisingly, I “won” the right to the master closet and bathroom, though it must be recognized that this was “given” to me and not a simple assumption on my part.  Apparently the guest bathroom has better light.  One other quick tidbit about the bathrooms and the availability of hot water is that we have to switch the geezer 30 – 45 minutes before we want hot water.  Lindsay is looking forward to this as an official excuse to hit the snooze button.

The rest of Saturday was spent touring our nearest shopping haunts (all places that will surely be referred to throughout the next two years), including Galleria Market and Super Mart-I.  In addition, there is a small grocery store located within our apartment complex that has a surprising selection of produce and basic staple items.  Galleria was our first stop, where we visited at my newest favorite store, ElectriCity.  It’s like a cross between Best Buy and Home Depot with about 0.05% the square footage (that might be generous).  There we purchased an India coffee maker, which has already performed admirably.  From Galleria, we made the short drive to Super Mart-I where Lindsay attempted to get back in the bargaining mode.  Not successful.  Let’s just say she’s going to need a little work before she hits the pashmina stalls.  On the other hand, I successfully purchased a copy of George Clooney’s “Up in the Air” for Rs. 100 (approximately $2.17).  I’m pretty sure it’s not a bootleg because there’s a manufacturer’s suggested price of Rs. 199.  What kind of self respecting bootlegger would print a price on the package?  Totally legit.  Funny side story, the kid working the stall was having trouble understanding my English, so the kind customer next to me (who was purchasing porn that the kid pulled out from behind the table) helped broker the deal.

From the video stall we made our way to Needs grocery store, which comes highly recommended by all expats.  Within about four minutes, you just come to accept the fact that all packaging is dirty and that as long as it appears sealed, it’s worth rolling the dice and making the purchase.   Fifty bucks in groceries, ten bucks in produce, and two bottles of wine later, we made our way back home.
Part two of the move takes place tomorrow (Monday) when our air shipment arrives.  Slowly but surely we’re acclimating to the new lifestyle.  The most striking difference between “hotel life” and “serviced-apartment life” in the winter is undoubtedly the temperature.  Simply put; it’s cold.  As I close this entry, Lindsay is sitting next to me, reading a travel magazine, fully clothed, yet still wearing her robe – perhaps this IS just like home.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Happy Republic Day!"

Today is Republic Day –  India’s national holiday commemorating the date it declared itself a republic (creative name, huh?).  The highlight of the holiday is a large cultural/military parade each year in New Delhi that displays the power of the Indian armed forces while showcasing a float (or other equivalent parade entry) from each of the country’s 28 states or territories to promote the country’s considerable diversity.

When we were here five years ago, we attended the parade with two of our American co-workers that spoke Hindi  (even though English is the official language of the Indian government, the parade is broadcast in Hindi – let’s just assume they distance themselves from their colonial past on this day).  My favorite memory of the parade was their translation of the description of a missile in the lineup surrounded by marching soldiers (I’m paraphrasing here, cut me some slack, it was a long time ago…though I’d guarantee my friend Mohammed still remembers it verbatim), “With our newest weapon, there will be no invader left untouched and all of India’s enemies will wilt at our considerable might”…followed four minutes later by a float promoting tourism circled by traditional dancers from the state of Arunachal Pradesh.   You just don’t see that kind of variety in the Rose Parade.

Unfortunately, they seal the border between Haryana (the state where we live) and Delhi at 11:30pm the night before the holiday, so there was to be no parade this year for the Luth’s (it’s also the type of thing you’re happy to see once, much like any other parade).  How did we celebrate instead?  Working from the hotel!
This year’s highlight included Lindsay greeting members of the hotel staff with a hearty, “Happy Republic Day!” followed by them looking at her quizzically, smiling awkwardly, and responding, “Uh…yes…happy Republic Day, Ma’am.”

I witnessed this exchange no fewer than six times.  It became no less awkward (or funny) with any of those times.

In other Republic Day news, we learned this evening that our apartment lease has been finalized and that we will likely move on Saturday.  We had a walkthrough of the unit on Monday; not only was the property manager sporting a sweet Cincinnati Bengals sweatshirt, but the apartment looked really nice.   Both Lindsay and I were a little scared that we would walk in, find the place in shambles, and either spend hours fighting the landlord or hours cleaning; fortunately, the place looked move-in ready.

The true adventure begins this weekend.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Everyone Needs a Handler

One of the benefits of entering India on an employment visa is the experience of visiting the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) within fourteen days of arrival in the country.  Registration is also required if you stay for more than 180 continuous days on any other sort of visa and since we didn’t meet that criteria during our prior assignment, this was our first experience with true Indian bureaucracy.

Leading up to our appointment I was in fairly regular contact with the law firm assigned to assist the process.  Initially, I was providing documentation and asking questions of a resource that I thought was in Bangalore so it wasn’t a complete surprised when he hadn’t me over to a “Mr. Kumar” who was described as his “man in New Delhi.”  Within India, the salutation “Mr.” or “Ms.” is very much a sign of respect, especially for authority figures within a business relationship.  As an example, during cultural training in the states, our facilitator had mentioned how, in a traditional Indian office, it would be appropriate for Lindsay and I to refer to each other at the office as “Mr. Luth” and “Mrs. Luth”; thankfully based on prior experience, we knew our office is westernized enough that we knew that such formality wasn’t necessary.  Or maybe I’m just disrespectful in the office.  At any rate, this “Mr. Kumar” seemed  fit for the title.

Blankly stated, without the help of Mr. Kumar and his associate, I’d still be trying to find the FRRO office much less actually registered.  Prior to our visit to the office, we were requested to provide seven passport photos, our assignment memo from Hewitt indicating that we were employed, a letter on hotel letterhead stating that we resided in the hotel, copies of our passports, visas, and entry stamps, and a copy of our unsigned lease indicating that we were going to be around for a while.  From this documentation, Mr. Kumar and his associate had put together an application packet intended to quickly move us through the process.  A colleague that had been through the process had described it as “I’m pretty sure our contact just had a fistful of rupees and was paying people off to get through the registration process.”  Naturally, I was intrigued.
I found it somewhat odd that Mr. Kumar wouldn’t give us the address of the office (even though the concept of an address is somewhat different here; they tend to go by sector numbers and landmarks, at least in Gurgaon), I was told instead to call him as we left the hotel and that he would provide directions to the driver.  The driver still struggled to find the location, which turned out to be the local general purpose government building, including both the police headquarters and courthouse.   Somehow Mr. Kumar was able to identify us as the car dropped us off at the entrance and he quickly whisked us into the building and we started climbing stairs.  At that point I may or may not have smelled hashish.

We passed the office, went through a door marked “authorized persons only” and Mr. Kumar pulled out our application packet, reviewed it with us, glue-sticked our passport photos to each page, and instructed us to sign.

As a side note, I was extremely proud of my passport photo which was taken after we arrived here at the local Kodak shop (I was shocked this type of establishment still existed); it’s taken in very odd lighting that doesn’t seem to exist in the states, makes me look kind of green, and very much like how I’d expect a diamond thief to look.  In other words, the world’s perfect passport photo.  Lindsay’s original photos were considered “super cute”.  Unfortunately for her, I later read that the pictures were to be “despectacled” with both ears showing.   Of course, her “super cute” photo prominently displayed her glasses and no ears.  The replacement photo didn’t quite reach the same “super cute” status, and she’d be the first to admit she looked somewhat elfish.  Thankfully for her, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see the pictures.  That is, unless we get into some minor disagreement over the next two years and I decide to post on Facebook.

After our application packet was completely assembled, we entered the actual FRRO office (or would it be FRR office?  FRRO office just sounds better) which was much smaller than I anticipated (maybe 12 to 15 foot square) and divided by plexiglass into three smaller rooms.  The largest of the three subrooms was where you entered and quickly passed through.  This seemed to be the room where they were processing existing applications or requests.  The second room was some sort of waiting area with a desk (which is where Mr. Kumar instructed us to sit) and the third room was where the actual registration officers sat, wielding their considerable power.  It’s the third room where Mr. Kumar spent most of his time.  As we waited patiently, he quickly cut in front of everyone and started our process.  There appeared to be other “handlers” like Mr. Kumar helping other foreign nationals but I was impressed that there was a British national with paperwork from a prominent American accounting company that seemed to be there on her own.  While she went through the process slightly slower than others, she still successfully navigated the bureaucracy, which was certainly a afeat in and of itself.

We had to wait a few minutes for our application to make its way around the room.  When it got to the final stage, Mr. Kumar motioned Lindsay and I into the third room.  There seemed to be a slight issue with Lindsay’s entry stamp, in that it was very faint and not on the page next to her visa.  While it ultimately didn’t matter, it was fairly obvious Mr. Registration Officer was just making an issue because he’s Mr. Registration Officer and he can do pretty much whatever he wants.  After some back and forth between Mr. Kumar and Mr. Registration Officer, we were asked to sign a paper ledger.

I have no idea where this paper ledger goes or how they’d actually find our names in the ledger if they ever needed.  I say this because the entire room looked like it was about 3 weeks from appearing on “Hoarders” – bundles of paper held together like bundles of newspaper lined the entire room from floor to ceiling (though there may have been some shelving on one wall).  Needless to say, the electronic age doesn’t seem to have fully met the FRRO office.

We didn’t actually receive our paperwork, which we’re required to carry (at least copies of) while we’re traveling within or to get out of (or back into) India.  Mr. Kumar told us that it takes a couple days and that he’d go back in two days, get our paperwork, and have his associate drop off at the hotel.  Naturally, two days later I emailed for a status update, because to be honest I was still a little nervous since we hadn’t moved into our residence and just tend to worry about this kind of thing (i.e.,  I’d rather be 100% official as it’s never been a personal goal to recount my story on National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad”).
When Mr. Kumar’s associated responded that the paperwork was not finalized and that they would go back again the following week on Tuesday (which I doubt considering it’s a national holiday) but that it would help if we had finalized lease papers.  This started to worry me because it’s in my nature and the fact that our hotel paperwork said we were only registered until January 25th.  At that point, I should have remembered the stacks of paperwork and the nature of the process, but I was still a little skeptical until I received a response from Mr. Kumar himself stating:


You both are registered.  You are official now.  Once you have the lease agreement ready please let us know we will take it to the FRO and collect your registration papers and hand them over to you.  Until then relax.  Nothing to worry.

It’s amazing the level of trust and faith we put in people here each day, whether it be wondering if our drivers are actually going to take us where we’ve asked them or blind faith in handlers like Mr. Kumar that are actually going to take care of the little details.  It’s an odd sensation to feel so powerless yet a necessary one to become comfortable in this type of setting.  Every decision we make has consequences, which is more obvious here than elsewhere; however, as long as one looks at dealing with the outcomes as minor problems to solve, it makes what makes life here interesting.  That, and having the pleasure to meet characters like Mr. Kumar.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Suite, Suite Persistence

Ah, such a delicious little pun for what you’re about to read.

Business hotels in India are extremely comfortable, modern facilities where one can easily lose sight of what it means to actually be part of society.  That being said, after seven nights in a standard room filled to the brim with six large duffel bags worth of clothing, four carry-on bags worth of stuff, and two increasingly cranky Americans, something had to give.  In this case, that something was the temperature of the room.  Having made multiple calls to the front desk and having multiple visits from maintenance, it was time for resolution.   Maintenance routine seemed to be, (1) come to the room with a ladder, (2) remove a piece of the ceiling, (3) claim to make some change to the filtration system, (4) tell Americans to wait 30 to 60 minutes when all their troubles would disappear in the cool breeze of an air conditioned room.

On what we believe was the fifth call, the Duty Manager decided he would personally come to the room with maintenance to ensure his customers were happy.  After following the same four step maintenance routine, we finally said, “You’ve been here before, we’ve heard the same story, it’s not going to be fixed in 30 minutes and I think we both know that.”  Finally, the duty manager admitted that he would have to “turn the cold air on for the entire floor.”  Our response, “sweet, let’s do that.”  For some reason, this response was unexpected and he then said, “OK, I will turn on the cold air for the entire floor and everyone’s room will cool down to 21 degrees.”

As you might imagine, this response perplexed Lindsay and I both and we both went on the offensive with two very different arguments.   Lindsay chose the “emotional customer-focused” argument claiming that wouldn’t he just be upsetting all the other customers for the benefit of us.  I chose the logic-based argument of “then why do you even have thermostats in rooms if guests can’t select their own temperature”.  We were making sweet music, and it wasn’t even planned.  Though even we couldn’t have guessed what would happen next.  He responded, “Perhaps we can change your room, we could see if a suite would be more to your liking.”  Bingo.  It wasn’t even our goal as we had no intention of packing up six duffels worth of clothing and going through the effort of changing rooms.

Then we saw the suite.

I’ve never seen two people pack that much luggage so quickly.  Within 30 minutes we were unpacking in a spacious two-room suite where we can actually sit on something besides the bed without also sitting on what could also be referred to as out "dresser".

The temperature?  Absolutely frigid.  Lindsay slept in multiple layers the first night and is now officially banned from calling the front desk.

How the f*!% do they make pasta spicy?

Undoubtedly, the quote of the week was, “How the f*!% do they make pasta spicy?” (I know, I’m censoring myself here, but for some reason it’s more enjoyable than the F bomb).   
Little did Lindsay know that the room service pasta on a weeknight was the least of her worries.  For dinner on Saturday we selected a restaurant that we were familiar with that has since opened an additional location in Gurgaon called Turquoise Cottage.  It specializes primarily in Chinese and Thai cuisine and turns itself into quite the night spot around 10pm.  Like most places in Gurgaon, it’s located in a mall.
At any rate, I ordered the Tom Yam soup and allowed the waiter to up-sell me on some sort of Singapore chili crab dish (what can I say, I was tired of chicken) while Lindsay ordered some sort of dish with prawns.  Mid-way through our second mojito, Lindsay asked to try the soup.  As she described it on Facebook, she bit down into something twice and her brain registered a bit late that she had bitten directly into some sort of hot chili.
For those of you familiar with Lindsay, you can probably imagine what happened next.  For those of you not so fortunate, there were tears, orders to multiple wait staff to bring some combination of ice, water, napkins (for some reason, patting napkins on the tongue seemed a logical response), additional ice, some sort of dairy product (we somehow found the one restaurant in India that didn’t have any yoghurt in house), and finally more water.  In addition to the water, there were multiple attempts to relieve the pain in the mint and crushed ice filled mojito.
After what seemed like a long, long time to me (I can only imagine what it seemed like to her), she stabilized.  At that point, the panic restarted as the realization set in that she had had a LOT of ice in a restaurant not associated with a five-star hotel, which isn’t necessarily the most hygienic of decisions.  Thankfully, either the Xifaxin we’ve started taking is doing its job or we just got lucky as there were no further issues.
Through all of this, she still hadn’t received her main dish (apparently, her reaction had scared our waiter, who made himself scarce the rest of the evening, leaving others to tend to us) and the kitchen was busy remaking her dish.  A dish, which turned out to be perhaps the most bland, flavorless Chinese food I’ve tasted since I was in Ireland.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Flight 292....I Mean, Flight 9222

Travel from Chicago in January tends to be very weather dependent, so it came as no surprise when four days prior to departure we learned of a large winter system approaching that was set to dump six to twelve inches on our date of departure.  On the plus side, we were on a large international flight, so I was confident we’d get out of Chicago at some point that night.  When the first delay was announced, I was pleasantly surprised.  Selfishly, I now knew I had at least a chance of catching part of the BCS National Championship.

Unfortunately, there were no additional announced delays, so as Mack Brown bravely lead his team onto the field, I was making my way to the gate.  After a short ground delay and the typical deicing routine, we were finally on our way, allegedly to begin the adventure of a lifetime.

About an hour into the flight, the dreaded “is there a medical doctor on board?” announcement came over the PA system.  I didn’t think too much of it, and went about my way enjoying “I Love You, Man” (a good movie the first time and much better the second).  Then, somewhere slightly south of Hudson Bay, the captain came back on the system and announced the situation had not improved and that we were headed to the nearest large airport, Boston’s Logan International.

Upon landing, the paramedics greeted the plane and headed to the back to help the ailing man.  A few minutes later the ailing man and his wife shuffled down the aisle.  To be honest, I was expecting the worst, something like a heart attack or a stroke or at least to see someone on a stretcher.  The true culprit?  Urinary blockage.   Apparently the doctor felt it important enough to turn around a plane when an aging passenger can’t urinate for 15 hours; and to be honest, who am I to question that?

We sat on the ground for about an hour while American figured out how to handle the situation.  The captain kept us informed of what the possible options were, including (1) returning to Chicago and trying again the next day (bad option since the weather in Chicago still sucked), (2) canceling the flight and letting everyone fend for themselves from Boston (bad option for obviously reasons), or (3) continuing the flight after giving the crew time to rest (good option).   When the final decision was made, we learned option three was selected but that we wouldn’t leave until 6:30pm that night (it was around 5:00am ET at this point), effectively pushing back our arrival in Delhi by one full day.

At this point, I went to stand in line to rebook and Lindsay went to the bathroom, which turned out to be her best call of the day.  She ended up walking past the Admiral’s Club which had no line and found a faster way to get our new plans finalized.  A nice gentleman, Hector, saved our day.  Not only did he get us set up with a room at the Hyatt, he held the duty free purchases we had made onboard (through all of this, a primary problem to solve was determining how we’d get our duty free purchases (i.e., 2 liters of liquid) back onto the plane).

After a six hour nap and a quick meal, we were back at the airport waiting for the flight.  All things considered, it was a fairly comfortable way to spend what could have been a very inconvenient situation, though I’m certain if I had been going for a specific meeting or vacation, I would have had a very different attitude.

American handled the situation quite well.  If nothing else, it would make a great case interview question, “Three hours into the flight, a plane from Chicago to Delhi gets diverted to Boston.  How much money does this cost the airline?”  I shudder to think the expense and don’t have the mental capacity to work through the problem right now, but suffice to say there really are no winners in diverted flight situations (perhaps other than hotel chains).

The actual flight to Delhi was uneventful.  Lindsay befriended the stewardess, Marty, which helped for two reasons; (1) she held back a nice bottle of wine for us and (2) Lindsay was able to get the scoop on the passenger in front of us, who turned out to be a bit of a handful, was flying on some sort of pass (or as Marty called him, “non-rev”), and had requested that Marty remove all the white nuts from the mixed nut bowl.  She declined.

Upon arrival, customs was no issue; for some reason I was concerned the amount of electronics we had on our person (2 work computers, 2 personal computers, 2 cameras, 2 Kindles, and lots of power cords) but decided a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy would work best.  As we walked into the arrivals hall we easily found the hotel placard with our name.  They seemed surprised at the amount of luggage we had as they hadn’t brought a large vehicle like we had requested.  They then claimed they didn’t expect us to be coming as the flights from Chicago had been canceled the past two days.  I decided against reminding them that they held a placard with our name.  After all our delays, an extra fifteen minutes wasn’t going to hurt anything.  If nothing else, it provided me the opportunity to see some dude (that worked at the airport) wearing potentially the greatest sweater vest in human history; that is, a white vest with Jim Morrison’s face covering the entire front.  I briefly considered offering to purchase it.  If you’ve seen better, I’d love to hear about it.
We arrived and checked into the hotel, where we’ll be living for a few days as our apartment gets finalized.  Today’s schedule includes a whole lot of nothing; a stop at the gym promises to be the most productive part of the day; that is, unless you count “testing” the Slingbox.  As I type, I’m in the club lounge, alternating between listening to Lindsay read the Sunday matrimonials from the Hindustan Times and listening to two hotel employees perform a delightful sing-along to an elevator music version of Celine Dion’s blockbuster hit, “My Heart Will Go On”.

On deck for the coming week; getting settled at the office, registering at the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO), hopefully getting into our apartment, potentially joining the country club, and the arrival of the first familiar faces from work next weekend on a short business trip.  Not surprisingly, a lot of "hopefully" and "potentially" mixed in there.

Welcome to India.