Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Manor Revisited

Over the weekend we celebrated our friend Kristin's birthday by staying in Delhi. It might seem odd to get a hotel room within an hour of your apartment, but it was a luxury that seemed to make sense so Lindsay and Kristin could make a day of shopping and a night of going out without driving back and forth between Gurgaon and Delhi. Think of it like a suburban couple staying in the city for a night. As usual, Americans spend money in weird ways.

Kristin, as usual, initially selected a Taj property (she's kind of a sucker for Taj properties) but did some additional research and found a place called The Manor in Friends Colony West, which is one of the few small boutique hotels in Delhi. As soon as she mentioned this place, the wife and I said, "Sign us up." The Manor was significant because the lawn of the hotel was the sole place of refuge that the wife was able to find when we were in India for six months starting in late 2004. It was first first "hidden gem". And, if you've ever spoken to Lindsay, you know she loves her hidden gems.

While we never stayed there during that assignment (after all, why would you stay in a hotel in a city where you were living in a different hotel at that time), it was pretty much the only stop on our brunch tour back in those days with the rest of the crew from work here on short term assignments. With one of the few open lawns we were able to find, we found a green oasis in the big city at a time when we didn't feel like a place like that could exist. I remember it being an expensive brunch at the time (approximately Rs. 600 though it may have been a little more) but had a free flow of watermelon martinis so the price seemed worth it. They also had pressed coffee which was a rarity at the time. The Rs. 600 price tag looks like an absolute steal when compared to the prices charged around Delhi and Gurgaon for brunches today (Rs. 2000+).
A scene from Lindsay's 2005 Birthday Brunch at 77 at The Manor
In 2005 the hotel was owned and operated by Aman Resorts as a sort of stopover hotel to serve their other properties in India and Bhutan. Today, Aman has opened a new 7-star (whatever that means) property in Delhi so this little boutique hotel's utility had been consumed. While owners had changed, with the exception of the name of the restaurant (from 77 to Indian Accent) the hotel hadn't in six years, which was both a good and bad thing. Good because some things don't change. Bad because things should change a little. It was exceedingly modern in 2004 and was would still be considered contemporary, but definitely not as "different" as it once seemed.

The lawn was where we had spent most of our time and was a perfect example of how the snapshot in your memory molds your perceptions. I remember the lawn being a quiet, idyllic place shut off from the rest of Delhi with little noise and happy times. Obviously, it's still located in the same upscale leafy neighborhood, but it no longer seemed shut off from the hustle and bustle of the city. Adjacent to the lawn a large block-styled three-story home was under construction. A train with screeching breaks traveled on the rails behind the hotel (in hindsight, I know remember the trains). And the cars honking and dogs barking that is associated with Delhi seemed to encroach on the paradise we once knew.

A visit back to The Manor was inevitable at some point during these two years, but the visit back was a testament to the fact that places alone don't make memories. Memories are snapshots of the places, people, conversations, and other contextual events in your life at the time. While it was fun to go back, something was missing and the place seemed empty. I think that "something" was Mohammed, Colin, Allison, Szesny, and the rest of the 2005 gang.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Outsourced - Episode 1

The "India" that serves the purpose of the set for Outsourced is very much the environment the organizers of the Commonwealth Games want the world to perceive as India. It's sterilized, organized, and seemingly efficient. The unfortunate truth is that that India doesn't exist. One of the reasons Slumdog Milllionaire was so popular in America was that it gave a fairly decent representation of what urban India actually looks like, including the office where the star was a pantry boy serving tea (yes, that job really exists). That reality is also one of the reasons I believe it's not a terribly popular movie in India. In fact, the only time I've heard it mentioned is in conjunction with AR Rahman and the music he produced for the film.

My point is this, if you're going to produce a show about an American working in India, at least make it look like he's working in India.

In addition, if you're going to produce a show about an American working in India, don't consume all the stereotype jokes in one episode. In fact, you could center entire episodes around a single stereotype and address then in balanced, informed, and funny manner. Arranged marriages? There's an episode. Religious head wear? Another episode. Food? Probably two or three episodes. Personal space? Traffic? Another couple episodes. Cows? Yep, you guessed it, yet another episode. The reality is that differences in culture creates a healthy curiousity which could easily be explored in a manner which is funny without going for the obvious jokes that cater to the lower end of the comedic spectrum.

That being said, I could identify with bits and pieces of the show. Building relationships (i.e., eating with the team) isn't the worst decision you can make. I too, when eating the Indian food at the office (which is admittedly rare), still tend to base my selections on color: I consider red good, yellow average, and green bad (just my personal preference).

The most accurate part of the episode from a business standpoint was when one of the characters was asking about the context of mistletoe as it relates to Christmas. Without that context, these items are simply items. It's easy enough to tell someone from another culture what a thing is, but without also teaching them context, that thing has absolutely no meaning. Of course, the writers took the opportunity to create a mistletoe belt that could be worn for novelty purposes to to try and garner a kiss "down there". The only bright side to this entire exchange was that lead to the only funny line of the episode, when the character responded, "This is how you celebrate the birth of your God?"

Bottom line, the show just wasn't very funny. As mentioned above, there's any number of topics this show could explore around living and working in another country that could prove insightful while still being extremely funny. The producers and writers of this show seem to have taken the easy way have fairly low expectations of what Americans might think is funny. Daniel Fienberg made the best observation I've read about what the show could have been in his review:

"On one imaginary hand, you could have a show about a young American worker who's so grateful to have a job and so intrigued by the idea of moving to a foreign country that he embarks to India determined to eagerly experience a foreign country and having a professional adventure while he's still young enough to enjoy it. Maybe he doesn't love everything he discovers there, but he's constantly having his expectations challenged and he knows that when he returns to the States in a few years, he'll have the sort of stories and experiences you can't pay for. Some weeks he could laugh at the Indians. Some weeks they could laugh at him. Occasionally the writers would have to do a bit of research to learn something about the country they were setting their show in. I would watch this show."

At the end of the day, the premise of this show has potential, and who knows, maybe future episodes will take advantage of that; however, the filtered view it presents of today's India will limit its appeal (and it's longevity). Plus, it just isn't funny.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cow Tapping

It took over 8.5 months, but my driver and I had our first contact in the car this evening with a cow. And before I continue, you'll be relieved to know that it wasn't serious. In fact, it seemed much less serious than the time he hit a stray dog.

We were weaving through back roads in Gurgaon to stay away from traffic. Upon coming to a narrow part of the road (the road really wasn't that narrow but there was only one passable path since the roads have basically disintegrated in the monsoon rains the past couple weeks). A cow was on the left, standing parallel to the car. As Kailesh slowly navigated the potholes, the cow turned its head, and well, the car's windshield tapped the cow. I happened to be on the front end of a conference call and the contact surprised me enough that I exclaimed, "Oh Shit!"

When asked what happened (it was a familiar enough group that the profanity was, while unprofessional, not totally unacceptable), I told the truth. Safe to assume it wasn't what they expected to hear. It's also safe to assume this is a scene that has at least been considered in the minds of the writers for an upcoming episode of NBC's Outsourced. Though from the reviews I've read, the show is apparently insultingly awful enough that it sounds unlikely to make it out of October. More to come on that after it premieres tonight.

No cows were harmed during the act described in this short post. Upon tapping the cow, the author looked back to see the animal still standing unfazed in the middle of the road.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Shooting at Jama Masjid

When you live in a foreign land and stick out based on your physical appearance, you tend to generally raise your overall awareness of your environment and situations in which you might find yourself. I'm no different. Recognizing that everyone's personal definition of comfort and security is different, I can say with great confidence that I've never been scared for my personal security in India. Uncomfortable? Sure, but that's part of the experience.

While sitting in the protected expat bubble that is Sunday brunch, I looked down at my Blackberry and noticed an "alert" email, which is something I receive a couple times a week. Typically, these emails are about some sort of fuel strike, demonstration, or general security alert. Sunday's was different: two Taiwanese tourists were shot as they were getting onto a tourist bus outside Jama Masjid mosque.

If you've been to Delhi as a tourist, you've likely been to Jama Masjid. It's one of the primary sights in Old Delhi located near Red Fort. I was last there at the beginning of August.
The stairs leading up to Gate 2 of Jama Masjid
A group, the India Mujahideen has claimed responsibility; however, the culprits were able
to get away by motorcycle. Which, if you've been to that area, is not a huge surprise. In August, we explored the maze of side streets (on the opposite side of the mosque where the attack took place) near the mosque. Even with all the kind people we came across in the alleys (including an older man that pointed out my friend, who was ironically here studying terrorism, having dropped money and a young boy that escorted us to the main street while refusing a tip), it would be an easy place to disappear (intentionally or not).
Inside Jama Masjid
The scary part of this situation, which is the very reason terrorism is so "effective", is the random nature of the attack. Something tells me that no matter how aware I remain of my surroundings, I likely wouldn't have thought that passing motorcycle to be a threat as I boarded a bus.

That being said, I worry about people jumping to conclusions on what this means and I don't want to minimize what happened on Sunday morning. Obviously, I'll remain vigilant and maintain a heightened sense of awareness, but this shouldn't be an indictment on the generalized safety level in India specifically. It's unfortunate, but these types of things can and do happen throughout the world. It's unfortunate, but it's a risk we all live with most days.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Slingbox, an Expat Football Fan's Best Friend

One of the more pressing disadvantages of an expat assignment located 10.5 hours ahead of your home time zone is that most sporting events take place at inopportune times. While I've become accustomed to this over the past eight plus months, it's worth mentioning that the one team sport I really care about it college football. It's also worth mentioning that I left Chicago the night of college football's BCS Championship game. So from my perspective, the past couple weeks is really the first instance where the whole time zone thing has really made a difference (you know, if sports were the reason for making a difference).

With the advent of Slingbox, the ability to hook a DVR to it, and other streaming media, gone are the days where watching isn't even an option. I was here in India on New Year's Day 2005 and remember hitting "refresh" on ESPN.com's gamecast to learn of Drew Tate's miracle touchdown pass as my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes defeated LSU in the Capital One Bowl (actually, based on the time change it was Janaury 2).

Thankfully, I'll be in the states for three Saturdays in October and have a full day planned with buddies to watch games on October 16. So I'll get a "real" college football fix in a few short weeks. Until that time (and after for that matter) I've decided to DVR one game each week and watch on Sunday mornings. As a bonus, on Saturday nights I'm able to catch the early games at a reasonable hour (11:00am CT equals 9:30pm IST). In fact,as I type this, I'm flipping back and forth between Arkansas/Georgia and Michigan/Umass (Michigan just scored and seems to be pulling away).

This week, however, is a special week. Those same beloved Iowa Hawkeyes are playing a night game on the west coast. So the 9:30pm CT kick off works out perfect for a live breakfast broadcast at 8:00am IST. And yes, that breakfast will likely include one of the two remaining IPA's in the fridge to mark the occasion.

Part of the expat experience includes giving up things that are familiar and comfortable; the obvious upside to that is that you're able to immerse yourself in a new culture and experience things you'd never expect. I'm willing to put that immersion on hold for three plus hours each Sunday morning for a return to "normalcy" (and no, normalcy isn't drinking alone on my couch at 8:00am on a Sunday morning).
Go Hawks!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Making Change (Literally)

Even though $1 = Rs. 46, is using a $100 bill the same as using a Rs. 1000 note?

ATM's in India, at least in the amounts I withdraw, tend to only spit out notes in denominations of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000; notes that are worth approximately $11 and $22. I recognize this is a lot of money, and these notes are the Indian equivalent of Grant's and Benjamin's that ATM's in America don't even dispense (unless you're in a casino). Even so, in India it's always a good idea to have a stock of notes in small denominations. The reason? People don't like making change.

Last week at the grocery store I impressed even myself. I bought two small jars of peanut butter for the princely sum of Rs. 480. I only had a Rs. 1000 note so I handed it to the clerk. I noticed he had a nice large stack of Rs. 100's in the register. When he handed me the Rs. 500 and Rs. 20 notes as change, I said, "Can I get 100's instead?" At first, he responded, "No" and made a gesture to indicate that wasn't possible. I flashed him the kind of look by nodding my head to would side that said "seriously dude, I know you have smaller bills". Surprisingly, this non-verbal worked. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, and pulled out five Rs. 100 notes. I was stunned. This never happens in India.

It's not always that easy. Even with smaller bills, it can be an issue. Yesterday, I purchased more goods than intended on two occasions when making even smaller purchases. I bought a liter of my favorite Himalayan (not surprisingly, a part of the Tata conglomerate) water for Rs. 25 and handed the clerk a Rs. 100. He only had Rs. 70 in change. Typically my solution involves waiting for them to find the change (they always have it, even if they pull it from their own wallet, which seems to be a common thing). This place, however, was not air conditioned, so time was of the essence. Yesterday rather than waiting to see from where the five rupees would magically appear, I just grabbed a second bottle second bottle and took my Rs. 50 in change. Lazy? Yup. But I'm going to need that bottle at some point. Later in the day, I bought a large bag of potato chips and Diet Coke. The cost? Rs. 45. I used a Rs. 50 note (the same note I received back from my water purchase) and this clerk looked for five rupees for about two seconds and then placed a small chocolate on the counter instead of my change.

On the bright side, I was able to give the chocolate to a member of my team as a small piece of impromptu recognition on a job well done. Something tells me if I had tried to give a Rs. 5 coin in the same situation, it may not have been so well received.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Am the Flying Fox

During our first assignment in India, one of our favorite spots was Neemrana Fort Palace Hotel. It was one of Lindsay's much talked about "hidden gems" and one of the three or four things she would have undoubtedly told you about if you asked her what she liked about India. And it is a really great spot. Located just across the border into Rajasthan and under a two hour drive from Gurgaon, it's a great place to get away from the chaos and general busyness of Delhi and Gurgaon.
Neemrana Fort Palace Hotel in December 2004
To enhance the Neemrana experience, a private company called Flying Fox has starting a zip-lining operation in the hills above the fort. While zip-lining doesn't necessarily fit the activity profile one might expect when staying at a 15th century fort more known for its serenity and peaceful atmosphere, it certainly provides a very good excuse to make a repeat visit.

Delhi isn't exactly known as the world's greatest spot for outdoors activities, especially in the summer. So while it's still warm and a little humid, Lindsay used the excuse of my birthday to plan a one-night excursion with a group of friends. In all honesty, she just likes to plan things, so no excuse was really necessary. We left Gurgaon on Saturday just before noon, made the requisite stop at the Manesar McDonald's which is optimally located for a pre-Neemrana lunch stop, and arrived three minutes late for a 2:00pm check-in to the hotel (apparently the wife is a little off her game). We checked out the room where we all were staying together, it passed the test and would make a fine spot for a little birthday celebration, and made our way to the Flying Fox office.
Our fearless group; harnessed up and ready to go
The brochures we had seen for the Flying Fox mentioned that it met all European safety standards though it failed to note that our guides for the day, Paul and Becks, would also be European. After getting fitted for harnesses and gloves, we began the twenty minute trek up the hill. Zip-lining in and of itself isn't exactly the most physically taxing of extreme adventure activities, but the steep walk up the mountain helped make you feel like you earned the trip down on the lines. With the humidity, I was soaked by the time we got to the top.
Just a little bit wet at the top

After a short safety briefing and practice on a ten meter cable, we were deemed fit for the course. My favorite zip was the second, which was also the longest at 400 meters. Due to a headwind, gravity wasn't able to do its job entirely and everyone was stopped short of the landing platform. As a result, you had to grab the wire and pull yourself the final few meters. I felt a little like Sly Stalone in "Cliffhanger". It was actually kind of cool because where you stopped was right above the fort, so there was a scenic view below. I'm by no means an expert but have done enough harness work in the past with high ropes courses and rappelling that being suspended from a cable is kind of a fun thing. Plus, again, you had to earn a little bit.
Lindsay successfully passes the safety briefing
Who knew Rajasthan could be so green?
Our guides, Paul and Becks, were most impressed that we were able to all pull ourselves to the other end of the second zip, which meant they didn't need to "rescue" us. We had proven our mettle and the safety instructions soon loosened to allow us to take videos with our off-hand. The always entertaining Lindsay Luth decided to do the film work for us.
Mrs. Luth dangles high above Neemrana Fort
By the end of the fifth and final zip, I was ready to take a second lap, but unfortunately there wasn't time. Thankfully, it's a short enough trip and they also have an operation in Jodhpur at the fort there (apparently, forts make great geographic locations for zip-lines) so I'm pretty sure we'll do it again. And since once you've seen one fort, you've kind of seen them all, this outdoor activity is a very welcome addition to the Rajashani fort circuit.

For more information on the Flying Fox experience, check out their website below. I'd recommend booking ahead as they seemed busy on the weekend and there is a significant price discount for booking even one day in advance.

Cricket Explained?

Having been here for over eight months, I decided it was finally time to try and understand cricket. Coincidentally, Friday marked the beginning of the Champions League which continues cricket's complete copy of the European soccer model (i.e., India has a "Premiere League" for club teams and now a Champion's League much like the UEFA event). The brand of cricket played in the Champions League (or CLT20) is 20/20, which is the made for TV version (i.e., a match last a couple hours and not five days). I'm happy to report that I might just understand how the game is played (though the terminology I use through the rest of this post is probably less than official).

In 20/20, each team gets to bat for 20 overs. Each over contains 6 balls which means each team gets 120 attempts to hit. Each team has around 10 people that bat. A person bats until they're considered out. So it's possible (though probably unlikely) that only one person could bat for the entire game. A batsmen can be called out in one of three ways, (1) they hit a ball that is directly caught by a fielder (like a fly-out in baseball), (2) the bowler (pitcher) gets the ball past them and a wicket (the building blocks set behind the batter) gets knocked over, or (3) after making contact and starting to run, if the batter is caught between the two lines they must run between to score runs. If all batters are out before the 20 overs are complete, the team is finished batting.

The scoring is fairly simple. When the batter makes contact, he runs back and forth between a couple lines making sure to be behind a line when the ball gets returned. Most hits that stay in the park result in either one or two runs. If the ball leaves the field of play on the ground, it's considered four runs. If the ball leaves the field of play without touching the ground, it's six runs.

There's a coin flip and the team that wins the flip typically elects to bat second so they know exactly what they need to do to win. The first team bats for their 20 overs (or until everyone is out) then the second team does the same. The team with the most runs wins. Pretty simple.

If you see a score for a team that reads 169-3, it means that a team scored 169 runs and that three of their players were out. So even if one team has 169-3 and one has 182-5, the team with 185 wins even though they had more players out. If one player scores 100 runs before making an out, it's called a century and is a big deal.

Now that I've mastered 20/20 cricket (or at least enough that I think I know what's going on; I could be completely wrong), here's a few random observations from my first extended viewing experience:
  • Commercials tend to happen at random times and happen quite frequently. Many commercials are just promotions for the CLT20.
  • The best commerical is for Kingfisher Premium Drinking Water. The commercial shows a number of players from various teams and ends with the slogan, "Divided by teams, united by Kingfisher." Effective marketing made even more so because Dr. Vijay Mallya, the Indian Richard Branson, is basically able to use his airline and drinking water to indirectly market his beer. Genius.
  • Even the Indian teams have cheerleaders that resemble NBA cheerleaders, which is surprising considering the conservative nature of the culture. I guess what makes it appropriate is that there appears to be very few Indian cheerleaders.
  • I've decided that I am a Mumbai Indians fan. When else in life will I have the opportunity to root for a team called the Indians and not have to justify the social implications of the team name?
  • The Indians best player is Sachin Tendulkar. From what I can gather, he's kind of a big deal and has both the stats of a steroid-aided Alex Rodriguez and the class and integrity of Derek Jeter. Earlier this year he recorded cricket's first double century.
I have no idea how much I really understand and I could easily be wrong on a lot of this stuff; however, even with my understanding as it stands right now, I can appreciate where the game might be more exciting than the ground-ball home run derby I previously understood it to be.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Commonwealth Practice

Next month marks Delhi's "arrival" on the international sports scene when the Commonwealth Games begin. While these games aren't the Olympics, they're similar in nature and require the same types of logistics, planning, and construction, albeit on a smaller scale. If you remember news stories about Athens preparedness for the 2000 Summer Olympics, it's been much the same here. Unfortunately, with Athens many of those stories were a year or so before the games. We're 24 days from the start of the games and there is still a lot of work to do. Venues are still not finished, subways and mass transit systems are behind schedule, "beautification projects" aren't finished, some new venues are already deemed unfit to fill to capacity for risk to the structure, and there's a new story in the paper each day about some sort of corruption. In other words, it's kind of a mess.

While I have no plans to go to any events (I'll actually only be in-country the first four days), I am curious to see how they make Delhi look during the games as a showpiece to the rest of the world (or at least as a showpiece to the rest of the former British empire). I've got a feeling that it will look the way the government wants the world to think India should look, much like the way Augusta National flies in flowers to make The Masters look the way people expect it to look. My guess is that the "beautification projects" (my word, not an official term) will be finished in time when the cameras are rolling.

My experience with the Commonwealth Games will likely be with how it effects the commute. Thankfully, I live close to the office. Like a seven minute walk. As a result, it won't impact my day personally, but I worry that others that travel one to two hours per day under normal circumstances will have a very rough couple weeks during the games. Yesterday there was a "traffic police practice day," basically a dry run for the police to get their patterns down. The impact, even on the streets of Gurgaon, was obvious. Roads were plugged, and travel times skyrocketed. It doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence that getting around from October 3 - 14 will be much fun.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Net, Line, and Sinker

One of the more unique sights in Fort Cochi is the Chinese fishing nets that line the waterfront. Not being on too much a sightseeing mission, it was the one thing I wanted to make sure we saw but figured it would be a quick stop for some photos and maybe get to see the nets get raised and lowered a couple times. As we approached the nets, our driver steered us toward a particular net (hard to believe this wasn’t planned) where the fishermen invited us on to take a closer look. As we started to board, the driver pulled me aside and said, “have them take pictures and maybe give them some rupees.”
Chinese fishing net in Cochin
Fair enough, though the sad tale of the Keralan fisherman soon followed. They showed us there morning catch, which literally amounted to one or two sunfish. They were unlucky, they said. After walking around a bit longer, we thought we were through and started turning around to walk the plank back off the rig. They stopped us and said, “You pull rope.” There were five ropes rigged to the net, counterbalanced with rocks tied at the other end. Figuring this was probably the only chance I’d have to raise a Chinese fishing net, I jumped at the opportunity. The others slowly joined and we spent the next couple minutes vigorously pulling the rope that raised an empty net from the sea.
The morning catch
The entire time, the fishermen were busy snapping pictures of the scene. Upon checking the photos while still on the rig, they had done a surprisingly good job, snapping maybe fifteen to twenty shots on each camera. Even the guy with whom I’d entrusted my DSLR took a variety of horizontals, verticals, zoomed, not zoomed. And there’s actually some good shots. Obviously, we weren’t the first tourists on this structure. And if the state of their fishing business was as bad as they claimed, surely they could make a good living instructing tour guides throughout India (and let’s be honest, beyond India) how to take a decent picture.
Pulling rope
After the photo shoot, the sad tale of the Keralan fisherman swung into high gear. Before there were oil spills in the gulf, floods in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, and mud slides in Ladakh and China, there was the tsunami of 2004. Apparently, the lasting effects of that disaster had had a permanent effect on their business. Always a skeptic but in no way trained in marine biology, I wasn’t able to refute their claim with any scientific fact. In the skeptic’s defense, there were numerous fish markets set up right next to the nets with copious quantities of numerous species of fish larger than the sunfish they had showed us.

I don’t mean in any way to minimize the impact of the disaster, but Kerala is on the west coast of India and was only minimally impacted as the wave rounded the southern tip of India and lost power as it traveled up the west coast. We were actually in India when it struck, and I remember the death estimates in the newspapers rising by the thousands with each passing day. It was a HUGE deal and incredibly devastating to many coastal regions in the Indian ocean. So while I have no doubts that Kerala saw an impact, I have to guess that an area that is 250 kilometers from the southern tip probably isn’t still seeing the impact of a devastating event that took place nearly six years ago.

Regardless, this was the tale that was woven. They had a very exact figure in mind as to how much our little visit was worth. As we huddled to determine what we thought the trip was worth, we slowly came to the realization that as a group, we lacked the necessary small bills to get the sum we deemed appropriate (not that I’d expect “change” in this type of situation but the inability of anyone to make change is an issue I’ll address at a later time another post all together for a future time and helps explain why we didn’t have small bills). Slowly I came to the realization that, while Rs. 500 seemed exorbitant, it was only Rs. 125 per person ($3), and they had proven that people in the tourist trade could take a decent photograph.

At the end of the day, we overpaid. However, in the grand scheme of things it was an example of “only $3” being relatively little for us given the unique nature of the experience and hopefully being relatively more for the four fisherman.

The Not So Hidden Motivation of an Indian Rental Car Driver

While in Kerala, the itinerary included flying into Cochin where we stayed a couple days, driving four or five hours south to Kovalam, and ultimately flying out of Trivandrum, which for all you fellow geography buffs, is very near the southern tip of India. As a result of this itinerary, it’s the first trip we’ve taken in our nearly eight months where we’ve needed to rent a car. For those unfamiliar with what comes with the cost of car rental, it’s quite frequently the car, the driver, a local guide, and a number of “suggestions” on where to spend our hard earned money. We had been through the drill before, but it had been a number of years.

The driver was dutifully waiting for us at the airport exit, holding a sign for “Mr. Kristin Grimm.” Far be it from them to expect a woman to actually rent a car. Making the correct assumption that the sign was for us, Kristin, her friend John, Lindsay and myself hopped into our rented Innova. Apparently, Shahul hadn’t received the message that we were in charge of our own itinerary and had every last second planned. He instructed us that he’d drop us at the hotel, give us time to relax, and that he’d be back at 6:00 pm to take us to dinner. Even after we said, “6:30”, he tried to convince us that 6:00 was better.

A few minutes later he started wondering what type of shopping we were interested in, which is Indian driver code for, “what type of emporium would you like me to take you so that I can collect my commission?” After learning that Lindsay, myself, and Kristin were PAN card carrying Indian residents, he quickly turned to John and asked if he’d be interested in Kashmiri shawls. Thankfully, John has been to India enough that he realized that you couldn’t get much further away from Kashmir than Cochin and still be in India.

Later that night, around 7:30 when we actually left the hotel for dinner, we were greeted sullenly by Shahul. He wasn’t disappointed that we were 90 minutes later than his original itinerary had dictated but it seemed that his daughter had taken unwell. As a result, he wouldn’t be with us the next day as he’d be spending time at the hospital and that a replacement driver would be with us for the rest of our trip. While it’s entirely possible that his daughter was sick, it’s even more possible that this was just an exit story to stick a less experienced driver with a low commission fare for the next few days. He still found time to take us to his "preferred" seafood restaurant even though we knew exactly where we wanted to go. Lindsay and Kristin actually humored him to check the menu at "his" place. John and I knew didn't bother. After that not so obvious move, I was pretty much done with Shahul and his sick daughter.

Even though the new driver ultimately took us to a ridiculously overpriced spice market, he at least listened. Score one for the new driver.