Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Banking Rules

For a high context culture, India certainly has a lot of rules when it comes to writing, cashing, and depositing bank checks. Here's a quick rundown of my "favorites":

Rule #1 - The "payable to" name must be EXACTLY the same as the name on the bank account.
Lindsay received a check that was payable to "Lindsay Luth". Unfortunately, the name on her account reads "Lindsay C. Luth". While it's nice to know they're concerned about fraudulent acts like people trying to deposit checks that don't belong to them, I've got to guess that Lindsay's name is fairly unique at our Indian bank. I'd also have to guess that the the risk of Lindsay Luth defrauding Lindsay C. Luth is a risk worth taking.

Rule #2 - Don't notate the number of paise (100 paise = 1 rupee) as a fraction of 100 when writing out the amount payable.
In the U.S. when writing a check (for those that still write checks), you still have to write out the words for the number of dollars but have the luxury of noting the number of cents as a fraction. In other words, if your check is for $5.43, you would write, "Five and 43/100". In India, if you write a check for Rs. 5.43 (which you likely never would because it's like twelve cents), you need to write "Five Rupees and Forty-Three Paise". I just found this one out because Airtel, my cell phone company, decided they wouldn't accept my check and my cell phone bill went unpaid. Two things I found odd about how they handled the situation, (1) I had been doing this for months without any issues and (2) the form letter they included with the returned check had a closing salutation from the Chief Customer Care Officer that was unsigned but included the clause, "Please note that this is a computer-generated letter and does not require a signature." Nice to know they could automate that but still require me to write out the stupid number of paise on my check.

Special note on Rule #2: I'm not totally convinced this is really the case. I find it odd that it got denied just this one time. Of course, maybe I should just round up to the next rupee and save myself the trouble. I mean, seriously, I write 3 checks a month, so at worst we're talking $0.87 TOTAL over the next 13 months of my assignment. I'll stop talking now.

Rule #3 - When you go to the ATM to deposit a check, you don't actually use the ATM.
When you deposit a check in the U.S., it's basically the exact opposite of taking cash out of an ATM. You enter in the amount of the check and dutifully insert it into the machine. In India, they just have a drop box. It's a locked box that is in no way hooked to the ATM. You fill out a deposit slip or envelope, insert your check, and just hope it ends up at the bank. I've yet to have an issue with this, but it's still a bit of a leap of faith each time you visit the ATM drop box. The first time I used the drop box, I checked with about four different people at the office to make sure that was REALLY the process.

Rule #4 - Endorsing checks is not necessary when depositing a check at the ATM drop box
Once you get comfortable with the whole drop box concept, the next step is getting comfortable with the fact that the check you're depositing into a locked box with no guarantee it will be deposited has not been signed by you. The concept of endorsing doesn't exist, at least based on what I've been told. There's just something a little odd about there not being physical proof on the check was ever in my possession. When in the U.S., I typically will add a "For Deposit Only" line under my endorsement. Whether or not that actually makes a difference, I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is that I feel more comfortable writing that three word statement on the back of my check.

At the end of the day, none of these things is really a big deal. However, it is a good example of how something you'd expect to be fairly simple and straightforward can cause a little bit of angst, uneasiness, and (what you would think would be) unnecessary minor stress when you move to a strange exotic land.

On a final note, I wanted to wish my big sister Anne a very happy __th birthday today. I was going to send a check, but as you can tell from the post, Anne, it's a little more complicated than one would hope. That, and I'm not sure you'd have much use for those rupees in Kansas. Hope you have a great day!
Anne and I when home during my October homestay (you know, when she was a year younger)

America's Finest Casual Dining: Chili's

What better way to bookend Thanksgiving weekend than with a traditional Thanksgiving feast on the front end and a trip to India's latest foray into casual American dining on the back end? Early last week we learned that Chili's had finally followed the lead of other casual dining establishments and opened it's first outlet in India last Wednesday. The restaurant, which we had thought opened months ago (apparently the sign on the mall indicated that it was "coming soon"), is located at Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj in Delhi (not the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon).

Compared to other chains I've been to in India, most notably TGI Friday's (yep, they're here too, it's nice to see American companies trying to spread the obesity epidemic), the food was not only much better but a much closer representation to the actual American version. Had the power not gone out on multiple occasions (again, not out of the ordinary here), we could have just as easily been sitting in a Chili's in Schaumburg as we were in Delhi. Of course, I have an extreme dislike for all things Schaumburg, so that scenario would have likely never happened.

As we exited the restaurant, we were stopped by the franchisee for a quick conversation and asked for feedback. Upon sharing, we learned his goal was to make Chili's the destination stop in India for beef burgers. Kind of an odd goal, given the obvious market constraints, but then again, not something I had heard from any other establishment, so it's quite possible he's meeting an otherwise unmet need.

While the food (and the burger I had, for that matter) that we consumed was actually very good, the restaurant was having a few start-up issues, which you might expect from a five day old establishment. The staff seemed trained, but trained in a way that made you think they were following a script from which they weren't allowed to deviate. Having learned that many of the food items were packaged and shipped directly from the U.S., we were surprised to find that the queso dip had no cheese, which the last I had checked was a fairly important ingredient in the dish (it was all beans). When asked about the mix-up, we were told, "of course, this is queso, it was shipped directly from the U.S." There were some other order screw-ups: bone-in wings instead of boneless and getting chili cheese fries instead of plain cheese fries (as you can tell, between Lindsay, our friend Kristin, and I, we were healthily sampling the menu); however, these ordering issues could easily be fixed by having the wait staff not kneel below table height when trying to awkwardly take an order (which, based on the number of orders I saw taken was more a trained method rather than personal preference).

To the restaurant's credit, after disputing the queso charge on the bill (I wasn't about to pay queso prices for the salsa they replaced the bean dip with) they actually removed all of the screwed up items from the bill, which was unexpected but appreciated (it certainly impacted the tone of this post). The service certainly needs work (I didn't even get into the confusion between the numerous people working tables and the shared looks we had with other tables) and I can't see myself making a special trip into Delhi just to go to Chili's, but I'd go back after a couple months if I happened to be in the area and wanted a little comfort food.

With Thanksgiving, a trip to Chili's, an expat party on Friday night, and a drink at the Hard Rock Cafe on Saturday, it's safe to say I had more than my share of Western culture over the weekend. Sounds about time to get experiencing something a little more Indian, though this weekend includes a trip to a German Christmas Mela, so at least I'll be experiencing a displaced European culture rather than a displaced American one.

Friday, November 26, 2010

An All Import Expat Thanksgiving

As you might expect, Thanksgiving doesn't mean much around these parts. It comes and goes pretty much like any other day. On the bright side, working for an American company that supports American clients, it's still a holiday. In fact, I decided to do what I would have done if I was in the U.S. and took Friday off as well. Typically, with four consecutive days out of the office, we'd get the heck out of here and explore; however, with all of our recent travel, we decided to keep it low-key and just relax at home. You know, like a real Thanksgiving. Plus, there's always more than enough to keep us busy, the most important of which was an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with some like-celebrating friends.

Even though I've only been back in India for a few short weeks since the extended homestay, there's something comforting about being around people that celebrate the same holidays on those holidays. With the exception of a couple of Canadians and a German (in the spirit of full disclosure, the Canadians moved here from Fargo, ND and the German is married to an American, so they basically count as Americans, whether they like it or not), it was a room full of those like-celebrating American citizens. While not the same as family, not a bad little proxy.

The food? Let's just say we just as easily could have been in Chicago as we were in a heavily gated and guarded enclave in India. The turkey? Butterball, moist, and delicious. The stuffing and potatoes? Just like Mom makes (almost, Mom). The pecan and pumpkin pies? Simply delightful. Something called a 'Magic Bar'? Probably about as close as I'm going to get to the taste of a Two Elk Bar without flying back and skiing Vail.

Everything, and I mean everything, tasted just like it would have in the States. The reason was simple. Every item had a story where it was specifically sought out as the real thing (like the turkey, which isn't exactly an indigenous bird around here), had an ingredient that had been lugged back in someone's suitcase (like the pecans in the pie), or had been carefully selected at the new import grocers, Modern Bazaar (like the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce).

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, more than I care to write about here. But suffice to say and without getting too sentimental, I'm thankful that Lindsay and I are having this experience. Like you'd expect, there are ups and there are downs. Luckily for us, the ups far outweigh the downs.

For one night though, I was thankful that the food tasted and smelled the way it "should". Today, it's back to expat India which, let's be honest, isn't a bad place to be.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pat Downs All Around

I live in a country where I've heard of people using their work identification card to get through security at an airport and onto a domestic plane. Not some sort of government provided work identification card, but their privately-owned, company-provided card that they swipe for access into a building. My initial reaction was outrage. After all, what kind of place would allow me to use my work badge to get onto a plane? However, after thinking this one through a little more, I asked the question, "Who's the bigger threat - someone who is who their government provided ID says they are or someone potentially carrying hazardous materials?"

While my answer, to the average traveler, may make me sound risk-loving and somewhat careless, it's the obvious answer. I'd much rather someone be physically screened before they provide some sort of official identification. Granted, both are good, but let's be honest, if someone wants to do something bad on a plane and has the resources to do so, they're not likely to get tripped up with something as basic as an identification card.

Part of what makes me comfortable with my careless decision is that I also live in a country where every airline passenger gets patted down. There's no random selection; everyone gets patted down. Men pass through segregated metal detectors and stand on a platform for the wand and pat down; women pass through their segregated metal detector and into a partitioned area for the same.

Maybe I've been in India too long (after all, I got patted down on my way into brunch on Sunday), but I struggle with people's reaction to the TSA's new security procedure to pat passengers down. Granted, I haven't seen any footage of the pat downs so I have no idea whether it's as invasive a measure as some passengers cite. I tried to watch an NBC News feature online to get some idea; however, MSNBC would only show me the 30 second Tide laundry detergent commercial before telling me the segment was restricted for international IP addresses.

Maybe it's careless, but I guess what I'm saying is that if there is a security measure being taken which increases the chance that I walk off a plane, I'm good with that.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, The Next Day

Maybe the previous post about my triumphant finish in Sunday's half marathon was premature. Sure, even with a less than stellar training plan, I was able to finish. The lesson I learned was that one can be in decent physical condition and still finish running the requisite 13.1 miles. However, the other lesson I learned was that without the body being used to running longer distances, the reaction of that body to running 13.1 miles might not be what one would hope.

Nothing against the elderly, but today I feel like a ninety year old man.

My hips are sore, my legs feel like Jell-O, and I had to steady myself more than once when walking to the restroom from my desk. It's a little humbling to go from the extreme of vigorous human being, conqueror of a long distance run, to pathetic specimen, barely able to move about a room.

I had made a lot of progress before my October trip home and was in a good, healthy habit of going to the gym on a very regular basis. I knew I had regressed and hoped this half marathon was the turning point to revert to that pre-October lifestyle. At this point, I just want legs that will steadily transport me from Point A to Point B.

Note to self, the next time you sign up for a half marathon, make sure you throw in a couple training runs that get you relatively close to race distance. Experts like Hal Higdon publish training plans for a reason: They know what they're talking about. If you choose not to follow one of those plans, you still might finish the race. Your body will not thank you. It will punish you.

OK, enough complaining about how bad I feel. I got what I deserved. On to the next adventure.

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon

When I told my trusty driver Kailesh about my plans to run the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, his reaction was innocent and upbeat, "I hope you win." My response was a little more honest, "I just hope I finish."

While home in the US during the month of October, I did an adequate job of keeping up on short runs; however, I also did an adequate job reacquainting myself with my favorite microbrews and restaurants. The net result? A few added pounds and not a lot of confidence building distance running. Bottom line, I had no real business even signing up for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. Having taken to running in the past couple years and making it through my first two half marathons in 2009, I had some idea the level of distance training deemed appropriate. Let's just say I hadn't done that appropriate amount of training.

The 7:30am start (I had no idea something involving 30,000+ people could begin at that time here; the only time I've been up at that "early" hour here is if we happen to be traveling) required a 5:30am wake-up. After picking up our friend Kristin, whom I had convinced that this race would be a good idea and fun experience even if we weren't properly training, we were on our way into Delhi for the early start.
Kristin and I before the start of the race; the visor is back!
We had no idea where runner drop-off was but saw a bunch of people that looked like runners walking into Nehru Park. We quickly told Ashok (our other trusty driver) to stop and let us out of the car. After a short walk through the park, we found the runner's entrance and parted ways with the wife. There appeared to be a queued corral of runners to the left waiting anxiously to get into the starting area. To the right of them, there was an open section. Kristin and I opted for the open section and quickly cut in front of those waiting. Once past the corral, we had to pass through security, because, you know, runners are a threat, and found our way to the first waiting area.

While waiting in the first section, we ran into a small group from Gurgaon Connection that we had met at a Bollywood-themed party on Friday night. It was nice to see that we weren't the only one's to eschew training so close to the race. Passing through that first holding area, we made it to a second. Waiting there a couple minutes, they literally opened up these large plywood gates and the runners burst through like cattle. I thought that might be the official start to the race, but we ended up walking through a small cordoned area, turning right onto the street before seeing the official starting line. Seven or so minutes after the official start, my timing chip crossed the starting line.

This was my first race with this many people; my previous half marathons had been the ultra-tiny 300 person Alpine Races Half Marathon in Lake Zurich (which is a lot less hilly than the name might suggest) and the 2500 person "The Other Half" in Moab, Utah. I fully expected to fight through the crowds for the first couple miles, but the elongated multi-layered corral system actually spread people out fairly well. Still, as we ran some of the straight roads, there was an absolute sea of people on the road in front of me.
Kristin and I just after the start, surprisingly uncrowded
The course was basically an out-and-back that stretched from Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri (the section of Delhi with the embassies), along past Safdarjung's Tomb and Khan Market, up to India Gate and finally turning around in a round about near the Le Meridien Hotel. As always in this type of race, the most humbling experience is when you're not quite at the 1/3 mark and see the leaders passing you from the opposite direction, sprinting past the 2/3 mark.

Thankfully, right around the halfway mark of the race just before passing India Gate for the second time, I found myself running next to Sameer, one of the fellow expats I had met on Friday at the party. We unofficially used each other to pace most of the rest of the race. I also appreciated how he took it upon himself to clap at people in the crowd, thus eliciting cheers and claps on our behalf.

Like most experiences in Delhi, the diversity of what we ran past was impressive. From shanties with the poor watching quizzically as we passed to the leafy provincial estates of New Delhi to the impressive structures of Safdarjung's Tomb, India Gate, and Rashtrapati Bhavan, there was a little something for everyone on this course. Thankfully, it was basically hill-free, the only true elevation change being a flyover in each direction to keep us honest.

I found myself struggling less than expected and found it helpful that rather than mile markers there were kilometer markers. Twenty-one markers instead of thirteen means, quite obviously, that they come just that little bit more frequently that keeps you going to the next one. By the nineteenth kilometer, I felt myself starting to fatigue, though it was close enough to the end to just power through.

As I approached the finish line, I saw an attractive woman fumbling with a camera. As I got closer and closer, I realized I recognized this person. I had no idea how she had staked this position, but surely enough, the Wife had found the perfect spot to snap me triumphantly crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, as I got closer, I recognized a growing look of panic as she wasn't quite ready for the shot. I was a little earlier than I had told her (I honestly had no idea what my time would be based on my lack of training), though in my defense, I was one of very few 6'2" white dudes running the race; I kind of stuck out. Unfortunately, she missed the shot.

The story she told of getting to that location was as impressive as the story I just told about finishing the race. Apparently, in the course of the three hours since she dropped Kristin and I at the runners' entrance, she had made her way into the "elite athlete's" tent to use the rest room and run her own little race to sneak into the media area. A classic case of skipping the whole "asking permission" part and waiting to beg forgiveness if it came to that. Well, either that or playing the "ignorant foreigner" card.
Feeling surprisingly good after the race
Even with no triumphant shot of me crossing the finish line, the race was a fun and memorable experience. As is the case for nearly anyone that runs a half marathon, simply finishing is in and of itself, the accomplishment. The medals garlanded on each finisher* pretty much said it all: "I am a finisher."

*So not all finisher's actually received their medal, which wasn't an entire surprise to me. Upon checking the race website today this message greeted the homepage: "It is unfortunate that a section of the Half Marathon finishers in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon did not receive their finisher's medal due to unforeseen circumstances." Based on what I could tell, those "unforeseen circumstances" included a bunch of people at the finish line that hadn't run the race trying to get a medal. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Freezing Point

At work yesterday, someone told me the upcoming weather in Delhi included low temperatures that dipped below freezing. Skeptical, I decided to check the ten day forecast. Thankfully, he was wrong (at least according to the 10-day forecast). The lowest listed temperature was 55 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the magical mark.

The balmy temperatures not withstanding (it's still typically around 80 here during the days), his comment sparked a little curiousity. Has it ever snowed in Delhi or Gurgaon? What would happen if it did? Based on short research, the closest thing I could find was a morning frost in 2006, which was the first in 70 years.

As a result of this event, weight issues on the power lines caused power cuts across the city and schools were shut down for three days. Slightly more dramatic than the first unexpected frost in Illinois, where the largest victim might be the uncovered flowers in my Mom's garden. Without central heat, it makes a little more sense why such drastic measures are necessary. Based on my short winter in the apartment last year (after living in a hotel with central heat for much of January), I had to admit that 50 degrees in Delhi feels a lot different than 50 degrees in Chicago. While this winter I still probably won't break out the "woolens" quite as regularly as the locals, there will be far fewer sarcastic comments about the thick sweaters and stocking caps in 50 degree weather.

As far as snow goes in Delhi, I'm still not sure it's ever happened. If it does, the two things I'd want to witness would be (1) the locals initial reaction, many of which have probably never seen the white stuff and (2) the traffic.

To stereotype, drivers in the northern U.S. (take me, for instance) and especially those living in mountainous regions consider themselves expert drivers in the snow; whereas, they consider drivers in the warmer southern states to be far inferior when driving in snow and ice based on their exposure to the elements (I'm sure southerners question northerners decision to live in a climate where it's even an issue). Regardless, I can't imagine people that have never seen snow would fare much better than those stereotyped southerners.

Of course, I'm sure the Indian reaction would be much the same: why develop an unneeded skill?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Riding the Indian Rails

The trip to Pushkar was more than just a pilgrimage to, allegedly, the world's largest camel fair; it was also my first voyage on India's rail system. A rail system, which in my head, I wanted to closely resemble the picture painted in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited but knowing that it would not.
Waiting on the platform; Ben holding his German provisions
Thankfully, the train stopped at the Gurgaon station, so my first experience did not include going to a huge Union Station-type place in Delhi. However, even at a small station like Gurgaon, there's excitement before 7:00am. Shortly after walking onto the platform, a train arrived from the country that, apparently, included the day's milk supply. As soon as it stopped, everyone jumped off the train, grabbed the metal milk jugs hanging from the side, and raced across the tracks to get the milk where it needed to go as quickly as possible. I recognize this is an important source of nutrition for people; however, seeing the method of transport made me feel lucky I'm able to splurge on the Nestle boxed milk when the need arises for a little calcium.
Gurgaon's milk freshly delivered
With expectations improperly set, I boarded the Shatabadi Express from Gurgaon to Ajmer. The Darjeeling Limited it was not, apparently the Shatabadi Express is a special class of trains that run, on average, faster than other trains and (at least from what I could tell) only offer air conditioned cars. Overall, I must admit, there are worse ways to travel in this country. Of course, I was also traveling in the most expensive seats on the train, which for the six (or seven, depending on the direction) hour round trip cost around Rs. 2200 per person, or $50. The train car wasn't overly clean but the seats were overly roomy, much like a first class seat in a two-class airplane. Another perk of the Shatabadi is that, much like coach on a U.S. airline years and years ago, meals and drinks are provided.
The Shatabadi Express arrives at Gurgaon
The arrival station, Ajmer, a thirty minute drive from Pushkar, was slightly more lively than Gurgaon. The platform was full of people waiting for trains and the interior of the station was absolutely packed with people. While this wasn't the train station portrayed in The Darjeeling Limited, it was more in line with what I expected.
The platform at Ajmer
For the return trip to Gurgaon, we triple checked that we were on the right train in the right compartment (made easier by the fact a nice gentleman rubber cemented a passenger list on the side of the appropriate train car), and boarded the right spot. While not a Shatabadi Express, we did have our own sleeper compartment. The train itself was a bit slower but the increased privacy was well worth it. You're able to lock your door, shut your curtain, and basically close out any other activity on the train. Other than a quick visit from the conductor at the beginning of the trip and a short  heated interaction with someone that thought we were in their compartment (technically, we were; unbeknownst to them, they had traded us spots and were in the compartment next door so that we could share with our friends).
The posting of the manifest...
...lead to this "Amazing Race" moment.
While first class is a comfortable mode of transport, I'm not sure the same can be said for the other options on the train. The return train was 24 cars long and only six were equipped with air conditioning. Our car, one of the six, held seats for 10 people. However, I would estimate there were 1000 - 1500 people on the entire train. Nice to know 60 of those people used 25% of the cars. For all those aspiring management consultants out there, a great case interview question would be, "How many people ride a given train from Ajmer to Delhi?" If you happen to be asked that question, don't forget to add 2 - 3 people per train car riding on the roof. Something we didn't realize until disembarking and walking on the crosswalk above the train to leave the Gurgaon station.
The sleeper compartment
Overall, the first train trip was an entertaining and effective way to get around the country. Even when taking into account the number of derailments each year, it's a much more stress free than riding in the back seat of a car, which gives you some idea what traveling on country roads in a car is like. Making this particular trip even easier was the luxury of traveling with people that had done it before. Jodi had even purchased the tickets (which for first class needs to be done well in advance), so we have that to look forward to the next time around.

It's kind of the lazy way out, but where would civilization be without learning from others' experience?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pushkar Camel Festival

The dream is over. The dream that is, of purchasing a camel, taking a picture of said camel, and quickly selling that same camel. Luckily, that was the only disappointment of a weekend in Pushkar, which ironically, also included pushing a car.
The Pushkar Camel Festival was one of the top "things" we wanted to experience in India. Officially, it's an eight day dual-purpose festival set in Rajasthan, about a six hour train journey from Gurgaon. It's part state fair and part functional camel trade show. The earlier you arrive, the more it resembles a camel trade show. Gradually through the week, the camels start to leave and supposedly it becomes more about the cultural festival. We were there for opening weekend. When you have a wife that has an inexplicable love of camels, that's a good thing.
The somewhat contentious relationship between Lindsay and the camel
Traveling with us for the weekend were our friends Jodi and Ben. They had experienced the festival last year but went to the second weekend (i.e., nearly all festival, nearly no camels). Making the trip all the easier, Jodi had planned everything (train tickets and the tent) and Ben really wanted to negotiate to take an Ambassador from the station, so there really wasn't much for either Lindsay or I to do besides show up. Quickly finding a car, we started the thirty minute journey in a 1989 Ambassador, which could have been produced in 1969 for all we knew.
Pushkar? Push car.
We arrived at camp (around Pushkar a number of full-service camps pop up each year at festival time) relatively unscathed. Other than the driver having never heard of our camp, apparently getting into some sort of argument on the phone when asking for directions (which is more common than you'd think), and the car completely stalling out (requiring Ben and I to give it a push start), it was an enjoyable ride. After a quick lunch, we hopped on a camel cart for the slow forty minute ride back to the festival. As a means of actual transportation, a camel cart leaves a little to be desired. However, it's seemed the proper way to approach and initially explore the mela grounds ("mela" basically means gathering or fair; it's also commonly used for craft or handicraft shows organized for charitable purposes to sell stuff to expats).
The camp
The grounds seemed to be unofficially divided by type of animal. Upon entering, we passed through the cattle, then on to the horses, before finally coming to the main event: the camels. By some estimates, 20,000 to 25,000 camels. I can neither confirm nor deny those estimates, but I have no room to argue. We stayed fairly close to the village and main mela grounds; however, there were ridges in the distance littered with camels as far as one could see.

In addition to the actual camels, it really was a working trade show. Stalls were set up with any number of camel accessories, including harnesses, colorful beads, saddles, and anything else with which a self-respecting camel herder might want to decorate his or her (actually "his", I didn't see any female herders) camel.
Decorative camel beads
After walking through the festival, riding through the festival, and spending a little time in the village (which, to be honest, resembled any other village in Rajasthan with the same nameless handicraft stalls), we found our camel cart. The camel cart ride seemed extraordinarily long on the way back, especially given the fact that it got dark. It's scary enough to be on an Indian road at night; even scarier when your legs are dangling off the back end of an unlit camel cart, only illuminated by the approaching headlights from behind.

After a nice evening at camp, we were ready for day two. Ben called his driver to pick us up for the slightly more modern though less quaint ten minute car ride back to the grounds. Ben somehow managed to convince the driver to let him get behind the wheel. As a result, Ben realized his dream of driving an Ambassador. I also realized my dream of being driven by a German in an Ambassador on an Indian country road.
Ben realizes a dream
After getting our bearings on the first day, it seemed more comfortable in the mela grounds on the second day. We walked into the festival, gradually making our way back to the camels. Still wanting a camel ride but having been hounded non-stop by people to ride their camels or take a camel cart ride through the festival, Lindsay did the fun thing. She found a herder that didn't approach us but still had a camel with a saddle. I mean, sure, she interrupted the camel's lunch, but the genuine look of surprise (and delight, since it required no work on his part) on the herder's face was well worth it. When he learned that she only wanted a ten minute ride (rather than a tour of the entire grounds), it was all the better. After agreeing on the always enjoyable variable price of "as you wish", she was on her way. Easy, quick money.
If you want to see a person smile, I highly recommend finding Lindsay a camel to ride.
On one end of the grounds stood a blue stadium that played host to the official opening of the festival on Sunday. With open admission and a fairly lax policy to walk around on the field of the stadium, we had a close-up view to the camel races that mark the festival's start. Pushkar is a holy city where non-vegetarian food and alcohol is forbidden; however, they seemed to relax any restrictions on gambling for the festival's opening. I didn't get the chance to participate, but before each race on the field, you could have just as easily been in a pit on the New York Stock Exchange with the buy tickets being hand written as the books were being made for the next race.

Starting line for the camel race
Other than the gambling and camel races, the highlight of the stadium was a section with local Rajasthani women in colorful and traditional dress. Like tourists that get surrounded and constantly hounded by hawkers, these women were the object of every photographer's shutter. Thankfully, this seemed to be one of their roles at the festival, though I can only assume they were there for some sort of performance (we didn't stick around that long).
Something seems out of place here...
Pushkar was exactly as hoped, though we're glad we decided to go the first weekend. A camel festival without camels would just be another festival. As we experienced it, it was touristy enough that we didn't seem THAT out of place but local enough that you could literally walk off the beaten path. An unbeaten path surrounded by camels.
And in case you were wondering, you can get a camel for a cool Rs. 20,000 (about $450).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Is Sarah Immel Ferris Bueller?

We've seen a number of familiar faces from home during our ten months here; however, last night marked the end of the first visit by a familiar face that came to India for no other reason than to visit us.
It wouldn't be a trip to India without an autorickshaw photo op
A good friend of Lindsay's from school, Sarah Fielding (aka, "Immel", her maiden name), successfully landed back at home in Chicago this morning. I haven't heard all the details, but apparently she was involved in a minor traffic incident at the Gurgaon toll plaza on the way to the airport. But worry not, she's home safe and sound.

Traffic incident notwithstanding, by quantitative measure, the trip was a success. That quantitative measure being checked pieces of luggage. Or in a dorkier, more mathematical notation:

Checked Bags Entering India < Checked Bags Leaving India

Always nice to see the impact of a Lindsay Luth-hosted trip.

A maiden trip to India would be incomplete without a trip to Agra to view a certain white landmark. As our first guest, Lindsay was more than happy to tag along even though she's been before and it makes for a long day (i.e., if you come visit us, don't be surprised or insulted if we hire you a driver and send you on your way). For those counting, that's Lindsay's fourth lifetime trip to the Taj Mahal, which by my unscientific poll is more times than 99.999% of Indians.
Lindsay and Immel in front of some white building
More important than crossing any site off a bucket list or any amount of shopping was the fact that the trip even happened at all. After planning the trip, Immel decided to move into a new house, and she actually delayed moving (not just herself, but her husband and three children) by a week in order to make this trip on schedule. On our end, I ended up in the states longer than planned for work and literally arrived on the same flight as her last Thursday night after being away for four weeks and starting a new role at work here this week.

Without getting too sentimental, what I guess I'm saying is that Immel's little trip may have proven what a wise man named Ferris Bueller once said: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

The Commute

For residents of the national capital region (NCR) that work outside the home, it's safe to assume I have one of the shorter and luckier commutes. My apartment complex is adjacent to my office complex. The net result? Even though I live at the far end of the apartment complex: a seven minute walk from desk to door; that is, if I have to wait for the elevator at the office.

Yesterday, on the other hand, my luck ran out. My company has three offices in the NCR; the one described above, the one where the Wife works which is about a fifteen minute drive and still in Gurgaon (southwest of Delhi), and the one located in Noida, which is the "other" suburb of Delhi on the east side of the capital. Yesterday, I finally went to Noida.

Making matters worse, the hours I needed to be in the office (basically 10 - 6) necessitated hitting the worst of the Delhi rush hour on both ends. Having spent six months commuting from the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi to Gurgaon during my first assignment in 2004, I'm quite familiar with the flow of Indian traffic jams; the close quarters created when a road designed for two lanes of traffic is stuffed full of vehicles inches apart with motorcycles and scooters filling in the gaps. That, I'm used to and while, frustrating, completely met my expectations. What I couldn't figure out was the traffic in Noida. Here is a city so new that its name is an acronym (New Okhla Industrial Development Authority), yet the traffic pattern lead to 45 minutes in traffic inching forward to get off the highway and into town. The roads seemed wide enough to handle the volume, yet at random intervals along the road, the all too common police barriers were set up, basically chicaning the eager commuters and delaying their progress to the glass and steel towers of Noida. No construction, no evident reason, just people getting delayed for the sake of getting delayed. Based on the amount of open space waiting for development, the problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.
A fairly typical scene in Delhi traffic
Days like yesterday make me realize how lucky I am to spend ten minutes a day commuting rather than the four hours I spent patiently riding through the streets of Delhi and sitting in the traffic mess that is Noida. And yes, I recognize a seven minute walk in both directions would technically be 14 minutes of commuting, but you don't expect me to actually walk both directions, do you?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Diwali, Festival of Fire Crackers

Landing back in India the night before Diwali, I was greeted at the apartment with a marigold decorated entryway, complements of our cook. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is a holiday, based on the magnitude, that I've described to others as "Indian Christmas"; however, after what I experienced Friday night, it felt a little more like the Fourth of July.

Knowing that it's an important holiday to Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, we weren't sure what would be open during the day, expecting very little to be based on our experience with other holidays here. Surprisingly, markets and shops remain open until the late afternoon or early evening so Lindsay was able to take our visiting friend Sarah to two of her favorite haunts, Dilli Haat and Khan Market.

Lindsay had called places to see if they were open for dinner, and surprisingly, a couple said they were. Of course, all the places that she had called apparently misunderstood her question and ended up being closed when we tried to go. Since, as we kind of expected initially, the country had basically closed down (much like Christmas Day in the states), we headed back to the apartment where there a number of people lighting off fire crackers at the playground (no kids were on the playground). The fire cracker people had basically taken over the huge lawn and a number of wallflowers, us included, surrounded the perimeter. In addition to the lawn by the playground, there were a number of people doing the same thing on the soccer field, which is located a few dozen yards away.

It can't be confirmed or denied, but it's entirely possible there were some crackers fired in the general direction of the soccer field from the playground lawn and vice versa. No one intended harm; however, it was difficult to ascertain with the amount of carnage witnessed on those fields. We witnessed not fewer than six firecrackers hit the apartment buildings, including two or three that found their ways onto people's balconies before exploding. Thankfully, our apartment faces the other direction.
At least safety was somewhat of a concern
After a while the novelty wore off, at least for the visiting expats and we made our way back inside. That same novelty didn't wear off for a number of hours for the locals celebrating. As it was my first full day back in the country, my old enemy jet lag reared its ugly head. Waking up feeling fully rested at what I thought was 6:00am, the celebration was still going. I thought to myself, "Man, they're serious about these fire crackers." Somewhat confused, I checked my blackberry, learning the actual time was 1:30am. Maybe my body hadn't quite adjusted yet with my two hours of sleep but based on what I could hear from bed, Diwali was still going strong.
Cleaning up the playground the day after Diwali

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Homestay

After a longer than anticipated homecoming to stick around for some unplanned meetings at work, it’s safe to assume I overshot the generally accepted period of time where the novelty of that homecoming remains interesting for others (or even myself, for that matter). Lost were the days of the exciting reactions of family, friends, and acquaintances (my person favorite was the drycleaner exclaiming to the Wife after our nine month absence, “You…you came back! We lost so much money!” OK, so maybe we overuse the drycleaner) and found was the general sense that I was living the life of a guest in my own house

Our house, for all intents and purposes at this point, would barely qualify as a two-star hotel. While still appointed tastefully (I like to think our style resembles what Pottery Barn would look like if it went to war with Asia), the lack of internet and cable turned the residence into a large, boring place to sleep. Thankfully, during our planned week in the fictional greater Chicagoland area, we spent little time there as the days we worked (a nice little way to extend the homestay) and the nights were spent catching up with friends. Regardless, there’s still something a little odd about “living” in your house when you’re doing so out a suitcase and the normal accoutrements are all packed away. Bottom line, by the time the car picked me up take me to work on Wednesday (in the spirit of full disclosure, this was the only day I was driven to work while in the U.S. and only because I went straight to the airport from the office), I was officially ready to return to my adopted home.

The homestay was a highly orchestrated set of weekend activities, dinners, and travel. In fact, the only item the original plan didn’t hit on the homestay bucket list was a trip to Kinnick Stadium to see my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes in person. Luckily, the unplanned additional week for work included a weekend that just happened to include a home date. Even more luckily, I have a mother that comes up with brilliant ideas like, “we should go over to Iowa City and find tickets for the game.” Even more luckily than that, she has friends that get sick and aren’t able to use 50-yard line tickets. Needless to say, what was originally planned as a recovery weekend in India quickly became one of the highlights of the trip: an unplanned and all too rare mother/son weekend with those 50-yard line tickets, a 7-hour tailgate, and a perfect fall day.

In addition to the weekend with The Mother (Mom, that’s a one-time penalty for claiming my use of “The Wife” for Lindsay is disrespectful), the trip was a bit of a whirlwind. Starting with and a round of golf with Lindsay’s Dad shortly after landing on October 7th and ending with a drink at the airport with our friend Sarah Fielding (who’s been kind enough to ditch her husband and three kids for a few days to visit us in India), there simply wasn’t much downtime. I’m not going to bore anyone with the laundry list of detailed activities, but to make a very long story short, let’s just say I ate a lot of my favorite foods, drank most of my favorite beers, saw great friends and family, and was one-half of the greatest cornhole team I’ve ever seen, including an unprecedented five-hour run at a beach house with the wife and seventeen of our closest friends.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t change a minute of the trip, but I’m glad to be back home in India.