Thursday, December 1, 2011

Departure Day

Yesterday we returned from our final adventure in Bhutan, formally moved out of our apartment, and moved into a hotel in Gurgaon for one final night.

At some point, I promise, there's going to be actual new content added to the blog (I'm WAY behind) but I wanted to make sure I posted something today. It's a big day; a milestone day. I'm about seven hours from leaving India (that is, if American Airlines accepts all 9 of our checked bags).

Thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, or at least granting me the illusion that people were interested in the over-privileged, run-of-the-mill, corporate expat's life in India. That being said, I still have more to say and reflect upon and will keep posting. I also plan to start a "repat" blog (any ideas for titles are greatly appreciated; the leader in the clubhouse is "Good Bye Delhi, Hello Disney").

December will be a busy month. We land Friday morning in Chicago at 5:00am, move out of our townhouse next week, close on a house in Orlando on December 13th (keeping our fingers crossed), travel back to Illinois for the holidays (and a couple of parties) on the 17th, and ultimately end up in Orlando on December 28th.

More to come! Cheers!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Life is Busy (aka, My Excuse for Not Writing)

I recognize my posts have been fewer and further between the past few weeks but I like to think I have an excuse. Since Lindsay went to Orlando just two weeks ago, we've been busy. We've visited Varanasi, purchased a house (that I've only seen in pictures), had a going away party, hosted a visitor from the office in the U.S., made a mad dash to the Taj Mahal, attended the American Women's Association mela, packed an apartment, had a near cardiac event when Lindsay lost her FRRO papers (not something that would be easy to replace), had a joyous reunion between Lindsay and her FRRO papers three hours later, and had movers move our stuff out of that apartment - all while trying to finish up our respective jobs here in India.
Our final roadtrip, a 90 minute stop at the Taj Mahal on Saturday (in hindsight based on the reflections in the pool, there was probably a pretty cool photo op if not for the two of us blocking it)
Tomorrow is our last official day of work. This week we leave for a trek in Bhutan, where we'll be meeting my Dad. He left sometime on Sunday in the U.S., has some sort of tour planned in Bangkok tomorrow, and greets us in Paro on Wednesday. It was hard to believe he was leaving for his trip before I had even started to pack an apartment I was moving out of before joining him on that same trip. We fly back to Delhi on November 30th and ultimately leave the country just after midnight on December 2nd. Lindsay's visa expires on December 3rd. Nothing like cutting it close.

I feel like I still have a lot to write about India and still plan to write it; it's just going to have to wait until December. I'm sure in 20 years I'll regret not writing it as it happened as it's never quite as good in hindsight, but it's the deal I've made with myself in order to retain sanity in the midst of everything going on these days.

In addition, I plan to start some sort of repatriation/transplantation blog about moving back to my home country in a new city. Again, it's probably something I should have started as we began the process but there's only so much I can handle (which is probably a lot less than most people can handle).

Any ideas for a title more original than "Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to Orlando" would be greatly appreciated. I might just be lazy enough to start a genre.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jet Lag, Varanasi Style

Last Sunday night (Sunday morning US time), Lindsay flew from Delhi to Orlando to meet her new team and start the home search. On Friday night India time (that would be Friday morning US time) she arrived safely back in Delhi. This was easily the quickest back-and-forth either of us have ever made. After what amounted to a twelve hour layover, we headed back to the airport to catch our flight for a quick one-night trip to Varanasi. The best plan ever? Certainly not, especially since we bought the Varanasi tickets fully knowing what she'd be going through. However, it's also the final weekend we're in India with our friend Kristin and figured one last trip was in order. Regardless, Lindsay is tired. For those of you that don't know Lindsay, when she gets tired, she basically shuts down. Not a great recipe for the weekend.

We spent much of the afternoon visiting the sites around Sarnath, which is famous in Buddhism as the first place Buddha gave a sermon to his five monk disciples. Before the tour guide had fully calibrated on the level of information we wanted (he actually did a great job for the most part; however, we were a little worried when he had been talking for a good 8 minutes about a mural and seemed poised to go around the entire temple with that level of detail. Thankfully, he caught Lindsay falling asleep while standing which helped expedite his spiel.
Sleeping Buddha. Meet sleeping Lindsay.
On the way from Sarnath to the banks of the Ganges, Lindsay simply couldn't hold on any longer. She fell dead asleep; one of those deep sleeps that can only result from flying halfway around the world in fifteen hours. After about a twenty minute "nap" (who are we kidding, this was some serious REM sleep), we arrived at the drop point. The problem was, she was still "napping". In the spirit of full disclosure, Kristin (who was sitting next to her) had tried to wake her with no luck. I had little choice to wake a very confused and discombobulated Lindsay and tell her was time to walk to the river.

Even after spending nearly two years here, Varanasi was one of the more intense places we've visited. Lindsay went from being in a deep, jet lag-induced early evening sleep to basically getting dropped smack dab in the middle of one of the most chaotic, busy, and flithy scenes in India. Slowly, after a few drunk-like stumbles, she joined the flow of tourists and pilgrims to the river, she found her bearings. Like most twenty minute naps, this one saved her night.

I'll never forget the look on her face when she emerged from the car. Confusion. Chaos. Comedy.
Believe it not, she gave me permission to publish this (though lack of permission might not have stopped me in this case).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to Orlando

December in Chicago still has the novelty of Christmas and is typically not unpleasant; whereas, January and February are absolutely miserable. Why, you must be thinking, is this important?

For the past couple months, when someone has asked me how I feel about going back to Chicago in the middle of the winter, I've answered with a bit of a sheepish smirk and responded with something like, "yep, it's going to be awfully tough to get used to snow again." Why the smirk? I've had a secret. I only have the novelty of the Christmas portion of winter in front of me. Shortly after the new year, Mrs. Luth and I will pack our bags (again) and head south. The title of this post is misleading.

We're not just going to Orlando; we're moving there.

In fact, the wife arrived there Monday to meet her new team, start her new job, and initiate the home search. It's a quick trip. She's back in India on Friday night.
My only time at Disney was Epcot's 15th anniversary...
Delhi's culture is a deeply woven fabric, carefully crafted over the course of centuries. It could be argued that there's no more "real" place in the world, which is odd because we always refer to our life here as quite unreal and returning one day to the "real" world in the states. If Delhi's culture is a deeply woven fabric, Orlando's is deeply fabricated. I'm sure I'm insulting some of my soon-to-be-fellow-Orlandoans (is that the right term? I should probably check on that...) but outside the deserts of Dubai and Vegas, there may not be a less authentic place on earth than Orlando.
...strangely, the wife was also there (love the matching belt lines)
As we've told a few people about the move, the first reaction is almost always, "Disney, huh?" Yeah, I guess. I've never been one to ooh and aah over Disney; in fact, I've threatened Lindsay that I'd rather not "waste" a vacation when we have kids and that the "Disney" trip would be better served (and longer remembered) if we replaced it with a national park. I know, I'm heartless.

The second reaction is almost always, "There are a lot of chain restaurants there. Like a LOT of chain restaurants." Outside the occasional trip to Chili's for their delicious boneless wings, I despise chain restaurants. However, since we haven't cooked for ourselves in the past two years, the novelty of, [gasp], being in the kitchen and preparing our own food should mitigate whatever chain restaurant overload that may have otherwise ensued.

Even with Disney and the chain restaurants, I'm looking forward to the change. Something tells me that going back to our old lives in suburban Chicago would have been, well, boring. With this move, I get to explore a part of the country I'm not terribly familiar with. I've been to Orlando a grand total of 3 times; once as a kid to Disney and twice for short work trips. I've never visited with the lens of, "what would it be like to live in this place." In many ways, I had a better idea of what living in India would be like this time around than what living in Florida will be like.

Even if you call Orlando fake or plastic (Phil Jackson's word, not mine) or whatever, it's going to be new to me. I'm going to explore. I'm going to keep writing about it. I'm going to ignore the fact that the highest point above sea level is something like 120 feet (that number is approximate but is based on my continuous childhood examination of the Rand McNally Road Atlas).

Repatriating is always tough; the least I can do is try it in decent weather.

A Rolling Pin Saves My Day

This morning I became yet another unfortunate case study about how used to convenience I've become. The coffee grinder broke. This disappointed me because we're about three weeks from leaving and it's not worth buying another coffee grinder with one of those funny Indian plugs. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be forced to overpay for some ground coffee at one of the import grocery stores. I was prepared to pay whatever price was asked; it was worth it to not go without coffee for my final three weeks.

Then something happened. I heard a weird crunching sound in the kitchen. Thinking that maybe our cook Yashoda was trying to fix the grinder, I went in to stop her, telling her that I'd go out and buy some ground coffee today. Much to my surprise, she was nowhere near the grinder. She was busy crushing beans with a rolling pin. In my clouded, decaffeinated head, I had entirely forgot there might be another solution; well, that and the fact I had never thought to grind coffee with a rolling pin.

Many thanks to Yashoda for her resourcefulness and, more imporantly, mitigating what would have been a crankier than average day.

(Sadly, this is only the second most interesting thing I've seen a rolling pin used for during this assignment. The most interesting, and it's an entirely different story but one with pictures that I would need to request permission to publish (there's nothing indecent about them, it's just a little weird), involves kneading out tight muscles during the trek in Ladakh. Judith, just give me permission. I'm sure people want to see.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Leech Trek

If you grew up in the US in the eighties, your likely only experience with leeches is the scene from "Stand By Me" when the boys swim across a water hole and find, upon exiting, huge leeches covering their bodies, including one in a not so awesome spot for Gordo. Trekking in lush south Asian locations can reintroduce you to these little bloodsuckers. Truth be told, if anything good can be said about leeches in the wild, that they're much smaller in real life than on the big screen.

I've had three experiences. In 2005 when trekking in at the Periyar Wildlife Reserve in Thekkady, India (was wearing leech socks so no damage), at Christmas in Bali (didn't realize it was on me until I saw a moving glob of mud on my leg in the shower), and most recently near Munnar, India.
Note to trekkers, leeches like lush, damp environments
In Munnar, after two experiences in a similar climate and even after having told people that "there will likely be leechese," that I would have done something relatively smart like wear long socks to provide some level of protection. Nope. I wore my regular thin, barely-covering-your-ankles running socks. Dumb decision number one. Not exactly a great decision. In a group of six people, as soon as people started seeing and feeling the leeches, I pulled the "these guys can't hurt me" routine and blindly headed up the hill without checking myself. Dumb decision number two.

By the time we stopped for a quick lunch (which is an entirely different story, but the guide had been carrying packages of a watery curry stored in paper bags with chipati in his backpack, an odd trekking lunch selection, to say the least) on the way down, I decided to check my ankles. Sure enough, the cuffs of both pant legs were stained with blood and I had more than one slimy little buggers attached to me.
Lindsay = Smart
A few facts you might not know about leeches: (1) they attach themselves to you in two places, so each leech actually creates two "bites," (2) they're difficult to remove by hand, and (3) when you try and remove them by hand, you might pull it in half where the other half stays attached to your body.
John = Dumb
Clean from leeches, my ankles continued to bleed. And bleed. And bleed. And bleed. Either I had turned into a hemophiliac or some combination of altitude and leech bite kept me from clotting. It was weird. In the shower, my ankles that appeared to have stop bleeding, started without warning. After elevating and bandaging my feet for thirty minutes, my feet stopped bleeding and again started without warning. I re-bandaged but had the same result but had the same result. After a night's sleep, the base of the bed looked like a crime scene. Gil Grissom would have been disgusted. Thankfully, by morning, I had finally achieved full clottage; however, it's safe to assume the leech suckages (they're not really bites, I guess) had caused 12+ hours of unclotted joy.

Should I have been worried? Probably. However, the prospect of driving in the mountains in the dark in India to seek whatever medical attention may have been available seemed more dangerous than whatever damage the leech may have inflicted.

Monday, October 31, 2011

One Month Warning

As you may or may not have noticed, the month of October has been a little light in the "new posts" department. What October has lacked in written record has been more than made up for with visitors' experiences. Over the four weekends of this month we've had two sets of visitors, first Lindsay's best friend from childhood Melissa and her husband Jeremy (whom I had never met) and then my college roommates Brian and Tommie (yes, it ends in "ie"; Brian and I still don't know exactly why) and their wives Kelly and Jen. Hosting can be exhausting but whatever exhaustion results is more than offset by people's reactions and insights into this place we call home.
Udaipur with Jeremy and Melissa
Munnar with Jen, Kelly, Brian, and Tommie
Whatever joy I may have stolen from you by not writing much the past few weeks (and I still have some posts in the hopper, I just need to find the time and creative energy), can be more than made up by checking out my friend Brian's new blog about their visit, Wandering Yankee 76. I'll share additional links as he posts about the remainder of his experience but his first post, Politely Stinky, outlines his expectations (or lack thereof) and his journey over which included a brush with India's greatest WWE star. His second post, the aptly titled Full Immersion recounts his first full day in Delhi (and in India, for that matter) when his first steps outside the car were toward Jama Masjid during the call to Friday prayer.
Welcome to Delhi
It's hard to believe, but we have only three weekends left in India. Next weekend is a much needed rest and organization weekend in Delhi, the following weekend is a likely trip to Varanasi (which I'm not terribly excited for but have been told it's something we must do), and the final weekend we need to squeeze in a trip to the Taj Mahal. We've been here two years and still haven't been able to refresh our pictures from November 2004's trip to the Taj. We leave India temporarily on November 23 for a trek in Bhutan (where my Dad will be meeting us), stop back in Delhi for two days, and fly out for good on December 2. Somewhere in the middle of all that, the wife is making a short work-related trip to the United States and we both need to find a way to transition to new jobs and pack our crap here. As busy as October was, it's safe to say November will be worse.

I'm also making a personal commitment to write more; not just about catching up on October but also what lies ahead. This transition month will be fun-filled, stress-inducing, and in ten or twenty years, I'll be disappointed if I take the easy road out and just let this blog slowly die. It's difficult to believe the end is near and that in four short weeks this space transforms from an expat blog to a repatriation (does the term "repat" exist?) blog. No worries though, I promise a repat blog with a surprise twist. 

Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers

I've often told people that one of the most fascinatingly different things about India is that there are many segmented economies coexisting at all times. On Saturday I may have committed the greatest cultural faux pas of my time here and made two of those economies collide (in my own small way). On Saturday our drivers walked through the gate of Neemrana Fort as paid guests rather than simply dropping us at that gate only to return twenty four hours later. On Saturday they came ziplining with us.
Sir, open that gate!
Lindsay and I have talked about different things we could do for our beloved drivers, Ashok and Kailash. While we're sure tips are always appreciated, we wanted to do something in addition to just throwing some additional money their way. We wanted to provide an experience that they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to experience. Selfish on our behalf? Probably. A great experience for all? Absolutely.

After getting settled near the reception area, I walked back to the fort gate to invite "the boys" (what the wife and I affectionately call them) to invite them up. Without hesitation the guard firmly stated, "they're not allowed." This was the first time I had ever really felt like I was in 1950's Mississippi. I replied, "yes, they're going ziplining." His response? "750 rupees each." This is the standard entrance fee (which is exorbitant in my opinion, but it's their rule so I can't really complain) if you're not staying at the fort or using the zipline. My response varied little, "they're paid, going ziplining. The guard still didn't believe me and had to check my printed receipt and still had a couple questions. Begrudgingly, he relented and allowed them to pass. Kailash, who always walks with a bit of a strut, seemed to hold his chest especially high as he passed the guard. For some reason, I was incredibly proud. It's like I helped Kailash with his own little Rosa Parks moment. Selfish on my part? Yep.
Tentative yet smiling before the climb
I had never seen such evidence of the segmented class system here. Normally, drivers wouldn't even consider entering a property like this (and who knows, maybe they don't even want to); however, I was shocked by the level of resistance when they had every right to walk through the gate. In my mind, it was no different than if I had paid for another friend to join; in the mind of the guard, it was entirely different. Regardless, they made it through the gate.

I had tried to describe what we would be doing but wasn't sure how well the concept of ziplining translated. In addition to my weak description, I had assured them that we would have fun. If the way Ashok's eyes bugged out of his head when he first saw someone screaming across the metal cable was any indication, it hadn't translated well at all. Ashok in particular seemed nervous as we got to the top and as he stepped into a harness for the first time. It didn't help matters that as we lined up to go, Kailash (usually the confident one but suddenly more reserved) playfully yet quickly pushed Ashok in front so he would go first. I quickly called him on that and he knew he'd be going first.

By the end of the second zip, much like our other first time guests, all of their fears had eroded and they were having a blast. They even smiled for a couple of pictures, which is a saying a lot more than you might think. Even though Ashok still answered any question with the word "sir" (some habits are probably harder to break than simply having a couple hours away from the car and on a zipline course), they seemed to genuinely enjoy their time and felt like part of the group than simply our drivers that have made our lives incredibly less stressful than they could have been.
Ashok finishes up the second zip
Ashok, I know you're reading this, "ma'am" and I just wanted to say thank you. Dhanyavaad. Ab gari acha chala-tay ho. (I'm sure I butchered that). Please tell Kailash the same.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Perspectives on Tour Guides

One thing the wife and I have in common is that we tend to breeze through tourist sites quickly. We see it, we appreciate it, we move on. We tend to operate best without a tour guide. That's not to say I'm not interested in the history and the story, it's just that I'd rather read about it in a book than have some long-winded guide try and prove he's smarter than me (which is quite likely the case). If I get a tour guide, that tour guide really has three jobs:
  1. Read my non-verbals. I'm not a terribly complex person. When I'm done listening, you'll know. When I'm done listening, stop talking.
  2. Keep me away from emporiums. I hate emporiums. In fact, 99% of foreign tourists hate emporiums. If a foreign tourist is at their second emporium and still pretending to watch whatever handicraft is being produced, they're being polite and don't realize it's perfectly acceptable to act obnoxiously to the tour guide.
  3. Take good pictures. This is what 99% of tourists really want; a good picture to take home. If you're a tour guide and you're not taking good pictures, I guarantee it's impacting your total income. Note, more on this in a later post (as a hint, I'm reviewing the archives for my best bad shots).

It had been a while since I had been around a person that felt differently about tour guides. Then Lindsay's friend Melissa came to India. Did she have questions? You would have thought someone had assigned her a research paper on the familial lineage of the mahanranas of Udaipur. The picture below, taken at the end of a tour through Udaipur's City Palace, clearly shows our respective attitudes toward the guide:
  • Melissa is still intently listening to the guide (her smile was genuine), hoping to soak up every last morsel of information about this wondrous place
  • Jeremy, her husband, can be seen simply appreciating the fact that Melissa is enjoying herself. 
  • Lindsay is in the background, eagerly plotting out the rest of our day, having completely tuned out the guide within the first 8 minutes of the tour.
  • And finally, there's me, entertaining myself by taking pictures of the entire situation, also having tuned out the guide.

Part of me thinks it's a bad thing that I've lost some semblance of curiosity about this country; part of me thinks people just value different parts of travel. Regardless, it was refreshing to see Melissa's enthusiasm to engage with the guide rather than to simply tolerate the guide, as had been the case for me lately. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess it was a better time for the guide as well. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mr. Hakim, Udaipur's Finest Driver

When planning last weekend's trip to Udaipur we purposely didn't plan transportation until the last minute. The reason? Last year, we happened upon a friendly rickshaw driver named Adbul Hakim. To get an idea of fair prices this time around, I sent a note to the travel agent we typically use and priced out a car for the weekend. I also sent a quick request to the hotel to see how much airport transfers would be each direction. Armed with that information, I was confident Mr. Hakim would not only be cheaper but also a more "real" experience for our friends visiting from St. Louis.
Lindsay and childhood best friend Melissa under the watchful eye of Mr. Hakim

Mr. Hakim offered perhaps the best benefit, varying vehicles depending on our need. He had Innova (serves the same general purpose as a minivan) for us at the airport, a rickshaw to maneuver through the narrow streets of Udaipur, and a small sedan for the ride up to Monsoon Palace.

He offers a "pay as you wish" pricing policy that I'm sure Dubner and Levitt over at Freakonomics would salivate over. He doesn't quote a price, tells you to pay for the service he provides, and that's that. I would assume this policy actually leads to higher than normal revenue, especially when dealing with foreigners like myself. Ignorant foreigner that I still am after 21 months, I still justify things like this by convincing myself that I'm supporting the economy at the most local level. At any rate, the net result was still cheaper than either of the options I researched. In addition the price, Mr. Hakim wanted to take us to "the real India", which in his definition was the bustling town market. His assertion may have some merit but trying to encapsulate this country into one location would be like saying "the real America" is the Mall of America. I'd be insulted. But that's an entirely different topic.

At any rate, I mentioned this in May and I'll mention it again, if you want an authentic experience in Udaipur with an honest, reliable driver/tour guide, give Mr. Hakim a call. You won't regret it.

Abdul Hakim
+91 98292 76923

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Drive in India

It wasn't a long drive nor was it a terribly stressful one; however, I can now lay claim to having driven an automobile in India. Today, I drove home from Galleria Market. The only time my trusty Kailash ever really brings up the idea of me driving is when it's a holiday or a festival. While I'm slightly insulted, it's probably the smart move on his part since the traffic is typically light.

Dussehra, which is today's festival, is no exception. Even with the added degree of difficulty of the stoplights not working, traffic was nearly nonexistent and the drive uneventful. I honked a couple times, passed a couple auto riskshaws, turned a couple times without hitting anything, and successfully navigated my first Indian roundabout.

The most stressful part of the drive was when my pocket started to vibrate and I realized the wife was calling. I threw the phone to Kailash so he could answer (because, you know, safety first). To help alleviate the confusion caused by an Indian voice answering my phone, he said to her, "sir can't talk right now, he's busy driving home." What was she calling about? She wanted to make sure I picked up some Diet Coke at the store. If that isn't a little slice of normal middle American life, I don't know what is.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bollywood Bash

Last night the local expat group, Gurgaon Connection, sponsored one of its frequent parties, known around these parts as a "bash." Typically, these bashes have some sort of theme (like "red" on Valentine's Day or a beach party); however, last night was the much anticipated second annual Bollywood Bash. Hosted at the Kingdom of Dreams (which is a new multi-purpose facility that is part Bollywood-infused-Broadway musical and part really nice food court) it's the one party of the year when the expats of Gurgaon don their newly purchased Indian apparel, apparel which they all convince themselves they're going to wear again at home but likely never do.
Boring (but exceeding tan for some reason) John at last year's bash
At last year's bash, I was one of very few boring people that decided against wearing Indian clothing. I couldn't have that happen again. I had planned to buy some sort of basic sherwani and wear with the turban I had purchased in Jodhpur on my birthday. However, while sari shopping for Lindsay, I stepped into a store and not ten minutes later had purchased the full bridegroom's sherwani, complete with scarf, turban, and some sort of pin with a feather in it.

Reactions were positive to my new look. Comments ranged from "you look great" to "sir, you look like you are looking for a new wife" (that last one came courtesy of my trusty driver Kailash).

Lindsay's goal this year was to make a purchase that was "wearable" for a nice wedding or function once we return home (i.e., she was one of those expats I mentioned in my opening paragraph). Only time will tell whether or not that's the case, but regardless, she looked fit for Bollywood last night. On the other hand, I'm fairly certain the only other time I will be donning my Indian wedding duds will be, at most, annually and on the last day of October.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lakhs and Crores

There are, to the American ear, odd units of measure in India that are generally accepted and widely used especially when it relates to money. If you don't understand these measures, then, well, you really haven't spent much time in India.

The Lakh
A lakh is equal to a hundred thousand. If someone were to make one million rupees in a year, they wouldn't say, "my salary is one million rupees." Instead, they would say, "my salary is ten lakh." Since one U.S. dollar is currently worth 48.94 rupees, one lakh rupees is equal to $2,043. One of the easiest ways to gain credibility with a salesman in some sort of higher end store (like for a rug or jewelry or whatever) is to ask for prices in rupees and to subsequently not bat an eye when they quote a price of something like 1.2 lakh rupees. Granted, I try to stay away from such stores, but it's a good skill set to have nonetheless.

(Quick note, I would appreciate if no one would tell my wife the exchange rate has shifted so far in the U.S. dollar's favor (I know I'm not going to). It's hovered around the 45:1 mark for the past two years. Whenever she's trying to justify purchasing something, she uses an exchange rate of 50:1 in her head and then says, "see, this isn't so bad". Me, being ever the practical one, tries to get her to use a very conservative exchange rate of 40:1. If she still wants that something at a conservative 40:1 rate, it seems like a good purchase.)

One final thing about the lakh; based on the unit of measure, you'll often see commas in weird spots in Indian numbers. Rather than writing 500,000, they will write 5,00,000 to highlight that half a million is really five lakhs.

The Crore
Not nearly as widely used, primarily based on the denomination, is the crore. A crore is equal to one hundred lakh, which is to say that a crore is ten million. Following the same conversion rate from above, one crore rupees is equal to $204,300. The most common uses for this denomination are to describe corporate earnings, expensive real estate, levels of corruption in the economy, or the winnings of the kid in Slumdog Millionaire.

Lakhs seem much more natural to me, which I'm sure is based on the frequency of usage. Crores are still a little foreign, even though the general rule is "multiply a lakh by a hundred." I just hope I'm smart enough, if given the opportunity, to use a a term like 1.2 crore appropriately rather than telling someone it's 120 lakhs.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Productivity or Dependency?

I seem to be getting forgetful. Today I forgot my laptop. Thankfully, it was locked in my office at work. Unfortunately, that didn't really help much considering I had worked there earlier in the day and traveled twenty minutes to our other office in Gurgaon (which doubles as the office that once gave me the shortest commute in India). When I passed through the security check at work, it may have been the first time something has ever been found (or not found) by the guard. Regardless, I neither had the desire nor the time to partake in the 45 minute exercise that would have been going back to my office to retrieve my computer.

Fortunately, this is India. With one instruction and one well placed phone call, I was able to send my driver back, authorize someone to unlock my office, give the laptop to my driver (my other trusty driver, Ashok, not to be confused with my trusty driver Kailash), and have him bring it back to me. The net result was that my computer was waiting for me when I finished the meeting that required me to go to the other office in the first place. Ahhhhhh, Incredible India!

These aspects of the India experience make me feel like both the most productive and most overly dependent person in the world. Such is life in this land of extremes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Positive Spin on Slum Tourism

I’m a man of very little principle. I’m now one of those evil westerners that tours slums. Upon landing in Mumbai last Friday morning, my first stop, even before checking into the hotel, was at Dharavi. More specifically, that stop was an organized and guided tour through three of four sections of the second largest slum in Asia. This slum, which is home to more people than the city of San Fransisco, sprawls over two square kilometers. I’ll help with the math; that’s a population density of over half a million people per squarer kilometer. Yes, this is both the slum where the kids were pulled for “Slumdog Millionaire” as well as a major part of Shantaram (I can’t speak for the latter parts of Gregory David Robert’s tale of an escaped thief’s life in the Mumbai slums as I only made it through the first two hundred or so pages of the 900 page behemoth epic).
I liked the ingenuity of using an old billboard for roofing
This tourist activity, slum tourism, is increasingly controversial. The two basic sides of the argument are fairly obvious. On one side, is it wrong to profit from the exploitation of the impoverished? On the other, is giving greater visibility and awareness toward the way others live while (hopefully) contributing toward their economy a good thing? I suppose my actions place me on the latter side of that argument and don’t even allow me to consider the former. Plus, the tour we were on didn’t allow photographs be taken, so that made me feel slightly less exploitative; and to be honest, it was kind of nice to walk through a place without my camera glued to my eye.

The tour began when we were greeted by our local guide, a sixteen year old named Zisha (I have no idea if that’s the correct spelling). The most striking aspects of Zisha were, first, that he spoke impeccable English and, second, that he was wearing the whitest clothing I’ve seen in this country. I nearly asked him who did his laundry so I could send my shirts. He lead us over a walkway that crossed the train tracks. We descended the stairs and were “in” the slum.
Not the stairs into the slum, but one of the few allowed photographs
My first impression upon setting foot in the second biggest slum in Asia was, “This is actually kind of nice.” Maybe that’s nearly two years in India talking. More likely is that my morbid expectations were flushed away by the time I took my second step.

Morbid Myth #1 – Temporary housing as far as the eye could see
I fully expected to see cardboard or maybe (if they were lucky) bamboo framed shelters covered with blue tarps. In the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.” The structures lining the main street were quite permanent and, much to my surprise, housed businesses similar to those you’d see on any other commercial street of small business in India. These buildings have been there for some time, and unless the planned "rehabilitation" efforts (which the residents have mixed feelings about) take shape, they're going to be there for a long time.

Morbid Myth #2 – Miserable people as far as the eye could see
I expected to find people down on their lot in life, bathing in their own misery. While there are probably more comfortable places to call home, the people hardly looked miserable. This was a fully functioning community with a robust economy, people working (and working hard) to eek out a life, and children coming home from school. Many thousands work outside the slum as the city's drivers and laborers and could choose to leave if they wanted. They don't. Why? It's where they're from. It's home.

Morbid Myth #3 – The worst smelling and dirtiest place on the earth
The olfactory qualities of India have been well documented by both travelers and residents. As such, I was expecting something similar to what Andy had to swim through to escape the warden in The Shawshank Redemption. Not the case. I was almost immediately struck by the lack of "bad" smell. This was partially due to the lack of animals (Mumbai, in general, has far fewer animals roaming around than you see in other parts of India). If Dharavi had the same animals per capita as a place like Jodhpur, this might not be so much a myth. Suffice to say, I've been to far dirtier and far smellier places than this slum.

Morbid Myth #4 – Slums are so cheap that anyone that shows up will find a place
Dharavi still seems to be accepting migrants from other parts of India, mostly from nearby states like Gujarat and Rajasthan; however, it's not so simple as showing up and finding a place to squat. Given the proposed rehabilitation efforts, speculation (as well as the constant supply of land) has driven real estate prices comically higher than one would expect. Our guide pointed to a rather run-down looking building and mentioned that a studio-sized apartment in the building would cost 300,000. Dollars. U.S. dollars.

Say what you want of slum tourism, but I can honestly say I learned more in my two hours about the social and economic systems that exist in a place like Dharavi than I could have from volumes of books that try to describe it. In the end, isn't that part of what travel is all about? Is slum tourism really any different than something like touring the castles of the royal families of the world? Sure, it's on opposite end of the spectrum, but as long as you're learning, isn't that kind of the point?

Finally, the most surprising thing I saw while touring the slum was an oddity that I'm sure very few people would have noticed. The only reason I noticed is that I have a family friend in Minneapolis that is heavily involved in the Minnesota Green Roofs Council. As our tour concluded, I looked up and to the right and happened to notice a do-it-yourself green roof. While I doubt his organization reaches all the way to Mumbai, it was perhaps the most subtle yet prescient reminder that slums aren't all doom and gloom.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mumbai's Iowa Hawkeye Taxis

Anywhere you look in Mumbai, you’ll find yellow and black (or as an Iowa fan, black and gold) taxies zipping (or plodding) around town. Part of the reason you see so many is that three-wheel autorickshaws aren’t allowed in the south part of the city. While some of the cars are newer Hyundai Santros, most are old decrepit Ambassadors or Fiats.
It's only missing a tiger hawk
These older cars still have old mechanical meters attached outside the car in front of the windshield on the passenger side. The meters still work, and are used, but they don’t update the denomination shown. In other words, however much a rupee was worth fifty or sixty years ago when the meter was produced is the amount shown. We took a ride from Coloba near the Gateway of India to an area of town called Kemp’s Corner. It was probably a ten to fifteen minute ride. When we left the cab, the meter read “4 rupees 60 paise” or just over ten cents. The driver then pulls a conversion card out from the dashboard, reads down to what the amount is in today’s rupees and says “Seventy rupees.”
The conversion card
So while the dream of a ten cent cab ride died, it’s still nice to know you can take a fairly lengthy taxi ride in Mumbai for just over a buck fifty.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Indian Paint Commercials

On Tuesday night we were in Bangalore for work and had the opportunity to see a little bit of the expat life in that city’s suburbs through the eyes of our company’s only other expat in India (well, only one in addition to Lindsay’s shopping buddy and our travel planner, the world-famous Kristin). The most striking thing about his neighborhood was that it felt like we were driving through any nameless suburb in California or Florida. Rows of palm trees lined the streets, there were yards full of green grass, and houses that looked like, well, “normal” houses.

For the past year and a half I’ve watched Indian television and its commercials. Some of my favorite commercials are those that peddle house paint. In fact, they always make me laugh because they always should these “normal” looking houses with pitched roofs and yards. In fact, I was fairly certain that the only house that was in India that was featured in an Indian paint commercial was the one from last year where a magician tries to make a freshly painted palatial-sized fort disappear and does so except for the layer of paint left standing and blowing in the wind (yes, you can tell I lead a very exciting life when I can recite from memory something as mundane as a paint commercial).

Not so. I now firmly believe that those houses featured in the commercials are real. And those houses are all in Bangalore.

One last thing about Bangalore: the weather. It’s often described as “San Diego-like.” While my two day sample hardly constitutes proof, I would have to agree. Ron Burgundy would feel right at home. It was pleaseant, so pleasant in fact, that I felt every one of the 31 degrees of heat when I landed in Chennai this morning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jodhpur's Sardar Market

Other than to celebrate my birthday and to find a couple rooftop restaurants to enjoy surprisingly cold Kingfisher, the only other planned objective of Saturday's quick trip to Jodhpur was to wander the market in the old part of the walled city.
Clocktower at Sardar Market
Our guide on our first to Jodhpur in March mentioned that the market was once recognized as the eighth best market in the world. The only reason I remember this is because it was peculiar level of specificity. I have no idea the criteria used and have no expertise on what might qualify the Sardar Market as the eighth best in the world versus the seventh or the ninth. However, I figured anyone willing to make up a story that specific must be telling the truth.
Just another colorful Rajasthani market
After stepping in my first pile of cow crap (I guess I was finally due; on a side note, in a country known for random cows walking around, Jodhpur might win the prize for most wandering cows because I've gotten to the point where I don't even notice cows in Gurgaon but that wasn't the case in Jodhpur), I followed Lindsay and our friend Kristin into a store called J.G. Art & Crafts. By the time I walked in, the multi-generational shopkeepers had fully embraced the women. Not only were they set to receive the non-guided tour price on items (they readily admitted prices were inflated 35% to account for the commission owed to any guide or tout that brings someone into the store; I appreciated the honesty), Kristin had already ordered her first cup of tea (she literally had three cups of tea with the family which may be why they pulled out the family photo album at one point).
The second cup of tea, freshly poured from a plastic bag
The patriarch of the family was rumored to have been running the store for 76 years. Seeing as how he was "only" 86, either the math was bad or 10 year old kids had a lot of responsibility in 1935 Jodhpur. We probably spent more time than necessary with this family and probably spent less money than they would have hoped given the investment of time they made; however, it certainly made for a memorable day wandering around the lively market.
The patriarch of J.G. Art & Crafts
Other than the abundant number of cows, the other noteworthy thing about Jodhpur is that the people seemed genuinely friendly and readily engaged in conversation. Of course, most of those conversations involved telling us, in one way or another, how Mick Jagger and Richard Gere were recently in town (separately, I presume).
One of Jodhpur's many, many cows

Return to Jodhpur

As we near the end of our time in India, we've started to make some repeat trips to places that we want to make sure we see again. This past weekend was one of those repeat trips, albeit a quick one-nighter to Jodhpur. Thankfully, domestic flights are relatively cheap so what would have been a nine hour train ride turned into an hour flight. Certainly a more realistic.

For this trip, we stayed at a newer place called Raas in the heart of the walled city which was within easy walking distance to both Mehrangarh Fort and Sardar Market. I'm not sure there are a lot of luxury boutique options in Jodhpur, but if you want to spend a few more rupees and have a nice respite from the chaos of the city, Raas is the place to be. Other than the two rooms we had reserved, there was only other room occupied. As a result, the level of personal service was significantly amplified. The entire staff at the hotel had caught wind that it was my birthday and everyone greeted me by name and with the traditional Indian birthday wish, "wishing you many happy returns of the day."
Not a bad view for a birthday dinner
After Jodhpur, we'll be returning to Udaipur, the backwaters of Kerala, and our favorite weekend retreat, Neemrana over the next couple months. I thought I might go this entire assignment without making it back to Agra; however, we've decided it's probably worth a quick one-night trip to make it back to the Taj Mahal sometime in November. I've been, but it was in 2004, and I look ridiculously young in the pictures. Based on that and the absurdity of not finding a way to make the short 4-hour drive at some in a two year span, it just makes sense to return.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dubai: City of Excess

From the scores of Ferraris and Bentleys out driving the streets to the $1500 handbags carried by nearly every local Emirati woman, I've never seen a city that flaunts its wealth and excess as much as Dubai. It makes Vegas seem restrained.
This little guy was parked outside our hotel for two days
We were in a jewelry store at one of the hotels. There was a garish champagne-colored diamond ring in a case. Curious, our friend Matt asked the salesperson how much the ring cost. The answer, "30". As in 30,000,000 AED (United Arab Emirate dirham). Now granted, the exchange rate is 3.5 AED to 1 USD, but that's still over $8,000,000 for a ring. We quickly exitedt the store.

It's not just the wealth that makes Dubai extreme. When faced with the need for more prime real estate, they built islands. In fact, we stayed on the Palm Jumeirah, which is the famous palm tree-shaped set of islands just off the coast. In addition to creating more waterfront property, since it's not technically on Emirati soil, foreigners are allowed to own real estate, which isn't the case on the mainland. The "trunk" of the island is filled with high rise apartments, most of which I assume are empty either based on the economy or because they're investment properties; however, I couldn't help but thinking, "with as organized as this looks, this might just be what the developers had in mind with Gurgaon."

Another of Dubai's more famous sites is Ski Dubai which is a man made ski hill inside the Mall of the Emirates. It's a fully enclosed ski slope, complete with "real" fake snow. I can't even imagine how much energy it takes to keep a space that size below freezing in a desert climate. I kind of wanted to slap on a pair of skis but wasn't sure it would be worth it for a run down what amounts to a bunny hill. Still, it's one of those things you hear about but doesn't really make sense until you see it.
This is what an indoor ski run looks like
Perhaps the most excessive thing about Dubai is its skyline. The latest addition to the skyline is the mammoth Burj Khalifa, which stands at a very slight 2,717 feet. That's nearly twice as tall as the Sears, er, Willis Tower in Chicago. Bottom line, it's one of the more awe inspiring man made structures I've seen.

Dubai isn't my typical type of travel destination and had I gone to Dubai directly from the states and not ventured into the desert, I may have left a little disappointed after the 11 hour flight. From Delhi, with a quick 3.5 hour flight, it's absolutely worth seeing this unique culture. Plus, with the added bonus of a couple days in the desert (much more on that later), it made the trip an amazing and diverse experience.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to Dubai

Tomorrow marks our last trip off the subcontinent before heading home in December. The destination? United Arab Emirates (UAE). More specifically, we'll be in Dubai for three nights and then at a desert resort for a couple nights (with the wife's love of camels, you didn't think we'd hit our first Arab country and not figure out a way for a sunset camel ride, did you?) before a quick stop in Abu Dhabi en route to the airport back in Dubai.

I'll be the first to admit that the man-made paradise that is Dubai isn't my preferred typical type of destination. On the other hand, Lindsay spent two (mostly) blissful and glorious weeks trekking at high altitude, so I couldn't really veto five nights of borderline pampering. I envision a Vegas-like atmosphere of posh hotels and restaurants and time spent just, well, relaxing. To be honest, at this point that type of trip sounds like exactly what we need.

When home in Chicago in May, Lindsay got to talking to a college friend and before you knew it, they had a rendezvous planned. At certain points there four of five girls considering going (yes, it would have been very much a "Sex and the City 2" style trip that I had already graciously excused myself from). In the end, peoples' lives get busy and it turned into just two couples. I breathed a slight sigh of relief.

While planning, we did exactly what you shouldn't do when traveling to the Arabian Peninsula and booked flights without even considering that the UAE might be a different place to visit during the month of Ramadan. It definitely would have been an interesting visit; however, something tells me that for the kind of trip we're looking for (a little luxury and a lot of nothing), it would have been nice to be able to eat and drink in public places before the sunset each day. Miraculously (I suppose it doesn't really qualify as a miracle, but let's go with it), we booked a flight the day after Ramadan ends.

Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss (and it doesn't hurt to have a little luck on your side).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Friendly Disclaimer

I had a return appointment at the hospital today to check the healing progress on my spider bite (more commonly referred to as a "hair follicle infection" by my doctor). Again, the process was more efficient than expected. The total time for the point (round trip from the office)? 35 minutes. Fifteen of which were in the car. While driving back, I noticed an interesting disclaimer at the bottom of my prescription receipt:

"Error in billing, if any, is an oversight and unintentional."

So basically the receipt is saying, "We very well may try and overcharge or otherwise attempt to swindle you; if you catch us, it was an accident. Seriously. We swear."

It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the billing process, now does it? On the bright side, as long as the billing errors aren't of a ridiculous order of magnitude, it's easier and cheaper to just pay out of pocket than to worry about figuring out how to get my American insurance policy to reimburse me.

(And yes, I double checked my bill; 100% accurate.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Indian Kennedys

In America, we have the Kennedys. In India? The Gandhis. If you're not aware of the parallels, let me try and recreate the explanation our friend Swata provided last night. Please note that Swata is from Baltimore, but her last name is coincidentally Gandhi. Though much like Mohandas, she has no dircet blood relation to the confusing family web described in the next paragraph.

It all started with Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first Prime Minister of India after independence from Britain. Nehru's only daughter was Indira Gandhi, who had two stints as prime minister before being assassinated in 1984. Her elder son Rajiv succeeded he lost an election and was later assassinated in 1991. Her other son, Sanjay, also had a ton of political power but never held office and died in a plane crash in 1980. Rajiv's wife Sonia then became involved in politics and now leads the Congress Party in India. Many believe she's the most powerful person in the country. Her son, Rahul, is the heir apparent to this political dynasty and is currently a prominent member of parliament.

If you couldn't keep that straight, Wikipedia has a family tree.

I'm sure we could spend all kinds of time trying to equate different family members between the two, but suffice to say that both families are politically connected, powerful, and have the unfortunate draw of death before their time.

I know less about Indian politics than a person who's lived here for two years should know; however, I've seen enough of Rahul in the papers and on TV that you'd think I'd recognize him. Not so much. Last night we were fortunate enough to be invited to the pub at the Delhi Golf Club for dinner and drinks on the patio overlooking the practice green. There were two surprises. The first, that a golf course could smell like a golf course in the middle of Delhi, and the second, an unexpected close-up celebrity sighting which is my second while here (the first being Ranbir Kapoor filming a movie at Hauz Khas Village). Midway through our meal, our host Sonem motioned to a table of unassuming people near us and said, "That guy that just walked in wearing the black t-shirt; that's Rahul Gandhi."

Now the thing that was odd about that statement was that he was wearing a t-shirt yet we were at a country club. As you may or may not be aware, country clubs as institutions frown upon shirts without collars. Delhi Golf Club is no different. Apparently, Rahul, who spent his day addressing parliament on the anti-corruption Lokpal bill, wasn't above this rule. Someone brought him a golf shirt. Continuing his unassuming routine for the night; one minute he was wearing a black t-shirt and the next he was wearing a gray golf shirt. I didn't even notice the change.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Spider Bite?

A strange bump appeared on my calf a couple days ago. I thought maybe it was a mosquito bite. Wednesday it started to swell to the point where I searched for similar images on the internet to see if it might be something more severe. Yesterday, midway through my first meeting of the day, the pain and discomfort simply became too much. My streak of 19 months and 15 days needed to come to an end. I would finally see a doctor in India.

Having never been to the doctor I suggested to Lindsay that she come along and show me the way. Maybe I'm a wuss, maybe I just didn't have the adventurous spirit to try and figure out my way through a foreign hospital. I'm pretty sure it's mostly the wuss thing.

I've got to admit, the entire process was efficient. We walked into the front door of the hospital, explained my condition to the front desk guy (not that he was a trained medical professional), he made a phone call and got us an appointment with a general practitioner, and sent us to another desk to fill out a quick form. Once I filled out the form, we were asked to pre-pay, Rs. 100 for walking in the door and Rs. 800 for a consultation. $20 total. And that's "total"; not the co-pay, not the deductible. It was the total price for services. We were given directions to his office, waited a couple minutes, and then saw the doctor. He made a quick diagnosis, asked a few questions, answered a few questions (this is also why I brought Lindsay, she's pretty good at asking questions), and prescribed the necessary medications. After a quick stop at the pharmacy, we were out the door. I think we were back at the office in under an hour. My only complaint was that the 3 prescriptions, jar of anti-septic, and some sort of ointment were more expensive that expected. I've heard laughably low prices for drugs in this country. All of that cost just over Rs. 1000 (about $22); probably twice what I was expecting. But then again, that was the total price, not some sort of insurance subsidized amount.

After all of this, I'm sure you're wondering what the heck was wrong with me. Based on my scientific research using Google Image, my self-diagnosis was that I had a spider bite. I had even told people at the office this, including colleagues on my team, leading to a round of Spiderman jokes (from multiple sources). Mind you, I don't remember being bitten by a spider but I figured it just happened while I was sleeping. Not exactly a comforting thought, but what do I know?

The actual diagnosis? A hair follicle infection. If I felt like a wuss for dragging my wife with me, this diagnosis pretty much sealed that designation. 

F*ck the Maldives

Originally we had intended to take an extravagant four or five night trip to the Maldives as a "reward" for completing this little adventure. I mean, what better way to end this ridiculous experiment than by lounging in some over-the-water hut, watching tropical fish swim beneath our feet, and sipping cocktails without a worry in the world. I'll tell you what better way; taking yet another trip where you (if you're lucky) shower every five days, struggle to breathe, and pack maybe two sets of clothes.

On the second day of our trek to Ladakh, on a day when we climbed our first high pass, we reached a short rest stop in the morning. I quickly scanned the horizon as I tried to gulp down as much oxygen as possible. Three hundred sixty degrees of jagged mountains. I turned to Lindsay and calmly said, "Fuck the Maldives. We're going to Bhutan."
Not the Maldives
In my oxygen-deprived, romantic head, her response would have sounded something like an affirmative response that included the use of an f-bomb. Instead, she muddled through something like, "I think you're right." I don't blame her. This was before she discovered the soothing effects of Diamox, and she happened to be struggling through her initial altitude-related issues at the time.

By the fourth of fifth day, when the drugs had taken full effect, our decision had been made. Rather than relaxing our final few vacation days at a pristine resort in the middle of the India Ocean in a country that may one day not exist, we would fit one final (short) trek to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan into our schedule before. The reason? Apparently treks are as addictive as crack. That, and there are beaches everywhere in the world. Now I'm sure there are those that will say, "What's the big deal? There are mountains everywhere in the world." I like those people. Those are the people that crowd the beaches and leave the mountains for the people like me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Actual Rug Story

For me, shopping for rugs is a little like shopping for furniture, which is to say that 95% is total crap, and you basically know what you're going to buy when you see it. Even though we found that 5% at the first store we visited last weekend, we still performed a little due diligence by visiting a second establishment that, if nothing else, gave me the story I'll tell my grandchildren about the rug they'll be admiring many decades from now.

On Saturday, Lindsay went back to the first rug shop, negotiated a deal, and made the purchase. She's excited about the rug because it "looks traditional without looking too traditional." It was further described to her as a rug "with Persian influence yet modern colors." Lindsay eats this stuff up (even if it sounds like it's coming from a J. Peterman catalog). Speaking of catalogs, she also learned that the rug type she selected was featured on one of Stickley furniture catalogs a couple years back. What's Stickley? Only my mother's favorite furniture manufacturer. I guess this rug was meant to be. It also means that I could have bought this rug in the U.S. I'm not sure how I feel about this. If I get back and find it cheaper, I'm going to have issues.
Lindsay surveys her selection
Regardless, we're happy with our decision and the rug was delivered promptly this morning at 11am. Since the rug clashes horribly with our rented furniture and we saw no real need to accidentally destroy it before getting home, we decided to have them roll and package it so that it could be easily added to our container when we head back in a few months.

The packing process was more interesting than expected. They tightly rolled the rug, wrapped it in plastic, and then cut a thick muslin material to wrap surround the plastic. The material looks like it was used for "The Others" outfits in "Lost." The material was literally hand stitched around the rug with a huge needle and some coarse twine. The sewing process took about fifteen minutes and the rug now lays on top of a long wardrobe in our guest bedroom.
Ready for shipment
By the time we get home, I'm sure we will have forgotten what the rug looks like. Let's hope we still like it. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Long Rakhi Saturday in Delhi

Saturday was Rakhi, a festival meant for siblings. Since my sisters both live far, far away and didn't react terribly positive to last year's open letter explaining the festival, I didn't celebrate. Since we're good people (or like to think that), we told Kailash (our Saturday driver) that he could come at 11:30am so that he could celebrate with friends (his sister still lives in their home village near Khajuraho). Even with that late start, it seemed like a very long day.
Tying a Rakhi bracelet at Khan Market
Due to the festival, the streets were fairly empty when the day started. Much of the traffic was husbands transporting their wives to meet their brothers. You know it's a holiday when the women are dressed up. Saturday, the saris were out in full effect. Rug shopping was just the beginning. After our failed second stop, we headed for Khan Market. Somehow, regardless where we're going or what we plan to do, Lindsay finds a way to get us back to Khan Market. On the bright side, I had some items ready at the tailor so I'm now three shirts richer.

After a late afternoon snack, we went to Lagpat Nagar so Lindsay could get her hair cut and colored. Rather than talking about the color, let's just move on. While she was busy there, I headed to buy some travel magazines and decided to make a stop at India Gate since the sun was close to setting. In preparation for Independence Day, they were busy dressing up and keeping the crowds away from the monument. Much of the gate was surrounded by temporary green walls which kind of sucked; on the bright side, I now have pictures of India Gate with no people, which isn't something I thought I'd ever be able to take.
I always feel safer when the bomb disposal squad is present
A people-less India Gate
After a lengthy stop back at the salon, it was time for dinner. We decided to make our first return to one of our favorite restaurants from our 2004-2005 assignment, threesixty at the Oberoi. Not a bad little way to cap off a long day. Then on the drive home, we approached a large object in the road from behind.

Lindsay really wanted to stop, I was happy having seen it from the road. We passed it, and I made mention that she could probably could have gotten a ride. Immediately, she ordered Kailash to turn around. I put up a little bit of an argument (it had been a long day), but Kailash isn't stupid. He knows nearly as well as I do that a happy Lindsay (or a "happy ma'am," in his case) is an important aspect of life. Plus, no matter how long I live here and how many I see (and I really don't see that many), witnessing an elephant walking down the street in a city of fifteen million people is something of an event in my mind.
We stopped for pictures but an unsuspecting Lindsay had her glorious ride usurped as she posed for a snap. Still, not a bad way to end a day in Delhi.
Lindsay's loses her ride

The Rug Story I'll Tell My Grandchildren

Not unlike many other visitors to India, we're in the market for a rug. Unlike many other visitors to India, we know we're in the market. We've gone back and forth many times on whether or not we wanted to try and buy one. Ultimately, "if we're ever going to want one, now is the time to do it" seems to be winning out over "we don't think traditional looking rugs are really our style right now."

Saturday we set out to visit two places. The first, a shop recommended by a colleague located near Qutab Minar called Maharaja Arts, figures to be where we'll ultimately purchase the rug. We found one that we both agreed upon. In order to not make a rash and knee jerk reaction, there was also a second place we wanted to visit. At the American Christmas Mela in early December, Lindsay met a carpet dealer named Farooq. She had kept his card and wanted to check out what he had. Typically, he sells in some high end mall on MG Road in Delhi. A few weeks back she called to try and arrange a meeting and he was visiting family in Kashmir. He directed us to the mall, which was called the Gallery or something. There was a Versace Home store; not exactly our demographic. Instead, he told us to wait until he returned and he would take us to his warehouse.

After leaving the first store, we called for directions and headed to a neighborhood called Jangpura in Delhi, a place we had never heard but turned out to be close to Hamayun's Tomb. He wouldn't give us the exact address, told Kailash approximately where he could be found, and said he would meet us on the street to lead us to the warehouse. This didn't seem nearly as odd to us as the way I'm sure it reads.
Heading down the corridor
He lead us down an alley, turned into a narrow corridor, lead us up a set of stairs, and into a barren room filled with rugs and shawls. We took a seat, were offered a Coke (which I felt a little strange accepting since he was Muslim and this is Ramadan, but I figured it was better to accept what was offered), and they quickly began rolling out rugs.

Unfortunately, we didn't find anything that caught our eye. Or as Lindsay might tell you, "there was too much blue in all of the carpets and we don't have any blue in our house." Alas, our little known dream of purchasing a carpet from a warehouse in the back alley of a strange neighborhood in Delhi was dead. At least we have the experience. I'm sure when we're staring at whatever rug we ultimately purchase, the lasting memory will be that of Farooq's warehouse; honestly, it may even become the story I tell when I grow old.