Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poop and Rally

In college there was a term for overindulging, extracting that overindulgence from your body, and recommencing overindulging. It was called the "boot and rally." On Sunday for the first time, I witnessed the food-based India equivalent, I shall call it the "poop and rally."

It was the last morning of my sister and brother-in-law's (also named John and referred to in this post as "Husband John") trip, and we awoke at a rain-soaked Neemrana Fort, which is typically a two hour drive from Gurgaon. The plan for the day was to wake up, eat a small breakfast, leave by around 10:00am, and head directly to The Leela in Gurgaon for a final day brunch celebration. I'm happy to say we met that objective, even if the journey to get there wasn't so simple.
Neemrana Fort Palace
We started out late, which wasn't a big deal. I knew this would happen and had built it into the schedule. After a slow drive through the town of Neemrana (for some reason, Lindsay can always be seen hanging out of the window trying to take photographs of this town; she's been there six times and yet still has this fascination about capturing village life through the blurred lens of a moving vehicle), Kailash steered the car onto NH8, which is the major highway between Delhi and Jaipur. NH8 is a work in progress and will one day be a beautiful highway. That day has not yet arrived. There is construction. A lot of construction. On Sunday, there were also trucks. If you've been to India, you know that most trucks are not road-worthy, most move quite slow, and most have no idea what "lane" to use. In other words, lots of trucks plus lots of construction equals lots of extra time on the road.
Pick a lane, any lane
About twenty minutes into the ride it struck. Something had not agreed with John at breakfast. His discomfort grew with each slowly passing kilometer. Finally, he requested a stop. Husband John is hygienically particular. He's not the type that would elect to stop at an Indian gas station or a roadside dhaba. Unfortunately, he had to stop at both. After each of those stops, his condition didn't improve. By the third stop, which happens to be the only McDonald's on that particular stretch of highway, he found a western style toilet. Let's just say we were there for a while. So long that my sister asked that I go check on him. When I asked if he needed anything (which seemed like the most unobtrusive question possible), his response was, "I could use a new body." Not good times. Twenty-five minutes after we arrived at McDonald's we were finally able to leave.

By this point, we had obviously decided to forego brunch so that he could just go home and rest until their midnight departure. Then something strange happened. As we passed the toll booth into Gurgaon, my sister looked at Husband John and said, "you know what, you actually look a little better; your color is back." Husband John's response, "You know what, I actually feel pretty good." That was the only trigger the three of us needed to say (in unison) to him, "So maybe we should go to brunch?"
And we did. I've never seen Delhi Belly pass so quickly and easily. I've also never seen someone that just had major stomach issues attack a raw bar with such reckless abandon. Crab legs? Yep. Shrimp? Why not. Oysters? You betcha. I'm not sure he had a plate that hadn't been pulled from a serving station with fish on top of ice. And why should he have? How much worse was it going to get for him that day?

Utterly amazing. The poop and rally.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Hate Emporiums

One thing I really hate about India is the emporiums. If you're on some sort of guided tour or have hired a driver, they invariably want to take you to one. If you've been to India, you've likely visited one of these horrible establishments. Often it starts as a demonstration where you see how the local tradesmen labor to produce the local handicraft of future heirloom. Shortly after the demonstration you're ushered into a showroom where you're presented the option to purchase any and all of your Indian souvenir desires, from overpriced elephant statues to overpriced "real" pashminas to overpriced silk rugs to overpriced inlaid marble tables.
Phase One, the demonstration
So why would anyone go there? It's easy (and probably obvious): commissions.

Let's say I was hypothetically having a conversation with a driver. Let's say hypothetically he offered up what his commission is when he takes customers into emporiums when traveling. I always knew the concept existed but had no idea exactly how it worked. Yesterday, I hypothetically found out (I'm sure if a driver were to actually give away this secret, they'd be blackballed from the hypothetical drivers' union, kind of like when a magician gives away how tricks are performed.)

With commissions, there's nothing too magical. It's a fairly simply two-tiered commission approach. For getting a customer in the door, the driver receives Rs. 200 (about $4.50). That's Rs. 200 for the entire car, not per person. For any item purchased, the driver receives 20% of the sales price.

This explains the drivers' incentive for hauling customers into these shops. There's a relatively rich reward (while Rs. 200 might not sound like much to you, it actually makes a difference to a driver) just for getting someone there. In the off chance the driver is lucky enough to have someone purchase something, the reward quickly escalates into weeks or even months (if there's a particularly gullible mark) of wages.

While I still hate emporiums, I now see limited value. If you have a driver that you particularly like, emporiums become an easy (and cost effective way) to put a little something extra in their pocket. Just make sure you walk in, feign interest for no more than five minutes, and walk straight back out.

Just don't spend too much time. There are far better things to see in India than the inside of an overpriced store full of knick-knacks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Return to Dilli Haat

One of Lindsay's favorite market haunts during our first assignment has been relegated to the place we take our visitors. Since my sister and brother-in-law are in town, it made sense as an introduction to Indian bargaining at Dilli Haat. It's definitely not the cheapest market but the twenty rupee entry fee (which I could swear used to be ten) keeps the beggars from approaching shoppers so that the only harassment received is the playful touts that double as pashmina stall keepers.

This isn't a post about what Dilli Haat is; for that, I'd suggest you check out this well-written and informative post on one of my favorite Delhi blogs, Delhibound. This post is three short stories from yesterday's return (since we tend to only go back these days when we have visitors in town).

An Honest Man
Most of Dilli Haat's charm eminates from the ability to interact and bargain with the stall keepers. My sister and Lindsay had found some sort of elephant purse that they just "had" to have. The price started at something like Rs. 450 per purse. Lindsay, who's a huge fan of going for the volume discount (though I'm still suspect that it's actually that effective), offered Rs. 600 for two. The stall keeper's response, "What? At that price I have to give my wife 500 and I only get 100." He came around. Primarily because 600 still allowed for considerable margin; however, you have to appreciate his effort.

Sunil is Back
In 2004-2005, we went to Dilli Haat most weekends we were in Dehli. We were young, impressionable, and it seemed like the "real" India, which it may have been when you live at the Taj Palace. Since we were there so often, we came to know some of the regular vendors. Our favorite, Sunil, ran an art stall primarily with Rajisthani-inspired pieces. I have no idea the quality of his goods, but he was fun to talk to so we tended to purchase from him when looking for basic gifts for people from home. Yesterday, Lindsay was lead from one stall (where she had purchased a fair amount of hand-painted paper mache stuff) to the art stall, who was a good friend of the paper mache guy. The paper mache guy tried to introduce Lindsay; however, the art guy immediately interrupted and said, "She is a very old customers." It was Sunil. Lindsay, seemed surprised that he remembered her and even posted that on Facebook. Our friend Mohammed, who was part of our 2004-2005 crew immediately responded, "Of course he remembered you, you put his kids through engineering school."
Lindsay and Sunil; just like old times.
Regardless, it's always good to see a familiar face.

My Sister Can't Bargain
Perhaps I take the whole bargaining thing for granted. Lindsay bought prescription sunglasses last week and without a thought, I immediately started to haggle. Why? Because anything is possible. I tend to forget that's not the way it necessarily works in my homeland. My sister, who is in India for the first time, served a great reminder of this. I also learned that she's a horrendous bargainer. First she pulled the "counteroffer with a higher bid than the opening price" routine that I've only seen used once before. By my wife. Which also doubles as the first story I still anyone about bargaining as the obvious number one "what not to do."
This look doesn't inspire bargaining confidence
Seeing this, I kept her away from the stall keepers most of the rest of the day. That is, until it was time for her to buy a piece of art right before leaving. I figured it was just a part of being in India that anyone needs to experience. The stall keeper was doing everything he could to confuse her (i.e., prices with and without frames, prices for different sizes, etc.) even though she was pretty locked in a specific item. Even so, as soon as she made it clear what she was wanted, she asked "How much?" (usually a pretty good first step). He provided his response. She froze. Like a deer in headlights. She turned back to the rest of us, still frozen otherwise. A couple seconds passed. I felt like a manager on the mound, making a call to the bullpen and said, "Lindsay, why don't you go take care of this." Of course, little did I know that "Lindsay taking care of it" included her buying a piece for us, you know, because strategy involves the volume discount.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Shortest Commute in India

For the past 17 months, I've had the shortest commute in India.

That's not scientifically proven, mind you, but for those that work outside the home, I would put my commute up against just about anyone. I can see my apartment building from the men's room. I timed my walk home one day: seven minutes from desk to door. And I had to wait for an elevator. I'm a lazy enough expat that you'd expect I might call a driver for a ride. Unfortunately, with the way Indian roads work, you have to turn the wrong direction, drive a half mile, pull a U-turn, drive a mile the other way, pull another U-turn at a roundabout, and then drive back up to get to our apartment complex entrance, which sits not more than 50 yards from my office. Believe me, walking is just easier.

My claim to the shortest commute in India ends soon. I was recently told that I'd be shifting offices to my company's other facility in Gurgaon. While my new commute of fifteen to twenty minutes actually makes business sense and isn't bad my most standards (including what I was used to in the Chicago suburbs and especially compared to some of the horror stories I hear from others at work where total commute time regularly tops 90 minutes each direction), I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to miss that walk home each night.

Granted, there's something to be said for some separation between work and personal life where you neither see your apartment from the wash room nor your office each time you leave your home. However, the lack of traffic stress (really not that much stress in the grand scheme of things) and basically zero commute (especially on those days I work well into the US shift), has been an unexpected indirect benefit of this experience. For the past 17 months, I've been spoiled (and playfully remind others that I can simply walk home; they'd expect nothing less from me), we'll see how it goes when I have a "normal" length commute which is still abnormally short by "new" Indian standards.

Something tells me that any complaints will go ignored.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Calm Before the Storm Before the Calm

Tonight, I'm taking it easy. Tomorrow, more of the same. Why? Visitor season, which has been closed since March, opens again on Thursday night.

My sister Anne and brother-in-law John (yes, at my parents home I'm now known as "Brother John" and he is known as "Husband John") arrive at the tame hour 5:45pm IST (it's almost like American Airlines is trying to take away the fun of arriving in Delhi well after midnight, completely discombobulated, with no idea what exactly just happened. We then have two full and active days with them in Delhi.

Saturday night, our trekking friends Judith and Glenn fly in from Canada. Sunday, we're planning a day of rest. And brunch. What, you thought we'd have visitors and not not let them experience a Delhi brunch? It would be completely un-expat of us. Inexcusable.

Monday, John and Husband Anne venture off on their own for the requisite visit to the Taj Mahal. That same morning Judith and Glenn depart for a nine-day Indian adventure. Tuesday, Lindsay flies to Chennai for work for two nights and Anne and Husband John depart for a five-day Ladakh trip. Saturday, they return. We quickly turnaround and drive to Neemrana Fort Palace, our favorite one-night destination to introduce them to Rajasthani hospitality. Sunday, we head back to Delhi and either give them another brunch experience or do any last minute shopping or forgotten activities in Delhi. They fly home late that night.

That part was most of the storm. And if having your sister visit is considered "most of the storm", it's not really a storm (it's actually quite the opposite) but if I didn't call it that, the title of this post would make no sense.

The next day, if I haven't totally lost you, is Monday the 27th. By this time, work gets busy. Not only is my American boss in town for the week but I'm also responsible for hosting two other visitors the entire week. Not necessarily difficult work, but you want to make sure everything goes to plan. Wednesday night Judith and Glenn return from their nine-day northern India adventure, hopefully well hydrated as they brave the heat. Friday evening my work hosting responsibilities officially end.

That was the rest of the storm.

Saturday (July 2nd) we leave with Judith and Glenn for our own two-week trek in Ladakh. To give you some idea as to how early the flight is, we arrive in Leh at 7:45am.

From that point, I go completely unplugged. No laptop, no Blackberry, not even a Kindle. Just the four of us, our guide (and probably 14 porters), and a notebook to scribble random observations.

This part is the calm. This part lasts 14 days.

There's something to be said about describing 6+ hours or hiking per day for two weeks as "calm". I've only done one long trek in my life (click here for a 9,000 word account) so I'm in no way the expert on these types of trips (though they're a blast, I'd HIGHLY recommend it); however, I will say (in fewer than 9,000 words) that last year's trek was the greatest travel experience of my life.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Supporting Cast

In life there are people that you don't really know but interact with on a daily basis. It might be your mailman, it might be your coffee barista. They're the people that make your life easier or simply give you a familiar smile each day. There are no shortage of these characters in my life in India; in fact, they seem more prevalent here than at home. Perhaps it's the comfort of learning a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Perhaps it's just a coping mechanism to make myself feel more a part of this place.

I often ramble on and on about my trusty driver Kailash (and he'll be mentioned a time or two); these are the other "characters" that make up part of the supporting cast of my daily life.

The Yo Dimsum! Guy
At work there's a guy that mans the Yo Dimsum! momo stand. He speaks more English than I do Hindi but not by much. When he sees me approaching, he can pretty much guess my order by the time of the day. If it's before 2pm, he knows I've forgotten to bring my lunch and will be ordering chicken manchurian and a Diet Coke. If after 2pm, it's only a Diet Coke. He knows I want the coldest Diet Coke possible. He had a new helper one day that pulled a Diet Coke from the fridge. Yo Dimsum! Guy quickly pulled the soda from his hand an fished around for the coldest can in the back of the cooler. He also has the coldest Diet Coke and he knows the only American in the office is an easy target. I also appreciate the trust we've built. At any given time, depending on the availability of change (which is always in question) we have a plus or minus 5 rupee line of credit, and he actually remembers when he owes me.

The Little Caesars Guy
Before I made the obvious realization that Yo Dimsum took a lot less time than pizza, my food vendor of choice was the Little Caesars Guy. In India, in addition to chili flakes and oregano, it's not uncommon for people to put ketchup on pizza. I find this ridiculous and wrong on a number of levels. Little Caesars Guy knows that I find this ridiculous. Yet any time I order a pizza, he'll start to laugh and hand me the bottle of ketchup. I respect that.

The Head Locker Room Attendant
This guy is one of my favorites. He greets me every morning with a smile, polite nod, and a "good morning, sir." After I empty my bag into a locker and turn to head for the treadmill, he passes a hand towel to me in stride. He's very efficient. After my workout, he'll place a towel near my locker as I get ready to hit the shower. When I return from the shower he empties my belongings from the locker onto the bench, waits for me to dry my feet, and then dries my flip-flops before packing my bag. My Dad witnessed this entire scene when he visited in March, and I could see him visibly shaking his head with a "I can't believe my son's life has come to this" kind of look on his face.

The Head Locker Room Attendant's Helper
To make it even more ridiculous, he has a helper. The helper is equally friendly and always gives me a smile. The helper has taken it upon himself to basically be my dopp kit concierge. He'll take my dopp kit from the shower to the sink and routinely wipe off my shaving cream bottle for me. I never asked for this nor did I ever expect it. But who would I be to turn down this type of service? He recently took some time away from work (I would assume he went back to his home village which seems to be the usual reason given for extended absences). After about the third day of him not being there, I felt this strange void. He was part of my routine and it had abruptly ended. I had no explanation nor would I ever get one. Finally last week, he was back. And I was genuinely happy to see him again.

The Building Maintenance Guy
My apartment building has a general maintenance guy that does odd jobs around the building, keeps the hallways clean, and empties the trash. He'll frequently greet me with "good morning, sir" (yes, everyone calls me sir; it's just the way it is, I can't change that) and then will switch over to Hindi with "ab ka se ho" (how are you?) before he starts a friendly laugh, knowing that I can respond to that and not much else. I've got my trusty driver Kailash to thank for telling this guy he was trying to teach me Hindi.

Birendra the Guard
There's a rotation of five or six guards at our building. Some are friendlier and engage a little more readily than others. As a result, you tend to create "favorites". Birendra was unquestionably the favorite of both Lindsay and myself. He always had a smile, always made sure to either hold or give our drivers any delivered packages, and just had "that" look that made you think he was a genuinely good person. We hadn't seen Birendra around in a couple weeks. I asked Kailash, who may know more about the inner workings of our apartment complex than any other human, where Birendra had been. Fortunately for Birendra, he had found a better job in Lucknow, which is much closer to his hometown where he could live with family. Unfortunately for us, we never got to say good bye. Something tells me, his fortune is more important than our disfortune (if that's a word).
Birendra with Lindsay
In addition to the friends we've made and the professional relationships we've built, when we leave India at the end of the year, there's a whole host of other people that will more or less disappear from our lives. It's not much different than what happens when you move at home or simply change your daily routine; however, for some reason it seems more significant here. And you're probably thinking, "maybe it seems more significant because there's a person in your life that dries your flip-flops." While that's entirely possible, that person is simply performing a personal service like your mailman or your preferred Starbucks barista, it's just a personal service that, out of context, seems ridiculous. OK, it's actually a little ridiculous in context as well.

yTravel Blog Interview

Every couple weeks one of the general purpose travel blogs I follow closely, yTravelBlog, has a "post your URL" Facebook gimmick where they invite followers to post a comment with a short description of their travel blogs. I've found it a great resource to find new and often like-minded travelers to follow. Of all the URL's posted, they select one at random and invite them to answer a few questions about their blog, background, and current location. As luck (I wish I could have said it was talent, but it was definitely luck) would have it, my number was selected a couple weeks ago.

Here's my attempt at sharing with a slightly wider audience what my expat life is like in India. And yes, I complain about the ironic lack of IPA and make reference to the fictional greater Chicagoland area, which if nothing else will make Jim Heenan laugh.

yTravelBlog is the brainchild of Craig and Caz Makepeace, an Australian couple that has spent the past 14 years traveling and living abroad. They've created a great resource for travelers, including deals, ideas, photographs, and dialogue (though most importantly, they just seem the type that would be fun to run into at the end of the day to swap stories over a nice cold one).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gurgaon in the New York Times

I woke up this morning to an article shared on my Facebook wall from a friend Lindsay and I met while traveling in Turkey last year. Our friend is American but of Indian descent so it's been fun to remain in contact with her as we've progressed through our assignment.

Jim Yardley's NYT article, published June 8, 2011

If the caption under the first picture from the article doesn't draw you in, I'm not sure anything will:

"A booming suburb of New Delhi has become the model for development in India. And it would seem to have everything, except a functioning citywide sewer, reliable electricity or water, or decent roads."

I often write about the quirky and fun aspects of living in India; the servants, the drivers, the travel. Basically an extravagant expat life. This article does a phenomenal job of detailing some of the issues that plague the suburb of Delhi where we reside, Gurgaon. It's a city that is often used to embody the "new" India of corporate parks and malls. Well folks, I hate to break it to you and this isn't news, but even the "new" India has issues.

For all of those people that think government is inherently bad or think it shouldn't exist, read this article. I'm not a fan of big government but Gurgaon is a perfect case study of what happens to a city when there's 1.5 million residents (and growing) and no central plan.

Enjoy the article, it's a fascinating read (and I'm still convinced there are more than 26 malls in this town).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Today is a Good Day, Sir"

My morning routine is fairly straightforward. I wake up, eat, read the news or any number of social media for a while, and by around 9:45am I head to the gym (I'm not that unmotivated professionally, I just work later hours). While on this drive to the gym I ask my trusty driver Kailash how he's doing (either in English or Hindi as this is one of my six Hindi phrases). His response usually varies from being fine to the weather. Often, he'll quickly follow up his response with a question that begins with the phrase, "Excuse me, sir, in your country..." where he's curious about how life in "my country" compares to India.

Yesterday, his response varied in the slightest. Yesterday he responded, "I am fine today. Today is a good day, sir" (emphasizing the "good"). A response like this was sure to pique my interest so I asked him why it was such a good day.

By 9:45am, in the amount of time I had woken up, made two or three witty responses (in my clouded just-waking up-mind, at least) to status updates on Facebook, and played a couple rounds of Words with Friends, Kailash had had his mind set on more serious matters. He had set his wedding date.

On November 16, Kailash will marry his fiance Aarti. Will we be invited? Would we attend? I really hope we get invited as it's a wedding invitation that we'd keep forever; unfortunately, assuming we are invited it might be a tough event to attend since it's taking place on a Wednesday in a small village outside Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh (not exactly easy to get to from Gurgaon in the middle of the week).

Even though he'll be greatly missed for the middle of November, a time right before we end this assignment and head back to the states, I couldn't help but appreciate how genuinely happy he was as he told me his news. Yesterday was definitely a good day.