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.