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.