Monday, April 25, 2011

The Staycation

When you can't get away for a short vacation, why not bring the short vacation to you? This was the theory behind our activity on Saturday. After a quick trip to the gym and a brief visit to the jeweler at Connaught Place (Mom, it's a good news/bad news kind of thing, your ring was ready but the earrings may or may not have been sold), we headed back to Gurgaon for a night "away".

Lindsay had wanted to get out of town for a couple nights to relax prior to our annual home leave in May, but for a number of reasons, we just couldn't find a weekend that worked. We could, however, find one night that worked. Thankfully, we have an addiction to Sunday brunch. This addiction lead us to join a "club" at one of the local hotels for discounts which in turn earned us a complimentary night's stay. Thus, the "staycation" was born. Even though it's primarily "just" a business hotel, there are certainly far worse places to spend a night than The Leela in Gurgaon.

What does one do on a staycation? Pretty much act like you're on vacation. A couple mindless hours by the pool where I switched my reading from "Escape From the Land of Snows" (an excellent read about the Dalai Lama's escape to India) to Tina Fey's "Bossypants" because, you know, it's vacation. The pool was followed by a pre-dinner drink and the best Italian food I've had in India. Sunday morning consisted of room service, a massage, and a late check-out. Not a bad way to spend twenty four hours.

The Leela is the first prominent landmark you see when passing through the tollbooth from Delhi. It's not located in what you would think is a very "vacation-y" location. I mean, it's adjacent to Gurgaon's largest mall. Strangely they did an amazing job of designing the hotel around the location.

The Italian restaurant Zanotta is a prime example. It's perched on the six floor overlooking none other than the same allegedly corrupt toll booth I complained about on the way to the hotel. But here's the thing, overlooking a toll booth that is 30 lanes wide at night is actually quite interesting. On the left side, a series of red brake lights; on the right side, a series of headlights emerging from the toll booth. On both side, cars and motorcycles swerving to select the best lane. Mesmerizing and oddly relaxing.

With a trip home in nine short days and what will be a long and hectic day trip to Amritsar this coming Saturday, the staycation achieved its primary objective. And while I'm sure our drivers found it a little odd and ridiculous (probably even more ridiculous than those reading this post), the staycation proved you don't need a flight and multiple days to get away.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Exact Change

A couple weeks ago when I went through the toll booth on NH8, which is the primary road between Delhi and Gurgaon, I noticed a sign that read, "Please pay exact amount. Cars Rs. 21." I'm probably not the first person to think it's odd that you would set your toll price at an uneven number like that and have the gall to expect people to have exact change.

It would seem more appropriate to set the toll one rupee less and make it a nice even twenty rupee fee. If revenue is an issue, why not raise even more and make it Rs. 25? Alas, the toll commission (or maybe it's the National Highways Authority of India) decided on Rs. 21 and decided to invest in a sign expecting exact change. With this decision, you'd hope they also made a decision to stock their toll booths with one or two rupee coins. I grew up in western Illinois where there were two strange $0.95 tolls to get to the Chicago area on Interstate 88. I'm pretty sure those toll booths were well stocked with nickels.
Actually better organized than many toll booths in Chicago
On the way back from Delhi on Saturday afternoon, we were stuck in a rather long line at the toll. I was thinking to myself, "it's probably that 21 rupee deal that's forcing everyone to wait for change." Selfishly, we wanted to get through as quickly as possible as we had a staycation weekend planned at The Leela, which is located just on the Gurgaon side of the toll booth. And yes, I realize The Leela is fifteen minutes from my apartment, but we had a free room; you'd take advantage of this too. After waiting patiently in line for a few minutes, we approached the toll booth; finally, we were set to pay the toll and get on with our day. The bus in front of us went through the toll, advanced far enough for my trusty driver Kailash to pay the toll, and stopped. And it didn't advance.

We were trapped. Our weekend getaway blocked literally and figuratively by this large bus. A couple minutes later, the bus driver jumped out of the bus and walked back to the toll attendant. I immediately thought there was some sort of issue where the attendant had given incorrect change on the Rs. 64 toll (buses cost more than cars; exactly Rs. 41 more; again, pricing at its finest). A fairly heated discussion began. Sensing this wasn't going to get better without a little friendly intervention from an over-privileged Westerner, I rolled down the window and very politely asked what was going on. Hearing English, the toll attendant shrugged his shoulders and gave me one of those, "I don't really care that this is inconveniencing you; just deal with it" looks.

Kailash, always the protective one rolled his window down and asked a couple questions in what sounded like a fairly confrontational tone (though to be honest when you hear Hindi spoken it sounds confrontational more often than most languages, it certainly doesn't flow from the tongue like French). From what he was able to ascertain, it wasn't an issue of correct change, it was an issue of the bus driver's refusal to pay a little something on top (i.e., a bribe) to the toll attendant, which apparently is a fairly common occurrence for larger vehicles where, presumably, its not the driver's money being paid. But here's the thing, the bribe was a flat Rs. 10, thus making the total cost to pass for the bus to be Obviously, in the U.S. assessing an additional toll at a tollbooth would be pretty much the easiest way to get one's self fired and/or put in jail. Here, I've come to accept that these things happen, and there's not much I'm going to be able to do in the next eight months to change it.

What I can't understand is: why not make the bribe an additional rupee? It's win/win, Mr. Toll Booth Guy gets a 10% bump and traffic rolls through a little less less encumbered. Of course, this doesn't solve the issue of a bus driver refusing to pay the bribe, so it wouldn't have even mattered. Thankfully, with Kailash remaining somewhat involved and two increasingly agitated expats who may or may not have raised their voice a time or two, the bus pulled forward enough to let us pass. This entire episode likely took between seven to ten minutes, so it's not like we were stranded passengers on a tarmac for hours; however, do you have any idea how long seven minutes feels like when you you're waiting to pass through a toll you've already paid?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The IPA Quest Continues

I like beer. I'm not afraid to admit it. More specifically, I like India Pale Ale (IPA). I like it so much that I actually googled "India Pale Ale brewed in India" before moving here to see how dire my situation might look for this two year assignment. Not surprisingly, the results weren't good. In fact, I'm going on 15+ months without a successful order. Once, yes ONE time, I found one on a menu. Wine and beer are mere suggestions of things a bar or restaurant may have sold in the past or has every intention of selling in the future. It in no way means it's in stock in the present. Fifteen months, zero IPA*.
You can dress up a Kingfisher, but it's still a Kingfisher
Any time I see a new beer-themed bar or restaurant open, I hope the brewmasters of India have moved beyond the world of lagers and into the infinitely more tasty world of ales, which you would hope might increase my odds of actually being served an IPA in India. No luck as of yet; I still live in the land of lagers. A few days ago I noticed a repeated set of signs on the road near my apartment advertising Gurgaon's latest brewery, Stryker.

I've yet to visit Striker but tried to get a little additional information online about what they might offer Unfortunately, my only bigger pet peeve in India than the unavailability of IPA is the fact that googling a bar or restaurant in India rarely leads to a home page in the first page of results. Often, the home page doesn't make any page of results.

What is it about the Google search string that seems to disable finding a restaurants home page in India? Do these restaurants not have home pages? Do people find more value in whatever review is posted on sites like Zomato or Ask Laila Delhi than the home page? Why do I care?

Striker yielded exactly zero results indicating there was a restuarant or brewery in Gurgaon with that name.It's like the place doesn't exist. It's entirely possible it's just too new. Maybe it's not even open, but you'd think the repeated row of signs would have indicated it was opening soon if that were the case. Of course, maybe they don't even need a web page when their effective "repeated sign on the road" advertising strategy seems to be working such wonders on the IPA deficient. Who am I kidding, it's not like they're going to have IPA anyway.

On the other hand, if my two biggest pet peeves in India are the lack of IPA and restaurant web searches that don't yield home pages, I should probably consider myself lucky.

*Note, in the spirit of full disclosure, my friend Paul smuggled a couple bottles into the country protected with a sock in his luggage. This post in no way devalues his gift to me nor would I oppose if he or someone else were to repeat that feat; I simply want to successfully order an IPA in India.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Running Out of Time?

I was a swimmer in high school, or at least I tried to be. Because there's not much else to do while under water and I, ahem, tend to be the cerebral sort, each evening (and most mornings) at practice I'd count the laps and calculate in my head how far through a set I was. If I was on the fifth fifty in a twenty fifty set on the minute (for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of high school swimming, this is a fairly typical warm-up of 1000 yards, or at least it was in my day), I knew I was 25% of the way there. Or in my head, I knew that I still had to swim three times as far as I had already come. For some reason, this only consumed my thoughts for the first half of any particular set.

The first year of this two year assignment was similar. After two months, I told myself, "OK, now I just need to do that eleven more times and this little thing is over." Once you cross the halfway point, however, a strange thing happens. Your mindset changes from being a certain proportion of the way through the assignment to "oh crap, I only have eight months left." Considering my first experience in India in 2005 lasted six months in total and seemed an eternity at the time (in a good way), eight months should more than suffice.

But it doesn't. I'm running out of time.

You start to more carefully plan your weekends. You take a more critical look at the places you want to travel. You selfishly plan visitors' travel around your plans because, hey, they probably don't know better and are just happy to be in India. You start to consume your imported food a little less carefully because there's no point in taking it back where it came from. You make sure you actually go to that restaurant you've been wanting to try or back to that old favorite you "need" to try again.

This may also be because the wife and I tend to be planners. The year is basically planned out (knowing that we still need to find time to, you know, work and fulfill the formal reason why we're here in the first place):
  • May - Home leave for two weeks and then a weekend in Ranthambore
  • June - Visitors the second half of the month
  • July - Trek in Ladakh for the first half of the month
  • September - Long weekend in UAE (still not totally decided but Lindsay REALLY wants to go; something tells me we'll go)
  • October - Two sets of visitors across all four weekends
  • November - Some sort of short going away trip in this part of the world where the sole criteria is "crystal clear water"
When you get that volume of stuff (and I have no complaints, it's all going to be amazing stuff) on the calendar and throw in the fact that we need to find time to move back to the states, it doesn't leave as much time as eight months might otherwise suggest. In a way, it's good. It forces you to do new things because the opportunity will only be there for so long; however, at some point the expat experience becomes less about travel and more about living. I'm no going to lie, it becomes difficult to balance finding new opportunities with the need to re-experience things more familiar.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Short Demise of the Pink Auto Rickshaw

In mid-February, I saw my first pink covered auto-rickshaw. I wrote this post wondering exactly what the deal was.

As you can tell from the photo, the purported "intent" was to provide a gender-specific (and seemingly safe) mode of transport. Fast forward two months and I've seen the pink rickshaws out and about again in the streets of Gurgaon. With one slight change. The "womens only" markings have been removed and now it's just a funny looking plain green auto-rickshaw with a pink lid.

Apparently, the little experiment failed. I think that's a good thing. In one tiny little way, it seems like the women of Gurgaon are safer. At the least, there isn't a blinking sign indicating that there's a woman on board these cheap little modes of transport.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Surviving Palika Bazaar

There are very few reasons at this stage in my life I have the need to go to Palika Bazaar, which is a market located beneath Connaught Place in the center of Delhi. However, when I decided I'd try to buy cricket jerseys for my buddies as a novelty gift for an upcoming trip to BBQ Fest in Memphis while home in May, fake cricket jerseys seemed the way to go. The loose translation of "fake" in Hindi is Palika (note, that is not even close to an accurate translation); however, the irony isn't lost that the place where you go in Delhi to buy fake anything is literally located underground.

Palika is dark, smoky, crowded, and could probably be described as seedy. I've often said that Palika Bazaar is a CNN Breaking News headline waiting to happen, which is to say it's only a matter of time before you see a yellow banner on CNN with the headline, "Fire in Delhi's underground Palika Bazaar, 419 killed, thousands injured". Of course, I first said this over six years ago and it still hasn't happened, so as usual, I've proven to be an idiot.Regardless, I don't make a practice of going there too often. It's the risk averse side of me.

After a surprisingly thorough security check where they very deliberately checked the back of my waistband for a firearm (again, not a great sign if they're checking security that closely), I descended the ramp and was immediately assualted by merchants trying to sell me jeans, belts, t-shirts, jerseys, DVD's, whatever. If you want it and it's been copied, Palika Bazaar has it.

Thankfully, the first row of shops I wandered upon was primarily textile based. I was looking for cricket jerseys but had three criteria: (1) they had to be DLF Indian Premier League jerseys, (2) I didn't want more than one jersey from any team, and (3) they needed to be large enough to fit 9 different average to above average sized Americans. With India's world cup victory and the IPL season kicking off the day before, the first criteria wasn't tough to meet. Finding nine different teams proved to be a little more of a challenge. Chennai Super King and Mumbai Indian jerseys were everywhere; beyond that it got more difficult. When you combine the second and third criteria, the task became near impossible. Shirts that fit six foot tall people that weigh around 200 pounds don't seem to be the target item at Palika.

I found one place that claimed to have nine shirts in the appropriate size, but they wouldn't actually produce the goods wouldn't come down enough in price to make it worthwhile. Had I had the patience to actually purchase from six or seven different vendors, there's a chance I could have pieced together what I wanted; however, after breathing the recirculated, underground air long enough, it was time to hit the surface. Palika is a lot like scuba diving, there's a finite time you can spend in the water. Unfortunately, my expedition was a failure. I'll need to find some other cheap Indian novelty to entertain an easily entertained group of American idiots in May. And yes, I'm one of those idiots.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

ICC Cricket World Cup

In a country where cricket is king winning the cricket world cup is understandably a big deal. Last night India did just that on home turf in Mumbai.

Cricket is still a sport where the highest level of the game is played at the national team level and country matters first. India is also a country where there no other sports. Hypothetically, in the US, the national basketball team could only be as big of a deal if:
  • the best players consistently played on the team rather than only when public pressure built to the point where they're basically forced
  • players' careers were measured in titles won with the national team instead of a club team
  • there were no other sports to watch
  • the population of the US suddenly quadrupled
Saturday's final seemed a little like the US ice hockey team at the 1980 Olympics. Casual sports fans remember the US beating Russia and that the US won the gold. Those casual fans don't realize that the US actually won the gold with the next game by beating Finland. It's not that India anything like the underdog that the US was; it's that this cup will be more remembered for the game that got them to the final than the final itself. Wednesday's semi-final just seemed bigger. It was more anticipated and, let's be honest, just had the feel of a bigger event.

On Wednesday, India played Pakistan. I joked on Facebook that this rivalry was a little like the sports rivalry between New York and Boston if only both cities felt they had a right to Rhode Island and Connecticut. With all due respect to the Yankees/Red Sox, Ohio State/Michigan's and Duke/North Carolina's out there, I'm not sure there's a more heated rivalry in all of sports. There certainly isn't a rivalry that unites more people (I know, there are 1.2 billion people in India; however, how often do you get 99%+ of any number of people to agree on anything much less 1.2 billion people).

The format of the world cup was basic One Day International (ODI) rules, which amounts to a 50 over match. An "over" is a set of 6 bowls (i.e., pitches), so in effect each team gets 300 attempts to score. As a result, the match typically takes around 8 hours to play. Yep, 8 hours. All the matches started at 2:30pm IST, which for Wednesday's Pakistan match was right in the middle of the work day. To try and stem absenteeism, large screens were placed in the cafeterias. It worked to some extent but safe to assume that productivity was low. All afternoon, from three floors above the cafeteria, I constantly heard cheers erupting whenever India scored.

Personally, I left the office around 6:30pm when India had finished batting to watch Pakistan chase from home (unlike baseball where teams alternate batting throughout the game; in cricket one team bats their entire game, called "innings", and then the other team tries to chase). Even the apartment complex had a feeling of community as a large screen was set up on the lawn to accomodate the expected crowd. We filled a cooler with some beverages and headed down with our friends to watch.
Wednesday evening at our complex
The lawn was divided into two primary groups. A set of tables and chairs for the residents near the screen and a section of drivers, off duty guards, and other domestic help sitting on a small knoll in the back. Unfortunately, very class centric. It was on this knoll where both our drivers watched the game. I think they were just relieved that we were also watching so that they could as well (for Saturday's final, Kailash very politely probed about what our plans were that day and seemed quite relieved that I told him he'd be finished in time to watch the second half of the match).
Our driver's Kailash and Ashok, India captured a wicket seconds after this shot, explaining Ashok's refusal to look at the camera
In what I'm hoping was the drivers and guards attempt to stick it to the rich people, they were listening on radio. The television feed was on about a three second delay. As a result, anytime something good happened, they would erupt prematurely before those in the front would react. I loved it.

Obviously, India won that match and then successfully chased down Sri Lanka last night. Well I have no long-term allegiance to the Indian cricket team, I'm most anticipating how excited everyone at the office will be on Monday. While I'm by no means a cricket expert, it's amazing how much more enjoyable it is to watch when you understand the basic rules and scoring. Do I need to go sit in the stands for a 5-day test match? Probably not. Would I go see a quick 20 over Indian Premiere League match this spring? Absolutely.