Friday, June 29, 2012

A Voyage to the Exotic East

The one-year anniversary of my trip to India is approaching, so I guess I should haul this half-finished post out from under the couch cushions it seems to have gotten lost under for the better part of a year and finally finish it. I'm glad I unexpectedly found it in there, along with the loose change and the icky old hairbrush. I really should vacuum that out more often.

So here's the story. The consulting company I work for has an office in Pune, India. During the approximately two years I'd been with the company at the time of my trip, there were many people in Pune with whom I'd emailed and spoken on the phone, in some cases on an almost daily basis, but never actually met face-to-face, save for the few who have occasionally come to the US for management-level meetings or to work on a project. Periodically I contemplate what a weird facet of modern life it is to have this close and longstanding working relationship with so many people while not having the faintest idea of what they might actually look like.

Back in the 1990's I worked for a large international bank, where I managed engineering and maintenance of various IT security systems. That also necessitated a lot of cross-border interaction by phone and email. To promote collaboration I would occasionally take trips to some of the international offices to meet people in person. Sometimes my counterparts and I would coordinate a week-long meeting of people from the various global offices in some single location. Since we were spending company money to do this, there was always an agenda of dull presentations and discussions during the day, but the real value of the event was just hanging out together in the evening and getting to know each other, usually while consuming significant quantities of adult refreshments (something for which my British colleagues generally displayed a particularly outstanding proficiency). With this in mind, I agreed with my present boss that it would be a good idea to finally visit the Pune office and meet everyone in person.

Apart from that, over the past decade I have worked with so many people from India that I've had a general curiosity just to see what things look like there and to get a sense of what life is like where they come from. Also, I really like Indian food.

Curiosity notwithstanding, I was kind of apprehensive at the same time. For one thing, it makes no sense to make a long trip like that in anything less than a week, and I knew that while I was gone, it would be hard to maintain contact with the clients and project teams I'm responsible for here in the US. No doubt I would end up working a lot of long hours after my return to catch up again. Also, it would be likely that at least part of my travel would have to happen on a weekend, and those limited free days I have during the week are extremely precious to me. And then there was the matter of the travel itself; back in my banking days, I could fly business class on international trips, but those days are long gone. Nowadays I have to fly coach everywhere, and even a flight of a couple hours in length can be torture, so the thought of a 14–15 hour flight in each direction to Mumbai and back (Mumbai being the closest international airport to Pune) left me in a state of profound dread.

But anyway, it came to pass that I finally set a date. This was not done without some deliberation, because, at least if you are traveling from the Land of the FreeTM, you don't just hop on a plane and go there. First, you have to have a visa. Interestingly, to get a visa for India, you don't go to the nearest Indian consulate because, irony of ironies, they have outsourced that process (to a company called Travisa which, incidentally, processed everything fairly quickly and efficiently). Second, you have to get a bunch of immunizations for things like yellow fever that are pretty unusual here but not so uncommon there. The doctor who gave me the shots (a whole bunch in each arm, all at once, leaving me feeling like a pincushion) also gave me a prescription for anitbiotics to take before, during and after the trip as prophylaxis against malaria, plus some extra-powerful antibiotics which I was to take in case of a prolonged episode of severe diarrhea. The curious thing about the latter pills is that the bottle came with a warning sticker to admonish me that a possible side effect is—guess what?—severe diarrhea. There's something to ponder.

I ended up taking the trip when I did after I., a colleague who is the other senior project manager in the US operation and had been with the company even longer, mentioned that he was way overdue to finally visit the Pune office for the first time and was probably going to go at the same time that R., our company CEO, was planning to make one of his quarterly visits. I suggested that we make the trip together and, having heard about this, R. decided to ask T., a new PM, to make the trip as well and we would turn the week into a US-India company project management summit with a structured agenda. R. would already be in India when we got there, so I., T. and I would meet in Newark, NJ to take the same direct flight to Mumbai and back.

And thus did it come to pass that, armed with my visa and my drugs, I finally embarked on my trip. I can indeed confirm to you that 14 hours is a loooooong time to sit in an airline coach seat. I was lucky on the trip over insofar as I had a window seat and the middle seat was empty, so I had a little extra room and didn't have to engage in one of those subtle but determined battles with the person sitting next to me for control of the armrest.

The coach seats also featured individual video displays offering a pretty wide variety of different movies and TV show episodes. This was good, because I have an extremely hard time sleeping on planes. I didn't want to sleep anyway, because I was going to be arriving around 9 PM and I didn't want to get there so well-rested that I would be wide awake for much of the night. I think I watched four different feature-length movies that I probably would never have watched otherwise.

The only thing I was a little annoyed about was that the crew insisted that the passengers in the window seats keep their shades closed so that anyone who wanted to could sleep, as we would be in daylight for much of the trip. Given a choice, I pretty much always book a window seat on a day flight because I enjoy looking at the landscape. I periodically flaunted this ridiculous rule to see at least some of the sights. Among other things, I managed to get a fairly impressive view as we flew over Afghanistan; it was interesting to see high peaks separating valleys in which it looked like every usable bit of space had been carved up into agricultural plots.

Sitting there on that long flight, I had to think back to a time in the early 1980's when My Favorite Wife (at the time My Future Wife) was in Germany and I was in the US as we completed our respective university studies. During the summer and the winter break I would visit her by taking direct flights between San Francisco and Frankfurt which, if I recall correctly, were also a good 12–13 hours in duration. That was back in the days before personal entertainment systems, before laptop computers and before iPods. I can't remember if the Walkman was around yet, but I didn't own one if it was. In those days, if you were lucky, you might be close enough to one of the few video monitors to be able to discern what was going on in the one movie that would be shown. So relatively speaking, I felt pretty pampered in the entertainment department on this flight, although I think the legroom was slightly (slightly!) more generous back then.

Arriving—finally!—in Mumbai, my colleagues and I went through immigration, collected our baggage, passed through customs, changed some money and set off to meet our destiny. As we exited the secure arrival area, we found ourselves in kind of a large corral-like area that was ringed with metal barriers, over which the drivers from various limousine and car services had hung little tablets bearing the names of the people for whom each driver was waiting. We searched among the 70 or 80 such tablets for our own names, as arrangements had been made for a driver to pick us up at the airport and bring us to the hotel in Mumbai where we were to spend the night before heading out to Pune the following morning.

Before long we located what turned out to be two drivers who were waiting for us. The drivers insisted on labeling our luggage with little tags bearing our respective names and giving us corresponding receipts. There was immediate confusion, as the drivers couldn't quite understand which one of us was Mr. Charlie, Mr. I. and Mr. T. Finally this operation was completed, though. Then, before getting into the car, one of the drivers opened up a little ice chest he had in the trunk of his car and, with a flourish, asked us if we would like a Diet Coke. This was done with such ceremony and enthusiasm that I had to say yes, even though I have an intense dislike for the weird metallic aftertaste of diet sodas.

I started to open my complimentary beverage, but then I remembered something about which I had been admonished repeatedly by seasoned India travelers in preparation for my trip. The contents of that can of soda were almost certainly safe to drink, but where had it been before I took possession of it? In our driver's cooler, of course, swimming in partially melted ice. And with what water had that ice been made? Better not to put my lips on the outside of that can. I stuck it into my laptop bag, which the drivers had not succeeded in wrenching from my hands, and got into the car. My two colleagues got into the other one of the two cars that had come to collect us.

The driver was a nice guy who engaged me in conversation throughout the short trip to the hotel. Where was I from, he wanted to know. "Boston", I told him. "Ah, Boston," he said, with a touch of longing in his voice. "You know Boston?" I asked. He told me he had never been there, but from driving American visitors around, he knows about all of the major US cities—Boston, New York, Orange County, Texas…

That trip from the airport to the hotel was my first experience with driving in India. As in the UK, Indians drive on the left side of the road rather than on the right, as we do in the US; that was already a little disconcerting. The traffic was heavy, even though it was around 11 PM, and we seemed to be driving down one (sort of) paved road after another in what looked to be a gigantic construction site; apparently the Mumbai Airport is building some kind of elevated railway through its entire site, which is enormous. From what I could tell during that first short trip, the only traffic law they have there is the law of the jungle. More on this later.

We got to the hotel and attempted to collect our baggage from the cars, but the drivers would not have it, insisting on carrying the bags into the hotel for us. I hate this kind of thing; I feel very uncomfortable being pampered in any way. Maybe it's my American ethic of self-sufficiency on the frontier, or maybe it's just my liberal guilt, but I can't stand the idea of someone carrying my lugagge for me. The Young Master would probably say it's just because his father is a cheapskate, which to some extent is true—in hotels, for example, I get a little irritated when some bellhop joker insists on putting my little suitcase, the same one I've already trundled behind me for miles through the airport, on a little cart that will travel from reception to my room on the third or fourth floor and then stands around expecting a tip for this utterly useless service. But world traveler that I am, I figured this is the way they do it here, so I'm not going to fight it.

Checking in was a long and complicated process. In the US I am accustomed to handing the person at the front desk a credit card and (sometimes) a driver's license, and it takes only a few minutes for them to locate my reservation, check me in and hand me my key card. (It's been a really long time since I was given an actual room key at a hotel instead of one of those credit card-sized key cards. The cards are more convenient, and no doubt more cost-effective for the hotel, but why do they always insist on giving me two key cards unless I specifically say I only want one?) In the last couple of years I stayed in hotels in Europe, check-in speed was comparable. But in this hotel I had to fill out a big form and sign or initial what seemed like an absurdly large number of places in the form. It took around fifteen minutes for the whole process. Rather than handing our key cards out to us, the lady at the front desk then insisted on accompanying our whole party of three to show us where our respective rooms were and open each door for us. I don't know, maybe to her we looked like a bunch of helpless yokels with no knowledge of modern door technology. I think it took a good 40–45 minutes from the time I walked up to the front desk until I was finally alone in my room.

It was a nice hotel that the company had reserved for us. Often when I first walk into my room in a nice place like that, the TV is already turned on and tuned to an information channel; it might have some kind of "Welcome Mr. Charlie" message on it, or it might be advertising the on-demand movies or maybe some local attraction or other. True to tradition, the TV in this room was on, but it was showing a shampoo commercial when I walked in. Then came another one, and then one for hair conditioner, and then another shampoo commercial, and then the cycle repeated. I wondered if  was tuned to The Shampoo Channel. Each commercial featured a model with a head of long, full hair that sort of waved and billowed in an obviously computer-animated sort of way. The commercials were slickly made but to the point of being kind of over-produced and just sort of weird, at least for my taste.

I Wish My Hair Could Do That

I was pretty puzzled about the shampoo connection, but then I went into my bathroom and saw that it was well-stocked with samples of many of the company's hair care products. That's when I noticed that the shampoo is manufactured by a company called ITC, which I guess is one of those conglomerates that is involved in just about every imaginable business, including operating the fancy hotel in which I was staying. An interesting application of cross-selling, I guess.

After turning off the TV, the next order of business was to take a shower, brush my teeth and hit the sack. This posed a potential problem that we here in the US don't normally consider: What about the water—will it hurt me? It looked fine coming out of the tap, but who knows what invisible creatures might be lurking in there, waiting to work their magic on my insides. I didn't want to begin my trip with a major intestinal event. I decided I would shower normally, taking care not to get any water in my mouth, then brush my teeth using bottled water.

Another thing I learned later in my stay is that you have to be careful with even the bottled water. To be more precise, you need to be certain that the seal on the bottle hasn't been broken, as it's not entirely uncommon, especially in tourist-class hotels, to be given bottled water that is just water from the tap that's been filled into a used plastic bottle.

Having survived the night, the next morning I went down to the breakfast room, met my traveling companions and then the colleagues from Pune who had been sent to collect us. We didn't go straight to Pune, though. First we had to go with our local colleagues to the office of some other company that had just installed the same line of office furniture that our company was thinking of buying for the new building that we would be moving into soon, so that they could see the stuff in action. I can assure you after this experience that looking at office furniture in India is just dull as looking at office furniture here at home.

The trip to Pune, once we got our stimulating office furniture viewing excursion behind us, was somewhat more exciting. As I was soon to discover, pretty much all driving in India is exciting. About the only rules I was able to discern were (1) drive on the left side of the road and (2) honk whenever you pass another car. Beyond that, it's every man for himself. The roads are populated with a colorful mix of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, an occasional bicycle and a few random cows thrown in just to make it interesting. I didn't have a vantage point from which to get a wide shot of traffic, so here's a taste from someone else's YouTube video:

Don't Try This at Home

What doesn't come across in that one, though, is the unbelievable racket of traffic. I am often on conference calls with my Indian colleagues, and sometimes it's hard to understand them through the incessant honking of car horns in the background. I always assumed that they must be speaking to me from a conference room that's right next to a road and that they must have all the windows open. Once I got there I saw that no, they have always been calling from inside an interior room in a building that has a farily reasonable setback from the street; it's just always that loud, I guess. Here's a short snippet of video I shot during the drive between my hotel and the office, for illustration.

Driving Through the Wall of Sound

You will probably notice in the above videos that two-wheeled transportation is pretty prevalent. The cost of even a small car is beyond the reach of many middle-class Indians, but they can afford a motorcycle or scooter. It turns out that you can fit a lot more people onto a motorcycle than I previously would have thought possible. It's not at all unusual to see a family of four or five traveling on a single two-wheeled vehicle. Also, the traditional women's garment, the sari, is not exactly motorcycle-friendly, so you frequently see women riding side-saddle on the back of a motorbike. Helmets are of course optional for all concerned.

Biker Chicks of the Subcontinent

I did all my traveling in one form or another of four-wheeled transport. Most of the time I was in a taxi or a car hired by the company, but I went for a few rides with colleagues who had cars. I would not even consider driving on my own without a lot more acclimation to the local driving practices. But if I did ever have a car there, it would almost certainly have a little idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, on the dashboard. It's the Hindu equivalent of the St. Christopher medal or the plastic Jesus dashboard figurine I recall from my youth (I can't remember having seen either recently, but maybe it's because I live in godless Massachusetts). I don't think I was in any car during my visit that was not under the protection of the elephant man.
I Don't Care if it Rains or Freezes
Ganesha also has his own little shrine in the company office I visited. Coming from a country in which we bend over backwards to avoid any overtly religious symbols in the workplace, this was sort of a surprise, but I'll guess that over there it's pretty much standard practice to enlist the God of Success and Remover of Obstacles to help keep an eye on your business.

The Remover of Obstacles Will See You Now
While I was speaking with one of my Indian colleagues about how he spends his free time, he mentioned that among other things, he goes on little excursions with his kids to visit various temples and perform the associated rituals. He went on to philosophize more generally about how important it is to him that they grow up with the proper devotion to their religion, so that they will turn out to be good, upstanding people. What, with no Jesus? No Moses even? People I've spoken with back home about the various religious expressions I observed on my trip find them amusingly weird, in a "How can those people believe all that crazy nonsense?" sort of way. I won't say that I don't share that sense of bemusement to a certain degree, but then as a Hebrew-American, I grew up fairly accustomed to being surrounded by people who believe, with varying degrees of conviction, in systems of supernatural order considerably different than the one I was raised with, so it wasn't a totally unfamiliar experience.

To us westerners, the notion that saying prayers to a little statue while rubbing it with butter and spices, and offering it food and money, could be the way to achieve eternal salvation sounds pretty crazy. But then, here at home I live among a considerable number of people who will tell me, in all seriousness, that salvation is at least partially the product of periodically consuming wine and crackers that have been literally (not just symbolically) transformed into the blood and body of their deity of choice. The more devout members of my own tribe will lay out for me, in excruciating detail, why it is that I can separately consume cheese or a burger, but by order of the Almighty himself, under no circumstances may I eat a cheeseburger. As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to explaining how the universe works, we all have our own familiar brand of crazy, and treat it as the baseline from which to judge everyone else's chosen brand of crazy to be a bunch of crackpot foolishness.

It was fun to finally meet in person so many people I have emailed with or spoken to by phone but never actually seen. They all seemed really excited to have me and my other two colleagues there; many of them have been to the US for varying lengths of time, but it's not that often that anyone from the US side of the company comes over to spend any time with them. They extended a tremendous amount of hospitality, especially in the culinary department. We went to a lot of buffet-type restaurants where I got a chance to sample all kinds of good stuff. I like Indian food a lot, so this was one highlight of the trip for me.

While enjoying this culinary extravaganza, it was hard not to be conscious of being surrounded by people who would have been thrilled just to have the scraps off my plate. Not that there are usually any scraps left on my plate, having grown up under the influence of the "clean your plate, mister" philosophy, but you know what I mean. Hundreds of millions of India's approximately one billion people live in pretty severe poverty, and you don't have to look very far to find it. Just a block from my hotel there was a kind of shantytown built along an open drainage ditch in between some more middle-class apartment buildings; driving past it on the way to the company office, one of my colleagues expressed considerable shock at the sight of a half naked guy who was apparently "bathing" by scooping up the murky grey water in a pan as it flowed by and then pouring it over his head.

The same daily ride to the office took us by a traffic island sheltered under a sort of highway overpass, a space maybe twenty by thirty feet in size, which appeared to be the open-air camp of a clan of around twenty or so people of assorted ages. When traffic was slow, a group of three or four small children, a couple carrying infant siblings, would wander out from their camp and into the traffic, begging for food or money by hammering on the closed windows of the cars that were stuck there waiting for traffic to start moving again. You think you have problems? Don't tell me about it.

How the Other Half Lives
What a relief to finally be in the office, where the houseboy (a kind of company servant, or go-fer, apparently a standard fixture in many Indian offices—his name escapes me so I'll call him Rakesh) would greet us with a large bottle of cold water or, sometimes, a Diet Coke. After being there for a few days, I started to wonder about this Diet Coke business. Did I say I hate that stuff? It started with the one the driver offered me on the way out of the office. Then there was Rakesh with his frequent offers of Diet Coke. Also, one night when my two traveling companions and I ventured out on our own to get some food, the semi-upscale place we ended up in had no fizzy drinks of any kind on its menu save for—what else—Diet Coke. I eventually asked R., who has spent a considerable amount of time in India, why everyone wants me to have a Diet Coke. He just shrugged and said, "It's what they think white people like." It's interesting to be on the receiving end of a cultural stereotype when you're not used to it. On a similar note, it also took some persuasion to get Rakesh to bring us Indian food for lunch instead of the horrible stuff he was bringing in from the local Pizza Hut franchise.

The whole business of considering what to put in one's mouth and what not was probably the biggest challenge of the trip. One day we were going to have lunch brought in for a meeting and were asked by Rakesh what he should get for us. "Something that won't kill us", one of my American colleagues joked. We Yanks all laughed; the Indians in the room nodded knowingly. Several US-based Indian colleagues called or emailed us during the trip to ask whether anyone had gotten sick yet; this may have been out of concern for our welfare, but I'm guessing that they had money riding on who would be the first of us to experience a sudden and spectacular gastrointestinal meltdown in a meeting.

At one point I was speaking to one of my colleagues who had relocated back to India after having spent three or four years in the US. I asked him how long it took him to readjust to the water, expecting to hear that he had problems for maybe a couple of weeks. "Six months", he told me. I had that in the back of my mind when, on my last night in Pune, rather than using bottled water to wet my toothbrush I absentmindedly wet it under the running tap and then began brushing my teeth. I imagine my eyes were about as wide as a pie plate when I suddenly realized what I had done and began frantically rinsing my mouth with water from the bottle.

Besides that one colleague, I spoke to a few others who had been living in the US and then relocated back to India. Interestingly, none of them said it was because they thought they had a better quality of life in India; invariably it was because they needed to care for elderly parents or had other family obligations that made relocation unavoidable. Otherwise, they would have been more than happy to put down roots in the US.

Sadly, it is becoming harder for them to do that anyway. Since the banking crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession, it has gotten harder and harder for the company I work for to get any kind of visa to bring people over to work in the US. Now, the latent conservative in me says that's only right; we should be filling those jobs with unemployed American citizens and not Indian immigrants. But the fact is, in the case of our company at least, we have a hard time finding people with the specific skills and training needed to fill a lot of open positions, so if we don't get a visa to relocate one of the Indian staff to the US—where, I should add, they receive a market-rate US salary—that means a project that does not get sold, value that does not get generated, and taxes that do not get paid on the associated personal and company earnings. I could probably spend a couple of pages reflecting on the political conclusions to be drawn from that, but buried in there somewhere are some implications for both immigration and education policy that deserve consideration.

Being there also put the whole globalization discussion in a slightly different perspective for me. There are many in the US who worry that countries like India and China will somehow overtake us economically, draining our jobs through their massive populations and their cheap wages and rendering us irrelevant. I have never been to China, but after spending a short time in India I can say that yes, that is a dynamic and striving society, but it has quite a ways to go with respect to development. Poverty and disease remain widespread, corruption was a constant topic on the TV news I had on in my hotel, and much of the infrastructure I saw while I was there was in a pretty sorry state. At the same time, I know that our company is seeing a steady rise in the salaries we have to pay the Indian staff due to stiff competition for what are still limited skills sets, so while the wage differential between US and Indian salaries remains significant, that gap may be much less significant in the future. I don't want to generalize too much from spending a week in one small city, but I came away with an impression that while they may be eating our lunch someday, it won't be tomorrow or the day after.

And that's my story. I look forward to going back sometime when I can spend a little less time in offices and a little more time seeing the sights.