At the end of October, as a large yearly work conference was wrapping up, the CEO of the company I work for came up to me and announced that he would like me to accompany the Founder of the company on a business trip to India. Would I be interested in going?
I was dumbfounded - of course I was interested in going! But why me? What did they expect a "Marketing Specialist" like me to accomplish? As it turned out, my main responsibility was to do one of the things I like best: observe. I was to join the Founder of our company in attending two software conferences with the goal of getting a "feel for the market". Observe, interview people, attend presentations, take notes, and see if I could figure out a better strategy for reaching the market that exists in India.
*I have very few good pictures from the trip as the majority of my time was spent in a hotel or in the car. Hopefully whatever pictures I have will help to round out the story.
Getting From Point A to Point B
The flight to India was uneventful in all the best ways. I watched the sun set over Iran during 3 pm my time, a fiery sunset unlike any of the soft palates featured in Vienna. We landed in Abu Dhabi after dark, and but for some clues I could have just as easily been in Arizona as the UAE. A long bus ride took us to the main terminal, passing an overhang covering luxury cabs - a Rolls Royce pulling out of the drive ahead of us. Within the terminal we passed through a mall's worth of luxury shopping.
The UAE is a famously wealthy country with a penchant for luxury brands. I was struck by the disparity between those shopping, covered and uncovered Arab women and men (in the white robes and checkered head cloths I had only ever seen in movies), as they were surrounded by the silicon advertising of airbrushed models, all invariably Caucasian. Does it ever strike them as odd? Do they ever wish they would see a Chanel or Burburry ad featuring someone who looked like them?
Our flight to India was delayed, meaning our slim chances of sleep were further shortened. Once we had disembarked the plane in India at 4 am, I was naive to think we were on the home stretch and sleep was in sight. A taxi would be picking us up from the hotel at 7:30, so if I was lucky I might get 2 hours of sleep.
But first we had to get through customs.
The "foreigner" line was short, but operating so slowly that 50 people had cleared customs to our right before we even arrived to the desk. We were admitted through customs, then asked to show our customs declaration pink slip to a guard by the stairs. He looked at it and waved us on. Down the stairs we found another queue being aggressively guarded by a paunchy uniformed military man, with a red stripe finger-painted onto his forehead. He didn't speak any English so he augmented his communication skills with an extra dash of enthusiasm. Before we could move on to the luggage pick up, it would seem, we first had to have our hand luggage re-screened and our tired bodies metal detected. The metal detector was held together in parts with packing tape.
Once our luggage was retrieved we passed through another checkpoint, this time, a re-screening of our checked baggage - our final barrier to India. A taxi driver was waiting for us, and led us out into the warm humid early morning amidst an ongoing symphony of car horns. In Indian traffic it would seem, car horns are constantly in use. The honking doesn't seem to accomplish much besides providing the drivers a constant source of cathartic self expression. That being said, I didn't see any car crashes - a feat unto itself. I liked to imagine that the honking was actually just their way of saying hello to each other.
Even in the dark 5 am morning there were many people out on the streets. The drive revealed a non-tourist-board-approved India: fading and threadbare infrastructure, decades of signs and placards ripped and plastered over, heaps of dirt, rock, and rubbish. Stray dogs and people roamed freely, even in the street. Sidewalks were few and far between. Glimpses of temples and monuments integrated into strip malls flashed by, including one infinite second into a low fluorescent lit room, where a man with a tambourine chanted loudly over a floor covered by the praying bodies of men in white.
Our entry to the technological sector of Pune was met by an unbelievably large neon sign stating "Persistence", illuminating the atmosphere with red light pollution glow. I learned that Persistence is the name of one of the local companies when a handful of their delegates arrived to the business conference the next day. That knowledge did little to make the sight of the monumental glow on the horizon less surreal.
It was nearing 5:30 am and we finally had arrived to the campus of the company that was hosting us. A massive and powerful enterprise, the company has Google-esque campuses all over India, equipped with guest houses where we would be staying. We drove to the gate where we were stopped by a security guard and made to get out of the car so he could look at our laptops.
He shook his head at us as his colleague held a mirror on a stick underneath the taxi carriage to check for explosives. "You need a pass". Frustrated but too tired to argue, we drove back down to another gate and entered the office, where a woman who was quite happy to take her time checked our trip details, confirmed our contact at the company, reviewed our passports, wrote down the serial numbers of our computers, and finally issued us a guest pass with our computer serial number printed on it. While this took place another guard held a mirror under our taxi.
Passes in hand, we drove back up to the first gate where the same guard as before re-checked our computers. We were waved onto the grounds while I asked my colleague why the company was so concerned about our computer serial numbers. It remains a mystery. Once at the guest house we passed through another security checkpoint. Our luggage was scanned as a guard reviewed the serial number on our laptops, compared the number to the one on our guest passes, and wrote the number down in a thick black ledger. It was past 6 am and we were finally free to check in.
I got ten minutes of sleep before I had to get up to prepare for the conference. My first impression of the Pune streets did not change now that the sun was up. Even more people thronged the streets, crossed haphazardly, or casually checked their cellphone while leaning against highway middle barriers.
Cows had been added to the mix now, standing just as casually as the people on the side of the road, munching on trash, far from any sign of grass. One white cow stood motionless in the middle of the road itself as traffic diverted around it. No one seemed to care.
We passed slums that looked like beaver dams made of rubble, and searched for the most daring biker (a barefoot family of 5 on a motorbike won that day).
We drove through the gate to the hotel hosting the conference and entered another world.
This world had two story waterfalls, lush palms, uniformed waiters and crystal chandeliers. This world felt odd being so close to the one just outside. We left that world at 5:30 pm and by 6:30 I was back in my room, finally able to sleep for the first time in almost 40 hours.