Three Days in India: Pt. 2

Continuing from Three Days in India: Pt. 1... 

 

Day Two

The taxi arrived at 3:45 am to take us to the airport for our city transfer flight. By 4 am we were speeding down the road on the dark, mostly deserted streets when suddenly three large moving shapes loomed ahead. Camels! I stared open mouthed as we passed three boys riding three enormous camels along the side of the road and the opening words of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody floated through my head. “Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy…”

On the way to the airport I was informed that I would need to show my itinerary as proof of my flight before I would be allowed to enter the airport. Not having the itinerary printed or available Internet, I had no way of accessing the information. Ahead of me, my colleague showed the itinerary on his phone and was waved through. My turn. I explained that I couldn't show it, but did have an email with a taxi itinerary that mentioned Hyderabad.

"Sorry", the guard said, "you can't enter. You have to go print your itinerary." 

"Where?", I asked.

The guard pointed in the general direction of "outside the airport". 

No way was I going to leave the airport to track down an internet signal and printer at 4 AM in a city in India I knew nothing about. I argued with the guard and when my colleague joined in the fuss the guard apparently decided we weren't worth the trouble and let me in. After passing through security and receiving my boarding pass (funny, it's really easy to prove you have a flight once they let you IN the airport...), we went to the gates to wait.

Our flight status was posted as "Check in", so we kept an eye on the screens for update. 15 minutes into our wait the intercom came on: "Will Wolfgang Platz and Chelsea White please report for last call boarding immediately." What in the world? They never even posted a gate! We walked the 3 meters to the gate mentioned and they sent us down a flight of stairs - directly onto the Tarmac.

It was like a scene from Casablanca. Small groups of people streamed to various planes in the foggy morning air. I half expected to witness a tearful goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. We were directed to a small plane on the edge of the Tarmac, ducked under the propellers, and climbed in to an already full and boarded plane.

Once again the question arose: when did they announce the gate? How did all these people get here?!

Our short flight landed us yet another world away. This time the air was pleasantly cool, the airport modern and clean compared to Pune. The landscape was filled with jasmine trees, plumerias, and oleander. The roads were well kept and traffic showed a tendency to slightly more order.

Thankfully, our agenda for that day was simple: arrive in Hyderabad and check into our hotel, once again located on a campus of the tech company hosting us. 

We arrived to the guard house at the campus entrance knowing exactly what to expect. We stepped out of the taxi with our laptops already in hand, ready for the 6 security guards standing behind the desk to assess our threat level. Badges were issued within 10 minutes and we were waved through. The Hyderabad campus didn't seem to take security as seriously as Pune…I don’t think anyone even checked the taxi undercarriage.

The campus at Pune had been impressive, but it was already clear from our drive that Hyderabad was a wealthier city overall. The grounds were gorgeous; lushly landscaped with meandering paths cutting through glades of palms, fountains, and flowering trees to shiny glass building complexes. 

The air smelled like jasmine and plumeria, and there - just a glorious 20 meters ahead - was a hotel where I could face-plant onto a large, soft bed and go back to sleep. After two room changes and a small negotiation of “Excuse me, this room doesn’t have internet, how do you expect me to work?” with the hotel clerk, I did just that, my hard-won Wifi password clutched in my hand.

I woke up ravenous three hours later at 11 AM and feeling like I was wasting my short time in India. All I had eaten so far was a spicy chicken and cabbage wrap thing purchased from an airport kiosk 7 hours earlier. Thankfully I had been given multiple bags of a regional sweet-spicy pastry to take back to the office in Vienna - that would make for as good a meal as any. Munching happily away, I soon noticed the slogan written on the bag. 

Mmm…nothing like the taste of cannibalism. 

Around noon my colleague and I met up to go on a shopping excursion. We got the name of the nearest mall and waved down a Tuktuk on the busy street outside campus. For the uninitiated (as I was), Tuktuks are an extremely common form of transportation in India (and many parts of Asia).

A hybrid between a taxi and a man-powered rickshaw, they are a cheap and effective way to navigate cities quickly. The back seat of a Tuktuk is designed for two people, though I don't think I saw anyone besides ourselves with less than 4 people crammed into the back. On a later excursion to pick up food for dinner that evening, an Indian colleague explained to me how, as a child, he and his friends would fit 20 children into the back of one Tuktuk. It sounded like it was a feat in human Tetris. 

Our ride to the mall was thrilling. The Tuktuks ride low to the ground, sans-seat belts and the sides of the car open to the air. Cars and busses make up maybe 40% of the general traffic, with the other 60% of Tuktuks and motorbikes cramming themselves into the crevices between the cars, one wheel up on the sidewalk just to get an edge on their neighbor at the next green light. It felt a bit like real-world Mario Kart, though the drivers were so skilled and confident you never had the chance to feel nervous. 

The mall was a shiny testament to globalization surrounded by tell-tale signs of a growing economy. We passed through security entering the mall (as was becoming standard procedure), while I was pulled aside by a female guard to be patted down in a curtained cubicle. My threat level assessed, I was free to start shopping. 

First thing first was food. My “taste of people” wasn’t holding me over too well. Frankly the thing I found most challenging about my short time in India was the need for hyper-awareness about food and drink. I am privileged enough to hardly ever think twice about whether something is safe for me to eat or drink, and often found myself having to slap my hand away from fresh fruit, vegetables, or tap water being offered. Having double and triple checked that my lunch order did not contain anything fresh (I was getting excited to eat a salad when I got home), we ate a nice lunch in the food court, fielding the stares of every other person at the mall. We were the only non-Indian people there. Being a minority - also something I have not experienced frequently in my privileged life.

The majority of shops employed their own security guards, who would manually check your bags upon entrance. One of the stores even had a mandatory bag-check to ensure shoppers couldn't squirrel anything away into the bags they were already carrying. I was surprised to stumble across an entire UCLA Bruins merchandise corner of a department store - apparently they are big fans of the Bruins in Hyderabad. 

After a couple hours of shopping we had a coffee from Dunkin Donuts on an abandoned outdoor terrace overlooking posh apartments on the waterfront and tarp-covered hovels at the base of a half constructed building

Back at campus I took the opportunity to explore. It was amazing how much more it felt like a university than a workplace. We passed a glorious looking pool and fitness center, an outdoor amphitheater where a staff talent show was taking place, and an outdoor yoga class. Re-entering the hotel lobby, I came upon a young man leading a group of women in aerobic exercises.

I settled back in my room, got some work done, and re-emerged to meet Vaibhav, an Indian colleague, to pick up food for dinner. As tired as we were, we had turned down any sightseeing options earlier in the day, but now I was getting antsy to see something other than a mall. Vaibhav was a gracious and knowledgable tour guide, answering all my dumb questions (Why is everything here in English? British colonization, duh.), and sharing stories from his life. 

My Austrian colleague, in true Austrian form, had requested we bring some beer back with dinner. Beer wasn’t technically allowed on campus, but my purse was large enough to smuggle it in, and, to be honest, I really wanted a beer too. We stopped at a liquor shop first, then had the Tuktuk follow us as we walked up the side of the road so I could see everything going on. 

I tried to take lots of pictures but was self conscious about taking the time to stop and set up a shot. We passed a flower stand and I bought a strand of gorgeously fragrant jasmine to wear in my hair. It cost me all of 20 cents. 

Dinner was to be ordered from a well known Biryani shop, the famous dish of the area. We passed through security entering the store, placed our order, and waited 15 minutes before being presented with more food than the three of us could possibly eat. 

Back at the hotel we crowded into the bathroom to transfer our beer into the plastic water bottles (“If anyone asks, it’s juice”), just like rebellious teenagers. We found a table outside and ate a messy but delicious dinner with our hands while my legs got steadily consumed by mosquitos. Only half way through dinner did I realize that it was Thanksgiving. I counted 29 bites on my legs that night. 

 

Day Three

The next day we were packed and out of the hotel for a day-long conference and a flight home in the evening. The conference took place at a large hotel across the city, the drive for which provided a lot of good photo opportunities.

The conference went very successfully without drama. 

A group of men from a local TV crew asked to take selfies with me (uhh…sure?), and I found an outlet Macgyvered with unlit matches and wire. It seemed to be working just fine. For the moment.

That afternoon we unexpectedly ran into a woman we had met at the conference in Pune two days earlier. She happened to be at the hotel to celebrate the wedding of a friend. In the evening, as we prepared to leave, I heard drumming of a wedding procession begin in the street outside. I ran out into the courtyard and climbed up onto a wall to watch as much as I could. My view was limited but the music was loud and vibrant. What I would have given to see the full thing!

Soon after, we were packed back into the taxi and whisked off to the airport. This time I had my itinerary ready to ensure I could enter the airport. Two flights, some failed attempts at getting upgraded to first class, and a great conversation with a Welsh man in Abu Dhabi later, we arrived home to Vienna at 6:00 AM. The first thing I did was buy a salad and fall straight into bed. 

Three Days in India: Pt. 1

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. 

Challenge accepted. 

*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.

Day One

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.

To be continued...