Sunday, May 9, 2010

Impressions of India

Last year, I took my first trip to India, specifically New Delhi. The first thing I noticed was that I could smell the smog before we actually landed in New Delhi. When we landed, I was the first person on my flight through immigration, so I was stoked!!!!. BUT, it took over two hours to get my luggage!!!! (argh!!!) The large crowd (150-200 people) went to the first carousel, but it broke down after the first few bags. The airport workers seemed confused as to what to do, but eventually they moved us to the next carousel, so we walked, ran, pushed, and shoved to get a good spot. BUT, a few minutes later, the whole crowd of people were asked to move to the last carousel; hence, more running and fast walking across the terminal, followed by pushing, shoving, and jockeying for a good position to get our bags. Subsequently, we would see 20-30 bags come down the carousel, with a 10-15 minute wait for the next load of bags. While waiting, I commiserated with an attractive charismatic Indian lady (Preeti) who is real estate agent in Los Angeles. Our bags were practically the last bags off the carousel (argh!).

The bags took so long, that when I walked out, my driver was no longer there (I later found out he went to have some tea). I kept walking around looking for a sign with my name on it, and of course, “very helpful” men kept approaching to offer their assistance to get a taxi. Anyway, I saw Preeti and her family, so I asked if they could call the phone numbers I was given in case there were any problems. We called all the numbers multiple times, but alas, no one answered (including the place I was supposed to stay). Eventually, Preeti and her family arranged for a reputable taxi for me, paid for the taxi, and gave me some cash (just in case). I tried to give her US dollars, but she kept telling me not to worry. Welcome to India :)

The transportation to and from the conference each day was out-of-control crazy. I have ridden in a cab in NYC that drove 50-60 mph on the side of the road to avoid traffic, ridden in a speeding car across the desert in Saudi Arabia while the driver turned and talked to me for what seemed liked minutes at a time, and ridden in cabs/busses in Belize City ... but NOTHING prepared me for New Delhi. The cars, cycles, and bicycles are all squeezed together (4-5 lanes of cars squeezed into 2-3 legitimate lanes – often veering into oncoming traffic). At one point, a side view mirror of another vehicle was in the passenger window of my car … at least it seemed to be since it was about two inches from my face. After we started moving, I rolled my window up (like that would solve the problem). Oh, and no more hanging out the window to take pics (yikes!). I have to admit, the drivers were quite amazing.

The hostel/hotel they had me stay at would be considered a slum by USA standards (stained walls, dirty floors, mold-covered walls/floor in bathroom, etc.). One of the other presenters came with his wife and teenage daughter. They walked into their room, and the daughter immediately started crying. They moved to a really nice hotel down the street. On the positive side, the room had hot water (sort of). I would switch on a small water heater above the shower about 20-30 minutes prior to showering. (WARNING: visual of naked man coming … proceed at your own risk). The first day, I ran out of hot water right after I finished washing my hair and lathering up my body with soap (sorry for the visual). So, I stood there reading the back of my toiletry containers (did you know Crest toothpaste has carnauba wax in it?). I patiently waited 20 minutes for the water to heat back up. On the following days, I would (1) turn the water on and quickly wet my hair, (2) turn the water off and lather my hair and face, (3) turn the water back on and rinse hair, (4) turn the water off and add conditioner and lather body (sorry for the visual), and (5) turn water on and quickly rinse. By the end of the week, I had the system down. As far as the bed, I am not sure what it was made of, but it was like sleeping on a thin yoga mat on a concrete floor. The linens were washed (I think ... uh hope), but they very stained (ewe!).

The food was a real treat!!! ... Although some of my colleagues would differ. One colleague would take two Tums/Rolaids, then eat, and then take two more Tums. I heard a few of them had stomach and bowel problems. I did not have any stomach problems, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the food I ate (yummy!). However, the utensils and plates were not exactly clean. When I asked for a different fork because it was dirty, the waiter asked if I was from the “USA”. I said “yes”, and he said, “I thought so.” I think I should have been offended. I also got bottled water … one of the bottles I got had been opened already. So, I asked for another one, and the waiter made a comment about "Americans". Oh well, he did bring me a different bottle :) I guess us North Americans are overly concerned with germs and high maintenance.

Speaking of clean, er uh dirty, you can not imagine the public restrooms there. They were the filthiest bathrooms I have ever seen. There were rarely hand towels, and half the time when there were hand towels, it is just a VERY filthy cloth rag stuffed into the hand towel container. My brother-in-law has major issues with dirty bathrooms. One time the toilet was so dirty, he sat on the trashcan instead (once again, sorry for the visual). He would NOT have done well in India.

There is quite a bit of indirect communication. I was asked to do additional presentations at the conference, so I was trying to skip out on ‘afternoon tea’ and get a ride back to the hostel so I could work on my speeches. The first organizer I asked said, “Yes, we can give you a ride back early. Why don’t you have some tea first.” So, I thanked him, but explained if I stayed to have tea, then I would not get back early to work on my speeches. He said “Ah yes, I see. Okay, you can have a ride back early then. Here, have some tea.” So, I asked him more directly, “Are you saying that I can’t have a ride back now.” To which he responded, “Oh no sir, you can ride back now, but here, stay for the tea first.” This went on and on until I eventually just asked the other conference organizer to arrange a ride ... repeat the above scenario again. Finally, in exasperation, I just had some tea. And, of course, I rode back with everyone else. I had a few situations like this.

There were so many things I saw in India that blew my mind. First, the poverty I witnessed was appalling; not to mention the overwhelming numbers of 'street people'; some with acid-burned features, missing limbs, etc. On the more encouraging side, I saw amazing architectural wonders. And more importantly, I met so many friendly people on the street, as well as passionate and benevolent people at the conference (e.g., the Catholic sisters) who devoted their lives to helping those in need.

When I reflect back on India, it is of humanity and cruelty, poverty and wealth, sadness and humor ... in essence ... contradiction.