Thursday, March 20, 2008

India Part II

Day 3, Sunday, March 16 - I woke up a few times during the night and smelled garbage coming in through the air conditioner vent. I guess this happened when the wind shifted and came in from Bombay. Twenty million people must create quite a garbage dump. I also woke up with my face itching, so I slapped it in case a mosquito was biting me. Sure enough, I woke up with a bloody – but hopefully malaria free – mosquito squashed to the side of my face.

We had a leisurely breakfast and talked about politics and energy. Breakfast, by the way, included some spicy things which I mostly avoided. One thing that was hard to get used to was that people were constantly jumping up and getting me food. Someone would ask if I had tried something, and when I said "No" they would jump up and get it for me.

We talked about their impressions of the West, and my impressions so far of India. I learned that most people in India view everyone in the West as being rich. I said that I suppose it is relative: They would be rich relative to them. It is the same as when I was a kid. Rich was anyone with more money than us.

The energy discussion revolved around jatropha and ethanol. Jatropha is very interesting, because the West has high hopes for the potential of jatropha to provide biofuel. The problem is - as was explained to me - that all of the fertile land is being used, and there are no roads or infrastructure to the marginal land. Everywhere we went, jatropha was like a myth: Everyone knew a little about it, but nobody had seen it or could tell us where to find it.

After lunch, Kapil and I took a walk down the road. Everywhere we went, there was trash beside the road. Waste management has got to be a challenge with that many people. As we were walking, we passed a number of those sacred Hindu cattle. They were really small, and I wanted to get a picture for perspective. Kapil got his camera out, and a cow came up to me expecting food. When she figured out I didn't have any, she hooked her horn under my Blackberry and flipped it into the road. Then she hit me in the arm with her horn. After considering a steer-wrestling move, I shooed her away. But there was a bull right behind her and he came in looking for food. I put out my arm to stop him from doing the same thing she had just done. Kapil snapped some pictures of this.

On the way back, Kapil pointed out some natural beehives that were just hanging off of buildings. There were numerous clusters just hanging in a semicircle formation. (I later retrieved my camera and took some pictures).

I was anxious to move on, but we found that all of the others were taking a siesta. That is common in India as in Mexico: During the heat of the day people take a nap. So Kapil and I spent some time outside discussing the future of our company, and about our personal expectations. Once Kapil left me, and the four-year-old son of one of Kapil's friends came out and started talking to me. I just kept smiling and nodding. He had a toy that he was showing me. I finally took a picture of him, and showed it to him. Then he really started cutting up.

We finally hit the road much later than planned. We were again cutting across rural India. I finally got accustomed to "the look." We were passing very close by people (and there were people everywhere) and I was on the side of the car closest to them. Someone would see me in the car, look away for a second, and then their head would snap back around to take a second, longer look. After a while, I started waving at people. Some even waved back.

The crowds were just something else. The population density of India is probably the highest of any country in the world. All night long, the crowds alongside the road were like crowds streaming out of a concert. I once caught myself asking "I wonder what happened" as I watched a huge crowd gathered in a town. Turns out nothing had happened; it was just a big crowd of people. I told Kapil that if I saw that in the U.S., it is almost certain that there has been an accident.

I saw some pretty interesting things as we drove along. I again saw four people on a motorcycle, and I told Kapil "I still haven't seen five." He pointed in front of us, and said "Look there. There's five." A second later: "No, six!" About 3 seconds later, both of us at the same time "Seven!" There were seven people piled on to a motorcycle. I snapped a picture as they drove by, but didn't get all of them.

We passed a building once that said "Fellowship Pentecostal Church." Another time, we passed a very run down building that announced "Computer Training Lessons." There were loads of barbershops in these little towns. They, like other shops, were just tiny buildings all joined together with no observable door. (I never did see any place for women to get their hair cut). I finally realized what this all reminded me of: The world's largest flea market. That's the only thing I can relate to that is similar in the West. And it struck me that this may be why all of the Indians I know seem to be such good businessmen: They grew up bargaining and doing business every day in these shops.

We finally got into our hotel late, after stopping of to meet the parents of one of Kapil's friends. It was my first time inside a house in India. Anyway, after checking into the hotel, I was anxious to get caught up on e-mails and writing. Neither my telephone nor Internet was working. It probably took them a couple of hours to get it fixed, but in the meantime I started working on this essay. I finally got to bed at 2 a.m.

Day 4, Monday, March 17 - Ah, St. Patricks Day. You wouldn't have guessed that. As soon as the sun started coming into the room, I got up. I checked the time; it was 2 a.m. Netherlands time. I had been trying to keep to Netherlands time since I have to fly back to the U.S. at the end of the week, but I am not doing a very good job of it.

I went down for breakfast, and against my better judgment had bacon. I had only had meat one other time since being in the country, so I decided to have just a tiny bit of bacon. Of course I was thinking about trichinosis as I was eating it. I also had a fruit called chikko. I had never heard of this fruit, but it was really delicious.

We had a business meeting in another town, so we were picked up. We again had a driver. I was told that it was very cheap to hire a car and driver, and after the chaos I observed on the road, I would never recommend that an American try to drive in India.

As we were driving, I finally saw an elephant standing in a town. Besides the elephant, there was again the overwhelming poverty everywhere you looked. I am not sure a Westerner can understand this without seeing it. We have poverty. We have homelessness. But we don't have anything like this. You can see it on the TV, but I think you tune it out. When you see mile after mile of it here, there is no tuning it out. At least not for me.

The crowds were as they had been everywhere else. I asked Kapil about the colorful garments of the women; whether they had any specific significance. He said no, that it just depended on their mood. But that is something that stands out: The women dress in very bright and vibrant colors. (I got my picture taken with a couple of them to show an example).

The horn honking continued. You apparently honk your horn as a warning to others. And horns are honked constantly. It has a different connotation in the West, where if someone was constantly honking at you they would probably get flipped off. Here, it is as normal as a turn signal (although turn signals were not at all normal).

Besides people, cows, and buffalo, there were also dogs everywhere. There were no breeds you would recognize; they all just looked like strays. Also, I noticed that for all of the motorcycles on the roads, almost nobody anywhere wore a helmet.

I noticed an apparent swastika on a truck on the highway. I knew that there was some Hindu symbol that looked like that, so I asked. Kapil pointed out to me that it is different than the swastika in that the lines point the opposite direction, and it predates the Nazi usage by a long, long time.

We finally got to our meeting at a fabrication shop. Again with the handshaking. I excused myself as quickly as possible to wash my hands. (As I already pointed out, this habit of mine is not limited to India; I always wash my hands as soon as I can after shaking hands). I was asked whether I wanted coffee, and I said "Yes, that would be nice." Apparently, they didn't have any coffee, because it was about an hour before it actually arrived. I presume they sent someone down the street for my coffee, which of course I wouldn't have had them do had I known.

We toured the fab shop, and I commented to Kapil that ConocoPhillips, for instance, wouldn't do business here unless a number of safety policies were implemented. There was hot work and metal work going on, but nobody was wearing safety goggles. There were kids milling about the shop. I saw frayed and bare electrical cords attached to welding machines. There was metal sticking out with sharp edges. You had to keep very alert to avoid getting hurt. And the noise was horrible. Of course, no earplugs in sight. I had to wonder about their injury statistics.

We finally concluded our meeting, and began a seven-hour drive to our next stop. As we were leaving, I noticed the familiar site of people lying in the shade outside hovels. I saw a woman picking (presumably) lice out of a young girl's hair. The youngest kids weren't wearing clothes at all. I thought about the gulf here between rich and poor. I bet that it is larger here than at any other place in the world. You have billionaires, and then millions living in horrible conditions.

Although I was really tired, I wasn't able to nap. I drifted off once for about 5 minutes, but then woke back up, afraid I would miss something. It struck me that I would be at the family farm in Oklahoma in only 5 days, as I had a return trip to the U.S. planned. That seemed a million miles away; it literally seemed like I was thinking about flying to a different planet.

As we drove, I quizzed Kapil about Indian society. He told me that life expectancy, even for educated people, lags the West. This surprised me, considering that he also told me that 70% or so of the country are vegetarians. He had told me that India is self-sufficient in food; I think this is only possible because of their diet. If they had a meat-heavy diet as we do in the West, I think the population density is too high to be self-sufficient. Then again, there are a lot of Hindu cattle wandering about.

I asked him some questions about the caste system, and he told me some of the history. We passed a migrant camp, and I posed the following question: "If a little girl is born in that camp, and she is the next Einstein, will she ever realize her destiny?" He said "Probably not, because there is no means. There isn't anything that would legally prevent her from it, but practically speaking it would be very hard."

I also noted that despite the poor conditions of many, the health of the people seemed to be quite good. I didn't see any blind or handicapped people. He said that's because the infrastructure isn't equipped to deal with them; that life for them is very hard. He said they exist, but are locked out of normal society.

I made a few more observations about the traffic. Trucks and buses just meander back and forth across the lines. The roads seem to be shared equally by all modes of transportation, but you better pay attention as you are expected to get out of the way when someone honks. I also noticed that there were no tour buses at all. Maybe there are in the big cities, but where we were, I never saw one.

We spent most of the day making our way through Gir Forest National Park. There were signs indicating all kinds of wildlife. From Wikipedia:

The count of 2,375 distinct fauna species of Gir includes about 38 species of mammals, around 300 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and more than 2,000 species of insects. The carnivores group mainly comprises Asiatic lions, Leopards, Jungle cat, Hyenas, Jackals, Mongoose, Civet cats, and Ratels. Desert cats and Rusty-spotted cats exist but are rarely seen.

There were no towns, and finally the people had thinned out, but Kapil told me that there were still tribes in the jungle. At one point we stopped high in the mountains and had a spectacular panoramic view. It was very hazy though. There were a couple of women there also enjoying the view, and Kapil asked them if I could take a picture with them to show some traditional Indian dress. They giggled, but agreed.

We eventually arrived back in another town. Just when I didn't think I could possibly be more isolated from Western culture, I saw a guy walking down the street wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. And right after that, a pig darted out in front of us, and we managed to graze him.

We finally arrived very late to our destination in Shirdi, which was home to a very famous Hindu holy man: Sai Baba of Shirdi. There is a Hindu temple - Saibaba Temple - there dedicated to him that hosts 10 million visitors a year. Kapil said we were probably the only ones in the hotel not on a religious pilgrimage, but he did plan to take me to the temple the next day.

Day 5, Tuesday, March 18 - I woke up trying to remember where I was as my Blackberry was going off. I jumped up and got ready (the power went off for a few minute while I was getting ready) and Kapil and I had a quick breakfast. We were supposed to be taken at 9 to a sugarcane factory that produces sugar, ethanol, and several other industrial chemicals from the ethanol (acetic acid, ethyl acetate, etc.) The guy we were meeting still hadn't shown up at 9:30, so we called. He said "10 more minutes." That's something I have noticed – 10 minutes is never really 10 minutes. Time is pretty casual here. Every day our schedule slipped. It always took longer to do something than we thought.

I am going to skip over most of the factory tour, and cover it in a separate post. Just some general observations. On the way to the plant, we saw migrant workers out harvesting sugarcane by hand. It seems to me that it wouldn't be very hard to mechanize that process. It looks like brutally hot work, but then the alternative for some may be starvation.

We started the day with the Office Superintendent of the facility. We had gotten into the habit of asking everyone we ran into about jatropha. Again, same response as all of the others: They knew of jatropha, but didn't know anyone who was growing it.

As we were waiting, someone brought in drinks for us. I had been looking to Kapil to advise me of what to eat or drink, but this was hot so I drank it. It had a really odd smell, and a very sweet taste. It also was very quick to form a skin on top. I drank it, and as soon as we were alone I asked "What did I just drink?" It was coffee with buffalo milk and locally produced sugar. The buffalo milk was responsible for the odd smell.

A few notes on our plant tour. Safety is not treated at the same level as in the West. We were walking around burning hot furnaces and distillation columns, and nobody was wearing any kind of protective equipment. Once we were standing underneath a platform where people were working about 40 feet above us. None of us had a hard hat on.

Following the tour, we were taken to a room that looked like it might host a city council. There were a lot of hushed tones, and I wasn't sure what was going on. Finally, in came a local political leader. He was treated with great deference. Kapil told me he was equivalent to a state senator, and that this was typical Indian hierarchical customs. He also said that some of these political guys were really nasty, but he said this guy seemed to be really nice. One odd thing is that he kept shaking his head "No" when he was agreeing. Kapil said this is normal Indian body language. I found it hard to get used to. The Indian people also seemed to have trouble with my name. Like many others, he referred to me as "Mr. Robert."

They had a welcoming ceremony for us, and I got treated to a flower necklace and a red dot of paint on my forehead. Pictures were taken, but I think I will keep those to myself. I felt very awkward during the whole thing; not quite sure what to do. This is another reason I am not a politician - I don't like ceremony too much.

Following the tour and lunch, we went to the temple. We got VIP treatment: We were taken to the front of an hours long line to pay respects to a Hindu god. I heard them call out "VIP" several times. I will keep the details private, but I did feel bad about jumping in front of all of those people. I got a number of curious stares, and a number of very cold stares. Imagine that you have been standing in line at the Vatican for three hours to see the Sistine Chapel, and in comes a foreigner who is whisked right to the front of the line.

I have a feeling we did run into one of those "nasty" politicians that Kapil was telling me about. A man came in with an entourage, and someone in my group was very deferential and stepped forward to shake his hand. The man literally rolled his eyes and acted like a pompous jerk.

We finally finished up, and began a very long drive across the mountains to our next destination. This time, we had no seat belts, and our driver was the most reckless one yet. Kapil kept telling him to take it easy, but he assured Kapil that he does this all the time. Kapil told him that it was possible that someone else might make a mistake. But the guy continued to drive recklessly. I kept visualizing the headline "...Killed in a Car Crash in India."

The trip was long, but largely uneventful. We came across a wind farm in a desolate location. That was the first wind farm we had seen. We stopped once at a road side vendor and had fresh coconut milk. They chop the coconut open, insert a straw, and you drink the milk. It is different than the coconut milk Westerners are used to. The coconuts we usually eat have had most of the liquid evaporate through the shell and leave behind what we consider the meat. But in fresh coconuts, that meat is dissolved in the liquid and you drink it. It is supposed to be really healthy. It was quite good.

We saw a lot of farmers carrying sugar cane behind cattle-driven wagons. Another time we came upon a sign that said "Weak Bridge Ahead." Now why do you want to go and say something like that? The drive was dusty, and I felt covered wtih grime. Once we got to the outskirts of our destination - Bombay - traffic slowed and it took us forever to work our way across the city. But we finally got to our hotel at about 10 p.m., and I started catching up on e-mails.

Day 6, Wednesday, March 19 - I had stayed up until 2 a.m. writing, and had intended to sleep late. Again, I was up with sun. I am going to drop from exhaustion soon. But tonight I fly home (to Amsterdam, anyway), so I can get a little rest on the flight.

Another morning, another meeting. Another person who doesn't know anything about jatropha. The man we were meeting with, who is involved in biofuels and the import/export business was very skeptical of the whole ethanol scene, saying that it is a political farce. He said that India has far too many people to count on ethanol as much of a solution, and that they could not do what Brazil had done. He also brought up the water usage issue; suggesting that it will take too much fresh water, and this is in short supply. Very interesting perspective from the tropics, where sugarcane is abundant.

When we left the meeting, we walked out onto the street. There was a family (mother, grandmother, and two small children) on the sidewalk, where they were apparently living. I reached in my pocket for money, but then remembered the warning that I had been given. Besides that, they weren't actually asking for money. I wasn't sure how they might respond. But it is tough for me to see children in that condition.

We were going to have a bit of free time to walk around down town, so we headed across town. At one point, a guy came up and tried selling us a book that is banned in India: The Polyester Prince. It is about the guy who started Reliance Energy. It was apparently not very flattering, and the Reliance lobby was strong enough to get the book banned. But we already had a copy in the car, so Kapil held it up and showed the guy.

We also observed something that I hadn't seen since I arrived: Violence. It seems odd that in a city of 20 million, I never saw anyone fighting. But we did see a car accident, and one guy trying to drag another out of the car.

We stopped for a few minutes at the beach. As soon as we got out, a little girl came up and started begging. Kapil said "Watch your wallet." I told him that I already had my hand on it. He said "Your skin color attracts them." Then another woman said something to Kapil, and he agreed. I asked what she said, and he told me "If you give, more will come." I snapped a couple of pictures of her; I thought that might scare her off. And it did at first, but she came right back.

From there, we went down town and saw the Gateway of India. We walked around a little, took a few pictures, and then it was souvenir time. I thoroughly hate shopping, but I figured I better pick up a few things. So we went in a government-operated shop, and I bought a few items. It was the most inefficient operation you ever saw. You took your goods to the counter, and someone wrote up a ticket. Then you took your ticket downstairs, and they stamped it and you took it to the pay window. After paying, you took it to a 4th counter where they "delivered" it to you. It was really something else. Kapil said it was basically just a government jobs program.

We walked around the outdoor shops, but I felt really insecure. I had my laptop with me, and I was afraid of someone picking my pocket in those crowds. I was constantly turning my head to make sure nobody was right behind me, but there was always someone right behind me.

After we finished walking around, we stopped in a café and had a drink. Kapil asked me if I was feeling adventurous. He asked me if I wanted to ride the train. We were going to have dinner at his parents' house, and he said we would save an hour going by train. "Besides", he said, "I want you to have the full Indian experience."

So we flagged down a cab to take us to the central train station. I was just in awe of how lively that city is. Imagine New York City, only bigger and with no traffic rules at all. I was looking at some things on the street to the right while we were stuck in traffic. After a bit, I looked out my window, and almost jumped out of me skin. There was a beggar right there in my face. She was reaching in and touching me. I don't like to be touched, so I rolled the window up.

When we got to the train station, Kapil said "Watch your bags." That's what I was afraid of. We hopped out and ran a gauntlet through some incredible crowds. My head felt like it was on a swivel – looking forward to keep up with him, and behind to make sure nobody was dipping hands into my bags.

There was a long line for train tickets, and Kapil walked right to the front. I asked about that, and he said "First Class ticket purchases go to the front of the line." He then told me that a 1st Class ticket was about 3 bucks, and a 2nd Class was about 20 cents. He said that at least with 1st Class, we would probably get a seat.

He was wrong. We packed into that car like cattle. People were jumping on and off when the train was still moving, and people were hanging out both doors while the train was running. I had people pressed up against me all around. It was crowded – not London Tube crowded, but India crowded: Bodies packed tightly, intense heat, and everyone sweating. It was standing room only, and it took us an hour to get to our destination. At one point, Kapil took my photo. Everyone on the train – all Indians – suddenly started staring at me as if something was horribly wrong.

After we hopped out, I got to experience an auto-rickshaw. I had seen them everywhere, but hadn't been in one. We hopped in one to take us the final distance to Kapils' parents. Those things are pretty good transportation options. They have very small (I think 150 cc) engines, and most (maybe all?) run on compressed natural gas. The fuel efficiency is enormous. They are really built for only 3 passengers or so, but I saw 8 packed in one once. (Later someone told me that he saw 13 packed into one).

We had a nice meal with Kapil's parents. This was only the 2nd Indian home I had been in, but this time we got to have a long visit. Kapil's father was 2 years old when they were banished from Pakistan. I have read about the journey; they were packed tightly into trains and banished. Kapil's father gave me a book to read called Vedic Culture. Kapil's mother made this crispy bread – almost like a crisp tortilla, that I had really grown fond of. Kapil said it is made from lentils, but you would swear it was pork rinds.

It's a good thing we took the train, because it wasn't long before it was time to head to the airport. Kapil drove me; it was the first time I had seen him drive in India. I have ridden with him in Holland, but the traffic in Bombay is just something else. In fact, as we were driving, the absurdity of the situation hit me, and I said "This is just the craziest thing I have ever seen. People don't drive within the lines; 3 cars will straddle 2 lanes of traffic, cars move over randomly without signaling or looking back – it's chaos." He agreed, "Yes, it is chaos." I said that I can't really describe this as traffic, because that implies just a lot of cars on the road. Here, you have that – but then you also have everyone just doing their own thing. I will say this, if I haven't already: Nothing I ever seen again on the road will surprise me. If I see a monkey driving a motorcycle, it won't even be one of the stranger things I saw.

We eventually arrived at the airport around 11 p.m., and I said my goodbyes, as Kapil is flying back a few days later. I thanked him for keeping me out of trouble while I was there. I never got sick, and always enjoyed what I ate. Plus, we got to do a little business on top of everything.

Day 7, Thursday, March 20 - Security at the airport was the most stringent I have ever seen. And the guy who frisked me seemed to be enjoying it a little too much. His hands lingered a bit and gave me the creeps. I popped out my laptop and tried to catch up a bit, but pretty soon we boarded the plane for our 1:40 a.m. flight back to Amsterdam.

I mostly tried to sleep on the way back, but a couple of interesting things happened. Again, someone occupied the bathroom for about half an hour. I said to myself "I bet it's an Indian man." Sure enough, it was. What the heck are they doing in there for so long?

The guy sitting next to me was British, but working in India. He told me some stories. In fact, we had some similar experiences. I told him that I kept seeing mutton on the menus, and finally noted that I hadn't seen any sheep in the country. I was told that mutton is goat (which I saw plenty of). He said "At least you found out before you ate it. I didn't find out until I commented that my mutton tasted strange." He also said that nothing he will ever seen again would surprise him after being in India. I told him that I felt the same way. We talked about the way that Indians never seem to have to stop for a restroom. I was in a car with several for 7-hour stretches on 2 different occasions, and they never had to stop. That was good, because I never saw many restrooms. I don't know how they manage.

But, despite getting almost no sleep, I have arrived back in the Netherlands. I am finishing this up on the train from Amsterdam to Arnhem. In just a little over 24 hours, I will be back, headed for my first trip to the U.S. since last June. I will be house-hunting in Dallas with my wife, who I haven't seen in 7 weeks, so I expect my writing to continue to be limited for a bit longer. I will try to knock out some things while traveling tomorrow.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

India Part I

Part I covers my first 2 days in India; Part II covers the other 5 days.

Some Local Color

Bombay Slums

Local Transportation

A Bombay Doorman

Updated: March 20 - Back in the Netherlands; I have updated and broken this up into 2 parts.

Updated: March 19 - It's going to need some editing and clean up, but I will do that later (and add some pictures).

Update: March 18 - I have been without Internet for 2 days, and just got to a hotel in Bombay. (I have been on the road for 20 hours in the past 4 days). It's 10 p.m., and I have 52 e-mails to answer. I will try to update this tonight, as I have been working on it offline.

Today I spent my entire morning in a sugarcane ethanol plant. I really went over those bagasse boilers. In fact, I am still covered with bagasse as the entire factory had bagasse dust in the air. I have also been in search of jatropha. I am finding that it is like Bigfoot: Everyone has heard about it, nobody has seen it. More later.

The following summarizes a business trip I took to India with my colleague (and native of India) Kapil Girotra. Fortunately, he could tell me what not to eat and drink, and he safely steered me through the intricacies of Indian culture.

Day 1, Friday, March 14, 2008 – The flight to India was pretty interesting, because we flew over a lot of countries that I have never flown over. We flew over Northern Iraq, and directly over Teheran in Iran. I got to watch a couple of movies that I hadn't seen: No Country for Old Men and American Gangster. It was a Northwest flight, and they have a new video on demand system. You can control when your movies stop and start, and you can rewind if you like.

While the movies were good, the restroom situation was something else. I got up to visit the restroom, and the first one I came to had masking tape across the door. OK, that one is out of order. I come to the next one, and there is a long line. The woman at the front of the line is an American, and she tells me she has been standing there for 15 minutes. There are two restrooms, and it is at least another 10 minutes before one door opens, and out steps an older Indian man. She looked at the line, and said "Bet you thought it would be a woman. So did I."

So, the line started moving faster, but nobody ever came out of the other restroom. After half an hour, someone said "They must be dead." I was actually starting to wonder if something was wrong. There were two or three people in more desperate need than me, so I let them hop to the front of the line. Finally, after about 10 more minutes – close to 40 minutes total, the other door finally opened and out stepped another Indian man. I asked someone if there was some kind of Indian religious custom that one would do in a restroom. I was told that there wasn't.

As lunch was being served, I started hearing "We are out of chicken, is vegetarian OK?" I didn't like the sound of that. But since I didn't have any choice – and was very hungry, I had the vegetarian meal. Interestingly enough, while I am not remotely a vegetarian, that marked 3 vegetarian meals in a row for me. (And it would be another 2 before I had about 2 ounces of chicken on a small pizza). But this food – paneer - was really good. I am starting to learn that about Indian vegetarian food. In India, it is really spicy and good. In the U.S., it is a difficult concept to accept. But if all vegetarian food was like Indian food, I wouldn't have any problem being a vegetarian.

As we entered Indian air space, I started looking for lights on the ground. It was dark, so I expected to see little village lights everywhere. I didn't see any. In fact, it was very dark over the northern part of India. I suppose that's because it is so mountainous there, and there isn't a high population density, or electricity isn't common. As we headed south over India, we came out over the Arabian Sea. There were a number of oil platforms there. I will have to check and see how much of oil production India has.

As we began to descend, the captain announced that they would be spraying us with insecticide as required by the Indian government. That was something new, but in a few minutes I started smelling it. For the longest, I couldn't see the lights of Bombay. It is a huge city – 20 million people – so I thought I would see lights for many miles away. But we were pretty close before the lights actually started to appear. As we landed, I noticed that it looked incredibly foggy. Kapil told me that this was smog.

Getting through the airport was an interesting experience. First off, there were a lot of mosquitoes in the airport. All kidding aside, India has malaria, and I know a guy who caught it there. So when I see a mosquito here, I take it more seriously than I do when seeing a mosquito in the U.S. After we got our luggage and were proceeding out, the guys working currency exchange and other airport services were calling out to us to solicit business. I had never had that happen in an airport. And once we made it outside, it was like a carnival. So many people, despite it being midnight. There was so much activity, it really felt like a carnival encircling a football stadium. That's exactly the feeling I had when I came out.

Kapil's wife met us, and they drove me over to my hotel. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was like any Western hotel. But before I went to bed, I stared out my window at the lights of Bombay. 20 million people. I wondered how many terrible things were taking place out there. How many would die tonight of hunger in this country?

Day 2, Saturday, March 15 - I got my answer as soon as I woke up. There was an unspeakable crime in Dehli the night before involving a nine-year-old boy. This is something that bothers me about large populations: In a very large population center, the likelihood that really horrible things are happening at any particular moment is high.

My Blackberry was ringing and woke me at 5:20 Netherlands time (I had the alarm set for 5:30). That was 10:00 a.m. Bombay time. India is offset by half an hour from other time zones instead of an even hour. I was told that the reason for that is that the country should really be in 2 time zones, but the government just decided to split the difference across the country.

Since it was 10:00, I had to jump up and get ready as I had a business meeting at 11. I took a quick glance at a newspaper article that said to avoid typhoid by avoiding soft ice creams. I will file that one away. I met Kapil and he had a cab waiting for us. I didn't have time to get breakfast, so I grabbed a donut and some fruit and we took off. I noticed as we were putting my bags in the trunk, that there was a propane tank in the trunk for fueling the cab.

We got stuck at a stop light, and just as I was biting into my donut, a girl of about eight came up and starting pecking on the window. I looked at Kapil, and asked "Does she want the donut, or money?" He said "both." I said "She can have my donut." He said "I know this is hard on you, but don't. The car will be covered up if you do." Someone else had warned me about this as well: They had handed some money to a beggar outside of a car window, and the car was immediately so covered up they couldn't move. The cab driver reached his hand out and shoved her away, but the situation bothered me.

As we drove, I saw some slums to the side of the road. I have never seen poverty like that before. In some cases, it looked like people had pitched tents on top of a garbage dump. I saw an old woman squatted down over a trash heap, looking for something useful (or food). Really terrible.

The traffic was very chaotic. There were auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians everywhere. Some of the vehicles were even going the wrong way down the street. (I saw a lot of this while I was there). The driver honked his horn about every 10 seconds for some reason. We turned in front of cars, we cut people off, and it seemed to me like we took a lot of risks. But there are apparently some rules lurking in what appears to be chaos, because I didn't see many accidents.

The engineering house we were trying to locate was well off the beaten path. We drove down a number of what looked like very narrow alleyways crowded with people. A number of times we had to ask someone for directions, and every time they were happy to help us. In a lot of big cities, you wouldn't have seen such a level of cooperation. But what I am finding here is that despite the crowded conditions, people are still very polite and helpful.

We finally found the engineering house, and it was tucked back in a location that didn't look like it belonged. It was next door to a DHL office. These offices seemed so out of place. Then, just as I was experiencing sensory overload from all of the sights and sounds, I noticed that outside the engineering house was a mimosa tree just like we used to have at home in Oklahoma.

We went in and shook hands with the guys in the office. I am pretty careful with germs, so I have worked out a system if I think I can't wash my hands regularly. I shake hands, open doors, etc. with my right hand only. I eat with my left hand, which I don't use for anything else.

The meeting went well, but I had a hard time concentrating. First off, again I couldn't help but notice the mosquitoes in the room. I have a hard enough time concentrating when there are mosquitoes indoors in the U.S., but they don't carry malaria. My mind also kept wandering back to what all I had seen on the drive over from the hotel. The contrasts were amazing. There was a cluster of very expensive hotels, and just a few blocks away was the worst poverty I have ever seen. We saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

At the engineering house, I started to get some curious stares that would become much more common as we traveled out of Bombay. I asked the general manager at the engineering house if they got many Americans in here. He said "No, I can't say that we do. Why do you ask?" I told him because of the curious way people were looking at me. They wouldn't do it too openly, but as he was showing us around, I noticed the looks. I once turned and looked behind me and saw almost the whole office looking at me.

Practically everyone asked me how I was handling the heat. I mean, it was hot and all, but Texas heat and humidity in the summer gets worse than what I was experiencing. What I grew up with in Oklahoma in the summer (without air conditioning) was worse. In fact, if I closed my eyes (and blocked out the smells and sounds), I could have easily been back in Oklahoma during the summer. But they told me that it gets hotter than this; it's still only March. But the heat didn't bother me; I rarely broke a sweat.

After the meeting, we were taken out back where there was a fabrication shop. It seemed like there were heaps of trash everywhere. Every time the wind changed, I could smell sewage and/or garbage. I got some really curious stares as we walked around back. There were some women sitting around doing something with rope, and then some men were pouring cement. But they all stopped and looked at me as if they had just seen Bigfoot.

Kapil and I went back to the hotel. His wife and mother-in-law were meeting us there for drinks. But we got there first, so we took a walk. It's amazing how quickly the scene changed when we walked away from that hotel. The poverty hits you in the face immediately. I asked Kapil what happens to someone in the slums who has a medical emergency. He said "If you have money, you survive. If not, you don't." I had this horrible vision in my mind of a mother trying to cope with a life-threatening illness from a child, and not being able to do anything about it.

One guy followed us up the street in his auto-rickshaw, wanting us to take a ride with him. But we kept walking. I saw something black in the road that was smashed flat. Kapil told me it was a rat. I saw a buffalo in the road, and a woman walking a monkey. Frequently I saw people urinating in public. (Kapil said that there really aren't a lot of public bathrooms here; I started limiting my liquid intake for that reason).

Cows were everywhere, and there were no fences. I asked Kapil if people frequently hit cows. He jokingly told me that the cows didn't have anything to worry about, because people go to hell for running over cows. I said that in the U.S., if someone hits a cow, the landowner will have a legal problem for not keeping the cows in the fence. But I only saw one dead cow while we were driving around.

We walked back to the hotel, and I met Kapil's mother-in-law. She was a very nice lady; kept telling me I had to come stay with her. I told her I would like that. We visited for a while as we waited for some more of Kapil's friends, who were going to take us north, out of Bombay and into a rural area.

We finally met up with the others, and we headed out of Bombay. It took us a long time to get out of the city, and the sights and sounds were almost too much to absorb. I kept looking out the window, muttering to myself "What the heck was that?" Or, "Did I just see four people on that motorcycle?"

We had a driver who was hired to take us to our destination. I sat up front and tried talking to him, but he didn't speak English. I kept seeing things that were just unbelievable in my experience, so I was constantly snapping pictures. Eventually, we started to get out into some rural areas. Kapil said that those villages in general were self-sufficient; they grow their own food and walk each day to the community well to get their water. I saw a number of women carrying wood, water, and food on their heads.

A lot of the area reminded me of pictures of Africa: Thatched huts and brush fences were very common. And the people – there were people everywhere. At any point in time, there was a constant stream of people walking on the road. A number of times I saw very young children running across 4 lanes of traffic. I wondered – do those parents love their kids so much less than me to risk their lives? Or are they so desperate that they have no choice? Or do they not appreciate the risk?

Traffic was chaotic. There are apparently no rules on the road. There is no such thing as a no passing zone. When the road went down to 2 lanes, we passed people on curves, we passed them on blind hills, we passed people who were in the process of passing someone else – we even passed when someone else was coming. The rule seemed to be – if you can see me, you should be able to get out of my way.

We got to the place we were staying – Khanvel Resort - and unloaded. Again, I was the only Westerner in sight, but I thought I finally saw another one pull up. He had light skin and white hair. Turned out he was an albino Indian. I figured that out when I heard him speaking Indian, and I asked Kapil. He said that the man had a pigment problem. But I would have never thought about the possibility had I not witnessed it. Turns out that there are Indians with much lighter skin than I have.

The mosquitoes were pretty bad, so they came along about dusk and sprayed DDT all over the place. It hung in the air for a long time. I wondered whether all of the food there has DDT residues. Or is it only in animal tissues that it builds up?

I went into my room, and there were many, many mosquitoes inside. But the walls were light-colored, and I committed a mosquito genocide that the mosquitoes will talk about for generations. There were bodies everywhere – all over the floor, on the wall, on the curtains. I killed at least 100 in my room alone. But I knew I couldn't kill them all. So I assumed that I would be bitten during the night. There were also spiders in the room. I realized that I didn't know the first thing about the spiders here. If I was bitten, would I die a slow and horrible death? No idea. So I killed them all just to be safe.

After the mass mosquito murder, we all went down for dinner. The talk turned to the man-eating leopards in the area. Hmm. Have to remember not to answer my door if I hear something outside. It also hit me that India has cobras, so I asked about that. After giving it some thought, it was decided that there were none in this area. I would have felt a lot better if the answer had been an immediate "No."

I went back to my room earlier than the rest to start writing. I turned on the TV out of curiosity, and saw the Friday night variety shows – Indian style. I found a lot of humor in them. So much singing and dancing, but I couldn't make sense out of any of it. Then, as I was searching through the channels, I ran across SpongeBob. Reminds me of the first time I turned on a radio in Germany to hear some German music. Snoop Doggy Dog was what I got.


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