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.



Blogger clee said...

I've never been to India, but I think I know what you mean about the food. I've had lots of other vegetarian food. Some of it was quite good as a side dish or an occasional meal, but I couldn't live on it. They are not quite satisfying in the way an Indian vegetarian meal is.

11:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

I really appreciate this post, and hope others read it too. I come from India and am happy to live in Canada now, but the severity of the poverty still really weighs on me. How much energy would be required so that those people have shelter, water and food? I'm sure all my Canadian neighbors would agree that those people (and the poor of S.E. Asia, China, Africa, etc.!) have the right to basic shelter, food and water. But if that were to happen, surely we in the West would need to give up some natural resources - there is only so much energy to go around.

Seeing the poverty like that, and sheer number of people of who live in 3rd world slums - I can only come back to the idea that this world is truly overpopulated. If every person has the right to a comfortable life - then there are simply too many of us. But what to do?

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

An Indian co-worker of mine has mentioned that when a good song is on the radio it is not unusual to honk the horn along with the song. That may explain at least some of the honking you encountered.

10:28 AM  
Blogger clee said...

On eating with your left hand, I'm a bit surprised that Kapil didn't warn you against that. Look at the second item in:
While strictly speaking you are doing the sanitary thing, you may give the impression of doing just the opposite.

11:14 AM  
Blogger LETs THINk said...

I am from Bihar, India and read your blog and your experiences in India and your detailed views on locals to poverty state was one of the most backward state in India but now its one of the most developing state in India and become role model for many states in India. Changes can be brought if political system and locals wants it and here i saw that. Also, everything has to exist in contrast in the world to be appreciated else how one from developed nation can understand what poverty looks like in real in developing nations. In the villages in Eastern India few people eat alive rats because they can't afford food and when i knew that I shivered as how much people suffer..still like day and night things have to be in sharp contrast to be respected and understand how much we are blessed and how much sufferings many other suffer.. your blogs are interesting..

7:26 AM  

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