Archive for August, 2005

I am drinking over-priced Indian red wine from the mini-bar with left-over room service on the couch. I’ve slept about 14 of the last 24 hours, I eat all my meals at various 5 star hotels around town, and Lost in Translation is on TV.

I always thought the movie was funny and oddly like a travel documentary, but it is even more surreal when I am here in the Far East, watching it from a hotel room not much unlike the one they stay in. Its like seeing my life and wondering how I have not caved under the irreality of it all.

Joseph Conrad is one of my favorite authors. His self-proclaimed task in life was “By the power of the written word, before all, to make you SEE.”

That isn’t my task in life, but I understand it and want for it as well. I have said before “Science will put an astronaut on the moon, but only a book can send a janitor.” I think there is some magic to writing, because, when done well, it can make you feel something that perhaps your own life will never afford.

If you asked me what one simple thing could help us make the world a better place, I would reply, “Read a book.” In our lives of increasing specialization, we don’t know how to help each other, because we don’t understand each other. A book, written well, can help us see….it can move us to India.

Sadly, I don’t think I can write that well….or at least I don’t have the time to devote to it. People at the office ask me about India, people at home want to know too……what the hell is going on over there?? What are you doing? What’s it like?

I was out at a goodbye dinner the other night with all the other Americans. We were at one of the nicest restaurants in Delhi, passing the normal Indian amount of death, disease, and deformity in the taxi on the way.

We all took millions of pictures and commented on what a surreal experience this is….and someone said, “Yeah, its like Real World Delhi….all we lack are the confessionals where we all talk about how much we secretly hate each other. If only our company knew how much of our per diem is spent on alcohol and 5 star dining.” And it is so true.

This whole thing is like one long soap opera disconnect from real life. Except in my case…where I’ve done it so often that it actually IS my life.

So Lost in Translation is actually an immensely sad movie. I feel like both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson…both like a lost young traveler and a beaten old man.

Hmm….so as I live out my own version of the Real World India bouncing from one 5 star hotel to the next, I am reminded of Conrad, of poverty, of our inability to understand each other, and of my own shortcomings. I am thinking of you.

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I admit I love to be amused. I don’t use the words “happy” or “fun” because those are harder to come by and mean different things to me than most people. I just like to be…..well, amused….you know, slightly entertained.

Life in India is certainly amusing, even entertaining. So often I get that grand, far off, once-in-a-lifetime feeling…..even when I’m being swindled for money or waiting an hour for something that would’ve been automatic back home…I just feel, at that moment, I’ve seen something I’ll never see again.

Like last weekend:

We left 3 hours late after 2 hours sleep on a 5 hour trip that took 12.

The wrong car came. The air conditioner broke halfway there and it was 100 degrees. The reservation we had at the hotel got somehow cancelled and it was Indian Independence Day weekend, which meant there were no rooms available anywhere.

So we’re 6 hours into a 5 hour trip and the Indian guy loses his iPod at a small village and they are calling around frantically to find a hotel to sleep in. The only thing worse than 7 people for 12 hours in a car with a broken air conditioner is then having to sleep in the damned car too.

Its late, and the girls are all complaining and I’m telling the driver to pull over and get me some beer, all sweaty and shit…..I couldn’t take it anymore. If I was going to put up with whiney women and sleeping in a cramped car when its 100 degrees trying to remind myself that its “all part of the experience”…..I need to drink.

We finally found a spot that said they had a room……one room, for all 7 of us. Fine, we’ll take it….and then there was no water in the bathroom.

So they came out and installed a hot water heater and we went to dinner (which was pretty decent). I went to bed early because I’d been drinking earlier and was asleep when they got home.

So Meenal was using the bathroom and the hot water heater breaks, and scorching hot water starts gushing out. I am asleep and only vaguely aware of what is going on.

By the time they finally get me up, my mattress-on-the-floor is almost floating and the entire room is ankle deep in water. A few more minutes and I would’ve drowned in my sleep.

So we now have like 12 Indians running in and out of our room all waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And, of course, we tell them how to fix it and… everything in India…it never really happens just the way you want.

There is no other room for us to stay in….so they are mopping up the one we almost drowned in. There was so much water in it they used up all the towels and most of the sheets at the resort trying to get it dry.

But we needed the sheets, especially when they brought in the new mattresses and dragged them over the still wet floor. Now we had two sets of wet mattresses and needed lots of blankets and more sheets to make sure we weren’t sleeping in a damp bed.

But they couldn’t get the number of sheets and blankets right. 4 mattresses = 4 sets of sheets right???? Not in India.

So we just went to sleep….and at this point we were all loopy and wondering what else could possibly go wrong.

Just at that moment, when I was expecting the roof to cave in…..we hear someone throwing up in the bathroom. One of the Indian girls had gotten sick off something we’d eaten at a rest stop.

Of course, the night did end. We all slept on damp mattresses and persevered to find amusement another day.

The rest of the weekend turned out really well. The next day we went back to the village where the guy thought he lost his iPod, which I thought was a fools errand….after all what are the chances of finding a lost iPod in the foothills of the Himilaya…..but he found it.

He asked around the village and some kid had picked it up and given it to his Dad because he thought it was a pack of cigarettes. The Dad actually had no idea what it was either, so he just returned it….and we bought the kid all the candy and chocolates in the town.

And then we got drunk down by the river.

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Hmm….I haven’t said anything in a week so I should give an update. I am actually going to write a great story about the Black Taj Mahal when I get around to it….but I’m going to do a bunch of great stuff when I get around to it. I won’t hold my breath.

So life as an expat is a lot like life at summer camp. At camp you meet a bunch of new people and do everything together because you don’t know anyone else….it is the same here. We stay in a cabin too…its a just a 5 star cabin with a spa and pool….although I guess you had a pool at camp too.

At camp you get poison ivy; in India we get malaria. At camp you find a dead rat in the woods; in India you find dead rats in the streets. Same same….but different, except for money. As an expat you get paid while at camp you pay. I guess that is altogether different….not same same a bit….but someone always pays still. We know that.

A lot of people have left this week to go back to the real world. It is sad to see people go cause you know what they’re going back to. Our company just announced all these benefit changes (where of course we get the shaft) and people are angry back in the US.

I see it from such a different perspective over here. They see benefit cuts as a profit hungry Corporation looking to transfer costs to us while they put it in their pockets. People are mad…..but they get over it eventually and its back to business as usual.

There is a hiring freeze in the US while they’re bringing on people in boatloads over here in India. A coworker told me (which could be all bullshit), that we will have 3000 employees in India by the end of the year…triple the number we have now.

And the Indians are smart too, at least in their own way. The average Indian in one of these oursourced IT jobs makes about one fifth what we make. We aren’t 5 times as productive as they are.

I’m working with new hires mostly. They suck….but in 6 months they’ll be just as far along as someone at home….they’ll just cost a fifth as much.

So the benefit cuts that seem so selfish and out of the blue at home make perfect sense to me. Not only do they want to hire people faster here…..they want people in the US to quit faster as well.

It isn’t enough to hire people in India and let attrition and a hiring freeze in the US reduce American headcount……they want to speed it along….so they cut the benefits.

I say “Oh Well”. I knew it was coming anyway. People back home in Atlanta know it too….they just thought it was way off….”a few years” they always say. A few years is today. Dust off your resumes….or learn to speak Hindi.

So life as an expat is good overall. We are living the high life. It is what’s happening back in Atlanta that is killing me. It is sad.

Of course I am just guessing. I could be wrong. It happens every once in a while.

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Tonight it rained in Delhi. In the US we take so much for granted that is a luxury in other places… drainage, like a constant supply of electricity….like paved roads….like traffic laws. Wow, that’s crazy. The power just went out as I was writing this……ok. It just came back on.

So the town flooded. My feet were wet in the front seat on the way home as water came up through the floorboard. People were everywhere…wet, dirty. I saw someone’s bed actually on the side of the road. There were three of them and people were just lying there….they weren’t even beds..they were like chairs you could lie in. George in the back seat said he saw a dead person today.

From the 6th floor of my swanky office building I can see a migrant worker camp maybe 50 yards away behind a dull cement wall. Its like a concentration camp. Low square huts of baked clay brick with rusted tin corrugated roofs….bricks on top to keep the roofs from blowing away. People, all dirty and skinny, moving about, carrying buckets of water from a dirty pool.

Even from the 6th floor you can see rats muddling about behind the huts, scavenging through the trash. The rats look in better shape than the people to be honest with you. I’m sipping a cappucino and discussing cross-cultural business challenges while I’ve got a virtual time warp going on outside. They are living some 2000 years in the past….minus the rusted tin roofs…and hopefully the rats aren’t carrying the plague.

And now I’m back at my 5 star hotel eating a 10 dollar hamburger in a country where cows are sacred. Its a damn good hamburger too….room service rocks.

There are cows all over the roads in India. They are usually white, with humps on the back like camels. In Atlanta, there are always traffic jams because of car wrecks or construction. In India, its a herd of cows blocking traffic….and everyone just goes around them.

And the cows just sit there….unphazed by the 1500 pound cars barreling at them at 50 miles an hour. They don’t even move. Maybe they ARE gods and know something we don’t. If you are a cow, why lounge on the cement road when you could lounge on the side of the road….which is probably nearer to grass and less likely to get you killed??

So, actually, all the cows are a problem. The city is overrun by cattle. There is a reward of approximately 50 dollars for rounding up a cow in south Delhi.

I really wanted to go do it for kicks…but everyone from the office thought I was nuts….and I’ve been sort of sick anyway. I mean really….how priceless would a check be from the Indian govt paid for rounding up cattle in the city???? Talk about a great bar story!!!

So India is crazy anyway. I saw a guy washing a plant in my office on Friday. Is there really so little to do?? There are three people who loiter in the coffee station….I assume one is paid to make coffee and tend the supplies. But what the hell do the other two do? Stand there…..that’s all I can work out.

There is a person on my floor at work whose sole job is tend office supplies. That’s all anyone can figure out he does. So I asked him for some stuff, including post-it notes and some highlighters. I worked for a whole week and got nothing. The dude gives me like one pen (which I immediately lose) and a notebook. I could’ve borrowed that off the person that sits beside me.

I’ve joked that I came to India to outsource my own job. So I was helping this guy…who has exactly the same job as me (and they know it)… 30 minutes later I solved his problem and said, “Wow….that was really tiring. I think I’m going to go get a cup of coffee now.”

No shit….the dude goes, “Please sir, let me get that coffee for you. How do you take it…cream, sugar???” I told him to fucking sit down and do his work.

I’ll go ahead and tell you…….I’m not fucking getting coffee for anyone at the office….even if the Pope visits. That dude has lost his mind.

I admit I’m having some flashbacks to Taiwan. The irreality of it all got to me after my year was up. Of course, in this case I will not have to live in an apartment with a crazy person like I did there so I think I will survive.

But it is so weird sometimes…..everything….like the whole day.

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