Tuesday, January 18, 2011

India - First impressions

Working for an international company definitely has its perks, and getting to travel for free is one of them. I've been working on a project for several months now, helping our organization select icons and streamline the GUI of a recently purchased application, and in October, the powers-that-be determined it just might be best if I made the trek overseas to work directly with the development team. So I endured the pain of 11 recommended immunizations, loaded up on highly potent insect repellent and popped a sleeping pill before the 20 hours of flight. I'd had several colleagues visit our sister office here in Chennai, and so I felt pretty prepared for what I was about to experience. Or so I thought. One thing that I'm beginning to notice is that India is a city of contrasts. For every beautiful and amazing thing, there is something equally "not-beautiful" to balance it out. So this first entry will simply be a breakdown of my many impressions and observations -- the good and the bad.

The Good

The people: People in Chennai are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Always smiling and extremely polite. Unfortunately, I can't understand them the first time they say anything because they talk three times faster than most Americans, and some of their accents are extremely thick. But they're more than happy to repeat themselves at the same rapid speed each time. Quite often I find myself nodding and pretending that I understand what the heck they just said.

Customer service: The folks here give the word new meaning. Your drink is never empty, doors are opened for you, and they will practically take bags out of your hands to help you carry them to your car. Also, everywhere I go, I see numerous forces in place to protect our personal safety. At first I was a little surprised to see my driver stop at the metal gates surrounding the perimeter of the hotel and turn the car off, and even more so when five armed guards popped the hood, opened the trunk and circled the car with their dogs, but it's become a routine procedure now. They're very efficient. And I'm learning to just hand over my computer bag and purse at the entrance of the front door so that it can be placed on the scanner belt, before I walk though the metal detectors and enter the tiny private area for my pat down.

The food: This is kind of a love/hate thing for most people. I LOVE Indian food, so I've been in heaven since I landed. One of my colleagues and his wife took me to a fantastic restaurant the first night, and I was blown away by the ornate decor, the beautiful music and the attention to every little detail.

The clothing: Every Indian woman I've seen here (with the exception of hotel staff) wear the most beautiful saris I've ever seen. The men all wear Western clothes, but every female over the age of 12 seems to wear floor length, colorful, flowing outfits with beautiful shawls and scarves. Every day. I'm a little jealous. The beauty of their clothing is so much more glamorous than anything I've ever seen in the states. And if I could just live a day with the amazingly full and shiny hair they all have, I'd never cut my hair again.

Personal drivers: I'm grateful my company has assigned me a personal driver to take me to and from the hotel. When I first left the airport, I felt like a celebrity. As I walked down the narrow pathway surrounded by more people than I've ever seen in my life, I found my name on one of the tiny little signs all the drivers held, and since then, I have had personal service anywhere I needed to go. I get to the office about 9:00 in the morning, and because they all work extremely long hours, I'm here about 12 hours a day. And my driver just sits in the car ALL DAY and waits for me. But I'm so glad to have him. Buses are not air conditioned, and they're crammed to capacity (even people hanging on outside), taxis consist of open-air motorized rickshaws that seat about two people confortably. And the traffic here is CRAZY. Every day I feel like I'm going to die. More on that later.

Jasmine: Some restaurants give you beautifully fragrant flowers, which you can wrap around your wrist or wear in your hair. I received this fresh jasmine at the first restaurant we went to.

The Not-So-Good Stuff

Dirty: A friend warned me about wearing anything white here, and I now understand why. India is pretty dirty. There's trash everywhere on the streets and in short, you just feel like you want to take a shower all the time. If you're OCD about cleanliness, you won't like it here.

The water: You hear everyone say it. Don't drink the water, and they're not lying. You will regret it like you've never regretted anything. I was given medication to take two days prior to the trip and every morning thereafter to prevent sickness, dehydration and basically, the runs. So it's strictly bottled water only -- and OPEN IT YOURSELF. Some places fill water bottles with tap water, so it's the only way you can be sure it's safe. I'm using bottled water for everything including brushing my teeth, and I can't open my mouth in the shower. That took some practice.

Mosquitoes: Are everywhere. In the car, in the offices (not as bad, but I still see them), even in the elevators. So I have to cover myself from head to toe in bug cream and spray my clothes every morning with industrial-strength spray. At the office here, they have moth ball in the sinks, I guess to prevent them from coming up through the drains. And if you're wondering what smells like Deep-Woods Off . .. that would be me.

Poverty: The majority of India is literally a slum. And it's very sad to see the conditions that millions and millions of people live in. Shacks and make-shift homes made of sticks and mud, (you can see some below from my view from the hotel) laundry and blankets on the roof to cover the holes, people washing their clothes in the muddy stream, sick and starving animals, kids with no shoes. There's no way you can come here and not realize the wealth and prosperity our country offers and develop a greater sense of appreciation for being blessed to live where we do.

Animals in the street: It's pretty common to see all kinds of animals roaming the streets; dogs, cows and goats are what I notice the most. Sadly, they all look sick and malnourished, and I understand now why I was encouraged to get rabies shots.

Toilet paper: In short, there is none at the office.Paper towels only. Good times. The hotel is plentiful, though. :)

Traffic: I could write a book about this topic. I'm amazed no one crashes here because there don't seem to be any traffic rules as we know them. There are no lines in the road, no traffic lights, no speed limit, and the streets are LITERALLY crowded with cars, buses, mopeds, bicyclists and pedestrians, swerving in and out in all directions, barely missing each other. It's insane! And if it weren't bad enough that no one wears helmets, get this. Mopeds aren't ridden by just one person; there's often two, three or four people on them. Entire families. Dad, mom, a child, and a baby in the mom's arms. Yes, babies. Car seats are non-existent. It's pretty scary to see. I'm recording video of this because you truly have to see it for yourself. That will come later.

Different beliefs regarding modesty: I've seen things outside my hotel window that you never want to see. Such as parents stopping alongside the road so their child can relieve himself. And I don't mean going "number 1". That was interesting, given that this kid was at least 9 years old. I could have done without that.

Smells: Your senses go on high alert here. And if you're sensitive to offensive odors, this might not be the place for you. I won't be gross, but smells come from all over, a high combination of pungent spices, landfill waste, exhaust and the result of hot, humid temperatures and lack of deodorant.
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That's it for now. . . more to come later, as I consolidate some more pictures and video. :)