Thursday, March 04, 2004
  Hello! I'm about to go on a trip to India, and I figured this was as good a time as any to start a blog about my trip. So far, I've prepared for the trip by getting my immunizations (Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Tetanus, Polio and MMR), getting my visa, and making a list of things that I want to bring with me. I'm planning on bringing our digital camera so there should be lots of pictures from the trip as well.

On my way out, I'll be flying through Cincinnati and Paris. It's going to be quite a trip from door to door. I leave Monday morning, and I think I arrive Tuesday night. The hotel is sending a car to pick me up, so I'll be one of those people whose name is on those placards that the drivers carry. I guess I need to convert some money to Rupees before I go so I can at least tip the driver. 
Wednesday, March 10, 2004
Three flights, three movies (Something's Got to Give, Stuck on You, and Master and Commander), progressively harder seats and ever more dubious meals later, I've finally arrived in India. It was about 25 hours from door to door. It would have been 23 hours, but we were stuck on the ground with equipment problems in Paris for almost two hours. I think the thing that bothered me the most about the flight from Paris to New Delhi was the fact that we were sprayed down for insects. The flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with bottles of insect fogger. Aren't you supposed to set those things going and LEAVE so that you're not inhaling insect poison?

The guy from the hotel who came to the airport to pick me up was fortunately still waiting for me, even though we arrived late. It's the first time I've been greeted at an airport by someone holding a sign with my name. The drive to the hotel was uneventful. The traffic can be scary, but nothing surprising. The roads seemed barely paved, and of course no one paid any attention to lanes. I've heard that about a number of places, and seen it in Taiwan, but the driving here is considerably more dangerous. What was nice to see was the cows in the road. They looked so unperturbed by everything going on around them.

The hotel is really nice. The room is big. The entryway and bathroom are tiled in black marble. Just two things threw me off -- the toilet wouldn't stop flushing until I fiddled with the flush button (think torrents of water flowing through the toilet bowl for five minutes), and this place doesn't provide guests with an iron. I suppose when you stay in a fancy schmancy hotel, you're supposed to ask for your clothes to be pressed. Is it that much to ask for an iron and ironing board? I considered going to work wrinkled, but instead I called for 3 AM emergency clothes pressing.

That's it for tonight. I'm one day behind in my blogging. Tomorrow, I'll talk about how I got lost today. 
We got lost. When I was heading from the office back to the hotel yesterday, I called downstairs to the person who arranges transportation for Sapient. I said I needed a cab to go to the Grand Hotel, New Delhi. He said to come on downstairs, and he found a cab for me. He told the driver where I was headed, and said I could get in.

It was only after we were on the road that I realized that my driver didn't understand a single bit of English. Further, he didn't seem to know where he was going. At the first major intersection, he asked a question and pointed both left and right. Did he want to know which was the right way to go? Was he asking my preference? I had no idea. I thought I recognized the intersection from my morning commute, and I pointed to the right. He headed down that way, and instantly we were on a road that I had never been on. The problem was, I couldn't explain that to the driver.

We continued driving along this road for about a half hour, and I kept on hoping that the driver actually knew where he was going. Maybe we were just taking an alternate route. I figured at the very least he might stop at a large hotel or store where there are English speaking people that could translate for us. No, he kept driving.

Eventually, we just came to a stop in the dirt shoulder beside the road (all of these roads have dirt shoulders). He motioned to me that I should stay in the car and said something I didn't understand. He got out and went to talk to someone. He got back in and we continued driving. I found a piece of paper that had the name and address of the hotel in my bag and gave it to the driver. The next time we stopped, he took the paper with him. This was encouraging. We stopped one more time for directions and finally turned onto a street that I recognized.

When we finally pulled up to the hotel, the driver did say one word in English. He said "sorry".

I don't think I was exactly worried about being lost. It was more that I was just a bit nervous. The guy did seem to genuinely be trying to get me back to the hotel, but then again, I wasn't sure I was reading him right. For some reason, I was thinking of the advice given in the Frommer's Guide to India: if we got in an accident, I should leave the scene as quickly as possible -- especially if it involved injury to a person or cow. I think the theory is that you don't want to get lynched. I couldn't imagine what I would do wandering around by the side of the road though.

Well that was my little adventure for the day. Nothing quite so exciting today. I just found a mosquito in the car that took me to work today. I swatted it a couple of times with a newspaper, but it was stuck in a corner. The driver eventually opened the window to let it out. 
Thursday, March 11, 2004
Last night, the driver had to ask for directions to find the hotel again. I wouldn't say we were lost this time, since I at least recognized the route we took. It's strange that the driver didn't know where to go. The other cab drivers had given him directions. I've been told that there are cab drivers who have never been to Delhi (the Sapient office is in Gurgaon, which is about 20-30 minutes away).

Dinner last night was the grilled sole delivered to the room with fries, bread and a bit of salad. It wasn't too bad. I've been trying to be conservative about my selection of food to avoid stomach problems. It seems to be working okay, though I've felt a little nauseous this morning. I blame the DEET-based insect repellant I'm using. I know from past experience that ingesting DEET makes me (and probably most people) nauseous. It wasn't intentional, but it's possible that in applying the lotion to my face, I ended up with some residue on my hands, even after washing them.

On the other hand, it could be something else completely.

I've made plans for doing some sightseeing this weekend. Tomorrow will be Agra, where I should be able to see the Taj Mahal, Fort Agra and a few other sights. Sapient has a travel agent who is arranging for a driver and a guide. Agra is only 200 km away, but with traffic this is going to take four hours each direction. I was advised to not buy a miniature of the Taj as a souvenir. It's viewed as a bit ominous to have a miniature of a tomb in your home. In all, the trip is going to take most of the day, so I want to do it tomorrow instead of Sunday.

On Sunday, I'll wander around Delhi. A lot of the shops might be closed, but it also means that I'll be able to avoid some of the crowds. Vivek and Abhishek might be showing me around. We still have to decide if we can meet up. 
Friday, March 12, 2004
I have a new cab update. Today, the driver knew where the hotel was and he got me there without needing to ask directions (finally!). I even dozed in the car on the trip back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there were still a few things to bother me. The biggest problem was that this car had mosquitos. I have no idea what was going on with that car, but there were 4-5 mosquitos in there. I was wearing long sleeves and long pants, so I had only my face and hands exposed for biting. Luckily, I had my insect repellant with me, and I quickly put some on. I wasn't going to be able to swat or shoo away all of those mosquitos. It seems to have worked -- no bites.

The other thing that happened is that we made a stop on the way back to the hotel. We cut across a pretty busy road towards a gas station, but instead of stopping there, we stopped at a small shack next to it where two young men were sitting on a bench eating something. The driver got out and walked over to talk to them. I was thinking "what's going on?". I guess the taxi just needed air in the tires. I have no idea if the driver just stops for air on every trip, or that he noticed something particular during the drive, but that was just strange.

At work today, I forgot to bring my laptop charger. I had an extra battery, but that would give me a total of only five hours of computer time before I would run out of power. I spent the day putting the computer into hibernation mode whenever I could, and the two batteries did end up lasting me all day. What I don't understand is why I couldn't find another Sony power supply -- we did standardize on this laptop throughout the company, but I guess none of these have made it to India yet.

Dinner tonight is going to be a veggie burger. I've been considering the steak that is on the room service menu, but it just seems rude to order, given that cows are regarded highly here. I expect that they wouldn't have put it on the menu if they had a problem with people ordering it, but it still feels weird. The cows here definitely go where they want, do what they please. I saw one just standing in the middle of a busy intersection on top of an island. It was just watching the day go by.

I was considering skipping dinner. Maybe my stomach is still on Pacific time, but I wasn't hungry when dinner came around. It's also possible that the samosas that we ordered as a snack filled me more than I expected. Shreeraj asked me if the samosa was too spicy, and at first it confused me because it was not at all spicy (in the sense of being too hot), but I then realized that he just meant "full of spices". They really do put in a lot more of each spice here, which makes the food a lot more flavorful. It can get a little overwhelming sometimes (for both one's taste buds and digestive system), but it's been good.

My trip to Agra tomorrow morning has been arranged. I'm getting a car and driver to take me there, and a guide to show me around. The two together comes to about 6,200 rupees, or about $137. Given that this starts tomorrow at 7am and I'll be with them until around 9pm, the price doesn't seem too bad. The problem today was how I could get 6,200 rupees to prepay for the package. I went to the ATM and tried to withdraw the full amount, but ATMs here dispense only 40 bills at a time, and this ATM had only 100 rupee notes. Two withdrawals later I had a thick sheaf of 62 bills, which I gave to the Sapient travel agent. It's almost like withdrawing money from the ATM in $1 increments.

Well, my food just arrived. I ordered the veggie burger. The menu said vegetable burger. The guy who took my order read back "vegetable sandwich". It's a vegetable sandwich, not a veggie burger. I'm wondering if it's safe enough to eat. The CDC recommends against any raw vegetables during my trip as they may have been cut with a wet knife, and the water here is definitely unsafe. I can't imagine that as nice as this hotel is, that they wash their kitchen knives in purified water. Maybe I'll just have the fries. 
Saturday, March 13, 2004
Yesterday was a fascinating but ultimately exhausting day. I got up at 6:15 to get ready for my tour of Agra. We were going to visit the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, and Sikandra. I'll explain what each of them are in a bit. Agra is about 200 km from Delhi, and it was going to take between 3.5 and 4 hours to get there. We stopped once on the way down to use the restroom and get some tea. There was a giftshop there, and a lot of other tourists -- a bus stopped there while we were having our tea.

We ended up in a car accident on the way to Agra. We were following another car too closely and we ended up hitting him and being hit from behind. A number of people gathered to see what would happen, and I decided now was not the time to leave the scene (in spite of what Frommer's says). The three drivers talked things over, and we continued on our way.

Our first stop was Sikandra, which is the tomb of the Mughal (of Mongol) ruler Akbar. It was Akbar's grandson who would eventually build the Taj. The outer walls of the compound enclose large grassy fields with trees, deer, and monkeys. In the center of the area is the actual tomb, which we got to see. To enter the inner building, one needed to remove ones shoes. Someone was sitting there willing to watch over our shoes for about 10 rupees. I figured it was well worthwhile to pay him to ensure we would have our shoes for the rest of our trip.

The second stop was Fatehpur Sikri. Well into Akbar's rule, he found that he was still childless. A Sufi saint predicted that he would soon have a son, and Akbar built the city in his honor, and moved the capitol there. The city was inhabited for only 14 years because of water shortages. According to my guide, they would transport water there in jugs carried on people's heads. I'm surprised they lasted 14 years with that form of water transport. While the entire city is built in red sandstone, one small area is built in white marble. It's the tomb of the Sufi saint, and many pilgrims continue to visit it.

We had lunch at a hotel in Agra. I asked the guide to order for me, even though I probably could have managed it myself. It turned out to be a mistake because I wasn't in the mood for the fried potato balls in curry and yogurt, nor the chunks of cheese in a pea and gravy sauce. Neither would have been what I would have ordered for myself, but then again I didn't give my guide much direction in what I did or didn't like to eat.

We went on to the Taj Mahal, which is not a disappointment in any sense. One might expect it to be overhyped, but it really amazing. It's one of the only buildings that hasn't been looted for the precious gems that are inlayed into the white marble. My guide was quick to point out that Pakistan failed to bomb it, even though they tried. No pictures were allowed inside the Taj, but I have several of the outside. We also skipped going to the mosque that is part of the Taj. The guide said there was nothing to see there. I think my guide was a little miffed at this point because he was stopped at the security gate and the guards refused to allow him to carry in his cell phone. He was muttering something about having come there for as a guide 50 years and being an officially sanctioned guide (and not just some local), etc. I'm pretty sure that when he first introduced himself, he had been a guide for 40 years.

My guide then suggested that we go to a marble engraving factory where I could see the same techniques that were used on the Taj in use today. It was a pretty obvious ploy to bring me to a shop where he would get kickbacks on purchases. When I initially refused, he said that people would ask how I could go all the way to Agra and not see how people carve marble. I relented (even though I knew I would regret it), and after seeing someone work on carving marble for all of 30 seconds, the guide ushered me into a big gift shop. I walked around a bit, watching some other tourists dutifully buy their miniature marble Taj Mahal, or some kind of carved plate, and then told him that I wasn't going to buy anything.

We went to Agra Fort at that point, which was also built by Akbar. When we got there, I was tired, and my guide didn't seem into things, so we decided to skip the experience. We started to head back to Delhi. We stopped at a shop where my guide could pick up his favorite sweets, which he gets whenever he goes to Agra. I was sitting in the car waiting while a young girl persistently knocked at the car window and asked for food.

We made it back to the hotel at 8pm, and I ended up sleeping early. 
Sunday, March 14, 2004
Yesterday, I stayed in the hotel room all day instead of going out to Delhi to see the city. I knew that by doing so, I was losing what is probably my only chance to see some of the more local sights and to mix in with the crowds of Delhi. I think it was Saturday's activities that tired me too much, and I just felt like staying in.

I ended up sorting through the pictures that I've taken so far, and I think I've learned something in the process: I need to do a better job of framing the picture when I take it in the first place. Most of the pictures I took needed improvement in how it was framed, and how much the subject filled the picture. It was nothing that a bit of cropping wouldn't fix, but I end up wasting pixels that way.

Breakfast yesterday was the hotel's American Breakfast: milk, juice, toast, pastries, cereal, eggs, potatoes, sausage, bacon, and a choice of tea or coffee. I knew I wasn't going to eat all of it. I ordered the orange juice, instead of the other two choices of watermelon and pineapple. I asked for corn flakes. I asked for my eggs to be scrambled. And I ordered tea over coffee. When the breakfast came, I knew I wouldn't be eating much of it. The sausage and bacon were served together, mixed up in a bowl. The eggs looked watery and undercooked. In the end, the sausage and bacon did taste strange, and I skipped them for the most part. I also had only a bit of the eggs. I ate the toast, dry cereal and the juice and tea. I supplemented my breakfast with a granola bar.

For lunch, I opened my bag of peanuts that I brought with me, and I had some of them. No, I didn't eat the whole bag. Strangely, I wasn't that hungry until dinner.

Having been in my room the whole day (I turned away housekeeping, asking only for some more water), I decided I should finally try one of the hotel restaurants and get out of the room. I picked the Japanese Yakitori restaurant among the choices (which also include a buffet, a Tandoori restaurant, a contemporary European restaurant, and a bar). I went downstairs and found the restaurant. They're having a special this month and next -- they're promoting the addition of sushi to the menu. No thank you, I'll stick to the rest of the menu.

I ordered two skewers of Shitake mushrooms stuffed with chicken, and some oshitashi (spinach that has been blanched and served cold with some sesame seeds). I also ordered the soba and some teriyaki chicken when the waitress indicated that it was not going to be anywhere near enough food. I said I would order more if I was still hungry. Everything was pretty good. The spinach was the first vegetable I've had this trip which hasn't been cooked into a curry-like sauce. Because I'm avoiding uncooked vegetables, I wavered on the raw green onions that came with the soba, but I ended up eating them. Other people in the restaurant were ordering the sushi. They are certainly braver than I am.

I came back to the hotel room and watched Lost in Translation. A lot of the movie is about conveying the sense of displacement one has while traveling to a foreign country, and that feeling is something very familiar on this trip. Like the characters in the movie, I find myself watching other people a lot, and there is a quietness that surrounds you when most people around you don't speak your language natively. Indians learn English from the time they enter kindergarten, and I've found a wide range of ability. Hm. In thinking about it, I don't think it's even a matter of language. I had the same sense of displacement during a business trip to London. It's just a matter of not knowing anyone, and having a different cultural frame of reference. Anyway, go see the movie if you want a sense of traveling to a foreign country when you're not there for vacation. There has been no Scarlett Johanssen here, and I certainly haven't dealt with the same hard-living young Japanese that Bill Murray dealt with, but there is something familiar in the movie. 
Monday, March 15, 2004
This morning I sent in my clothes for laundry. When I was packing to come out here, someone told me that I didn't have to pack enough clothes for the entire trip (which would have required a second bag). Instead, I should plan on having some laundry done. I planned on sending things in yesterday, but after I put everything together and filled out the requisite form, I noticed some small print on the request -- there is a 100% surcharge for laundry done on Sundays beyond the normal price. I saved it for this morning.

I got a ride from a hotel driver to work again. The car seemed positively huge as compared to the one that drove me to Agra on Saturday. The car on Saturday is called an Indica, and it's made by Suzuki (I think). I don't remember what I rode in this morning, but it was probably about the size of a Civic. It just seemed large as today's driver tried to squeeze past various trucks and motorcycles. My driver to Agra was much more aggressive, and I guess that after seven hours of it on Saturday, I got used to it.

When I went to pay for lunch at Sapient's cafeteria, the guy at the cashier asked for another 10 rupee note. I couldn't figure out why he wanted another bill. The price on the wall clearly said it was 30 rupees for the vegetarian Indian buffet (which is what I gave him) -- did he think I wanted something different? It turns out he wanted to exchange one of the three bills I gave him. They warned me about this in the Frommer's Guide. People will refuse bills that are too worn, and it's up to me to do the same thing. Now what am I going to do with this ratty 10 rupee note?

I'm still at work now, and it's 11 pm. Those of us who are still here have ordered dinner. I think it's pizza from Pizza Hut. What I don't know is what kind of pizza we're getting. The menu lists such things as the Aloo Attack (potato wedges, crisp onions, green chillies and cheese) and Supreme Tandoori (chicken tandoori, chicken hot 'n' spicy, chicken tikka, chicken plain and cheese). I can't wait to see what arrives. 
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
We were at work late again tonight, and for the second night in a row, we had pizza. Last night I was wondering what the Indian take on pizza would be like, and it wasn't anything particularly strange. The only strange thing was that the vegetarian pizza had baby corn on it. I don't think I've ever seen baby corn on a pizza before.

A little after we were done eating, the custodial staff of the building came by. In LA, this tends to just be two or three people who walk around and empty out the trashcans. Here, a swarm of eight or nine people showed up. They wiped down all the tables, dusted everything, polished the computer screens, cleaned out the trash, and picked up around the room. All of this was under the watchful eye of two uniformed men whose shirts had epaulettes. They looked very official and watched over the custodial staff. I don't know if they were making sure the staff was doing a good job, or if they were making sure nothing unseemly happened. I didn't try asking them.

This afternoon I went out on to the balcony to talk with a friend that I hadn't seen in a long time. As we were talking, we were looking out over the city and I noticed a couple of large birds flying nearby. I was told they're eagles, and if you're not careful, they'll swoop down and grab your food. I'd really like to see that. I'll have to see if I can get some pictures of them flying around.

I've been really struggling with what (if anything) I should buy while I'm here in India. So far the only things I've spent money on are food, transportation, sightseeing and tips. That leaves me with nothing to show from this trip except for the pictures I've taken. I don't even have an "I went all the way to Delhi and all I got was this stupid T-shirt" shirt. So I think I've finally decided what I want to buy: saffron. Saffron is pretty expensive. It consists of the pistils of a saffron flower and each strand has to be hand-picked. A little bit of it goes a long way, but you spend several dollars on a tiny packet in the US. I asked around to see if it would be cheaper here in India and I was told I can expect to spend 145 rupees for 10 grams. That doesn't help. I have no idea how much saffron weighs, and whether or not that's a good amount for about $3. Unfortunately, the only thing that came to mind was that our chemistry teacher in high school said that a raisin weighs about a gram. Still, how much saffron is the equivalent of ten raisins? I got nowhere with this line of thinking. Well, at this point, I don't know how I'm going to find a spice market, so it may be moot, but if I do find myself somewhere where I can buy saffron, I guess I can just see how much we're talking about then. 
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Yesterday when I went out on the balcony at Sapient, I saw two eagles flying around, and I thought it would be nice to try to take pictures of them. Well, I tried today. I went out there in the afternoon after the lunch crowd cleared and tried to take pictures of the eagle I saw. The problem is that it wasn't flying very close. Finally, it came in closer, and I tried tracking it with the camera to take a picture. I got one shot of it, the camera was moving, and the eagle is only partly in the frame. I don't think that picture's a keeper. I think some people who were just chatting on the balcony were laughing at me.

Tomorrow night I'll be getting on a flight back to LA. My trip will take me through Paris and New York, and will be something like thirty hours from door to door. I have a four hour layover in Paris, so I have to figure out what to do there. I have one request to buy some alcohol at the duty free shop.

After I get home, there's lots to do. I'll need to do multiple loads of laundry, get my hair cut, and mow the lawn. Normally, I like to get my hair cut every three weeks. Last weekend when I was in Agra was when I would normally get it cut, but I thought I would wait until I could go to my regular barber rather than go out and find someone here to cut my hair. That's a scary thought.

I think I also want to get ramen after I get home. After two weeks of mostly room service and the Sapient vegetarian Indian buffet, I'm in the mood for comfort food. Some nice shoyu ramen. Maybe on Saturday we'll make it out to Mama Ramen.

Friday, March 19, 2004
Though I'm writing this blog entry while I'm still in India, I doubt I'll get the chance to post this entry until I return to the US. I am now at the gate at the airport in Delhi, waiting for the first segment of my return trip.

This morning, I found myself doing battle with three mosquitos in the car. I was able to squash two of them, but the third landed on the driver's shoulder where it was safe from my swatting. I didn't want to distract the driver any more than necessary. I ended up testing the macro capability of the camera and surreptitiously took a picture of the mosquito on the driver's shoulder. I turned off the flash, turned on macro mode, turned on auto focus lock at the right distance, and snapped a picture. I don't think the driver noticed. A little later, the mosquito flew into the back corner of the car where I could no longer see it. For the duration of the ride, I was glancing over my shoulder.

I've come to realize that the side of the road on which one drives affects more than I would expect: when you encounter someone in a hall or stairwell, you pass on the same side that you usually drive on. It's only been through conscious effort that I found myself in the correct flow of hallway traffic.

Abhishek and Vivek took me to lunch today. I thought I might finally have decent authentic Indian food instead of what I've been eating at the hotel and in the office cafeteria. We ended up at the Thai restaurant. No Indian food. It was pretty good and a welcome change from the previous lunches. We made one attempt to find a store to buy saffron before we returned, but we came back empty-handed. 
Saturday, March 20, 2004
I'm finally home from my trip to India, so this will be the last entry in this blog. In a couple of days, I'll try to get the pictures also posted here, and I'll combine these entries with the pictures. I think I ended up taking about a hundred fifty pictures in total. Since a lot of the pictures were taken from a moving car of the surrounding area, many of them aren't very good, and they'll probably be pruned from the list that we ultimately display.

The trip from India back to Los Angeles was very long. Part of what made it longer than the outbound trip is the duration of the layovers. With four hours in Paris and two hours in New York, I found myself sitting around waiting a lot more. The first leg of the journey (India to Paris) went by pretty quickly. I slept almost the entire seven and a half hours. Paris to New York was mostly taken up watching Master and Commander (again) and School of Rock. School of Rock was nothing surprising, but it was still a nice movie.

The final leg (New York to Los Angeles) was the most comfortable of the three. I was able to get upgraded to the Business Elite section. One of the big benefits of all of the flying I did last year is that I get ranked pretty high in the list of people waiting for upgrades. The seats in the Business Elite section allow you to lie almost completely flat. I watched Cheaper by the Dozen and then slept the rest of the time. I also got a nice bit of steak for a meal, rather than being forced to buy a wrap or bagel in the coach section.

I got home at 7:00, and I was able to stay up until around 11:00 before going to sleep. Hopefully, I'll be able to switch my sleep schedule back to normal quickly.