April 03, 2016
Airplane Mode: A Week in India
I've now been in India for seven days, with five more to go. Seems like a good time to write down some notes on the situation, in the order in which I think of them.
Getting here is really hard. Like, three planes, 20 hours hard. It was like driving from Bloomington to Indianapolis, then flying to London, twice. Luckily, when I travel here for business, I get to go business class. Talk about plush – I feel like all I did for those 20 hours was sleep and eat. I think regular domestic flights may be ruined for me. Most impressive was that Gogo Inflight Wireless now spans the Atlantic, which meant that I could hear the Hoosiers play (and lose) the Sweet Sixteen game despite it starting about one hour east of New York. Impressive, and worth every penny of the $20 it costs.
I brought an internationally-enabled, work-provided phone, but I've barely had to use it. Wifi in the Paris airport made the call home on my first layover free (thanks to FaceTime audio), and the wifi at the hotel and work have kept it that way. I have unmetered international data, but other than periodic emails in transit, I barely use it since wifi is so prevalent. And the wifi at the hotel is fast – like, faster than domestic hotels I've been to, despite the longer RTT to the services I use. Interestingly, work connectivity is not as amazing, but part of that is due to how our network is structured (another post for another day, and not on a public facing blog). Even though my personal iPhone has stayed on Airplane Mode since I left Minneapolis, it really doesn't feel like it.
Speaking of gadgets, my Apple Watch is fairing surprisingly well despite having sporadic connectivity. I'm mostly interested in not losing track of steps and calories, and it does that just fine offline, syncing up with my phone when they're near each other (Bluetooth still works in airplane mode). With wifi also periodically available, it's not really missing anything. And having a watch face that can show me local time, local date, as well as the time at home and in Minneapolis has been an absolute Godsend – even if it means being without Mickey for a little bit.
As for India itself, it's been an incredibly enlightening experience to see. The places I've seen have such polar extremes posed right next to each other. On the shops on MG Road, for example, you'll see a beautiful, new, three-story Nike Store next to a beat-down local retailer, next to the empty, concrete husk of a building, tarped over with no real intent. Street hustlers are everywhere, offering everything from rides is motorized rickshaws to flowers or sunglasses toy models of the aforementioned rickshaws. They're relentless, too – one such kid started pestering me to buy a rose from him, and when I finally walked away from the street corner where we were waiting to cross, swung his arm in frustration and hit me. The advice when dealing with that kind of thing is to ignore them, but that's always been hard for me, and walking away even harder. What's worse is the dollar I'd have given him for the rose – or 66 Rupees – would easily have meant more to him than it ever would to me. I get his frustration, and I even empathize as much as I can possibly do.
Speaking of money, the exchange rate is mind blowing. One US Dollar is 66 Rupees, or conversely, 1 Rupee is $0.0151. This has made for some really amazing but cheap meals, like when my team had steaks at a French-style bistro for $7 a pop, and it easily rivaled $30 domestic steaks. I've been picking up trinkets for people back home for seemingly cents. But, in the spirit the previously mentioned extremes, there are still things which cost significantly more here than they would in the States. We're next to an extremely posh mall, home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ducatti, Tumi, Jimmy Choo and more, and items here easily exceed the Dollar equivalent if bought on Fifth Avenue. It makes the presence of the caste system that much more apparent. It's also really strange to pay for almost everything in the thousands of money-units, and basically ignoring anything in the hundreds of money-units as change. $1,000 to me feels like a considerable chunk of cash, but Rs. 1000 is less than the cost of a CD (if people still bought those).
Folks here love American music. There are entire stations dedicated to English-only music that jumps from AC/DC to the Rolling Stores to Drake. The restaurant where I had lunch today featured a playlist that I could have made in high school – jumping from Aqua's Barbie Girl to Butterfly by Crazy Town (two songs I used to love, and probably still do). The brewery we visited after work one day – based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan – was playing 60s hits. It makes me a little less weary for home, but also makes it harder to get in to the local culture.
The food here has been a challenge for me. I do like Indian food, but something I ate early in the week didn't like me, and made the latter half of the week hard – I'll spare the gory details, but will say that a few nights were spent sitting up instead of lying down. After eating almost nothing yesterday, I think I'm back to normal today. Something I knew before I got here was that “spicy” means something completely different here than it does at home. Yes, it can mean “hot”, but it also means the presence of a variety of strong spices in almost anything. Spiced curries, spiced lamb, even the pizza we had at an all-team meeting was spiced beyond the normal red sauce and mozzarella. I came with a laundry list of things to avoid, and after being ill for a few days, I've become extremely paranoid about said things. I plan on fixing that this week, and going back to being more adventurous. Interesting, there are a lot of Italian eateries here. They also love have a lot of Subways and McDonalds, which features a chicken-patty-based Maharaja Big Mac. Luckily, French fries taste like French fries, which was a welcomed plain food after a few days of nothing.
Once you get outside of Bangalore proper, there is some really beautiful scenery. Such greens from red clay. Lush trees of lots of varieties, and trees that flower. And there's so much history everywhere – things older and already written off than the oldest relics in the States. One such thing that struck me was the temple at Bhoganandishwara – it was already deemed ancient and protected in the early 1950s. Stones in Nandi Hills that had seen centuries go by, and visible evidence of erosion, something I've not experienced since my trip to Israel in the late 90s, and couldn't then appreciate.
Inside the city, there are signs again of extremes everywhere. Beautiful, glass-encased skyscrapers, half-finished concrete structures, markets lining the streets filled with cars. Cows really do wanted the streets at their discretion, though unsuccessfully during busy times. And when they say busy, do they mean it – 30 minutes to go roughly 5 miles is normal. Traffic lanes are completely disregarded despite signs pleading to follow lane discipline. Despite that, I saw no traffic accidents, and it mostly flows. There are just millions of people all trying to get somewhere at the same time, and they have to be somewhere. Our driver has the patience of a saint and the skill of a professional, and it's really hard to watch, and not at all something I want to try. I also learned that it is considered bad luck to build a building tall enough to block the sun's rays over a temple, which is something you can see as you slowly drive past them.
Did you know there are 27 languages spoken in India? I can't imagine what it would be like to be unable to communicate with someone from Michigan or New York or California because they don't speak the same language as me, despite living in the same country. States are organized around the languages they speak, which are influenced by the religion of the area. Generally people can speak the languages of the neighboring states, but that's not a given, nor is the ability to speak fluent English.
There's so much more, but I think I'll save some of that for next week. I'll also figure a good way to post pictures beyond just the photo stream I've been sending to family and some friends.