Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Traffic Anyone?

I don't think anything could have prepared me for the daily adventure that is Bengaluru traffic, and I've been in Mexico on a mountain pass without a guard rail watching a big rig run up the tailpipes of the van trying to pass us. I am only thankful of 2 things: 1) I spent a week in London so driving on the left isn't completely new and 2) I don't have to drive. I could tell on the ride from the airport to the hotel that driving here is just nuts. It is absolutely crazy. I really think that the only time the Indian people are in a rush is on the road. If there is an inch, someone is going to move into it. If you think about letting 1 person in, 10 people will follow. To cap it all off, everyday, rain or shine, is Ride on Texas weekend in Austin. Instead of Harley's and tricked out choppers with stitched leather seats and black lights, you have Hero Hondas, Pulsars, and mopeds deluxe. It is a frequent sight to see 10-20 2-wheelers (bikes and mopeds) traveling in a pack.

From what I can discern, there are only five traffic laws in India. I know there are more, but my daily journey's indicate that these are the five.

1) Thou shalt drive on the left side of the road. This is a hold-over from the British colony days (dating back to only the 1940s) as are the phrases 'to let' and 'boot'. Countless times I have ended up on the right side of the road passing other cars, auto-rickshaws, people, cows, street dogs, and just about anything you can imagine so this is just a suggestion unless there is a median in the road. The medians are lined up blocks about 12 to 18 inches high and some even contain a space of about 2 feet for trees or other plants. It is not uncommon to see someone going in the opposite direction to cut off some travel time.

2) Thou shalt stop at a red light. This may be the only traffic law that is strictly followed. The problem I have is that there is only 1 traffic signal every 100 intersections. Today I was in an intersection without a signal, and the driver mentioned 'circus'. You don't have to tell me. Every intersection without a signal is a 4-way enter-at-your-own-risk. Now, I will give India some credit. The traffic cops will wave you to the side of the road (because they don't have cars) and threaten you with a ticket if they see you running a light. It's only a threat since I've been told that bribery is a common theme when waved over by a khaki wearing 5-0 that spends his days standing at polluted intersections in the heat. I have noticed that there are no lines to stay behind. Since everyone is in a hurry, there are usually cars, 2-wheelers, and rickshaws (autos) hanging out in the intersection waiting on their turn to speed to the next jam.

3) Thou shalt wear a helmet when driving a 2-wheeler. But there are no regulations I can tell about what constitutes a helmet. I have seen full-on professional driving helmets, bicycle helmets, construction site hard-hats, early football helmets (remember the leather?), helmets that look like they came from the set of Chips, and skull caps. Now the rule is that the driver must wear a helmet. Since a 2-wheeler is the fastest mode of transportation, you mostly see 2 to 3 people or a whole family riding along. So I've seen a man driving wearing a helmet while his middle child sits in front of him, his eldest child between him and his wife riding side-saddle carrying the youngest. None of the other riders are wearing a helmet. You mostly do not see 5 people on a 2-wheeler but its quite a site to see a grown man wearing protection while none of his kids have the same. Maybe they're not in any danger since the fastest anyone goes is 40 km/hr if that and usually for only seconds at a time.

4) Thou shalt not drink and drive. I think this is rather explanatory. Given the climate in which these people drive, I can't imagine anyone thinking it would even be a viable option, especially if you're on a bike. Take a rickshaw, they're almost as dangerous, but you don't know if the driver has been drinking or not. I have seen the police set up check points and checking drivers randomly, having them pulled over to the side, and likely taking another bribe. I can't confirm this but I have not seen anyone hauled off to jail or placed in handcuffs.

5) Thou shalt not hit anybody as he who gets there first has the right-of-way. This is also pretty self explanatory as no one really wants to spend the rupees it would take to have your car or bike fixed, nor does anyone want to be at the center of argument. If there is any kind of argument here its like those days back in grade school when someone would yell 'FIGHT!' Whereas there are no punches thrown here (typically), 30-50 people will gather around in a close mass of bodies as if they are the jury hearing the arguments before a court and they are about to make the final decision. But as I said at the beginning, if there is an inch, someone will move into it. As such, he who gets there first has the right of way, and therefore, a 2-wheeler is the fastest mode of transportation due to its ability to maneuver through all the cars, autos, buses, and lorries stacked at every intersection or behind every road narrowing in town.

Given all of this and my stay here now going past 1 month, I have only seen 1 wreck. Oddly enough it was on my second full day in town. 15-20 bikes were pulling into our lane from an intersection and some poor Joe was clipped on the back wheel causing him to flip over on his side in front of another 100 vehicles chomping at the bit to move forward. The perpetrator kept on going as if nothing had happened. The unlucky chap had to peel himself, unhurt, off the ground, pick up his now turned around bike, and with an embarrassed look on his face get his bike back in motion. I had planned on getting some reading done in the taxi to and from work, but there is just no way. Everyday is a journey.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Upon arrival in India, my companion and I were greeted by two men outside the Bengaluru International Airport waiting for our arrival. The sky was gray as the rains began moving in. The two men took our bag carts and pushed them out to the hotel taxi. One man was the greeter, the other would be our driver from the airport to the hotel, a sort of executive apartment with full service. The drive was ridiculous. Having been to London once, driving on the left was not completely new but very strange. We're not use to that. I'll cover more about the roads and traffic another time.

When we pulled into the grounds of the hotel, we were met with a gate and a stop sign. Each vehicle that enters the walls that currently surround me is subject to an underbody search with a mirror and a boot search. A boot is what the English call trunks. Since England ruled over India until the 1940s they use several English terms and phrases such as 'To Let' instead of 'For Rent' and boot. After being allowed in, our bags were passed through an airport style x-ray and we walked through a metal detector. I'm not quite sure if the added security would really stop anyone bent on causing a ruckus, but I have seen these types of measures all over town at the more luxurious places including the Leelah Palace Hotel. Considering what happened in Mumbai in 2008 and the spat of recent travel warnings issued by a federal government who refuses to admit that we are at war with Islamic Terrorists knowing no country nor bounds, it is still a welcome sight to know that we do have some security measures. From the check-in staff, to the door men, security, and all of the cooks, chefs, and waitstaff in the two hotel restaurants, everyone is the most polite. "Yes Sir." "How may I help you?" "How is your day?" We could not ask for a friendlier staff here to help us get over the fact that we are separated from home by the continent of Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, and another 4 hour plane trip, not to mention the Southern states but I would be just as happy to be holding the sands at Cocoa Beach Florida or stuck in a blizzard in Maine as I would be in the cozy confines of the Texas state lines. This does not mean that I'm home sick or wish for the trip to be over any quicker than it is scheduled. For now, this is home. Where ever I may roam! The winds will blow as they may.

After check-in and full disclosure that the firm is taking care of all the room fees (breakfast, laundry of 2 clothing items a day, free access to the swimming pool and gyms) and that all incidentals (dinner, laundry over 2 items per day, and room service) will be cared for individually, we were ready to head up to our rooms. For additional security, each floor is only accessible by swiping your room key in the elevator and will only go to the floor for which your key is marked. I noticed that the elevator floor numbers start with zero and go up thereafter as one would normally expect. I'm still getting use to the fact that the 'first floor' is zero. My room is on the 3rd floor (or 4th for us Americans). When I step off, I have two fish in a bowl. I have aptly given each of them a name and now talk to them coming up or waiting on the elevator to go down. I'm sure anyone who has heard me is starting to wonder. The walls of the hotel are covered with pictures from Hampi, an area full of ancient ruins and temples north of Bengaluru. The pictures each have a mythological sense about them. It is a welcome site instead of the plain white walls you see in many hotels and buildings.

A member of the crew walked us up to our rooms to help us get acquainted. I was happy for the help. He gave us a complete walk-through of our living quarters. I have a full kitchen complete with gas stove, a microwave, sink, cabinets, cookery, and a fridge with enough freezer space to freeze water or make a few ice cubes. I won't be making ice cubes. I haven't had a piece of ice since I finished off that last sweet tea from Whataburger on April 12th. When I return to Texas, I'm stopping by Whataburger on my way to any tex-mex restaurant in town. Further, I have both a table and a desk from which to work from. The living room is open to the kitchen and dinning areas with a somewhat comfortable "modern" couch and coffee table. As of now, I have copies of Fodor's India, my travel journal where I'm keeping a running tally of the mosquito death toll, the U.S. Constitution that's always packed, and the book of the month (although my slow reading usually makes it the book of the year). The balcony is pretty neat. I have two chairs and a coffee table from which I can read and just enjoy the afternoon when I have time. TV has upwards of 500 channels, most of which are in any of the multitude of Hindi languages (Kannada is the local Bengaluru language). I made use of my time one day and created a list of all channels in English. The TV is set on a swiveling stand so I can turn it from the living room to the bedroom. Two glass sliding doors separate the living room and the bedroom and have curtains. As of yet, I have not found a reason to close the doors or blinds separating the rooms. The queen sized bed is comfortable and includes 4 pillows and two decorative pillows. I found that the maid service likes to put the green pillows away when they clean. After 4 days of pulling them out when I get home, they finally leave them out to add some color to the all white sheets and pillows. Call me stupid, but I like the color the pillows add. It makes the room seem a little more cozy. On each side of the bed are end tables and 'closets'. I have found a way to get all of clothes in there and have made frequent use of the safe. Finally, the shower may be the best part. The bathroom is separated again by a sliding door and again it has not been used to date. The shower head is one of those rain shower heads and is absolutely delightful. It has to be one of the best feelings to step into a warm shower when the water just falls all over you.

A few last thoughts on the room. I have yet to figure out why I need two thermostats and two air conditioners, not that I have figured out exactly what setting them on any given temperature officially accomplishes. The other weird thing to me is that I have to place a card into a slot next to the door for any of my electricity to work. I figured that it is an energy saving measure. If no one is home, then why do you need your thermostat set on 65, or whatever that is in celsius? The measure can easily be circumvented by leaving a business card in the reader all day, but in the essence of its existence I have maintained that I should follow suit and turn off my power while I am away. Given that the electricity can shut off at any moment (and it does) I can see why hotels have instituted this minor measure. Electricity, like clean drinking water, is not always available.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore Joe Knox

In November 2009, I was asked to manage an international tax project that would send me to Bengaluru (Bangalore) India for 6 months. After contacting my doctor and careful consideration, I accepted the project and began the long arduous process of applying for an Indian work visa. Luckily, most of this process was cared for by our mobility team and little effort was needed on my part past providing required information and filling out online applications. I was scheduled to be on the ground and leading the 15 to 20 member team stretching two continents and 11 time zones by March 7. I was going to miss March Madness. Fortunately, after a long provision season, I found that the Indian Consulate in Houston was sitting on my application due to changing rules regarding a company's number of workers in India at any given point in time. The confusion meant that my visa was not granted until the first week of April moving my departure date all the way to April 12. I was lucky. I was able to make my annual pilgrimage through the Final Four and spend some much needed 'bonus time' with my better half and first born nephew.

As the 12th approached I was busy packing, communicating with roommates about logistics, and buried in the process of managing a team half a world away. My flight to Bengaluru would take me through Dubai with a co-worker heading to India for the same purpose. And then, on April 14th 2010, reality set in. We're not in Kansas anymore Joe Knox. I was far from the customs and privileges forged with the blood and guts of American patriots and entrepreneurs that came before us, and I was to be here for 5 months. Officially, as I am told, this is my first trip overseas. London apparently doesn't count as an international journey. I had also been "deep" into Mexico somewhere south of Monterrey about 11 years ago, but this is not the Americas. The United States had broken the shackles of European domain in 1776. Mexico followed suit in 1824 despite a brief subservience to France in the 1860s. India has only been free of English imperialism since 1947 and didn't fully evict European rule from the subcontinent until the 60s when they ran the Portuguese out of Goa. This was, and is, going to be the experience of a lifetime. Not one person, including myself, has India high on their list of places to see before we die. Most wouldn't even consider the Taj Mahal important enough to put India above their 10th visit to any European state (I say state because the European Union has the power to force itself on any one of its member nations).

There is much to say about this foreign land. Where to begin, how much detail to dive into? How does it compare to what I'm use to back home? Each topic, whether it be traffic, living circumstances, customs and local beliefs, enjoyment, and daily happenings could take pages to fully describe and give you a sense of my true feelings and apprehensions. As such, this first post was only to tell the tale of how I got here and give you a sense of the beginning. Each new post will contain different elements of my travels intermixing facts and events with my personal thoughts and musings.

I have titled the blog "Politics, India, and...uh Personal Musings". Anyone who knows me is aware that politics, local and national, has a tendency to consume me. This will, at the least, be cause for me to make many mentions of my thoughts on current events. There is no mistaking that my posts may offend any of a number of people at any given time, but as the US Constitution grants me the right to free speech and press, I feel that each of my readers (even if just one) will respect that and join with me in intelligent discourse where I may be wrong or short on facts. Where I may seem closed minded, it is only my hard head and strong convictions. I invite any man or woman to respectfully challenge any of my political leanings.

Without further adieu, please enjoy.