Posts Tagged ‘india’

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 3

December 15, 2015

Route: Singapore to Hyderabad
Flights: 1
Stop: none
Airline: Silk Air
Air Miles: 2057
Time Zones (inclusive): 3

When I started traveling internationally in 2006, my second stop was in Singapore, where I experienced what many claim is the world’s best airport. When I arrived at Changi again last night, I saw a poster celebrating its 500th award as the world’s best. The distinguishing marks I’ve seen include short passport control lines, suffusive lighting, and lots of low ceilings and carpeting. Most airports are harsh and cacophonous, but Changi calms and quiets. It has corners lined with lounge chairs that are perfect for passengers stuck with long layovers. It even has a free movie theater. It has lots and lots of shopping–which some call Singapore’s national sport–but not more than lots of other airports. In many international airports, you survive long lines at passport control, only to go straight into a second queue for security. Changi instead moves the security line to the gate, so you get into the terminal faster, and share a line only with the other passengers on your flight. Schiphol in Amsterdam does this more often, too; it used to take forever to go from gate to gate there, even though you were just connecting, because they had a single point to get passports checked.

I cleared security at my gate and sat down near a TV; though it was not blaring, say, CNN, like plenty of US airports do (because people aren’t tense enough about flying, so they need the adrenaline boost from BREAKING NEWS!), it still drew my eye because it was airing Wheel of Fortune! Not a Singaporean version of the franchise, but “America’s Game Show” (it said so right there on the spinning wheel) with Pat and Vanna. After the show finished came an ad for a huge New Year’s Eve party at one of Singapore’s massive new casino/resort sites. The show would include seven hours of live music, featuring a lot of local acts, then the headliner: “international sensation” Adam Lambert! And as if these two “What the …?” moments weren’t enough, the next show topped them both: “A Minute to Win It,” which I think I had heard of, but have never watched, hosted by … Apolo Anton Ohno! Seeing this terrific athlete now emceeing a weird game show, and seeing him while sitting in the Singapore airport, completed my twilight zone trifecta. Maybe I was just tired from teaching.

I flew to Hyderabad on Silk Air, a no-frills cousin to Singapore Air, which is to international airlines what Changi is to airports. This is my fourth time in India, and there are two primary cautions when you’re an American flying into here: getting secure transportation and not getting sick from the water. Each time I’ve come I’ve had my hotel send someone to pick me up–this is nothing special, as all the big hotels have drivers and labelled cars at the airport.

The best thing about India is the people; I’ve met fantastic people every time I’ve come. Last night I started chatting with my driver as we headed to the Westin. He was pretty reserved, but answered all my questions. We talked about our kids (he has three between the ages of 11 and 15), and then I asked him how long he’d lived in Hyderabad. He’d moved there when he was 11, the year his mother died. He’d already lost his father at 3, so his village, about 200 kilometers from Hyderabad, basically told him they could not afford to raise him themselves, but made arrangements for him to take a steam(!) train–this was the mid-1980s–to Hyderabad and to live in a hotel. The hotel put him to work but told him he was too young to get paid. When he was 14 he started earning 5 rupees a day. Today that is about 7.5 cents, so back then maybe it was 15 cents a day? Years later he took his kids back to the village, so they could see his roots. They were unimpressed. Because he’d left so young, no one recognized him until he mentioned his mother’s name. His daughter works really hard at school, but he worries that his boys don’t care enough. He tells them he wishes he’d been able to go to school (he learned English from watching and rewatching movies). They remain unimpressed. The conversation was a pleasant diversion from the chaos of driving in India.

My flight was much less interesting than either its start or finish. I slept the whole 4.5 hours. It probably was from the teaching.

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First Thoughts Upon Returning to India

April 26, 2009

It's warm but not humid. My plane lands at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi around 8:30 pm, but it's still in the upper 80's. We bus from the plane to the customs area (only one flight on this trip has used a jetway), and the lines to enter the country are short. My bag has a priority tag on it (nice to know my American Airlines platinum status provides perks even this far from home) so I get through the baggage claim quickly, too. I make a quick stop to swap some dollars for rupees, then head into the arrivals area. There is a line of people on either side of a wide central aisle, and the right side is full of drivers holding signs with passenger's names and their hotels. VIPish or something). We go outside and he leaves me by the curb while he fetches his car, a mid-sized (for India) Toyota. The air has a smell, which in Bangalore last fall (my first trip to India) I had associated with the sooty fuel used by the autorickshaws. But here in New Delhi all the autorickshaws I see have CNG (compressed natural gas) labels, which in my book is a big win for Mother Earth. As the driver pulls up, a small man whom I had not noticed previously steps up to me and grabs my bags, insisting on "helping" the driver load them. I know he is looking for money, so I just get in the back seat and close the door. He then opens it and asks for "any money, sir, anything." I give him 15 rupees, about 30 cents. Yup, I am back in India.

The next 45 minutes are … stress-inducing. The driving here is the most insane I've experienced, and I've ridden on highway shoulders in the Philippines! It begins with the basic disorientation of the driver sitting on the right and driving on the left (China uses our rules of the road). Then there is the essential lack of lanes–some are painted, but they are ignored. The roads into and out of the airport have occasional barriers that reach halfway across, and they alternate, so there is some zigging and zagging here at the start to get my blood flowing. The government knows how crippling it would be to have violence at the airport, so they take great measures to protect it–there were small groups of soldiers everywhere people congregated inside, too.
Once we clear the airport area the race is on. As I reported in the fall, the main problem isn't just that everyone is driving like they've got a passenger in labor. It's that there are so many kinds of vehicles that have different top speeds. In rough order, there are large trucks, buses, small trucks, cars, autorickshaws, and motorcycles/scooters. There is no "slower cars keep right" rule. There appears to be no rule except: don't hit anyone. Yielding is an insult to one's manhood (I spot no female drivers on this evening). There are vehicles with no doors, and I can see the bare feet of some small truck drivers pushing their pedals. I see people riding on the backs of motorcycles without helmets who look like they don't have a care in the world. I see people waiting in meridians to cross the road. I'm guessing they'll get their chance around 3 am.
While I know my driver is good, and that we will reach the hotel safely, it's hard to watch the endless chase scene unfolding in front of me. He has switched the radio from his Hindi station to one playing US Top 40 songs, and I note the irony of lines like "This is the part where the end starts" and "The party is over" as we careen along. We have one genuine close call, when a small Honda cuts us off. When my guy regains his position, he shoots the Honda driver a nasty look, which gets returned. I silently appeal to the spirit of the Mahatma to intervene. From this point my driver switches from flashing his high beams to just leaving them on. There is so much horn-blowing that it must be useless. I keep finding myself wanting to shout, "You know, I don't teach for a day and a half–no need to rush on my account!" Just when I find myself unclenching my fists, the driver's cell phone rings–and he takes the call! At full speed! But the call is brief and I try to focus on my breathing again. Then I here a police siren, and bobbing to my left is a white car with two lights on top bearing a "Govt of India" plate. Its round contours make it look like the Brits left it behind in 1947. We cut in front of it. The siren stops, then starts again, then I lose it. He either turned off the road or gave up–where are all the other cars supposed to go to let him pass?
Eventually we reach a toll road, and the congestion clears. My driver continues to floor it. I keep recalculating the tip I will give him. If I tip too high, does he think I am rewarding his bravery, encouraging him for further glories if he drives me again? If I tip too low, will he punish me with more hair-raising acts of defiance? At the hotel entrance we zoom by the guards (it's a hotel car), I give him a tip in between what I think is too low and too high, and he looks delighted. Inside the hotel there is much door-holding, pleased-to-have-you-here-sirs, and the genuine friendliness I recall from my last trip to India. But I know the decorum ends at the edge of the curb.

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Filling the Jar on Bangalore’s Roads

September 20, 2008

You know that story about filling a jar, where first you put in big rocks, then pebbles, then sand, then water? At each step you think the jar is full, but then the next smallest substance shows you how much space still remains in the jar. I first heard the story as an allegory for how we spend our time, where the big rocks are the most important relationships in your life and you should put those rocks in the jar of your time before the little stuff fills up your life.

I recalled that story while my hotel driver was bringing me to teach my second workshop yesterday here in Bangalore. You think the roads are full, but then more vehicles somehow squeeze in. Buses and the occasional truck are the big rocks. They are not easily negotiated, they don't move especially quickly, but they take up a lot of space.

Cars are the small rocks. Some of them are especially small–think of a van sitting on a chassis that looks like it could hold a Smart Car. With traffic lanes either non-existent or at best merely suggestions, the cars and trucks alone would be enough traffic for my driver, Mr. Ramesh. They nose in front of each other in a massive game of chicken, which requires equal measures of initiative and patience.

But he also has to cope with the sand, the autorickshaws. They are three-wheeled, open-sided, and their exhaust is particularly tough on the sinuses. They flick into the spaces between the cars that I swore weren't there.You can see the back of one in the left photo below, looking through the front of my car. On Thursday Mr. Ramesh said they were the cause of the traffic stress in Bangalore.

But on Friday he had shifted primary blame to the water, the motorbikes. They weave into any sliver of space they can find. They use the sidewalk (where there is one that's flat enough to drive on). They inch along when the larger vehicles have to stop. And craziest of all are the women and kids who ride on the back of some of them, usually without helmets. The photo on the right is of a young woman in a beautiful, colorful sari, on the back of a bike in the midst of rush-hour traffic last night.

Combine all these vehicles disregarding lanes and safe braking distance with driving on the left/steering wheels on the right, and the whole travel experience has worn me out. I admire these drivers–I did not see a single accident in two days–but I choose not to watch them! Fortunately there is an endless supply of fascinating things for me to watch out the side window while Mr. Ramesh deftly negotiates the chaos.

Autorickshaw in bangaloreBack of a motorbike in Bangalore

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