11.27.2013

India: In Sum



"Excuse me, where are you from?” asked two girls as we pulled out of Dadar station Saturday afternoon.

The US.  I live in Chicago.

Oh wow!  You’re American.  I’m from Portugal and she’s from India.  What’s your name?

Catherine. What are your names?

I’m Anaidya and this is Sumeta.  We’re here studying.  We’re in 12th standard.  It’s like 12th grade.  Are you here to study, too?”

(Bless you, children, for thinking I’m here for school.)

No, I’m here for work.  12th standard?  That’s great!  Are you preparing to give (take) your exams?  You must be excited about going to college.

Yes, lots of studying.  We study all the time.  What is your job?

I’m an architect.  I design hospitals.  We had some projects here but now the India team is working on projects in the US and I’m here to work with them.

How long have you been here?

Well, I’ve been traveling here for just about two years.

Oh wow!  Do you know Hindi?

No, unfortunately not.

You’ve been here for two years and you don’t know Hindi?  Why not?

Everyone speaks English to me!  I wish I had learned Hindi.  That’s something I should have done.  I know how to say please, thank you, let’s go, stop, and hello.  That’s it.

So where do you stay?

I stay in Nariman Point.  It’s close to my office.

Who do you live with?

I don’t live with anyone.  I live in a hotel while I’m here.  My husband is at home in the US.

You’re married?!  But you don’t have a necklace.

(It’s tradition for Indian women to don a necklace after marriage that is worn a certain way so as to signify their marital status.  I wear no such thing.)

Yes, I’m married.  See my rings? That’s what we wear in the US. 

Oh wow!  We should call you “Auntie” if you’re married!

Please don’t call me Auntie!  That makes me feel old!

(If you’re going to call me anything other than “Catherine,” I have actually warmed up to being called “Madam.”  Never thought I’d see the day when I liked that moniker.  But those who know me well also know that you can pull a smile out of me real fast if you attach a “Madam” to the end of any statement.  Something I once eschewed I now find endearing.  So it goes.)

But you can’t be married.  You don’t seem old enough.  You are 22 or 23.

(Seriously making my day here.)

That’s very sweet of you but I’m about to turn 32.  I’m almost twice your age.

Oh wow!  So when do you go back to the US?

Tomorrow, actually.  I fly home tomorrow night.

Oh wow!  We were lucky to meet you today, then.

(Who says that they are lucky to meet a total stranger?)

Yes, it was very nice to meet you both, as well!

(They giggle, and only now do I realize that a whole flock of school girls has gathered around us on the train.)

May we take a picture with you?

Sure, let’s do it.

The group of girls start exchanging cameras and swap positions so everyone can be in a picture with me.  I can only imagine where these “clicks” will end up but I also don’t care.  It’s a country of a billion plus people so privacy was forfeited a long time ago.  Plus, let’s be honest, I’ve been taking pictures of strangers all day long.
Anaidya, me, and Sumeta at Victoria Terminus

The train comes to a stop and we disembark.  They gear up to head in one direction and I move towards the other.

“Goodbye, Catherine. Come back to India again.”

*******

That is where the story ends and, so too, the blog.  The “Incredible !ndia” tourist slogan that beckons visitors to this crazy land isn't so far off, as it turns out, and on this Thanksgiving eve, I am immensely thankful for these last two years and all that they have taught me.  If I ever wrote a memoir I guarantee it would be titled, Just Two Minutes, Madam.  But for now, that’s all she wrote.

Goodbye cake (#2!) from the Trident staff

11.25.2013

India: Weekend Outings: I'm in the neighborhood(s)

(Written Sunday evening at Mumbai airport, where the internet was too slow to post)

The same weekend of the cricket match I got up and did my usual Saturday morning routine of run, shower, eat, and sit in the lobby for emailing and reading the news.  It was my one and only Saturday morning this go-around with nowhere to be and, for once, I honestly enjoyed it.  Part of that was due to a random encounter with a guy who graduated from Duke the same year I graduated from UVa.  We got to talking as both of us sat in the lobby reading our iPads and, as we later discovered, were jointly waiting for housekeeping to finishing their morning rounds upstairs.   Three hours rapidly passed while we discussed college life in the south (ACC!), business school antics, our supportive spouses, and our general love of travel but mutual loathing of weekends abroad.


“But you’re in a new city.  There must be so much to see and do!  How could you be bored?” ask our friends.  To which we both proclaimed, “You can only see the local Statue of Liberty so many times!”

Yet, despite my almost 20 weekends in India, this trip presented me with a couple of opportunities to see something new.  A handful of train rides north took me to leafier corners of the city and lunches at my coworkers’ homes.  The Sunday after Doha I journeyed to an area called Goregoan (Gore-ay-gow-un), which is about a 45 minute ride north, to have lunch at Shilpa's.   


Everyone was SHOCKED I rode in the 2nd class compartments.  Um, they're no different than the 1st class.
Quick funny side story: Shilpa's domestic help came to clean up after we finished eating.  In the kitchen, she whispered to Shilpa, "She looks like a gori!" (Hindi slang for "white girl") To which Shilpa replied, "Um, yeah, she is a white girl.  She's from America and is here for lunch."  The woman appeared very surprised and Shilpa has a wicked sense of humor so I don't think she bothered to clarify that I didn't come to India just for lunch, however delicious it may be. 

Hills in Goregaon.
Then today I took a train to the end of the line at Borivali for another immensely satisfying traditional Indian meal.  Before lunch we needed to do some last-minute shopping for my family so we wandered the market for spices and Indian cookware, then headed to Purvashri's house for lunch.  The food was terrific and seeing alternative skylines –with trees and hills! – was refreshing in the same way that heading out into the country for a Sunday drive feels liberating.

The best smelling place in India? Open-air markets.

Spice shop

Flower stall

Flower chains being made on the train, then to be sold at the flower stall.
Green parks in Borivali.
Recall that I am fortunate to have three hospitable coworkers and I’ve only mentioned visiting two of them.  That’s because the third office mate hosted me at his house back in June.  Instead of revisiting his neighborhood, he instructed me to meet him at the Matunga Road station for a quick bite to eat.  Going there meant departing out of Victoria Terminus instead of Churchgate Station, so already I was game.  New train line, new chaos to sort through!  In a weird way for my closure-loving self, I had a smile on my face when I approached the station on my last Saturday in India.  This was also where I wandered, admittedly with a good degree of fright, on my first Saturday in India.  Here I was, two years later, walking around like I owned the place.  Ha!

Anyway, I take the train and meet Chinmay on the platform.  We walk about 100 paces away from the tracks and traipse up a set of stairs in an old but sturdy building.  He warns me that this is not going to be a typical lunch place and I respond right away saying, “Good! And stop worrying about me!”  Insert Indian head bobble here.

 It’s warm inside but not unbearable and there are large groups of families milling about.  Chinmay presses ahead to what looks like a hostess stand that is covered with colored tickets.  A quick exchange of some cash and metal tokens tells me we’re ready to sit down and eat.  We move to the left side of the dining hall – the all-you-can-eat side, evidently – and select a table against the wall.  All tables have chairs on only one side.  This leads to a somewhat theatrical environment where the diners all face one another while the servers dash around in the middle with the food.

The all-you-can-eat side.
Not thirty seconds after we sit down do a couple of banana leaves show up.  I’m told I need to take my thumb and press down on the center vein of the leaf to fully flatten what will become my lunch platter.  Next, one guy comes by with condiments and the main veg dishes.  Then another guy brings rotis and he is followed by the first guy, who now has cups of water and buttermilk to drink during your meal.  Lastly, another guy brings two types of dal and curd (yogurt).  Ready, feast!  Though I abstained from the room temp buttermilk –blech.
Here comes the pumpkin, just in time for Thanksgiving!

I chow down on all the veg piles, which are cabbage, pumpkin in a coconut sauce, and potato.  The pumpkin was outrageously good and something I hadn’t eaten before.  Many scoops of that stuff ended up on my banana leaf!


At some point you then ask for the rice course and in comes another huge platter of food.  I’m excited for the rice-and-dal-smooshing course and get to mixing things up while Chinmay pauses to give me a short history lesson. (Incidentally, I like eating with Chinmay, especially in India, because we’re both left-handed and therefore don’t get in each other’s way when pinching bites of food.) 



These types of restaurants sprung up in Mumbai in the late 1920s when there was a surge of factory work and therefore bachelors.  The diner set-up allowed single men a fast and affordable place to eat before or after work.  It’s no frills, it’s run as efficiently as a factory, and the food is comforting.  In later years, these restaurants became a mainstay of family meals out on Sundays. 

After about 30 minutes of gorging, we decide we’re finished and now we should clean up after ourselves.  To do so, you push all uneaten food to the center of the leaf, then fold down the top third, then fold up the bottom third.  Now fold left third in and then right third.  Boom!  Clean table and some leftovers for the cows on the street.   There are some moments where Indian simplicity strikes me as genius and this was one of them.  Farm to table and back to farm. 


The host is prompting us to take our lingering conversation elsewhere so others can sit down for lunch.  We oblige, wash our hands at the communal sink, then head out of the dining hall.  An instructive sign tells you how to take care of yourself now that your stomach is ready to explode.  Read up; this stuff is hilarious. 


We go against the sage advice and take a brief walk around the neighborhood.  The weekend markets are alive here, too, and Chinmay points out a pile of banana leaves.  We know where those will end up!  


I then return to the Matunga Central Railways station and ride to South Mumbai so I can get a start on my Christmas shopping.  We part ways at the train platform and off I go for yet more Indian adventures.

11.22.2013

India: Ferris Bueller's Day Off - in Mumbai

And now for some real fun.

One of my daily habits is to come into the office well before most so I can get a start on the day in relative silence.  A good 30-45 minutes of reading email and the news while I gulp down some coffee is how I roll before things really get going.  The WSJ India edition is on the reading list.  While browsing the site one morning in late October, a story announced that India's biggest cricketer - Sachin Tendulkar - was retiring and would play his 200th and final test match in Mumbai in mid-November.  So began hundreds of stories and articles about this epic match and the speculation of what life in India would be like after Sachin.  Truly, an acronym even emerged for this phenomenon: LAST = Life After Sachin Tendulkar.

Nothing but Sachin articles on the day of the match.
Anyway, to date I had never attended a cricket match.  Anticipating that this is my last foray into India, I was pretty determined to find tickets for this but knew it was going to be tough.  A reported 10% of all available tickets were going to be made available to the public while the rest would be allocated to the cricket clubs (like country clubs), business moguls, and celebrities.  An email was hurriedly fired off to some friends in Mumbai to see who had the best connections. This kind of shameless networking is not really my jam, especially in the US, but as we've established, life in India is all about who you know and how you can get what you want through those connections.  It goes both ways and soon I had a deal going with someone where he looked for cricket tickets while I hunted down an unlocked gold iPhone 5s.

He found some tickets and I found the phone (in Doha duty free!) so there you go.

This final test was such a big deal that it was all over the news in Doha and the airports and everywhere else so I knew it was going to madness in the neighborhood once I got back.  And indeed, it was.  I returned to Mumbai at 4:30 am on Friday and the ride into South Mumbai was full of traffic at 6:00 am with news vans and people lining up everywhere.  An hour's nap and a quick breakfast was all I could do before returning outside to head to the stadium.


Marine Drive was an absolute mob scene by 8:00 am and the hordes of cars and people on the streets was wild.  To queue up for security screening prior to entry, one first had to locate the correct line leading to his/her designated gate.  This adventure ended up taking us at least 30 minutes but eventually we found the D gate line.  Rohit was all prepared to be a polite gentleman and find the end of the line.  I, on the other hand, was fresh off several international flights and knew the Master Blaster was up to bat in just under an hour.  So, instead I took the lead and pulled Rohit ahead where we casually joined the middle of the queue.   He was shocked I was so bold as to jump the line.  When in Rome.... 


Rest assured, we put in our time waiting to enter the stadium (noted by the red line below).  It took a good hour to wind our way along Marine Drive and then onto some nondescript lane to find the D Gate, after which we then had to trek through a university running track to find what felt like the back door of the stadium.  All the while, street vendors are literally in your face with horns, trinkets, or snacks.  Or, they are trying to paint your face with green, white, and orange war paint.  Rohit had to shove aside many a paint brush from my face.  These guys were aggressive!


The excitement and dedication to cricket was easy to detect in the days leading up to the match but its longstanding place in everyday Indian life was made even more obvious when I looked at this map. The areas outlined in yellow are two of only a handful of public parks in Mumbai.  And they are covered end to end with cricket pitches.  As soon as the sun is up, the parks are full of men in white pants and shirts playing this beloved past time, all in the shadows of Wankhede (VON-cay-day) Stadium.

Saturday afternoon cricket.
Cricket pitch at Wankhede
We roll into the stadium around 9:45 and the roar of the crowd is simply electric.  Everyone was out of their seats and cheering on Sachin (Sachinnnnnnnn, Sachin!) in what eventually resulted in his final time at bat.  Celebrity sightings were posted on the jumbotrons in between videos of Sachin's storied career. A constant stream of projected text messages from people in the stands clearly illustrated the pure adulation that this country has for its favorite cricketer.  



video




By about 10:45 Sachin was out on a caught fly ball.  Suddenly, the crowd was silent as they realized what had just happened.  That was it; no more Sachin at bat.  He shook hands with the bowler (pitcher) and stoically marched off the field into the clubhouse while everyone stood and applauded for what felt like a half hour.   Rohit and I stayed to watch a few more overs and then departed just before noon, and the requisite tea break.  Such a gentlemen's game!


My tickets were for the full five days of the match.  I won't even attempt to explain the rules of cricket and why five days may be necessary to get a winner.  But, the cool thing about having five-day tickets is they were put to really good use by lots of attendees.  The match started on Thursday and, as I was still in Doha, two of the hotel staff used them all day long.  Rohit and I attended Friday morning while two of my coworkers headed over to the stadium Friday afternoon.  Sachin wasn't batting but by then the West Indies team was up so S&P did get to see Sachin return to the game for fielding.  By Saturday, India was up by over 100 runs so everyone was certain the match would end that day, and it did.  I had passed off the tickets to another coworker and his wife so they saw the end of the test and witnessed all the pomp and circumstance of Sachin's farewell speech.  Everyone got to see something!

Things have since quieted down in the city and the news isn't constantly streaming Sachin stories any longer.  It seems as though there really may be LAST.  And while I surely can't comprehend the enormity of watching Sachin's final match (because I have yet to comprehend cricket...) I can say that racing back into town Friday morning, dashing off to the match with a good friend, and throwing ourselves into mayhem steeped in national pride was absolutely one of the coolest things I have been lucky enough to do in Mumbai.

Rooftop dancing and cricket cheering.  This is India.

11.20.2013

Qatar: Leaving on a Jet (Airways) Plane

Fun fact: I went to Doha twice.  In one week.  This experience is best described as feeling like I was on a tryout for "The Apprentice" in the Middle East.

First, let's establish the overall working parameters for Doha.  The work week runs Sunday through Thursday and the typical working hours are 7 am - 3 pm.  Upon arriving Saturday night, it was a fast dash to the hotel to unpack, desperately try to unwrinkle the suits, and then set the alarm clock for 5 am on a Sunday.  Who thought this was a good idea?


Doha from the air
By Tuesday lunch, our team was pretty whipped from the missing weekend but in good spirits nevertheless.  That is, we were in good spirits until the project leader returned from the contracting office with bad news.  A signature wouldn't suffice to execute the contract; a company stamp was a pre-req, too.  While the rest of the team muttered about how this all seemed rather silly, I was on the phone with my team in Mumbai rather immediately.  From past experience on international contracts I've learned that when you're told you need a stamp, you need a stamp.  That's all there is to it and there will be no further discussion until you have a stamp to validate any words you wish to share.

We did not have our stamp with us.  Not really something you carry around every day, amiright?  But I knew one existed in the Mumbai office.

Up against the impending deadline of the project leader's Thursday morning departure, the two of us went into no-nonsense taskmaster mode to get a stamp in Doha in under 36 hours.  Here's where things started feeling like they were made for TV because the absurdity level just kept climbing.  FedEx and DHL couldn't get through customs fast enough, airlines don't do private courier services here, no one in Doha would turnaround a custom stamp order in under three days, and no one from Mumbai could fly into Qatar without a visa, which required at least 24 hours of processing time.



After two hours we had exhausted every single channel and the only viable option was to put me on a plane later that evening.  I had the visas, the passport, and most importantly,  incredible hotel staff in Mumbai who facilitated a room in an otherwise booked hotel so I could nap, shower, and eat before getting the stamp and hopping back on a plane 12 hours later.  This project leader is a very seasoned and very savvy traveler but even he was impressed when all it took was one phone call to set up my entire itinerary.  I may have to name my first born child "Trident."
View from plane after take-off.  This is Doha's version of Lake Shore Drive/Marine Drive.
Anyway, back and forth I flew.  Time was just as blurry as the Mumbai sunset below.  I experienced a severe case of Groundhog Day when I flew BOM-DOH-BOM on the same flights, on the same aircraft, eating the same airport lounge food for several meals in a row, but was otherwise unscathed when I touched down in Mumbai for good Friday morning.



Well, not totally unscathed, to be honest.  Being on all these flights struck a nerve and at first it was a pretty bitchy nerve that was later humbled.  Something like only 20% of the people in Qatar are native Qataris.  The rest are migrants and about a third of those migrants are Indian.  Nowhere is this more evident than when queuing to board the plane at either Mumbai or Doha.

Four check-in desks, one giant mess
I was one of fifteen women on a 737 jet  and the whole cabin had the feel of a circus taking place in steerage.  If ever you have a stereotypical thought in your head about what it's like to fly in India, I assure you, this flight matches that perception.  At first it was simply annoying and the late hour paired with my still lagging jet lag did not help matters. My seatmate literally reached over and attempted to use my in-seat television screen because his was broken.  He treated everyone within a five row radius to the music on his cell phone.  He and his buddies enjoyed several complimentary beers and whiskeys each time the bar cart came by (and as a side note, I'm not certain this is the best flight for an open bar cart.)  I offered him my uneaten, wrapped dessert and he took it, shared with his friends, then proudly deposited the empty container in my lap.  The plane honestly smelled, the noise level was comical, and the boarding and deplaning processes forced me to push ahead or risk being trampled.  The tsunami of 18-24 year old men rushed through each step with incredible vigor and my cranky self just wanted order.  It's like what Bill Cosby says of parents: they are not interested in justice - they want QUIET!


Thankfully, each time I come close to getting on that high horse known as American privilege, there is something that knocks me back down again.  That something was observing the non-Qatari section of the emergency department a few days later.  (Yes, the department is separated by both nationality and gender).  When you see swarms of young men hop on a plane in hopes of finding work and providing for their families, and then you see those same men end up in the emergency department because of construction accidents or car crashes from prevalent reckless driving, looking back on the circus plane full determined young faces is tough.  On flight #3, the second Mumbai-Doha leg, I silently scolded myself for being annoyed by my first seatmate as the cabin revelry amped up again.  It was as if I knew how the movie was going to end for some of this batch and it is not the movie ending they are envisioning.   

Ok!   So, enough of all this.  Doha was a tremendous experience and I gotta say that it felt pretty cool to actually have local (!) professional contacts to call upon when caught in a bind.  One of those contacts also came through on a fun request, too.  Stay tuned.


11.16.2013

Qatar: Snippets of Life

Let's hear it for Saturday.

I'm running on a full 7 hours of sleep and life looks so much better through non-tired eyes.  It's time for a light post full of pictures and silly anecdotes, yes?  Here's a day in Doha.

FOOD:
Everyone asks about what I eat when I travel.  Doha had its fair share of Middle Eastern and Asian food, for sure.  But it had a ton of continental cuisine, too.  While the food tasted right, the names were sometimes off.
Breakfast at the hotel.  Note the label.

Or the packaging was different but identifiable.
Diet 7 Up and Baked Lays (with a delicious pepper flavor).
The most challenging part of eating in Doha is finding a place to dine where you can eat in mixed company.  Every single day we had lunch, and sometimes breakfast, at the Starbucks near the client site.  Why?  Because we our co-ed team was unable to eat in the same cafeteria within the hospital.  In Doha, Starbucks really is that "third place" that allows people to comfortably meet outside of home and work.  

Dining out of Starbucks' display case every day led to all of us overdosing on spicy Santa Fe chicken wraps, spinach quiches, and ham and cheese croissants.  As proof of our dining frequency, the barista wrote us goodbye messages on our cups.  Someone left an admirer behind in Doha...


BUILDING:
Construction happens at all hours.  Darkness doesn't stop progress but it does stop traffic. 

8 cement trucks blocked the road to my hotel at 9 pm.

Cranes all have floodlights to illuminate construction sites.
But during the day, not a whole lotta action.

 HOSPITALS:
One of my favorite parts of my job is going on site visits and seeing how healthcare is delivered to different populations.  This hospital is unique because of the sheer volume of patients it admits every day; it has the world's busiest emergency department and sees more patients in a day than most US hospitals see in a month.  For the amount of patients (and families) moving through the building, one could naturally think that the place looks like a war zone.  Instead, I'd say it's very Western in its physical finishes and appearance but it is laid out more like an Indian hospital, with more patients in smaller rooms.

 To traipse through the ED every day without riling up security, we had to wear lab coats and carry letters saying our work was official.  It was like having a permission slip to do observations and process flow mapping!  Thank goodness for the extra layer with the coat because the hospital was like a meat locker with its very air conditioned buildings.

This will be my first and last selfie on the blog.
I wish I had a full group photo because we were seriously the poster children for a diverse team, the United Colors of Benetton meets Medicine, if you will.  Our team of seven included one Hispanic man, an Indian woman, an African American woman, a Thai woman, a Turkish man, a straight-up white guy from the Midwest, and yours truly to round out the WASP factor.  Hey, someone needs to make sure the gin isn't left behind.

ENTERTAINMENT:
Speaking of gin and other spirits, Doha is dry in both weather and potent potables.  The only place you can drink is in the hotels, which means that the hotels are entertainment hubs first and places to sleep second.  We were at the W and those I find to always be clubby but its even clubbier when traditional bars don't exist.  And if you have the impression that imbibing was high on our priority list, it really wasn't.  Drinks are horrifically expensive. 

STUFF TO SEE:
I can't comment much here but the last night we were in town we did venture out to the Souq Waqif.  It's an open air market about 10 minutes from downtown and was a delightful diversion.  Much like the hospital being midway between American and Indian versions, so too was the Souq when it comes to American outdoor malls and Crawford Market in Mumbai.  It was busy but not completely packed with people, you can buy traditional Middle Eastern goods but without having someone shove them in your face to tempt you, and it's tidy but not hermetically sealed like most other venues in Doha.


Pet section.
Who knew chicks were so colorful?

Sweets shop.
 





Does anyone have that song from Aladdin, One Jump Ahead, running in your head yet?  No?  Bet you do now.

For any lingering sewing fans, there was a large collection of fabric shops with stunning textiles throughout.  Gorgeous silks and things everywhere.  I stopped to peer inside one of them and saw several women shopping.  This image struck me as a bit of a paradox and forgive me if that sounds culturally insensitive.  So much color and pattern but little to be shown outside the shop's doors.



DRIVING HABITS:
One day we were coming into the hospital campus and traffic was very backed up. A sea of white, silver, and off-white SUVs and luxury sedans  It was moving but only by inches.  Next thing I know, my driver, a native Qatari, starts chuckling at the scene a few cars ahead.  




My driver then explained the following:  The guy driving the huge white SUV (in the foreground, not the background) was apparently so livid with the traffic, and the traffic cop's performance, that he parked his car in the middle of said traffic, got out, and went to yell at the traffic cop (red arrow).  Notice all the space in front of the white SUV.  Yeah, that all opened up in the same time it took our protagonist to get out of the car and go yell at the cop about said gridlock.  And instead of having his yelling help the situation, it just made it worse as the cars behind him tried to maneuver around into the open pavement.  Well played, sir.

Starbucks, SUVs, and frigid hospital hallways.  It's like I never left home.

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