Business trip to India

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Saturday, March 4, 2006

Hi everybody!
As many of you know, Melanie has been instrumental in her company's recent movement of work to India. As a result, she has had a couple of short business trips to Mumbai and Chennai. Here are her impressions.

Mumbai is a very big, crowded city. There are people, dirt and butterflies everywhere. Yes, butterflies. Apparently there are over 110 species of butterflies in Mumbai. We saw them everywhere. It was strange, because Mumbai feels like a concrete city and doesn't look like a great butterfly habitat, but it was really nice to see them. The other thing that is striking about Mumbai is the smell. There is a very strange smell everywhere. It is sickeningly sweet and chemical-ish at the same time. The only description I could imagine is a combination of mothballs and jasmine. In many bathrooms there are chemical insect repellent balls in the sinks - I assume because of the mosquitos and other biting insects. There is also lots of jasmine around. This combination contributes to the overwhelming smell.

There are also so many people! I arrived at my hotel at midnight and there were people everywhere. From the moment we left the airport to the moment we got to the hotel there were literally hundreds of people just walking along the streets, often in groups of 2 or 3. Every street and sidewalk is lined with people living, sitting, or sleeping beside in - even the highways. Those who were lucky slept on the flat bed of a cart or open truck, up off of the ground. Others just slept on the ground. But, any time day or night there is also activity. Because the flights arrive and depart in the middle of the night I have been in a taxi at 2 a.m. and the activity is just as great as mid-day. The people appear to be very social. They are often walking in groups of 2 or 3 or sitting along the waterfront (Mumbai is on the Arabian Sea). Also, they take care of their homes - even if that home is just a patch of dirt by the side of the road. When we were walking around one Sunday morning we saw women out sweeping the sidewalk and making their patch of ground neater.

In contrast to the street poverty, the hotels we stayed at were sumptuous. I was in a "ladies only" wing at one hotel where the toiletries included such things as lipgloss and other girlie stuff. There have been flowers, chocolates, and fruit in every room and in one hotel there was even a goldfish.

The best part of India, though, has been the food. Unlike much Indian food in the states, which is simply spicy-hot, the food in India has incredibly complex spices. Some of it is hotter than anything I've ever eaten (even hotter than the Thai soup that was previously the hottest thing I'd had), but most of it is not so hot, but spicy in a more complex yet mellow way. The tastes and the variety are incredible. We've had curries and dry foods such as tandoori chicken. In some parts of India it is traditional to eat only with the hands -- which can be a challenge.

In Chennai (my second trip) the people dress differently and the food was much spicier. In Mumbai the men walking on the street were mostly in long trousers and long sleeve button shirts. In Chennai, they wear very bulky loose white shorts - they look a bit like oversized, baggy diapers - and usually no shirt. Another difference is that in Chennai there were many more cows walking in the street or laying in the middle of the road. In both cities the traffic was very free-flowing. By this I mean that bikes, animals, people, cars and busses all drive on the same road and, although there are lanes, they are not strictly observed. It's more like each being takes the space they need and the others watch out and walk or drive around. For instance, there was a cow laying in the middle of the road in Chennai and all the cars and people just wove around it without much bother.

On my first visit I arrived late on a Saturday night and had Sunday to explore. A colleague had hired a guide for the 4 of us that were in town and we went to the Elephanta Island and toured the Elephanta Caves. To get there, we took a one hour, 10-km boat ride from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. This was an adventure in itself as the boat seemed quite old and struck me as the kind of boat that might not do well in turbulent waters. Luckily it was a clear day and we didn't have any adverse adventures. The cave temple, a World Heritage Site, is dedicated to Shiva and was excavated sometime in the 8th century. It is not a naturally occurring cave, but a man-made one. Many of the carvings were damaged under Portuguese rule, when little respect was shown for the Hindu gods. To get to the caves we had to climb steps up a long (75 meter) hill. The steps are lined with souvenir shops and soft drink stalls and the entire aisle is packed with tourists. But once at the top, things open up a bit and it is possible to enjoy the temples. There are no minor decorations in the cave, only huge sculpted panels depicting Shiva in many different forms. It is lucky that we had a guide because there is no information brochure or signage to interpret what one is seeing. The guide explained the many faces and forms of Shiva that are portrayed throughout the caves. Although I don't remember much of it now, it was very interesting at the time. On the boat ride back our guide also gave us more insight into Indian life in general and a bit of history of India.

Unfortunately my trips so far have been very brief. Other than the first trip, the others Have really been a case of arriving one night, spending 2-3 days in meetings and leaving the night of the last meeting. On the third trip, I had an afternoon to do some shopping in downtown Mumbai. Unfortunately, our taxi got a flat tire and we had to wait by the side of the road while it was changed. Fortunately, the flat was just outside Victoria Station so I was able to get a few pictures for the first time in all three trips.


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