Monday, January 26, 2009

After Some Time

Some time has past since I last scribbled in my journal. The work days here are long and tiresome, not always because of the work but partly due to the inherent challenges of being the only American in an office of several thousand Indian IT professionals.

I have now seen the sun set in reverse 13 times; each day equally as confusing as the previous. As I am here primarily on a work visit I’ve had but three days to myself. Two and a half actually as the office of my employer needed my attention for a fair portion this past Saturday. That same Saturday also offered me the opportunity to experience one of Bangalore’s local hospitals. As a result of depleted bodily fluids due to a mild stomach virus I contracted combined with my blood pressure medication I founds myself in the in the unenviable 80 over 60 scenario. When I say 80 over 60 I am referring to my blood pressure reading. I’m no doctor but I know enough to know that, that reading is not considered “optimal”. The experience itself was actually quite extraordinary. I was sitting at my desk surrounded by several colleagues, trying my best to carry on a semi intelligent conversation, when gradually I began to feel more and more disconnected with the materials and people around me. Any areas of the room from which light was transmitted became a ghostly, electric white. My laptop monitor just a blur, those people around me now of zero relevance to my new condition, words falling in to a chasm never to be retrieved; a momentary loss of self, a delirium state of sorts which lasted several minutes. When my body once again came back under my control I was able to make my way to the wellness center on the ground floor of our office building. There I had my blood pressure taken, was given some magic powder (Electral) basically rehydration powder designed to pump your body full Potassium, Chloride Dextrose etc. and was then taken to Sagar hospital by Praveena, a very nice project manager who did her best in trying to convince me and herself that everything was fine.

The hospital is very near my office and within 40 minutes of the time I left the office I was seen by Dr. Pai, a cardio vascular surgeon who was seeing walk-ins, doing his rounds and just being an all around good man that Saturday. Sagar hospital is a fine facility, exceptionally clean (always nice in a hospital) contemporary, staffed appropriately etc. Dr, Pai asked me to describe my recent symptoms which I did willingly. I laid there on the small little doctor’s bed cold and nervous. The bed was the same style as back home so that gave me something to connect with, something to help convince myself that I was in good hands. He took my blood pressure once more, it was much improved this time 130/80. I was prescribed some medication for stomach, had an ECG just to be on the safe side (results came back normal) and poof the experience was over. The entire visit cost me three hundred and nineteen ruppies, slightly less than 10 US dollars; which got me thinking. The hospital might be the only place in this town where an American doesn’t get ripped off.

There is no pride or honor in the Indian shop keeper; this I have concluded. The only goal is to extract from you as much money as possible. From a westerners perspective their behavior is really quite unacceptable. From the very moment you enter the establishment you are a target, a victim not unlike that of the fly who is trapped in the spider’s web. The salesmen are supremely talented. They have perfected their craft, each of them like little baby Mozart a perfect note for every situation. They disguise their aggression with transparent kindness, reassuring you every few minutes that looking is free, steering you from section of the store to the next. Slowly their team builds around you. Like a pride of Lions closing in on a wounded Wildebeest you are surrounded, on their turf smiling. First the man with the shawls, then the artisans’ expert, eventually you find yourself seated at the jewelry counter sipping some hypnotic, herbal tea. There are dozens of trays laid out in front you, one filled with earrings, another with necklaces they trays are rotated in and with every nod of disapproval. Each item of the highest quality and assured to be given at the best American discount… which means basically they will charge you double what they would charge a local. These patterns are consistent everywhere. If you are an American or a Brit or for that matter a white male you are viewed as rich and therefore expected to be taken advantage of. I do my best to stay away from shops now, going in to stores for basic necessities and whenever possible avoid all eye contact with street vendors.

Street vendors are everywhere here; in the US these people would more than likely be homeless. There are more street vendors than there are stray dogs, which is saying a lot but to this point the dogs have been less bothersome. The vendors will sell anything. Some are industrious. There are a good many men selling fresh coconut water. This is provided by hacking off a section of the green, coconut with a small machete and inserting a straw. This I am ok with. The drink is genuinely a local tradition and these men climb upwards of 60 feet to retrieve the coconuts from the trees. But aside from the coconut water vendors a simple glance in the direction of the vendor is an invitation to relentless hard selling tactics. When walking on the streets, vendors have no shame in following for several minutes upwards of 100 yards through a crowded street, even pulling on your shirt at times if ignore them. The word no, means nothing in this situation (Nancy Regan would be so upset) you just have to keep walking with purpose and commitment and eventually the harassment will stop. My guess is that at some point their brain actually begins to factor in the number of other innocent people they have failed to harass while they’ve been sales molesting you.

There is also great sadness here. A Young girl beading necklaces on the sidewalk in hopes of a future sale; not too far away from her, her enfant child possibly 15 months of age; partially naked, dirty and crying barely seen amidst the human maze of foot traffic. The poor will attempt to sell you anything. When in closer to the city traffic lights are their primary work depots. Women with babies in arm, selling Q-tips young boys who have not bathed in days if not months, wearing nothing more than a white wrap around their private area, teeth missing selling tiny Indian flags as if they are proud of what their country is doing for them and the physically handicapped simply begging for a handout. I watched one man propel himself across the ground with nothing more than his hands, weaving in and out of the stopped cars banging on the doors looking for money. It was a vision unlike anything I had seen. His legs were folded beneath him as if sitting cross-legged on a cushion. His legs from the knee down were noticeably ill shaped, his hands rough and worn from the cement, his eyes were not sad. This was life.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

an intro

There is nothing quite like the juxtaposition of me, a 36 year old American sitting in a crowded café in Bangalore India. I arrived in Bangalore 2am IST on Tuesday the 13’th day of January. The baggage carriers were lined up single file, one combing his hair with a black plastic comb in preparation for his pending task. I left the plane to a chorus of bis später nd auf Wiedersehen both German for, basically see you later and was off through a narrow tunnel towards customs. To my surprise the airport was remarkably clean and well maintained. The facility is less than two years old and still has that “new” airport smell. There were 12 customs agents all seated behind desks. Some were men, some women all very much Indian. My passport was checked, stamped and handed back to me as if I were receiving change for something I assumed would cost more than the ticketed price. I was now officially on Indian soil, alone and still thinking of the airport in Atlanta where I had kissed my wife and children good-bye. Time for the gut check.
At baggage claim there was the typical chaos of people struggling to tear their bags and parcels from the carousel; women holding young children on their hips, German men with thin, black framed eye glasses, Indian men with moustaches and me. I was fortunate that my bags were tagged as “priority” and were one of the first few bags available for retrieval. With luggage in hand and a nervous sense of nausea in my stomach I marched towards the exit doors where I was to meet my driver.
The outside air was a breezy 70 degrees. It was a welcomed sensation after 17 hours of inhaling the reconditioned air of airport terminals and planes. Outside there was a red rope held up by brassy colored poles placed every 6 feet or so. Behind the ropes a mob of taxi and chauffeur drivers holding up signs. Each sign with a name on it, the trick now was to find my name. I paced the line awkwardly and on my third pass back I spotted my name Mr. Charles Anthony, written boldly and neatly in black permanent marker. I went to the sign, made eye contact with the man holding the sign and calmly said “that’s me, I’m Charles”. After a short walk across a narrow street, Swami pulled the car around, we loaded my bags in the car and we were off.
The car was small, rather worn on the interior and I think the clutch was getting read to give. Thankfully I found out later that morning when I was picked up for work, that Swami and the car I rode in from the airport was not to be my assigned driver and car. There was apparently a mix –up with the car service and company sent two drivers and I picked the wrong one.
The road from the airport was primarily an industrial boulevard. There were several factories on both sides of the road and spackled in between them were rundown shacks, the size of a typical mobile home. They were cement in construction, open on at least one side and I could not tell if anyone actually inhabited the domicile. We drove on for approximately 40 minutes, talking from time to time, pausing what seemed like every ten seconds for speed bumps in the road.