Cool, Family

2011 Trip to China

It’s amazing what can happen in a few months.

The whole family and I went to China for 21 days and it was a great trip. In order we flew from JFK -> HKG -> PEK/BJS -> XIY ->PVG -> CAN -> Zhaoqing -> HKG -> TSA -> HKG -> JFK.

In plain English we went to Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Guanzho (briefly), Zhaoqing, took a bus to Hong Kong (NEVER EVER AGAIN!) flew to Taiwain, toured the country by car and then came back to Hong Kong.

All that in 21 days. I took over 4,500 photos with my Nikon D300s and 6 rolls of film with the Olympus Trip 35. We met Lily’s family and everyone had a good time. But the tour was intense and we’re all still decompressing 3 weeks later.

You can see the photos I took at my Flickr page.

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Family, Travel

Andre's trip to Disneyland

Disneyland, January 18 to 20

How we know each other

Rao and I worked together 10 years ago on an enormous Year 2000 computer project and have stayed in touch ever since. I attended his wedding in New Jersey many years ago and was unable to blend in to the crowd of hundreds because: (1) I’m white, (2) I’m over a foot taller than anyone else there. It was an amazing wedding and I still have fond memories of it. Our most recent get-together was during my divorce, where they took great care of me. Rao’s son, Mohan is Aaron’s age and he reminded me a lot of him. Indu is a warm and wonderful woman who took excellent care of me and shared some amazingly good recipes that look very easy to make when she does it. I have not had the same success.

Travel

Disneyland was someplace I had wanted to take Aaron when he was old enough to appreciate it, and now was an excellent time. He’ll be turning five in about two months. I had packed snack items to hold us through the travel. He favors hummus, rice crackers, grape tomatoes and cheese, but lately has also picked up a taste for the carrots that still have all the greens attached. He can pretend to be a rabbit that way. Continue reading

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Travel

India log: wrapping it up

Getting Dressed

My hotel offers a really nice laundry service. You leave your laundry in a provided linen bag and they return it to you that night by 7pm. They do a great job, but it’s unbelievably expensive. $5 to wash socks! Therefore, once I got over the sticker shock, I committed not to using this “service” again. I had already tried earlier to find clothing at the name brand stores without getting screwed there, too. Abhijit, one of the guys on my team, let me know that he had a childhood friend that was a tailor. I visited him this past Saturday and it was pretty amazing. They would make my clothing for just a little bit more than what I was paying to have it cleaned. If you ever have a chance to have your clothing made, go for it. There’s nothing like having clothes that fit you perfectly. Abhijit said that they’d make one shirt and one pair of pants for me, I come back the next day and try them on and give feedback. Sounded pretty good. I had a button down dress shirt made to my specifications, for about $9.50. The pants never fit better and they were less than $15. I went to town on this. Abhijit suggested I look at other stores for cloth and have these guys make the clothes. I did that on Sunday and it came out amazing. I got much better cloth, so the price basically doubled, but I’ve got really nice clothes for an amazing deal. Let’s put it this way: you bring the cloth and they’ll cut the cloth and make the shirt for $3. Sure beats letting the hotel wash the socks.

Movies

India has a good amount of fame for it’s movie industry, commonly called Bollywood, for Bombay’s Hollywood. The common joke is this: now that it’s known as Mumbai, maybe it should be called Mumblywood. I did see a movie on Friday with the VP of the India outsourcing group. It was one of the more popular commercial movies now playing, though I couldn’t tell you the title. Most billboard advertisements are in English but the movies are all in Hindi, with no subtitles. I had to deduce what was going on by visual cues and the odd English word or phrase dropped in the dialog. Differences were pretty quickly realized. Tickets were purchased for assigned seats, with an attendant showing us where we sit. We got our seats way in the back. It was a huge theater and I couldn’t see well in the dark, but when my eyes adjusted, I realized that the entire theater was empty except for the last five rows. I guess no one likes to sit up front.

The premise of the movie was that a gangster wanted to meet this not satellite disc jockey. In between there were lots of jokes and musical interludes where the lead characters were suddenly the stars of a music video. I found out that the singing is a common theme in just about every India movie. There’s almost always an intermission, which is odd in just over a two hour movie, but I guess that’s just another culture thing. It wasn’t about ¾ of the way through that I realized another key difference. Here’s this romance and they’re moving toward each other and the romance is heating up, but there’s no kissing. It’s a romantic comedy and not once do they kiss. I read in the paper the day before that there’s a big debate going on about whether to allow kissing on television. A big no-no here. Lots of cleavage shown in the newspapers, everyone as hot as can be, but that lip locking is not happening any time soon.

Self Improvement

The paper and television are filled with various forms of improvement: weight loss is by far the biggest, though I didn’t see heavy Indians like you see in the U.S. the whole time I was here. The others are age defying creams, various hair replacement techniques and Fair & Lovely. There is also a Fair & Handsome line. These are skin lightening products. The local movie and television programs are filled with people that are only slightly more tan than tuberculosis patients. I asked my driver, Sameer about this. He says he has a good friend who’s on some sort of mission to lighten his skin. He’s a black guy who uses three different skin lightening products, one of which is herbal. Garnier is another popular brand. After a year, Sameer can’t tell the difference, but his friend swears by this stuff. I told him that Americans often would like to be more tan. Just highlighting how people are never happy.

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Travel

India: traffic, security and marble

Marble

In my hotel, the entire lobby is a really nice marble. The staircases and walls are all marble in the hallways. My whole bathroom is marble, too, which makes the shower floor a little slippery. I took the team out to a really nice restaurant at a five start hotel on Thursday. Their bathroom was all gorgeous marble as well, but the bizarre party is that they had the cheapest plastic toilets I’d ever seen. It was a really strange combination.

Just about all the marble is local, though some is imported from Italy. They make shrines out of the white marble, with two red swastikas on the inside. They’re different from the German ones in that they point in a different direction. Even so, it was eerie to see. They symbolize prosperity and happiness.

Security

India is very security conscious. There’s a security check point at every high end hotel and every office building that deals with foreign companies and also western style shopping malls. It consists of about three guys that surround every car that comes in. One guy has a mirror attached to a stick that looks underneath the car. Another looks in the trunk and a third makes sure you don’t make a rush for the building by standing in front of the car. Now, the number of ways to circumvent this boggles the mind. You could put your boom stuff in the middle of the engine, where the mirror won’t see. It’s even better at night, when the mirror can’t see in the dark. You could make a rush for it, running over the human speed bump, you could simply put your explosives in a grocery bag in the car, or (best of all) wait for the supervisor to finish his shift, in which case the guys meant to examine the car are staying inside and just waving you on. The guys that they catch must be the biggest idiots ever imagined. I feel so much safer now.

There’s also a metal detector at all the malls. You volunteer any bags you carry and your cell phone. They make sure that the brand of cell phone makes you sufficiently trendy, take the briefest of looks at any bags you might carry and then wave you on. The metal detecting gate is what mystifies me. Sometimes I set it off and sometimes I don’t, even though I’m carrying the same things. I just imagine that they have a filtering setting that varies depending on if the supervisor is present or not.

Many of the busses have signs that say, “Don’t let terrorism on this bus.” Same message appears in the malls. Does this change ANYONE’S behavior? Has one terrorist event been avoided with this message? It reminds me of the urinal splash guards that say, “Don’t do drugs.” Well, I was going to, but now that I see that sign while I’m urinating, I guess I’ll change my ways…

Traffic

Traffic is universally bad at all hours of the day, with “roads” that contain numerous craters and speed bumps for no apparent reason. This must be where all the New York cab drivers come from since everyone drives with about six inches between them. It’s pretty scary if you think about it for any length of time. All trucks have hand painted phrases on the back that says “Horn OK Please” which means that you are supposed to honk your horn if you approach on the right. Cars also honk if they’re behind you, approaching from any direction, or it’s been at least 20 seconds since the last time it was used. It’s important to know that your equipment is working correctly, unless it’s something like lights. Many of the automated rickshaws (two cylinder, three wheeled, low-end taxi cabs) have many of their lights out. Since they’re all painted black, it makes it all the more difficult to see. They weave in and out of main stream traffic without any fear at all and I’ve yet to see any sort of accident. My hat’s off to them.

My driver, Sameer, tells me that the vast majority of the drivers are Muslims. Whether it’s the rickshaws, higher end cabs or truck drivers, they’re almost guaranteed to be Muslim. He tells me that since education is not as valued, they tend not to get the higher paying jobs.

The day after I boast to my co-workers that the weather has been great it starts raining. All week I had great weather. When my predecessors were here, it was in the middle of monsoon season, which lasts from June to September. It’s miserable during that time with many of the slums being decimated. Traffic becomes a parking lot and the rain is intimidating. The rain came with a vengeance, with record amounts coming down in an hour. The water was six inches deep in some parts of the road. It was the front page story in the paper, near the one where L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) gives advice about how to get over traumatic events in your life. Sameer took an alternate route into work because traffic was just not moving the usual way. It was a private road, owned by a big dairy in the area. You paid 15 Rupees to go along this fairly well maintained one lane in each direction road. I passed through some beautiful land on either direction. There was the dairy, a number of very well maintained kindergarten and grade schools and gorgeous and oh so lush landscapes. I found it pristine in many ways. In a slower area, there even appeared to be a guy just admiring the beauty of a stream near the road, until he just dropped his pants and squatted. I always have to remind myself about assumptions – they can ruin any ideas that you might have.

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Travel

India Travel: back to work

Back to Work

I didn’t even realize until the middle of the day that it was September 11. Originally I was supposed to fly out on this day, my VP and manager all said it sounded good. So I passed on the date to the travel person, and she responds via, “Are you SURE you want to travel on this day?” I call her up asking what the issue was, and she said, “you know, September 11?! We all shared an idiot moment, and I realized I was thinking about work too much.

The day passed pretty smoothly, with a lot of work getting done, everyone more comfortable with work styles and starting to be able to joke around with each other. Some important observations came up though and a critical question: why is it that the only areas in the building that are not air conditioned are the elevators packed with people and the bathrooms. You’d think that these areas would need them the most! The office is manned with a staff of people that all they do is clean the areas regularly.

There’s often two guys in the bathroom performing various cleaning chores such as wiping the mirrors of splashed water. One stall had a sign that said, “Work in Progress.” I kept thinking that it was a euphemism. Another odd trait in the bathroom area are that there is a spray nozzle hanging on the side of the wall. The only thing I can think of is that it’s sort of a quickie bidet. So here’s the common behavior when a guy walks in: he steps in front of the mirror and checks his hair, smoothing out an imagined curl that is not visible to the Westerner, then he does a quick rinse of his hands and drinks water from the tap, does a quick shake off and proceeds to the urinal, does his business and then may or may not wash his hands afterwards. This doesn’t make any sense to me to skip washing afterward, but do it before. Maybe I’m just missing something.

One of the big companies in India is called TATA. There was a Mr. Tata about a hundred years ago, and he was big in steel. I spoke with my driver Sameer about Tata, because I also saw that name on trucks and cars. Turns out they’re also big in satellite TV, broadband internet, tea and salt. There are a few other industries, but it just seems strange. I could kind of see going from steel to trucks, but what guy walked into the boardroom and said, “I’ve got the heavy manufacturing down pat, let’s try tea and salt now.” The other big company in the area is Reliance. They do consumer electronics and life insurance. Makes as much sense as the other one.

Acknowledgment

The cultural differences are becoming more apparent as I work longer with the people here. I’ve worked with Indian nationals in the past, and I’ve had trouble where you explain a project and they would nod their head, giving me the impression that they got it. More often than not, they’d miss the point. So I emphasized with my team that they ask questions, lots of them. They’ve done this, often too much. One of the big reasons I’m here is so that we can work together closely enough that there’s common understanding of styles. The one little thing that was hard for me to get is that I would ask them if they understood something and they would either shake their head (meaning No in western cultures) or do this strange kind of movement that was half shaking the head and half nodding with an occasional diagonal to throw me completely off. A crude friend refers to it as the bobble-head acknowledgement. I’ve asked them to include verbal cues to help me along.

The projects are looking better, but I also emphasized that we have only one more week before I fly out. Since I arrived at 1am in Mumbai, it seems only appropriate that I depart at 3am. This is all part of some wicked endurance test. Add to that that there’s been some mild stomach discomfort, and its shaping up to be a memorable trip.

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Travel

India travel: work and tourism

Tourist for the weekend

I had the Saturday free and wanted to tour around. The guys from the office offered to be my guide, but it’s not my style. It takes away from the spontaneity of it all. Anyway, my driver spoke pretty limited English. For the past two days he understood that he was to take me from and to the office from my hotel, and he could understand numbers enough for telling time.

I was worried about this a little when I wanted to be driven around to see the sights of the city, but I figured what the hell. Anyway, it quickly became apparent that I had it wrong, in that we were going to the office. I said over and over again, “Not the office; I want to see the Hanging Gardens.” As we pull up to the security gate, I ask him to call the office and I’d like to talk to someone there. I do get someone and they promise to send a driver with whom I can better hold a conversation. Along comes Sameer, who speaks better than many Americans I know, and he quickly dissuades me from the Hanging Gardens. Old people are the only ones that still go there, and ignorant tourists. It’s an hour’s drive away and I am almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I give him a rough outline of what I want to do (not so many tourists, slightly unusual things) and he decides on the city laundry.

It is awesome! They’ve got blocks and blocks of lower caste Indians working in these really dirty pools of laundry washing uniforms and sheets from various shops around the city. Its an incredible sight and my description doesn’t do it justice. From there, he took me to the Gandhi Museum, where I did see the most tourists all day, but it was good to go. I didn’t know that Gandhi put the spinning wheel on the national flag to indicate simplicity, purity and connection to the poor. They changed it to a Dharma Chakra symbol a year before his death.

After that it was Victoria Station, a huge railroad station built by the British, with really impressive architecture, tons of people and lots of advertisements for the Indian version of Dancing with the Stars, now on Wednesdays AND Thursday nights. There was a ton of traffic, and I discovered from Sameer that there are about 50,000 taxi cabs in Mumbai and an unknown number of the automated Rickshaws. I next went in to the Crawford Market, an indoor hall of many different micro vendors that sell melons, pineapples, birds, fish (aquarium and the not so mobile), rabbits, miniature puppies, perfume, fruits and vegetables and chocolate. There were also chickens like you might see in the market, except the feet were still attached and they had been in the really bad air for who knows how long. It’s all like a supermarket, but made up of many small stalls lumped together. You can get everything, although I decided I didn’t want any of it that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. One of the funniest things I saw there was a box of McDonald’s French fries that said very explicitly that it should be kept frozen, but was very clearly out there all day long in the very stifling heat. Maybe it’s a language thing.

By the way, most billboards are in English. I asked Sameer about that and he said that the marketing is targeted towards the educated which almost all speak English. When I stepped into the car, I was drenched and my clothes stuck to me. So taking that longer step was probably a bad idea, since it split my pants. I didn’t mention it, but asked Sameer if we could stop at the Big Bazaar market that we had passed on the way out today.

There was a huge waiting line for parking toward the Big Bazaar so Sameer suggested I step out and call him when I’m done. I got lost twice which let me see more of Mumbai and also pointed out how awkward it is if you’re the only white guy in a densely populated area and you’re about a foot taller than everyone else. It makes it harder to blend in. I found the Big Bazaar but also discovered that pants only come by waist measurements, and then you’d tailor it back to the length you need. Works fine if you’re not 6’6”, so I left the Bazaar empty handed. By that point it was 7pm, I was beat and wanted a shower and good meal badly, so that’s how I ended by first day as a tourist.

More Tourism

I woke up pretty early to make it to Elephant Island. They named it in 1534, when the Portuguese found this giant stone elephant. In keeping with the total lack of originality, the previous name was Gharapuri (Gharis were the priests of the temple on the island, and Puri means town). I’m sure Captain Obvious has his secret lair on the island. The caves themselves are pretty amazing after you climb 120 steep stone steps lined on either side by small stalls selling the exact same goods all the way up. When its really hot outside and the humidity is somewhere around steam room, hearing a barker’s pitch is less than appealing.

The island is famous for three large caves, which are filled with carved images of various Hindu gods, most commonly Ganesha, the elephant headed god, Vishnu the destroyer and Shiva the creator, but also sometimes destroyer, depending on the circumstances. The stone figures are about 10 to 20 feet high and there is apparently some requirement that at least one limb have fallen off. Sometimes the entire lower torso is missing. The most revered statue is not a statue at all but of Shiva Linga, or literally Shiva’s phallus. It’s supposed to help in fertility and the like, and it’s the only sculpture completely intact. It’s just a wide cylinder with a curved top. Insert lewd reference here.

The entrance to the caves has two levels of pricing: 10 Rs for Indians and 250 for tourist chumps. This dual level pricing is not that unusual it turns out. In response, I think the US should levee a higher tax rate on foreign nationals working here, just to keep things even.

They sell tour books for anywhere between 50 – 250 Rs (approx $1-5), but they’re supposed to be cheaper than the 2500 Rs that guides would charge. Generally, I’ve passed on both and just latched on to the most likeable good sized tour crowd and get what I need. Turns out the best option is a small museum near the entrance where all the guides seem to get their speeches.

I head on back down, buy some postcards and figurines. The figurines that they have in the stalls are pretty ordinary except for the namesake ones. They have hand carved elephants that have a mesh patterned body and inside the body is another elephant. The more elaborate ones have a third elephant carved inside the second. The way back is pretty uneventful. I was soaked in sweat and all I wanted (once again) was a shower and air conditioning.

My driver, Sameer, tells me that we’ll be passing the main street where name-brand shirts are sold. I figure they’ve got to be cheaper in the country so I get some lunch first and then head on down for a little shopping. Turns out that they’re more expensive than the US, so I skip out of that after trying five different stores of the same thing.

I head back to my room for that long awaited clean up and feel that I’m finally getting used to the time change. I realize I’m getting older because its taken me almost five days to feel tired at a reasonable hour.

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Travel

More travel log to India

Mumbai airport

Its hot and humid. It hits like an ocean wave and instantly my clothes stick to me. I’ve traveled a lot in the past, so I move through the airport like I know what I’m doing. I didn’t really sleep on the plane and I hadn’t slept well the night before so I figure I got about four hours over the past two days. There’s a bounce in my step because I remember what it’s like to travel and I’m liking it already. The air smells like old diesel fuel and spices. There’s tons of people getting off the plane and other planes like it. The guy sitting next to me tells me that planes come 24/7. That they can’t land them quickly enough. I believe him. I make it through customs pretty well and walk towards the Exit sign. There’s a mob of people waiting at the exit, many of them holding up signs in all kinds of languages and alphabets. I find my name quickly and he takes my bags to a compact Ford. Swarms of assistants/beggars descend upon us, helping to put my bag into the car, asking for some change. Actually, they start asking for five Euros, which is a huge amount of money here. I hadn’t exchanged any money and all I had were $20’s and change. So I gave one some coins and he walked off, surrounded by a group of others.

The car took me to this huge wrought iron gate about 10 minutes away, where security guards had my driver, Fahim, pop the trunk while they checked the undercarriage for bombs. This became a common theme, also in the office parks where one would stand in front of the car, another would scan underneath with a mirror attached to a stick and the third would search the insides. Don’t know whether to feel safe, or unsafe. Maybe both.

The hotel is a five star, one of a handful here among the metal shacks, blue tarps and trash everywhere. Much of the city looks like it’s been part of a war zone, with pock-marked streets and easily condemned “buildings.” My room is awfully nice with a bay window looking out on a slum. I drop my things and take a shower, using the hotel’s shampoo suffused with tea essence. That’s one of the more disturbing things: when your head smells like Darjeeling.

First Morning

I didn’t get much sleep, but the room service breakfast was awesome. My driver is waiting for me downstairs and I soak in the sights while he scoots past the three wheeled taxi mopeds that are all over the place. It’s a 45 minute drive to the office, and I think I see a total of four traffic signals. They barely slow down at intersections, but the confidence of everyone driving is pretty reassuring for some reason. There continue to be these businesses along the roadside, all about 150 square feet with these corrugated metal walls that must come from ship storage container walls. There’s blue tarp everywhere. But people are pretty casual and go about their businesses and destinations without a care in the world. There’s a great sense of at-peace quality to it all. The fact that a guy is removing the rim of a flat tire right in the middle of a shop that has a sign for Tandoori chicken and fried fish somehow doesn’t seem strange to them. I decide however not to eat there.

The office building is very modern and very humid. There’s no sign for Merrill Lynch at all, and no one seems to know anything except that I should sign in. I look in the book for sign-in destinations that match my own and find one pretty fast. As I get off the elevator, I quickly realize that the last person didn’t know where he was going either.

I did finally find the right floor, and security continued to be tight. You couldn’t go anywhere with a badge, but someone came out with flowers for me, escorted me to an office, and a shy white gloved guy brought me some really good coffee. The team came out to meet me and I said some meaningless drivel.

I got logged on to my e-mail, deleted a bunch of junk and met everyone. I got a temporary pass and scanned it about every 15 steps. They’re a good group and we all went out to lunch at the mall. It’s very modern, filled with glass and marble and security check points and metal detectors. They have Subways, Ruby Tuesdays, and a handful of Indian fast food places near the United Colors of Benetton.

The rest of the day went pretty quickly with meetings and presentations. I got out of work at 9pm and will probably do the same for the rest of my stay, considering I got in around 11:30. That’s what they do there so that they can talk to the Americans. Everyone just works a later shift.

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