Friday, August 31, 2012

India Culinary Adventures

Ask anyone who has lived, worked or observed me over any significant amount of time and they will say that I love food. Not only do I love food they will say i’m extremely picky and critical of it. Most of the questions I received from family and friends before I left for India were along the lines of  “How will you eat?” or “How much weight do you think you will lose?”. I shared the same views. I was very pessimistic about my potential food intake. Amazingly, I actually gained 5 pounds and now have an appreciation for Indian cuisine.

The following are all of my India trip culinary adventures caught on camera.
This isn’t India yet, it’s actually at JFK. What I learned from this experience is never have bad chinese food at an airport with a nice glass of Montepulciano and then get on a 12 hour flight... and yes there were a couple of people present who can say “I told you so!”.

My first Indian breakfast. It was pretty good. The top left of the plate was some type of rice pancake that I could do without. Top right was sambar with some coconut and what I called Indian Donuts (sadly, I never knew their real name). I ended up eating a lot of sambar, it had great flavor. Bottom left was some type of spicy potato pancake that I loved. Lastly, on the bottom right, there was dosa. I later learned that the hotel’s breakfast dosa was by far the worst quality. It would be like getting steak and potatoes at T.G.I Friday’s and saying this is the best representation of that American food staple.

The banana leaf lunch! Which was the best lunch of the whole trip. The first time eating a meal completely with just my right hand that wasn’t a hot dog or hamburger. I liked everything that was served except for some pickled veggies that didn’t make it into this photo. The fried dough that was like potato chips was amazing. I honestly ate at least 5 of them. I actually loved the concept that they keep bringing you food until you fold the banana leaf up. I think IHOP should adopt the policy. The pancakes keep coming till that plates flipped, no more having to wave down the waitress.

Sadly I wasn’t able to get a photo of the culprit but this is the best I could do. If you follow Nithya's finger to behind the projection screen and had eaten a little bit from inside the buffet server you would have to agree that it was the worst pasta ever. I’m half Italian. When I originally opened it up I was delighted to see fusilli pasta with a  pesto sauce. Instead what touched my lips tasted like raw spinach, broccoli and some other green unknown vegetable blended up and served uncooked on pasta. Upon tasting it, half of my body wanted to take the contents of the dish and beat it a couple of times with a blunt object, roll it up in a carpet, throw it in a trunk, and then drive it to the nearest bridge and toss it off.

Now onto the best meal of the trip! Since a group of us liked the banana leaf lunch so much, and because Naveena was awesome enough to want to hang out with us, we experienced an amazing dosa meal at a local place she recommended. I plan on finding out if they have this someplace in the Capital District because it was just amazing. Besides how good this stuff tastes, I learned two other things about Indian restaurants. The first is that they are not used to one person ordering two entrees and three appetizers. It took some time for Naveena to convince the waiter that I wanted all that food. The second is their food is sooooooooo cheap. If I recall correctly, for around 16 dollars we got 9 entrees, 3 appetizers, and 3 bottles of water. Seriously, never turn down the chance of eating an onion dosa cooked in butter.
India actually has steaks! It was good. I really have to thank Gautam for the much needed vacation from liquid veggie sauces and dishes with small meat chunks. At that point of the trip I really needed just a giant chunk of meat to devour. For you cheapos out there, two filets cost about 12 dollars.

Now what better way to judge a country's food quality then by their junk food! Above,as modeled by Ulana, we have PoPo Cup Jelly (I preferred to refer to these as poo poo jelly cups) and Hippo round-round’s. The poo poo cups tasted like and had the texture of un-refrigerated jello. They were definitely not my favorite. The hippo round-round was basically like a garlic flavored cheese ball. I wish they had them over here because they were fantastic. 

Lastly, Crax corn rings. While having the texture of cheetos they had the flavor of something I never want to taste again. For something with the name Crax you would expect them to be addicting but they utterly failed in that category.
Above Jim demonstrates the appropriate way of thanking Jesus for American food franchises having opened up in India. As you can see, Pizza Hut in India is basically the same as Pizza Hut in America. The only difference we saw was in toppings and the delicious appetizer of meat on a stick. 

One of the my mains goals in India, even though it sounds foolish, was to try their version of a Big Mac. I love good food and bad (in so many ways) fast food. America is a fast food nation and I frequently eat at all of our chains. I needed to see what ours over there were like. I found out early on that KFC was exactly the same. McDonald's, besides the fries, was totally different burger-wise. They didn’t have our traditional beef burgers. They only had veggie, chicken and a paneer (which i’ll get to later).  Their version of the Big Mac is called the Chicken Maharaja. It was the worst fast food sandwich ever. It is the only fast food sandwich (Robert witnessed this) that I have ever taken 3 bites out of and stopped eating. Also note that just like in America the end product doesn’t really match the picture on the box. Thankfully the paneer sandwich I had from McDonald's made up for it. (see below). 
The McDonald’s McSpicy. is basically fried cheese. It proves that anything fried is good. Though I would warn people that the sauce was a little more spicy than what Americans consider spicy.

I’ve only been to three foreign countries in my life, Spain, Canada and India. I went to Spain in High School during a period where I refused to eat fish. Most of the cities I visited where coastal, this led to 90% of the menu being fish. I ended up eating a lot of salad which didn’t really leave a lasting impression and even then all their “ensalada mixtas” had canned tuna in it. Visiting Canada really wasn’t a foreign experience,  plus their bacon is a joke, so they automatically lose any culinary battle. Amazingly India has been the best experience culinary wise. I truly enjoyed most of the dishes that I had over there even though I couldn't pronounce them or in some cases tell what was in them.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My India Experience

The one question I have been asked the most upon my return has been “Did you have fun?”  The India trip was an experience of a lifetime, don’t get me wrong.  However, fun isn’t quite the word I would use.  To be honest, I haven’t been able to find the most all-encompassing word to describe what exactly I experienced while I was there; humbling is all I have been able to manage.

Upon our arrival we were greeted by what seemed to be the entire city of Chennai waiting outside of the airport.  This would come to be a normal existence in India as you walk along any sidewalk or enter into any of the site visits, there are a lot of people anywhere you go.   I spent most of our very long bus rides staring out the window taking in what seemed to be a subject that isn’t talked about much there; the overwhelming poverty.  Everywhere we went there were beggars, or armed guards, or people sleeping on the sidewalk.  It was everywhere you looked but somehow not in any conversations we had with the business leaders we talked to.  Sure they discussed their “CSR” and how they are giving back to their communities, but I’m not sure any business in India could on their own even reach half of those in need.  I spent a lot of time reflecting on what we have in America and how truly thankful we should be.

The most resonating moment during the trip to India was the visit to Sankara Nethralya, a non-profit eye hospital committed to giving back to those who can’t afford the care they so desperately need.   Working in healthcare, there has been a large push in America to squeeze every penny out of they system that you can.  Physicians, hospitals and insurance companies feel they are entitled to their “fair share” of the pie, leaving a skewed non-patient centered care model to develop.  Both the founder of the hospital and the physician who worked at the free clinic displayed a passion that was the exact opposite of this.  You didn’t hear them say “what’s in it for me?” rather they both expressed sentiments that they are giving back to their community because they have the talent and the ability.  If only our healthcare system could step back and recognize it’s not about the money; it’s about compassion, quality care and ultimately healing people. 

There were a lot of cultural experiences that I hope to never forget.  Eating lunch off of a banana leaf, watching Joe attempt cricket at the top of a mall, rickshaw (auto) rides around town for $2,  the engagement party I attended with my friend who was visiting family in Chennai, and of course the Taj Mahal (which smelled oddly of urine on the inside).  I am truly thankful for the experience, but I think I’ll keep it to ONCE in a lifetime!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

INDIA (Chuck-De-Phatte)

INDIA (Chuck-De-Phatte)
Travelling to India, for me, has always been like a time travelling experience. We lose a day when we go from USA to India. This travel we lost Saturday, as we started our journey on Friday and reached Chennai on Sunday Morning. Few of us tried to make up for lost Saturday by consuming few bottles of Kingfishers (white cap only) over breakfast, before retiring to our rooms after 20 hours of travelling.
I love going to India every year to visit my parents and friends, but travelling to India this time was a different experience for me, mainly because I was traveling with a group and plus I did not have to worry about any travelling details or plan. Everything was very well planned and organized by our Weekend MBA program team and its partners NMS folks. India, as a country was not a new experience but the activities we did was really interesting. We all went to different site visits and got a first-hand view of how companies do their business. It is quite amazing to see that in spite of various hurdles like traffic, multiple power outages and over population, India has grown so much in terms of economy.
We had a chance of visiting five different companies to learn and experience how business in India works. Of all the company visits, I enjoyed Airtel and Shankar Netralaya, Airtel for its youthfulness and innovation, Shankar Natralaya for its social cause.

We also went to various offsite spots. We went to a general shopping store (T-Nagar market) in Chennai, it was so crowded that it made me think that my friends from USA would not take it well, but to my surprise they seemed to have enjoyed it. Funny thing was Tom got a tie for himself at this store and by the time he got out of this store he had already lost the tie. We also had a chance to see some good dance numbers from NMS student, plus our own white boy was not far behind in teaching his “Gangnam style” moves. Type “PSY-Gangnam style” in YouTube to see how those moves have made it to limelight. Our trip to Taj Mahal in Agra and Akshardham in Delhi was also an amazing experience.
One thing I have come to realize when I visit India is that I miss “Burgers”. Knowing this, few of us ate Bobby Vans Juicy burgers at JFK before we started our India trip and ended the trip with more burgers at a rest stop on our way back to Albany.

Overall it was a great trip and an amazing experience. Still trying to master the art of “three in a box”.

Taj Mahal and more

I wrote this in India, but the hotel had Internet connectivity it is now...originally from August 5, 2012

Yesterday we were at the Taj Mahal, quite amazing. 
The wild 5.5 hour bus ride each way (Delhi to Agra and back) was also a memorable experience. 

Snake charmers, elephants in the river, rikshaw races and more!

Today, we visited a temple of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He was a torchbearer of Indian culture and spirituality. The temple was astounding inside and out 

After lunch, we went to an outdoor bazaar and bought artifacts of Indian culture while testing our negotiations skills. I bought a leather work bag, and helped several friends buy some leather items. Small world: I met an MBA student going to Kellogg - and we exchanged emails. 

Only a sore throat and 5 or 6 mosquito bites in all, but wow they're itchy! Let’s hope these anti-malaria pills work...I suppose I should be grateful that I'm not running to the bathroom like some of the others in our group. 

10 days in India seems like a short trip to some, a long trip to others, but all in all, it’s just about right to visit enough companies, study their business models, make presentations, study, take a test, see several cultural and historical landmarks in three cities, and have a little time to experience the culture in person talking to students, professionals and Indian citizens. 

It was a great trip, and I feel much better prepared to work with Indian firms in the future, and look forward to that opportunity.


Positively Amazing India

India was an amazing place to visit. The people I met with on the street, in shops, and at businesses were all focused on discovering what it was that I needed, asking about me, and trying to please me. I have not been in a country so focused on service. So often we find people consumed with their own needs and dramas. Two weeks in India will help anyone lose sight of their own plight, however important they think they are, and enable them to focus on other's needs. 

I also noticed that when something was said or happened that was not entirely positive, the common reply from the Indian person was to see the situation in a positive light, to find something good about what was said. There is a general sense that "things will work out fine in the end," and that "there's a bright side to every story." This was quite refreshing. For example, someone pointed out that there was a lot of garbage in the streets.  Positive reply: the animals and insects can eat the food nobody wants, and people can use and take the things others no longer need.  While I thought at first, this was a little unrealistic, I then did notice over and over, that animals were eating, and that people did go through the garbage looking for things to use. 

Without getting trapped in the argument about whether or not it is good to have garbage outside in the streets, the main point that I noticed, and which is worthy of praise, is that there is a positive way to look at virtually anything, and the Indian culture seems to embody this admirable trait quite well. 

Another discovery that I found quite fascinating: In India there is another option to "Yes" or "No." When someone speaks to an Indian person, and the person is listening, before they reply, they do a little head bob. I tried to understand this, and asked several people about this. Ultimately I came to the realization that this is a way of saying many things without saying a single word, including;
" maybe yes, maybe no, lets think about this further, as its not so clear-cut."
" I may not agree, but I will agree to go along with it for now, and you will likely appreciate me for my being so gracious"
"that's an interesting point, let me ponder that"
"I wont say something negative, so I will do a little head bob and agree to move forward so we can be friends and have a good experience and in the end you may see things differently"
"I've not seen it that way, but I will try"
"Its interesting that you should say that"

Perhaps I don't fully understand the head-bob, or how an entire culture can be so positive and focused on service, but can say that I now understand that India is not just another developing country. This diverse group of people with its many languages and cultural regions is a treasure of intelligent, hard working and humble people ready to serve and become a part of your endeavor. I look forward to learning more and my next visit.  

Survivor Episode???

When I first heard that the Cohort Class of 2013 was traveling to India as a part of our International Business class, my heart sank to the floor.  My family is from Trinidad, West Indies, so growing up I heard many stories, good and bad from my family about India.  Since a trip to India never made it on my bucket list, I never thought twice about the stories.  However, I have been living with multiple sclerosis for several years now, so I was terrified with traveling there.  For a whole year, I kept wondering to myself “would I be able to make it through a trip to India, a country with an enormous population, noise, lots of stress, and pollution without having a relapse?” Questions of who would watch my daughter and should I board my dog always seemed to creep into my mind.

Well, after several trips to my neurologist, who became my counselor, I fostered up enough nerve to go ahead with this journey of a lifetime.  As the day of departure slowly approached, my anxiety level climbed higher and higher.  By that time, I had so many medications and pills to bring with me; I could have opened up my own pharmacy! To ease my anxiety I found it helpful to talk to my colleague and classmate, James Kellerhouse.  He assured me that I was not alone in my feelings and we would make it through the trip.  Thank you James!!!!

Friday, July 27th – Day of Departure

So much preparation involved in this trip, that I was exhausted before I even left.  I ended up unpacking and repacking my suitcases. Don’t ask! I also did some last minute grocery shopping for my mom and daughter to make sure they had everything they needed for while I was gone.  Then as I loaded up my luggage into the car, my daughter came outside, started crying, and asked me not to go.  It was very hard leaving my 10 year old behind.   I think she felt a little bit better when I told her I would bring her something back from India ;-)

Everyone made it to the UAlbany campus on time; we took some pictures, boarded the bus, and were on our way to JFK.  One thing we did not think of, prior to that departure, was “food”…As soon as we made it through security, we took care of that situation and even had enough time to relax!
Qatar airlines really are #1.  The attendants wore these nice burgundy uniforms with hats which was different than other airlines.  The 19 hour flight was not as bad as I expected.  After 14 hours on that plane, we had a connecting flight at Doha International and traveled for another several hours. I spent the time reading for Professor Sanjay’s quiz, watching movies (Hunger Games), snacking, and drifting off to sleep.

Sunday July 29th – Arrival at Chennai, India

We arrived at Chennai at approximately 3:20am on a Sunday morning.  In our time, it would around 7pm Saturday.  India is 9 hours ahead of us, so I relied on my clock on my iPhone to prevent any confusion.  Walking through the airport, you notice the culture difference immediately.  The signage was in various scripts including English, there were a lot of Indian people of all ages at the airport waiting around.  As we left the airport and headed over towards our Incredible India bus, I immediately noticed a stench that smelled like elephant and sewer.  I also noticed that drivers honked at us a lot as we were standing by the bus, but I was not aware until after we were on the bus, that all drivers in India honk constantly!

On the bus, we were welcomed by Ms. Sundari from the National Management School.  It was extremely helpful having her there to explain to us what we were seeing.  We were told that India has many unfinished building projects, which explains the large amounts of construction sites, and scaffolding.  Sometimes, these projects are left unfinished and never revisited.

India is definitely the country that never sleeps.  Poverty is very visible all over Chennai.  People sleep wherever they could.  Some don’t even use blankets or coverings, just the ground.  Oh, let me not forget the animals.  It’s gut-wrenching for this to hit you as soon as you enter the country.  While on the bus, another thing that was “in my face” was that India seems to follow its own traffic rules.  I realized this as another vehicle and motorcycle came out of nowhere and almost hit our bus!  Is there a noise ordinance in India?  Definitely not! Vehicles constantly honking to say “I’m here,” “Watch out,” and/or “Get out the way!”

Shopping in India

Our first day in India, we hit the streets of the T. Nagar Marketplace in Chennai to barter for deals.  It was so crowded and hot.  Barefooted children approaching you, trying to sell coloring books to you all the while are speaking in their language.  It took some restraint to not give in and buy the coloring books.   We ended up in this huge saree store that was overcrowded.  I ended up buying two sarees.  Don’t ask me how to wear a saree, because I may just embarrass myself for trying! I purchased them because the material was beautiful.

Our last day in India was spent in Delhi, where we went shopping at a more relaxed market.  I was in shopping and bartering heaven! I was able to barter and purchase items for cheap with rupees.   Leather bags, shoes, bangles, bedspreads all purchased for approximately $20 US.  I wished I had more time to shop but we had to return to the hotel to pack for our trip back to the United States.

Company Visits

While in India, we were given the opportunity of visiting companies such as Cognizant, Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital, Nissan-Renault, L&T, and  Air-Tel.  Great to see such a contrast of beautifully designed company buildings that are located in the midst of poverty stricken India.  Out of all the visits, Sankara Eye Hospital made the biggest impression on me.  That hospital represented the true meaning of giving back to the community.  How can you top free eye care and surgery to residents of India?  No modesty or privacy for the patients as we toured the hospital, especially when we visited the pre-op room!

Back In the United States

Dunkin Donuts, soda, fast food, peace and quiet…ah, we are back!  We survived India!!! Everyone wants to know how was the trip.  I find myself spending at least a good amount of time talking about the experience of a lifetime.   There have been a few demands for a slideshow for a short presentation when I have time.  I laugh at that request because there is nothing short about talking about Incredible India and when I have time, we shall see!  The one thing that I took away from this whole experience is a greater understanding of India.  When I read the newspaper or see something that is about India on television, I understand the country more because I traveled there.  As for my left over coin rupees, my daughter found a store that is managed by Indians that are more than happy to take them.  They asked her “where was she from?”  She told them that she is from the U.S, but her mom just came back from India.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Indian Way

Never trust first impressions...

Well most of the time at least!  When you get off the plane in Chennai and the "fresh" air of India hits you in the face there is an unmistakable first impression.  IT IS HOT, HUMID AND APPARENTLY NO ONE IN INDIA SLEEPS AT 3:30 IN THE MORNING!

So what first impression was I wrong about?  People here must be miserable.  Not only because of the oppressive weather, but having to live in and amongst poverty, refuse, open sewage and a population density that makes Manhattan look like Vermont.

I could never have been more wrong.  Everyone manages to smile.  From the children bathing naked in a nearby river, the determined cyclists cutting off traffic at each turn, and the mad rush of everyday workers crowding the streets.

The caste system creates a way of life that is accepted and embraced as easily as we Americans believe in the concept of upward mobility.  I cannot say that I have become an ardent advocator of class society, but my experience has made me understand that there are other ways of life that I need to try harder to understand.

The facts are...

1. I saw two police officers during my entire stay in Chennai and Delhi.
2. While strolling through the streets at all hours (day and night) I never saw one altercation involving shouting, swearing or physical violence.
3. Television news did not incessantly report on murder, crime or child abuse.
4. People can drive without accidents even when ALL traffic rules/regulations are ignored.
5. Foreigners are treated with dignity and respect by all classes.
6. Hospitality is not a forgotten art.
7. Hotel workers will argue with you about how they should be ironing your dress shirt!
8. Business people play for keeps.
9. Gandhi is not alone.  Truly great humanitarians live and work amongst its people.

At the end of our trip I believe I have come one step closer to understanding the "INDIAN WAY"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

An eye hospital with a purpose

So I have had some time to take in all that was experienced in India and what I will forever remember is the Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital.  This place was amazing because they not only provide state of the art eye care for the paying public but they provide world class care for everyone.  We had spent half a day at the hospital and this was far too little time to fully comprehend the incredible service that this "temple of the eye" provides.  The technology and the compassion for all people regardless of their status or ability to pay was what I was immediately taken by.  This hospital provides care for anyone regardless of their status, we spent the beginning of our visit in the 'free clinic', on the day we arrived the doctors in the clinic performed 40 free surgeries for needy patients, in some cases this surgery restored the patients sight.  Many patients in India are blinded by their cataracts because these cataracts are so mature and dense that they compromise patients vision,  the operation to remove these cataracts restores their vision therefore restoring their quality of life.  Rarely in the United States does a patient have a cataract that is so mature that it has taken sight.
As I listened to the Ophthalmologist talk to us about the mission of the hospital I was struck by the sheer quantity of patients that this physician and this hospital takes care of daily, she spoke to us in the waiting room where I would estimate there were well over 30 patients waiting for care.
Then we were on our way to the main hospital so back on the bus, I think we have all had our share of bus rides and I have personally sworn off buses for at least a year!  When we arrived at the main campus I was amazed by the size of the facility, the centerpiece was a five story building that was the main hospital.  There were other buildings housing research and offices along this beautiful campus.  Once inside we were given a tour of the facility and I was struck by the technology that was available, the technology was on par with most Ophthalmic practices in the United States.  In some cases this hospital had more advanced technology!
The people at Sankara Nethralya could not have been more hospitable to our group.  I have met hundreds of Ophthalmologists in the fifteen years that I have worked with eye doctors and I have never been more impressed and in awe of a physician as I was when I met Dr. Badrinath.  This man is Harvard trained and he decided thirty years ago to come home to India to create this beautiful facility to restore sight to all in need regardless of their standing in society.  When he spoke to us he was as humble as a man could be.  What I will always remember is that he was so humble that when we asked him the question of why he undertook such a noble venture of building this non-profit hospital he was too humble to answer and his wife stepped in and detailed his incredible story!  After spending an hour or so with the management group we were treated to a fine Indian lunch and headed on our way.  I wish we could have spent the entire day at this place it was just an incredible place with an incredible story that I will never forget!!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New Delhi - Agra : Yamuna Expressway

Hi All, I would like to share this post with all of you

"Yamuna Expressway, formerly known as Taj Expressway, is a 6-lane (extendable to 8 lanes), 165 km long, controlled-access expressway, connecting Greater Noida with Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is India's longest six-laned controlled-access expressway stretch. The Yamuna Expressway was formally inaugurated on 9 August 2012 , about two years ahead of its original target completion date."

They say it would take roughly 2 hrs to reach Agra, Taj which sounds much better than painful 5.5 hrs.

Cheers !


Though very curious with India trip, in the beginning as to what possibly could have been changed in past few years. I guess I was surprised in many ways. Humongous infrastructure hosting hundreds of thousands of employees working for organizations around the world with support available in many shifts almost 24X7. Visible infrastructure development projects for e.g. roads, metro etc., throughout the city of Chennai helping to make it one of the best interconnected cities for business development for many organizations.
Out of 5 company visits, Cognizant and L&T were IT focused which is my area of expertise. It was very insightful to get first hand understanding of their Business model and future outlook for the company. Although, we learnt 60% of L&T revenue comes from infrastructure projects, it was appreciable to see their focus on Information Technology as well, with the similar dedication. It was my first and indeed great experience to witness in person the production assembly line of Renault Nissan cars who aim to be the top 3 leaders in a span of next 2-3 years in Indian market. Like many others, in our group, my favorite pick of all company visits was Sankara Nethralaya, a leader and innovation in eye care industry. If only words could describe the amazing organization, very well managed research & development facility, and quality of service they provide to community. We understood from one of our cohort about the state of art medical equipment they use in comparison to some NY State medical facilities, to perform their surgeries is just exceptional.
Gurgaon (Delhi) is the city that barely existed two decades ago, had now approx. more than 2 dozen shopping malls, half a dozen golf courses and luxury shops selling all high end named brands. Apartment towers are sprouting like concrete weeds, and a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City houses, many of the world’s most respected corporations, and Airtel being one of them.  Airtel was our last and final destination for company visits, provided up with great insights of company organization structures.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank NMS admin for being a great host and would also like to share my thanks to all NMS students for being such a wonderful classmates.
Thanks Sanjay for the spices! I ended with loading up approx. 10+ kg of different kinds.
Although, I missed Agra visit with my group, it was surely memorable visit to India and I come back to US with a different positive forward looking view of Incredible India!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 8

I blogged everyday in India at my family's request so they could get a sense of the country. Here is my post from the final day. Most of us slept in on Sunday after a long Saturday travelling to the Taj Mahal. Two of my classmates asked me to walk to a nearby outdoor shopping mall which included a Pizza Hut versus staying at the hotel for an Indian lunch. It was an easy decision and the Pizza Hut tasted like heaven...scary, I know. After lunch we boarded a bus for a local flea market, which was in a gated park in downtown Delhi. The market charged 20 rupees ($.45) to enter to encourage serious buyers only. Once inside the deals were tremendous with vendors selling Kashmir (cashmere) scarfs, sarees, etc. as well as leather handbags and jewelry. All pricing is negotiated and I think I did pretty well picking up two cashmere scarfs, a leather handbag and three leather wallets for about 3,500 rupees ($70). A typical cashmere scarf might cost about $100 in a U.S. department store and these were hand made. The irony of coming from one of the richest countries in the world and negotiating prices with vendors from one of the poorest countries in the world was not lost on me. However the vendors seemed to relish the opportunity. If they quoted a price and were unwilling to come down, I would walk away and you could still hear them shouting after you ("I give lower price") from several kiosks away. Several times I would negotiate the price down and then tip them the difference from the originally quoted price...the difference might be $5 and they would treat you like a king. Our flight home left at 4:50 am Monday requiring us to leave for the airport around midnight. Many of us gathered in one room and reminisced about the trip over Kingfishers rather than get a few hours of needless sleep. It was an incredible trip that exposed me to things that I had never seen before. Poverty was everywhere you turned with people sleeping on streets and beggars all over the place. In America this is taboo but in India it's part of the landscape and you quickly become numb to it. The Indian people treated us like kings expecting good tips in return which we were happy to provide. The difference in living standards is night and day and impossible to compare...lord knows we tried constantly converting rupees to dollars and perplexed by the low cost. Casual conversations with my Indian cohorts revealed their appreciation for America, which explains why many emigrate but few return. Indians place tremendous emphasis on education and schools are excellent which explains why many are able to come to the U.S. and perform very well. They are worlds away when it comes to basic infrastructure such as roads and power grids and with so many people packed into a relatively small area, I don't think their infrastructure will ever compare to ours. Chakde Phatte!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

India: Shock and Awe

Now that I’ve been home for a week and have settled back into my routine I can reflect on what I had experienced in India.  I will be the first to tell you that I was less than thrilled with the idea of traveling there.  Those who know me well and even those who don’t can confirm that sentiment.  India had never been a country on my “must see” list. I had heard various stories both good and bad as far as what to expect.  “Bring toilet paper” was the most common piece of advice I was given:  Advice that I gratefully followed. I tried to keep an open mind but kept my expectations very low.  My anxiety level rose higher and higher as the day of departure grew closer.  Thoughts of a 19 hour flight, 10 days away from my daughter and family, 10 days of insufferable heat and humidity, and 10 days of spicy food all contributed to my angst.
Upon arrival in Chennai my expectations had already been exceeded.  The flight, though long, was fantastic.  Kudos to the Qatar Airways crew for making us all feel comfortable. The airport was quiet and simple.  We were soon greeted by Sundari, our host from the National Management School. As we exited the terminal, much like in New York, families and cab drivers waited to greet new arrivals.  I was told that the minute we walked outside it would be hot and smelly.  Much to my surprise neither of these tales was true.  Yes it was warm and an odor was present but not more so than any big city here in the U.S.  I was pleased. We boarded our air conditioned “Incredible India!” bus and moved on to the Raj Park Hotel.  Our accommodations were more than adequate complete with an Indian style bidet.  Again, I was pleased.
TRAFFIC!!!!!! Wow!  It’s difficult to not swallow your heart when in the midst of the chaos Indian’s call daily life.  Whether on foot, by bus, passenger vehicle, motorcycle or auto rickshaw traveling around town is a harrowing experience.  I’m convinced that the lanes marked on roads and highways are simply there for decoration as they are not used to control the flow of traffic in anyway.  In many ways driving in India is much like playing a videogame.  You choose your mode of transportation and then the race begins.  You’re met with obstacles in the road like, livestock, dogs, people and stalled vehicles.  Obeying traffic laws and law enforcement are optional.  Choosing not to follow does not result in penalties of any kind except perhaps maybe loss of life.  The most important thing to remember, however, is to HONK YOUR HORN INCESSANTLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Beep, beep, beep, beep.
Our week in Chennai was filled with trips to local corporations, Cognizant, Sankara Nethralaya, L & T and Nissan Renault.  All of these companies were fascinating in their own right but the one that struck me most was Sankara Nethralaya, a privately funded non-profit eye hospital that provides eye care and surgeries free of charge to those who need it.  We were shown a video of a mobile operating room that travels to rural areas to perform eye surgeries for the poor.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen.  They are definitely an organization that cares about the people of India and is most certainly deserving of donations.  I highly recommend visiting their website to learn more about what they do.
While the other corporations prove to be quite lucrative for their shareholders they fail to accomplish what Sankara Nethralaya succeeds at every day, corporate social responsibility.  I was disappointed to see an inadequate level of “CSR” among the larger corporations. A common thread that I hope will improve over time.
In addition to visiting local corporations we had the privilege of not just interacting with but also befriending students and management from the National Management School.  They taught us much about Indian culture and customs and treated us as though we were friends not visitors.  From negotiating prices with rickshaw drivers to explaining what food was placed on a banana leaf in front of us, they devoted their time to make sure that we were comfortable and were getting as much as possible out of our trip. We were lucky to have them as our hosts. A special thank you to Sankaran, Sundari and the NMS students for making us feel welcome.
After five days in Chennai our journey took us to Delhi, a larger city with much more traffic which I didn’t think was possible. There we met with Airtel, a very young and lively telecom company that was very open to our inquiring minds and willing to answer any question we had.  While in Delhi we visited several Moghul tombs and a Hindu temple, the beauty of which rivals the Taj Mahal.  For the first time in my life I witnessed a snake charmer and his cobra and monkeys wearing makeup dressed in costume.  It was quite the site to see. Of course one cannot travel to India and not see the Taj Mahal and so after a four and a half hour bus ride we were able to visit this magnificent structure.
Our last day in India included my favorite activity, shopping! We were taken to a local bazaar where vendors sold anything from woodcrafts, silks, toys to furniture and stone crafts.  I can guarantee that many of us came home with much heavier suitcases.
It is nearly impossible to talk about India and not mention the poverty and lack of sanitary conditions present everywhere.  As a mother I found it extremely difficult to watch children, babies, whole families living on the street; literally.  Watching babies taking care of babies, eating from the trash left on the side of the road and sleeping next to raw sewage was unbearable.  As a human being I find it unconscionable that the Indian government has allowed this to happen.
India and its people have had a profound effect on me. My apprehensions prior to our arrival were erased the moment we set foot in Chennai.  The overload on my senses and the pandemonium that exists in daily life was quelled by the overwhelming calm of the Indian people.  I have learned to see the diamond in the rough and have most certainly come home with a new appreciation for the life I live and am grateful for all that I have.  I will forever be changed by this experience and can only hope to pass on what I’ve learned to others.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

India, a land of stark contrast and juxtaposition

Now that we've all returned safely from India, I felt it was appropriate to reflect on this tremendous experience. Sure, we were supposed to blog during the trip, but the chaos & packed schedule made it quite difficult.

The first thing I noticed as we stepped out of the airport in Chennai at 4:30 AM was the number of people waiting around in the early morning. Literally hundreds of people standing there to welcome their friends and family, even when they should have been asleep. This was just the beginning, as the rest of trip we could see people everywhere moving in seemingly every direction. Traffic was never at a standstill. It was more like a stream flowing around stationary objects, whether they be broken down cars, 'optional' traffic lights, or cows sleeping in the road. It seemed everyone had a place to go, something to do, but had to battle through the chaos to reach their destination.

Being at street level, you could really see the dramatic differences between 'modern india' and 'not-so-modern' india. On our site visits, we were almost always at a very nice location: big beautiful corporate buildings similar to anything in the US. At my group's site visit, Larsen and Toubro (L&T) had a spectacular campus with green manicured lawns and impressive architecture. Right outside the property though, you would see a lack of sidewalks, piles of rubble, people sleeping on the ground, and stray dogs. It never made me feel unsafe though, it was just the reality of being in Chennai. Being in a very different society certainly made you think about the concepts of collectivism versus individualism a bit more. The interesting juxtaposition was apparent throughout the entire trip.

At L&T, it was quickly clear that they were similar to a General Electric for India. They had a lot of work related to engineering, infrastructure, defense, financial services, and many others. They seemed to really love the term "imagineering," which us Americans found amusing because we associated it with Disney. During our Q&A session, I asked about corruption in India, which seemed of particular relevance to a business in the infrastructure sector (which was clearly lacking). The speaker acknowledged the problem, but said L&T differentiated itself by being the company to go to when a politician actually wants a project to get done. They charge a premium for their services, but the speaker said they avoided corruption issues by doing so. The infrastructure appeared far worse in Chennai, where there didn't seem to be a real highway anywhere. Ironically, we were in Chennai when half of India lost power (~1/10 of the population of the earth) and we didn't lose power. A few days later we were up in Delhi, which had much more developed roadways, but evidently an overtaxed electrical grid.

I'm sure plenty of people will want to describe the trip to the Taj Mahal in greater detail, so I will defer to them. Needless to say, it was absolutely spectacular and a really amazing experience. Also, I invite my colleagues to write about our harrowing bus journey down the highway, or insanely fun rickshaw rides. I would also like to thank everyone who helped out on the journey, including the NMS people, site visit companies, Don/Ray/Sanjay, and our Indian classmates. I really treasure the experiences we had in this truly diverse, crazy, busy, chaotic, and fun country.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Incredible Experience in India

So we are on the last leg of our trip in India.  While it may have been a common theme to wonder 'why India?', I think we have all found our answers.  The culture here was both something to adapt to and an experience to learn from.  The caste system was evident, the food was a contrast from what I am familiar with, and the dynamics of business relations shed some light on why India is a global economic powerhouse now and especially in the days ahead.

The site visits were, in my opinion, the crown jewels of the journey.  We gained enlightening insight into the presence of the IT, healthcare, automotive, construction, and telecom industries.  Given the population density we were able to see first-hand the impact of a workforce that co-mingles high-powered executives with worldwide reach in conjunction with lower level positions that earn bare-bone wages relative to US standards.  Through our travels it was easy to see a broad spectrum of American companies that have already penetrated the region and why they will continue to do so.  Local specialized knowledge and labor costs are amongst the resources that potentially rank India second to none when it comes to efficient operations.

What can I say about witnessing the magic of the Taj Mahal?  Well, you have to see it to believe why this wonder of the world so deeply signifies a 'teardrop on the face of eternity'.

Regarding the cohort, Professor Petrevu, Program Director Don Purdy, Provost Ray Bromley, and our hosts and students from NMS it was truly an honor to spend this time in such tight quarters.  You really missed out if you didn't take advantage of tapping into what each and every individual has to share, both professionally and personally.

A special 'thanks!!' to Rakesh ('Rocketman'), Gautam, Apurba, Alok, Harshal, Sanjay, and Dr. Bromley for the local knowledge and guidance.  Without them, the rickshaw drivers would have run out of gas getting the 'night crews' to our desired destinations.  As for the 'night crews'...well...what happens in India stays in India.  Although, for a few rupees anything is possible!  I look forward to the next Kingfisher(s) with each and every one of you!

This only scratches the surface in describing why we were so fortunate to find the answers to the questions we had about Incredible India.