Monday, October 10, 2011
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Barely within 2 weeks of reaching home, I had to set out on another business visit. This time it is going to be a 5 days long trip of Germany.
The trip started with an odd-itinerary of Mumbai – Frankfurt via Abu Dhabi. The most odd thing about the trip was the timing of the flights. In my long international traveling experience of over 10 years, this was the oddest. The Mumbai – Abu Dhabi flight left Mumbai at 4:30 AM and reached Abu Dhabi after 3 hours. Then I had a break of almost 6 hours at Abu Dhabi.
The airport is like any other modern airport. Extremely clean and with lot of passengers. There are food stalls providing different type of food right from Burger King to Japanese Sushi. I did not notice any Indian Food outlet though. In fact, not even any Arabic Food outlet. Arabic food is pretty close to Indian food. I did not notice any pork being served anywhere. May be it is prohibited.
The airport has a number of computer terminals where one can access his/her mails. I did that some time back. The keyboard has Arabic characters and the interface is "right-to-left." Google shows the "Search" button on the right and the "I am feeling lucky" button on the left. I could not read Arabic but could figure it out after I used it." Search results appear on the right instead of the sponsored links! Seems strange when you use it for the first time.
There are noticeable number of prayer rooms around. The flight I am taking today is Etihad Airways, this is the national carrier of UAE. The entertainment system of the flight had sound track of Koran. I tried to listen to that but could figure out nothing. The announcement that was made in Arabic probably started with an equivalent of "Bismillah-ur-rehman-rahim"
At 12 in the afternoon they played a audio for doing Namaz. This lasted 10 mins and was played aloud to the entire airport. Interestingly I did not notice anyone reading namaz then. I am actually writing this page at the Adu Dhabi airport. I am waiting for my connecting flight to Frankfurt. As I was tying this page I noticed someone sitting behind me playing some "Hindi songs that I could not easily recognize." That's the time I realized that I am surrounded by at least 200 Pakistanis.
The last time I had a similar feeling was when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayondhya. It had triggered riots in Mumbai. I was in Mumbai then and I still remember the day when I and my manager had gone to meet a client in Mahim. As we went there we could see some of the shops that were burnt down during the riots. These were the shops of timber (wood.)
Both of us had gone to a hotel in Mahim. The hotel was full during the lunch hour. It was hoisting a green flag with Moon and Star, indicating the religion of the owner. We were not too sure if we were doing the right thing. We were both marketing buys so we were dressed in formals with impressive neckties. Both were clean-shaven and it would have been difficult to judge our religion from our looks. We just had to remember not to speak in Marathi (my manager was a Konkani, so we would naturally get into the habit of speaking in Marathi).
People observed us carefully as we entered had lunch, then had a cup of tea and left. I still remember the taste of the tea that was made from goat's milk!
Today, I am sitting in not just a Muslim country and am surrounded by at least 200 to 300 Pakistanis. They are all wearing Pathani dress. I am in jeans and T-shirt and am sitting alone. So there is no need to speak in any language. From their looks, it is clear that they have identified that I am an Indian IT Professional. But they are more surprised my map laptop, headphones, and style of sitting and working rather than my country of origin. At times they are peeping into my screen to see what I am doing.
Even noticed some "Malyalis" around. Familiar faces! No matter where you go in the world, you will find Mallus and Sardarjis. They are truly international communities. They work hard and are doing well wherever they have gone and settled.
I am surrounded by literally all types of people from around the world. I just had a Burger King Sandwich Meal and was sipping a cup of American Black Coffee. World has truly become global.
Just that we need to be a lot more tolerant towards each other. Till the time we do not do that we can not understand each other.
As I prepared to leave out of USA, I started wrapping up things. This included preparing a work report of things done, preparing a schedule for things do be done over next 3 months, and so on.
While I was handing it over I realized that my business contact in USA was US Marine at the time of first Gulf War in 1991 (launched by then US President George Bush.) He narrated a number of interesting experiences. This included his staying on board the war ship where they used to get so much less space to sleep that they could barely turn on their sides. He also narrated his early morning running exercises on the ship saying "When we used to exercise the ship would be sailing on the waves. Thus our run used to be always at an inclined plane; either running up-hill or down-hill. Those were tough days. I had to take the decision to join the army as I was running short of money for education at that time. The days were tough. We had rigorous physical training."
It was natural to talk about war movies. I think Bollywood does not make a whole lop of war movies. Those days, there were hardly any good war movies being made. So for us then the only war movies to see were made by Hollywood. Impressions of movies like Guns of Neverone, Where Eagles Dare, Five for Hell, Platoon, are still fresh in my mind.
"What you see in Hollywood movies is hardly the complete truth. The director shows that part of the soldier's life that he feels is interesting. Rarely does a movie throw light on the complete life of a soldier", he said. "My father had fought in Vietnam and he said the movie Platoon was far from reality. Serials like Band of Brotherhood probably have gone closer to life of soldiers."
This was news for me! It was difficult to accept that what a war movie like Platoon showed was not complete truth.
I recollected what I was doing when he was actively involved in Gulf War-I. We were in our third year of engineering. My room partner's father was in Kuwait then and he was worried about the war breaking out. He would therefore be religiously be listening to radio channels like Voice of America and BBC on Short-wave Radio (these were days before Internet and Mobile Phone came to India). The radio reception used to be good late in the night. So we would be glued to the radio till late night trying to find out if the war would start any soon. Every night we would be a disappointed as the war would not start.
We wanted to be the "ones to break the news before anyone else." We actually did that, and we beat the BBC, CNN, and Voice of America at that. The only problem was the news was not real! We had "engineered a radio recording" saying that war had broken out when "USA fired the first missile on Iraq from its warship USS Gabriel." It was recorded in my room partner's voice who could fake American ascent. To make it "sound real" we even had introduced background noise. We had written down the script before the actual recording. The name USS Gabriel was inspired by the tennis player "Gabriela Sabatini" whose poster was pasted in our room. We made sure that the recording started abruptly. So we recorded it on one of my room partner's favourite cassette erasing his favourite song. It helped us to sell the story saying "do you think we would spoil his cassette for nothing?"
It worked! We did manage to get attention of our entire hostel next day. The news even spread the college through all our hostel-mates. People believed it for one-day. We even told them "Indian media is sure to suppress this news for at least 2 days because it is Government-controlled (there was no cable TV and no private news channels then.)
I hardly knew that I would, at some point of time, do sound recording editing and multimedia authoring for earning my bread and butter.
As you can imagine, I do not have any copy of this "ingenious piece of work" we produced using only a cassette recorder, audio cassette, cassette cover and a key (used to generate the cyclical noise.)
Here is the fun part: while I was engineering this news items of the war in Pune; my business contact in was actually fighting it in Iraq! We both lived to share each other's stories after almost 20 years! What a coincidence! ..and a paradox!
A paradox is necessarily a coincidence I guess!
I met Victor at my client's office. He was the one to suggest the name of the Mexican Hotel for us to go and have food at.
Victor was extremely jolly and good at heart. He was the die-hard fan of basketball and staunch supporter of the LA Lakers team. While talking to him I told him what I had learnt during my previous US visit. In 2009 I was working on a project for client in Kansas. I was put up at a decent apartment. The complex had a gym and it had lots of photographs of noted sports personalities who grew up in Kansas. There I learnt that Basketball was invested in Kansas. They used to play it with something that looked like a "bucket" kept at waist height. Later on as the game developed the "bucket-like structure" was replaced by a basket fixed at a high level pole.
When I told Victor that basket ball was invented in Kansas he immediately replied "and it was perfected in LA." Knowing Victor's passion for the game and support for the team I had to agree at once. I also told him that I almost missed an opportunity to watch an NBA match at Seattle about 5 years back. You could count on Victor to know everything about NBA. His reply was "Well that wasn't a strong team and they moved to another city later/ They wanted a batter ground for playing matches. Seattle did not give that so their owner moved the team to another city." Victor then explained to me how the NBA matches are conducted.
Our discussions went on for some time where he told me that he was a musician and used to perform with a group live. Victor told me about some of the festivals celebrated by Mexicans. This included some of the festivals when them remember the dead. It is called "Day of the Dead" celebrated in first week of November. On these days they arrange all the things liked by that person on a table. This can include food, photos, items, even certificates, trophies the person used/won. These days the family would come together, remember the deceased and celebrate. I am sure the readers can find more information about this on the web. Lots of photos would also be available. Check out http://www.inside-mexico.com/featuredead.htm
He said they even play music during funerals. Death is celebrated. It sounded a bit strange, but if you go to the core of the philosophy, it is understandable. A soul is leaving behind a human body and is being elevated to higher degree of consciousness.
I was to return to India the next day, when I was saying goodbye to everyone at office, Victor said "Adios Amigo"
I promised him to watch a NBA match with him during my next visit to USA.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Today is Tuesday morning. I came in exactly 4 weeks back! I came in with a bit of anxiety and nervousness. It took me some time to settle down.
By now I know most of the roads around my hotel and office. I know a lot of good hotels and I can tell you what you should buy and where. I know how best I should manage my time so that I get some overlapping hours with team in India.
But then, it happens to all of us; doesn't it? Just when you begin think you are settling in, it is time to move on.
Had good time in California and met whole lot of people. Made few good friends! Got to learn a lot of things about business and society. Time to go home! Just 3 more days to go!
I have made more than 40 foreign tours so far. This includes trips to USA, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, Australia, even East Asia. Sometimes, I have been accompanied by my family and colleagues. Most of the times though, I was alone! I have experienced this moment in all my tours.
The moment you start your journey back, becomes a milestone of that journey! In your return journey you have so many memories, so many incidences, and 'to do lists' cluttering your mind! You even change your frame of mind to "home." Just like you change the currency notes from US$ to Indian Rupees.
Life can go on for years, without any noticeable change. But even a 3-day tour can give you this feeling of 'a milestone.'
After all these tours the experience of "going home" is still so intense! It is wonderful! That experience is worth the entire effort of the tour.
A tour "discharges the physical battery" and "charges the emotional battery."
Well, life goes on...and one day, just when you think you have started understanding 'life,' when you are getting used to it, and finally will be able to make some sense of it, it will be time to go Home! Then, a new tour will begin again, a new life...a new blog...
Contrary to popular belief I found America to be more cost-effective as compared to few cities in India (Mubai, Pune, Delhi, and Bangalore, to be specific). Take for example my hotel room. I had a studio apartment that had a rent of US$50 per night. The self-contained room had a small kitchenette with some utensils and amenities like electric stove, toaster, coffeemaker, microwave, fridge, TV, Lazy Chair.
Typically I would do my laundry once in 4 to 5 days. The laundry cost was US$ 4 per laundry ($2 for washer and $2 for dryer.) Compare this with Rs. 20 to Rs. 30 you pay per piece in India for laundry. Parking for my car was free. I would get coffee packets every day. Overall, it was an extremely clean, comfortable, and decent (non-smoking) room. The hotel has a swimming pool (which I never used.) Even the bath had a bathtub. I wonder why budget hotels in India do not arrange for washers on dryers on the same basis. The room was less than 200 sq feet. That should not be an issue I guess. Many hotels in US serve continental breakfast also. Their rents would be $60 plus.
Gas (Petrol) was obviously cheaper than India. Cabs were very, very expensive. Renting your own car was the only option and if you had a GPS device you could easily do that (after getting a bit of hang of the traffic guidelines.)
Before going to US I went to buy Jean pan for myself and realized that the ones that I liked started at Rs. 1500/-. All of them would have needed a bit of alteration (though this was not an additional cost). On the very day of reaching USA I bought 4 Jean pants, the average price US$15 per piece. This was almost half the price I would have paid in India.
Many grocery items were much more affordable. If I bought ready-to-cook packets of food for lunch/dinner with standard combination of Cereals, juice, and milk for breakfast, my entire week's food cost would not be more than US$40 or US$50. Even if I went out for food, a standard meal in places like Subway would be around US$6 per meal. Going to places like Taco Bell would be a bit more reasonable. You could have good decent meal at under $5 per meal.
A set of 12 small beer cans would be less than $8 per set. It would be cheaper if you bought in bulk (sets of 36 cans was also available.) Similarly mineral water bottles were available in sets and water was even available in gallons.
Starbucks Coffee was fairly expensive at $3 per medium size cup. But then one does not need to have it everyday. In fact, I avoided having it later unless I had some company who would insist on it.
If you went to a fairly decent bar you could get a cocktail drink and draft beer at $7. Of course you could also go to the higher end of the spectrum where it could be in excess of $20 per drink. But almost nobody did that. If you went for dinner to fine dining restaurant you would end up paying $3 per drink like Coke or Iced Tea. These drinks would be "bottom-less" - meaning you could get any number of refills and you would be served as soon as you finish the earlier glass. Free refills were also available in places like Subway where you could fill up your drink any number of times till you are in the hotel (I do not remember having refilled it more than once, that too, half a glass only.) You would get very good quality California wine starting $15 onwards. You would have some if having dinner with special guests or business contacts. Most dinner dishes would come with a bowl of rice and portions would be huge. I found it difficult to eat all that I would get in my dish so typically we would share.
Even in good restaurants it was common practice to take home the remaining food portions. You would be served boxes or containers and you should not feel odd to fill it yourself or then they would do it for you.
In good restaurants and bars a tip (gratuity) of 15 to 20% would be assumed. Unless you get really bad service, this much tip is mandatory.
Malls would be packed with crowd on weekends. Not much of crowd on other days though, the business kept happening. A bowling game would cost about $10 on a weekday and double of that on a weekend. The catch was, you even have to rent the special bowling shoes for playing the game. These would easily be $5 per hour per person.
I found Nike's own showroom selling Nike shoes at almost 30% discount than market rate. Shoes were as expensive as they can get, but I even saw good pair of shoes for US50. I doubt if we would get the same pair of shoes in India for anything less than Rs. 4,000/-
Movie theaters were very expensive. Movie tickets could cut your wallet by $12 to $15 easily. Cabs were too expensive, tips to drivers are mandatory, and you would end up waiting for quite some time. I did not use the public transport at all. But my past experience of using it in Bay Area has not been good. There are too few buses and that too after a long gap. Anyone who values time should rent own car.
Renting cars at airports is expensive. But if you are a preferred customer, or if you do bookings on the Internet, you can get better "deals." They told me that my Indian driving license is good enough to drive in California as I was on a business visa. To be on safe side I even had international Driving Permit (IDP.) Though, these rules can change by states. If you are renting a car, getting insurance is mandatory. Depending on the time period and type the insurance amount also can vary a lot!
Saturday, October 9, 2010
After freaking out with Aniruddha (Ani) in the first two weeks, the third week at California was to get a tinge of spirituality!
The day before Ani left for India we had a long discussion on philosophy and spirituality. Suddenly I remembered that the Swami Paramhansa Yogananda had mentioned about the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) Centers he had started in California. We casually searched for some places and the nearest SRF temple turned out to be only about 7 miles away from my hotel, in a town called Fullerton.
Ani drove us there only to find out that the center was closed. But we got an idea about their typical schedule in a week and the events conducted. After dropping Ani at the LA airport, I went to the SRF center and was welcomed by a gentleman with a broad smile and open heart. He gave me detailed information about the various courses offered and events conducted at the center. I was introduced to some volunteers offering 'Seva' at the center. After talking to me for some time one of them even asked me if I could take some lectures for school children on Sundays. I told them that I was only in town for a few days and therefore the idea was welcome, but not practical. They seemed convinced with the answer and welcomed me to take a look at the various rooms in the center. I noticed the small (but neat) auditorium and a couple of other rooms that were used for meetings and classes. There is a sound-proof room from where you can see the stage and also hear the lectures (but your voice will not come out.) It is meant for individuals and families undergoing extreme stress. Seemed like a good idea where they can let go of their stress and emotions without disturbing others or even attracting unnecessary attention.
I was handed over the events calendar for the month of October 2010. The gentleman who welcomed me was in Pune for some time. After realizing that I am a Maharashtrian, he invited me for lunch/dinner with his family. He told me about SRF center in Pune where I could do the course and get more information.
I went back on 7th October for a lecture session. The session was conducted in the auditorium I saw the other day. It had photographs of Swami Paramhansa Yogananda, Sri Sri Yukteshwar Giri, Lahiri Mahashay, Mah-avatar Babaji, and sketches of Jesus Christ and Bhagwan Krishna.
It started with a prayer and a 15 minutes meditation followed. We were asked to register names of individuals who could be stressed and in need of help/relief (including us, if applicable). The speaker later explained various aspects of meditation with a lot of examples. We ended the session with a prayer. As a part of the prayer we were asked to direct the prayer and the energy to anyone in the world who needs it. When they dimmed the lights during the prayer the photographs and sketches seemed to come alive and radiate energy. For a moment I thought the Great Guru's are sitting right there. The speaker spoke about how the Great Saints are omnipresent, even after their physical presence on the planet ceases to exist. We were asked to make donations. I hardly had any cash in my pocket because my entire existence was on the basis of the pre-paid US$ card given to me. But I did not get a feeling of inferiority because I saw others who did not pay anything or a few who paid in dimes (10 cents). No one (other than me) was looking at who paid and how much. I felt so stupid at that moment! Anyways, part of my personality I guess!
Overall it was nice and neat session. I thanked the speaker and left. Must mention here that I did experience inner peace during and after the lecture. For almost half an hour I was signing bhajans to myself. I did not listen to any music neither I spoke to anyone…
Looking forward to more. May be on coming Saturday or Sunday!