Monday, October 04, 2004

India: Unsettling yet Captivating

I never thought I would go to India, nor did I have any desire to visit. However when opportunities present themselves, I am of the belief that you should act on them and see what happens. What happened for me was that I saw a small glimpse of India and now I want to go back and see more.

Now just leaving Singapore enroot to India was my first obstacle. My in-house travel office had made all the arrangements and I was booked on the 8:20PM Sunday flight from Singapore to Mumbai. However when I got to the Singapore Airport, my plans were painfully put on hold. After I gave the Singapore Airlines agent my ticket and passport I saw here race back and forth across the pages of my passport. She asked where my visa for India was. Oh, I don’t need a visa I said confidently, as my travel office always alerts me for when I need a visa to a specific country. After checking with a supervisor the agent pointed out that everyone traveling to India needs a visa!!!

So after “unloading” on the travel office’s 24 hour emergency support person my mind was spinning. Why so furious? Well, I had spent a month and half assembling these meetings in Mumbai and coordinating with participants. Now it dreadfully appeared that I wouldn’t even be showing up for my own meeting. The always chipper emergency support person suggested that since I couldn’t get a visa in time that I should just re-schedule my meeting!!! Can you see my blood boiling after hearing that valuable suggestion?

The next morning I was sitting in the travel offices even before they opened. The support desk must have called my travel agent, because when she turned the corner into her cube and saw me sitting there, she immediately started apologizing all over herself. She muttered something about I think I sent you an email, which I put down immediately and said, no you did not, so what are we going to do to resolve this. She picked up the phone and called her visa service. They stated that the fastest the local Indian Embassy in Singapore could turn around a visa application was three days. Not good enough. They then suggested that I should personally go down to the Indian Embassy to plead my case in person in hopes of a one-time exception in getting my visa processed within the day.

The only problem was that I didn’t have an in-country invite letter that is required for visa applications. I sprinted to our Director’s admin support person and asked if she could create one for me. She just happened to have an old invite letter that was used by her boss. She quickly replaced his name with mine, changed the dates, and swapped in my passport number. Presto, I now had an invite letter. I grabbed it and sprinted for the first taxi I could find. Luckily I had some left over passport photos that I utilized for my visa application package, and I had already hurriedly filled out a visa application form with my travel agent. I sprinted into the embassy only to be confronted with the “please take a number” machine.

I was finally called to the front counter where I explained my case. The lady wanted to help but I could see she didn’t have the power to assist. She told me she would ask the head of embassy immigration, as it would be his ultimate decision. Fifteen minutes later I was invited back to see this person who held my fate in his hands. He was a confident and calm man in his early 50s. He asked me to have a seat and then slowly shuffled through my paperwork.

“Sir, you paperwork does not make any sense. I want you to read this invite letter and tell me if it makes sense to you.”

I panicked as he slid the letter across his wooden desk towards me but tried to pretend like nothing was wrong as I began to read the letter. The man did not wait for my analysis, but instead volunteered his own.

“The letter states that you will be coming to India on a monthly basis to inspect operational facilities, yet your visa application only requests a one-time entry. Does that make any sense to you?”

Damn he had me. In the rush to put together the invite letter, we had not double-checked the wording. It still referenced the nature of the Director’s business in India, not mine.

The man made me sweat a few moments and then said that he understood that some of his own countrymen are not that strong with English and that the hurried nature of my business had probably resulted in this mistake. Man, I wish I could have come up with such a great answer!

After lecturing me for fifteen minutes that this kind of thing should never happen again and that the next time I apply for a visa to India that I better do so well in advance, he agreed to grant this one time exception. He placed his personal signature on my paperwork and levied an enormous fee that would have to be paid ($220 Singapore Dollars) for express processing. I thanked him immensely for his help and approval and pledged that it would never happen again. I paid my fee and was on the phone to the notorious travel office having them re-book my flight for Mumbai for that evening.

So I worked the whole day on Monday in Singapore, picked up my passport and fresh visa that afternoon at 6:00PM, took a cab to my apartment to pick up my suitcase, and then off to the airport to leave on my flight at 8:00PM. 4 ½ hours later, I arrived in Mumbai at 11:30PM, grabbed the waiting car to the hotel, checked in and grabbed about five hours of sleep before my first meeting. I was one day late, but I had finally made it, and I had not missed the all important meetings which I had worked so hard to set up. PHEW!!!

Now I don’t have any amazing photos of the Taj Mahal or any other famous place within India to share. Fact was, I didn’t even take one photo. I saw some truly terrible and disturbing things while in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Conversely, I also met some amazingly spirited and proud people, and sampled some of the most flavorful food on the planet. India, as I discovered, is a place of contradictions.

India enjoys enormous growth within its extremely educated and upwardly mobile middle class. Yet it is also the same country that possesses a painfully prevalent number of excruciatingly poor people. In Mumbai, at least from my observations, there is no such thing as going from the good side of town to the bad side. Zoning and planning do not exist. You can emerge from your four-star hotel and step outside the property and be surrounded by grown men defecating in the street or young children running through the neighborhood with not a stitch of clothing, because their parents are too poor to clothe them. A three-story modern shopping complex, complete with a bowling alley that attracts middle-class teenagers, is right across the same street from people living in shanties assembled with scraps of wood or corrugated aluminum siding. Lack of basic infrastructure in most areas, like running water, sewers, and roads without chuckholes, are contrasted by brand new freeways and overpasses that lead to new centers of commerce.

I had a group of young girls about age 8, one of which was holding a baby, come up to my taxi at an intersection. These poor girls were wearing nothing more than rags and were filthy. They begged for money and spoke in clear English with a charming smile despite their situation. As the taxi left behind the intersection and the small girls, the driver said that unfortunately there is an entire sub-economy of begging in India. Begging Mafiosos will give these little girls a small pittance of food, but the little girls must go out on the streets and beg and then bring these scum bags back all the money which they make on the day.

India is a country of a billion people, just second to China in population and their cities are massively congested. Mumbai is estimated to be the most densely populated city in the world by 2020 with over 28 million inhabitants. I’ve now seen Mumbai and I have no idea where they are going to put all these people. The traffic alone was mind boggling. I saw numerous cows walking right down the middle of crowded street as cars and pedestrians made way for this sacred animal, while in our homes we might make room for them on our dinner plate.

What impressed me about India were the people. Living in a place where they see both opportunity and shameless representations of social failure all in the same day, these people had an unshakeable pride in their nation. I benefited from the hospitable nature of Indians and was invited to join them for a couple of dinners during my time in Mumbai. Over dinner, as traditional Indian musicians played songs and strummed the sitar, I was told by my hosts of the amazing history of India, the unique cultural and ethnic groups that make up the numerous regions across their land, and the promise and rise to prevalence of their economy. Politics was another topic that was on the tip of every Indian’s tongue. There political focus however was on domestic issues. I was told that the controlling and incumbent party of the Indian parliament was recently voted out because of an unbalanced view of how to grow India economically while trying to resolve the situation for the rural poor. A majority of Indian voters were upset of the courtship that was done with foreign companies, especially those focused on software and technology. Tax breaks and investments were given to construct offices that today house thousands of India’s most valued national assets: Software Programmers & Call Center Operators. Indians voted out their internal conflict at the polls. They saw a rising level of education, of status and purchasing power, but they also saw a government who could not execute infrastructure programs or find workable solutions for the afflicted poor.

I would never give up my Indian passport one man said to me. I am so proud of the journey my country has taken and I am even more encouraged by where it is going next. This was a sentiment that was expressed numerous times. We are slowly changing the way Indians are viewed around the world another man said to me. And it is true. India has the highest number of PhDs of any country and explosive middle class that outpaces that of China and Russia. And today it seems that Indians now want to tackle what has been a blemish on their reputation for centuries within their caste-based social structure: extreme poverty. More and more Indians are speaking with their vote that India cannot leave certain groups behind in the race for prosperity. Not everyone can be rich, but some of the basics should be provided. Clothing, sanitation, housing are all in dire need across most of India.

India appears to be evolving socially in attempts to close the gaps with other countries. One gap that other countries need to close with Indians is getting to know their cuisine. So much flavor and diversity is abound. Spicy curries, meats, and vegetables for sure, but it is the multitude of ways that they can be prepared. I love meat, but I was joking with another western guy in attendance one night, that we could easily be vegetarians in India, because vegetables there actually taste good. Many of the men bragged about their wives’ cooking and by the signs of some of the waistbands in the group, I don’t think many of them had missed any meals.

I didn’t get to see any tourist attractions on my first visit to India. My time was stuck in meetings for the most part. But I did get to see some truly horrible things contrasted almost immediately with some exciting and encouraging things. India is the poorest place I have ever witnessed. It blew my concept of “developing country” right out the window. Yet I also met some of the most hospitable, friendly, intelligent, and prideful people I have ever encountered. It was these people and the glimmer of promise that has convinced me to return. Next time I will budget some free time to go see the sights, but for now I was glad to have seen what I did. Disturbing yes, but enthralling and captivating for sure.


At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rather than go along with the propaganda with the indian media that india is a moderate stable with a high living stadnard would you going there admitt that it is a poor,backward country.


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