Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I got to India - how did Phileas Fogg do it?

He managed to travel around the world in 80 days. One thing is for sure, he didn't use American Airlines. I suppose I am being unfair to that airline, though I don't really remember having any pleasant experiences using them in the past. But air travel is fraught with delays and subject to the whims of nature and mechanical failures, it is far better that these failures keep you on the ground, rather than causing you to return there unexpectedly.

But, this blog entry is not so much about my unfortunate misadventures getting to India, but more about the fascinating and fortunate opportunity of being able to travel here and experience such an amazingly different culture.

However, I can't resist describing the journey. My reservations were schedule to take me from Austin TX, departing at 3.27 p.m. Friday to Dallas TX, with a 2 hour layover for a flight to London Heathrow, where I had a 4 hour wait for my direct connection from there to Bangalore India, that flight was scheduled to arrive just before 5 a.m. on Sunday morning IST. The flight out of Austin was delayed by 1 hour, due to the late arrival of the incoming flight. Not a cause for alarm as 1 hour was still sufficient to make my connection.

I need not have worried, the flight to London boarded 30 minutes late, and then we sat on the plane, at the gate, for two and a half hours while they fiddled around with a faulty radar issue. I watched a complete movie - Brooklyn - I highly recommend it, though it made me feel like crying - not sure if that was because I related so closely to the story, or because I was getting stressed about my connection time in London being whittled away. Once the movie was over and the flight was still not going anywhere, I called American Airlines reservations and asked what my alternatives were, should I miss the connection. They suggested I catch another flight out of Dallas, due to depart within the hour. That was not an option as my luggage was already aboard the parked plane. Then we were advised that we needed to deplane while the issue was fixed, so I had to hang up.

It was 11 p.m. before we finally took off

Once off the plane, I called AA reservations again, they advised me to speak to the gate agent. Another hour went by, lining up to speak with a gate agent. Finally when my turn came, he agreed that yes, it was unlikely that I would make the connection, but lets wait and see.. perhaps that flight would also be delayed, he spoke with a confidence that led me to believe that delayed flights was the norm for American Airlines.

Sun setting on London Airport before boarding
We finally were loaded back on the plane and took off 4 hours late. Arrival in London was approximately the same time as the flight to Bangalore departed, 2.25 p.m. GMT. However I was not surprised to find that London had stepped up and had everything under control. I was met at the arrival gate by a ticket agent with a new itinerary for me. My new flight was departing at 8.25 p.m and would take me to Delhi where I would make a connection to Bangalore, to arrive at 2.30 p.,m. Sunday afternoon IST. I had to check in with Jet Airlines (in London) at 5 p.m. to pick up my ticket, so I hung around until I got my boarding pass and then got something to eat to fill in the time.

This flight took off on time and my connection at Delhi to Bangalore was also on time.  Here is the thing, Any other time I have ever had disrupted flight plans, be it due to mechanical issue, or weather related, I have always received at the very least, meal vouchers, if not some form of compensation.

Despite spending 4 hours hanging around in Dallas, and almost a full day hanging around in Heathrow airport, I received no such compensation and I did incur extra expense buying meals I certainly had not anticipated having to buy - and could also have had much more expense as I arrived at my hotel a day later than expected and would have had to pay for the car that had been organized to meet me at the Bangalore Airport, had I not been able to rearrange that - even that required that I use roaming on my personal phone, an expense incurred as a direct result of the delayed flights.

The Palace
My colleague in Bangalore had arranged a car to pick me up from the airport and take me to my hotel, I contacted him from London to let him know the new arrival time, and he was able to contact the hotel on my behalf and this saved extra cost, no thanks to American Airlines there and sure enough the car was at the airport to meet me. The drive from the airport to the hotel should have taken about 30 minutes, however my driver took it upon himself to show me some of the local sights, we drove into the Palace grounds, an old Palace now a tourist attraction and a venue for events. (More information here). A marriage was in progress and it took some time to navigate through the crowds and the heavy traffic. I managed to get one inadequate photograph through the window of the slow moving cab and then we were off to my hotel I hoped, as I longed for a long hot shower and a quite, slow recovery. No such luck, I managed to convince the driver that I did not wish to go to Mysore Palace, almost 100 miles away. However he decided I might like to take a quick wander around the Cottage Industries, a local Bazaar. I could think of very little I would like to do less. At the best of times I hate shopping, and while it might have been a wonderfully exotic experience, most definitely not in my current state of exhaustion, jet lag and three days of travel grime. It took a a few minutes to convince the driver that no way was I getting out of the car for anything, least of all a shopping trip!

Finally he brought me to the hotel. I thought that the traffic was remarkably heavy for a Sunday afternoon, and more than a bit chaotic, that was because I had not yet seen, nor heard, the traffic on a normal working day, that was to come. Meanwhile I was impressed by the security at the hotel. Before the car could drive into the grounds of the hotel, it stopped at a security barrier where some incredibly polite security guards requested my permission to take my bag from the trunk of the car and scan it before delivering it to the reception area for me. I have no problem with being kept safe and agreed, not that I really had a choice. I was deposited at the entrance to the hotel, where my backpack was scanned and I was required to pass through a security scanner myself.

The hotel was extremely plush and quiet, the staff were almost too polite and I was advised that I had been upgraded to a 'single lady room' in their secure wing for single ladies. This wing was protected by an outer door with an electronic lock and a female security guard. Apparently they do not trust single ladies? The room was pleasant.. fairly standard hotel room. I connected my phone and laptop to the hotel WIFI and finally had my shower. After that I just chilled out. The rest of the visiting group from our head office in Seattle were not arriving until later that evening, so I sent a message to my manager (one of the late arriving group) and went to bed.

Squatty Potty 
I should take a step back here and mention that as soon as I knew that I was making this trip, I spent some time researching what I could expect and what preparations I needed to make. I established the vaccinations I needed and while at the travel clinic getting this taken care of, I was recommended to buy anti-mosquito wipes which I did. Google advised me that I could expect very different toilet arrangements, Indians have a similar arrangement to many European countries, where the bidet is a very important part of any toilet, so important in fact, that my French Grandmother had one installed in her bathroom in her home in Dublin.

My hotel toilet
Google led me to believe that I would not find toilet paper anywhere in India and strongly advised that foreigners removed their clothes before using the toilets, 'squatty potty' - and subsequently washing with the supplied spray/hose. I do admit that I was relieved to find a normal toilet in the hotel, and while the office also had a normal toilet, and toilet paper, it also had a hose / sprayer for that added cleanliness. I couldn't resist taking a photo of the rules posted in the ladies toilet in the office. To my Western mind, the idea of climbing on the toilet seemed somewhat unnecessary, however an Indian friend explained that for people who were brought up with the traditional India 'squatting' toilet, climbing on the bowl in order to squat did not seem all that far fetched - however, still somewhat dangerous.

toilet with sprayer

I guess I have to admit to being somewhat obsessed with toilets after all - this is definitely not the first time I have written about toilet habits. Looking back through the archives I find four blog entries on the subject. (One, two, three, four!). I can't help mentioning that one of the things I observed was men relieving themselves on the side of the road - any road, even the busy main road to the Airport, so I was not surprised to see a wall close to the office, with a huge sign painted on it 'Urine Forbidden'. Unfortunately I was not able to get a photo of that.

couldn't resist getting a photo of this

Later in the evening I received a text from my manager let me know that I could meet up with the group for breakfast and they had two cars on hand to ferry us all (all 8 of us) between the hotel and the office. Another logistical problem I no longer had to worry about.

Breakfast was amazing. I tried masala dosa and was hooked. But I admit I threw my diet to the West and indulged in all I could of this amazing Eastern food, a dish made from chia seeds and finely chopped fruit, made into a pudding - I don't normally like pudding but this was delicious. Coconut water, real, I mean still in the coconut, they drill a hole through one end and stick a straw in it. And the coffee! just amazing.

The entire purpose of the trip was to work with the team in India, up to now I was solely responsible for all of the testing on mobile devices, and as that effort had grown considerably in recent times and was no longer able to be handled by just one person, I was passing part of this effort to a new hire in the Bangalore office.Work was probably the only thing that was no different. Actually getting to work was probably the biggest culture shock, though getting back to the hotel after work even more so.

The traffic in Austin is bad, but nothing can compare to Bangalore rush hour. There are some similarities to Dublin - in so far as the roads are narrow, the traffic moves as fast as the obstacle in front will allow, and few observe rules of the road. However, in Dublin one way streets are observed, except by accident. In Bangalore, no one observes one way streets, they drive in the direction that will get them to where they want to go in the shortest amount of time. If that means the wrong way on a one way street then that is what they do.

There are more motorbikes on the streets than there are cars, plus there are more 'rickshaws' than cars. These are covered, three wheeled scooters. But the memory that I will carry forever is the absolute cacophony of sound. Everyone, I mean everyone who has a horn within hands reach, toots, blasts, beeps and blows that horn constantly. I figured out that this is because it is every man for himself. By that I mean, you do not check before changing direction, you expect everyone else to get out of the way, so everyone is constantly announcing their immediate presence by beeping and blowing their horns. The problem is that with so much noise, it is impossible to tell who is where. And of course, it is contagious.  It is a language on to itself. By the end of the week I had actually started to understand some of it. I could tell when it was intended as a greeting, the 'Good Morning' beep. A warning 'hey.. I am here', or 'behind you', and the very rare, but equally obvious 'Get out of my way!'.

Coming out of the office in the evening was probably the scariest part of the day. The street out front where we picked up our cab back to the hotel was a one way street. Most days our cab was parked across the street, facing in the right direction for the hotel, the wrong direction for the traffic flow, and I use the term flow very loosely. The traffic flowed at 5 p.m. like a rapid down a mountainside when the snows are melting in Spring. The noise was as deafening. There was no break in the horrific, beeping, honking, tooting stream of motorbikes, cars and rickshaws rushing past. The only way to cross was to take a deep breath and run, miraculously people, including myself, made it safely across the street - and during my entire week I never saw one traffic accident. An accident would have been fairly severe I think, as motorbike riders rarely wore helmets, frequently rode wearing flip flops, those who had helmets didn't close the straps so they would have been worse than useless in the event of a fall, and I saw many pillion rides carrying helmets, which didn't make sense, not only would it not protect them, also they didn't have free hands to hold on to the constantly weaving and sudden stopping vehicle. The majority of the helmets were actually construction hard hats, designed for protecting against minor debris falling from above, not designed to protect heads plowing into pavements or moving vehicles.

The hotel was a quiet harbor of luxury. It was a very old building, beautifully maintained. In the morning there was a piano player in the foyer, and in the evening a gentleman with an accordion sat on the gallery overlooking the foyer and played. The first evening, as I passed him, he asked me where I was from and obligingly played an Irish jig. The following evening as soon as he saw me, he switching into the jig immediately. Before I left I stopped and took a photo of him.

There were 4 restaurants in the hotel, all serving incredible food. On one evening we ate at the poolside Royal Afghan restaurant - that was amazingly good, and a beautiful location. I also enjoyed the Dublin Pub, seriously an 'Irish' pub in the hotel, where I taught the barman to say 'Slainte' in place of Salute. Much more appropriate. As I left the pub I heard him say Slainte to someone at the bar, my work was done.

I think the highlight of my visit had to be dinner with my wonderful friends Shubham and Akriti. What an honor to be invited to eat at home with an Indian family. I traveled to their home with Akriti, in a cab. Despite it being a working day, she had prepared food that morning and we had a wonderful meal and shared an evening of enjoyable camaraderie and conversation, after which they drove me home, even at 10 p.m. the traffic was still thick and noisy, it took an hour and a half to travel the approximately 30 miles back to my hotel, and they then had to turn around and drive back, with another working day to face. What incredible hospitality! And because I am almost overwhelmed by it, I have to say once again what an  honor it is to be able to say I spent an evening at home with an Indian family, while on a business trip. Before I left the office on Friday, Akriti presented me with a box of Indian sweets which I packed carefully in my check in luggage to bring home with me.

The journey home was not quite as painful as the journey out. Almost all flights were on time and relatively uneventful. I flew from Bangalore to Abu Dhabi, the 4 hour layover there was taken up with US immigration, customs and security, then a very long walk to the departure gate. From Abu Dhabi to JFK New York, was a 13 hour flight, in an airbus A380 which was interesting. This plane has two stories and hold 544 passengers. I had a very long layover at JFK, made even longer because the flight to Austin was delayed. It was due to depart at 5.15 and at the exact moment that the first class passengers started to board, a delay was announced, because the cockpit crew had been diverted to Newark airport and we had to wait for them to get from there to JFK. The first delay announced was only 30 minutes, but that was extended and it was almost 8 p.m. before we finally took off. At one point I overheard one of the American Airlines Gold members, that is someone who travels with them very frequently, complaining to the gate agent that this seems to be the norm for AA. It was after midnight before I was at last able to sleep in my own bed. In response to a question from one of my friends. I spent 84 hours traveling and 144 hours in India.

I really did enjoy India, and I do hope to return again some time, but I can't tell you how good it felt to be back on American soil, the very long layover at JFK was definitely a challenge but I was almost home and the time passed quickly as I finished up my first draft of this blog and enjoyed a triple venti cappuccino from Starbucks - back on my diet tomorrow, but today was all about celebrating a successful trip and getting home safe and sound.

Bangalore from the 30th floor restaurant.

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