Sunday, June 10, 2018

India Food & Culture

As someone who eats Indian food pretty regularly I was excited to try some authentic local food.  But I have to say it was a little disappointing.  I'm sure I didn't go to the best places and didn't get a great selection.  So partly my fault.

There is no Yelp in India.  The local equivalent, Zomato is not nearly as good.  Most days I worked until 6 and then needed to work yet a little more at the hotel.  So I didn't feel like getting driven 45 minutes plus in the Bengaluru traffic to a restaurant, having my driver wait, and then heading home with work to do.  Instead I walked somewhere near my hotel or got room service.  That's not to mention my few days of travel sickness where I ate very blandly.  (I went to Subway twice!)  That was not surprising but unfortunate.  I was getting better by Friday but was cautious through the weekend since I was often far from home.  Unfortunately that weekend was my best chance to eat far from the hotel and I didn't.

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But I made the best of it.  One thing interesting to me was the "Veg vs non veg" dichotomy.  I frequently hear this terminology at work but didn't think much of it.  I guess it's the normal terms throughtout India.  Most restaurants I saw separate lines and separate kitchens for the "veg" side.

I found the processes weird.  At a food court there was one guy who took my order and gave me a paper.  Another guy took a different paper to the kitchen.  Later the 2nd guy took my paper and had my food cooked.  At another place I was given a paper.  I waited a few minutes until my order came out.  The guy asked for my paper and examined it before giving me the food.  Like he didn’t remember the one white guy who was sitting there the whole time?  At another lunch I went to a coke store.  They had a big coke zero graphic.  Great!  I ordered that.  They guy says, oh, you want diet coke.  OK, not really but fine.  I pay and he gives me regular coke.

One day I bought a couple of papayas from a street vendor.  Well I asked for 2.  He gave me (and charged me for) 3.  This was my first experience with this tactic.  At least it was 3 and not 4.  In general retailers are very aggressive.  Not my favorite.  I avoided shopping in part because of this.  I just don't enjoy being followed around and told how much my wife would enjoy this jewelry box.  And that I'm a dunce if I don't buy it at this price.  Spoiler alert: she wouldn't want it.

The ever-present security was also a surprise to me.  I was frisked often...including at most every public place.  At the hotel the car was inspected and I had to x-ray my phones and bags like I was at the airport.

I expected Bengaluru to be more diverse than it was.  But I was often the only white dude in sight.  People asking to take a photo with me was commonplace.  At first I thought it was a pickpocketing scam.  But no, I was simply a novelty.

On the first Wednesday all of us Illumina folks went over to the IBM office.  We have a lot of contractors through IBM.  I used to have a Salesforce developer, Swetha, through that arrangement but she moved to Australia about a month prior to my trip.  That was an interesting experience.  I had never managed anyone before or dealt with offshore resources before.  So I was always wondering how I was doing with that.  But when Swetha left India she was effusive with her praise, telling me how much I taught her and how she always felt in the loop.  It was nice to hear.

At IBM it was fun to put faces to names; except Swetha of course.  But she knew this meeting was happening.  She had some local relatives buy some Indian gifts for Christine and I.  And had that package delivered to my hotel.  Really sweet of her, I didn't know what to say.

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I said I wasn't going to talk about work but I've been asked so I'll tell a couple of stories.  Truly it was just what I expected.  I worked a lot with the senior developers (about 10 years of experience).  They seemed competent in that they understood what I talked about and gave good feedback.  I haven't seen their actual work so I can't comment at that level.  Whereas most of the rest of the team was younger and greener.  When I presented to that group I could tell from the questions that they are still learning fundamental concepts.

One of the best things about this trip is I got to meet with the initial team face-to-face.  (There will be people rolling on and off as the project goes.)  They'll know who I am and what I'm like.  Hopefully on our many calls they will think better of me than they would have if I were a disembodied voice.  We ate together, attended cricket together, and chatted about fantasy novels.  They probably know me as well as some people I work with in San Diego.  Which should help as this project rolls along for months and months.

The last thing which struck me that I find worth mentioning is work and hours in these consultant shops.  I was told there that most people work about 11am to 7pm.  I asked why they work those hours.  I was told they work late to avoid the traffic.  But traffic doesn't really get going until 9 so I'm not sure about that explanation.  I think it's just the norm.  After coming back I see that most of them work more like 8am to 10pm.  The dev leads are often plugging away well after midnight.

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…Akshay to my L, Ashwin at L end of photo, I spent most of my time with these two guys

For a while I tried to tell them I could help and they should stop earlier.  But I've come to realize that is the situation there and they chose it.  It's how they get ahead, whatever their goals may be.  Continuously asking them to work less becomes rude after a while.  They're going to keep going, it's what's expected and it's how they will succeed.

There were lots of interesting and fun things in India.  Some culture shock but that's interesting in its own way.  But I am glad to be home and I'm glad that I live and work in a place that values work/life balance.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Being the tourist

It’s Todd again with the second of three installments on my India trip.  I arrived in India early on a Saturday morning.  I also was free the subsequent weekend before I left.  Which means despite my busyness, I had some free days to explore and play.  So how'd that go?  This will be the most photo-heavy post.  If you like photos, grab a cup of tea.  Put milk in it like the Indians do if you can, I couldn't get used to that myself.

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…they call it the Garden City

The best way to beat the jetlag is to stay awake until the first nighttime.  After getting settled I asked the driver to take me shopping, to a street market or whatever.  After some stops at a carpet shop and non-descript mini-mall, he dropped me off at a market off Mahatma Gandhi (MG) road.  That was a real Indian street market!  I didn't buy anything though, I mostly just walked and tried not to get run over.  As with car traffic, the traffic in these commerce alleyways was super chaotic.  There were holes in the sidewalk to watch out for.  There were people walking every which way.  There were carts selling food.  There were motorcycles honking and driving through us.  Like I said, I mostly tried to not get injured and just took it in.

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…that is a legit clothing store btw

After I was done with that my driver took me to a mall for dinner.  I ate, er, "Mexican food."  Yeah, not really.  But it was late and I was very hungry so it was good.  On the way out I ran into a bunch of students putting on a dance performance.  That was some great spontaneous fun.  And that's what I did the first weekend.  I spent Sunday relaxing and getting ready for work.

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The following Saturday I explored Bengaluru.  First stop was the Iskcon temple.  Are you familiar with Hare Krishnas?  That is the same people.  This religion is very repetitive.  Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hara Hare, Hare Rama...  Etc.  There was a band practicing and their songs basically said that, again and again.  I must have heard the mantra 200x in my time there.

The first thing that happened was I had to give up my shoes.  Storage was Rs2 but the smallest bill I had was 10.  They said get change and come back.  A couple of times on the concrete my feet were so hot I was afraid I had burned them.  Thankfully I didn't.  When I picked up my shoes there was another guy getting his.  So I stood behind an American.  That was a mistake.  Another guy charged passed me and waved his ticket to get his shoes.  Haha, lining up and waiting your turn is not really a thing here.

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…barefoot and learning what to expect at the temple

Back to the tour.  It cost about Rs300 which is a bit under $5.  It was nice in that I had a special path for tourists to follow which was marked by signs.  And I got an itinerary up front so I knew I'd be putting my hands on the flowers for a blessing, eating the special food, and so on.  The local pilgrims were in their own line where they waited for a chance to prostrate themselves before idols and go into a cathedral area to chant together and so forth.  I wasn't allowed to take photos most of the indoor areas unfortunately.  In a way the icons and buildings were reminiscent of Catholics.  There was art on the ceilings, statues and paintings of famous people on the walls, and lots of ornate architecture.  Having more experience on the Protestant side of things that's what it reminded me of.  I'm sure Catholics would find it quite foreign though.

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A couple of other themes jumped out at me.  This group likes to proselytize.  I got a couple of pitches during my tour.  Second, because I was on a tourist path I was hit up frequently for both donations and commerce opportunities.  At first I thought, huh, I guess there isn't a separation of commerce and spirituality here.  But later I learned my experience was colored by the fact that I went to temples that were half theme park.  The smaller ones are different.

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At one of the charity pitches I experienced a now-familiar Indian sales tactic.  No matter how much I offer to donate or ask to buy, the seller immediately asks for double.  If I order naan at a restaurant, the waiter asks "two orders of naan?"  At the lunches for kids station I offered RS500.  He immediately said, 1000?  But I was ready for it and stuck with 500.  After all, several 100s had already gone to other priests and so forth on this day.  I had to keep a lid on my cash to some extent!

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…I enjoyed the promo for the kid’s TV series about young Krishna

Towards the end I had the special foods.  And walked through endless tables selling junk.  And it was junk.  Mostly plastic things you'd find at a $1 store.  There was a lot of food too.  I didn't buy any but later lamented I didn't eat any samosas in India.  I should have gotten one here.

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…enjoying the special soup

After a quick stop for lunch we went on to the Bangalore (aka Bengaluru) Palace.  The seat of power for the state of Karnataka has vacillated between this castle and the one in Mysuru (which I'd visit tomorrow) over the last several hundred years.  BTW, since independence in the 40s, power now resides in the parliament building in Bengaluru.

The palace stories reminded me of the British royals.  They don’t have power or taxes.  So they have to make do with their amassed fortune.  Which is a lot less here.  They always have to rent out space for cash.  In fact a wedding was being held there that very night.  Also because the palace was designed by a British guy.

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The tour was 300 if you want to take photos.  Lol, they are always out to get ya.  The guide was fun though.  The palace was designed by a brit and looks like it.  Except for all the Indian craziness on the walls.  The 7 armed lady or the elephant head god, etc.  I learned the last male heir died a couple years back.  He was head of the cricket league.  His wife has since moved over to Mysore.  I am not clear if the era of royals is dead in Karnataka.

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…I paid money to take these goofy photos

The next day I got up early for the drive to Mysuru.  It's about 3.5 hours one way.  As I mentioned this is the other site that has historically been the local seat of power.  So my experiences today were a lot like yesterday...a temple and a palace.  These were much grander but at the same time I had better tours yesterday.

The temple at Mysuru is the second most popular tourist destination in all of India behind the Taj.  A fact that was driven home to me when we were stuck in huge traffic lines to get in.  Eventually I got out and walked the rest of the way... and wondered how I'd ever find my driver afterwards.  Luckily when I was ready to leave the roads had cleared out and I found him pretty easily.

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At the entrance was a statue of a pirate-looking guy about to behead a cobra.  I never did learn who he was.  I walked around and took photos and soon a guy started talking to me.  He wanted me to see the smaller, older temple to Vishnu which was behind the bigger famous temple with humongous lines.  I figured I’d be out a couple hundred but it would be worth someone telling me stories.

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He was a talker but the stories were disjointed.  We cracked open coconuts, waved our hands over a fire, sat overlooking a valley eating fruit, and of course give a couple priests some cash.  I couldn't say what the significance of these actions were.  Other than donating cash.  That's universal, lol.  My driver had warned me that people would try and snooker me out of money.  So I kept the flow to a reasonable amount.

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…cracking the coconut

But he didn't warn me about the monkeys.

As I was leaving I saw a couple of the cute little guys.  Then one of them veered right for me and started making intimidating gestures.  I swung my plastic bag at him to shoo him away.  But he snatched it from my hands.  Then he ignored me while he took the banana out and started eating it.  I had forgotten there was a banana in there.  So add to my tourist experiences being assaulted by a primate.

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…saw this one too late

On the way out we stopped to take a couple photos of a large stone cow.  Of course I got pressured into another 100 for some flowers to gift to the cow.  At this point I was glad to be done with temple tourism.  I had kept a gate on the funds going out but the requests are relentless.

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After lunch at a local joint we headed over to the palace.  This was a gorgeous and grand building.  But I had no guidance this time and so was reduced to walking around and taking a few photos.  There was an opportunity to go inside.  But I would have had to turn in my shoes and walk on the pavement quite a distance to get in the long line in order to enter.  It was 97 degrees and I was pretty sure I'd burn my feet if I walked this path.  So I stuck to the shade and skipped the inside.

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Once I was done it was just 4 hours to drive home.

A couple of days later I got a chance to go to a cricket match.  It's something I was excited to do once I learned it was in season during my visit.  A couple of guys at the office said they'd like to go too. I knew it was in part politeness on their part.  I was alarmed though, when I found out tickets were about $125.  I didn't want them to spend that kind of money to be polite.  Luckily, their office paid for all of us.

Our seats were quite great.  Rain was not a threat this day but the seats were covered.  Behind us was an indoor area which had a/c and was where the food and drink would be.  The first song I heard at the stadium was "Don't Stop Believing" for some reason.

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Strangely food and drink were not available until 8pm which was gametime.  That's not the smartest planning.  And they were strict about it.  At 7:55, I still could not get a coke.  The food actually arrived about 10 minutes early.  It was chicken, potatoes, and fried baby corns.  I ate a plate and decided to wait a little while since I was pretty full.  Soon I learned I had filled up on appetizers (or starters as the locals say).

I arrived at the stadium with Ashwin.  Akash and Akshay came about 20 mins later with painted faces and jerseys.  We missed out on those until later.  It cracked me up that a sponsor on the jersey is "Eros Now."  Which is a legitimate video streaming service.  Seriously!

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I had studied up on cricket rules.  I won't try and summarize, it's vaguely like baseball but not really.  On this night Bangalore was on offense first.  They were very streaky but ended up with 167 runs.  Then it was Mumbai's turn.  The rest of the match was a countdown.  Could Mumbai score more than 167 in their half?  They were much more consistent but less explosive.  It became clear about halfway through their 1 here and 1 there was not going to cut it.  Bangalore won by about 15 runs and in truth it wasn't even that close.

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…I will translate. It says “victory is at hand”

It was about 5.5km to the hotel and this is the only time I rode in a rickshaw cab instead of with my driver.  We paid the crazy high price of Rs350 for that ride.  But most drivers refused us outright or asked for 600.  They were hoping for customers going farther than us.  I was glad to have Ashwin with me to negotiate all this.

Check back soon for my last batch of stories on food and culture.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

To India and Back Again

Todd spent two weeks in India for work from mid-April to early May.  He will be writing four guest blog posts here at over the next few days to talk about his experiences in India.    ~Christine

In the last part of April I (Todd) went on a two-week trip to Bengaluru, India for the job.  The work purpose was to train a group of contract programmers for an 18 month project.  1) to write good code (as I define it), 2) teach them some technical skills, and 3) refine a process to maintain quality standards as they hand code off to me (which I also came up with).  Piece of cake, right?

But this is not going to be stories about work.  I'm here to tell you what it was like to head to the other side of the world on my own and jump into a different culture.  What did I eat?  What did I learn?  What's it like to be the tallest and blondest person anyone has ever seen?  Read on to learn!

What does everyone hate about travel?  The process of getting places.  Let's start there…but not for the purpose of venting.  Rather what I thought were the interesting parts.

The first thing I discovered was the best job in the world.  That job being the money exchanger at the San Diego airport.  I never saw this worker.  I walked by 3 times and every time the "Be back by..." clock had been updated but as far as I know nobody ever actually shows up to exchange money.  I wouldn't mind drawing a paycheck from that while spending my time reading, jamming in a funk band, and making cookies.  Yeah, that's my next job!

My flight was on British Air with layovers in LAX and Heathrow.  Heathrow is about halfway between - I had a pair of 10 hour flights excluding the jump up to LA.  As a non-executive business traveler I had seats in premium economy but not business class.  For about 2x the price of coach, I got wider seats with more legroom and more food.  All the bad wine I wanted to drink was available to me.  I chose not to dehydrate myself.  Business class costs about 6x coach and has seats that recline all the way down for sleeping.  I assume they have the same crappy wine.

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I was excited to eat some pasties in London but no such luck.  I couldn't find any.  I did manage some fish and chips and Cadbury chocolates though.  The London airport is different from those in the states.  There was only one station to get water in the whole international terminal.  OTOH, the bathrooms smelled really nice.

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When I finally arrived in Bengaluru I thought, "finally, I'm here!"  I was wrong.  It was a good 60 minutes of nausea-inducing driving to get to the hotel.  Thankfully after a couple of days I got used to the driving style.  Bengaluru traffic is crazy.  Experience it in this brief video:

BTW, if you've ever wondered why duty free shops exist and if you really get good deals there, they have an interesting backstory.  My return trip happend to be on 5/4 as in "May the 4th Be With You."  London decked out the monitors with the Star Wars font.

20180504-2018-05-04 15.14.59_blog Speaking of the way back, I had to get up at 2:30 AM local time.  But by getting 12 hours back, I landed on the same day that I left (barely).  That was nice mentally as opposed to the way there when I seemingly lost days.  I kid you not, my passport was checked five times in the Bengaluru airport (3 of them in immediate succession).  India loves to employ people and throw them at problems.  There are people to tell you where to park.  People to tell you how to navigate a driveway.  People to guide you to the right entrance.  People everywhere!

In my dreams I was going to read the long book Shantaram on my 40 hours of flying.  But I had started a couple of books before I left which I wanted to finish (American Gods and The Magicians).  I finished those two in India and I couldn't muster the energy on the return flights.  Neflix won my attention instead (Stranger Things 2 was the bomb!)  I'm still progressing on Shantaram though.  If you want to know what India is really like without actually going there, this is a good place to start.  Very nice book.

I'll finish here for today.  I am far from a travel lover.  I think most, if not all of the mind-broadening experiences can be gained by reading.  Fortunately, I am a book lover.  Nonetheless I made the most of this trip and have stories to tell.  Check back next time for those stories and many more photos!

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