Sunday, March 18, 2007

Goodbye, Bob

Vicky and I arrived safely in Seattle last night. Les is probably still on an airplane somewhere over the Pacific. He was headed from Delhi to Singapore, then to LA and home. Talk about taking the long way around...

Day 10 of training finished on Friday afternoon. I really feel good about what we accomplished in the 10 days. Both teams seemed to be really excited about getting New Tools and Peer Coaching going, and I think they'd both devised sensible and realistic plans for getting things going. We held a short "graduation" ceremony and said our farewells to everyone. Vicky and I needed to go pick up our tailor-made suits, so we planned to leave Les to talk to some of the Indian team about implementation.

Here's where Bob reenters our story. Over the last few days, we seemed to have come to an understanding with him: he shows up 10 minutes late and we learn to live with it. Friday morning, we had Kiryana (the onsite coordinator) talk to him and tell him that our plan for Friday afternoon was that Bob would pick us up at 2:30 and take Vicky and me to the DLF MegaMall to pick up our clothes, then we would go back to the Swasno Palace to get Les (AKA, Sir) and the three of us would go to the Galaxy Towers Mall to the Cottage Emporium to get Indian stuff to bring home. Bob dutifully repeated, "2:30 Megamall, here, Galaxy Towers," so we thought we had it down.

Bob picked us up close to 2:30, and we set off to the MegaMall. Bob tried to go in the parking lot exit, and the policeman told him he couldn't park, translated to us as "No Park herrra (roll the "r's" and you'll get the flavor). We convinced Bob to try the parking lot entrance, noting the presence of a number of police in the parking lot at the same time. We had been told that there was a bomb threat in three of the malls in Gurgaon, so we weren't surprised when the second policeman Bob talked to told him he couldn't park. Or, in Bob's words, "No park. Mall closed. Bomba."

We convinced him to go back to get Sir. Once we'd gotten Sir away from the Indian team, Bob headed out to the Galaxy Mall, which we knew was on the Gurgaon-Jaipur Road. Bob headed in the opposite direction. Finally, he stopped at "Handicrafts Emporium" announcing "You shop." It took us quite a long time to get him to understand that we were not where we wanted to be (insert Les' expletives here). The light finally dawned, he turned around, we retraced our route then found the right mall. Let's say that what should have taken us maybe 20 minutes from the Swasno took us over an hour and a half. Or, to quote Les, "We could have made it to Jaipur in the amount of time it took us to go to the Galaxy Mall." Slight exaggeration. As we got out of the car at the hotel, we made sure that Bob knew he needed to pick Vicky and me up at 3:30 the next morning. We crossed our fingers but checked with the concierge about a backup plan.

Trinkets were acquired and we went back to the hotel for one last meal and one final meeting with the restaurant manager, whom Les had begun calling, "Cashew." I won't bother to explain, it's a looong story. Suffice it to say that over the course of several evenings, we had learned everything we didn't need to know about Cashew. Cashew very thoughtfully requested the chef to pack us a box breakfast for the next morning, a gesture we really appreciated.

3:30AM rolls around pretty quickly when you don't finish packing until 10PM and the folks next door were having a raucous time watching India play whoever the hell they were playing. I think they actually watched the whole thing, so imagine how much beer can be consumed over the entirety of a cricket match. It's a lot.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, Bob was on time. In the clothes he wore all day Friday and in a car that smelled like he'd slept in it. But, he was there on time. He got us to the airport, and Vicky made me give him his tip. Her reasoning was that since he did seem to like me more than her, it was only fair that I be the one to give him the tip. He did linger a bit.

Then, we stood in line. For an hour. To have our suitcases x-rayed. Then, we stood in line. Again. To check in and get seat assignments. Then, we stood in line. Again. To have our hand luggage x-rayed and to have a body search. If you can call it that. The woman doing the searches for women memorized my entire itinerary, then waved the wand-thing at my left arm. I'm not sure the thing was even on, and perhaps she chose my left arm because I'm so obviously left-handed, who knows. Either way, we finally made it on the plane, flew for a very long time and arrived at Heathrow. To stand in line. Again. To go through security. Because some terrorist ramp worker might have slipped us a thermonuclear device between one end of Terminal 4 and the other. Good Lord, there wasn't even a duty free shop between the jetway and security, so I'm not sure how they came up with the fanciful notion that we could get possession of a weapon, unless you consider British toilet paper a WMD. WAD, most assuredly. I'll leave it to you to figure out that acronym.

We're home, and glad to be. Still, it was an amazing adventure and one I will always consider myself lucky to have been on.

Until next time...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Signs of India and Other Observations

Whoo-Hah-Indeeeya. Whoo-Hah-Indeeeya.

Sorry. Had a fit of cricket fever there for a second. "Who-ha-who gives a crap?" would be more accurate.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen many fascinating things and learned so much about Indian life and culture. Do we know everything? Hardly. We've barely even scratched the surface.

One of the things that we have found interesting and amusing is the creative way that Indians use the English language. It appears that they have taken the English left by the British Raj and done what they do with everything: they've adapted it to their own uses. Grammar and usage rules seem to be as elastic as the sense of time and this makes for some intriguiging signage. To wit, this example on the front of the menu at the place Vicky and I stopped on our way to Agra.

Most of my examples you'll have to take my word for, as I often didn't have the camera ready as we sped past them. I promise I did not make them up.

A hospital in Kosi: "Able Hospital." If that doesn't inspire confidence...

On a sign advertising a tire store: "Used Imported Tyres. Throwaway Prizes." I'm not sure which is worse.

In the rear window of a number of cars seen on Delhi streets: "Competent." As opposed to?

On a road sign as we were leaving Delhi: "Lane driving is safe driving." Since you have at least two cars sharing a lane, there must be a LOT of safe drivers! We discovered a variation on the theme this morning, "Lane driving, sane driving." It's going to take more than that.

This, an advertisement for a travel agency, "Mahindra Travel: Clean Coaches, Marriages, Picnics" Apparently, marriage is no picnic.

Painted on the fences outside Ghandi International Airport: "Learn English. Spoken and Grammer." But not speling.

On a gasoline truck: "Higly In Flameable." Not much you can say to that!

This one is such a lovely illustration of how unimaginative we Americans can be. Our sign would read something like,"Please don't pick the flowers," or, "$1,000 fine for picking flowers." The groundskeepers at the Taj Mahal did this instead:

Sometimes, the signs are supreme examples of the obvious, as in the "Showroom Shifted" sign from an earlier post. This one was one of our favorites. From what we have seen (and heard) there isn't an Indian driver born who would need "Horn Please" as encouragement. Perhaps this is meant for foreign drivers.

This one puzzled us at first. The first time I saw it was on a gasoline truck (not the higly in flameable one). I couldn't figure out why you would need to use a dipper at night. Then, I saw it on a freight truck and I wondered how you would use a dipper on a sack of potatoes. So, I finally asked Dubayah and he explained that the dipper is what we would call the dimmer switch on our lights. It still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but at least I know what it means.

Often, we saw both on the same truck, although, not always quite so straightforwardly (or festive). Many times, the sign read "Horn Use Dipper At Night Please."
This evening was the Gala Dinner, Drinks and Dancing in the Grand Ballroom of the Swasno Palace Hotel. The Grand Ballroom doubles as our classroom during the day. They brought in a dj and a lighted dance floor for the occasion. Let's just say that the normally reserved Sri Lankans aren't always what they seem and the guys were really having a good time on the dance floor. I have pictures of Les. 'Nuff said.

Tomorrow is Day 10 of training. All of us, trainees included are tired. One of the trainees turns around on Saturday and begins teaching New Tools.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Monkeys, Cricket, Dead People,etc. Parte Deux, Second Try

When we last saw our heroines, Vicky and Cheryl were in Agra. Touring was over for the evening, shopping had been done, a mediocre meal consumed and the ladies had retired for the evening...

We had made arrangements to meet Dubayah the Guide (not to be confused with "Dubya" for all you Molly Ivins fans) at 9. Somehow, I thought we were headed for Fatehpur Sikri, a city built and quickly abandoned by one of the Moghul kings but Dubayah said we were headed for Akhbar's tomb. The site is on the outskirts of Agra, theorhetically a fairly short ride. However, India does not have freeways or highways to speak of so it's no picnic getting from here to there. Mostly, the ride was through city streets.

About Agra: the entire city seems to be comprised of buildings in varying states of repair, unfinished or collapsing buildings, people and all manner of animals, and piles of rubble. Piles of rubble every 50' or so. I am not exaggerating. There were piles of building materials, piles of bricks, piles of broken brick, piles of dirt, piles of gravel and lots and lots of piles of trash. Some of these piles were being moved from one pile to another, others had apparently been a part of the roadside so long that they had taken on a state of permanence. Oh, and every so often, a small fenced-off gravesite. In the middle of the road. It seems that these sites are the resting places for some of the Muslim holy people. They had been buried in those tombs many, many years before the road, so the government just built the road around the tombs rather than create problems by moving the graves. There is now a law in place that forbids new graves or shrines from being constructed near roads, train tracks or subways.

Akhbar's tomb was beautiful. Akhbar the Great is a person I've been reading about since elementary school, so it was pretty cool to have a chance to see his tomb. The tomb is in a large park which is home to black-faced monkeys, chipmunks, the corkscrew antlered "deer" (aren't they Ibex?) and hundreds of green parrots. This is fledging time for the young parrots so there were several squawking youngsters and shouting mothers working through that "I'm kicking you out of the nest" thing. Look carefully and you will see the mother perched on a small ledge and the fledgling trying not to fly. The park was very serene and quiet, except for those familial discussions.

Akhbar's Tomb was also where were reunited with Mr. Singh, the driver. At least it looked like Mr. Sing, but it may have been his evil twin, Skippy. This Mr. Singh seemed determined to get us home whilst setting a new land speed record. He would speed up as fast as he could, then hit the brakes just as doom seemed inevitable. He wove in and out of traffic like a Kashmiri carpet maker. He passed everything that could be passed, but his true talent was on the horn. He played that horn like a virtuoso, with passion and flare and the concentration of one determined to give the performance of a lifetime. The angels wept. God, in heaven, looked down upon us and said, "I hope the ladies from Seattle understand that they are in the hands of a master. They should appreciate the gift."

We got back to Delhi in the requisite number of parts. That's all we cared about.

Newly-sprouted grey hairs aside, the drive back was worth the price of the trip. We believe that the huge numbers on the roads were due to it being "Will everyone in Uttar Pradesh please get up and change places" Day. The roads were packed with all manner of transportation: bullock, donkey, horse, camel and elephant carts; bicycles and motorcycles; cars, trucks, and overloaded "lorries"; people on foot and in the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled conveyance that has a cab large enough for the driver and usually two or three passenger. Most tuk-tuks are powered by 1940's era sewing machines. It is not uncommon for a tuk-tuk to have as many as 16 people aboard, and there is always have room for one more.

Rural India is a very busy place. Everyone seemed to be engaged in some task, whether cutting firewood on the side of the road, digging holes, working in the wheat fields, or making dung cakes. The dung cakes are used for fuel, but first they have to be patted out like a tortilla and then laid out to dry. They are then stacked into house-like structures and they manage to turn the dung cake structures into works of art. Others were engaged in brickmaking and brick kilns are everywhere. Some folks were selling fruits and vegetables from hand-drawn carts, still others were selling from trays, on the side of the road.

Once we were safely back at the Global Fortune Select Hotel Vicky and I decided it was time to check out the 750 rupee, 1 hour massages offered at the spa. A teeny, tiny but very energetic Indian lady does the massages and she worked HARD! Both of us felt great afterwards but I've never seen someone put so much of her energy into a massage.

Training Monday went fine, although we were a little behind by the end of the day. Okay, 3 hours behind, but our choices were to either whiz through the material so that no one understood or to slow down and make sure that people were getting the material. We chose the latter. We began and ended Tuesday 3 hours behind, but by the end of yesterday, it seemed like people were really beginning to understand what we are trying to accomplish and to make it their own. Les was muttering something about staying through Saturday to finish up, but the Sri Lankans are leaving mid afternoon Friday and Vicky and I are on the first flight out on Saturday morning. He can stay if he wants, but the only one to hear what he has to say will be the mosquitos in the training room that have spent the last week and a half trying to give us malaria. I do think that peer coaching and problem-based learning have a real shot at success here and that feels pretty darn good.

Here's how pathetic we have become: by the time we get back to the hotel in the evenings, there's usually not time to go anywhere because of the traffic. So, we've been eating in the hotel every evening. Tuesday night, we did get a chance to do a little shopping. When we returned to the hotel, the restaurant manager greeted us at the door, saying, "Would you like food? We are ready for you." Then, as we were seated, he said, "White and Red wine for the misses and for Sir a beer?" When the drinks were brought, he stopped by to ask if we had a special request for the Two-bit Taiwanese (news update: they are there on a seven year contract and actually the male singer is quite nice). We'd already heard Patsy Cline, so there really wasn't anything we wanted to hear. The power went out for a minute or two, but not the music. Sigh.

The weather was terrible for first two days of this week, with winds, thunder and rain that had all of us looking for a house falling out of the sky. Apparently, it's been much cooler than usual and everyone apologizes for the weather. We survived Winter '06-07, a little rain and thunder here is nothing, especially since the power goes out 10 times a day.

That's my story, for now.

Next: the signs of India.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Elephants, Monkeys, Chipmunks, and Cricket

What an amazing weekend! We dragged ourselves out of bed at o'dark thirty (okay, o'dark forty-five) to meet the car and driver who picked us up here at the Beautiful Global Fortune Select Hotel. We had a moment of curiosity when the guide got into the front seat with a very nice, older Sikh gentleman at the helm and another man crawled into the "wayback" of the Indian version of a Honda Odyssey (actually I think it was some sort of Toyota, but you get the idea). Two American women surrounded by strange men. Hmm. The guide (Dubaya, I think, was his name) explained that the young man in the trunk was our driver but he didn't know how to find the hotel, so Mr. Singh drove over and we were dropping him off somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. And, so we did, although Mr. Singh drove very carefully and with remarkably little horn usage. Even at 5AM, the horns still blow. The sun doesn't make an appearance for another hour or so, but those horns are a'blarin' everywhere.

We drove for a while through the Uttar Pradesh countryside until we reached our first stop, the Country Inn. Read: tourist trap but cleaner than anyother tourist trap for 250km. Vicky and I had breakfast while watching the local boys play cricket. Cricket has to be some form of Divine Retribution. A guy runs at an upright stick, throws what appears to be a tennis ball at another upright stick while the person with the butter paddle attempts to hit the tennis ball. A whole bunch of guys stand around in the field with their hands in their pockets until they begin to jump up and down excitedly.

We resumed our journey through rural India. The drive was worth the price, just for the experience of seeing some of the things we saw. Camel and elephant drawn wagons, every possible form of wheeled transportation, people making dung cakes for fuel, and as Vicky put it,
"more brown bottoms than I ever wanted." The men seem to just do whatever, whereever. We never saw any women taking care of things, but the guys seem to just pee and poop whever the mood strikes.

Livestock. Livestock everywhere. Cows wander where they will, and apparently, everyone is expected to give them something to eat, the only rule is that they can't eat the last of your food. Given the way that Indian drivers conduct themselves, it's a small wonder that more cows don't meet their maker and more Indians don't wake up as cockroaches. Imagine the eternal damage to your karma for hitting a cow! Among the other livestock let to wander we saw dogs, dogs, dogs, water buffalo (usually tied up because you can actually consume water buffalo milk), donkeys, goats and feral pigs.

After close to four hours, we finally arrived on the outskirts of Agra travelling at the sedate speed of 900 km an hour,. At that speed, we calculate the total distance traveled would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,600 km. We knew we'd arrived because the traffic went from a four lane divided highway (meaning anywhere from 4-8 de facto lanes going either direction) to a two lane pothole studded vehicular melee. I'm sure the traffic laws make sense to someone, but I'm not sure to whom. It would appear that passing any sort of driver test is a suggestion but not a requirement. Cars will squeeze in between walls, sidewalks, other motorized vehicles including those 10X their size. No problem. If there's a milimeter of space on each side, it's all good. I think that they must sell new vehicles predented because there is not a single vehicle in the entirety of India that isn't scratched and dented. I do not make this up. The public transportation services appear to go out of their way to buy buses with parts torn and/or missing. They probably charge extra on the routes serviced by buses that are missing more than a quarter of their structural steel.

Anyway, we checked into the Jay Pee Hotel. Not making it up. Jay Pee. It was the biggest hotel either of us had ever been in. In the 24 or so hours we were guests of the Jay Pee, we never used the same staircase twice. It was also chock full o' tourists in big, intact buses which is how you know they're not from India. Actually, the hotel was very nice and the grounds were maginificent, despite the admonitions taped to the exterior doors of the rooms. See left.

After checking in, we met the guide and off we went to the Taj Mahal. India did something very smart in the early 1990's and shut down all factories within several miles of the Taj to protect it from the continuing effects of air pollution. The government helped those factories relocate and they subsidize the folks who live in Agra, because the entire city makes almost all of its' money on tourism.

Upon arrival on the grounds of the Taj, we changed cars to an electric vehicle because no gas powered vehicle is allowed within 500m of the Taj. There is nothing like the Taj Mahal and there simply aren't words to describe it. It's huge; much, much bigger than I ever imagined and so beautiful it's not possible to capture it in a photograph, but here is one attempt. We explored the grounds for about an hour and a half. The mosque and the mirror image royal guest house are beautiful but pale in comparison. The Taj was built in the 17th century by the Moghul king, Shah Jehan ,to memorialize his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who gave him all of his fourteen children and died in childbirth with the fourteenth child. After fourteen kids in 17 years, she deserved a Taj.

After a short nap at the hotel, we headed off for Agra Fort. The guide told us tons of stories about the various walls, moats and palaces within the fort, some true, some questionable but good stories. Agra Fort was also built by the Moghuls and at one time, was Shah Jehan's prison when his ungrateful wretch of a son, Aurengzeb staged a little coup, killing his brothers and imprisoning his father and sisters. Thinking about it, if my parents had given me that name, I probably would have a chip on my shoulder, too. Jehan asked that he be given a view of the Taj from his prison, and here's a shot taken from his window. As prison views go, it doesn't totally stink.

So, anyway, we did a little shopping at some "very good shops" the guide knew. Everything seemed really expensive and neither one of us cared much for the high-pressure ("Come on, you know you can't go home and disappoint your daughter.") sales pitch so we disappointed several salesmen and our guide and didn't buy much.

It's getting late and there' so much more to tell. Tomorrow: Vicky and Cheryl say hello to monkeys, parrots and Akhbar the Great, Mr. Singh reappears (or was it his evil twin, Skippy?) and Les spends the night trying not to get malaria.

Dinner at the Jay Pee

Friday, March 9, 2007

Off to Agra

Today was the first day of the Peer Coaching curriculum and as we expected, things went a little more slowly than we had hoped. We wound up a little behind for the day, but it'll be fine. The class works really hard and does as much as they can but some have some limited English, so having them read articles and long lists of directions really slows things down. It'll be fine, or as Vicky says, "We've already done Korea and they didn't speak any English!"

Vicky and I leave at 5AM tomorrow for Agra and the Taj Mahal. We finally got the itinerary today, and of course, they needed cash ASAP, which meant finding a cash machine. Once we did (not too hard, since there's one across from the hotel), we felt rich. Asking for 20,000 rs at a cash machine and getting a huge stack of bills was pretty cool until we realized that a large stack of bills really doesn't mean much. They look interesting, but they aren't worth much, roughly 50:1.

I'm going to bed so I can be fresh for the big adventure tomorrow. I'll be offline until Sunday night India (Real) Time. Have a great weekend, and wish Rob a Happy Anniversary. I wish he could be here to go to the Taj on our 23rd anniversary, but I plan on bringing back lots of pictures.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

How Many Chefs Does It Take to Make a Fazita?

We have officially finished the New Tools Curriculum in India and tomorrow we are on to Peer Coaching. It was a good day, even though we thought we'd lost Bob again. He was 15 minutes late to pick us up this morning, an unusual occurrence. He's always on time in the mornings and to pick us up in the afternoons. It's the other times that are tricky and we had to bring in a translator to explain to him that he had the weekend off and wouldn't need to drive us to Agra (Vicky and me) or Jaipur (Les). Good thing. He was a bit fuzzy about where either city is.

Today was International Women's Day, a big deal in India. It was in the paper (quote coming) and one of the ladies brought all the women in the class a red rose. Women in India still have a hard time, but it looks to me like there's a core group of incredibly strong women who are working hard to build a better life for their sisters. Unfortunately, you still come across such treacley nonsense as this from the India Times this morning:

"What happens when you mix the freshness of the morning dw, the colours of the rainbow, the music of a rivulet and the sparkle of a distant star? Surely, you'll get a woman -god's masterpiece who keeps his world going. The clever fellow that he is, when he noticed he could not be physically present everywhere, he gave his angels to every family to keep his work alive on earth - truly, a woman stands testimony to god's plan itself.

(insert drivel here)...She makes every possible arrangement to make her home function as efficiently as she has pictured it in her mind. And so it does, because with her abilities there are rare chances of anything going amiss. [Ed. note: Given the natural state of my house, I'm a little concerned about the implications of this whole "pictured it in her mind" thing]

The mechanics of running a home is an art only a woman can master. " I'd finish the quote, but I may become ill.

Also in the India Times of late was a story about a young bride who set herself afire after an argument with her husband. To quote the story, "It was a marriage for love." And we all know how those will come to no good end. We also read that the Indian team beat the Dutch in a must-win cricket match just before the beginning of the World Cup, apparently winning on minnows. Not only is this game the most baffling and dull game in the known universe, but now we find that "The minnows add a lot of character and charm to the event." (Rahul Dravid, Indian cricket team and no longer a member of the ISPCA.)

So, exactly how many chefs does it take to make a fazita? We're not totally sure. The hotel restaurant has a theme buffet every week night. Tonight was Mexican night and on the menu were "fazitas, chicken or veg." There were, at any given time, at least three chefs ready, willing, and presumably able to create the fazita of your dreams. We still don't know how many chefs are required for such a daunting task because we never saw them do anything but sprinkle water on the griddle. I guess that might be a mystery for the ages, although we do know that it takes a mall security guard stationed every 50' to park cars in a mall parking lot. Anything that can be done by one is actually done by at least three, even "carpeting the roads." Apparently, the road to Jaipur is a good one because it has recently been carpeted. Hopefully, they've selected one for high traffic areas!

The Two-bit Taiwanese were back. Tonight's musical stylings included "My Heart Will Go On." I really wanted to ask for another power outage, but I didn't. We got it on the way up the elevator, though. The power went out, but they have really good emergency power, so we got off on what the display said was the 8th floor (where we live), only to find that it was the 7th floor. Must be some funny Indian power thing.

Happy International Women's Day, and to my sisters in Spokane: Keep up the good work. Remember that you steal for the good of the team.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Removers of Darkness and Ignorance

I think I speak for all three of us when I say that today was a really good day. The weather has been picture perfect the whole time we've been here. Bob showed up on time. All the class were eager and ready to get to work and work, they did. Lunch was simply amazing. The afternoon session of creating and sharing Learning Plans went far better than any of us had expected. The class has warmed up to us and to each other, not that they were cold or rude or anything like that. Vicky and I got to do a little shopping. Dinner was great, again.

Let's the order of the introductory paragraph: the weather the whole time, so far, has been slightly breezy and in the mid-70's. I'm sure the sky could be considered blue, but Delhi really has terrible air quality. It makes for great sunsets, though.

Bob arrived quite promptly this morning as usual. He was his usual helpful self, making sure to carry Vicky's and my bags in to the conference room. He always addresses Les but looks to me for confirmation, like I speak Hindi. But, he's a sweet kid. On the way home, tonight, Les actually called him "Bob," even though we know his name is Nantuk (I think I misspelled it before). He has apparently decided that we like Indian music, which he plays at earsplitting levels the second the key is in the ignition. Les finally turned it down tonight. I think that was about the time he began calling him "Bob."

Everyone was in their places and working hard when the bell metaphorically rang. Even Shiksha 2! Today was kind of crunch day, because they had to have their projects in pretty good order by late this afternoon. The three of us spent a lot of time with individual groups, and I have to say, these are the most satisfying people I've ever worked with. The idea of project based learning is that you give real world problems to solve and these people are designing projects to clean up the Yanuma River, a lake in Rajasthan, preserving the elephant population in Sri Lanka, addressing the horrifying number of traffic deaths in India... great stuff and real things these kids see every day. Very inspiring! As always happens, it takes a few days for a group like this to gel, and today was gel day. People were wandering around helping each other, even across national lines. By next Friday, we should all be best friends.

Now, for something completely gastronomical: I thought we'd all come back a few pounds lighter. Pounds sterling, maybe. We have eaten ourselves silly. The food in the hotel is very good (the honey-chile french fries are to die for). I was told this afternoon that the hotel for the conference was specifically chosen because of the food. Holy cow! Lunch is a much anticipated affair, as are the morning and afternoon tea breaks where the hotel staff takes great delight in serving the Americans a different kind of tea every day, although they always have a pot of Masala tea waiting because they know how much we love it.

Vicky and I split the cost of a car from the hotel ($13) to do a little shopping. We were both in the market for "pyjamas," which is the Indian term for the tunic, pants and scarf that most Indian women wear these days. We weren't especially happy with the selections in the store that had been recommended, but found a "textiles" store. They must have had 2,000 different flats of fabric. Some were sari length, others were for pyjamas. Amazing colors and combinations. You ask to see one you like, and they unfold it. The fabric for the top is pre cut to length, with the coordinating precut pants fabric and a coordinating scarf. They make the most incredible color and pattern combinations, and they always seem to work. Anyhow, once you've made your choice, a very proper Sikh tailor takes your measurements, asks about your pants preference ("straight leg or proper Punjabi style" and you should have seen his face light up when I said I wanted the proper Punjabi style.) He then designs the neckline of the tunic for you, draws the design on a piece of scratch paper and sticks it in the bag with your fabric. We will have our custom made costumes in about a week. All for something around $30. I may go back and buy some of the sari fabric because it is so incredibly beautiful.

You may be wondering about the odd title. One of the teachers in the class is this delightful Hindu man, who takes great pride in his faith and great joy in telling us about it. He told us today that the meaning of "guru" comes from the words' two syllables. "Gu" means "darkness and ignorance," and "ru" means "remover of," thus "guru" is a remover of darkness and ignorance, or a teacher. He said that there are three debts that a Hindu can never repay, the one to his mother, the one to his nation and the one to his teachers, or gurus. He said that because the gift a teacher gives is that of knowledge, which is an ever growing gift, there is no way to repay it. What an extraordinary view of the value of education!

Dinner in the hotel was just what we've come to expect: the service is friendly but slooooooooow. We think Les may have upset the balance of the universe by asking for the menus before our drinks were delivered. At least the hotel staff certainly seemed to think so. The Two-Bit Taiwanese Band was back and when they launched into "Stand by Your Man," Les was left to wonder what the odds were that we would hear the same Patsy Cline song twice in three days in India. Must be astronomical! They took a break while we were eating but thoughtfully left the background music on their karaoke machine going for ambience. As we left the restaurant and headed for the elevators, Les sighed that there were times when he waited for band breaks. I said that I thought there were times when a power outage would be welcome. I no sooner had the words out of my mouth when the power went out. In the darkness, I heard, "Goddamnit, Cheryl, don't you ever say that again."

Not to worry, Les.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

In which we lose Shiksha2 and Bob in the same day

First, an apology: I was not able to connect at the hotel last night, so this entry is a little late. Oh, how I do love technology, or as Les puts it: technology will only fail when you need it.

That's sort of the theme of the day, I suppose. Technology failure. I was supposed to be teaching using the web and the cd's yesterday morning which I certainly could have done, except for one teeny, tiny glitch. The brand, spanking new $1500 Proxima projector decided to act like a two year old and refused to cooperate. The tech guys tried everything under the sun, and finally found one laptop in the whole room that our miscreant projector would play nicely with. By then it was lunch, and I had spent most of the morning using a whiteboard and markers to get across the things I needed to do. Hey, it's all part of teaching with technology. Always have a backup plan, and it's a really good idea to have a backup to the backup, too.

After lunch (and I must say the food at the Palace Swasno Hotel is fantastic!), we thought we were good to go. The projector had had enough of a timeout, everyone's cd's had finally been coaxed into cooperation and the stars seemed to be aligned. Then, Shiksha 2 decided to also take a break. We have two wireless hubs, Shiksha 1 and 2. (Shiksha is the Hindi word for "Education"). Shiksha 2 had died on Monday afternoon only to be resurrected Monday night. By yesterday afternoon, she had gone on holiday again and we were down to practically no bandwidth. This really is not a recipie for succes when you are teaching technology skills. The folks were very patient and understanding, probably because this is India where the power goes out ten times a day and you can make an appointment with someone but must consider the power of IST (India Stretch Time).

Vicky and I had decided early in the morning that we wanted to do some shopping after class. The ladies in the class were very helpful and knowledgeable about places to go for the items we were looking for. We thought we could get Bob to drop us at the hotel, then wait 15 minutes while we changed shoes, then take us to the mall where we were told we would find the shops we wanted. Rememeber, Bob speaks very little English. We thought that we could get Gagan, one of the teachers here, to translate for us, and give Bob directions. 10 minutes and at least 4 people later, we were on our way.

Bob dutifully dropped us off. As I got my bag from him I gestured 15 minutes and he said, "Yes, 15 minutes." We changed and went downstairs eagerly anticipating a credit card exercise session.

No Bob.

No Bob's car.

The helpful doorman, after the three of us stood around for 15 minutes, said,"Oh, he has gone away. I saw him leave." He suggested we sit inside for a few minutes until Bob came back. We finally formulated a plan of attack on the bar for our "free" drinks (we get a new coupon every day). We informed the doorman that he could call us in the bar if Bob showed up. By this time, Bob was 45 minutes late.

We arrived in the bar, coupons in hand and throats parched. Now, we find that the coupon is good for a beer (size L) or a mixed drink (size Barbie). We went with the flow, ordered snacks and sat back to enjoy the evening. It was sometime into the second drink that one of the bartenders came to the table to tell Mr. Foltos that there was a phone call. Les came back to announce that Bob had been waiting for about a half hour for us. The doorman had called our rooms and when he couldn't reach us it seems that Bob called the travel agent who arranged his employment with us. She, in turn, called Gagan, who called the front desk of the hotel, who did a tiny little bit of sleuthing and found us in...the bar. Just where we said we'd be.

Will the food at Hotel Swasno continue to be fabulous? Will the travel agent show up to give us the plans for Agra? Will Vicky and Cheryl get to go shopping tonight?

Stay tuned for the answers to these and many more questions.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Our First Day of School

We did it. We made it through the first day. One down, 9 to go. That sounds more ominous than it really was. We're all tired, but it's a good tired.

Our nameless driver, whom I shall call Bob for want of a better name, showed up very
punctually at 7:45. Just as we had asked. You see, there's this phenomenon in India known as "Elastic Time," meaning you almost never do anything at the agreed-upon time. You think you have an agreement, but they will give you that funny little wag of the head they do, and you just never quite know. Anyhow, Bob showed up, drove us the three minutes (really) through the streets of Gurgaon to the training site. These are some typical street scenes on our route to training. The one picture I'm sorry I missed was one I would have called "Sanjay's Quality License Plates." It's a little roadside stand with about 30 license plates for sale. I'll try to get it for future posts.

Once Bob had gotten us to the Hotel Swansoo, he insisted on carrying our bags in for us. He really is sweet, just doesn't speak much English. More on that later.

We met our class, and before the learning began, there was a traditional Indian welcome ceremony, with dots of marigold pollen on everyone's forehead, and the presentation of marigold necklaces (leis) for everyone. It was pretty cool, I have to say!

Dinner tonight was probably our biggest adventure of the day. We decided to eat in the hotel because none of us felt like going anywhere. The hotel has been delivering free drink (beer or soft drink) coupons to the rooms for a couple of days, now, and Les decided to take them up on the offer. Last night, we had tried to go to the bar but it was closed for renovation so we had our drinks in the dining room. There's no way you will ever get a DUI from drinking in this hotel: it takes at least a half hour to get your order. Come to think of it, the bar was probably closed because they wanted everyone to listen to the band (Les claims they brought the 2 piece band in from Taiwan and paid them 25 cents to play. 25 rupees would have been too much.). Think the worst versions of "Annie's Song" and "Mandy," you have ever heard. Oh, and "Stand By Your Man," sung phonetically.

So, we were looking at the menus, had ordered something to drink, when this very solicitous hotel person arrived to tell us that we couldn't use the coupon in the restaurant, only in the bar which was now reopened. (Ed. note: last night, they didn't know when it would reopen). He practically dragged us out of our seats, promising us that our table would be reserved for us and that "they serve the same food in the bar." Okay, we thought, what do we have to lose? Not a smart strategy in India. When we arrived at the North Pole Bar (temp. 0C, hence the nickname) the solicitous man grabbed our drink order from the waiter who was up there filling it, and begged us to pick a seat. We asked the bartender if we could get food and Mr. S. informed us, "Oh, no, only light snacks." We finally convinced him that we really did want food and returned to our table in the dining room. The menus had been removed and, well, to make a long story short, at least it only took 45 minutes to get drinks, another 10 or so to get menus, another 20 or so to place an order, and a really, really looooooooong time before the food was served.

More tomorrow!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

From Humayan to Haldiran's: Happy Holi!

We began the day fairly quietly, with the hotel breakfast (and coffee worthy of any teacher's lounge in the universe) and some time in a conference room getting our ducks in a row. Well, the ducks would've more orderly if we hadn't continually gone on "birdwalks" about a thousand other topics. Either way, Les had been told by our host that today, the last day of Holi, the Indian Spring Festival, would be a good day to take some time in the hotel, as the Hindu population spends the morning throwing paint at each other and drinking. Wise advice.

Around 2, we made our way to the concierge to see if he could arrange a car to take us on a sightseeing tour. He was very reluctant to do so, as he was worried about the paint-throwing thing and more to the point, the drinking and driving thing. We reasoned that a little alcohol wasn't going to make anyone in Delhi a worse driver, so we voted to take our chances. Les thought we should see the capitol and India Gate, so off we went.

Our driver agreed to take us to the sights Les wanted to see, and even parked very close to the India Gate so that we could walk up to this memorial to India's WWI dead. We walked around the park (very much like the Mall in DC)and watched many people enjoying a perfect weather day and one of India's biggest holidays. When we returned to the car, the driver suggested that we should see Humayan's Tomb. It is supposed to be the precursor to the Taj Mahal. It was stunning and we were all very glad we listened to the driver. We were greeted many times by locals wishing us "Happy Holi!" As we were climbing the steps of Humayun's Tomb, a boy of about 7 or 8 leaned over the wall and yelled, "Happy Holi!" When I wished him a happy holi, he said "What country are you from?" I told him we were from the US and that caused quite a stir. We could hear a lot of talking in Hindi and the word "US" several times. The entire family gathered at the top of the stairs to look at us.

Our main activity for the day was to go to the training site and meet with the folks who are putting things together. They wound up being probably a half dozen of the nicest gentlemen you could ever want to meet. Very eager to help in any way, very interested in what we are doing and very funny. I think this is going to be a good two weeks. Once we were ready to leave and have dinner, Les asked if there were any decent Indian restaurants in the area. The site is across the street (not as simple as it sounds)from a large shopping mall. Like any self-respecting mall in America, Indian malls, too, have food courts. TG, our host, gave us a list, suggesting a sit-down place called "Choke." I kid you not. Maybe it doesn't have the same meaning in Hindi. It was in the Metropolitan Mall. He also suggested a place in the Sahara Mall, Haldriman's, which he said was good if you could tolerate "hubbub." The mall is directly across somewhere between 8-12 lanes of traffic. Remember that in India, lane marks are put down to keep the Highway Department in work so the rule is that if you can squeeze your vehicle into the space, it's considered a lane. Traffic lights? They do make nice perches for pigeons, don't they?

Sorry for the birdwalk, back to the story. Our driver for the next 12 days is a very, very nice young man (we'll get his name eventually) who speaks almost no English. Two of our hosts left Les with their cell numbers so that if there is a language problem we can call and they can translate. We figured that we'd be fine for dinner because TG had given the driver the information about where we wanted to go. He dutifully drove us to the Metropolitan Mall because we had decided we wanted sit down more than we wanted hubbub. Mr. Driver drove us to the mall, couldn't find parking and just kept on going. We finally stopped outside some other place and when we finally made it clear that we would go across the street for hubbub rather than try to get back to where we wanted to go, he began backing the car out of the parking lot we were in. I kid you not, the back alarm makes a noise like a remote controlled fart machine for about 5 seconds and then begins playing some Indian music for 15 or so seconds. Fart, sing, repeat. I very nearly lost it.

We made it to Haldiram's. It's difficult to describe. I think it's India's answer to Old Country Buffet, only it's not a buffet. You make your choices, pay for them and take them to one of the serving tables where they spoon what might be the appropriate glop onto a plastic cafeteria tray or plate for you. Les wants us to kill him if he should ever suggest that we take a meal outside of the hotel. Mine wasn't that bad, but it wasn't that great either. But, hey, when in India do as the Indians do, and judging from the hubbub, a lot of Indians do Haldiram's.

And, finally, in a marvelous demonstration of Indian understatement, we give you this sight, which we came upon on the way into Delhi. If you look closely, the sign says "Showroom Shifted." I'd say they got that right.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

What does it mean when the pilot says "Hopefully?"

We're here! We made it halfway around the world (over 8,000 miles to be almost exact). Vicky and I left Seattle at 6:30 PM Friday and arrived at 5:30 AM Saturday, Delhi time.

The first leg from Seattle to London was uneventful. We spent a couple of hours wandering around Heathrow because neither of us wanted to sit down. We'd just done 8-1/2 hours on a jammed 747 and knew we faced another 8-9 hours on another jammed 747.

As far as we can tell, the only boarding announcements at Heathrow must be made in the terminals your flight is not departing from. We knew we were at the right gate (the sign said so) and we knew 298 others thought they were at the right gate. We all knew we were 15 minutes late boarding and there had been no annoucement. Suddenly, people just started walking down the jetway and the British Airways gate crew seemed fine with it. So, we joined the others and boarded. Note to self: it isn't always a good idea to be among the first to board. As we got on, we both thought the plane seemed rather warm and close. Could be sharing a metal tube with over three hundred other souls, all exhaling and generating body heat, we thought. Then, the lights went out. The boarding stopped. The captain came on the intercom (how does that work if there's no power?) to say that the auxilliary power unit was in the tail, making it impossible to service and so the plane was plugged into power from the airport (must be one mighty extension cord!) and we'd tripped a breaker. Could it be that someone had tried to use the microwave, the hairdryer, and the 747 all at the same time?

After close to an hour of sitting in an increasingly stuffy plane with a whole lot of smelly people, they finally found the breaker box, the power came back on, and boarding resumed. As the last stragglers came down the aisle, Vicky and I realized that there was only one empty seat and it was next to Vicky. She thought we'd gotten away with not having to share our little slice of paradise with someone and she fastened her seatbelt. I felt that was tempting fate and I was right. Suddenly, a young man came bounding down the aisle and stopped right next to me. Wonderful. Once he was seated, we should've been able to depart, but we just sat there, still connected to Heathrow by that extension cord. Our seat partner explained that as he was getting on the crew was counting heads and trying to locate a passenger whose bags had been loaded but who hadn't checked in. That explained the urgent running up and down the aisle by the crew. Someone finally cleared us and the pilot came on to explain that we were ready to leave and hopefully we'd get a good departure slot and hopefully everything would go well and hopefully we'd make up some of the time we'd lost. That's a lot of "hopefullys" for someone who truly has your life in his hands.

All had gone hopefully well for about half the flight when the pilot came back on the PA. No hopefullys this time: instead he was announcing that some moron (my word, not his) had been smoking in the bathroom. He explained that there was a hefty fine involved and if it happened again, he'd be forced to have the police hold us and search the plane when we arrived in Delhi. You could just about see the anger of 299 people who had already been stuck on a plane an hour longer than they wanted to be. Anyhow, the juvenile delinquent (it takes a special kind of stupid to risk A)a $2000 fine and B) setting the bathroom on fire?) behaved and we landed in Delhi without further incident.

Vicky got through Immigration in about 15 seconds. The officer then turned his attention to my passport and wrote and wrote and wrote. I think he just liked writing my name. I finally got through, we collected our bags, changed some money and looked for our driver. We'd been told to looks for a sign with our names on it. Sure enough, the second sign said "Mr. Victoria, Mr. Wolotira (Coordinators)" Mr. Victoria could be anyone, but Mr. Wolotira? We took a chance and identified ourselves to the nice man.

Remember Luke Cabdriver from Korea? He not only has a brother in Delhi, I actually think he emmigrated to Seoul from Delhi. Our driver was relatively sane and he only blew his horn every minute or so, which may cause him some grief with the authorities. It is unlawful (we believe) and unsafe (apparently) to not lay on your horn from the moment you turn on the engine 'til you turn it off. We got to the Fortune Select Global Hotel safely, checked into our very, very nice rooms and spent most of the day either catching up on sleep or catching up on work. The hotel looks to be somewhere on the road to Jaipur, so not in Delhi proper. It is quite nice, quite comfortable.

Tomorrow: Les arrives from Cambodia and we get to see the venue. And, who knows what else?