Sunday, March 30, 2008

Costco Cash

My job requires a bit of travel, so my credit card gets a lot of use. I try to use American Express as much as possible. At the risk of sounding like one of their ads, all of the purchases I make using my card earns me cash-back. 3% for restaurant charges, 2% for travel charges and 1% for everything else.

Only they don't send me a real check. They send me a Costco check, which I can use to buy merchandise at Costco. But I am able to redeem my check for cash at Costco, if I am willing to stand in the unholy checkout lines there.

I received my check several weeks ago, for $1,070.55. This was the result of charging $58,000 over the past 12 months.

I am obviously inexperienced in holding large wads of money, otherwise I would have been sure to put the large bills on the outside to better flaunt my wealth.

Since I don't go to Costco very often the check has been lying around. Kelley tried to cash the check while I was in India. She forged my signature and everything.

Unfortunately for her, she was unsuccessful. As apathetic as most shop workers in New York are, each has his own personal boundary, that point where he decides to care enough to actually do his job, follow the rules, etc. We now know that at least one Brooklyn Costco employee draws the line at cashing a $1,000 check for a person without identification.

So on Saturday Kelley and I decided to go to Costco and cash my check. The unfortunate part of shopping at Costco in Brooklyn is that it is located in Brooklyn. That means standing in lines with some of the most inconsiderate people I've ever encountered. As usual, the store was packed so we stood in line for a while, which requires constant vigilance lest someone cut in the line.

When we finally got to the register I handed the cashier my check. She looks at it and yells, "Oh shit! This check is for $1,000!"

Yes, in New York it is perfectly acceptable for a cashier to yell obscenities at a customer. That and to announce to the entire store that another customer was about to be given $1,000 in cash.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Delicious food

Indian cuisine is not my favorite, but this trip has definitely changed my attitude regarding it. Most of the food I ate was delicious. Aloo benazeer (skewered potatoes) and tandoor gobi (spicy cauliflower) were my favorites.

Aloo benazeer

On one of my flights they served kheema murthaba, kozhi melagu varuval, and molagapodi kuzhi paniyaram. I'm not exactly sure what all was in each, but they were all very good.

Tandoor gobi

For lunch some of the people from training are taking me to the food court in the building where their office is located. The food court was filled with fast food places.

The food was good, but surprisingly greasy. That made for a big mess because the Indians eat with their hands. Eating dosas that way makes a lot of sense to me, but not rice dishes. It seems like a spoon would be easier.

Fast food dosa

Mostly I ate at the Indian restaurants, but there was a Pizza Hut and KFC that I tried. They were both ok. There was also a Subway which I didn't try. Vinodh and Rocky (two of the students from the class I was teaching) tried it and literally threw it away after one bite.

Garlic naan

Indians don't drink very much. The drinks that were served were even smaller than those I got in Europe. The cup sizes range from that dixie cup to child-size drink in the US. Like in Europe, they don't tend to use ice cubes. Rocky gave me his Pepsi, which did have ice in it. The Indians were surprised by how quickly I could drink something so cold. They have to drink icy drinks very slowly.

Good evening Mr. Adam, may I serve you?

A recurring theme of my trip to India is this: an unnessesarily large number of people are involved in everything. At times I wondered how little these people were getting paid that it was worth it to their employers to have so many people on staff.

I can't list all of the people at the hotel who were there to serve the guests. Two people would deliver room service. One would present the bill the other would bring the food. At a restaurant there were so many people standing around waiting for an opening to serve me.

I don't like being waited on. I don't need someone to pull out my chair for me before I sit. I don't need someone to place my napkin in my lap for me. I don't need someone to open the car door for me.

Sometimes it makes me downright uncomfortable. When I approach the elevator at the hotel the security guard forces a smile onto his face, asks me if everything is ok, and presses the elevator keys for me. Or in the food court at work the way you are not supposed to throw away your own trash. There are people who are there to do it. My hosts had to repeatedly remind me to leave my dishes on the table.

Sometimes it just confuses me. In the lobby of the office where I am working there are several woman there all day long who constrantly mop the floor. Back and forth they clean an already clean floor.

My "american-ness" makes a system like this hard to understand. In a country with so many people I guess the alternative is unemployment. I've been trying to tell myself what the Indians tell me: it's their job.

Indian traffic, part 2

The incessant honking is driving me crazy. I can hear it from my hotel room, which is on the 6th floor and is on the side of the building that doesn't even face the street. Car horns, motorcycle horns, truck horns, hand-squeezed rickshaw horns... even little bells connected to bicycles. The latter two are laughably ineffective amid the cacophony of mechanical horns.

My the driver I had today is exceptionally prodigious honker. Most people honk very quickly just to let traffic know they are there. Not my driver. He lays on the horn almost constantly. It is rude and irritating.

On the drive back to my hotel from the office where I'm working there was a traffic jam. The past couple of days there were also traffic jams that were the result of a car broken down.

The European man behind the wheel of one of the broken down cars had a bewildered look on his face. I have no idea what a person is supposed to do if his car breaks down, but I have even less of an idea why this man was driving in this city in the first place.

Anyway, I expected just another broken down car today, but as we got closer I realized it was 2 large cows walking down the street, oblivious to all the traffic they were holding up. Chennai is a large (larger than LA) and crowded city and here are these cows stuck in traffic. I don't know where they came from or where they were going.

Cowmmuters in Chennai

Cows are sacred in India so people let them go where they please, but the traffic wasn't honoring the animals. The way traffic was going around the them, the cows were sort of trapped in the middle of the road. The vehicles honk at the cows, literally tail-gate them, and (like anything else on the road) gets within an inch of hitting the cows. I hope, for the cows' sake, that the cows really are enlightened because any other animal would be terrified.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The not-so-good parts of Chennai

Some of what I've seen in Chennai is exactly what I was expecting to see in India. A lot of people seem to just live on the streets on in the alleys. Men stop and relieve themselves on the streets. I even saw a woman do this.

I see a wall, but some see a toilet.

I have seen many new roads being built by men wearing no safety gear. They don't even wear shoes. Buildings are surrounded by wooden scaffolding that looks like something out of Gilligan's Island. When I mentioned this to Kelley she reminded me that it's probably safer than what we have in New York (a crane collapsed on the day I left for India).

The building in the lower-left has wooden, rope-bound scaffolding.

There are piles of rubble everywhere with people standing about. I don't know what that is all about. Sometimes there are groups of men standing around the rubble. They load the stones into wheelbarrows with their hands. Like the construction teams, none of the men are wearing shoes.

Indian traffic

Cars in India drive on the left-hand side of the road. The Virgin Islands is the only place where I have experienced this. It's hard to get used to. I've been driving since I turned 16. It's an instinct to look for traffic coming from the left. When I see cars coming from the right I feel a moment of panic, even as a passenger.

My driver from the airport to my hotel just before he donned a pair of white gloves.

I don't feel this way much at all. I am not worried that someone will crash into us. I am scared that we might run into a pedestrian, a bike rider or a motorcyclist.

My best description of driving in Chennai is chaos just barely tempered by the notion of possibly killing someone else or getting oneself killed. Drivers more or less do what they want. Vehicles are engaged in a constant struggle to squeeze into the smallest available space available on the road. Someone eventually yields to someone else, but it always seems to come to a matter of less than an inch between vehicles before someone relents.

Traffic is frightening, but there is a lot to look at to distract you from the danger. Like this temple.

Strangely enough, people don't drive all that fast. In New York it is not at all unusual to be driving along and be overtaken by someone driving 20 or 30 mph faster than you. People don't drive at excessive speeds. But driving 35 mph past a bicyclist, leaving a hair's width of space between him and the car seems really dangerous.

When I expressed that I was baffled by the way people drive the Indians told me they are used to it. The closest analogy I can think of is how visitors to New York are usually freaked out by traffic there, despite the fact that accidents aren't all that common. The way people drive in New York IS dangerous, even if everyone is used to it. I think the same is true of Chennai.

The beautiful sound of a flush!

At the end of the day I went to the rest room to wash my hands. As I was leaving I heard a toilet flush. What a wonderful sound it is! It turns out most of the toilets in the rest room have flush toilets. Yesterday I happened to enter the one stall that had the Indian toilet in it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The good parts of Chennai

An Indian friend of mine had described Chennai to me as "the worst city in India" and as "the Detroit of India". My expectations were understandably low.

I have not seen very much of the city. The 45 minute drive from my hotel to the office where I am working is about all. When I was driven from the airport it was dark, so I wasn't able to see much then. I am here for work, and that never leaves much time for sightseeing.

I am pleasantly surprised by the city. I see a lot of trees, many with brightly colored flowers growing on them.

The streets are clogged with people walking or riding in 2, 3 and 4 wheeled vehicles. Billboards and signs are everywhere, reminding me of Times Square. Small food shacks sell food that looks tasty (but like in Mexico City I don't want to risk getting sick by eating it). I wouldn't describe a lot of American cities as feeling "alive", but I would describe Chennai in this way.

Are you shitting (in) me?

Today I went to use the toilet in the office where I was working and was very dismayed to see a hole in the ground. It wasn't the hole in the ground that was distressing, it was the lack of toilet paper. There was a bucket of water and a faucet in the stall but no toilet paper.

I stood in the stall for a minute staring at the hole, trying to figure out how to use it. The only thing I could think of is that you wipe with your hand and then try to wash it off, but that just didn't seem possible. I wasn't willing to risk being wrong on this one. I would just wait until I returned to my hotel.

When I returned to my hotel the first thing I did - the second thing, actually - was to search the internet for an explanation of the toilet. I found this web site that illustrates how to use an Indian toilet.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Arriving in Chennai

I didn't arrive in Chennai until 2 am local time. I got through Customs very quickly and without incident. When I got to the baggage claim area I had to walk through a metal detector. This seemed odd to me: what kind of metal object could I have with me that was theretofore undetected and now poses a danger to someone.

After I picked up my bags I left the airport building. It was like I was a celebrity emerging from a limo onto a street packed with adoring fans. There were so many eager, smiling people gathered around to meet their loved ones and friends.

My room at the Taj Coromandel hotel.

I was met by a man from the Taj Coromandel, the hotel at which I would be staying. He took me to another man who took me to my driver. A lot of people were involved in the process to get me from the airport to the hotel, and more were involved in getting me checked-in.

Another view of my room.

Going to Chennai

I flew from New York to Chennai on Jet Airways. I had never heard of this airline before, and I wasn't alone. I don't know how many times I had to tell the taxi who was driving me to the airport that I was not flying on JetBlue.

I arrived at JFK 2 hours early. The check-in lines were virtually empty. Even though I could have gone into the expedited, first class/business class line, I waited in the regular line. Trying to keep it real!

When I got to the front of the line the woman who was checking me in said, "You have a business class ticket. You should have gone in this line," as she pointed to the completely empty expedited line.

I said, "I don't mind waiting." She said, "But you deserve the blue carpet service!" I looked down, and there was a tiny, dirty blue carpet. She was kidding around, and we laughed together at her joke.

I had read a description of the "premier" seating on the Jet Airways website. They had some pictures of it, too, but I couldn't tell what exactly it was. I was expecting large, comfortable seats, that reclined a little bit more than usual.

I was wrong. The "premier" seating was unlike anything I've ever seen. The seats are almost like cubicles. No seat has another seat directly next to it. They all face diagonally into the row.

Each seat had its own 15 inch monitor on a swivel. The selection of movies and television shows available to view on demand was impressive: Michael Clayton, No Country For Old Men, etc.

But the best part of the seats was the fact that they reclined completely flat. Actually, better than flat because you could control exactly how it reclined, so there were many positions between upright and flat. I usually cannot sleep at all on a plane, but on this flight I was able to get good sleep.