Posts tagged “india”

Further, on our Asia trip

It’s interesting to try and capture and document and share as rich an experience as our two week trip through Asia. I took hundreds of pictures and have been posting the best ones here, here, and here, trying to tell a small story with as many of them as I can. It’s sort of a scattered way to narrate what we saw, but it’s also manageable from my end; little pieces, the visual does most of the heavy lifting, and it’s mostly chronological. As I write this I’m a little more than halfway (I believe) through the pictures, so that database on flickr, if you will, should continue to accrete.

But of course, there are lots of experiences that don’t get documented in the photos, other observations, feelings, or conclusions. My recent Core77 article takes one slice at that, but let me try and add some more.

One of the best things about the whole trip was the local connections we had in each city we visited. We didn’t manage to link up with anyone in Bangkok (and we were there for less than 48 hours, I think), but we had a fantastic time with people in Hong Kong, Bangalore, and Mumbai. First of all, these were all professional connections. But these were friends, if not at the beginning then certainly by the end. “Work” was a way to have made these connections (most of which had existed over the Internet pretty much for a couple or years or so), but it didn’t feel like “work” to spend time with them.

I realized that I’m personally pretty lame when people come to visit from other countries; this may simply reflect the culture I live in, I don’t know. People took time off work to come hang out with us, to show us around, to take us places we wouldn’t know to find, to show us how they lived, what their homes were like, what their lives were like. They really opened up to us and shared stories that made us feel connected. We got relevant suggestions for books, stores, souvenirs that were not simply standard tourist advice, but came from people who “got” us and what excited us about their city. One person brought us an extra cell phone that we borrowed for a few days, encouraging us to make international calls since they were free on their plan. And it didn’t seem like it was work on their part; I felt like the time spent together was very mutual.

What a world we live in, in 2006. I can get on a plane and go somewhere on the planet, and I’ve got a connection with someone there. I’ve experienced this Internet-enabled phenom many times before but somehow this seemed the most dramatic.

Separate from the intentions of these friends, the hosting played out differently in Hong Kong and in India. We felt very comfortable on our in Hong Kong, the transit system is amazingly well-designed, there is a lot of English available, and we only had one difficult travel experience. I actually was the most relaxed I had been in months. So the good times and the help we received was a bonus. But India was different – the friend who hosted us and helped us feel relaxed and comfortable played a major rescue-type role for us.

We didn’t like being in India. We never felt comfortable on our own.

It’s probably not too strong to say that we hated our time in India. In fact, we changed our flight and came home a day early, deliriously happy. It’s actually been hard to think about and talk about India, giving me a bit of chest-tightening PTSD every time.

All this would have been different if we could have spent all our time with our wonderful hosts. Those times felt great. And I fear hurting their feelings by sharing our negative experience when we were not with them.

And maybe our negative feelings reflects on us, I don’t know. Lots of people who visited before told us that India was an “experience” but not necessarily a positive one. Others I’ve met since speak positively about it – people who spent more time rather than less time – there’s an adjustment process we didn’t get to go through. I guess all of what I write below would be dramatically different if we spent 3 weeks or 3 months in India rather than about a week.

I feel like we have travelled a reasonable amount – I guess that’s just me normalizing our experience. We haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur, but we’ve been to a fair number of places over the years. We are curious and like exploring and just seeing what’s up.

So anyway, what about India was problematic for us?

There are a number of things that often get cited as problems with India: traffic, crowds, pollution, poverty. Those aren’t necessarily fun things, but I don’t think that was it. I’ve seen traffic, and pollution, and crowds (and certainly have not seen such poverty). They can make a new place like India overwhelming, tiring, dramatically different from home. But they wouldn’t ruin a trip.

The fact was that we just could never be comfortable (except in our hotel rooms, or with people who we had arranged to be with – our friends, or the conference). It just seemed that every interaction, big or small, was fraught with uncertainty and so much extra work. You can’t do anything – get from A to B – get some food – go see a tourist attraction – without a large number of small interactions that are unusual, that are “off script” (at least the script we carry in our Western heads), and that require some amount of negotiation that we had no preparation for.

Much of it had to do with feeling like you were going to get scammed around every corner. And the amounts of money were trivial, but it led to a feeling of being out of control, not being able to relax and enjoy something because your guard had to be up.

Example: we go to a temple (the Bull Temple). We had a driver that day, so he stops, and lets us out. We walk past the people selling stuff and ignore them. We approach the temple entrance (it’s like a room filled with a big statue with one end opened), and there is a chair and someone telling you that you have to take your shoes off. So we do that, and leave them outside the temple. As we walk in, someone joins with us and begins talking with us. a young kid. I don’t care what he’s telling us, I’d just like to look at it, but suddenly we are in a “scene.” In hindsight (and perhaps reading this) you can probably identify coping strategies to deter this, but we couldn’t at that time. It took too much “work” (or think of it as energy, if you prefer). We could not enjoy looking at this big black statue of a bull, we couldn’t look at each other and discuss it, we were forced by our need to stick to social norms to sort of politely acknowledge the information. Can’t hang up on telemarketers? Don’t go to India. At the end of the bull the boy says “I guide you now you give me money?” and then the woman with the chair for taking your shoes off and on also demands money.

It wasn’t clear up front that this would require money; you don’t know when or how you are entering into a transaction, you are a bg white target, and you don’t know the rules. That pretty much sucks.

And this goes on everywhere that tourists go. It goes on outside the front of the hotel where you ask them to get you a taxi or a driver, or whatever. You can’t figure out who is playing what role; they all have uniforms or not uniforms, and you don’t know what is going to happen next, so it requires vigilance. You go to the airport and people descend on your taxi and start unpacking your bags and carrying them away. We had to learn from that and prepare for the next time and stop them from doing that if it were to happen again. No one intervenes on your behalf. The taxi drivers don’t care. They don’t close the window when beggars run up in traffic and stick their heads in the cab and start asking for stuff.

It made walking down the street an incredibly daunting experience – not because anything so bad happened to us, but the fear – and it was indeed fear – of an unpredictable unmanageable encounter that could be just around the corner.

We saw a fair number of beggars – small children that would make a pathetic hand to mouth gesture with little piping voices as they clutched at sleeves. They staked out corners and when you waited for traffic to come they would descend. There was nothing to make them stop. It wasn’t frightening, but it was annoying and intense, and it was frightening how I began to see them as pests rather than people; how I began to dehumanize them and wanted to swat them like flies for their minor but persistent annoyance. We didn’t give money, I think for fear of being assaulted, and with that whole “oh, you’ll just be encouraging them” fear lurking. It was often very sad, especially as we walked back to our hotel with leftovers from a restaurant one night. Do we help someone if it means the difference between suffering and less-suffering, only for a brief period of time? I’m sure the moral answer is yes, but we were in self-preservation mode through our foreignness, our discomfort, our naivete.

There was a marked lack of a counterpoint to the odd interactions – the lack of pleasant interactions with strangers. In most places you go, you probably can have someone smile at you, or at least give friendly but not servile service. Again, on our own, we didn’t have that in India hardly at all. The facial expresses we were greeted with looked – to our Western eyes – like a hostile stare. I don’t presume to intuit the feelings behind how we were looked at (though there was a lot of persistent staring that is not appropriate in our culture), but it’s hard not to take away the feeling that you’re trained in – that you are being viewed with dislike. Mostly by men – there are a staggeringly disproportionate number of men on the streets and a woman may find that difficult and uncomfortable – again, even if nothing happens.

We had a nice elevator chat with fellow travellers (from the UK, I think) at our hotel. We were greeted by young children lining up at the famous (yet amazingly crappy) Prince of Wales Museum who seemed excited to see white people and waved and called “hi” – first the girls in one line and then the boys. The “hi” and wave passed down the line as we walked by and it was incredibly charming. And amazingly rare. I think another little child smiled at us as we ate a meal.

(By the way, it was really really crappy – faded dioramas that were covered in dust, lots of dead animals, sad bent railings, with a few lovely new architected wings at the end of the trail)

And the lack of general welcomingness takes its toll. And so it’s easy to look at the lack of development, the poverty, noise, debris, chaos, and filth and be critical, but I kept reminding myself just what was bothering me.

I know there have been tremendous economic shifts that have impacted North America and India in terms of jobs and so on, but I really can’t see how that is working. I wonder if there’s just huge class distinctions so I don’t see the white collar as a tourist. But you look at this place and you think “there’s no way.” There are so many people and so much poverty and illiteracy that you can’t think of the total population as a market, or as a workforce or whatever. Mumbai is one of the world’s largest cities, and it has amazingly low – for example – numbers of people who have been online, ever. It’s not London. It’s got some of what London has, but it’s a lot of different things on top each other. As I’ve written, you’ve got IT parks and poverty right next to each other. You can look at the IT park and say, wow, things are changing. And they are, but you can’t forget the weight of the stuff that is missing. I will say that there was a remarkable lack of denial about all of this – you can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about these problems (and many more).

As an aside – reading the newspaper was fun. The politics are so dramatic and so complex, it was fun trying to figure it out, as well as see the latest scandals and gossip around the Bollywood stars (scandal being a relative term; it’s a very conservative culture).

Back to my screed: it’s hard to find a chain store. It’s hard to find an advertising message that isn’t incredibly naive, like it’s advertising to children. Reminders of the purity, safety, and quality of products – implying that if you have to think about that, maybe, well just maybe, that isn’t what’s being delivered at other times.

This is just one experience; I know business people from the West travel regularly to Bangalore and other cities to work with their colleagues. I don’t know how that works; I just feel so skeptical. It’s a hard place to go to.

My India pictures reveal stunning images: hovels; a lovely Donald Duck trash bin on a shopping street that is probably the dirtiest thing you’ve ever seen; an international airport that looks more decrepit and chaotic than you can imagine.

I’m not an economist or an international development expert and I wasn’t conducting business in India (though we attended a conference and visited Microsoft Research, so we saw a bit), but for much of the time I had to gape and wonder how this thing we read about is happening.

One last thought – watching what you eat was crazy tough. I learned to shower facing away from the water to minimize what I swallowed. Could you drink fresh juice? What about X? Or Y? There were so many different complex food choices that came up. I opted for caution over exploration, and I still got a little bit sick. Sadly, I also got sick of Indian food (not ill, but rather my desire abated). On our last night we found a restaurant with an amazing looking buffet of every kind of food, including Indian. I had to pass, with great regret, knowing that a week hence I would give anything to be a guest at that banquet. I just could not deal with the thought of the flavors and spices and sauces. Which I truly love.

Letter From Asia – Drive-by observations from Steve Portigal

Core77 has just posted my latest article, a travelogue- Letter From Asia.

Hong Kong is a visually stimulating city–where bright neon signs stretch horizontally out from the buildings across the road and electric boxes are covered with graffiti advertising household services. Storefronts open to the street, and service windows for snacks of every kind proliferate.

The standard line about Hong Kong is that it’s a shopper’s paradise. But Hong Kong shopping seemed to be more about the shallower pleasures of acquisition versus the immersive indulgence of massive choice . Take Tokyo as a point of contrast: Tokyo’s Akihabara (or Electronics Town) is a place to find all things electronic. If you want USB cables, you choose from myriad lengths, each in a large variety of colors and translucencies. If you are a Rolling Stones fan, in the Harajuku neighborhood you will find a tiny store with an exhaustive collection of trinkets, books, and assorted Stones ephemera.

But in Hong Kong, shopping is more about bounty; quantity over variety. For example, Mong Kok is a neighborhood with several shopping areas, including Sai Yeung Choi Street, where you’ll see a crowded street with small stores selling the very latest digital cameras, mobile phones, and MP3 players. Next door will be a similar store selling a similar selection of gizmos, and three doors down will be another branch of the first store…and across the street will be yet another branch of that same store. A few chains occupy many of the stores, seemingly with little specialization. The point seems to be that there’s lots of this stuff here, so why not grab some? It seemed to work–people were actively buying.

There’s more about Hong Kong, as well as Bangkok, and India.

Primping for the Cameras in the Name of Research

Cosmetics companies are striving to understand how their products are used differently in their various emerging markets. Presumably, they are elsewhere looking at differences in meaning, in addition to simply understanding usage.

Crucial to that effort is the search for differences that could help build a brand in critical emerging markets like India and China. L’Oreal has an expanding network of 13 evaluation centers around the world created to observe grooming and ponder a variety of burning questions: Do national differences exist in primping styles? Would women in Japan and Europe, for instance, stroke on mascara with the same lavish hand? (The answer is that in Japan, women apply mascara with an average of 100 brush strokes compared with Europeans, who are satisfied with 50, a difference noted by ethnologists for L’Oreal.)

It was observations like these that ultimately affected how the company made and marketed its mascaras or developed the foaming quality of its shampoos. “We are far from understanding everybody everywhere. It takes time,” said Fabrice Aghassian, director of international product evaluation for L’Oreal, which is seeking to map the world’s beauty routines in a landscape the company calls geocosmetics. “When we know the behaviors of people, we know what unexpressed expectations we do have to consider.”

Just 4 the Ladies


Hero Honda, which is obviously tied somehow to Honda, but is definitely seen as its own Indian brand, is setting up Just4Her showrooms across India – for women only, as they launch a female-targeted scooter, Pleasure.

The company has plans to open 22 such showrooms, exclusively for women customers across the country.

Elaborating on the features of the scooter, Pleasure, Mokashi said it was available in five exciting colours with 100 cc self-start variomatic transmission, multi-reflector headlight and body-coloured mirrors.

According to Mokashi, the exclusive outlets will offer special facilities to women customers. Added to this, the showrooms would also have female service supervisors and sales executives for attending to the ladies.

Ask the sexpert

From the Mumbai Mirror, January 26, 2006

Note: I found this funny, silly, and also kind of charming. The use of English in India is just different in curious ways. The whole manner of dialogue and of question-and-answer is just very different. Direct, naive, brusque. This seemed to capture it pretty well.

Ask the sexpert | Dr. Mahinder Watsa

Q. I am an 18-year-old girl and my boyfriend is 23. My period has always been irregular; I used to take Gynedol to get regular periods. The problem is that I have not gotten my period for the last two months. We do have sex but he did not ejaculate inside me. We indulge in foreplay and his penis has touched my vagina. What are the chances that I could be pregnant?
A. If during foreplay the vagina is touched by the penis there is a rare chance of pregnancy. If you are taking Gynedol regularly, then there is no chance of pregnancy as it acts as a contraceptive.

Q. I am 24 years old. I have been feeling pain in my right testicle for the last two or three years. Recently the pain has become unbearable. Also my right testicle is growing thicker than my left. I used to work out in a gym for a about a year-and-a-half ago. Could this problem stem from the exercise? Will I need surgery, and if I do, how long will it take to recover. I am a little shy and afraid to go see a doctor.
A. Please don’t fool around. I is important you see a surgeon and get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Delay can be very harmful.

Q. I am a 20-year-old boy. I recently had sex with my girlfriend for the first time. Although she tells me it is her first she did not bleed when we had sex. Is this a problem because we are going to be married soon.
A. No, if you trust your partner.

Q. I am 24 years old and work as an air hostess. I have heard that women who frequently fly, experience complications during child birth because they face the problem of an inverted uterus. I would like to know why this problem arises. Will I have trouble conceiving? I am going to be married soon and am a little paranoid.
A. A check up with the a gynaecologist will help you to know if everything is ok. Flying does not effect the position of the uterus.

Q. I am a 33-year-old male. I am going to be married soon but have a few problems with sexuality. First of all I don’t know if my penis is large enough to satisfy a woman. Also I have very little stamina, and my hemoglobin count is very low and I am anemic. How can I solve all these problems?
A. You do not require a large penis to have good sex. Your anemia needs correction. Take an iron tonic and check with a doctor about why it is low.

Q. I am an 18-year-old girl. My boyfriend and I has unprotected sex recently, but he did not ejaculate in me. Since that day we are both feeling an uneasy itching our genital area. Also, a white substance is excreted. Is this some kind of infection or did we do something wrong while having sex.
A. Pregnancy has been known to occur accidentally. Use a condom. For the itch, ask the chemist for a skin cream.

Prepping for Asia

Last week we went to get our vaccinations in preparation for January’s trip to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and India. Already a significant frame shift, for now we’re having conversations about horrible ridiculous diseases that we don’t even think about. I got shot up for Hep A, influenza, and polio. Been taking pills for typhus. And we’ve got pills for malaria to be taken en route.

Strange experience at the injection clinic at Kaiser, our HMO. The reception area is a hallway. With a door opening to the cold outside right next to it, and plenty of foot traffic going through. At least 10 signs on the door with a range of contradictory instructions about how to gain access; the door is locked and you can drop your card (for drop-in, I guess) into a Lucite contraption that seems guaranteed to eat your card, or your card and typed-up-form (for those with appointments who went to reception) into a shelf on the back of the door that seems guaranteed to eat your card. Not clear who should do which, or when. A sign indicates the waiting area. Above an empty part of the wall, where the chairs are quite some distance away. It’s a nightmare; we watched a woman and daughter approach, where the woman clearly had little English, and she didn’t even pay attention to the signs and try to problem-solve with them, she just peered through the small window and tried to make eye contact with someone for help. Good solution, I guess, since the instructions/information design was horrific.

Once inside, we are given a form and a clipboard. The form was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy (reproductio ad absurdum) that could barely be read and of course included all sorts of information (name, address, contact info, member number) that was redundant to what was already captured by the computer form from reception.

And the injection nurse was the nicest, coolest most helpful person you could ever hope to meet in a healthcare situation! The human factor was awesome; the human factors were terrible. She talked to us about her own travels; advised us about injections based on good information re: the types of exposure based on types of activity, side-effects and so on. She had decorated the small injection room with blowups of her own exotic travel pictures. We had a good time with her.

Meanwhile, we also got our visa from the Indian consulate in San Francisco. You show up with all your paperwork between 9am and noon, and then show up at 4:00 to pick up your finished visa (in fact, they hold onto your passport for this time and put a special document into one of the pages). Upon our return we got the horrible customer service question for Anne: “Could it be under another name?” but eventually they found it. Turned out they had held it because she was red-flagged. Based on occupation. Yep, a social worker is required to come in and sign a special form declaring they won’t practice any social work while in India. I bet Indian visitors to the US are scrutinized for possibly taking tech jobs illegally, but when we go over there, we are forbidden from possibly engaging in any social work!

Anyway, the form was signed and the visa was issued shortly. There was something strange and ironic about it all; I suspect that may be the theme for the whole trip.

Asia trip

Excited to see a bit about Hong Kong in the travel section of today’s New York Times. Since we started planning our trip, there hasn’t been much coverage or advice of the places we’ll be going in January, as we travel to Bangalore where I’ll be speaking at the Easy6 conference. There are books and lots of web resources, but still always cool to see something in the Sunday paper as you plan a trip.

We’ll be going to
Hong Kong (obviously) for about 4 days
Bangkok very briefly
Bangalore for about 4 days
Mumbai for about 4 days

and then an unbelievable journey home – it’s just travel all the way back, we won’t be chunking it up as with the outbound portion. I can’t imagine how destroyed we will be upon our return!

They tell me you skipped school today

In an article in the SF Chronicle, describing how Indian call-center workers suffer abuse, comes mention of

a new sitcom called ‘The Call Center,’ scheduled to air this winter on the leading channel NDTV, depict Westerners as arrogant, immoral and comically rude.

The show’s villain, the Indian manager of a call center, is an India-bashing blowhard, a disposition he picked up at an Ivy League business school in the United States.


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