Posts in "India"

America 2.0

Read this interesting article from the New York Times today, it seems to make a lot of sense. India appears to be embracing consumerism as if its life depended on it with newer, bigger, flashier malls being thrown up all over every city in the land and branded stores all over the place.

Just like in America and England, the newly created aspirational middle classes are fueling their addiction to Apple, Levi, Gucci, BMW, Sony, Starbucks and foreign holidays via credit cards and bank loans. Citibank had a stall in the food court of my office building the other day with a banner that read: Why put your dreams on hold? Get a Citibank personal loan and have your dream today!

The bank that I use, Standard Chartered, is also on a mission to get people to take out loans to fuel the middle class addiction; the image below is from their Indian website – basically they are saying “You deserve to go on your dream holiday for 6 days so don’t worry about spending the next 5 years paying it all back with interest“.

Anyway, this journalist puts in a far more eloquent way than I can so have a read.

How India Became America -

How India Became America – NYTimes.com brick has come down in the great wall separating India from the rest of the world. Recently, both Starbucks and Amazon announced that they would be entering the Indian…

Extreme Danger – Useful to Know

Bit of a science lesson for you today, chaps.

Chennai is a coastal city in the tropics which means that most of the time it feels like your whole body is wading through pea soup and you have to push the air out of the way. The air is literally saturated with water and right now it is worse than ever. Today it was 32°C outside which might seem quite nice but the air humidity was 94%. Humidity is a measure of how much moisture is in a body of air and when it gets to 100% it means the air is completely saturated and can’t hold any more water – your sweat will simply pool on your skin as it has no where to go.

The human body keeps cool by sweating and then evaporating the moisture from your skin which works pretty well if it’s 32°C outside and the air is fairly dry, say 60% humidity or less. Above 60% humidity is where the problems start because less sweat is able to evaporate in to the already saturated air so 32°C with 60% humidity actually feels like 37°C because you’re not able to evaporate enough sweat to cool down.

As I said earlier, today in Chennai it was 32°C with 94% humidity which (apart from feeling like wading through water) makes it feel like a rather balmy 51°C. The American Government weather site has some reassuring information for temperatures and humidity like this: Extreme risk of death, do not go outside.

Useful to know!

Everything and Nothing Changes

Every time I’ve gone through Chennai airport I’m always amazed at how much it is changing and how fast it’s changing. When I came in 2006 immigration consisted of a couple of security guards sitting behind some rather old wooden desks and when I returned in 2008 immigration had changed to a big hall with a row of 8 metal cabins.

Currently they are building a new Chennai airport which is a big task in itself but the planners have given themselves the exciting challenge of building the new airport on top of the old one while the old one is still being used. Over the years the departure and arrival locations have been moved about more times than a nomadic tribe and the departure lounge has grown and contracted like a life size accordian.

There is further change still with the manic construction of the new metro rail system that is being built concurrently everywhere in the city above and below ground. Pylons are going up and boreholes are being sunk. The Metro Rail Construction boards that block entire lanes and spring up along the sides, and often the middle, of the road have become the bain of motorists lifes. Main arterial roads have been reduced to little more than side streets, 5 mile detours are a common occurance and residents can wake up one morning and discover their whole street is now blocked off. Still, it’s radical change that is needed and Chennai will have gone from nothing to a substantial metro network within just a few years.

Down to the south of the city you will find more change as Chennai’s IT corridor, the back office and grunt work to thousands of businesses around the world, as mega office complexes are thrown up. Quicker still are the super luxiourous gated townships which are springing up to accomodate the noveou rich IT couples who are working in shifts to programme the Internet banking platform you are using everyday on your computer.

As I left the airport it’s not the number of motorbikes or tuk tuks that you notice anymore, you can’t move for the amount of BMW’s, Mercedes, Jaguars and Range Rovers that are on the road. As you drive from the airport in to Chennai you pass Audi showrooms, Ford showrooms, Jaguar showrooms, Porsche showrooms, there’s even a Harley Davidson showroom here now. Capitalists and those driving being driven in the BMW’s call it progress, the socialists of the world would point staggering gulf between the haves and have nots.

Change is happening so fast, blink and you’ll miss something, come back again next year and the Chennai you remember will be different to the one you remembered.

And yet, amongst all this development; new metro systems, Porsches, steel and glass skyscrapers, the more things change in Chennai the more they still seem to stay the same.

As you step off the plane at Chennai airport there is a distinct smell in the air. I noticed it when I first came and I still notice it now. It’s like the air just hangs around and can be picked up and you have to fight your way through it. It’s air with presence. At the immigration desk the lady was at the end of her patience as she snapped at the couple in front of me because they didn’t go up to her desk quick enough and when it came to my turn she didn’t even look at my paperwork before plonking a stamp in to it. No change there then.

After baggage collection – which if you are ever going to Chennai be prepared for a long, long, long wait for your bags to come, it’s never got quicker in the 6 years I’ve been coming here – I usually book a Government taxi to get back home. The Govt taxi counter is recognizable because it’s the most delapidated counter in the far corner and where other counters advertise their Toyota Cruisers, Mercedes and Honda Accords the Govt counter displays some rather faded pictures of cars your grandad may well have driven when he was young.
To get to the counter you have to fight your way past an army of over eager taxi reps for private firms vying for your business before you reach a guy who couldn’t care less whether you used this Government taxi service or not. I use it because it costs half the price of private cabs and I’m a bit of a cheapskate.

It was actually touch and go this morning whether I would get a taxi or not because I handed over a 500 rupee note and it was promptly handed straight back to me because it had a miniscule tear in the midle and therefore was entirely unacceptable to the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward. No problem. I handed him my bank card, put it on the plastic, I indicated. Ah. The Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward didn’t accept debit cards. I opened my wallet which was bulging with notes but alas together they didn’t reach the amount for the fare, all I had was the brutally mutalated 500 with a tear so small it would challenge even the best electron microscope to measure the length of it. With a deep sigh and a theatrical display to show he was clearly doing me a favour he plucked the note out of my hands and threw some change back at me along with an official Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document, in triplicate.

I had to take this receipt to a man who was waiting outside, but like the other official he couldn’t give a damn if anyone came or not. He took one of the chellan copies of the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and insisted that he push my trolley the 20 metres to the Official Government of India Taxi’s Pick Up Point which was staffed by a man sitting at a desk in the open who in turn was chatting to other men who were sitting on upturned bits and pieces.

The new man behind the desk took another chellan from the Indian Government Department of Taxi’s Bureau Chennai South Ward Official Reciept of Payment Document and shouted at a driver to pick up my bags. The person who pushed my trolley 20 metres was still hanging around looking at me imploringly. Tutting to myself I reached in to my wallet and handed over a ten rupee note. A look of total disdain flooded across his wizened old face, and he shook his head “sir, dollars only”.

I’m not sure what I was most shocked and taken aback by; that he wouldn’t accept his own curreny or that he thought I was American!

Once in the car, which is just like the one your grandad used to drive when he was young, we entered in to the crazy and hectic Chennai traffic. “Going to?” the driver asked, “Nungambakkam” I replied, in my best Indian accent which actually sounds more like deformed Welsh person with a speech impediment, “ah, which place?”.

Ambassador Taxi

Directions in Chennai operate on an iterative landmark basis so first you need to focus the mind of the driver on the general area, once they’ve got that then you give a big landmark which may or may not be near the place you want to go but it gives some relativity on where you want to go. A landmark can be a restaurant, hotel, station, major road, temple, college or anything else that is big and well known[1]. In my case I gave the name of a big chain of restaurants called Sangeetha’s, it’s not near me but from that area I can give directions.

“Sangeetha’s, sir?” the driver asked as we weaved in and out of traffic. The fact that he had to ask took my concern senses up to Defcon 3, especially given that with my limited Tamil I’m in no position to explain directions. “Yes, Sangeetha’s restaurant” I replied. “Ok, sir”, we drove a little further in the traffic maelstrom before he looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “sir, Sangeetha’s hotel?”, “Amma, yes” I replied, in India if you want to go out to eat you go to a hotel, if you wanted a room and bed from the hotel you would be very disappointed. A few minutes later my driver was on the phone, my concern senses went to Defcon 2 as I picked up words like “foreigner” which meant he was talking about me, “sangeetha’s” which meant he was asking where it was and finally lots of “ammas” and “seris” which meant he was understanding the directions being given.

Excellent I thought to myself as he hung up the phone, on our merry way. Or not, as we swung on to a petrol station forecourt, although not anywhere near a pump. “Two minutes, sir” the younger driver said to me earnestly via the rearview mirror “petrol”, I looked back to the pump and wondered how…oh, nice, he had a 2 litre plastic bottle, out he got ran over to the pump, filled it up with bright orange petrol and came trotting back to the car. With the bottle of petrol securely wedged under the front passeger seat we were back on our little adventure, but it wasn’t to last.

Since the car was built in two centuries ago the ability to sit idling in traffic for long periods of time in the quickly rising Chennai heat was matched only by myself and before long I was dripping sweat and the car was bellowing smoke. Once again we pulled over and the resourceful driver pulled out another 2 litre bottle of water. “Two minutes, sir” he said through the usual rearview mirror mode of communication and he popped the hood (I know I’m not American but saying pop the hood is just so much cooler than saying “I say old chap, would you mind awfully lifting the bonnet“). Within seconds there was the distinct sound of instantly vapourizing water as it turned to steam the moment it came in contact with the engine. Two litres of cooling water poured over the engine later and we were good to go again.

Chennai taxi

“Rhomba hot” the driver said to me, he wasn’t kidding, it was getting very hot.

As we drew nearer to where I wanted to be the driver suddenly yanked the car down a little side street, a “Whoa, stop!” nearly escaped my lips, but I’ve lived in India long enough to know that drivers tend to know where they are going and if they go a route you’ve never been down before then don’t worry until they stop somewhere that isn’t where you want to be. Nine times out of ten it’s just a short cut.

Alas, this was one of those one out of ten times. Concern senses were now at Defcon 1.

We were stopped outside the most downtrodden building in all of Chennai in a backstreet of goodness knows where. “Hotel Sangeetha” the driver beamed. By coincidence it was also one of those times in India where hotel actually meant the room and bed variety. “Illa!” I cried, which means no, “Amma! Hotel Sangeetha” and he pointed enthusiastically at the broken sign. “Illa!” I tried again and then asked him to go back to the main road, “Sir, Hotel Sangeetha” he tried one last time before finally reversing and thinking I was the most stupidest foreigner he’d ever met – didn’t even know where his bloody hotel was!

Old hotel

Finally I did get home though and the driver wasn’t bashful about asking for a tip, without even getting out of the car to help me lift up my rucksack. “No dollars?” He asked as I gave him 50 rupees. “No dollars” I said, waving him off.

Ah, I was finally home.

I opened the door and the apartment looked very clean and tidy so I gave my past self a pat on the back of a job well done.

First things first though, 16 hours on the road and a very sweaty taxi drive later, I needed a shower so I switched on the hot water and waited for it to heat up.

And then, to prove to me that Chennai hadn’t changed a bit, the power went off.

Ah, Chennai, you have changed so much and you haven’t changed a bit. I love you and I hate you.

[1] Although you couldn’t use Dawn French or Fern Britton

Note: None of the photos are mine, they are stock photos!

4 Years In India

I’ve been in India for exactly 4 years today! It’s a bit of a milestone, didn’t think I’d be here for this long, which is what a lot of foreigners who come here end up saying. Infact I’ve been talking to a few expats who used to live here and they are saying they miss the place and would want to come back sometime.

We went out to an arts and crafts fair yesterday and it’s very revealing to see how many more foreigners are coming here, everywhere we looked there were westerners, families, businessmen, groups of friends etc. I’ve read that more and more people are looking to get opportunities in places outside America and Europe and given the pace at which India is growing it’s not surprising so many expats are ending up here.

A Lizard’s Tale

Around midnight last night (my resolution to sleep earlier not going so well actually) I was about to call it a night and climb in to bed when movement caught my eye near the ceiling. It was the lizard that had made itself at home in my apartment the last few nights and had eluded my somewhat half hearted attempts to locate it whenever it made the chirping sounds lizards here make.

Slowly I got back out of bed and made sure all the doors of the house were shut except for the main balcony door then I grabbed the lizard repellent (sometimes referred to as a broom) and set about the frustrating art of trying to shoo a lizard out of the house. For many people in this world shooing a lizard out of the house is not a common occurrence. I on the other hand am something of a master of lizard ushering.

Part of the problem with lizard ushering, for those of you that have never had to do it, is that they never run away from the broom lizard repellent as it approaches them from behind. They’ll run off to the side, up the wall, down the wall, back towards the bro…lizard repellent or in some cases make a giant leap of faith off the ceiling, land with a small splat on the floor and then race under the nearest piece of furniture. Basically anywhere but the direction in which you want it to actually go.

The process goes something like this: You start off being careful, trying your best not to hurt the little critter and gently maneuver the lizard repellent someway behind where it is lying and then slowly, slowly move it towards the lizard. At this point the lizard will see what’s going on and be working out the best trajectory to go anywhere but in the direction the lizard repellent is moving. So the process continues until it gets to the point where you are back where you started, the lizard is no closer to the door you want it to go out and your patience has worn razor thin.

At this point you become annoyed and the softly, softly approach goes out the window and more aggressive maneuvers are made. Now it becomes really fun because the lizard will leap, slip, slide, twizzle, slalom and sashay across the walls, floor, ceiling, small babies and furniture in a great big game of cat and mouse. Or human and lizard.

Generally in this game, the lizard invariable comes out on top as the human gives up in exasperation. However, like a man possessed I started jumping over the bed, hurtling around the room and thrashing at anything that moved with the lizard repellent, trying to get in to the mind of the hunted to gain wisdom and insight to its next flight of panic.

Eventually, and mostly because the laws of quantum say that given enough time anything can happen, the lizard ended up sort of where I wanted it, except it was hiding in the gap between the floor and the door. As I tried to gently move the door, the lizard simply followed the movement to remain hidden with just a small leg or a couple of toes pointing out. After series of ever more violent jerks to dislodge the reptile I had no choice but to ram the lizard repellent device in to the gap between the floor and the door to smoke the bugger out.

And how it shot out, like a bat out of hell on greased lightning it was gone in a flash before I could direct it to the open balcony door. Instead it made a beeline for the sofa in the living room and sought refuge underneath. Smelling blood and hot on the tail of my prey I threw the sofa aside like a toy and dived in after it. Totally stunned, the lizard froze with blind panic as it didn’t know which way to turn so I seized the opportunity to gently, but firmly, push it towards the balcony door with the lizard repellent device. Beaten and subdued it had no choice but to comply and slowly but surely it made its way to the door. When it realized freedom awaited on the other side it took the initiative to make its own way which is when I noticed that it was a whole lot shorter than it should have been, infact it was now about half the length it used to be.

Closer inspection revealed that it unfortunately acquired a number of war wounds including a wangy leg that seemed to go up and down rather than backwards and forwards and a tail that wasn’t so much injured as entirely missing.

Finally, the now much smaller lizard was out on the balcony and I had to go back, locate and dispose of the missing tail. Fortunately though it wasn’t too hard to find because it was literally thrashing around behind the sofa I had thrown across the room when the red mist had come down. I had to do a double take because it was like a worm wriggling around except it was definitely a lizard tail, completely separated from the body but making a determined bid to get on with things and lead a normal, bodiless life – and probably thinking about claiming disability benefits from the British government in the process.

A very freaked out Wikipedia search later and I discovered that shedding the tail is a defence mechanism employed by many lizards and in a few weeks it will grow another.

And that is the story of the lizard’s tail.

Here is a Youtube video of what the tail looked like when it was wriggling around, it’s not my video but it’s pretty much the same thing that happened.

How Did John Terry End Up On A Packet Of Cigarettes?

Not sure if it’s been widely reported back in England but it’s making the national news here in India. Apparently someone from the Indian Directorate of Visual Publicity decided to use John Terry’s image as part of a health warning on the packet of cigarettes here. Obviously this wasn’t authorized and Terry has taken legal action against ITC, the manufacturers of the cigarettes. Judging by the comments in the link below it seems many people in India don’t understand what the fuss is about.

From my own experience I have found there to be a certain copy and paste culture in India where people will copy the content from a website and pass it off as their own not realizing the legal or ethical problems with it. A case in point is that I do all the writing for my company website and marketing literature and I’ve lost count how many other Indian IT companies here have simply copied and pasted my content, in some cases forgetting to even remove the company name! An SEO candidate came for an interview once and was very proud of the book he had “written” on SEO and used it to show off his skills. A quick search on Google showed that it was a PDF anyone could download for free. I know copying and pasting happens everywhere but the feeling I get is that it’s more endemic here because there are no implications should you be found out.

In the case of John Terry, I’m sure the designer simply did a Google images search, found this image from the Internet and didn’t see any problem with using it – after all, it is slightly blurred, right?! I’m actually kinda curious as to why they used this image instead of an Indian man, it’s not like John Terry is particularly famous here – although he is now!

BBC News - 'John Terry' image appears in India anti-smoking drive

Terry plans legal action over Indian anti-smoking picture–soccer.htmlRepresentatives of John Terry are taking legal advice after an image resembling the England football captain appeared on cigarette packs in India.

A Very Chennai Christmas

This was the third year I celebrated Christmas in Chennai and it’s definitely getting more Christmasy with each year. I know a lot of people still see India as a far off land where everyone is very spiritual and yoga is done by everyone (it isn’t) but there is also a sizable Christian population here thanks to the legacy of the evangelical Europeans of yesteryear and more recently the relentless activities of churches in America spreading the faith via a charitable proxy.

I digress!

What I mean to say is that this year has been by far the most Christmasy and without the consumerism too. I’ve been to several carol concerts in the last few weeks, listened to carols I’ve never heard before and traditional carols performed in a way you’ve never thought possible. There have been more renditions of Mary had a Boy Child than I can remember and I’ll not forget when an old expat lady broke down in tears during a group singing of Silent Night where all the lights were dimmed and people were given candles.

It’s A Silent Night In Chennai

There have been plenty of Christmas dinners too, with one of the most enjoyable group dinners that I’ve had for a long time along with possibly the noisiest dinner ever at an American style diner (yeah, really! Run by expats) as Christmas songs were sung by a live band.

Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time!

I’m not sure if where I used to live was a particularly Hindu area (although thinking about it and the trouble I had with the local temple I’m sure that was the case) but my new apartment seems to be smack bang in the middle of Christian city and people have decorated their homes, lights have been hung up outside and there’s even a small nativity display. I’ve noticed that more shops and malls than ever have been putting up Christmas lights to rival the best of what Oxford Circus can manage.

The Nativity Set Up On My Street

I think, as is increasingly the case in England and the rest of the Western world, the religious side of Christmas is not focused on here, but people of all faiths are able to appreciate the spirit of Christmas; the peace, the love, the family and the joy of the occasion. I’m quite happy that the festival is being wrestled back from the church and put back in to the hands of the people.

Now, some people call me a boring old fart, others say that I’m too predictable, but the fact remains that when us men find something that we like it takes an Earthquake sized event to make us change. A man can order a pizza or an Indian dish without looking at the menu because he knows what he had last time is good enough for him today. He goes to the hairdressers and he doesn’t even need to talk to the barber because he’s been going there for the last 20 years and gets the same haircut each time.

Get Your Turkey Here – Roasted And Cut For You

The point I’m trying to make here is, just because I go to the same restaurant each year for Christmas lunch doesn’t make me boring, it just makes me a man. It’s a fantastic place to have Christmas dinner, there’s live music in the background and every kind of Christmas dish you can imagine – and you can eat as much of it as you want. Delicious!

Bet You Don’t Get Desserts Like This At The Family Christmas Dinner!

In the evening, thanks to the joys of modern technology I was able to have Christmas dinner with my parents back in England and share in the fun and laughter, obviously it’s not quite the same but I think it blew my Nan away when she saw my ugly mug pop up on the laptop screen!

This year I even managed to send Christmas gifts to my family back home. Well, I say I, my girlfriend (seriously, us men would be back in the caves if it wasn’t for them. “It’s a perfectly good cave, club and loincloth, why do I need to change it?”) was the one who organized the shopping trip, picked up the items to send, bought Christmas cards for everyone, bought the wrapping paper, organized a time to get them wrapped, undid my attempts at wrapping, boxed it all up, went to the post office, redid the wrapping in accordance with India Post rules (there are always rules) and sent them off. But it was basically me, right?

Christmas In Chennai: Not All That Bad Really!

Apparently the arrival of the gifts caught everyone off guard in England as it had been unanimously agreed several weeks before hand that I was way too rubbish to send gifts so they didn’t need to send anything to me. Instead of presents though, I asked people to buy meaningful gifts, so we’re now the proud owner of a goat. We’ve called her Billy.

That was my Christmas 2011, I hope everyone reading this blog had a wonderful Christmas too.

The 1000KM Wedding – Part 2

This is Part 2 of the 1000KM wedding, if you haven’t read Part One of this scintillating story then I suggest you head over here and read it before continuing here.

We arrived in Tiruppur about 6:30am, my body was running on auto-pilot from lack of sleep and I was thankful when I collapsed in to the hotel bed – and even more thankful that the hotel was really nice, none of the 5 star nonsense you get in Chennai but clean, neat and modern.

The hotel was really nice!

There was a bit of a who-hah to check in, I didn’t have my passport on me and the hotel insisted that they needed to have a xerox copy of my passport and visa in order for me to be able to stay. But rules in India are made to be flexible and when we said we’ll find another hotel suddenly passports were forgotten. It wasn’t as if I was going to be staying over night anyway, it was just a place to crash and get refreshed on the Sunday.

In India the wedding reception tends to be held before the actual wedding ceremony, I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this but it probably has something to do with the astrology and auspicious days which many people rely on for the timing and date of the actual ceremony. The astrology charts of the bride and groom will have been consulted way before they’d met each other to check that the two people are compatible and it would also reveal the best day and time to get married. Invariably the ceremony would take place at some ungodly hour like 5 o clock in the morning so instead of asking guests to attend at this time, a reception is held the evening before at a much more sociable time.

We now had 6 hours to kill in Tiruppur, I wanted to be a tourist and go around snapping photos but it turned out one of the guys I was with had an old university friend living in the town so he asked me to join them for the afternoon.

It soon became apparent that the old university friend came from quite a wealthy family; my first introduction to him came when he asked if he could come in to my room to check the decor and furniture because he wanted some ideas for the hotel he was constructing within the town. Next we went to the modern cinema complex that his family owned and then on to his family house on the outskirts, although not before passing several Vodafone stores which his family operated.

The guy was 28, married with a young son, drove a Volkswagon Passat and was realizing his life’s dream of building a hotel while simultaneously managing a chain of Vodafone stores. It’s very difficult not to compare yourself!

The family home was built on a colossal scale, I think they gave the architects a picture of the Empire State Building or something and said: Think big. And big it was, the lounge alone was 3 stories high. The whole house was spotlessly clean and was completely devoid of any kind of ornaments or clutter, come to think of it I didn’t even see any family photos or any other kind of pictures hanging on the wall, I’ll have to ask about that and find out why.

The living room was just massive

You can’t beat a bit of Indian hospitality and even though the guy came back home with two random people (one of whom was this bloody foreigner) his wife and mother set to work in the kitchen immediately and within 30 minutes lunch was ready to be served. In keeping with tradition, despite the opulence and obvious wealth, it was served on a banana leaf. Banana leaves are often used as plates in homes and restaurants because they are clean, waterproof and are obviously bio-degradeable so can be quickly disposed of – they don’t need any kind of processing or packaging like paper plates so all in all 100% environmentally friendly!

After lunch (I had seconds!) we went to see the guy’s new hotel that he was building. Most of it is a building site still but he’s currently got the headache of trying to work out the best light switches to use in the hotel rooms and what kind of laminate finish to use on the furniture. By comparison, my biggest headache seems to be am I going to have enough time to clean the house, do my laundry and get the grocery shopping done on a Sunday afternoon. Different worlds!

One of the many differences that I’ve noticed between the East and the West is the attitudes towards ownership. We would always call the home where our parents lived our parents home, in India, the parents home is often referred to as ‘our’ home. Similarly when this person was talking about the various businesses his family members ran it was always ‘our’ business, even when it was completely operated, run and managed by another family member. The cinema is completely run by his Dad, which in a western sense would make it his Dad’s business, but it was still referred to as ‘our’ business. The hotel was his idea from conception to execution and he alone would be responsible for the running of the place when it was done, but it was still ‘our’ hotel.

Back at our hotel (no, not the Claridge family hotel, the hotel where me and the guys were staying) we ran in to a spot of bother. It was coming up to 6pm and we realized we had no transport to get from the hotel to the reception which was about a 30 minute drive away – everyone thought everyone else was going to organize it. This being Tiruppur, a small tier 3 kind of city, there were no call taxis available and no auto driver wanted to go all the way out of the city.

The bus back to Chennai left at 9pm so we had to get to the reception quickly to allow enough time to get back to catch the bus. After half an hour of frantic phone calls to friends and acquaintances (after eating, India’s second favourite pastime is networking and building contacts) we found someone who would give us a lift to the wedding but he couldn’t make it until 7pm. This should give us enough time to get to the reception, get photos taken with the anxious bride and groom to be, eat dinner then race back to the bus station.

Of course, if it actually went as smoothly as that then this wouldn’t be India and there would be no point writing this story.

The timezone for India is referred to as IST, officially known as Indian Standard Time, but colloquially it’s referred to India Stretchy Time because it’s very rare for people or events to ever be, or start, on time.

Of course, 4 years in India and I haven’t lost my British sense of time so at 7 o clock sharp I was suited and booted in the hotel reception area waiting to be picked up. The rest of the gang was upstairs watching the cricket and generally laughing at me for getting ready so early. By 7:30pm a couple of them came down to the reception and started making phone calls to find out where this guy was who was supposed to be picking us up.

“5 minutes” he said.

5 minutes is a word you hear a lot when you ask how long something is going to take or when the person will be done by. It basically means I don’t know, so we settled back down in the chairs in the reception while my work colleagues decided to do all kinds of poses infront of a camera which was frankly embarrassing.

7:50pm we get a phone call from the person picking us up. He can’t find the hotel. No one I was with knew their way around Tiruppur so we handed the phone to the receptionist who explained where the hotel was. “OK, 5 minutes” he said.

7:55pm he phones again, he still can’t find the hotel with the new directions. More explaining from the receptions. “OK, got it, 5 minutes”.

8:05pm and this guy finally turns up in a rude boy Suzuki Swift with blacked out windows, over the top spoiler attached to the roof, 20 inch sub woofers in the boot and of course the neon yellow go faster stripes.

Boring engineering fact for you here: A spoiler (or more accurately a rear wing) put on the back of a road car is more about show than anything else. It has the effect of increasing the weight of the car and the drag while producing none of the downforce since a road car doesn’t go fast enough so basically you end up spending more money on fuel, drastically reduce the re-sale value of your car and has the side effect of making a car owner look little bit, well, silly

No one seemed the least bit bothered that it was now impossible for us to get to the wedding and come back in time to catch the bus. India has chilled me out a lot (no, really it has!) and I know that if a show starts at 7pm then it will be gone 7:30pm before it actually starts (thanks to India Stretchy Time) so why rush, but the fact that I was 500KM from home and knowing that we would be hard pushed to catch the bus in time started getting me pretty anxious.

The useless spoiler on the top of the car apparently wasn’t just for show because the guy really did drive like he thought he was on the race track. Squeezing through the narrowest of gaps, overtaking on blind bends, forcing the on coming traffic to veer violently out of the way, it’s either a miracle we didn’t hit anything or I’ve discovered India’s new Formula 1 driver.

At last we reached the reception, I glanced at my watch, it was 8:30pm, just about enough time to say hi to the bride and groom and hop foot it back to the bus station.

The wedding receptions are held in big halls with a stage

The way the wedding receptions work in India is that there is a big hall with a raised stage at one end. The married couple to be sit on a big sofa and a never ending queue of guests pour in from far and wide to get their photos taken and give gifts and wishes. Fortunately when we entered most people had wandered off to take advantage of the free food (see above, India’s favourite pastime) so we scrambled up on the stage, said our congratulations and then raced back to get the bus.

Can you spot the Johnny Foreigner in this photo?

Or at least that’s how I saw it going in my mind. We spent about 2 minutes on stage with the bride and groom but with so much free food on offer the temptation was too much, everyone had to dig in, go back for seconds and thirds, try out the four different types of desserts and then discuss what had been eaten at length.

Myself, on the other hand, worried about the 9 hour bumpy bus journey back to Chennai with limited toilet stops, opted to play it safe and had just plain idlys.

By this stage it was almost 9pm and the bus was due to depart the bus station 30 minutes away so with my anxiety getting the better of me I went over to the person I was travelling with and asked him what we were going to do about catching the bus. He looked at his watch for probably the first time that night and made a sort of “oh” sound. He dug out his phone and the conversation went a little something like this (paraphrased of course):

Friend: Hi, we were supposed to catch the 9pm bus but we can’t make it to the station on time, can we get a later bus?
Company: No, sorry sir, all services are full you must come to the bus station
Friend: Aiyyo, but we are too far away to catch the bus
Company: Sir, you must come to the bus station
Friend: Can’t the bus sort of pick us up as it goes past? We are near the Perumanallur cross roads
Company: No sir, it’s the rules, you must come to the bus station
Friend: Err, ok, how about if I pay a small fine to the bus driver?
Company: Wait let me call you back

And so it turned out, for a small ‘fine’ we were able to catch the bus at a major cross roads as it went past us. It was silly of me to worry about getting to the bus station on time because in India everything works out in the end.

This is the beauty of India and I’m constantly amazed by how everything just seems to work out. No matter how bad you think you are in the dodo, some how it will work out. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I love it 🙂

The 1000KM Wedding – Part 1

“Hey Pete, are you coming to Sathish’s wedding?”. Asking if you are going to someone’s wedding is a daily occurance in India where everyone gets married between the ages of 23 and 29. Heaven forbid you should get to your thirties and your parents still haven’t found you your soul mate, right?

So in my office there’s a group of guys a year or two younger than me and since they are now deemed to be reasonably well settled (ie. they’ve held down a job for four years) their parents have been hard at work back in their home towns and villages trying to find the perfect bride for them to ensure that they have someone to cook chapattis and keep the house in order.

Most of these guys are now married and I’ve received invites each and every time along with the insistence that I attend. I’m rather ashamed to admit that despite wedding invitations being given to me at least twice a week I’ve only attended two ceremonies in the near 4 years I’ve been here – infact there is one girl who used to be on my team that is so angry that I didn’t come to her wedding that I don’t think she’s speaking to me any more! Ouch!

Last week I received a wedding invitation from Sathish, congratulations all round, his parents have found his wife and now they are to start their journey of love together. These moments are occasional, said the wedding invitation, but my presence would, I was assured, make it sensational.

“Pete, we’re going to the station to book the tickets to Sathish’s wedding, are you going to come?” I have to be honest, after the look of anger and disappointment I got from the other employee when she came back to work the other day, I thought I should make an effort. “Sure, why not” I told them “where is it?” “It’s in Tiruppur, about 500KM from here.” Oh God. Fine, put me down for a ticket and tell me the cost later.” I said to them.

Map showing the distance from Chennai to Tiruppur

Friday afternoon

“So guys, what time is the train leaving tomorrow?” I asked, rather naively. “Train? Who said anything about a train, we’re getting the bus.”

OK, freeze frame.

Buses in India have rather a bad reputation. You can’t go to the BBC news website without reading a tragic story* about how a bus crashed and 40 people perished or open the local newspaper without seeing a burned out picture of a bus.

My friend’s brother was involved in an accident where the bus driver fell asleep and slammed in to an oncoming bus, his injuries were severe enough to get him admitted in to hospital but because India is so vast it took over an hour for even the police to get to the accident and the injured had to be taken in another bus that was passing by.


As you can imagine my face kinda froze in place, buses are not the way I want to get around this country. “But you said you were going to the station to buy the tickets” “Yeah, Pete, the bus station”. My face must have been quite the picture because they all burst out laughing and started teasing me.

“Ugh, God, fine, how long is it going to take to get there?!” “About 9 hours Pete.” There was a nervous exchange of glances between the guys, “What!” I demanded, “Err, it’s non A/C too.” Let me just remind you that this is India where the night time temperature is still around 28 degrees, not having A/C for 9 hours would be like spending a night in a Swedish sauna. Where 12 months of vigourous gym workouts have failed, a night on a bus to Tiruppur would have me shedding the kilos in no time.

I called up my girlfriend in desperation and told her the news, hoping for some kind of reassurance. “Oh God, you’re going to die!” she said. I didn’t feel reassured.

CST Bus stand, 8:50pm

You may think I’m stating the obvious here but there are a lot of people in India. No, really, there are so many people. Think Sydney Harbour, Leicester Square or Times Square on News Years Eve and then double the number of people and you have the average number of people at a public location at any one time in India.

Packed Chennai Bus Station

Dealing with this many people who all want to get from A to B means that despite having one of the most expansive railway systems in the world and despite having the most rolling stock in the world, the trains are usually fully booked up to a week in advance.

The spill over goes to the bus stations and you’ll never see anything like it, hundreds of buses coming and going, thousands of people lugging suitcases, hawkers trying to sell you tickets, and the bus horns. The bus horns. They are not just loud but musical. Think “Delalalala” or “dum deledum de dum” or “Belee buluu belee buluu”. There are no LED displays showing departure times, there are no sign posts, the bus station is barely illuminated, you must find your bus by looking for a little sign that is placed in the window of each bus.

Now, if your idea of a bus is the X15 commuter to Northampton then you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen some of the private buses they have in India. The business bus that flies between Bangalore and Chennai is like an executive lounge on wheels with big reclining seats, plug points, desks and WiFi facilities. For the middle class traveller you can travel by night in a sleeper bus with fully flat beds or a semi-sleeper which has reclining seats and loads of leg room.

This is me getting on a bus for a 9 hour journey

11am, 2 hours south west of Chennai

I’m writing this from a semi-sleeper bus as it careers down one of the high ways of Tamil Nadu. I’ve got acres of leg room, I’m lying almost flat with my legs stretched out, people around me are snoring, the windows are open and the smells of countryside India are assaulting my nasal passages.

Ah, the smells. Did you know that the traditional way of making leather is to use animal faeces because the bacteria helps soften the skin – think about that the next time you buy a leather handbag! Although if you are a male reading this and buying handbags you probably have a few more things to worry about than the fact that it’s been submersed in dog shit for the last 3 months!

Now, thanks to the numerous tanneries dotted along this highway, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the traditional leather factories are alive and well in India. Even the usual failsafe of pulling your t-shirt collar over your nose doesn’t block out the smell of rotten, decaying flesh, urine and poo.

Cows on a truck going to the tannery in India

The journey is to take 9 hours in total and there is no toilet on board. This means that we have to stop for what are popularly referred to as pit stops. These pit stops take place at what could be described as service stations without the golden arches. People get off and refresh themselves with tender coconut milk and samosas instead of an artificial burger and coke. For those brave enough you can check out the toilet facilities but ensure you make full use of the t-shirt-collar-over-your-nose trick because it’s not going to be pretty. Infact they charge people 1 rupee to use the bathroom but on both pit stops so far I’ve chosen to ignore the man on the desk and plead ignorance of a stupid foreigner and walked straight in.

2am, Somewhere in Tamil Nadu

Judging by the last 4 hours, I’ve worked out that the way to drive a bus in India is to hurtle along at 100KM/h, blasting your horn for as long as you can at any headlights you see in the distance and then slam on the brakes as you approach a junction. The state of the high ways have got progressively worse the further we’ve got from Chennai and in places it even becomes a dirt track. In others we’re quite literally skipping over the pot holes. It’s like turbulence on wheels. Fortunately I’m one of those weird people who enjoy turbulence and find the rocking and shaking very relaxing.

4:12 am, Still somewhere in Tamil Nadu…Possibly Salem

It’s now gone 4am and I’m not sure what’s going to go first, me or the laptop battery so I think I’ll call it a draw and try to get some shut eye.

* This accident occurred on the same bus route that I was travelling on. Eek!

Flash Mob Comes To Mumbai

For those of you who are stuck in the 1970’s and your idea of a mob is a gang of youths rampaging around causing untold damage and intimidation then you might not get the video below. A flash mob is just a group of people who randomly decide to congregate in a certain area and do something totally unique that takes members of the public by surprise. One funny flash mob that happened in America a few years back was when about 80 people turned up to a Best Buy store dressed in khaki pants and blue t-shirts like the staff members wore.

Anyway, despite the word ‘flash’ being in there, it usually takes some planning and the dance sequence in the video below took the lady 4 weeks of planning and had to get security clearance from the railway station authorities (obviously!). The video has become a massive hit all over India and in just four short minutes a sense of united togetherness was formed as people from all backgrounds, classes, ages and religions took part. As one Indian commenter said…

After watching I had some sense of belongingness. In the video we can see old ladies happy in the station. Some children felt ecstatic. Some people just stood and watched clapping with dancers. They felt united. Even if this dance can unite us only for 4 mins, i urge to orgasnise more of this kind. At least we can sense the Humanity and feel the united India.