Date archives "February 2008"

Mobbed By The Kids

I had my first proper experience of being mobbed by Indian children the other day! I’m used to the staring you get as a white person living in Chennai – in a city of over 6 million people I would be surprised if there were more than 1,000 Westerners living here. With those kind of percentages, if you have white skin, people will stare – not even in a subtle way, but full on staring as they watch you go by.

The staring doesn’t bother me at all – my ego even gets carried away to think that I might be the first white person they’ve seen 🙂 – but very unlikely in Chennai. The staring isn’t done in a rude or offensive way, and there’s certainly nothing aggressive about it, it’s just curiosity to see this odd person with white skin.

Anywho, the other day I had just popped down the road to the supermarket (think small shop that sells a variety of different products – they are still very much in to the “one shop, one product type” over here, fruit from the fruit store, vegetables from the vegetable store, bread from the bread store etc.) and as I came back with a weeks worth of shopping in each hand, I passed what could politely be described as a slum.

A group of scrawny looking kids wearing no shoes (did I really have to say that?!) were playing in an old car wreck when they saw me and then ran over shouting in Tamil. Naturally I didn’t have a clue what they were saying and then one of them pulled out a Motorola Razr phone (no shoes, but they have the latest cell phones?!) and they all crowded round to get their picture taken with me.

It was pretty surreal as I stood there with shopping bags, posing for photos with the kids, grinning like a fool and desperately working out how I was going to get out of the situation. Umm, but I did get out of it eventually.

Can You Read My Mind?

Anyone that knows me will probably know my opinions on spiritual and alternative therapy stuff quite well. Suffice to say that I’m a complete non-believer in that sort of thing.

So when I had the chance to have my palm read on Saturday, I jumped at the chance 😀

The entire conversation took place in Tamil, but I’ve got the translated version here…

You have a nice hand, you will get lots of money, but you will spend lavishly – but you have a good chance to have more wealth than you can spend. You are very intelligent, you look timid, but deep down you are not. When it comes to work, and you know you are very correct, you will not let it go.

You have a lucky hand, whatever you start, you will do well.

You are coming to India with a mission, you rely on your friends from other countries to help you. You have the opportunity to marry only one girl and she will probably be from another country. You have the opportunity to have five children.

Nice and vauge, I hope you will agree. It could probably be applied to any foreigner coming to India 🙂

Nearly Claimed My First Fatality…

I was so close to claiming my first Indian road kill today when I opened the car door and a guy on a motorbike slammed in to it.

As part of the crazy ‘no rules’ driving style in Chennai, when Aravind stopped the car, I opened the passenger door (on the pavement side – not in to the traffic) and some guy on a motorbike decided that was going to try and ride up the side…well, until he came to an abrupt stop from the car door.

The gap was probably only just big enough for him to get his bike through, but that’s usually enough of a gap to make them do it.

Unfortunately, although I nearly killed, or seriously injured him, I just haven’t got any sympathy because of his stupidity (does that make me a bad person?!).

Tips For Getting a Tuk-Tuk in Chennai

I’ve decided to write some tips about catching a tuk-tuk (known as an auto or an auto-rick to the local population) when in Chennai – they probably apply to most asian cities aswell though.

So here goes…

1. All Tuk-Tuk Drivers Wear Face Masks and Black & White Stripy Tops

Or in other words, they’ll rob you blind given half a chance. It’s nothing personal, but if you have white skin, you can expect the driver to add anywhere between a 20% to 150% premium on the price they would charge a local.

Take for example my journey to work. When I was with my friend Aravind, he would negotiate a price of 70-80 Rupees (about $2). The first time I got a tuk-tuk by myself, they asked for 150 Rupees – nearly twice the price because of my skin colour.

2. Make Sure You Know How Much A Journey Will Cost Before You Go

If at all possible, ask a local how much the tuk-tuk journey should cost before you make it. This will give you a better position when it comes to bargaining. Using the example above, I now bargain my way to the right price as you should too.

3. Walk Away

If the tuk-tuk driver won’t budge from his high rates, then start walking away and look like you’re trying to get another tuk-tuk. Many times the driver will call you back and agree to your prices.

I’m amazed at how well this tip works. Although I do have fears that they will all colude against the ‘stupid foreigner’ and none of them will offer a good price.

4. Don’t Be Concerned If You Stop At A Petrol Station

Something I learned quite early on is that a stop via a petrol station is not unusual as you try to get to your destination. Nor is asking for the money to pay for the petrol before you’ve got to your destination.

This has happened a couple of times to me – although I’m not sure if it’s normal (or indeed acceptable) for them to ask for your money to pay for the petrol.

5. Where Ever You Want To Go, The Tuk-Tuk Driver Has Never Heard of It

I’m not sure if this is something against foreigners, but it seems when I get a tuk-tuk with my Indian friends there is no problem getting to where you want to get to. When I try and get a tuk-tuk, the driver gets lost, has no idea where the place is or goes some where completely different.

I’ve tried local landmarks, maps, everything. Only this evening I got a tuk-tuk back home and despite showing the driver a map printed out from Google Maps, we still had to pull over while the guy asked for directions.

Edit 04/2016: This blog post was written in February 2007 in the first couple of months when I had arrived in Chennai. Re-reading the paragraph above makes me cringe to think that I tried showing an auto-driver a map to show where I wanted to go 🙁

These are just some of the tips I have when you are living in Chennai or working in Chennai.

Mosquito Bite Count: 2

Something That Bugs Me About Westerners In India

I’m getting more and more bugged as the weeks have gone by about Westerners in India. For some strange, unknown reason, they are all insisting on immersing themselves into what they believe the culture of India is by wearing traditional Indian clothes.

By that, I mean the guys wear a kind of wrap-around fabric – like a sarong – and a long sleeved garment that comes down to around your knees and sandels to top it off. The women wear sari’s (badly) or baggy trousers with the same long sleeved garment. Rat tail hair also features prominently.

The thing that bugs me the most is that, yes, at one point these were traditional Indian clothes, but now you are more likely to see (particularly amongst the growing middle-classes) Indians wearing jeans or trousers with a t-shirt or shirt. So if India’s dressing style is changing with the times, why do the Westerners in India insist on wearing old fashioned clothes?!

I know it’s a small and irrational thing to get bugged about, but hey, it bugs me. I wonder if the locals find it offensive or if they just smile in an understanding way and think how odd foreigners must be.

There are many other things that bug me about how Westerners act in India, but if I air them all, I’m in danger of turning this in to an anti-west blog!

Boo To MeWebHost

This is a broadside shot at who have just deleted my PayPal directory from their servers. It provided a directory of thousands of merchants that accepted PayPal in virtually every category available.

There was no warning sign, just an email landed in my inbox saying “your site is using too many resources and has been deleted under our terms and conditions”. And nothing else, no chance to contest their claims, not even a chance to make a backup – just gone.

The most annoying thing (aside from losing all the data) is that the site was raking in over $400 a month – and anyone that owns a directory knows that that is a phenomenal amount!

So thanks MeWebHost, you’ve just screwed up a nice little earner for me!

Mosquito Bite Count: 4 – the little buggers have returned! 

As if it’s needed…

Today I had my ego stoked and grown to epic and quite possibly dangerous sizes as I read my emails. I had asked the support manager if we could have a meeting so I can give some advice to the customer support guys on providing great service.

He agreed and asked one of them to let the other team members know, and this was the email that was sent…

Hi Friends,
Its a great chance to interact with an internet savvy Mr.Peter. I request all of our Team members to comeout with every kind of related query, clarification whichever you come across in our day to day Technical Support, it can be marketing related query as well. We can get more inputs from Mr.Peter about the current Internet Marketing Trend and so on.

We have two full working day to prepare our list, so be prepare everything, if needed you can share the topics here itself so that if any two TSEs have same kind of topic, one can omit the topic which will save time during the session as well Mr.Peter also can be prepared to answer us with some case study.Mr.

Peter may not need much time to prepare since he already an expert on those topic which we are going to ask on Tuesday 🙂 just simply he can walk in and clear our doubts.

I will put my topics which we need to know from Mr.Peter at the earliest.

LOL, well, it’s put me in an excellent mood today, even after enduring several more hours of insane Indian bureaucracy. The story has to be told, because it’s just crazy.

In order to work in India you have to register with Indian immigration. Fair enough. But to register, you need to provide the following documents:

  • Company registration documents
  • Memorandum of understanding for the company
  • Memorandum of undertaking for the company
  • A letter from the applicant requesting the job
  • Acceptance letter from the company
  • Two forms of proof of address in India
  • Tenant / Mortgage agreement for address in India
  • Indian tax registration card
  • Certificate from the company that no suitable Indian was available for the job
  • Proof that attempts were made to recruit a suitable Indian
  • Photocopy of ALL pages of your passport
  • 6 passport sized photos

Phew! So weighed down with the sheer amount of paperwork (I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few docs) you have to queue up to enter the building were a guy writes down your passport number on a scrap of paper.

You then get pointed to a desk with three people sitting behind it, each for different applications. There’s no set queue, but a range of chairs are placed infront of the desk and you have to shuffle along everytime a person gets seen.

At the desk a person looks through your papers, then from that desk you get sent to another room with a counter where a guy looks at the exact same documents and sends you back to the original desk (and same original person) to pick up a plastic disc with a number on it. You then get sent back to the same room but to a different counter where the person collects your papers and writes you a note asking you to come back in two days time.

There’s just no words to explain the craziness of the system.

Still, with the email that I got earlier, even Indian bureaucracy couldn’t wipe the smile from my face!

Mosquito Bite Count: 0! They’ve all been exterminated by an electrified tennis racket – hours of fun

Living In India Tip #329: Expect The Unexpected

India is a place of unexpected surprises. In order to survive, you must come to expect the unexpected and not let it phase you. Driving the wrong way down the street, no problem. The tuk-tuk driver is facing you rather than the road, furgetaboutit.

However, there needs to be a new qualification to the phrase “expect the unexpected” and that is “expect the unexpected, particularly when you are not expecting it”.

This happened to me this very morning when the ringing doorbell slowly filtered in to my mind at 6.30 in the morning. It took a minute or two for it to actually sink in that it was the doorbell that was going, so I thought hey-ho, let’s go and answer it.

The person ringing the doorbell was a guy from work, and he had another guy with him, apparently someone from the Bangalore office, who was coming to stay.

Expect the unexpected.

Someone knocks at your door and announces that they are coming to stay. You’ve had no indication or forwarning of this visitor, it’s completely unexpected.

Particularly when you are not expecting it.

OK, someone knocking at your door and announcing they are staying at yours is just about bareable, but when it’s at 6.30am and you’re awoken from a deep sleep, it just goes to show that in India, the unexpected can happen at any time!

Mosquito Bite Count: 19

Pancake Parties

I was invited round to a pancake party (erm, because it’s pancake day) being thrown by some other Brits here in Chennai. They’ve come over to work for for a year. I’ve never actually met them before, but hooked up with one of them through a friend of a friend of a friend (you get the idea).

To get to their house involved taking the plunge and finally taking a solo tuk-tuk ride. We started off well until we began homing in on the apartment where the party was being held. At that point things fell apart pretty rapidly as the tuk-tuk driver drove up and down the road looking for the apartment – all the while complaining that I was wasting his time.

In the end he pulled over to use a public phone to ring them to find out where the hell the apartment was – annoyingly my phone battery had chosen that very moment to give up on life so I was unable to call them myself.

Armed with new information on the whereabouts of this apartment, we drove back up the road. Did a U turn. And drove all the way back again. Grr!

There is a happy ending to this little story though because eventually we found the apartment and I got my pancakes!

Fortunately I got my phone working again so the trip home wasn’t quite so eventful, I simply flagged down a tuk-tuk, phoned Aravind and he gave the driver the ‘rules’ (ie. don’t you dare over charge this naive white man!).

Mosquito Bite Count: 24 (yay! many bites are beginning to clear up now)

Convince, Confuse or Corrupt

I was talking to the lawyer today that joined us and was asking about law practice in India. He showed us the court house where he practiced law. The building was actually built in the late 19th century by the British.

He told me that as a lawyer, there are only three ways to win a legal case in India…

– Convince
– Confuse
– Corrupt

It’s known as the 3 C’s in legal circles. Depending on the strength of your case, it determines which method you go with.

Another little bit of information I gleaned today is that Prakesh and YYY were all fairly adament that Mohandas Ghandi (the guy that peaceful revolted against British imperialism) was the worst thing that happened to India.

They even went as far as saying that all the good things Britain did for India far outweighed the bad things, and are certain that if it wasn’t for Britain, India would be even more of a 3rd world country (or countries) than now.

On the way back to Chennai, we stopped off at another temple which was a virtual replica of the first one. This second temple was built by the brother of the guy that built the first temple in what can only be logically described as an act of sibling rivalry.

We stopped off in Pondicherry again to stock up on some more booze. Technically it’s illegal to buy alcohol in Pondicherry and bring it in to Chennai. There are a dozen or so check points. But as the guys cheerfully pointed out, give the police a little bribe and they didn’t see anything.

Mosquito Bite Count: 31

A Road Trip to Thanjuvar

Thanjuvar is an old Indian town that has an even older temple, 1,500 years at the last estimate. It is said to be a wonder of ancient architecture, but more on that later.

The journey itself was due to take around 6-7 hours because the place was 300 KM away. Aravind told me I would be picked up around 5am and he would come over at 4.30am to wake me up.

Foolishly, or possibly just a case of absent mindedness, I forgot that this was India, so while I got up for 4.30am to leave by 5am, what they actually meant was “we’ll say we’ll leave at 5am, but actually it will be more like 6.30”.

The three guys I went with were called Prakshy, Udi and Raj.

The main purpose of the trip was for Udi to covertly go and meet his new Fiance, a girl that he’d only met once before, briefly, at an engagement ceremony at a temple in Chennai.

I say covertly because within his family there is a tradition that once you are engaged to a girl, you don’t see them again until the wedding day. In Udi’s case, this wasn’t to be until the end of May.

The first stop on the journey was a place called Pondicherry, an old French colony that still has strong ties to France. The purpose of the stop over here was not to experience and take in the culture and admire the French influence on the architecture and city lay out, it was simply because you can buy cheap booze here.

Stocked up on booze, we proceeded down to Thanjuvar which meant taking winding country roads where the farmers were out in the padi fields and workers were piling up the harvested rice by the side of the road.

The method by which you separate the rice ‘seed’ from the rest of the plant is quite simple in india. You spread out all the stalks across the road and let the cars, lorries, bikes, tractors and tuk-tuks drive across it all, therby separating the rice from the plant.

Several boozy hours later (and it should be noted that this included the driver, an otherwise respected and successful MD in Chennai) we arrived at the hotel which was very nice indeed!

Udi met up with his fiance, and the rest of us (which now included a lawyer from Thanjuvar) headed off to the ancient temple.

I finally realised a lifelong dream and went face to face with an elephant (as in, it was free to go about anywhere). I did the traditionl of giving it a rupee coin in it’s trunk, which it passes on to it’s master and then pats you on the head with it’s trunk to ‘bless’ you.

All very cool.

There are actually three temples within the main walls and I went in all of them to be blessed by the Gods. This involves doing something with a candle (who knows what? I just copied everyone else) and then having the priest put some chalk on your head.

To be honest, I did feel a little bit uncomfortable because although I was there as a tourist and gawping at the sights, most people were there to worship their Gods.

The temple done, we went back to the hotel, had a few more beers, bribed one of the workers to let us go out in the roof top swimming pool before calling it a night.

Mosquito Bite Count: 26

Three Men Get Locked in a Room

It sounds like it could be the start of a bad joke, but no, today it actually happened. The hilarity of the situation is going to be lost a fair bit but here’s what happened.

One of the rooms in my apartment has been locked since I arrived due to a faulty door handle. This morning it was eventually opened by the manager of the apartment block. To prove that the door handle was working again, he demonstrated several times that the lock was going in and out as normal.

Then, for reasons unknown, the manager, the watchman and Aravind’s father went in to the room, shut the door behind them and attempted to open it again from the other side. The door handle broke.

For about 15 minutes there was a lot of shouting on the other side of the door and the door handle was turning furiously as they tried to escape. I was on the other side powerless to help, but creased up laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

Eventually I saw a builder passing by my door (the apartment block still isn’t finished yet) and I managed to flag them down and explain the problem by means of some vigorous hand gestures.

The builder disappeared and came back with 4 of his mates and they set about trying to open the door.

After about 20 minutes the men were finally released from their inpromptu cell.

As I said, the humour is lost as I retell the story, definitely something you had to be there to get.

Mosquito Bite Count: 22