I’ve spent significant time and effort in this journal, documenting how gentle, and kind the people of India are to me. It’s an extraordinarily spiritual culture, filled with loyal families that intensely love each other. The television and radio waves overflow with upbeat Bollywood singing and dancing, all day, every day. As a westerner, I am treated like a king in restaurants and hotels, constantly asked what it’s like in America. I can walk into a restaurant that I haven’t been to in weeks, and I am greeted with a bright smile, “Hello, Mr. Jeff.” One waiter wants me to teach him the rules of basketball. Another wants me to bring in my favorite Hollywood movies. In return, he has given me a few Bollywood DVDs, and is eagerly awaiting my review and opinion. Hotel staff members constantly ask me if I’m done reading the Mahabharata yet. They also beg to hear the music I’m writing, as my room is littered with music theory books. One day, the girl behind the reception desk looked like she was going to start crying, when she asked me why I never attend any of the hotel functions and parties. Another night, I received a knock on my door from an extremely shy and friendly hotel staff member. A few months ago, she saw me in the restaurant downstairs. I was editing photos from my trip to Egypt. It took her two months to find courage to knock on my door, and ask if I could please send them to her. She explained how she will never be able to make it to the pyramids in her lifetime, and really wanted to see my photos. I will never receive this much care, concern, and attention anywhere back home. Family and friends. Yes. Joe Hotel, or John Restaurant? Not a chance.
You do feel the gigantic “however” coming, right? Very good. I will now walk you through a typical Indian-style workday for good old me.
1 billion people live in India. A large percentage of those people squeeze into the elevator at my place of work, every morning. It’s true. Somehow the laws of physics do not apply to modes of transportation here. I’ve seen a family of 5 on a motorcycle. I’ve seen 8-10 people in a small car. And I’ve been told legendary tales of trains and buses in Mumbai. Elevators are in a smaller class, however, these tin can smell-traps still find a way to fit myself and 1/2 the Indian population between their walls. These cages of joy act as magnets, slowly sucking in every human being from a 500 mile radius. It appears people here are powerless against this magnetic force as well. You can see the effects of this as people slowly slide across the lobby floor. The closer they get to the tin doors, the faster they shuffle and slide. Within seconds, their bodies are pressed against the elevator’s unopened doors; everyone stacked against each other. At this point, they are no longer individual human beings, but have instead merged into a solid mass of something-or-other.
Soon enough, the small box opens its doors. Two particle masses then collide, as the people being ejected from the elevator, collide with the particle mass being pulled on to the elevator. In a frenzied panic, all of Bangalore rushes onboard. The only force which stops this phenomenon from happening is when the Elevator-God himself decides enough is enough. As the doors close, there’s always someone who still thinks there’s both room and time to leap in front of my face. These are the people who always come within seconds of getting their arm ripped off. No worries though. Other cages soon descend, and once again, you can start to see its effect on people minutes before the people-trap arrives. The closer the arriving elevator gets to the ground, the closer people press their bodies against the doors, soon to be blocking the ejecting humans. On a related note, it’s amazing to watch the confusion ensue when there’s more than one magnetic box opening it’s doors at the same time. You can feel people literally being ripped apart from the inside. It’s quite painful to watch, as some people get paralyzed and miss both elevators. You just know this completely devastates them. In India, indecision will cost you dearly. It’s better to choose, choose quickly, and move with decisive force at all costs to those around you.
So if you’ve ever caught yourself day-dreaming about what it would be like to have 25 Indian men pressed up against your body, you should visit an office elevator in Bangalore. If you’ve ever wondered what a complete stranger’s nose in the back of your hair feels like, you should come check out elevators 1 through 6 in my building. (Don’t get on elevator number 3 though. It’s constantly under repair and rattles during the entire journey). Once you’re sucked onboard, if its your lucky day, you may even be able to convince the man with his nose on your neck, to cough or sneeze on you. When your arms are finally free to move after a few floors, you can wipe off the saliva pretty easily. No problem. I should add that you’ll also have this love-fest accompanied by Titanic love theme music. India still loves that movie, and 12 years later its music relentlessly plays over the speakers in my hotel lobby, the hotel restaurant, in the bathrooms at work, and yes, even in the love-cage’s 12-story ascension to the top floor. The doors open. The box reverses its polarity, and I am spit out like old trash. My work day is now free to begin.
Four hours later, 1 billion people will be scrambling to obtain food from various fine establishments. Without going into too much detail a second time, just imagine the elevator lunch rush as the morning elevator experience, times ten. The crowds are so out of control, that workers on the floors below me press the “up” button, so they can secure a spot on the elevator. When the elevator doors open on the top floor, my floor, they are already packed with hungry human beings, staring back at me wondering what the hell I’m doing there. Sometimes I wedge myself into Floor 9’s Arm Pit. Other times I wait 5-10 minutes for only a 90% full elevator to arrive. There is no doubt about it. The journey to acquire food in my office park is of paramount importance to its people. I am very much a part of this system and culture, and so after yet another long elevator mission, accompanied by Titanic theme music, my own quest for food begins as well.
I’ve been here six months. However, it took me awhile to learn this next lesson. If you listen hard enough, India will teach you valuable lessons on how to stand strong, push, and shove; without feeling guilty. As individuals, Indians rock. They are amazing people, and I love them dearly. As a crowd, not so cool. For many people (usually males), waiting in lines of any kind is a problem. In India, asking someone to wait their turn, is like asking a wall if it wouldn’t mind moving somewhere else. They will both stare back at you with a clueless, blank gaze. I’ve been in lines at grocery stores, and more than a few times have marveled at people who actually pushed me out of the way, and cut in line. The solution is to simply step out of line, and cut back in front of them. The cost of doing this, however, is that now they will be standing one inch from the back of your head, breathing down your neck. I’ve also witnessed crowds of men stampede a moving bus in Mumbai. The bus driver’s solution was to violently press on the gas pedal and then jam on the brakes repeatedly, shaking the people away like one swats a fly. The mob’s goal was to get on the bus before it reached the bus stop of people who have been waiting for quite some time. Amazingly, I watched all 50 of these men eventually succeed in their mission. True, they left other men, women, and children to stand in the rain, but they got their seats.
The sad part is, if you want to get things done here; if you want to get to your destination in a timely manner; if you want to eat lunch before the sun sets, you too will have to rudely push and shove your way through crowds of people. True, you’ll hear childhood memories of your mother barking at you to say, “excuse me,” or to “wait your turn,” or “say please.” However, you’ll be glad you got on the first or second elevator, didn’t have to wait in the rain at the bus stop, and were able to get your Subway sandwich before the start of the new year. In time, the guilt of being rude will go away. You will soon be a part of the crowd, seamlessly blending in with the behavioral patterns associated with local group culture.
The western imperial empire has not quite taken over India’s land just yet. The British tried, sure. But Gandhi came along and peacefully found a way to convince them to leave in 1947. I’m not so sure it was Gandhi though. I have a theory those British lads got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m talking about the poison injected into the food, in what feels like every other restaurant in India. This is 2009. Can you imagine food quality in 1947? India doesn’t need to invest in a military. It needs to simply drag their food through dirt, and then continue serving it to the western dudes over at table nine.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been here 6 months, and have been sick with food poison 6 times. What was fun writing fodder at first, has now seriously become a source of rage for me. I’ve been sick on all kinds of food here: seafood, white meat, dark meat, Italian, Chinese, and Indian. Once I get sick at a certain restaurant, it’s on my ban list, and so now I’m down to Subway, Pizza Hut, and room service. I panic when bosses invite me out to a Jeff-untested restaurant. The “career goals vs. stomach hell” checklist goes through the standard plus/minus routine beforehand. What I learned about myself is that I will always choose to get sick, just to have an opportunity to connect with someone in my company. I don’t live in fear. I live in reality.
If my tone sounds angry, it’s because I’m writing this while recovering from a long night of pain. Maybe that’s not a good idea, and maybe I’ll delete half of this before you read it. To bring balance here, look at the statistics: 2-3 meals a day, over 6 months. That means, less then 1% of the food I’ve eaten, has made me sick. I also need to point out that everything always turns out alright in the end. Within a few days, I’m back to loving my Indian experience, and joking about life to my friends and family. I’m simply pointing out that I’ve been poisoned 1 time in 38 years of life, before India; 6 times in 6 months of life, during India. That angers me. Do I feel guilty for venting about a country I love? A little. Additionally, the Cleveland Browns have angered me every year since birth, but I still love them too. Quite often, America isn’t very awesome either. So trust me. It’s ok. But still…I mean come on. What’s up with this, India?
The Way Home
Getting back to the daily routine; when a long day of work is over, it becomes time to crawl inside the elevator, and into my driver’s mini-van for a fun game of Satan’s Road. During the initial conversations with my company, before coming to India, I asked if I could have a car to rent and drive. It was explained to me that I am not allowed to drive here, and wouldn’t want to if I could. Ok, really? That sounds interesting, I thought. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I figured I’d just drop the issue, and see what life brings later. I figured having a driver take me everywhere, at any time of day, sounded pretty awesome as well. Amazingly to me, this turned out to actually be the case. Almost by default, he becomes the first friend, and someone who will always look out for me in a strange land. He rolls down the window and barks at the beggars to run away. He follows me into cell phone stores, and wrangles the man behind the counter when it looks like he’s about to cheat me out of some money and minutes. And he’ll even spend countless hours answering all my lame questions about culture and life in India. Granted, all the answers seem to be, “Yes, sir.” Still, he helps. My driver’s name is Anil. Well, actually it’s Kumar. Out of a weird misunderstanding that’s too boring to explain, I had his name wrong for quite some time. He is extremely shy, and it took him 5 months to tell me, Anil, is not his real name. We had a good laugh, and I then proceeded to explain that I was still going to call him Anil for fun. He replied with a smile, “Yes, sir.” I really do love that man.
And now back to Satan’s Road game. If you look to the dirt, urine-filled sidewalk below, there may be thousands of ants and bugs crawling around at any given time. I observed that evolution gave these ants the profound ability to all walk in a straight, orderly line. If you then shift your gaze up, you will observe that evolution didn’t make its million year journey to the sea of frenzied, chaos-loving metal boxes zipping around your very eyes. Every single metal thing, comes within seconds and inches of hitting another metal thing, from all angles, at all times. And I say thing, because I’m sorry; strapping a lawnmower engine to the back of a seat cushion, and calling it a taxi, doesn’t make it a vehicle. It’s simply a lawnmower engine strapped to the back of a seat cushion. They call it an auto rickshaw. Whatever it is, it’s a poor excuse for a vehicle, and they need to stop it from polluting the air we’re all breathing.
Traffic lights are extremely rare. You’d have a better chance spotting a dodo bird crossing the street. I’ve also never seen a stop sign, ever. Nearly every road has two “lanes.” In practice, however, it works out to roughly six-and-a-half lanes. Don’t ask me how, but I swear this is not comedic exaggeration. Even when the roads are completely empty of cows, dogs, lawnmower-rickshaws, motorcycles, and flatbed trucks carrying 30 women to a knitting job, my driver still loves to drive down the middle of the street, right on the painted line. Simply stated, that’s just the way it is here.
My first two weeks in India were off-the-chart shocking for me. In previous writing, I explained this was mainly due to a lot of the poverty. The secondary details of being in a car were definitely a part of that shock, and were left out of the story until this day. This probably is because I’ve become accustomed to my environment. In other words, it’s all good now. You must quickly get used to almost-crashing three or four times a day, or you will simply perish in stress and worry. And don’t worry about the child in this photo. Although I’m sure they both could use some money, the blood on the child’s head is fake. Fabricated head injuries only add to this tale of two peoples.
Enough is enough
I’m out of time here. This workday story has gone on way too long. I didn’t get a chance to explain what it’s like for me to walk across an Indian street. I didn’t get a chance to explain how I feel when the power in Bangalore goes out every 30 minutes, sometimes while I’m still in the hotel elevator. And I definitely didn’t have enough time to comment on how they are starting to install street lights everywhere now. No more walking in the pitch black of night for us local folk.
I need to repeat how much I love being in India. As I wrote in the journal entry entitled, “Learning to Love the Journey,” India is filled with tests, games, and layers. She will downright break you, if you’re not ready for her. I am still learning to deal with all of this, and am constantly learning more about my thought processes every day. Some days I do great. Other days, I’m sorry to say, I’m not very proud of myself. But thank God for this country, and the fact I’m here. I leave for home in two weeks, and it hurts; even more than the poison.