Tuesday, July 3, 2007

India, Week 1: The Curse of the Business Class

I've been in India for about a week now, and it's pretty crazy. First off, I must mention that I flew business class to India. Business class. To India. The ticket cost as much as my college education but provided far more bang for my (well, my employer's) buck. Benefits included waiting for my flight in the "President's Lounge" (where the staff gives you free food and drinks and asks "How can I help you?" without meaning "I hope you die"); an airplane chair with controls outnumbering the cockpit's; champagne instead of peanuts; hot towels instead of screaming children; and two meals with so many courses that they lasted literally 1/3 of the 15-hour flight. I spent the remaining time asleep while reclined a full 90 degrees. I must go to India more often.

But why India? About a month ago, my manager asked me if I'd spend four weeks in Hyderabad training the helpdesk there. I agreed and bought my (business class!) ticket before he could realize (a) he was making a grave mistake because (b) of the two words that constitute "helpdesk," I generally offer neither. Over the next four weeks, I played vaccination bingo (polio, measles, tetanus, hepatitis A through L), started taking malaria medication (Larium…it's a hallucinogen!), and replaced the contents of my wallet which was conveniently stolen. By a Larium junkie, no doubt.

And now I'm in India. Sunday night, I arrived to the Delhi airport. You know those annoying passengers who have chauffeurs holding placards with their names ("Executive Transportation Welcomes Mr. Fauntleroy Worthington")? I'm now one of them. Upon arriving to the hotel in Delhi's "Embassy Enclave," I found no end of service people eager to anticipate any effort I might make and prevent me from making it. (Someone held the door, someone pushed the elevator button, someone wiped the elevator button to remove the fingerprint caused by the pusher.) I wasn't sure if tipping was required, but the valets were kind enough to inform me that it was without my needing to make the effort to ask.

On Monday, my one full day in Delhi, my manager asked me to check on the construction of the company's local office. (They have a move-in tentatively scheduled for this weekend.) To its credit, the office had a nice parking lot. It did not, however, have an office or any of the items we've come to associate with officeness, such as walls, ceilings, a floor, windows, water, or power. Sweating profusely (they claim no power means no air conditioning), I asked questions to an assortment of architects, contractors, and assistants arranged in bowling pin formation whereupon I became acquainted with what my manager calls the "head wobble."

Try nodding. Now, shake your head no. Now, do both at the same time so that your head tilts left and right along the plane of your shoulders in a manner most commonly found in dashboard figurines. This is the head wobble. When asked a question, Indians use it to mean most anything. "Yes," "No," "I don't know," "How can I help you?," and "I hope you die" are only some of the myriad possibilities.
The transcript of my conversation with the Delhi building crew looks something like this:

Greg: So, uh, I noticed there's no floor.
All: [Head wobble]
Greg: Will it be here by this Friday?
All: [Head wobble]
Greg: Or by mid-July?
All: [Head wobble]
Greg: [Head smack]

After adding "contractor" to the list of careers I should never pursue (along with "athlete," "actor," and "helpdesk"), I returned to my hotel to prepare for the flight to Hyderabad. Aside from being taken first to the wrong airport and then to the right airport in the wrong lane (the one where the traffic's coming at you), the flight was fairly uneventful. By some cruel twist of fate, however, my seat was, ugh, coach. There was one meal (peanuts); one button on the chair ("Recline"? Ha, I who have experienced all that chair reclining can be); and one expletive to describe it all, which I leave to your imagination.

From the airport, a driver (again with the name placard!) took me to what would be my digs in the heart of Banjara Hills. My sources (Lonely Planet) tell me that Banjara Hills is the posh-posh part of Hyderabad. My sources don't lie. The corporate apartment is, in a word, ridiculous. There are marble floors, nine rooms (including an extra bedroom in case I break the first one), and two terraces overlooking a forested ravine. As an added bonus, each room has fifteen light switches, only fourteen of which are decoys. I've spent much time in the dark, but I'm already making technological progress! For today, after a week of ice cold showers (and frantic e-mails to an Indian friend), I won my battle against the wall-mounted water heater. Apparently, it had to be "powered on," as suggested by the giant power switch on the device. I could save face by claiming that at least I figured it out eventually. But that would be a verbal head wobble. The repairman I called figured it out for me. (The Delhi hotel removed any independence I once had.) But why worry about water heaters? Being (for this month only) a full-time employee, the office, not the apartment, is where I'd spend the brunt of my time.

The Hyderabad office is located in a downtown area known as Begumpet, as in "if you want Begumpet, Begumpet with a trumpet." Getting to Begumpet (or anywhere) is absolute insanity. There are no traffic lights, lanes are more suggested than compulsory, and drivers lean on their horns for the duration of their journey. There's no way to describe the cacophony. But Spring Awakening comes close. Even crossing the street is a nightmare. Fortunately, I don't actually have to cross the street for myself because the company has provided me with a driver—a fellow by the name of Gopar who is incredibly enthusiastic, friendly, polite, and in every way better suited than myself for helpdesk. He responds to any request with "okayokay" regardless of whether or not it's physiologically possible or he even understands. (When I asked for a grocery store, he first dropped me off at two hotels and a gym.)

The gym, incidentally, is part of the Hyderabad office, as is the game room and the cafeteria designed to look like a cave with painted lava and papier mâché stalagmites. Being as the New York office offers only, well, offices and a functional power grid, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Their helpdesk, too, is much snazzier than ours with curving windows, brass doorframes shaped like minarets, and beanbag chairs. This all becomes moot in mid-August, however, for the Hyderabad helpdesk—and all of the Hyderabad office—will be moving into a new location which, rumor has it, has actually been built.

To the naysayers, I have but one response. [Head wobble.]

Continued >>

An omen of what's to come.

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