27 August 2009

Jobs? This is my job?

So believe it or not, for the one and a half years I've had this blog I've also been paid to work with a pretty impressive group of NGOs on four different continents. I've been setting up a shared IT help desk for four of the NGOs, starting with the initial analysis in BsAs then the design in Nairobi then the actual development back in Denver and finally the long term support here in India. Working with our outsourcing group, we've identified a group of five people, trained them in what we have created, shown them how to do further development and worked out the processes by which they will support these NGOs. In the last weeks they have started to take over the project which has been pretty personally satisfying but also comes at a great time as a fifth NGO is joining and the existing clients are looking to expand beyond the original design. We also just wrapped up two days of clients visiting us in Bangalore which was a good (if exhausting) chance to show them what we have setup and the huge range of other things we could provide (and get some good dinners / t-shirts in the process).

When I heard I was coming out here, one of the things I was looking forward to was seeing what it is like to work in India. In some ways it is very familiar, there are some very bright people and we all speak the same consultanteese: leverage, methodology, SLA, metrics, engagement, etc. There are the same Cisco IP phones and the same system for reserving conference rooms, but the break rooms have a tomato soup dispenser and the women are wearing saris. There are 10,000 people that work on 7 floors in 3 towers in just one of our 6 locations in Bangalore, the scale of the offices is incredible. Rhere obviously are a lot of qualified people, but there is nowhere near the vast ocean of IT experts I was expecting (probably less than 1% of India's population is involved in IT), generally they don't talk so good English (even at some of the higher levels) and hiring people is still a pain. Perhaps the most surprising difference was the unhelpfulness of support staff and general mentality of following the rules (or "process") rather than actually getting things done. Case in point (after I was chased off the lawn by a whistle totting security guard):

The Lawn

So like everything else in India, work has been an experience. I'm very happy with team we have set up here and think they will be able to do a great job, but man I really wanted to have lunch on that lawn.

-Mr. Steve

22 August 2009

Slaying the Taj Mahal

Arriving in New Delhi last Friday morning was a particularly pleasant experience. Luckily for us, Lord Krishna was celebrating his 5,237th birthday and this combined with India celebrating its 67th birthday kept the streets free of the much feared Delhi traffic. And what streets they were, wide English styled boulevards lined with trees, paved sidewalks and (relatively) free of litter. Things were going quite well until we pulled over to ask directions and a crazy drugged out beggar ran into our car, created a huge commotion that caused about thirty people to gather around the car (with us inside) and wasn't resolved until a cop and a few cool headed cows came by to sort things out.

PICT0025 Delhi has a pretty amazing mix of old Islamic architecture mixed with colonial British buildings and a crush of new construction in preparation for the commonwealth games in 2010. We saw some distinctly British government sites like the India gate and President's House (interesting note: India has a president) and then hit up the Ashkerdam temple. Ashkerdam seems to be dedicated to a person (rather than a god), but people still pray to him, so once again I am completely clueless about hinduism. But it is an impressive, gigantic complex with ornately carved exteriors, marble paths, 200 gold cow head water fountains and some crazy guy from Chicago who gave up all his possessions, moved out here, told us about the history then took us to chant and pour water over a golden statue of a boy. Totally, completely clueless. Following our confusing, but fun, temple experience we hit up the QBA restaurant for what will undoubtedly be my favorite and most authentic meal in India: jumbo Thai shrimp and a Mediterranean mezze (and not a small amount of Kingfisher).

PICT0030 While we really wanted to take an Indian train to the Taj, apparently we were not the only ones with this idea and you cannot reserve them the day before. So we hopped in Tata's finest, cheapest Indica and hit the road for Agra. While parts of the drive were the expected congested and chaotic roads, parts were absolutely beautiful with lush green rice paddies dotted with 20m tall chimneys for firing bricks. After a few hours (and a few monkeys at a toll booth doing tricks), we arrived at the Taj Mahal. It certainly is an amazing place, built in the lets say 1500s by an Islamic emperor (Shah Jahan) for his wife as a symbol of his undying love (ironically , it was his love, and the 14 children that came with it, that actually killed her). The palace houses the tombs of the emperor and his wife and is made out of marble inlaid with stones and the text of the entire Quarn (without being garish like so many things here), surrounded by gardens, symmetrical mosques and a giant red sandstone wall and is really pretty beautiful.

This seemed to be the general feeling amongst the 5,000 other people there that afternoon who stopped shoving each other just long enough to take a silly picture of them pulling the Taj up or ask Ashley to take a picture holding their baby (smartly, they did not ask me to do this). People will say that it is so beautiful you won't mind all the other tourists and I could not disagree more. So the next morning I got up 7:30pm eastern time (you do the math),walked back up as the sun was rising and was the fourth person to see the Taj that Sunday morning. The difference was striking, the entire place was incredibly calm and (for a moment at least) all the craziness of India melted away. Within thirty minutes it was crawling with tourists again but I was happy, grabbed a 10 cent cycle rickshaw back to the hotel for some breakfast and hit the road.

PICT0252 The drive back was a combination of whirlwind sightseeing and funny stories from our awesome driver, Surienda. While I'm not quite sold on his idea that India had monkey soldiers (with guns, grenades and ranks) during one of its wars with Pakistan, I am a strong believe in his three keys to driving in India: a good horn, good brakes and good luck. We hit up the Agra Fort (another Shah Jahan Joint), Akbar's Tomb, the Lotus Temple and then spent some time relaxing on the walls and gardens of Hanuyman's Tomb (still more of a palace) back in Delhi. From there it was a quick ride past the impressive embassy row and then a three hour flight back to home sweet home, Bengaluru.

Steve Gore

17 August 2009

Indians: You Disgust Me

While I normally try to keep this pretty upbeat and fun (and parenthetical), I've decided to give myself one post per trip to get up on a soapbox and post about something that I think is important. This is it for this trip but if you're not inclined to read the whole thing, here is the short version: don't litter.

So it really annoys me back home when I see smokers just toss their cigarette butts on the ground, maybe grind them out (to ya know, not start a fire) and then walk away. What is it about cigarettes that makes this acceptable? These exact same people would never just drop an empty bag of chips or bottle or water. The difference in India is that people absolutely will, and do, throw empty bags of chips, bottles of water and just about anything else they are done using onto the nearest road, sewer or creek. Mounds of stinking trash line almost every road and clog almost every river I've seen in India. The sight and smell is disturbing. Watching yet another Indian throw another piece of garbage onto the street is disgusting in the most literal sense.


So what? Why should people (other than Indians) care if they destroy their own environment? One answer is that India can be a beautiful place, and you might want to come here one day. But the real answer is, of course, there is not a separate Indian environment compared to 'our environment' and the actions taken here have far reaching implications. Lets look at a few:

  • Rivers Flow: All the trash that is being dumped in sewers and blown around the city that ends up in a river doesn't just sit here in Bangalore. The next time that river floods (say with a seasonal monsoon), all that trash gets washed downstream where it will eventually end up in one of the world's oceans. From there it is just a matter of time for that trash to circle the globe on ocean currents, slowly releasing toxins and chemicals that end up in our food and the water that evaporates to form rain and snow (as in, our drinking water).
  • H1N1: Walking past piles of slowly rotting garbage, it is hard to imagine that they are not festering with all kinds of bacteria, viruses and generally nasty stuff. All it takes is one of those things hopping into one person, then another, then a daily non-stop to London or Dubai and we've got ourselves global pandemic. Its probably worth pointing out that the only beneficiaries of the trash are the city cows and pigs (as in, swine).
  • A Mentality: Back in the day when everything was made out of bamboo and coconut leaves, not caring about the environment had pretty minimal effects. Nowadays with plastic everything, not caring about the environment has some fairly serious consequences. In the future, not caring about the environment will have disastrous effects. With a rising middle class and plummeting car prices, India is poised to add millions of cars (and TVs and refrigerators, etc) to the road each year. How can we even start talking about conservation, alternative energy or sustainability when over 1,000,000,000 people cannot fucking throw things away correctly?

What can be done? Unfortunately this doesn't seem like a particularly easy one to solve (and admitted it may not be the most pressing world issue) but there are some things that I think are needed:

  • Role Models: This one is super easy. Don't litter, even cigarette butts. Don't be part of the problem. Talk to those you see that are.
  • Infrastructure: India's government (like all developing governments), needs to remove trash as part of the basic services that it provides to its citizens. This needs to be something more structured than the women pushing carts of trash I see randomly around the city. Given many governments' rather poor record at basic public services, this is not something to hold your breath for. However, a motivated government could easily tax producers or importers of disposable goods to fund the necessary infrastructure. (An interesting point: most developing countries are prodigious recyclers; glass and aluminum are too valuable to throw away)
  • Culture: There is evidently a culture within India that says it is ok to simply throw your trash wherever you see fit. This must change. I think the most effective way to change culture is through education, both formally in schools and informally through the media. This would not be particularly hard, we're not talking about rocket science and even the simple murals Delhi has at street corners seem to be reasonably effective. But to really be effective, this push for change must come from within the existing culture. Despite the soaring readership of this blog, this type of change is not something I can reasonably expect to influence, it must be done by Indians for themselves, and the rest of us.

11 August 2009

The 57th Annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race

Thats right kids, this past weekend I ventured down to Kerala to witness the spectacle that is India's largest semi-professional snake boat race. And what is a snake boat race, you might ask? Well it is an Indian version of an ivy league regatta crossed with an Indian version of Preakness with just a little bit of Indian pomp and circumstance thrown in. In short, it is awesome.

PICT0002Got down to Kerala (a state just south of Karnataka, home to Bengaluru) Friday afternoon and started the long, long drive to our place in the Aleppy backwaters. Aleppy is located in a delta type area that is criscrossed with rivers and canals and bills itself as the Venice of India. We stayed at the Coir Village which is about 35km outside of town right on some rivers (in fact, you have to take a little boat from the car to reception and then another one from reception to our room). We hung out in hammocks, took a sunset cruise on the water and amazingly actually had a relaxing, peaceful night in India.

The next day was the big race and we headed back to Aleppy and jumped onto our boat for the day. We motored out of town and quickly were at the course: a kilometer long stretch filled with thousands of people lining the shores and on thousands of boats all vying for the best view. Settled in for the afternoon, snuck through the cockpit to get to the front of our boat, watched the racing boats warm up but generally drank watered down brandy, ate mystery fish stew (side note: Indians - stop trying to feed me, seriously, it is not cool) and generally tried to avoid getting pushed in the water.  The actual boats were pretty incredible, there were a few different sizes with the biggest (the snake boats) taking six month to build and seating upwards of 120 rowers (plus drummers, yellers, umbrella holders and steerers). Watching 120 folks (there were female, aka kitchen, boats as well) row in synch lifting these massive boats of the water was quite impressive.

PICT0051 Edit PICT0213

Around 2pm Sonia Gandhi, who is not related to the Mahatma but is the president of the ruling party but is not prime minister of the country, kicked off the actual races. A somewhat interesting fact: the race is named in honor of Jawaharlal Nehru who was the first prime minister of India and Sonia Gandhi's grandfather (in law), but this was the first time someone from the Nehru-Gandhi family (kind of like the Kennedys and featuring four prime ministers) actually attended. This was celebrated in what I imagine is traditional south Indian fashion: having a navy diver wearing flippers lowered and raised a few times from a hovering helicopter (not lying).

IMG_0074 As the races got going the scene turned more and more to a Pimlico on water. Way too many people crammed onto the boats closest to the race, little skirmishes breaking out between Indians on neighboring boats, kiddy pools full of beer (kidding), clothes coming off (admittedly just guys jumping into the water), and at some point someone broke out a bottle of White Mischief Vodka. After a handful of races (which like Preakness most people didn't pay attention to) the crowd of 40 or so boats was whittled down to 4. With the sun setting, Champakulam defeated twelve time winner Payipad in a scintillating final that (that I'm told) was one of the best snake boat races in history.

Capped off the trip at our new hotel on the beach, making some friends and hadving a bonfire where I once again found myself trying to explain s'mores to foreigners. Spent the next morning on the beach and enjoying an open air shower then cruised back to Bangalore to enjoy a fantastic evening of beer, hookah and french fries.

Steve Gore

06 August 2009

Jaipur: The land of the kings, the land of the Steves

Last weekend I grabbed my backpack, ducked out of work early and caught a quick flight up to Jaipur in Northern India.  Jaipur is known as the Pink City (painted that way when some Brit visited in the 1850s), the capital of the state of Rajasthan (the Land of the Kings) and is an interesting mix of hinduism, muslim-ism, history, architecture and heat. Accompanying me this little sojourn was Katie, a Yale lawie out in Bangalore for a two month summer internship.

PICT0031 After an inauspicious Friday night (involving first wandering, then rickshawing around lost until 1am) we hit the ground running Saturday morning. And by that I mean we jumped on a cycle rickshaw to the old city, a partially walled section of Jaipur where almost all the buildings are painted pink. Walked around a bit, hung out with our first snake charmer then explored the city palace which is a fairly impressive complex of buildings set in the middle of the packed city. From there it was off to the Govind Devji temple which I believe is the first giant tented evangelical Hindu temple (most Hindu temples have room for like 7 people, this one probably sat 700 with tvs and speakers to broadcast the action) and the Hawa Mahel, an amazing palace created with tons of tiny windows so the muslim chicas could look check out the city without the city checking them out. After a much need shower, we headed to Katie's co-worker's friend's house for a nice, if somewhat awkward, meal. The best part is a tie between a crazy mother telling us how afraid she was of the witches in Salem, Massachusetts because "those people look like they know magic" and listening to Bob Dylan while driving home which was one of those odd yet thoroughly enjoyable moments in a different country.

City Palace Hawa Mahel

Sunday we organized a car to explore the surrounding sights but no sooner had we started than we ran smack dab into the middle of a giant hindu parade complete with a brass band, decked out elephants and about five hundred people in bright orange dancing to drummers and bringing water the Shiva temple. Pretty cool way to start the day, then we headed out to Amber and its humongous old fort. It was super impressive, surrounded by 25 miles of boundary walls (the great wall of India) and totally open on the inside so you could wander through everything including the ramparts, turkish baths and of course, the "pleasure palace". From Amber we checked out the 16th century Jaighur fort which houses the world's largest cannon and took six elephants to aim (accurately I'm sure) for the only time it was ever fired, though it did shoot over 20 miles. Following lunch we hiked up to the Temple of the Sun God, ran into some more singing Hindus, wondered if there are any calm, relaxing places in this country (I think this is why meditation started), dodged the requisite beggars, camel ride touts and dude selling sandalwood Ganeshes, shot some photos of a palace built in the middle of the lake and concluded our weekend of being super tourists.

Or so we thought. After dinner we searched for a place to enjoy a Kingfisher and randomly wandered into the Hotel Sahn's pretty fantastic rooftop bar. It had a neat view over the old city and a giant outdoor TV playing a very Indian mix of wet t-shirt and pelvic thrusting music videos (though without any kissing - heaven forbid) followed by commercials for Unwanted-72, India's very own morning after the pill. Ultimately, we were the real highlight of the bar with Indian after Indian coming over to us, trying to literally put food in my mouth (wtf, mate?), hitting us with pickup lines ('I have a bet with my friend I can't talk to you'), talking about Woodrow Wilson and asking us random questions. By far the best was the dude who asked me what Steve meant, the best I could come up with (while keeping a straight face) was the King of Horses and then reassuringly told him that "a long time ago, back in England, the Steves used to have huge armies of horses". He accepted this, smiled and bobbed his head... India.

Amber Fort 
Great Wall of India
Jai Mahal

05 August 2009

Whats up, Bengaluru?

India is a country where you just have to accept things the way they are. Mail room won't accept your mail? Accept it. People say yes when they mean no? Accept it. Major capital cities change their names in the past three years? Accept it*, and welcome to Bengaluru ("beng-a-loo-roo"). 

So things have been going alright down here in the last few weeks. Bengaluru actually has a pretty decent collection of restaurants and bars, though they close at the barn burning hour of 11:30pm. Two Fridays ago we checked out Purple Haze, a local "rock and roll bar" which means a place blasting (and I mean blasting) rock music with TVs showing recordings of rock concerts and about a hundred people cheering, screaming and generally pretending they are at said rock concerts. Accept it. Another interesting place was The Beach where they have combined almost every possible bar theme: sand on the floor, shots in test tubes, sheesha and pub trivia with a guy who thinks he is the host of Who wants to be a Millionaire from Slumdog. A few other good places I've been for anyone coming out here: 13th Floor, Aira and Via Milano.

There aren't a ton of touristy things to do here, I did check out the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) temple which was, in a word, confusing. I expected some sort of big, elaborate temple that you could wander around, instead it is this massive production that is closer to waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland than anything remotely religious. After negotiating the mazes you see three temples, hear some people chanting "hare krishna" (apparently that is all there is to salvation), get some pure veg snacks then make your way through a massive gift shop. Very odd.


Otherwise, work has been a pain. We are trying to find some people to join the team here, and let me tell you that I no longer have any concerns whatsoever about everyone in America losing their jobs to India. 'Nuff said. In more exciting news, I've finally got my hands on some postcards and stamps, so if you want a card, you know what to do (send me your address).

Mr. Steve


*: You can chose to accept it or not, but as the maxim goes: India always wins.