Thursday, June 15, 2006

The worst day

I had gotten up in the middle of the night with some stomach issues, but no pain, I figured it must be a minor problem otherwise I would be feeling some discomfort, but other than having to run to the bathroom now and again I felt fine. I tossed it off to something I ate the day before and tried to forget about it. I went ahead and ate a normal breakfast and checked out of the hotel.

Today we were headed to Gurgaon, which is a fast growing city that practically runs into Delhi. Gurgaon was probably the cleanest and nicest area I traveled to while in India, although that isn’t saying much considering where I had been. Sam explained that even 5 years ago Gurgaon was nothing compared to what it was now. Massive construction and development of new office buildings and multitudes of shopping malls and movie theaters had made Gurgaon the hot destination of choice for families and others escaping expensive, crowded, and confined Delhi. Wide, paved, multi-lane roads and highways were under construction everywhere we went. Tall, artistic skyscrapers that all looked brand new glistened in the summer sun. We saw familiar multinational names on some of the buildings such as IBM and Nestle. There were also a number of huge buildings that bore names I had never heard of. Sam explained that the companies that owned those buildings were the huge Indian service companies that ran the famous call centers for everything from customer service to tech support. He said inside the buildings are floors and floors of cubicles manned by English speaking support staff who work different shifts to cover the 24/7 tech support and customer support lines for a variety of American corporations. He said these were some of the fastest growing companies in the Indian economy.

As we made our way through the neighborhoods I also noticed a lot of brand new hotels and shopping malls. While still distinctly India – nothing could make you forget that – Gurgaon bore the closest resemblance to an industrialized major western city that I had seen so far. But once you got off the main roads and ventured further into the areas surrounding the major developments, it was just like being back in Jaipur or Jodhpur, although a bit cleaner and I don’t remember any large animals wandering the busy roads.

We took care of our first factory visit and about 1 hour into the visit I felt something go in my stomach – like my stomach had been holding a medicine ball clenched in its upper regions and decided to drop it. Luckily this was a fairly new building and the manager’s office had its own bathroom, so everything was fairly new and clean. Again, no pain, but some minor discomfort. Once again I dismissed it as a temporary problem, but popped an Imodium just to be safe.

We made our way to the next factory which was far away from the first, a good hour and a half plus, so we decided to grab lunch first. Sam decided to take us to a restaurant at the nearby Hilton, which was a gorgeous hotel, but I didn’t have much of an appetite and was worried about my stomach. Still, I didn’t want to be an impolite guest, so I ate lunch anyways and halfway through I got the medicine ball feeling again, so you know what that meant.

We made our way to the next factory and this place was a disaster compared to the other factories we had been too. We were warned that they were in the middle of a very busy production period, trying to complete a number of projects before a deadline, so the place was just chaotic. The poor guy showing us around looked like he hadn’t slept in days and seemed to be bothered just by us being there, but hey, we had scheduled the appointment 2 months in advance and then reconfirmed only 1 week before I arrived, so he had ample time to change the appointment if he wanted to. Once again I started having stomach problems and this time it hurt.

By the time we left I was feeling very tired and started to experience some serious pain. I finally concluded that perhaps I was developing a serious problem, but at least it was my last day in India and we didn’t have anymore factories to visit. That night I was taking a flight to Indonesia to spend another week auditing factories there.

We got back to Delhi and I finally got the chance to see Sam’s office where he worked, but I was getting light headed and dizzy and feeling sicker so I didn’t really enjoy it or really remember what it was like. I had to sit in on a wrap-up meeting with a number of his staff and was getting progressively worse throughout the meeting. The room was beginning to spin and every time I stood up I got dizzy and felt like I was going to fall over. They must have sensed something was wrong because they wrapped up the meeting quickly. I had a good 2+ hrs before I had to be at the airport. They wanted to take me to dinner or a cafĂ© or something, but I knew I wouldn’t make it. So I asked them if I could just chill in their lobby. They said no problem but shouldn’t they keep me company? I thanked them for their kindness and told them to go back to work, I would be fine.

I don’t remember much after that. I leaned back into their sofa, my whole body in pain now, and was out in seconds. I was woken later by Sam, who was shaking my shoulder. My body must have fallen over onto the sofa in some awkward position because I was now lying down and my neck was sore. Sam had fear in his eyes.

“Are you ok?”

I told him I was fine, but I must not have looked it and surely didn’t feel like it. I can only imagine what I looked like, but it was dark out which meant I had been asleep for some time and my clothes were drenched in sweat, even though his office had AC and was kept nice and cool. My heart was beating so fast and hard it felt like it was going to pop out of my chest and I knew instinctively that I had a fever and possible had something very wrong with me, maybe an infection.

I assured Sam I was fine and tried to stand up, but almost fell over. I went to the bathroom and sure enough I looked just awful. My hair was sticking to my face from all the sweat and I just looked like death warmed over. I went to the bathroom, again, and splashed some water on my face. I put on my best “I’m fine” smile and walked out.

Sam was not convinced. He grabbed my arm and pushed me outside where a car was waiting. “We’re going to the doctor.” I was in no mood to complain.

I only had about 1 hour to get to the airport and the airport was a good 30 minutes away and we still needed to see a doctor. Luckily, we caught him leaving his office and he let us in so he could take a look at me. Sure enough, I had a fever, accelerated heart rate, mild dehydration, and the doctor diagnosed me with a stomach infection. He prescribed 3 different medicines for me and I took all 3 immediately.

By this time I was feeling even worse and at one point we were contemplating delaying my flight into Indonesia by a day to see if I felt better in the morning. But on second thought, I just wanted to get the heck out of Dodge and just felt like maybe I would feel better if I got into some new surroundings. I was sick of the excessive heat, crowded streets, bad air, crazy traffic, and incessant noise of India, not to mention the overall level of dirtiness and that impression that things just didn’t work right here. So I told Sam I would make it to Indonesia and if I had any problems I would call him.

They threw me into the car and told the driver to haul ass, but “be careful”. I don’t know how you haul ass and be careful at the same time, and I think this driver only heard the first part. He took off with screeching tires and immediately I had both hands on the door handle trying keep my body from careening around the inside of the car. He ignored stoplights, drove through gas stations and parking lots, and I swear we narrowly avoided instant death by mere millimeters several times. Pedestrians and bicyclists leaped out of the way as he honked and screeched his way through traffic. Anybody who didn’t get out of his way was subject to flashing lights, incessant horn honking, and tailgating where our bumpers were literally 1-2 inches apart while going 40-50 miles an hour. He turned 1 lane city streets into 2 lane freeways. How we never got stopped I will never know. Nor will I understand how we got to the airport in once piece. He turned a 30+ minute drive into about 15 minutes.

The international terminal was complete chaos. Traffic didn’t move. We only got as far as 4 cars deep from the curb. Like airports here, there was no stopping allowed except to drop off passengers, but there were simply too many people trying to get onto too many flights in an airport that was never designed to handle so much. We just stopped and got out and I wobbled my way between cars until I got to the curb. At the curb it was just a giant wall of people that hardly moved. You had to go through one of several entrances manned by guards with machine guns who were checking to see if you had a valid ticket. The reason for the crowds was too many people and not enough entrances, but especially because just inside they would scan your luggage through an x-ray machine. It took forever. I was so weak I could barely stand and kept sitting on my luggage waiting to get in.

Finally I managed to get in and get my luggage scanned and then I had to find Malaysian Airlines. Lines were strung all over the place, there simply weren’t enough counters for all the flights leaving. I finally staggered to a gigantic mass of people who had gathered near the Malaysian Airlines counters, realizing that this was the line. It was agonizingly slow. All the joints in my body were stiffening up and I was in severe pain. I had taken another pain pill but it wasn’t helping. I don’t remember much besides the waiting, but somehow I made it through security. It had taken me almost 2 hrs just to check in and get through security and I realized now why American Airlines had advised all the passengers on my arriving flight to check in at least 3 hrs before departure, they knew that Delhi airport was a mess.

Thankfully my company pays for business class, which allowed me pre-boarding rights and a good thing too. There was no place to sit, all the seats in the waiting area were full, people were sitting or lying on the floor and there was a throng of people pushing and pulling with each other at the gate entrance to the plane. A very cross gate agent was standing in front of the gate with her arms folded, just glaring at the people. Keep in mind, not a single announcement had been made about boarding. People line up all the time before boarding announcements, but I had never seen this many people do it and calling them a line would have given them too much credit. Not that I could entirely blame them – like I said, there was no place to sit anywhere, so where else were they going to stand? I just wished they could have been a bit quieter and not so unruly. When the gate agent announced pre-boarding for first class and business passengers, the mob rushed forward. One gate agent had to physically hold the people back while the other tried to pull the first class and business passengers through. I came around the side weakly holding my business class boarding pass in the air so the agent could see. She saw me and pushed her way through the mob to form a path for me to walk in.

When I got onto the plane I just curled up in my blanket and closed my eyes, wishing for sleep. I had to change planes in Kuala Lumpur before heading to Indonesia. I just hoped for a quick trip.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Late arrival

Sam woke up from his nap and he left to ask the conductor when we would finally reach Jaipur station. He came back about 10 minutes later. “No idea” seemed to be the reply from the conductor. Great.

We finally started to slow down and I could see the shadows of buildings through the train window. Finally, we began to really slow down and Sam and I started pulling our luggage out from under the seat and getting ready to disembark. It was after 1am, more than 1 hour behind schedule and I was hot, dirty, sticky, and tired, not to mention a very uncomfortable stomach from holding my bowels for so long.

We got off the train in Jaipur and the station was packed with people either coming to pick up passengers or sitting glassy-eyed, having waited more than 1 hour for the train to arrive so they could get on, headed for Delhi which was the final stop. Once again, groups of young men accosted us, hoping to carry our bags for us. We ignored them and walked swiftly to the main exit where our driver was supposedly waiting.

We stepped out of the station and our driver met us. We had to carefully step over the sleeping bodies in the dark outside of the train station. As in Jodhpur there was a sizeable homeless population that actually lived at the train station. We got our luggage into the car, which was at least 40 years old, and finally started heading toward the hotel. Long story short, by the time I got checked into the hotel it was 2am and we had to check out and leave within 7 hrs!!! Not a recipe for a good night’s sleep. I couldn’t wait to get into my hotel room and use the bathroom. I took a cool shower that lasted a good 30 minutes to wash off hours of sweat and dust that had accumulated on my body over the long day. It felt wonderful.

All too soon the alarm went off and I was up and getting dressed. I was dead tired but nothing could be done about it as I had a lot of work to do. I didn’t eat much for breakfast and wearily met Sam in the lobby. He looked about as tired as I was.

We headed out for the first factory. Jaipur is a much bigger city than Jodhpur, I believe Sam told me around 2 million or so, I could be wrong, but it certainly seemed more metropolitan than Jodhpur, although traffic, like anywhere in India, was still completely insane, complete with wandering cows, the occasional camel, and pedestrians/bikers darting in and out of traffic in both directions. On all the major streets there were signs in the center divider proclaiming “Jaipur, the pink city, welcome to green” or something to that effect. They should have called it “Jaipur, the litter city, welcome to the brown” because that is mostly what I saw. While Jaipur is closer to Delhi and further inland than Jodhpur, it is still in Rajasthan and still on the border of the Thar desert. So the climate is rather dry, hence not a lot of greenery in the city. There were trees lining the roadways but everywhere else was dry and brown. And there was litter everywhere, every roadway, every alley, every street was strewn with litter. At least the commercial and industrial districts were slightly better.

I won’t bore you with the details of my factory visits, only to say that the factories in Jaipur were more established and organized than the ones in Jodhpur. Jaipur’s industrial area was a bit more in line with what one would expect in another country, although still not on a scale as one would see in a highly developed country. We met a lot of very nice people and got a lot of work done and then we went to lunch. We drove forever until I saw a shiny, gleaming building off in the distance. As we got closer I could see line upon line of motorcycles and cars parked around it. Eventually I could see that it was a shopping mall, a rather new one, complete with movie theater and a full line of restaurants. What was odd about it, though, was that there was nothing around it. I mean nothing. There were several main roads around the immediate area and some minor construction going on, but the land surrounding the mall was mostly bare dirt. Across one of the streets were a number of tents and tin shacks where people lived. It seemed incredibly odd and yet growingly familiar to see poverty slammed up against wealth, living side by side and across from each other. As we pulled up to one of the parking areas I could see people in the “tent city” as I liked to call it tending cows or chickens or washing clothes in the clearly polluted waterway that tumbled alongside the main road. And yet, just feet away, was this gleaming air conditioned mall which was clearly for the local wealthy and upper middle class, as could be judged by the model of car and shiny motorcycles in the parking lots. Just steps away from each other and yet both sides seemed perfectly content with each other as people from both sides seemed completely ignorant of the other.

We walked in and the first thing I saw was a McDonalds. I chuckled and commented that no matter where I went in the world, no matter how distant the country or remote the location, I always seemed to be stumbling into a McDonalds (or a Starbucks). Sam stopped dead in his tracks.

“You don’t LIKE McDonalds ?!?!?!”, he said.

“Um, no, not particularly, but if you want to go there that’s fine”, I replied.

“But all Americans LOVE McDonalds! I thought you would WANT to go there!”

I quickly realized that despite the plethora of interesting restaurants in the mall that Sam had fully intended to bring me to McDonalds: a restaurant I had not eaten in since I can’t remember (I am not much of a fast food fan and have never really liked McDonalds anyways) and where you can’t walk 10 feet in America without tripping on one, where I could go whenever I wanted. And yet here I am in Jaipur, India and my guide wants to take me there to eat.

I kindly explained to Sam that if he wanted to go there we could, but that I could eat McDonalds anytime of the week back home, so why don’t we try something else? He smiled agreeably and quickly chose a nice Indian restaurant nearby, seeming both relieved and surprised to find that I did not particularly favor McDonalds. Apparently he must have had different, welcoming reactions in the past from foreign visitors he had hosted in India.

In the afternoon we visited 2 more non-furniture factories and then it was off to the Jaipur airport to head back to Delhi. Jaipur airport was larger than Jodhpur, but not by much. There was one rather small check in area for the 3-4 domestic airlines that serviced Jaipur and a single gate for all flights. It only required 1 small board to display the handful of flights leaving over the next 4 hrs. Keep in mind this is for a city of more than 2 million people.

As we checked in the gate the girl behind the counter wanted to charge us like $50 for heavy luggage. Huh? We both had carry ons, that’s it. Turns out we were taking a propeller plane back to Delhi and so bags had to be extremely light – mine was 1 kg over the limit. But with some quick explaining and pleading in Hindi by Sam they let it go.

We then sat in the gate area waiting for the flight to arrive so we could leave. We had 20 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. 10 minutes later they announced the flight would be delayed by 5-10 minutes. By this time I was used to it. I knew that 5-10 minutes could mean up to 1 hour. Sure enough, nearly 1 hr later the plane arrived. We had to walk from the gate out onto the tarmac – no buses – and climb into the plane. It was a long walk. I forget what kind of plane it was, but it was definitely the smallest plane I had ever ridden in. Very tiny, narrow seats and I think the plane held only 30-40 people. Once again we sat on the tarmac waiting…..for what?!? There wasn’t a plane in sight.

Finally we took off and I was asleep before we reached cruising altitude. Sam nudged me awake not 45 minutes later “We are landing”, he said. We circled for what seemed like forever. Finally we landed, only 1 ½ hrs later than scheduled. Inside the airport it was complete chaos. We could barely move through the crowds to get our luggage. There were multiple flights being handled by the tiny handful of luggage carousels and mass confusion by passengers ensued as it was difficult to figure out which carousel was handling which flight. Bags and suitcases were piled everywhere as airport workers simply removed them and stacked them on the floor to make more room on the carousels. The heat and humidity and odor from hundreds, if not thousands, of crushing bodies was overwhelming. Outside was just as bad, traffic was like a parking lot, a cacophony of horns and angry drivers yelling at each other. Swarms of people milled about uncertainly, looking for their rides or buses. We found our driver who looked supremely relieved.

“I have been waiting for nearly 2 hrs. I asked the airport people when your flight was coming in. They told me they had no record of the flight. I argued with them and then they said they had no idea when the flight would land. I checked later and the new person told me that your airline didn’t exist, which is impossible as it is a major domestic airline. I must have talked to 10 different people, none of whom seemed to have the first clue what I was talking about.”
This was a major domestic airline with 2 daily flights to and from Delhi and Jaipur as well as at least a dozen other cities. And nobody in the airport seemed to have a clue.

I stayed in the same hotel as the first night, except this time they had a nicer room for me, much larger and plush than the first night and for the same price too!

I settled down for a nice long sleep, but my stomach interrupted me around 4am or so. Little did I know that my troubles were just beginning……

To be continued.