Thursday, March 5, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 2: Language, Work, Airports, Traffic, and Security

If you missed Part 1, you can catch up on the first leg of my journey here. I'll be adding pictures to all posts next week, so be sure to come back for those.

The middle part of my trip was all work. I didn't do much sightseeing, but did get to spend lots of time with my colleagues in India and with students, researchers, librarians, and university administrators. It was great to get entrenched with the locals and hear about some of the cultural and academic norms from people who live here. My conversations with friends and colleagues who had been to India, my Lonely Planet, and the various podcasts and TV shows I read, listened to, and watched prior to departing for my trip prepared me well for India, but arriving here raised so many more questions. I also got some great travel tips from my colleagues who also helped address some of my natural curiosities. I had, for example, been wondering why all the business names, signs, and advertisements (billboards, etc), were in English. I knew English was spoken by many and that there were lots of local languages in India, but I guess I didn't connect the dots. Because Indians often don't understand each other's local languages, they fall back on English. This seems to be especially true for those who have attended university and/or work in tourism. Check out this language map on wikipedia to get a sense of the many languages and dialects spoken throughout India.

The author workshops I delivered took me to universities in Pune, Mumbai, and Kochi (aka Cochin) and to an engineering firm in Pune. So once in India, I found myself on four more flights. I always find airports interesting, regardless of where they are and that was absolutely the case in India. They featured prayer rooms and gender-specific security lines. They had decent food and clean well-stocked bathrooms (more on this later). They did not have wifi. But perhaps the most notable observation was the security practices. I am not exaggerating when I say that they checked my boarding pass at least a half dozen times at each airport. Before you enter the airport, you have to show your photo ID and flight confirmation (the email reservation on your phone is acceptable). Then you get ticketed and have to have your boarding pass stamped at security. Then you have to show it twice at the gate (to two people back to back). Then again when you board the plane. And AGAIN when you deboard the plane! What the heck?! I guess since language is an issue, they want to make sure you're getting on the right plane? You also have to get tags for each of your carry-on bags and have those tags stamped. It's crazy!

The hotels I stayed at also had pretty rigorous screening. They inspected each car on entry and made guests walk through metal detectors then get wanded by a gender-specific security officer. And bags went through an x-ray scanner, too. My colleague said that this was all to provide the appearance of security but that it wasn't really doing anything meaningful. It did make me wonder about security spending in general. I mean each hotel had several visible people to manage security. Once I was in the hotel, I received some of the best hospitality I've ever received. Actually, that hospitality started from the moment I landed at the airport since there were drivers there from the hotel to pick me up. In Delhi (next post will be devoted entirely to Delhi), I was driven home in a super fancy audi with massage features built into my seat. I could get used to this whole private driver thing if it weren't for the insane traffic.

Oh that's right, the traffic. How have I not mentioned that yet? Indians must be born with superior spatial reasoning, hand eye coordination, and response times because all of the above are requisite to drive anywhere. There is an insane amount of traffic and I was shocked that I didn’t witness a single accident because cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedicabs, buses, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, scooter and all kinds of animals share the same congested lanes. They seem to communicate presence and passing with frequent honking, as if they're all having a conversation with each other through car horns. Some trucks even say "Horn Please" on their tailgates. Getting anywhere can be scary and I might have had an anxiety attack if I didn't just trust that my drivers were highly skilled and would get me to my destination without killing me. Somehow, I managed to convince myself of this pretty early on and I made a conscious effort to NOT look at the road in front of me any time I got in a car.

It's probably worth stating at this point that I was pretty sheltered and pampered during my trip. If I had been travelling for leisure, I'm not sure I would have sprung for the 40 minute flights, the super classy hotels, or the car service everywhere. I had planned on taking trains and public transit, but my colleagues insisted that I take cars everywhere. As a result, I do feel like I didn't get to see as much of the real India as I would have liked, but it was probably for the best. I want to go back. And maybe when I return, I'll see more of the grit and I'll force myself to experience more of the crowds up real close.

More on the food, Kerala, Delhi, Agra, and packing and travelling tips in the next posts in this series... I promise! And I will add pictures soon, I swear!