First Time in India

After arriving at the hotel and getting settled I needed to make my way over to the office. As tempting as it was to just stay in my oasis of calm, I was on this trip to do a job and I wanted to make sure I provided enough value to the company to justify the expense. The distance to the office was less than 100 yards but I had to cross a busy street and the general consensus was I should be escorted the first time. The woman I was working with to organize the trip stopped at the hotel on her way to work to give me a ride, and I discovered there was a long concrete barrier in the middle of the road and only a couple of places to cross. So I knew that would complicate things and was glad I had a ride the first day.

My arrival at the office was a bit overwhelming to be honest. I didn’t sleep, because I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up again, so I wasn’t mentally at my best. I also met a TON of people and as a person who has a hard time matching names to faces in the best of situations I was really struggling. Thankfully there were a few people I had been working with prior (and met on Teams meetings) and they were really happy to see me. That made me feel a lot better and I spent the first day getting acclimated, setting up meetings and getting the lay of the land.

The scope of my trip was pretty broad and there are multiple groups and over 500 people working in that office so it was really important that I was careful with my time. It didn’t help that I had one group that was incredibly excited to see me and meet with me and the other team didn’t seem as interested. This was especially challenging because I love working with the front lines workers and seeing their process and challenges first hands and I found it somewhat difficult to get access to some of the team members I wanted to work with.

Part of this I believe is the fact that India is a very hierarchical society. I like to cut through the lines of management and that was received with some initial suspicion. It took me quite a bit of time to reassure everyone that I truly was there to help and when I got access to lower level people they were terrific. First of all their technical skills were amazing…I mean they were flying through the screens and in general everyone was very positive and dedicated. I was especially impressed with the young women I had the opportunity to meet and since I was one of the few women middle managers who had visited the facility they were very happy to meet me.

That being said I still had to get back and forth to the hotel and that was a bit of a challenge. At night two of the men would walk me across the street and like the game Frogger it was pretty scary at times. In the daytime I decided to walk by myself and would generally find a gap in the traffic or follow other people to find my way across. Here I will show you the opening.

The next couple of days were pretty intense, but I genuinely felt like I was making progress. I even got to have dinner with two team members that I had worked on a project with although it took some time to convince everyone that was ok. Generally dinners are only with senior managers but I was adamant I was going to thank the people who had helped make my project successful. This is standard behavior for a project manager and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it as long as the guys wanted to go. They absolutely did and we had a wonderful dinner where they got me try all sorts of Indian food helping me out with making sure things weren’t too spicy. They also explained how to use the bread to pick up the food and I knew to never use my left hand although that was something I had to focus on. Quick funny story they don’t really use napkins and when the bowl of water came at the end I almost drank it. Abi quickly noticed my confusion and set me straight it was to clean my hands lol. I was really out of my element.

Then the weekend came and I wasn’t sure what to do. Thankfully a couple of the guys I have been working with offered to take me into Old Town on Sunday and I decided I was going to do a little exploring myself on Saturday. A few miles away there was a VERY nice mall called Phoenix and I was curious to visit it. I also wanted to try on some clothes as well to find out what size I was in India, so when I went to the outdoor markets I would know what sizes to buy at the cheaper prices. The hotel got a car for me and it took about 20 minutes to go four miles but the mall was as nice as any I have been to in the states.

Although they had western shops I was more interested in the differences which were super varied. India is a study in contrasts and they had shops where the male and female areas were totally separate and other shops that had bras etc in their front windows. They also had a Chili’s (one of my favorite chains) and I had a really nice lunch.

What was interesting about the clothing stores were the variety of styles, ranging from completely western to traditional Muslim and everything in between. In the first store I went into I felt a little loss on size and asked a woman about my size if she spoke English and hesitantly asked her what size to try. She was very kind and suggested an XL (I am L in US sizes) and pointed me to a dressing room to try things on and her sizing was spot on. All pants are by the waist size though so I tried on and bought a pair of pants for $14.99 US. The prices were VERY similar to the US which is a lot in India and even though the place was packed the folks I work with say they never go there because it is to expensive. To thank the managers for their hospitality I decided to get candles from the US. This turned out to be a good choice because the gifts were very well received. Gift giving is a big deal in India and its important to get a small token of appreciation for those showing you hospitality.

I also found the home store to be very interesting because mostly the prices and items were similar to the US with some exceptions like this home religious statue. Ultimately I ended up buying many of my presents from the Bombay store which I really liked.

Everything was going great until I went into a jewelry store to look for a pair of earrings. I love gold and rubies and since this is India I thought I would find a great selection. All the jewelry stores are guarded and although they let me in I immediately felt unwelcome. I persevered though being as pleasant as possible, and ultimately found a pair of earrings for $125US. Every time that day when I made a purchase I was asked for an Indian phone number but since I didn’t have one the other shop owners worked around it. The jewelry store absolutely refused to sell to me though without a picture of my passport. I learned later that gold is carefully monitored in the country (even such a small amount) and without a passport I couldn’t buy any. I didn’t really get it and would have accepted it at face value, but the woman was incredibly rude. She talked to me like I was less than her even when I showed her my Amex Platinum card. It was a real Pretty Woman moment and frankly embarrassing and unpleasant.

At that point I wanted to go back to the hotel and I called the hotel to send me a car. The person I talked to said they needed an Indian phone number so the cab could contact me and I said forget it and went to the valet stand. They told me all cabs had to be ordered online and again needed an Indian phone number. At this point I was hot and frustrated, so I went and got in a Took Took. Let me say here I was specifically warned by my company to not get into one of these vehicles, but in that moment I didn’t feel like I had any choice. The guy was rough and quoted me 500 rupees (which I agreed to) and then we sped away. I was prepared for the feeling of taking my life in my own hands but I didn’t expect him to spend almost the whole ride yelling to someone on the phone. I just made my peace with the whole thing and hoped insurance would pay out if I died on the way back. That’s not hyperbole by the way.

Things don’t look that bad in the picture above because I was holding on for dear life during the more scary moments but let me explain. It’s an open air vehicle with no seatbelts. Cars are given some room when they drive, but these carts are not given way. Motorbikes (many with three or more people on them including kids sitting in the middle) whizzed by and I could have reach out and touched them. We also were cut off numerous times and since the driver seemed distracted (remember the yelling on the phone) I just figured it was all in God’s hands. I will say though that the guy knew what he was doing but I didn’t tip him because I felt like I was being overcharged. He dropped me off at the hotel on the street and I walked up breathing a huge sigh of relief.

When I went into the hotel the Concierge asked me about my day and I told him what had happened when I tried to get a cab home. Then I asked how much the ride should have costs and was told 100 rupee. I had been charged 5X what I should have and honestly the $4 wasn’t a big deal but everyone was outraged on my behalf. They were going to go give the driver a talking to but I explained he was long gone. When I calmed everyone down I did talk about it would have helped to make arrangements with me for the return trip prior to me leaving the hotel. Turns out I could have used What’s App to communicate with the driver which I had installed on my phone.

I actually ended up making this suggestion to the hotel at the end, to not assume first time visitors knew they needed an India phone number. All of that drama could have been avoided if I had asked more questions before I left and they had asked some of their own. Anyways, I’ll be honest the whole thing put a sour taste in my mouth, but I was still excited about going out with my coworkers the following day. I really hoped that experience would be different.

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