Sunday, February 21, 2010

'All is Well'

Our adventures of late have taken us from serene Lodi Gardens to a hectic street market called Janpath. Not to let things get too carefree, the next morning we visited St. Stephen's Hospital, the oldest privately-owned hospital in the city.

We met at length with an orthopedic surgeon who operates on children and young adults suffering from polio. He presented to us a powerful presentation showing case after case of polio patients who were reduced to crawling or being carried around until they had corrective surgery and were then able to walk. The surgeries are very expensive for these patients, many of whom come from poor and remote parts of India. Fortunately, money given by Rotary as well as private donors allow the surgeries to be done for free. The need for funds is still great.

In the hospital, we were ushered along dark hallways that smelled of medicine until we reached the polio ward. There, patients were recovering from surgery and were obviously in a lot of pain. The doctor helping them is a positive person who takes his role of making them as independent as possible very seriously. He got philosophical with us explaining how these patients have great strengths and many talents that far surpass some of us who can walk. I left feeling drained, but inspired to help this place.

Later that day, we visited Old Delhi and the famous Chandni Chowk market. The chaotic scene was sensory overload: thick, humid air was heavy on the skin; smells of car exhaust, urine and tobacco smoke surrounded us; sugary syrup dripped down our fingers as we ate a hot deep-fried snack. The market was followed by a sound and light show at the Red Fort. We ended the evening at a magical restaurant full of mirrors, silver shimmers and red lights.

Following this late night we got up early to head off to Jaipur, a vacation destination about 250 kilometers outside of Delhi. We first visited the City Palace, where we saw this snake charmer. We did more shopping followed by a nighttime camel ride along a busy street before heading back to our hotel.

On the way out of town the next day we went to the Amber Fort, where painted elephants parade up the hillside to a palace. This place looks like something out of a movie. In fact, a fight scene from a movie was being shot while we were there.

Driving back to Delhi we added another dining experience to our list — lunch at a truck stop surrounded by flies. Once in Delhi, we were picked up by our new club, Faridabad Midtown. Faridibad is out in the suburbs of Delhi, but has a population of 2.5 million people. The father of my host family owns 13 liquor stores in town, yet he doesn't drink. One morning he took me to his Sikh temple, which I had been eager to visit since I haven't made it to one of those yet. I was the only guy there not wearing a turban. Before entering I had to remove my shoes, wash my hands and tie a scarf around my head.

After experiencing his daily ritual, I was dropped off with the group and some younger Indians to see something else I wanted to experience — the movie "Three Idiots." Despite being in Hindi (I had a good translator sitting behind me), this is my new favorite movie. "Three Idiots" has some good life lessons: not to pressure your children to be something they're not, learn for knowledge (not just to memorize useless information) and whenever in doubt just follow your heart and tell yourself that "all is well" and it will be.

Bollywood movies can be so over the top with the singing and dancing that it almost goes beyond cheesy and becomes cool. They can make you laugh and cry. Indian movies are also long (so long they have an intermission where attendants bring you popcorn and cappuccinos).

Afterwards we went to a mall and then back home for pizza, whiskey and karaoke. My song selection was "Born to be Wild," which earned me 43 out of 100 possible points (surprisingly, that put me at third from last place). I was told at least part of my performance was videotaped so hopefully it won't end up on YouTube someday.

After that late night we got up early the next day to drive to Agra and visit the world-famous Taj Mahal. Built by an emperor in tribute to his wife — who died giving birth to the couple's 14th child — this building is a symbol of eternal love throughout the world. A highlight was walking on the cold marble in my bare feet.

We then ate lunch at a five-star hotel before taking the long drive back to Faridabad for our farewell dance party. This involved dancing with bright lazers, strobe lights and fog machines combined with more whiskey and "meaning of life" talks.

At our next club, Delhi South, we got to attend a yoga class at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We toured the complex and learned about what the ashram offers, ate a cafeteria-style lunch (in which we washed our own dishes afterwards) and sat on a rooftop lawn to discuss yoga, nutrition and overall well being with a doctor.

Other recent stops include visiting India's polio headquarters and the Bahai Temple, which is shaped like a lotus flower and is open to all faiths for silent meditation and prayers. We have now made it to our eighth and final host club — Delhi Uptown — and are still going strong.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

When the planets align

The night after our first wedding, we went to a Sikh pre-wedding celebration. Mounted video cameras projected all the action, including traditional dancing, on giant screens.

Thankfully, we skipped another pre-wedding party the following night so we could have a low-key dinner with our host families (it was a Monday night after all). Dinner typically isn't served until about 10 p.m. here. It was nice to go to bed around midnight instead of 2 a.m. for a change. Busy days followed by nonstop parties has started to take its toll on me.

On Tuesday night I went to my third wedding held at a farmhouse just outside of the city. This time of year is known as "wedding season" as it's considered an auspicious time to get married. Consulting astrological charts to determine what month and even what day to get married is very mystical and goes far beyond just picking a favorite season or a date that works well with everyone's schedule.

The stars also influence how parents choose a mate for their children. Most marriages here are still arraigned, however, it seems (at least in urban and affluent India) there is great value placed on the child's opinion and preference. In other words, if the child objects a replacement mate can be found.

Once a match has been made, a wedding date is set. Traditionally, the groom will ride a white horse to the bride's house as dancers surround him. A three-hour ceremony follows with reciting vows, sprinkling flowers and walking around a fire. Here are some photos from the first wedding we attended (the close-up shot is the bride and groom).

Our nights may have been spent attending weddings, but our days also remain active. We visited the Rotary Vidya Kendra, a preschool dedicated to educating underprivileged children. We then went in the basement of the school where women create handmade crafts that are sold to benefit her and her family. We bought all kinds of goodies to support them. This photo shows the women working behind a stack of bags made from old newspapers.

Other visits include meeting with management at The Indian Express newspaper and touring one of Delhi's most famous structures, the Qutab Minar (see photos below). Scott is now out of the hospital and we reunited at the Qutab Minar. He and I are actually staying together at our new host club, the Rotary Club of Delhi Midtown.

The first activity we did with Delhi Midtown was visit the Akshardham Temple, a modern temple that appears as if it's thousands of years old. The most memorable part of this temple was reading all the stories on plaques surrounding it. They are filled with sound-bite, or take-home, quotes such as, "Nature worship is an expression of gratitude towards all forms of life," and "The language of love is understood by all." I also made a wish before tossing my rupee into a water fountain.

Following a dinner party the other night, we all sat around in a circle while songs were sung in Hindi. Scott and I were pressured into singing John Denver's "Country Roads" in front of everyone. The Indians at the party actually knew the lyrics better than we did. There's something about being in India — sitting on a leather sofa underneath a crystal chandelier — and having a roomful of people sing the words, "West Virginia, mountain mama." Just the thought of it makes me smile.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


We continue our journey visiting the movers and shakers of Delhi. I'm now staying at my fourth home (at the last home they export clothes to Europe, while here they manufacture cables).

The last few days have taken us from the Rotary Blood Bank and the Dilli Haat market to Humayun's Tomb (a world heritage monument) and the National Museum. At the museum, we saw a fascinating exhibit of miniature paintings on Indian mythology.

Mary (the Rotarian team leader) and I were the only ones to go to the museum as Michelle and Carin went to visit a doctor and Scott (the other guy) is in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. Not to worry, everyone will be OK.

I visited Scott in the hospital yesterday before a lunch meeting where we did our fourth presentation followed by a visit to a Hindu temple called Birla Mandir. I was then picked up by my driver in a brand new black BMW and taken to my home to get ready for a wedding.

I got dressed in my beautiful new kurta, which was given to me by a Rotarian named Neeraj (the above photo was taken during a rooftop party at his house the other night). On the way to the wedding, I stopped by the house where Michelle and Carin are staying. This house is more like a hotel as it has an atrium and an elevator.

From there, we made our way to the wedding. Driving up and and getting out of the car felt like we were arriving for the Oscars. We witnessed the end of the marriage ceremony before entering a giant tent where the elaborate after party was hosted. A small army served guests anything they wanted to eat or drink.

On the flip side of life, today we visited slums to vaccinate children from polio. We each got to give children two drops of the vaccine on their tongue before marking their left pinky for proof that they were vaccinated. We went to two sites followed by lunch at a fancy restaurant where we drank beer and ate chocolate souffle for dessert.

Trying to process all that I've seen lately, I head back home in a nice car with a driver who speaks little English. Playing on my iPod is a cover version of Bob Marley's "One Love." I look out the window and see a public transportation bus driving next to the car. Looking out the bus window is an Indian guy about my age also wearing headphones. We stare at each other for a good couple of seconds almost as if we're both wondering what it would feel like to be the other. He smiles, I smile back. He waves, I wave back. The car and the bus criss-cross in the crazy Delhi traffic and we disappear from each other's sight.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Birds & Outsourcing & Newspapers, Oh My!

On our last day in Gurgaon we got out of the city again, this time to visit a bird sanctuary where thousands of migrating birds spend their winter. On our guided walk we also spotted "jungle cows" and some naughty monkeys.

In keeping with the theme of contrasts, we later visited a modern call center called Teleperformance. This was very interesting to see as the outsource business has been given lots of attention in recent years. At this center, employees offer tech support as well as collection work. When dealing with upset customers, employees are taught to "take that frustration and view it as an opportunity." Words to live by, I guess.

After giving our second club presentation (about where we come from and how life is there) we said say good-bye to our new friends and moved on to another club back in Delhi. The room I'm now staying in belongs to the son of the club's president. Ironically, his son is living in the states (attending college at the University of Texas in Austin).

Yesterday we visited the National Rail Museum, while I spent most of today learning about the Hindustan Times and its affiliated newspapers and radio station. The Hindustan Times, which is printed in English and has a partnership with the Washington Post, is one of the largest newspapers in Delhi. There's also the Hindustan (printed in Hindi) and Mint (which is business focused and has a partnership with the Wall Street Journal).

I got to meet one-on-one with the senior editor of Mint and the resident editor of the Hindustan Times along with the company's head lawyer. All of these discussions were really interesting and informative. India's newspaper industry is not struggling the way it is in the U.S. Maybe that's because Internet access is not as common or the literacy rate is improving among such a large population or people just like holding the newspaper in their hands. Or maybe it's from all the advertising revenue brought in by the "Matrimonial" classified section?

Arraigned marriages and love marriages are a totally different topic. More on that one later, I must get ready for our nightly dinner party:)