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Trip Report Letters from my first business trip to India

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These are a couple of letters I sent home during my first business trip to Gurgaon India. I work for a multinational company and my staff is located in India. I interact with Indians all the time so I wasn't concerned about that part of the trip. I actually wasn't going for my job but for another manager to do SOX testing.

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    Letter from India

    I thought I would catch you up on my first week in India.

    The flights over were uneventful. It was strange to look down and see empty land as we crossed over parts of the world that I don’t know at all. In fact I kept thinking I need to get a map to look up the city names so I could figure out where the heck I was. The plane from London to Delhi was the emptiest plane I have ever been on. The economy plus section that I was sitting in holds about thirty and had 8 that night. When we got to Delhi there were amazing thunder and lightening storms. At one point the plane hit an air pocket and people
    screamed. We were one of the fortunate flights that wasn’t diverted which is good because I haven’t a clue where they were diverted to. Of course after two flights and 4 hours in a deserted Heathrow I discovered at the baggage claim in the Delhi airport that a woman from my office was traveling the same route. At least I know she and another person from Boston will be on the trip back with me.

    The hotel (Park Plaza Gurgaon) is very nice. This is where the manager I am traveling for likes to stay. Everyone in the office stays elsewhere because it is nicer. I can’t conceive of how it could be nicer. The one thing that is strange is that there are always people around saying “hello ma’am”
    and asking how my stay/day is. I think they have the door attached to a bell which alerts the guy who takes care of this corridor that I am exiting and he hustles up to ask me how everything is. It took me a while the first night to figure out the light system where you have to leave the key in the slot by the door which allow the lighting.

    Kaveri is a former co worker. She and her sister Archana came on Sunday and took me to lunch at the mall. The amount of security here is incredible. You go through metal detectors every where-into the hotel, the office, the mall. At the mall you are also wanded by a female security agent. Apparently if there isn’t one on shift the man just shrugs his shoulders. After lunch they took me to a street market in Delhi. I was a magnet for all the hucksters and beggars. In the States there are so many ethnic types you don’t notice if anyone is
    different. Here everyone looks at me. After the street market we went to India Gate which is both a memorial to fallen Indian soldier and a large park where people congregate to visit, picnic and play ball. As it had been very hot the week before I arrived and the storm the previous night cooled things off it was very busy. I got a little taste of Indian traffic but nothing compared to what was to come.
    While at India Gate a girl offered to henna my hand. I was game so Kaveri and Archana argued the price from the Foreigner one to the local one. The girl had amazingly steady hands and the pattern cameout really nicely but it has already washed off.

    Monday morning my driver picked me up to take me to the office. I guess it is a good thing I had been warned about the traffic. Lanes here are merely suggestions. The road is shared by cars, vans, cattle, bikes, motorbikes of all sizes, rickshaws and these funny three wheel van type vehicles which always seem to have a bazillion people in them. I guess driving in Boston inured me to my drivers’ habit of
    crossing the mid line of the road. The only good thing is that big semis are not allowed on the road during the day. Otherwise it would be more of a free-for-all than it is now.

    When I got to the location of the office Sakshi was waiting there for me. It was nice to see a friendly face. She got me organized with a badge and took me up to the finance floor. Sitting there when I walked in was Lisa from the Boston office- it’s a small world. The work has been going slow but it has been so nice to meet people that I have
    worked with for the last five years but have never met. I brought Sakshi and Raj the other person who reports to me bags of chocolates- Snickers, Hersey’s, Reeces etc. I left a few bags of what I bought behind and am now sorry I did. I could have brought a lot more and put it out for everyone to share.

    I have been managing ok with the food. One misstep with shrimps one night didn’t do lasting damage. I have tried some of the Indian specialties at breakfast- one is Dosa which is a crepe stuffed with a spicy potato mixture. I can’t remember the name of the pancake type thing with spicy vegetables. It is very difficult to be careful all the time. When I was out with Kaveri she suggested a lime drink but it came with ice. Even when I told them I couldn’t have the ice and they
    took it back I was nervous about drinking it. I ordered room service one night (too many people coming over and asking how things were when I ate in the hotel restaurant) and select Chicken Parmigana. You know how you have your taste buds set for one thing and you get another. This chicken parm had no tomato sauce or cheese. It was breaded chicken with a brown sauce. Strange.

    The one thing I don’t understand is the ice cream here. Since it is hot at lunchtime you see a lot of people with cones. It is 100 degrees and the ice cream isn’t dripping all over the place. What is it made of???? When I was a kid my mother told me a story of a friend whose Mom was a little off kilter. She took her kids to the beach and after a while asked then if they wanted ice cream cones. They of course said
    yes and she prepared them ice cream cones from this cooler she brought with her. The cones were fine but instead of ice cream it was mashed potatoes. I keep thinking that is what is in the cone that isn’t melting.

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    The Trip to Agra
    So late Friday afternoon Sakshi and Raj who work with/for me in
    Intercompany accounting as well as Sachin and Rachna who work in
    payables with Rachna’s 5 year old son Neeman headed out to Agra.
    Sachin had arranged a car (really a mini van with three rows of seats)
    and a driver. The traffic as usual was pretty wild until we got out of
    Gurgaon. The main highway between Delhi and Agra is two lanes in
    either direction and luckily for most of it there is a center strip.
    There are still motor bikes (with whole families on them- kid in front
    of the Dad, kid behind and wife riding sidesaddle in the back- wild),
    the little three wheeled vans, car and trucks. There are also people
    walking across this highway, speed bumps when you come to towns and
    stops to pay road tax.

    After two and half hours of driving we arrived in Mathura which is
    where there are a number of Krishna temples since that is where Lord
    Krishna was born and was raised. We visited two of the temples and I
    don’t even know what their names are. I will ask my co workers. The
    first temple we went to was a distance off the road where we had to
    walk through a warren of little lanes. The lanes were lined with shops
    and crowded with people, hucksters and cattle. I was trying to watch
    where I was walking and simultaneously keep track of my party. If I
    lost them there I don’t know what I would have done. Sakshi kept
    telling me to call her on her cell phone if we got separated but I am
    not sure what good that would have done since I hadn’t a clue where I
    was. Finally we reached the temple and removed our shoes and left them
    next to a little shop. We entered the temple which was adorned with
    streamers threaded through jasmine. It was very sweet smelling. The
    priests were on a stage with a statue of Lord Krishna. They kept
    pulling the curtain open and then closing it. It is because you were
    not supposed to look into the eyes of Lord Krishna. When they opened
    the curtain they would throw flowers and leis to the worshippers. We
    left that temple, retrieved our shoes and found our way out to the
    road where the driver was waiting. We drove down the road a bit and
    went into another temple. I think this one was built by foreign
    believers in Krishna. In this temple there were multiple statues and I
    have no clue as to who each were. We had arrived just before closing
    time and after about 15 minutes they closed the doors on the stage
    before the statues. Then they herded us out.

    It was another hour’s drive to Agra and we arrived at about 10pm. The
    hotel was the same chain as the one I am staying at in Gurgaon but
    definitely beyond its prime. There was a rooftop restaurant where we
    had a surprisingly good meal. They ordered butter chicken for me as
    well as a couple of vegetable and daal dishes with naan. The butter
    chicken was very good and I adore the naan. You could see the Taj
    Mahal in the distance. I discovered that it is not lit up at all which
    I found very strange.

    We finally got to bed around midnight with plans to meet in the lobby
    at 6am. I had a single room with a very hard twin bed. It also smelled
    of mildew but for something like $60 for the night nothing to complain
    about. Sakshi managed to make it to the lobby on time. She called me
    just as I was leaving the room. Rachna managed to drag the two guys
    out as well as her son. The driver showed up pretty much on time and
    we went off to the Taj Mahal.

    When we got to the parking lots they were pretty empty. Rachna and
    Sakshi arranged for a camel cart to take us up to the entry. They also
    arranged for a guide for me. The entrance fee was 20 rupees for the
    natives and 750 rupees for me. But for my 750 rs I got a little bag
    with a bottle of water and some shoe coverings. We went through
    security and were patted down by the guard. The funny thing was that I
    had my camera in right leg pocket but she only checked my left. Once
    we were through security we passed through a gate into a quadrangle.
    The gate we came through and the one opposite it were memorials to the
    Shah’s first two wives. To the right was a wall with what looked like
    cloister cells- this is where the workers lived. To the left was the
    main gate into the Taj Mahal complex. On the top are 22 domes in a
    row. It took 22 years to complete the Taj Mahal and as each year was
    completed a dome was erected to mark its passage.

    Once you get through the gate you see that famous sight of the white
    domed building with the reflecting pool in front of it. The Taj Mahal
    was built symmetrical. Each half is a mirror image of the other. The
    four minarets on each corner of the square are tilted slight outwards
    from the dome so that if they should fall they would not damage the
    Taj Mahal. To the each side of the mausoleum (which is what this is)
    are red sandstone buildings. The one on the left is mosque and the one
    on the right which is exactly identical was supposedly built to keep
    up the symmetry. It is said that the Shah used it as a rest house when
    he came to visit the site. On the top of the dome was a spire which is
    32 feet high. It was originally gold but the British took it and
    replaced it with brass.

    When you get to the end of the reflecting pool and are about to climb the
    stairs in order to enter the mausoleum you are required to either
    remove your shoes or put on the handy dandy shoe coverings
    thoughtfully provide by the Tourist Board. I wanted to remove my shoes
    thinking that marble would be wonderfully cool to my tootsies but the
    guide wasn’t having any of that. I felt like nothing said TOURIST more
    than shoe covers. Though Sakshi maintains it is my skin color which
    was a pretty red color from the heat.

    When you get close up and look at the marble used for the building you
    see that they are carved with flowers. The outside are not as detailed
    as the ones in the interior. I guess the apprentices worked in the hot
    sun while the masters worked in the cool tomb. The blocks of marble
    are large and since there wasn’t cement then they created a mortar
    with various ingredients including sugar. Strange. The attention to
    detail was amazing.

    I discovered why the Taj Mahal isn’t lit up. It was inlaid with semi
    precious stones which would reflect the sunlight during the day so it
    would glow and there is one kind of stone which will glow during the
    moonlight. So if you are ever planning to be in Agra during a full
    moon apply for permission to visit the Taj Mahal during the night. I
    imagine it is an amazing sight.

    Lots of parts of the Taj Mahal are closed off for security reasons. I
    guess you used to be able to go up into the minarets and the actual
    tombs are in a crypt. On the main floor of the mausoleum there are
    replicas of the tomb of the Shah and his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who
    died giving birth to her 14th child. The first two wives were barren
    so that is why they didn’t rate a big mausoleum like Mumtaz Mahal. Of
    the 14 children 8 died as infants. The second son deposed the Shah (I
    think he also got rid of his older brother) and put under house
    arrest. At least when the Shah died his son buried him in the Taj

    It really was a beautiful and fascinating place.
    ( Well worth the trip from
    Gurgaon. When we left there it was 8:30 AM and there was a line
    waiting to get in. It was also very hot- I think about 105 oF. We went
    back to the hotel and had breakfast. Then we decided not to go to the
    Agra Fort. It was just too hot. After a short rest period we were back
    on the road to Gurgaon.

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    I'm enjoying reading your letters. The tourist bag with water and slippers at the Taj Mahal seems to be a new twist. We didn't get anything, instead they took away our camera cleaning device. More!

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    The June 9th NY Times had a very interesting article about Gurgaon - I never heard of it before and here you post your trip report mentioning it - how timely and interesting! Thanks!

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    Enjoying your letters....
    Did you notice that inside Taj, tomb of the King (Shahjahan)is not in the center... & Queen Mumtaz Mahal's tomb is in the center....perhaps the only place in history where the Queen gets center stage. Taj ofcourse was built for Mumtaz mahal, by Shahjahan.

    The Taj is beautiful on a full moonlit night...requires planning around that and hope for a cloudless sky.

    One tidbit I picked up. Many years back Taj used to be lit up at night. During the last war with Pakistan, it was discovered that Pakistani air force was using the brightly lit Taj as a focal point to establish bombing targets. Once the Taj lights were turned off, Pakistani bombing accuracy was reduced to zero. Unfortunately, now Taj is still not lit at night for national security reasons.

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