Monday, December 31, 2007

India: Days 3, 4, and 5 - Wedding

I've never been to an Indian wedding before. When I told my friends that I would be going to India to attend a wedding, they all expressed their jealousy, and needless to say, my expectations were sky-high. Nonetheless, I ended up being surprised by the sheer extravagance and the endless activities.

On the first night Paul and I were there, we attended the sangeet. It was a bit like a western reception - open bar, dancing, an emcee, and dinner ... except it was all backwards. The evening began with drinking, speeches, and dancing, and ended with food being served at 10:30 PM. It was a lot of fun -- and the groom's uncle kept the Johnnie Walker flowing. Around midnight, everybody went home to prepare for the next day.

The second day offered breakfast and lunch, but Paul and I skipped both to attend another event on the schedule, a cultural show featuring regional Indian dancing. After watching for 30 minutes, we asked our assigned driver to take us to the ferry so we could take a boat across to Fort Cochin, an older part of the town. We rode around on an autorickshaw (think three-wheeled rickshaw with a small engine and driver) for a few hours and then went back to the other side of the water to attend the evening reception.

The evening reception on the second day of the wedding was at the luxurious Le Meridien resort in Cochin. There were probably 2,000 people in attendance. They were mostly the bride's family's friends, relatives and business associates. There was a live performance, more free liquor and table upon table of food. As it was nearly 30 degrees Celsius (= 86 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and very humid, we spent most of the evening inside bathing in air conditioning and drinking Johnny Walker Black (more about Johnny Walker later).

The third day of the wedding started early as our wedding schedule indicated a "procession" at 8 AM. Instead of bridesmaids and a flower girl, we found a parade involving three elephants, an army of dancers, and a large group of the groom's family and friends walking in. This was followed by 2 hours of ceremony and more eating. After this, the couple was deemed married and the days of celebration were over.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

India: Day 3

I left my hotel oasis at 3:45 in the morning for the domestic airport. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at how busy it was. The first flight of the day appeared to be scheduled for a 4:45 departure. This is in stark contrast to China, where the first flight out of Shanghai is usually 7:50. My flight departed without a hitch, and I arrived in Cochin, on the southwestern coast of India 2 hours later.

A bit of background on my trip to India. I am here to attend the wedding of one of my best friends from college, Vinay. Of our core group of friends from school, only I and another friend Paul made the trip to India to attend.

After I picked up my baggage, there was a driver waiting for me outside on the curb with a sign for the wedding. He took me to the hotel, a Taj property on the waterfront. A few minutes after that, Vinay came to my room to greet me and kickoff 3 days of wedding festivities.

India: Day 2

I finally got the chance to explore Bombay on my second day in India. I started by asking the hotel to get me a taxi to go to a market downtown. The hotel worker asked me, "370 rupees?" and I figured the hotel wasn't trying to rip me off, so I said okay. But, in retrospect, I think the taxi drivers have some sort of side deal with the doormen. The driver managed to convince me that where I wanted to go wasn't worthwhile (it really wasn't) and that I should get a whole day tour from him for 1200 rupees. I asked him if that included time if I wanted to stay out for dinner. He said it was no problem, and that there was "No charge for waiting."

So, with that, he took me to the handful of tourist sites in Bombay. Gateway of India - check. Prince of Wales Museum - check. Marine Drive to see the "nice" office buildings - check. Chowpatty Beach, a stretch of sand located downtown - check. Hanging Gardens, a small park located on a hill overlooking Bombay - check. At around 4 PM, despite my earlier desire to stay out and eat dinner, I couldn't take the dirtiness and commotion any more. I told my driver to take me back to my hotel, where I took a shower and ate dinner.

Here's my quick summary of Bombay. It may be interesting to see as a commercial hub and in comparison to other cities worldwide, but I found it even more lacking in tourist locations than Shanghai. It lacks the tall skyscrapers of Shanghai, the cultural attractions of New York, and the historical context of London. It's worth a quick stopover, but one day is probably all you need.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Trek to India

I'm in my hotel in Bombay right now writing this post. There is a fountain outside the business center that only adds to my impression that the hotel is some sort of oasis within the chaos outside that is Bombay.

The trip here did not start out well. My original flight: Air India #349 direct from Shanghai to Delhi (with a stopover in Bangkok) was scheduled to take off at 1 AM on December 26. Yes, that is 1 AM after Christmas evening. The ticket was 1/4 the price for the two days surrounding Christmas, so I figured it was worth it. On my way to the airport, I received an email from (the Hong Kong-based website where I bought the ticket) notifying me that the flight had been delayed 3 hours. Nice of them to inform me, but a little too late.

When I checked in, I was given a middle seat. So not only did I have to bear the Air India quality of service on a long trip, I get to do it from the middle seat on an old Airbus 310. As I have written about before, Pudong Airport has nothing terrific going for it. It is even worse at night when everything is closed. No duty-free stores, no bookstores selling Chinese-only books, not even overpriced noodle shops. Apparently, at night, they turn off the heat as well. At least the lights were kept on for my fellow passengers and me. At 5 AM - yes, that's a delay of 4 hours - we boarded our plane. Originally, I was supposed to arrive in Delhi at 8:35 AM. I had a 12 PM flight to Bombay on a domestic airline, Kingfisher. 3.5 hours is enough, right? Of course, with the delay, I was going to miss this flight. So I called the airline and moved my flight to 2 PM. This would give me 2 hours from my new arrival time.

The plane was awful. It was old and smelled like a portapotty. The only saving grace is that after we landed in Bangkok, about half the passengers got off and the plane was left half empty. I was able to move over and get some elbow room at this point. But it only went downhill from here.

On arrival in Delhi, I ran off the plane so I could catch my next flight. I then spent 90 minutes in the line for immigration behind 30 Afghanis. Needless to say, the Indian immigration personnel were not ready to speed the Afghanis through security. When I finally made it out, our bags had been taken off the carousel. But I couldn't find my bag amongst them. I went over to the baggage office and they found a bag that looked similar (but not really). They then found that passenger's travel record and called him. He was already halfway home with my bag. After the other passenger returned with my bag, I was finally able to go through customs.

By this time, I had missed my Kingfisher flight. The Kingfisher counter told me that I should talk to Air India to compensate me for my flight. Of course, Air India is in a different building across the road and up a filght of stairs. At Air India, I was told that they were not responsible for the Kingfisher flight since I had booked that separately. They told me they could get me on a flight to Bombay but it didn't leave until 9 PM and I would still have to pay for it. Okay, back to Kingfisher down the flight of stairs and across the road. Kingfisher said that even though my ticket was fully refundable, since I was a no-show, it was counted as used. I could only get back the taxes. This is probably the one time in my life I will ever be happy that in India, taxes seem to make up ~40% of the total cost of a ticket. So in the end, I had to pay about $90 for a new ticket.

New ticket in hand, it was time to make it to the domestic terminal - a 20 minute drive from the international terminal. Twenty minutes for 15 km? Yes, this is India. I waited in a lounge for the shuttle to the other terminal. Some guy comes in and waves at everyone to go outside. He did not seem to be very official so I didn't follow him. Neither did anyone else. Then 2 minutes later, he does so again. This time, two Indian families went outside, so I followed. This other non-official guy asks to see my ticket and passport. He then tells me I have to go to another line near the taxis. I could see the "Official Interterminal Shuttle Bus" right in front of me, so I asked why I had to go near the taxis. He said it was because I was in terminal 1A and not 1B. Total BS, all happening right in front of the official desk. I ignored him, took my ticket and passport back and got behind the other Indian families.

After our 20 minute ride to the other terminal, I arrived at the Kingfisher counter. Here, everything seemed like it should be. They were courteous and checked me in quickly. I now just had to wait 3 hours until the flight was scheduled to depart. Inside, there were a total of 5 gates. Beijing is a relatively small airport for its passenger volume, but seriously, 5?! There are absolutely no jetways. Everybody has to board the bus to get to the plane.

At least the flight experience on Kingfisher was great. Everyone says Kingfisher is a revolution in Indian flying. It's true. I was offered bottle after bottle of water. I was also given a free pen and enjoyed television at my seat a la Jet Blue. The free meal was also pretty good.

In Bombay, I was safely in the hands of my hotel, Le Royal Meridien. I had called ahead for a car to pick me up (total cost 350 INR = $9). Once I got my bags from the carousel, I walked outside and immediately found my driver. He dropped me off at the hotel where I was upgraded to a nice room with a view of the pool. I quickly took a shower, brushed my teeth (with bottled water), and fell asleep.

Time in China is coming to a close

The incrediby long break between the last post and this one is due to the fact that my life has been busier than ever wrapping up my project at work, getting ready to go back to the US, and preparing to travel to India to attend a friend's wedding.

In any case, the next few posts will be done from India as I compare my brief experiences traveling there to my time spent living in China. When I come back, I will try to summarize my experiences in China this past year.