Monday, March 11, 2013

Welcome to India

March 6, 2013

Two little antennae poked out from the sink drain, and Matt called me over.  “Shawna, we’ve got a peeker!” he said calmer than he should have been.  I peered around the side of the bathroom door to see the cockroach’s 6-inch antennae feeling around the hole in the sink.  I looked closer to see the massive head and shoulders of the heavy-weight champion cockroach who had chosen our drain as his evening’s adventure.  We quickly tapped the sink to scare him away and clogged the hole with toilet paper.  Just then, the power went out.  Welcome to India.

It’s amazing to realize how different the bed I woke up in is compared to the bed I’m ready to go to sleep in.  Today, we woke up on the ship like any other day and headed up for breakfast and the India pre-port put on by Unreasonable.  Matt and I didn’t need all the details because our plans are taking us to Auroville where Mouhsine’s company, Prakti Design, is headquartered.

Our flight wasn’t until 3:55pm, so we didn’t need to leave the ship until around noon.  We watched as the ship emptied of students, faculty and finally the Unreasonable at Sea team.  They were off to catch bus into town where they had an event.

Matt and I hung out on the aft deck watching the port crews rearrange and stack enormous shipping containers making us all the more baffled at the fact that international shipping actually works.

We met Mouhsine for lunch on the ship and enjoyed our last ship-board meal for 20 days.  Luckily it was salad, potatoes and pasta.  (Side note: it’s an on-going joke to make fun of the food, but for what their resources are and how many people they have to feed, the MV Explorer totally rocks it.  That said, we can still appreciate the humor.)

We picked up Amruth who also needed to go the airport, and the four of us headed off the ship to find a taxi.  Luckily, Amruth lives in India, so he was able to ward off all of the scammers who take advantage of wide-eyed, disoriented and rich tourists.  We made our way past the “pre-pay” taxi stand to immigration where armed guards asked for our passports.

Mouhsine had a bit of a misunderstanding and forgot to get his passport stamped during the on-ship immigration process this morning.  The guards saw that he had no stamp and wouldn’t let any of us through.  We had our customs declaration forms, which also confused them, because apparently we were supposed to do that on the ship, too.

A nice, yet intimidating Indian man in white, with many gold bars on his shoulder took us into a room and sat us all down.  He yelled over the phone, yelled at men who came in and yelled at anyone who was just outside.  He demanded to know what was going on.  The more Mouhsine tried to take the blame, the angrier he got at his men who had slacked on their jobs.  One man, during a proper scolding, began crying and trying to explain himself.  He pulled Mouhsine aside and got the exlanation that it was an operator’s error, but the leader-dude wouldn’t have any of it.

It was assessed that we would miss our flight if we waited with Mouhsine, so we got the phone number of our ride that was waiting in Chennai and left Mouhsine to deal with the armed guards and his passport.  After getting in a cab with Amruth and driving off, we realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to leave our interview subject at the port, but that logistically, it might be better to only have to reschedule a single flight instead of three.

Here would be a good place to note my desensitization to how people drive in other countries.  Traffic in India was described to us as Vietnam’s traffic on crack.  I might agree.  There are technically sides to the road, but I fail to see any sort of passing laws, stoplights or speed limits.  Stop signs exist, but who needs ‘em?

Amruth had a phone that worked since he lives in Bangalore, so we were able to check-in with Mouhsine during our hour and a half drive to the Kochi airport.  He was still there and said that we should call the driver and inform him that he might miss the flight and to still pick up Matt and Shawna.

We got to the airport and awkwardly made our way to find our boarding passes and check out bags.  The body language in India is different than in the States.  The “yes” nod is not an up-and-down chin motion, but rather an ear-to-ear bobble where the head wobbles down to the right then down to the left.  At times it was so subtle that I sat and stared at a man for three “yes” nods before I realized I was allowed to pass through.  I felt silly and frustrated and like it shouldn’t be this hard.

The majority of people speak English here which is nice, but they have very thick Indian accents and the way that they emphasize their words and their syllables give me trouble understanding what they are saying.  I felt like everyone at the airport was frustrated with me, which made me feel pretty silly.  I resigned to just following anything that Amruth did.

We awkwardly got through security with a single casualty – Matt’s screwdriver and pliers set.  He had forgotten that he threw it in his backpack and didn’t move it to the checked bag, so the man at security gave us the option to check one of our backpacks, but since we had the camera and accessories in one and my laptop, iPad and other electronics in the other, we decided that it would be quicker and easier to part with the set.  We took a photo of it and sadly told that man to “chuck it” which began a series of misunderstandings because the man thought we wanted to “check it” so he tried to take the backpack, but we told him to “chuck it” and took the backpack back.  *sigh*

So, if anyone is preemptively planning a welcome home gift for Matt, a pouch of micro-screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers and wirecutters would be much appreciated.  He’s still mourning the loss.

We waited in the mega cushy waiting chairs for our flight and chatted with Amruth about this and that.  And then, through the mist burst forth none other than an exasperated Mouhsine Serrar!  We were so happy to see him!!

He told us that the immigration folks took him in a truck back to the ship to meet the other immigration folks with guns, and after a lot of waiting, they got his stamp and took him back out to catch a cab and sent him on his way.  The biggest issue was the fact that he was technically illegal in India because he didn’t have an entry stamp, so leaving on a flight would have ended up in deportation back to Canada.

I asked Mouhsine about the discrepancy between his Moroccan-birth and Canadian citizenship, and he said that when he lived there for a year or so, they saw how handsome he was and decided they needed a few more of his kind running around Canada and allowed him to become a citizen.  Sounds legit.

The view from the top of the Prakti factory.
We caught our flight to Chennai and watched the first half of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while gnawing on spicy Indian rolls of some kind and hot tea.  It made for a good snack because we still had a good bit of travelling to do before getting dinner.

We found our luggage then headed out to find our driver.  Mouhsine said that we were going to be picked up in style with the Ambassador.  Fildous, Mouhsine’s long-time, trusted driver, found us and grabbed our bags and loaded them into a little Toyota.  Mouhsine was aghast at the fact that he didn’t have the Ambassador.  Matt and I don’t know much about cars, so we’re still not sure if that’s an actual model or an affectionate name given to his prior vehicle.

A stack of Prakti stoves at the factory.
We set off to pick up Xavier, one of Mouhsine’s colleagues who lives in France and was just in Nairobi trying to see if their stoves would be viable there.  We found Xavier at the Prakti factory where all of the Prakti’s stoves are created.  It was oddly quiet and all of the workers were just standing outside and it was dark in the workshop.  It felt very weird, but no one else seemed to think so.

We found out later that it was the scheduled power outage in the area.  There is only enough power to power 80% of the city, so they rotate blackouts during the day and theirs is from 4-6 and also a full day once a month.  So, the silence around the neighborhood and lack of power and wifi was completely normal to them since it happened all the time.  “Welcome to India,” Mouhsine said with a chuckle.

We waited for Xavier to wake up from his nap, then snagged him and headed off for Auroville where our hotel and Prakti’s lab waited for us.  We had some cookies and a banana to tide us over since it was about 6:00pm and we hadn’t had dinner yet.

The Prakti lab.
After an hour of driving, we stopped for dosa.  Dosa is a wonderful treat which is like a big, spongy, thick crepe stuffed with chickpeas and with three different kinds of chutney to dip it in.  The spice was a little much for me, so I went easy on the dippin’, but the taste was absolutely amazing.  So good!

We got back on the road, and after another two hours pulled up to the tall, white Hotel Bay Castle which has the slogan printed on its pillows: “hunky dory multi-cuisine.”  Full assessment of what that actually means will come after we’ve completed our scheduled 11-day stay.

The mud outside is bright red, so they make sure that you take off your shoes and leave them outside before coming in.  Mouhsine sweet-talked them into taking good care of all of his colleagues because more were coming in tonight after us.  There will be all eight international Prakti constituents coming in for this re-direction retreat.
Vishnu, the Prakti lab pup.

Matt and I settled into our room, glad to see a single queen-sized bed to share and got familiar with the place we’re going to call home for the next week and a half.  It luckily has air-conditioning, but no wifi.  There aren’t really any places close by that have internet, so we’ll be cut-off for most of this portion of the trip.

Matt turned on the TV and found that every channel was fuzzy and the handful that had sound were in another language.  We enjoyed an über dramatic soap opera where the camera panned and zoomed onto multiple surprise-reaction shots.  It’s like that one prairie dog viral video, only with Indian actors.  The humor surpassed all language barriers.

We decided to go to bed and so Matt headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth.  “Shawna, we’ve got a peeker!” was the next thing I heard, and after suppressing the cockroach down the drain, the power went out.

Well, I guess it’s good night.