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32 december

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I arrived in Dubai at lunchtime yesterday, after a morning that set the seal on my business trip. After this, I have no interest in visiting Bangalore, or anywhere on the Indian subcontinent, again.

My driver arrived on time: 06:30, two hours before the 8:30 flight, but I was late. The condo duty manager, who was trying to check me out, kept getting interrupted with other problems, just because he showed his face at that time of the morning. Not a problem: I knew the airport wasn’t far, and we did it in ten minutes, arriving well before seven.

After twenty minutes in the check-in queue, I checked in as normal, and got my boarding pass, but they would not take my luggage? Why not? It didn’t have a sticker saying it had been scanned. There’s a scanner off to one side as you enter, but no signs saying that a scan is required at that point. Nor was there someone to operate the scanner, not as I had entered the terminal earlier, nor when I went back to get scanned. I frightened the crap out of four local workers, just standing around the scanner, when I slammed my case on to the belt, and one scurried off to find an operator. Another ten-minute wait, a ten-second scan, and a sticker. This time I didn’t go to the back of the check-in queue, since I had my boarding pass, and all they had to do was print and attach the label.

Security was standard, if lax, despite the Indian Army uniforms on the operators; of course, my boarding pass was in my jacket pocket, being scanned, at the point where another soldier wanted to stamp it, so he had to wait. The bag got a scan, a sticky label and a stamp saying “32 DEC 2006”. Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you?

Then, to the departure lounge (singular): I saw a Gate 2 sign, but everything seemed to be happening at Gate 1. I was in good time, so where was my flight? It wasn’t on the tiny TV screen at all, which showed a few other flights; in retrospect, I guess these were originating flights, while my plane had made a hop from Mumbai, which I wasn’t aware of. There were no airline staff in the lounge at all to check with, from any airline.

At about my scheduled departure time, a line started forming, and I joined it; a couple of other passengers thought it was my Dubai flight, and so it turned out to be. A member of the ground crew appeared and apparently tried to announce something, which was inaudible through a cheap PA over the noise from the TVs and passengers.

So, after a couple of strange questions, such as “do you have just the one bag checked in”, I was on board, just twenty minutes late. The plane was an Airbus A310-300 that had clearly seen a lot of air miles. It was so old that it still had the air-powered headphones and video projectors. The seats were cramped, and my neighbour seemed think it was acceptable to dig his elbow in to my side, but I was aboard, and we would soon be off.

Not so fast. A few passengers were standing around in the aisles, looking confused, and one came up to me with one of the cabin crew, who asked to see my boarding pass. All present and correct, I was in the right seat, so what was going on? The flight was “overboarded”, something I had never heard of before. Overbooking, yes, but that is usually sorted out before booking passes are issued. On this flight a few seats at the back, including mine, had been allocated twice, with two passengers having valid boarding passes for each seat.

I didn’t need to say anything; perhaps it was because I was there first, or perhaps because I was a Westerner whose reaction might have been “disproportionate” – a concern they would be justified in – but I was not asked to move. I didn’t see what happened to the other gentleman, but I hope they found him a place in first class for his trouble. There were other seating issues, including a lady who just grabbed a row for herself and her kids, and it took another half hour to sort that out.

Could we leave? No, there were still some immigration checks going on – it’s apparently harder to leave India than to enter it – and some more bags were loaded. We eventually left 90 minutes late. The rest of the flight was OK, thankfully: the breakfast was very good and big enough to be called Brunch, which was appropriate. I had my Tablet PC out, catching up on podcasts, and for a while all the window shutters were down, so everyone was able to relax. Just as surprising was the way my checked case actually arrived, in one piece, not too long after I picked up a few bottles in the duty-free shop in the arrivals hall. (A great example of logical thinking – that is when arriving passengers have time, and are not yet burdened with all their luggage, meaning it makes sense to shop then.)

Now I’m chilling out in Dubai: we’ll be going shopping just as soon as I finish this and hit the shower, and tomorrow is Christmas. I don’t mind calling it Christmas if my friends are: it’s just a name, and it helps to remember that midwinter was being celebrated long before any organised religions existed.


Written by brian t

December 24, 2006 at 6:09 am

Posted in dubai, india, life, travel, work

nas travels

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nas travels, bangaloreA bus on the Hosur Road, Bangalore, this morning on my way to work.

How appropriate. NAS is one reason I’m in Bangalore at all this fortnight: Network-Attached Storage is one of the two product families that I’m here to give training on, and a major source of aggravation in my work.

There’s not much wrong with the products, but there is much wrong with the way they are being supported by my company. Without saying too much, the issue can be summarized as: our NAS systems share a common base hardware platform with our general server products, supported by another team. The operating system on them – Microsoft Windows Server 2003 (now at R2) is also fundamentally common, with some renaming and restrictions that are due to licensing, not technical changes. There are differences, notably in the form of add-ons, but these are minor, so in my view the result is a huge duplication of effort that could easily be avoided.

Never mind: if effort is to be duplicated, let it be duplicated here in Bangalore, where bodies are cheaper. My “condo” is an expensive place by local standards: a better gauge might be in the costs of things, converted between Rupees and Dollars / Euros. The complimentary morning paper is 3 Rs ($0.07 / €0.05); in the little shop at the office, a 2-litre bottle of water is 20 Rs ($0.45 / €0.33), while a can of Pringles, imported from the USA, is 79 Rs ($1.77 / €1.34): half what I see in Dublin for the ones made in Holland.

One headline in this morning’s Deccan Herald, however, points he way forward: increasing costs are costing India business, in this case to the Philippines. If the eastward trend continues, the jobs might be back in the USA by the middle of next decade. Don’t you just love Globalization?

My own westward march stops at Bangalore Hindustan Airport on Saturday morning: it’s East for now, first Dubai for Christmas week, then back to Dublin and work. Hrrmmph.

Written by brian t

December 20, 2006 at 3:45 pm

Posted in india, technology, work

noise pollution unit

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Tonight, in the restaurant attached to the condos where I am staying, the staff turned off the radio that had been playing Techno music shortly after I sat down. Why would they do this, upon seeing me, without being asked? It stems from an incident last night, Saturday. All through the week, the same Techno noise had been playing, though it hadn’t been as loud, and there had been other diners present. Last night I was an early diner, and had the place to myself.

Firstly, try and imagine the scene: a relatively quiet street in the suburb of Koramangala, south-east Bangalore, India. The decor in the restaurant is restrained: white walls, orange tablecloths, waiters in brown and black. The cuisine is semi-authentic, aimed at Western visitors such as myself; some bland dishes for the weak-of-stomach, plus the chef’s ideas of the kinds of local cuisine we might like e.g. “Mysore Pepper Mutton”, served with various vegetables, paneer, rice, roti, and garnishes such as sambar and yoghurt. I’ve been specifying “spicy” whenever asked, since the hot main courses are presented with the proper mild side dishes, unlike some restaurants in the UK. So far, so sensible.

Still, as noted, the radio, is playing loud Techno. This was totally inappropriate for the venue and the people in it, a prime example of what musician Robert Fripp calls a “noise pollution unit”. Since I was the only customer, I asked if it could be turned down. No complaints: the waiter went over, turned a knob, and the music faded away.

Up to that point, “noise pollution unit” was a mere metaphor: with the volume on the radio unit down, the real noise pollution took over. Electrical noise in the cabling from the radio was being amplified, almost to level of the Techno. BZZZZZZZTZZZZZZZR RZZZZZZZZZTTZZ ad nauseum. I went over and tried fiddling with the wires a bit, but to no avail. The manager came over to see what I was doing.

I was nice. Honest! I kept a smile on my face, and explained, to start off with, that Techno is Dance music, and no-one was dancing. Right? Now, after the waiter turned the radio down, he agreed that the speakers were noisy. Would I like him to turn the amplifier off?

This is the point at which I nearly lost it. I simply said “yes, please”, but what I really wanted to ask was: “are you such an insensitive clot that you think it’s acceptable to play Techno in a quiet restaurant? It’s Dance music, do you see anyone dancing?”. Had I got the question out, I was imagining an answer along the lines of “Techno? It’s Western music and we have Westerners here. You all look alike, and all your music sounds the same to me.”

So, Mr. Manager, continuing our imaginary argy-bargy: “what about the speaker noise? Doesn’t it annoy you at all? Can you imagine any customers who would ever, under any circumstances, want to listen to speaker noise?” Expected answer: “I only work here. The customer is always right, my own opinion doesn’t count. You Westerners are crazy, you’re capable of anything, even listening to speaker noise. My senses have been dulled by too many customers and their demands.”

So, I’m the idiot here, the foreigner who’s being difficult, because I have a sense of the appropriate? I came away with the impression that the staff there, knowing they’re dealing with Westerners, have abdicated their own senses of logic and taste, not realizing that some customers actually think beyond the obvious.

The “noise pollution unit” was not the only example of this odd passivity among the staff. Twice this week I placed an order, followed by a conversation something like this:

  • “I would like (starter) and (main course), please.”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “Is there a problem with my order?”
  • “Are you sure you want that?”
  • “Can you tell me why I should not want that?”
  • “You have ordered (starter) and (main course).”
  • “Yes, I did.”
  • “OK…”
  • “Look, can you tell me what is wrong with my order?”
  • “Well…”
  • “Is it too much? I don’t know how much is included, so you need to tell me if it is too much. I can’t tell from the menu.”
  • “It is too much.”
  • “OK, thank you. Remove (starter), and replace (main course)with (main course2).”
  • “You want (main course)and (main course2)?”
  • “NO! Just (main course2)!”

This did not happen in France last June: there, the staff would actually advise the customers, understanding that the customer can not be expected to be right about everything on the first visit to an unfamiliar restaurant. They take that attitude a little too far in Paris, I think, but it was great down in the Rhône Valley’s family-run gourmet establishments.

The most depressing thing is that all this aggravation can be avoided, with a little thought, a little empathy, and a little imagination. Is it any wonder I’m turning in to a Grumpy Old Man? If the alternative is a numb, careless acquiescence to any and all circumstances, then bring me a pile of Grumpy, a pick-axe and a helmet. Please?

Written by brian t

December 17, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Posted in culture, food, india, music, travel

hard sell

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It’s Saturday afternoon in Bangalore, yet here I am, indoors in front of a computer. What gives?

One thing I’ve learned is that I do not make a very good tourist. In a new city, I’m at my happiest when I can strike out on my own and go where the locals go. Easy in the UK, Ireland and North America, and possible in Europe where I look like a local, as I’ve found in the last couple of years (in Germany, France, Portugal and Denmark). I’m learning Japanese with a view to visiting Japan, so I would at least have a sporting chance at non-tourism, but even that level of integration that is totally out of the question in Bangalore. Even where English is spoken, the colour of my skin is as good as a bullseye on my shirt, so I would need to stay in tourist-friendly areas.

Bangalore is a big sprawling city with almost no street signs. So, can I get to the tourist-friendly areas? On one level, the answer is “yes, of course”, by using taxis, assuming the driver understands what you are asking. I object to using taxis on an everyday basis; even when money is not an issue, as it isn’t here, it’s an admission of defeat in my view, a sign that you are not at home in the city. If I can use public transport, dead reckoning and a map, to get to the right place at the right time, the city passes my Friendly City test.

I learned, long before I arrived, that Bangalore is not a Friendly City. Here the taxis fill the gaps in public transport for the locals, but they expose tourists to additional complications. It’s common knowledge that taxi drivers here get kickbacks if they direct tourists to certain shops; even if I hadn’t read the Wikitravel page on Bangalore, my colleagues warned me that our agency drivers do this too.

This morning my driver took me on a short sightseeing tour around the east and centre of Bangalore: Indiranagar,  Ulsoor Lake, the Vidana Soudha and Vikasa Soudha (government buildings), Cubbon Park. I told him I would not be doing any shopping, because my case was full. Would he try this scam on me? Indeed, he would. He knew a nice place to buy things he said, close to where we happened to be passing. Would I like to take a look? Sure, I said: we can look, but I’m not buying anything. Is the shop owned by a friend of yours? No, no!

They were clearly used to people like me being driven there: a security guard was there to chase away an autorickshaw blocking the parking bay, and a doorman was there to open the car door for me. Big mistake right there: I do not require such special treatment at a shop, it tells me I am being watched and will be “sold at”. (If Tony Blair can open his own door when his Jaguar pulls up at 10 Downing Street, I can do it at a tourist trap.)

The stuff in the shop was OK, but clearly aimed at tourists: wood carvings, cashmere scarves, gemstone jewelery, even rugs – at which point I almost burst out laughing at the tackiness of it all. I thought I was going to spend five minutes in there, out of politeness, but I was out of there in three, fending off salesmen. They weren’t that aggressive as salesmen – having learned a thing or two from previous Westerners, I imagine – so no feathers were ruffled, I think. 

My driver asked “next place?”, but when I said “no more shops”, he offered to drive me back, which I could hardly argue with. I’d had the idea that I could spend some time by myself in the shops on Commercial Street, but I don’t like the idea of having a driver at all, far less one who has to sit around and wait while I wander around aimlessly. I might try to hit the Forum Mall later or tomorrow, which is supposed to be fairly close, but I have to find it on the map. It would help if I could find myself on the map, too, but this apartment complex’s address could be anywhere in a square kilometer radius, that’s how vaguely it’s given.

I’m prepared to invest my time and effort in learning about a city, culture, or country, so that I can spend time there without being a tourist. With less than two weeks in Bangalore, a city that promises a lot of hassle but has little to offer me, I’m simply unable to summon up the motivation, and I don’t see why I should. I could never be at home here, not after the Friendly City experiences I had in London, New York and Toronto before now. The world can come to me, via the Internet, which is good enough until I return to Dubai, a week from today.

Written by brian t

December 16, 2006 at 10:40 am

Posted in culture, india, travel

exemption thursday

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“Motorists indulging in brawls with autorickshaws drivers are a common scene on the busy Bangalore roads. But then, Thursday was an exemption.”

— from a front page story in today’s Deccan Herald, about yesterday’s autorickshaw strike.

Common? I suspect this writer is “sexing-up” the story. Somewhere between a car and a motorbike in size, the autorickshaw is one of Bangalore’s essential services. The strike was called in protest over an increase in fines imposed on drivers of un-roadworthy vehicles. I was surprised to read that one main service the autorickshaws provide is ferrying kids to school – so much so that the authorities were seriously considering closing some schools, but that didn’t happen. They’re all back on the road today: we were nearly T-boned by one at the entrance to Electronics City.

Written by brian t

December 15, 2006 at 3:12 am

Posted in culture, economics, india

popular mutton

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A day in Bangalore, and I’m still in one piece. I think I’m getting a mild jet lag, which is making me sleepy: I’ll fight it for a while, then turn in, with plenty of time for a good sleep before my alarm goes off at 6:30.

On the flight from Dubai I found myself listening to an audio programme about the airline I was using, Emirates. It’s their 21st anniversary as a going concern, and the programme discussed some of their defining features. One that stood out, to my ears, is that they make a point of treating economy class passengers very well.

The flight was absolutely full, and I was lucky not to be bumped, even though I checked in over two hours before departure. It seems everyone else is checking in online, which you can do 24 hours in advance, something I was not aware of. Oh well: the flight was just over three hours, as scheduled, and I can survive the worst seat on the plane – in the middle of a row in the middle of a section. It couldn’t be worse than the Toronto to Edmonton standby seat I had on the now-defunct Canada 3000, with the blubber overflow on my right, and the nonstop electronic Yahtzee gamer on my left.

I didn’t get to experience that, this time around: I was asked to swap seats, so my neighbour could have his wife next to him, and I found myself in a window seat behind a bulkhead, so I had very good legroom. The meal service was excellent, with several advantages over Aer Lingus, starting with metal cutlery and free drinks, though I stuck to fruit juices and coffee. A baby near me couldn’t stop crying during takeoff and landing, but in the air I got to see how the cabin crew fussed over them.

Then, Bangalore. People, people, everywhere, so many people that many have makeweight (and poorly-paid) jobs that could be better performed by machines. Baggage took half an hour to make it the short distance from the plane to the belt, at which point there were people whose job it was to lift help the bags make an awkward transition between two belts, and pick some off, seemingly at random, to move them about ten feet away. There were two people checking passports at the entrance to customs, and two more, in plain sight of the first two, checking them again at the exit.

I have a driver, with a rental car, assigned to me, full-time. The driver, Srinivas, got my name over the phone, and mangled it almost beyond recognition on the sign, which was hard enough to see among the hundreds of other drivers jammed five deep at the exit from the airport. There seemed to be more waiting drivers than arriving passengers.

Then we entered Bangalore traffic, which was refreshingly anarchic. With the high volume of cars and a complete absence of lane discipline, it has nevertheless exhibited a compelling advantage over traffic in Western Europe, as I’ve seen over three rush-hour journeys so far: it moves. Traffic lights are few: occasionally traffic police wander in to the road to smooth the entry of side traffic, but not for long.

When there’s a lane-wide space available, there will soon be a car in it; half a lane accommodates a motorbike. Not a foot goes to waste, and each toot of your horn replaces another driver’s glance in the rear-view mirror, since no such mirrors could cover every angle that every driver needs to cover, on these roads. There is much contactless pushing and shoving, and some scarred vehicles, but no aggravation or rancour that I could detect. We were cut off many times, and did our share of cutting off, offences that would see fists coming out in Dublin, or guns in Los Angeles, but it’s just normal here. The title of this post come from the “Popular Mutton Store” we passed on the way back this evening.

Don’t get me started on the cheesy television here. I have a 2-bedroom “condo” all to myself, which could sleep four comfortably: what must appear unspeakable luxury to a resident of the slums just outside the gate, but which costs less per day than the inexpensive hotel I used on my last trip to London. I’m more than happy with it, but some of the details are amateur. For example, there is a bolster to stop the bedroom door banging against the chest of drawers, but it’s not going to do much good when screwed to the outside of the door, is it? The lighting is inadequate, so dim that I have the notebook screen’s brightness turned down, just so I’m not blinded by glare and can’t see the keyboard. (Edit: the fatigue allowed many grammar errors to survive, which I’m fixing two days later.)

The food is very good so far: a spicy Mysore curry last night, that had the chef coming out to check if I was OK – which I was, very much so. Fresh pineapple juice with that, and this morning an omelette made fresh in front of me, after cereals. I’m getting to like the local coffee – a vicious shot topped off with sweet milk. Lunch was a chicken sandwich and a mutton pakora, and I’m full enough to skip dinner for some of the chocolate and mixed nuts I picked up at Dubai Airport. Bottled water has helped to ensure no adverse reactions so far, though the all-day talking, combined with the pollution, will kill my throat by the weekend, I expect.

This afternoon, by surprise, I was roped in to the ceremonial opening of the local department equivalent to mine in Dublin, and had the honour of being one of the people lighting the Hindu ceremonial 5-wick lamp. It’s not Divali, but it still symbolises knowledge and good luck. (I got photographed, but was spared from giving a speech). The manager is from the Netherlands, and there are a few other Westerners over here, so the ceremony was a mix of cultures: the candles, followed by a ribbon-cutting; a slice of cake that had Winnie-the-Pooh icing, for some reason, with a vegetable samosa on the side.

Just to underline the cultural divide, the paper cake plates were “Swasta” brand, and came in a packet with little swastikas on them, a symbol of good luck here. The last century, as horrible as it has been, is a mere blip in the history of the world: the earth-shaking, culture-defining wars were largely shrugged off here, despite the British Empire. Bangalore is in the process of reverting its name to the historical Bengaluru; the Raj has passed on, as we all will, in time.

Written by brian t

December 11, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Posted in india, work

cheese and whine

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Friday evening, the working week is over, and I’m having my own little cheese and wine party: a glass of 2003 Domaine de Villemajou Corbières, a remarkable Red, and a wedge of Blacksticks Blue.

For years I was opposed to the idea of drinking at home, knowing too well how much that contributes to alcoholism in Scotland in particular, and out of worry about going down that road myself. I think it’s going to be OK now, since I’m adapting the rule I’ve been using for other things, such as food: less quantity, more quality. I still have some way to go: both the wine and the cheese cost more than I like to spend on luxuries, yet are still affordable.

So, why the whine with the cheese? Work. It’s been highly annoying over the last two weeks, with the most bizarre things happening to customers, which require explanations from me, and I can’t realistically give the correct answer: “shit happens”. This week was complicated by the additional burden of the case monitoring role, assessing incoming cases for quality and viability: five hours per day lost on technical triage, without the periods of peace and quiet I require to get any serious work done.

Even when work is interrupted, it’s still a pain: a call from O2, asking me if I wanted a reduction in my phone costs? Of course I do, but I assumed there was a catch: the change of plan comes with an 18-month contract. As if I can guarantee anything about the next six months, never mind the next 18?

Just to cap it all, I’m almost certainly going to Bangalore (India) near the end of November, to give training. It’s Winter then, but also Monsoon season, so I’ll be carrying two umbrellas. I was asked to go, and while I’m hardly enthusiastic about the idea, I could hardly refuse. It’s probably a good thing for me in the long run, it might delay the onset of Grumpy Old Manhood a little longer.

Hey, what can go wrong, in a city of 10,000 people per square kilometer, and the oldest sewage system in the world?

Written by brian t

October 6, 2006 at 7:38 pm

Posted in india, travel, work