Saturday, November 21, 2015

India Business Trip

I work in South Korea for Samsung, but I have seen very little of South Korea this fall. After a 3-week business trip to Brazil and a 5-day trip to see my girlfriend in Vietnam, my boss soon had us packing our suitcases for another 3-week business trip to New Delhi, India for a project with Samsung India.

Welcome to India ... NOT!

I had been to India once before during my business school days, and let's just say that I did not enjoy it. Most people who have visited India tell me, and I agree with them, that India is a polarizing place — you either love it or you hate it. I had recollections of bad pollution, intense heat, burning trash, chaotic roads, strange smells, and food poisoning.

At least I had remembered Delhi Airport to be a decent place. ENHHH! Wrong! It's crap. Just witness the chaos at the immigration line when I landed at 2am from Seoul. Why on earth do a ton of flights land in Delhi in the middle of the night, and why does Asiana Airlines (an otherwise decent airline) operate the only direct flight from Seoul to Delhi from 8:10pm to 1:00am?  (our flight was delayed) Anyway, the Indians have not figured out that they should staff enough immigration officers to meet the demand in the middle of the night, or maybe immigration officers there like everywhere else in the world don't want to work the graveyard shift. Anyway, the immigration line at DEL moved at a crawl ... it took an hour to get through and I was not in my hotel room until 3:30am. Ugh ... terrible.

This Punjabi restaurant in a Gurgaon shopping mall was excellent (and one of the few Indian meals I was granted)

Thankfully I had a day to sleep in on Sunday before the long work week began. We were staying at the Westin Gurgaon, a nice hotel but with nothing around ... it's a fortress. Not that India is a walkable country anyway. I looked outside my window, noticing the cloud of smog and a dusty grassless field where dozens of Indian men were playing cricket. I will admit that I am a man that greatly prefers comfort in business travel, and when faced with the choice of staying in the hotel and getting a massage and taking a nap on the Westin Heavenly Bed, or going out on a rickshaw into the polluted chaos outside ... I chose to stay at the hotel all day.

Humayun's Tomb
It was to be one of only 3 free days that I had on my whole 3-week business trip to India. Korean-style business trips are stressful and unpleasant ... "You're not there to shop," as they say ... and we worked long hours of 6-day weeks in a conference room at the crowded Samsung India subsidiary. After 6 days of hectic work in a week in the chaos of a Korean-Indian task-force environment, the last thing I wanted was to hang out with my teammates on Sunday and go around to explore things, sadly.

However the Indian-Korean office environment was certainly a fascinating experience. For one thing ... Koreans do not eat Indian food! Samsung India has 2 cafeterias — a hidden bunker that serves pretty terrible Korean food (and felt like a prison to me) and a chaotic loud crowded cafeteria serving Indian cuisine. 99% segregated lunch hours ... I once saw an Indian in the Korean cafeteria. Then for dinner, to "take care of us" the Korean dispatcher walked us to the nearby Korean restaurant just outside in a pathetic half-abandoned shopping mall next to the subsidiary. I was so sick of eating Korean food in India that I needed to go on Korean food strike upon returning to Seoul. The one saving grace is that somehow the Korean restaurants were able to serve beef, which I thought was outlawed in most parts of India.
(Actually, we did not eat Korean every night for dinner. One night the dispatcher took us to an Italian restaurant, and once a Japanese restaurant, and once a Chinese restaurant. But absolutely no Indian food!)

The big meetings were chaos. A ton of people would fill the room. So much commotion. At one point in one of my meetings I counted 6 simultaneous conversations going on in the room between Hindi, Korean, and English. You have the authoritative Korean boss and the constant Indian chaotic debating. So much commotion and head nodding and "Tikka" this "Tikka" that. I also had one of my meetings interrupted by an earthquake...and the rather disorderly evacuation of the Samsung building (thankfully there was no damage and no one was injured).

Fortunately I discovered that Uber still operates in Delhi/Gurgaon and we used them all the time to get to/from the office. So thankfully we could avoid being trapped in the 15-passenger rickshaws. The big advantage of Uber is that the drivers were honest and didn't try to cheat us, unlike a couple of the terrible normal taxi drivers. Also Ubers are cheap — the 5km daily commute only cost about $1.60. Unfortunately, Uber drivers in India have almost no idea where they are going. I thought a 5-star hotel (the Westin) would be a major landmark and every Uber driver would know how to get there, but probably half of the drivers relied on GPS or needed direction on how to get to the hotel. And most of the drivers only speak Hindi ... not all Indians speak English, apparently.

Indian emergency room experience
The operative word to describe my first trip to India was "Unclear" ... why were things happening the way the were around me and what would happen next? Nobody knew. It applied on this trip as well. Why don't Uber drivers in Gurgaon know how to navigate? Unclear. Why does GPS give you bad directions? Unclear. Why are there no signs to mark the roads? Unclear. Getting around was stressful. The traffic was terrible in Gurgaon, the whole road outside the subsidiary office was torn up and there were cars and rickshaws and buses and diesel-spewing trucks and farm tractors honking everywhere. There are cows and pigs in the road and cars sometimes drive the wrong direction on one-way streets. Gurgaon has a lot of offices for overseas IT companies, and could be a little like California's Silicon Valley if you added a toxic dust cloud in the air and tore up all the roads and added cows and pigs and rickshaws.

I did manage one day on sightseeing on a 21-day trip. I went into Delhi and saw Humayun's Tomb, the National Museum, and ate dinner (Indian food!) in Connaught Place. Humayun's Tomb looks like a mini Taj Mahal made of sandstone. It has quiet grounds around it with green grass that actually felt pretty peaceful. My colleague got caught up speaking with some teenagers masquerading as "English students" who wanted to take us somewhere and scam us, but we thankfully shook them off easily. National Museum is old and has too many items .... my colleague liked it but I am not much of a museum person. Connaught Place was a chaotic mess but at least we ate well there.

Honestly, I felt I was beginning to adjust to the rhythm after 2 weeks on the ground in India ... but then in my 3rd week I fell ill and I remember why I hated India in the first place. Remember how I said I was "sick of Korean food" before? I let down my guard and tried the bibimbap in the restaurant. Two hours later I was racing too and from the toilet and three hours later I was in a Westin hotel car on the way to the emergency room. I was not seeking an Indian hospital experience on my trip! Thankfully I ended up at a decent facility in Gurgaon, surprisingly to me, and I laid there for 4 hours as I took an IV in my arm filled with antibiotics. The hospital doctor wanted me to stay the night but I didn't feel comfortable and just wanted to sleep in my Heavenly Bed in the hotel room. Thank goodness I had a helpful Westin hotel employee there the whole time who helped negotiate my release. I spent the whole next day in bed, eating nothing but bananas and plain boiled mashed potatoes. I lost 2.5 kilograms. THE IRONY! Korean food, which I was so mentally tired of had made me physically sick. I forgot the cardinal rule in India -- avoid uncooked foods when you eat outside of a 5-star hotel. I forgot that even at a Korean restaurant which my teammates and I had safely eaten at almost our entire trip your bibimbap vegetables are rinsed in the local feces water.

I was glad to see these elephant statues at Delhi Airport ... and get out of town!

Our trip ended just before Diwali ... all the lights were set up on the buildings in the the city ... and I cannot remember ever feeling so happy to return to South Korea as when I got off the Asiana Airlines flight on Sunday afternoon at Incheon Airport. Clean air! (relatively speaking)  I can brush my teeth with tap water! No more honking or crazy drivers! (again ... relatively speaking. Korea is not the US or Western Europe.) I imagine at some point in my career ahead that I will need to return to India, but I am certainly not looking forward to that day.

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