Douwe Osinga's Blog: April 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

An Old Friend for Questioning

My good friend Hans Peter came visit from the Netherlands. Against all reason he decided he wanted to visit of all places the Andaman Island, so we set off on a journey to these islands barely touched by civilization. It’s a long trip involving changes of planes and a 3 hour boat ride, but I guess that’s what keeps it untouched. Of course Hans-Peter remarked when we finally made it to the palm fringed disturbingly white beaches: ‘well, they don’t have a lot of tourist facilities’.

No matter. If ever the journey was the destination, it was this time. We filled the time with talk, questioned the things we saw and kept our spirits up with the beer we managed to find almost everywhere. Why is it that we know how much crude oil cost, but not how much an acre of land to grow potatoes? What is the beach front premium in India compared to that in Spain? We had a surprisingly fitting theory as to how the world economy worked considering that we were completely sober at the time and a sure-thing plan for a 100 million dollar company.

The one thing we couldn’t crack was waves. If waves are created by wind, which seems reasonable, you’d expect them to go in the wind direction. At sea they seem to do, but when they make it to the beach, they always seem to be rolling on and off the beach. How does the wave know what the orientation of the beach is?

And we missed a lot of transport connections almost, which was all the more exciting since any missed connection would almost certainly mean that we’d miss all other connections too, including HPs flight home. For example, we had one day in Chennai which we decided to fill with a trip to Mamalapuram, for which we arranged for a car. That is, we made a deal with a tout at the airport, whom we presumed to be the driver, but who switched himself at the last minute with a shoeless guy.

The not wearing shoes didn’t turn out to be the worst. He didn’t speak English either, nor Hindi (which wouldn’t have helped much). Moreover he couldn’t drive. On the way there, it was sort of ok, the main challenge was trying to explain where we wanted to stop and where not. The return drive was more of a problem. The traffic was getting busier and we were running out time. Worse, I lost the card where I had written the words ‘go faster’ in Tamil on while swimming.

So we crawled through the evening traffic with rickshaws, motor bikes, cars and busses overtaking us left and right. We could barely keep up with the bicyclists. With slightly less than 25 minutes on the clock we made it to the airport and tried to run in. Not so fast. Indian airports you can only enter with a ticket or a print of your email. We had none. Fortunately they provide for airline offices outside that will make said print (which you then inside can trade for a boarding pass), so we queued impatiently up at the Air Deccan counter. When it was our turn, the guy typed around for a bit and then announced that we were not on the flight.

Not good. We asked him to check under various permutations of names, but nothing helped. We were about to just book a new ticket, when my iphone jumped to the rescue. I quickly opened gmail.com and the wait started for India’s GPRS to deliver the data. When it finally opened, I could show the guy that we *did* have a reservation. Ha. Only as it turned out not on Air Deccan, but on Indigo, an hour later and which was delayed. So after an apology or two we made our way quickly to the airport bar.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Back in Switzerland

So various people have wondered if I still blog. I do, but more often than not when I don't have access to the Internet and these posts just end up as documents on my computer, waiting for me to post them. I'm going to try to get them out. Some of these posts are somewhat asynchronous, for example this one. We're already back from being back in Switzerland.

And then we’re back in Switzerland. Just for the weekend, but after 5 minutes in our old apartment, it already feels like we never left. Strange how the brain designed to cope with the life of a caveman, is not confused at all about jumping across the planet in airplanes. All the differences between India and Switzerland are nicely summed up when entering the railway station under the airport.

In India there would be hundreds of people battling trying to get to a ticket window and thousands of others just hanging around for no immediately clear reason. We would have no idea which of the 20 windows would be able to sell us the ticket that we wanted, while it would be certain only one would. In order to book a ticket, we’d have to fill in a form, specifying our jobs, our age and the number of the train, which we could find out by first queuing up behind a window marked enquiries. The station would of course be hot, dirty and vaguely smelly.

In the station at Zurich Airport, there were 5 ticket windows, all selling tickets for all destinations in Europe. There was no waiting and no need for forms or train numbers. No crowds at all, the train arrived exactly when it should have, left exactly when it was supposed too. I know it is a cliché to say that Switzerland is clean, efficient and that everything works. But coming back you realize that it is rather true.

After three months in the tropics, I thought I wouldn’t need sunscreen in a meager European spring. One morning of skiing set me straight and left me with a peeling nose and broken lips. And then there is the cheese, the bread, the super fast Internet, the having beer with friends in a normal bar. Life is pretty good, but it lacks the excitement of India with all its colors, odors and above all people everywhere. Yeah, more clichés.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good help is hard to find

Employing people is a fact of live in India for people with a certain income, obviously much more so than for example in Switzerland. Cheap labor does that and even though it might make you feel strange for a bit, it is ultimately good to create jobs, or at least that's what we keep telling ourselves. It is also rather convenient of course.

The colonial feel of it all is not lessened by the Indian tendency not to use euphemisms like staff or cleaning service industry. It's servants and house boys and that's what they call them.

If you have a family, employing 3 or 4 people is quite normal: a cook, a driver, a house boy and a nanny is sort of the starters kit. We are very modest. Google provides us with a pool of drivers to choose from, with 3 meals a day and we don't have children. So a house boy is all that is left. When we talked to the guy that arranges that (there's always a guy), he said we'd have him for 48 hours a week, since that's how it works.

48 hours a week for cleaning really seemed like a lot, considering that all we needed was some cleaning and shopping. The cost of it might have been per month what it costs you in Zurich for an afternoon, but still, you don't want to have somebody sit around in your house all the time doing nothing. So we were happy when we found a co-worker who would share him with us.

Our employee had to think about this one though. Serving two households, that didn't seem right. When he reported back, he said he'd wanted twice the money if he had to work for twice the households. Simple math and he was studying business, so he should know. It took a lot of negotiations to get a more western idea of numbers across, but we're all living happily ever after now.

He cleans, figures out what the other people dropping by are up to and most importantly, makes sure that the fridge is stocked with beer. Now that the temperatures are rising and we're no longer in those wintry high twenties celcius, this is becoming more of requirement.

He also shows how different rickshaw drivers treat foreigners. As noted in a previous post, we have the greatest trouble getting them to switch on the meters and even though the shop isn't far away, I'd be happy if I could get it for 20 rupees. He made it on 8, which is 2 less than the flag fall on the meter. For a return.