There are few places on Earth where you can arrive in the wrong city in the middle of the night and still find a nice hotel room and a hot meal in less than twenty minutes. India is one of them and much, much more.
After well over 20 hours of travel, I arrived in India in the wrong city at around 1.30 AM local time. I missed my connecting flight in Frankfurt through the usual incompetence of the airlines, who apparently could not clean the outbound plane from Newark on schedule. On the phone from Germany, they informed me in the traditionally bored, uninterested voice reserved for an unfulfilled customer service representative that I could either wait two days to arrive properly in Chennai or catch a flight to Bangalore and then travel to my final destination about 12 hours later. Not having two days to spare, I took the flight to Bangalore completely uncertain what I might find there upon my arrival. I had a working cell phone, but no luggage save for a change of underwear and a tee-shirt in my carry-on, no food, and no place to stay in a completely foreign city where I knew no one and had no connections with anything. Fortunately, this was not my first trip to India and I was aware things work a little differently in the world’s largest country. For example, if you showed up in Nashville, Tennessee in my condition, they’re likely to put you in jail or at least confine you to the airport, but on the other side of the world, some 9,000 miles away from home, places are open late, if not 24 hours, and hotels allow you to check in at any time. This gave me the hope of a warm meal, a decent bed, and a much needed shower, even if I had no plan to obtain any of those things and no real way to proceed other than wander around for a bit and take in the lay of the land as they say.
Thus, I exited the terminal exhausted and more than a little worried about my prospects for the immediate future, fearing I may very well be sleeping in a corner of the airport and not happy at the prospect, but India is nothing short of magical at times. It took all of ten minutes to allay my fears and set myself up properly for the next twelve hours. The area outside the Bangalore Airport is more like an open air mall than anything else, not comparable to anything I have ever seen in the United States or elsewhere. You exit the terminal directly across from an oasis of food stands, full blown restaurants, shops, and more, most of which were open even after two in the morning as though it were the mid afternoon. People were everywhere, eating and shopping, but more importantly, shining across the way in the near distance like a beacon for weary travelers, was the Taj Bangalore hotel, a thoroughly modern luxury destination that could would have been nice in any city in America. I immediately found the number on Google, and gave them a quick call. “Do you have any rooms available for tonight?” I asked, crossing every available finger and probably some toes that salvation was at hand. “Sir, do you mean for tomorrow?” The polite woman asked on the other end of the line in only mildly accented English. “No, I had a mix up with my flight. I mean for right now,” I clarified. “Let me check for you, sir,” she said while I waited, not wanting to get my hopes up too much. There was a slight pause, followed by a definitive yes. “Excellent,” I said with obvious relief before asking the second most important question. “Are you still serving food?” “Of course, sir,” was the immediate reply. After giving the receptionist my information, I told her I was going to catch a taxi and be over in ten minutes. She insisted there was no need for that, they would send a car immediately. Less than a half hour later, I was fully checked into the hotel and enjoying a fine meal of tomato basil soup and spicy chicken in the lobby, complete with two servers for assistance. I woke up the next day as refreshed as possible after less than five hours of sleep, and discovered a fine breakfast spread in the restaurant, eating my first of about 10 dosas for the week, an Indian rice crepe served in some variety at almost every meal.
In India, anything is possible as some say, but unfortunately the average American doesn’t get the chance to experience the magic and the mystery, a world where many things are the same as the United States, and yet so much is different. For starters, it is difficult for anyone who hasn’t been there to understand the sheer volume of people in the highly populated areas. The cities are more buzzing hives than anything else, dwarfing even New York in number and activity, spreading across huge swaths of land, alive in a way our sleepy streets simply aren’t in the dead of night. Cars clog the roads almost all day, everyday, along with motorcycles, sometimes ridden by a family of four or even five at the same time, often without helmets. mini-taxis that are something like rickshaws, and the occasional cow, goat, chicken or dog. Adherence to traffic laws is at a minimum, few actually use traffic lanes, and the horn is the favored way to let other drivers know you’re there, even when you are not where you are supposed to be. You cannot stand on an Indian street without a constant buzzing and beeping, as though cars were birds and the native song was the chirp of drivers. On my way back to the airport at the end of the trip, for example, the driver went the wrong way down a highway outside of Chennai, continually honking the horn as if it was everyone else that was the problem. He proceeded to cut across more than three lanes of traffic to begin traveling in the right direction. Incredibly, none of the upcoming cars or the people he cut off seemed to be particularly upset. It was simply the way things worked, and they naturally moved around him. In some sense, the volume of people should not be surprising in a country of over 1.4 billion, one which just outpaced China, but it manifests in many ways that might seem unexpected to the uninitiated. You cannot drive anywhere without people lining the streets, frequently haggling at small shops along the way, shops which seemed to sell everything and anything in a random assortment, presenting a kaleidoscope of the entire region. Service companies are staffed with more people than one would think possible. In addition to my two servers at 2.30 in the morning, there were three people working the front desk and additional security staff. The breakfast must’ve been served by two dozen people, easily twice what you would expect at even a high end New York hotel.
Many of these people do not speak the same language. In a single Indian state covering a couple of hundred miles, it’s not uncommon to have four regional languages and dozens of dialects. The country as a whole boasts over 120 languages and almost two thousand unique dialects, some of which are among the oldest in the world. Chennai is in Tamil Nadu, on the Indian Ocean toward the south east tip of the country. They speak Tamil in the region and claim it’s the world’s oldest written language, with writings dating back to at least 300 BC if not further with the oldest known usage being 5,000 years ago. A.K. Ramanujan described it as the “only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past” and it is said to have “one of the greatest classical traditions and literatures of the world.” Tamil is also known as a language ideal for poetry and song. Generally speaking, Indians love to sing and Tamil songs carry with them an intense emotion, wrapping the listener in mournful tones that linger like dew. The language is lilting and soft, where a singer can fill the lines with a feeling that carries even if you don’t understand the words. They drift towards you in the air, exotic and tremulous, but strong and lasting beneath the surface, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing as the song plays on. In the north, however, Hindi is the primary language, where it has been spoken for some 800 years. They too love to sing and India has a tremendous pop music scene, albeit one that works differently from the United States. Music is closely intertwined with movies, where lavish musicals remain the most popular genre. Big songs and big movies go together in a unique integrated marketing model, launching as one and feeding off of one another. This results in an interesting side effect: Almost every big song has its own dance based on how it was performed in the movie and almost everyone knows these dances. When a popular song comes on, you can be sure the entire dance floor will break out into the choreographed steps and they’ll be happy to teach you as well.
Interestingly, English is an official language of the country and, especially in densely populated areas, communication with locals is rarely a problem. The average person in India may not be ready to analyze Shakespeare, but they are more than capable of communicating in English on everyday topics. In my company alone, somewhere over a dozen Indian languages are spoken and all corporate communications are in English. Our CEO traveled almost ten thousand miles to his hometown, to deliver the annual address to a mixed Indian crowd in my native tongue. Ironically, they view English as a ticket out of poverty and people are eager to learn it, unlike in America where we seem to have abandoned the idea entirely in some precincts. There is also a somewhat surprising similarity of values and mindset that underlies communication and all other interactions. The sense that you are speaking to someone that could just as easily live on your own block back home. India is a developing country and incredibly entrepreneurial, producing a constant stream of ideas to do better in the future. The spirit of free enterprise and a drive for innovation backed by traditional values like hard work, competition, and free speech is alive and well halfway around the world. I chose the phrase “somewhat surprising” because India is a democracy that values choice, but our two countries do not share much history, meaning they have arrived at these values via a completely different path. Indian philosophers, writers, thinkers, economists, and all the rest of the influential intellectual class who, over generations, create the foundation for a stable culture are completely foreign to most in the United States, including me. Likewise, all but the most revolutionary western thinkers such as Albert Einstein, are foreign to them. Nor do we share many political leaders or historical figures. The average Indian might not even be familiar with George Washington, no more than we would know Gandhi other than as a name associated with something on the other side of the planet, and yet there is a sense of shared history regardless of the gulf between.
This sense is perhaps supported by two unrelated mechanisms. First, American pop culture remains one of our biggest exports. Indians have their own pop music scene, but American and British classics as well as broader European hits still proliferate, sung along as readily and happily here as there. They are more than familiar with Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and more, even including bands like the Scorpions, one of the perennial favorites of the Twiste family. As such “Hotel California,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Wind of Change” all made karaoke appearances to varying degrees of success, likely based somewhat on the amount of alcohol consumed to that point, throughout my trip. (Yes, karaoke is very big there. There didn’t seem to be a corporate party without it.) Second, India is a country and a people known for their hospitality and welcoming attitude to foreigners. There is the general feeling that they appreciate your being there and take your enjoyment of their magical country personally. They love to talk, they love to learn, and they love to ask questions about your experiences at home and in India. Anything and everything comes up, from food to movies to your opinion on Donald Trump. (Yes, Donald Trump, the man is truly everywhere.) They are happy to share their opinions and encourage you to do the same, exhibiting a refreshing thirst for knowledge that seems all too often latent in the Western world. Over seven days on the ground, I don’t think there was a topic I didn’t cover with someone at some point, from the leading local and global beers, to the wisdom of Tamil philosophers, to the differences between Indian languages and Indian states, to historical landmarks, and the nuances of popular culture in both countries. For the first time ever, I spent an entire flight chatting with the woman next to me on the plane, only to learn that her husband is an avid beer drinker and concert promoter, including for one of my personal favorites, Europe. As she put it, who doesn’t love “The Final Countdown”?
Other than my time in Bangalore and a quick stop at a mall complete with a Starbucks that could have been transplanted from Anytown, USA to buy clothes, I spent most of this trip outside Chennai proper at a tropical resort on the beach, home to the largest pool in southeast Asia. This was exciting to me for two reasons. First, on my prior visit I’d pretty much been confined to the city and I am not a city guy at this point in my life, preferring open spaces to cramped quarters. Second, there are few things I enjoy more than a beer by the pool in a tropical setting and the Radisson Blu certainly fits the bill. The resort itself was similar to what you find in Cancun or the Dominican Republic, laid out not as a hotel but as a main reception building and a collection of smaller units connected by palm tree lined paths, albeit with a slightly Asian flare fitting the region. The local beer is ironically named British Empire, brewed right in Tamil Nadu and heralded an “ultra premium exclusive beer” available in a “super strong” variety as the more adjectives the better. However you choose to describe it, it’s light enough to drink smoothly in the heat and pairs well with Indian food, almost all of which is spicy, perhaps too much so for the average American palette. How spicy? I’m probably not the one to ask, being more adventurous in that regard than most of my countrymen and always eager to try the spiciest dishes possible, but seriously even breakfast in India can be damn hot. Indian food has proliferated in the United States over the past 15-20 years and not surprisingly so. Indians love to eat, though frequently after 10 PM, and they produce a regular smorgasbord for almost every occasion. Dosa, the rice crepe, was a particular favorite of mine, which can be served plain or stuffed, but there was nary a chicken dish I didn’t try, plus several varieties of mutton which is far more popular there than here. My only regret is being too American to remember all the names, other than the dosa and biryani, a slow cooked rice dish usually mixed with meat. Also, of interest, is there reliance on old-fashioned charcoal, turning every dinner into something of a barbecue. If you can stand the heat, the food is a marvel, exploding with exotic flavors.
Sadly, I ended the trip with a great day spent at the Indian equivalent of an AirBnB complete with a little pick up game of cricket and a message to take home: Relations between India and the United States are at a tipping point. As the world’s largest democracy, India should be one of our biggest allies and in many senses we have a positive relationship, one bound by mutual opportunities and shared language however divergent the history and culture. Geographically speaking, however, they are much closer to China and their influence on affairs is strong and growing. India cannot long continue stretched out between the two, and there are some signs choosing China over the United States is a real possibility. Right now, there is vigorous debate about whether to stop using United States dollars as their international currency of choice. Some want to use the Indian rupee itself, but more likely it will be the Chinese yuan. The impact on America of that decision cannot be overstated, and yet is something that is barely discussed stateside preferring to obsess over Russia and Ukraine as if the future will be decided there rather than between the world’s two largest and rapidly growing countries. As I have opined, our Russia problem is really a China problem. Here, we are dangerously close to making an Indian problem out of a China problem, and even worse seem blissfully unaware of it, preferring to believe that the West is stronger than ever thanks to President Biden’s brilliant diplomacy while China breaks open the cookie jar and casts us into economic ruin. I didn’t get the sense that the Indians I spoke to at least wanted this to happen, but they certainly feared it could and that’s something we should all fear. The United States must remove its European blinkers, stop pretending the outcome in Ukraine is the most important thing in the world, and start looking at where the real action is, or else the magic between the two countries might fade forever.
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