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Sunday, September 10, 2006

India - Trip Log - 09/10/06 – A long day

Well, now it is late Sunday evening and we have already made our way to Poona (Pune), India. It seems like it has been a long time since my last post back in Germany and much has happened in that time. In fact, I have already completed my short time in Bombay (Mumbai), which was really just a landing point for our trip. I will take you through how we ended up in Poona (Pune).

We boarded the plan in Frankfurt, and unfortunately to my disappointment – it was not another long haul jet on Lufthansa like we had out of Los Angeles, more of the standard business class equipment. While it was still enjoyable, it was no where near the comfort on the first jet. Then, what may end up being the oddest moment of the trip occurred a few hours into the flight. I was looking up from my meal and saw on the GPS tracking that we were flying over Iran and that the monitored showed this city on the map called Tehran. I look out my window to the left and I see the city lights of Tehran. Normally, this would not mean too much to me – but I was surprised this was the route given the current geo-political climate. Then we continued over Pakistan and then into Bombay (Mumbai), I guess our only other real option was over Iraq and Afghanistan – so, makes sense. This was not necessarily life changing, just surprising given I had never really though about the route from Frankfurt to Bombay.

We landed at the airport about 1:00am, and the first thing I noticed getting off the plane is that the airport is pretty old and run down. There is some construction under way for potential improvement – but I was expecting the “International” terminal to be pretty nice given the new found wealth of the past 15 years due to Information Technology and other outsourcing arrangement. Getting through customs was quick and easy – and more than I expected most of the signs were in English, even more than were in Hindi.

Walking out of the international terminal into Bombay, India was what people told me it would be – a very crowded welcoming area with mobs of folks trying to get you into their cars and or carry your luggage. Lucky for us, the vendors we were visiting pre-arranged everything and there was a plaque with each of our names on it. An oddity is that an individual driver was sent with each of us. Being almost 1:30am in a new country, we decided to all ride in the same car and just have the other two follow us.

It was only a quick 3 minute drive to the hotel, the ITC Hotel Grand Maratha Sheraton & Towers. The hotel was pretty nice and impressive, with the doorman saluting us as we exited our car. Given the time of the morning, check-in was a breeze. Since the bar was already closed, we enjoyed a brief drink in one of our rooms and shuffled off to bed to some rest.

6:30am came pretty quick. When I am traveling, especially long distances – I like to get into a routine immediately. So, I made sure to wake up then and headed to the gym for a quick jog and felt great. We had the standard hotel buffet which was excellent – and surprisingly a mix of both Indian and American foods – everything from Pancakes, Waffles, & Omelettes to several India dishes. I tried some of both and then we were on our way to touring the city by private car.

Leaving the hotel, the first thing I noticed was the humidity, even in September. The monsoon was supposedly running a little late this year according to the concierge. Then from there, in the daytime the infrastructure was in much worse condition than I had thought and the roads were crowded. Now, they were not just crowded because there were a lot of vehicles on them. They were crowded because there were no lanes in the road and everyone squeezes as close to possible and around you at the signals. It did not matter whether you have an oxen-drawn cart, a bicycle, rickshaw (ricksha), car, truck or bus. Everyone just crowded together and ended up existing it pretty good harmony. In Los Angeles, this would have been an all out war with profanities and middle fingers extended upward everywhere you looked.

The next thing I noticed was the extent of the poverty in Bombay (Mumbai). Just as we left the area by the hotel and headed into the city, the landscape quickly changed. I saw what I considered to be miles and miles of lean-to shacks and housing with thousands (millions?) of people living out of them. The walls were broken down and made of cardboard, corrugated metal, and other material strewn together, but they stretched out over a long way. Crowds were also all along the streets and in the little communities. I had seen poverty like this, in fact relatively often in Mexico during several trips – but the sheer volume here is something I had not seen before. It was impacting.

We made our way through the city and into an upper scale area along the Bay of Bengal where we were able to see the water. There also happened to be a lengthy festival happening in the area at one of the local churches, with people buying candles and marching a couple of miles to complete their trek.

Next we ended up near the Gateway of India, a monument that commemorates the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay – back in 1911. It’s an impressive piece and we take a few pictures in front of it. What I immediately notice is that I am the only person in shorts – even though the weather is in the upper 80’s. Then we make our way across the street to the Taj President Hotel and enjoy a nice Indian lunch.

After driving around Mumbai for a little while longer, we begin to head to Poona (Pune), which is our destination for a few days. The drive is about 100 miles or so, and takes us through a lot of hills and mountains. Of course, we have to pass a McDonalds, I do not think any international trip is complete without seeing at least one. Then we run into a monsoonal rain and it rivals some of the thunderstorms I have encountered in Texas. The trip in all takes about 4 hours, mainly because the last 10 miles once we are off the highway is down a very crowded 2 lane road running through town. We spend about 2 hours in traffic, and that’s on a Sunday night. In Pune, the road and transportation infrastructure is much worse than Bombay. If one did not know better, you might think that Poona was a small town, rather than having a size and population greater than that of Chicago. In addition, we encountered an elephant in the middle of an intersection just before we arrived at our hotel, the Le Meridien Pune. We check in, relax for awhile and have a number of appetizers for dinner before getting to bed to prepare for our big day the next day.

It’s been one long day, and I am looking forward to spending a few days in Pune!