Monday, May 3, 2010

Discovering Delhi

My arrival in Delhi is first met with the news that the city was on high alert for a terrorist attack. Besides the money that I saved in doing so, I am glad to be staying in a non-'western' hotel. I'm at a small, moderately priced hotel in Guragon, a relatively new and affluent suburb of Delhi. It is one of the symbols of the Indian miracle that I have come to see. I'm told that this part of the city is impressive because it didn't exist a decade ago. I guess impressive is subjective. It is difficult to assess it's impressiveness without knowing the starting point, but it makes the expansion of Calgary's suburbs look good (the scenic intersection of 112 coulee road and highway 1a comes to mind). 

I am here for an INSEAD course about entrepreneurship and building businesses in India. Though I don't plan to build a business or work here in the future, a country that is home to 20% of the planet's population and the topic of countless publications is worthy of a visit. I came to understand what I read about and perhaps get some sense of what it means to world around me, wherever that is. The fact is that some of the stuff that I know about India, I learned from the Simpsons. 

Our journey begins with a field trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra. We take the train because that is, by far, the fastest and most reliable option. Doing so affords me an opportunity to see the crowded train platforms that I've previously only seen in pictures. The train is surprisingly civilized. Despite the crowds on the platform, our train car is filled only to the point at which every seat is filled. Perhaps I am in first class. I have no idea. I'm just following the leader.
Within a few hours, we arrive in Agra. It is so hot out that I would be overdressed if I were nude. Instead, I am wearing jeans and a black tshirt. Smooth move. I'm surprised to see that the Taj has more indian tourists that it does 'western' tourists. And, so, I feel a bit like I stick out. This feeling of oddness is muted by my classmate Duane. At 250 lbs on a muscular 6 foot 5 frame, he is a giant among the much leaner masses. And did I mention that he is black? He attracts so much attention that I feel like I'm part of a travelling circus. Everywhere we go, people are taking pictures of him, or trying to get in a picture with him in the background (picture strangers 'discretely' tiptoeing up behind him while their friend takes a picture). Every now and then, a bold one approaches and says something like 'Seattle Supersonics?' or 'Michael Jordan?'. 

The Taj itself is impressive, as it is meant to be. With all of the hype, I had somehow pictured it to be large and flashy. Instead it is a tasteful and…well…modest certainly isn't the word. But it is clear that the building of the Taj was about achieving perfection rather than achieving a mind blowing scale like Versailles. 

After a few hours, we head back to Delhi. This time by bus. Now I get to experience a 'different side' of indian transportation. The highway is in reasonable condition, but that doesn't make it fast or safe. It is stuffed with other buses, cows, cars, rickshaws, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, tractors and, occasionally, camels. This means a constant alternation between gas and brake, making the group move in unison like a crowd of Metallica fans. The addition of occasional high speed traffic barrelling at high speed down the wrong side of the road adds some more excitement to the ride. No room for sleeping at the wheel; this is no Sunday drive. I swear that there is a constant bead of sweat on the driver's forehead. If this is one of the 'better' highways here, thank goodness for the train system. 


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