Friday, July 11, 2008

Elephants, Monkeys and CEOs

Wednesday morning I was wise to the rumble tumble dehydrated onion omelet situation. I asked only for fruit. Bold from the previous breakfast, which did not make me sick, I even drank the whole glass of fruit juice they provided.

After breakfast, I went back up to my room and used the magic key that I had become the master of to unlock the door.

It felt good to understand that to close the door behind me, I just had to turn the big knob on the deadbolt to the right. Stay away from that good-for-nothing little knob. It does nothing but mess you up.

Once inside, I tried calling my Pearson contact at the office to see if he could help with my computer connection. The phones are confusing because the tones don’t make any sense. The dial tone is a high-pitched buzz that sounds like feedback. Then when you hit “9” to get an outside line, it sounds like the phone is ringing. It’s not, though. That’s just another, different dial tone. Then sometimes in the middle of entering the numbers, a blipping sound like a heart monitor starts—then a sound like someone having a heart attack. Then sometimes there’s a woman’s voice with an Indian accent saying “Check the code. That code does not exist.” Then sometimes there’s soothing music and another Indian woman speaking English telling you you’ve screwed up again. “The number you have dialed could not be found. Please check the number.” Cue soaring violins.

Then you dial the exact same number the exact same way a second time, and the call goes through.

Phone numbers here are confusing as well. They seem to have no set number of digits. They are just strings of numbers with no separations or groupings. My driver’s number is 9810873876. Ten digits. But then I got a message from Meeraj at the help desk and the number they gave me to call back (which still hasn’t worked) was eight digits long. My phone number at the hotel is eight digits long. My friend from Pearson’s number is ten digits. No comprendo.

I didn’t think I was so wedded to consistency, but I’m really seeing its merits and feeling a need to deal with its loss. Everything around here seems to work, but only sometimes.

In this fashion, the third time I dialed Amar’s number, the call went through and I got his voicemail. I left a message, but also tried his cell. He answered right away.

“Amar! This is Vicki with the New Directions program!” I hoped I didn’t sound too overeager. I hoped my introduction wouldn’t be greeted with a “Who? From what? I don’t need any new directions. Thanks.”

But Amar came through. “Vicki! You’re in Delhi? You made it!”

I explained to him what was happening, and he told me I could come in; they’d help me with my connection. He asked if I’d like to stay for lunch. I said sure.

After three more attempts at the phone system, I got my driver on the phone. “Sonu, can you take me to my office today?”

“Yes ma’am. One half hour.”

One hour later, Sonu was downstairs and we were off. I gave him the address: 482 FIE Patparganj. He said, “No problem.”

We were off, and Sonu would intermittently comment on buildings and landmarks we’d pass. “India Gate,” he said when we came to the scaled down arc de triumph. “Raj Path,” he nodded to the wide avenue between the arch and the Indian government buildings.

At one point, traffic came to a full stop. There were three lanes of traffic painted onto the street and I counted twelve rows of busses, cars, motorcycles and auto-rickshaws stuffed into them.

The beggars and street vendors took full advantage of the traffic jamb, tapping on windows to ask for money and parading their merchandise through the few inches left between vehicles. I had my choice of coconut wedges, towels, steering wheel covers, or glow-in-the-dark stars to stick on my ceiling. I took a pass and instead watched the construction workers in collared shirts working on huge pillars for a raised highway that is yet to exist. I guess these are the signs of an emerging market: metros and highways springing up to support the commerce that will traffic on them.

As the jamb let up and we began to move again, I glanced off the side of the highway and saw an elephant. Yes, an elephant. It was surrounded by people who looked to be “using” it—putting cloths on its back or something. But as soon as this sight was there, it was gone and we were in another smash of rickshaws, busses and trucks with gates reminding us, “Horn Please.” Such unnecessary reminders.

I was waiting to see the section of town with the big glass office buildings, but instead we seemed to be driving into an increasingly messy series of stalls, stands and shacks. Sonu pulled the car over to some bicycle rickshaw drivers who were lounging in their seats. “One minute,” he said as he sprang out of the car for the first of about five times to ask for directions.

We made u-turns. We drove off-road past heaps of junk where stray dogs were rummaging for food. A man peed on the side of the road. I assumed we were very far away from Pearson.
The thing is, we weren’t. We were getting very close: a few more turns and over a bridge, then past what Amar told me later were factories but looked to me like run-down two and three story apartment buildings. Not more than three blocks from the office, I spotted a monkey perched on top of a wall. The streets were busted up and littered with trash and green stews of waste and monsoon rain.

Then, in the midst of all this, Sonu pulled over and nodded to me, “Pearson.” I looked up and saw the only glass building in sight, trimmed in happy, clean Pearson yellow and blue.

I had to spell my name for the guard in the glass box at the front of the building. When he was done writing, I saw something resembling “Hbicki Kejawjsig” in his notebook. Close enough, I figured. He gave me a visitor’s badge and a slip of paper I’d have to bring back to him with Amar’s signature on it. “Sign,” he said, pointing to the part of the form I needed to get filled in.

Up a flight of stairs, the front lobby had wide glass doors with silver handles and a prominent arched desk of light wood with a large silver sign behind it: “Pearson Education.” A woman in a bright blue sari and bindi greeted me. I told her I was looking for Amar.

“Amarjyoti, yes,” she said and called him. “Can you wait two minutes? Have a seat.”

The lobby was cool and lined with Pearson Education, India books. The only way you could tell the office was in India was by looking at the people inhabiting it or glancing out the front windows.

I met Amar who took me to his office and asked if I wanted some coffee or water. I said coffee sounded great. He got on the phone and ordered it up. “I bet you don’t order coffee in your office,” he beamed. “This is something of our culture here. We have someone to bring us coffee.”

I thought of the coffee shop across the street from work where I went everyday to get fresh roasted, fresh brewed, French roasts. What arrived was a blue mug full of something that tasted like that powdered French Vanilla drink you get at gas stations. “No, we certainly don’t have anyone to bring us coffee. We have to go get it ourselves,” I said, perhaps smiling a bit too hard.

We sipped our drinks and he leaned back, “So what’s going on with your computer?” I explained my woes, and he called an IT employee to help. I didn’t catch his name, but he hopped on my computer and flew through a dozen different windows and settings. I was online in a few minutes.

Amar asked what I was doing with my days off to explore Delhi before I start the work assignment. I said I went to some markets to get supplies I needed like electrical adapters and such.

“Do you want to go to markets where you can bargain? These are where my wife can spend forever.” He said the market names but I couldn’t quite make them out. I asked him to write them down in my notebook and he happily obliged. There were other places I could go, too. Had I seen the Akshardham Temple? It was on my way home from work. A good place to stop for the afternoon.

Just then, Srinivas the publishing manager popped into the office to say hello. The CEO wanted to meet me. He ushered me upstairs to a spacious office with its own small reception area. Inside was Vivek Govil, President and CEO of Pearson Education, India. Vivek was totally amiable and welcoming. In more than just job title, he resembled Doug Kubach with a dark complexion—same haircut and clothing style. He wanted to know a little bit more about what I do in Iowa, and he requested an hour of my time so I could “explain the assessment business to him” next week.

I swallowed a feeling of total inadequacy and assured myself that I could do what he was asking of me.

“Our assessment business is just beginning to grow, and I know you have an established business in the US, so I’m hoping to gather some information about that. I had a little time with your CEO but not enough to understand.”

“I’d be glad to help,” I gulped, recognizing one of the reasons I’d been chosen for this appointment and hoping I could be as helpful as they wanted.

When I got done speaking with Srinivas and Vivek, I ate lunch with Amar at his desk, newspapers spread out under us to keep from making a mess of the soupy curries. Then he took me around and introduced me to the development editors and a few other groups. Soma and Preeta and Angshuman. Arun and Sumita and Vishal. Names I will certainly need reminders of when I return next week Monday to begin.

I thanked Amar for the lunch and said I’d see him on Monday. “Eight o’clock?” I confirmed.

“Oh no!” he almost gasped. “Nine, nine thirty. Today I got here at nine forty five. What is better for you? Nine or nine thirty?” Judging how the ride had gone that morning, I told him the later option was probably best. I’ll be getting into work around 9:30 and knocking off around six.

Amar walked me out front to make sure my driver had waited for me. He motioned for me to watch my step, at one point indicating what appeared to be a giant heap of vomit inches away from my sandal.

“This isn’t the nicest place,” he apologized. “We are the only decent building here. The rest of these are factories. You can’t tell because there aren’t any signs. But it’s all industrial here. There’s nowhere to go out to lunch. We want to move our office.”

I thanked him again for lunch and the help with my computer and said I was looking forward to Monday. I have a lot to learn about the editing and publishing process and am so happy that I have this wild opportunity to take it all in.

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