Hi there, thanks for stopping by!! I have been thinking a bit about what made me the person I am today. It was certainly not a life designed or planned, at least not by me. With so many twists and turns in this journey, sliding door moments, seemingly small decisions that can have a huge impact on on a life’s journey. So many experiences and people we met by chance, and all those people we didn’t meet and experiences we haven’t yet had. It’s a complex path, exactly as it should be, every life is unique and no people are exactly the same – and with 7,000,000,000 odd people on Starship Earth that’s really saying something. Which people and events had the biggest impact on me? Of course like for most of us, my parents in the formative years, setting core values and laying the foundation of the person we are. But that’s only part of it, learning many of life lessons begins in adulthood through experience, and our development in that area never really stops, even if we think it does.
I think our biggest lessons come, mostly unexpectedly and sometimes not obvious at the time, outside of our comfort zones, way outside……certainly they have for me. I am like everyone else in this respect – even the white knuckle, thrill seeking, bear wrestling, sky diving adrenaline junkies have a comfort zone. In thinking about this post I wanted to relay a story about a couple of trips to the Indian Sub-Continent, separated by almost 15 years and also separated by careers – the first in service and the second in sales. This post would be too long to relay both stories, so I will split this topic into 2 posts and hopefully, depending on staring at my blank screen status, close together……. As is becoming a common theme in some of my posts, crap and a bathroom play a bit part in this one….
On with the show……a little back ground first to set the stage. I am around 24 years old, I have been in service for about a year, the company car and credit card still quite the novelty to me and I feel like I have proverbially arrived. I have always been the one to look for the next rung of my imaginary ladder, and this was my ladder scaling peak. Not content with driving round the green and pleasant English countryside I had my eye further afield. Of course overseas trips were scheduled by the Service Manager and typically the realm of older, more experienced engineers. It was seen largely as a perk and conducted by only few individuals from a team of close to 15. But I pestered and had a summer of driving round Europe visiting customers under my belt, a challenge on the opposite side of the road, and nothing but a road Atlas for support, a smattering of hairy moments but no major catastrophe’s. This was saying something as in those days, no laptops and no cell phones. I had an ego boosting car phone……a curly cable Motorola with a car battery and trunk mounted transceiver, weighing every bit of 8lbs, but marketed as portable – but even that cutting edge technology didn’t work outside the UK. It was also challenged in the UK and at $8 a minute, billed by the second, and carefully managed and monitored, not for chit chatty small talk use….
A service job, commissioning some equipment came in for India, not exactly a prime destination and one totally ignored by the senior guys. I had been in full blown nagging mode with the Service Supervisor for an exotic destination – with no one else to go I was summoned to the bosses office. “Want to go to India?” – of course my initial reaction was “Hell No” but I realized in that moment “be careful what you wish for” was a true and valid statement…..”To do what” I replied mustering confidence beyond my years. He had no clue of what service entailed and had never visited a customer much less fixed or installed anything. “It’s easy…..” his usual stock reply, “it’s just a plug and play install”. Nothing industrial was ever plug and play…..I learned that many times over, the hardest way, and his glib words did nothing for me. Realizing that this was a concrete “put your money where your mouth is” moment, putting my misgivings to one side, I agreed to go……
Now these trips to India were relatively infrequent, it wasn’t a big market for my company and we didn’t really have any local distribution in place. The last trip that anyone from service had made was years before…. I had every kind of tribal horror story relayed to me by the senior guys, laughing at my naivety – “ah shit” I thought to myself….. So the Service Manager, despite his lack of job knowledge, was also a stereotypical micro manager, he made all the overseas travel arrangements personally. I was to go the following Wednesday, flying to Mumbai and onto Ahmedabad – my trepidation built steadily throughout the week and weekend. So the fateful day arrived, I drove the 3 hours to Heathrow, parked and made my way into the international terminal, flying Indian Airlines. My flight was around noon and I was there at 9am…..3 hours before, good time – but I knew this was going to be the easiest part of the trip. I try to check in, my shiny red United Kingdom Passport clutched in my fist. The lady flicked through the passport – “Visa” she commanded…… ”Huh?” my carefully considered intellectual response. “You don’t have a visa….?” “Do I need one?” – they wouldn’t let me check in or board obviously.
I called the Service Manager, I confess just a tad relieved, from a payphone in the check in area……relaying my desk conversation with the nice lady from India Airlines…..”That’s bloody ridiculous!!…….India is basically part of Britain…” I rolled my eyes…..”Can you try another desk?” “I can try whatever you want and it isn’t going to help, India has been independent for ages and my lack of visa isn’t going to change that one iota…..I thought to myself……a schoolboy smile on my face. I headed back to my car…….my relief and schoolboy grin were equally short lived. The trip is rescheduled for the following Monday, with one change, I now have to drive to Knightsbridge in London, to the Indian Embassy to get my visa. I have an appointment at 9 am and my flight is again at noon, from Heathrow. Now I hadn’t driven a lot in London at all, Heathrow is on the outskirts – central London is another 20 miles approximately. I thought this was probably doable, but knew I should get there early – I drove in leaving home at 4am, found a parking place at 7am. Around 7.30am a queue started to form, I joined it around 8am, thinking I have the first appointment at 9am, no worries…….WRONG!!!! Everyone in the queue had a 9am appointment……”Ah shit” again……
I called the Service Manager at 11am as I am leaving Knightsbridge with my visa…..”are you boarding?” he enquired – “errr no…..not exactly”….my schoolboy grin apparent again. I explain the Embassy situation. I have a 45 minute drive to the airport, then park, then get to check in – and I have to be there an hour ago. My company car was ok, I liked it, but it was no time machine…..”Try your best……hurry up”
Of course I didn’t leave, it was impossible, I stopped at a motorway rest area and called him back. He was absolutely furious……my schoolboy grin thankfully hidden by my curly cabled Motorola brick phone. Third time lucky or unlucky perhaps……I checked in and boarded and now on-route to Mumbai…..there had been one notable change in the week waiting for the trip, I now had to fly onto to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia for a repair, they are close together he assured me with his typical lack of intellect or subject matter knowledge. The flight itself was pretty uneventful – I landed in Mumbai at midnight local time and had a 4am flight onto my final destination. 4 hours to get some food, use the bathroom, have a beer etc. I had business class tickets for this next leg and I imagined how nice it would be in the Indian Airlines business lounge. Landing and immigration was fine, my nice visa worked perfectly and only 3 hours to kill. I collected my suitcase and looked around for flight information, the flight information screens only displayed international flights. Looking around for inspiration I see a ton of pretty signs for Diwali, which I later learned was the weekend coming up and pertinently the biggest festival in Hindu, something akin to Christmas for Christians. Now apparently Diwali is huge holiday with everyone travelling to be with families, with a huge population that means a lot of families and a boat load of travelers.
I digress slightly, still clue as to where my flight is, I see an information desk with a queue of perhaps 10 people waiting for the beleaguered agent at 1am. I join the queue, we British invented queuing and we do in a polite manner…..after 10 minutes or so the queue is significantly longer and I now have like 20 people in front of me. WTF I am going backwards and I have a flight to catch. My stress level is climbing considerably, so I throw my British manners to the wind and nonchalantly step out of the queue and try to inconspicuously wander to the front. Picking my moment between confused travelers, I deftly step back into the queue and right to the agent. I show my ticket – I don’t have a boarding card for some reason but whatever can’t be that serious – can it? The nice beleaguered agent tells me I have to go to the domestic airport, terminal I correct him, no airport – it’s a separate airport – get a taxi – quickly….his ever so helpful advice. “Ah shit” again…….
I leave the relative safety of the airport and step outside, everywhere there are warning signs about not taking unlicensed cabs……yeah yeah whatever who would be so stupid to do that. Yes, apparently I was that stupid, outside its hot as Hades, I am sweating profusely, not helped by my rapidly increasing blood pressure. There are literally thousands of people milling around, thousands upon thousands……..a Diwali sized throng of traveling humanity. There appears to be no migration in any particular direction……so no clues there. I look confused, I am confused – I am a confused Englishman at 1am in Mumbai India, and I am in danger of missing my flight. A little Indian guy tries to take my suitcase, it doesn’t have wheels and with a 10 day trip ahead, and hand carried spare parts, its heavy. “Taxi” he asks – “YES” my relieved reply. He takes the case and sets off walking at a brisk rate…….the case must be as heavy as him but I struggle to keep up through the dense crowd. We duck under a barrier and into a parking lot, arriving at his “car” – it certainly isn’t a Limo, a wire coat hanger acting as radio aerial……It also only has front seats, well one bench seat…..the back seats are completely missing and my case ends up back there.
I show my ticket and he sets off…. the front seat rocks back as he accelerates – it doesn’t seem to be fixed down at all……breaking elicited the exact opposite reaction – I almost head-butt the dashboard more than once. I pass the time by trying to predict acceleration/deceleration and mitigate the lurching bench seat by shifting body weight, it mostly doesn’t make any difference. In India it seems the car horn suffices as the turn signal, brake light and generally chastising people for honking and is an integral part of driving, at least in Mumbai. We travel for maybe 10 minutes, and we are on small roads with lots of turns…….my spider sense tells me something isn’t right…..I show him my ticket again and he nods enthusiastically again……We go down a street in a clearly residential area and he stops and hoots the horn. Some guys step out of a café next to us and two come to my side of the car…..”Give me money” my driver says…..I show him my ticket again…..”airport” I demand…..trying to sound assertive……”Money now”. He reaches into his door pocket and produces some kind of knife in a sheath……I don’t want to examine it further. I see the signs for “don’t use unlicensed taxis” burned into my mind – ah shit…..this situation has the potential to go very South very quickly….I always travel with dollars and typically travel with money in separate pockets and in my bag. I take out a bundle of $5 bills and a $20, around $50 in total from my pocket, part of the hard won $100 cash advance I took for the trip. I hand over the bundle, and say “airport” I have no desire to be dropped here or murdered, both seem equally bad for me. The driver waves my former cash at the people and takes off again, pitching me backwards now $50 lighter.
We arrive at the airport, I can see the terminal in the distance down the approach road…..he stops…..and steps out of the “car” and retrieves my case…..obviously he is not going to drive up to the terminal, where there are police, after effectively mugging me. I take the case and walk towards the terminal, heavy ass case I complain to myself, “why the hell am here” is the simultaneous partnering thought. Hot as hell, tired and the first rumblings in my stomach of a need to for a bathroom at some point, I carry my case into the airport. By now the morning travelers had started to arrive, and I still had the issue of a ticket and no boarding card. I find the check in desk, for a number of flights together it seemed, and of course, the Indian version of a queue snaked back outside the terminal. It’s around 90 minutes to my flight and there is still no way I can adopt the British version of queuing. Employing my former tactic I walk up parallel to the queue figuring my best approach…..I spot my target….an old Indian gentleman with tons of luggage and a walking stick. I know, I am not proud of myself…but needs must sometimes. I wait till he gets called forward and while he fumbles with his luggage I step up to the counter. Some loud excited chattering behind me, I don’t look back acutely embarrassed of my baehavior. The agent processes me and I check my bag, and then make my way through security to my imagined utopia of the business class lounge…..except there isn’t one….there is a desk…at the desk I get a complimentary newspaper and a voucher for a tea or coffee.
The gate area is chaos, like everything else I had so far experienced in India, no seats free and a thronging horde of people. I look around a see a European man sitting cross legged against a pillar, I wander over. Turns out the man is an Australian, been backpacking in India for 18 months and selling aboriginal style paintings on his way to fund it. He is super chilled and relaxed, totally unfazed, whether chemically induced or not he was super calm. I told him my 2 hours of experience in India and he just smiled knowingly…..apparently nothing too unusual. We chatted for 15 minutes or so, an interesting person and one that you would never normally meet except in an airport in India, sitting cross legged on the floor watching cockroaches going about their 6 legged business. He gave me a bottle of water and a photograph, of one of his works that he sold recently and wished me peace…..
I boarded my plane with much relief and settled into my business class window seat, free non-alcoholic beverages included…. Thankfully no drama on the flight, though towards the end my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t used a bathroom since Heathrow some 16 hours earlier. Not yet urgent I resolved to make it the first order of business when I landed.
Arriving in Ahmedabad it was actually pretty peaceful compared to Mumbai, everything was straightforward….however my stomach is now complaining and I really need to find a bathroom. With much relief I spot a rest room sign, entering the men’s I see a number of stalls with curtains, I don’t care I need to go. Pulling a curtain back expecting to see a conventional toilet, I was very sadly mistaken. It seemed to be a cross between a shower and a lap dancing stage with a dirty hole in the floor. There were two raised foot shaped things in front of the hole and pole in front of them. I realized what I had to do, step on the foot things, drop my pants but not too far, squat and grasp the pole and hope my percolated poop goes down the hole and not down the back of my legs and pants. The raised feet things were to keep your feet dry when you “flushed”. “Ah shit” Nope – I am not even attempting it…..my stomach complained, I thought I would go when arrive at the customers no problem. After retrieving my heavy ass non wheeled suitcase and walking to the meeting point I find my contact, with a huge cheesy grin, holding up a board with my name.
The company car for company visitors was a Russian Lada, and not a new one….pretty basic but complete with back seats and bolted down. The factory I was visiting was outside the city and we drove through some rural areas, plenty of potholes (almost as many as Michigan) add to that the fact the suspension wasn’t great, and my stomach was complaining loudly, I needed a bathroom badly. The drive took around 90 minutes, and aside from my stomach cramps and imminent danger of an accident was ok. Arriving at the factory all the senior managers were assembled out the front, to welcome me. I was introduced to the Factory Manager, a portly fellow, short but all dressed in Khakis and white socks, carrying a 3ft long pointy stick under his right arm. It reminded of a turn of the century English Raj landowner, made me smile. I greeted each of the amassed managers in turn, shaking hands…all the time wishing I had used the hole in the shower thing. Finally done with greetings the factory manager takes me to his office…..all wood furniture and pictures of elephants on the wall.
I literally can’t wait any longer “do you have a bathroom please?” I blurt, of course his perfect English reply “you can use my private bathroom”, at this point I don’t care, I would crap in a paper bag if I had to. He leads me to a door in the side of his office and I step in. Heaven!! A huge bathroom, not finished with bare bricks over tiles – but a complete Avocado Green bathroom suite with a sit down toilet. I lock the door and the world falls out of my bottom, I take my time…..look around….it’s an ok bathroom, only unusual thing was a brass tap (faucet) in the corner with a grimy jug under it. I figured it was something to do with the cleaners or whatever. So I finish my business and stand up arranging myself, after 20 hours or so of travelling I was a little worse for wear. I thought I might wash up a little. I go to flush the toilet, the handle has no resistance, I try again and again – nothing completely dry. I look behind the thing and realize it’s not connected to the water at all. Ah Shit…….I try the wash basin, the same…….then it dawns on me – the grimy jug in the corner….I use 10 minutes with backwards and forwards between the brass tap and the toilet to clear up after myself, I emerged shaken but hugely relieved.
The Factory Manager takes me downstairs to show me the systems I am to commission. We walk outside, there are uniformed security people on every door, they come to attention and salute as he approaches. Finally, we reach a building and I see our two systems. They are in line, with a hundred jars of hot Indian Chutney going through every minute and they look old. One of them is powered up in the Engineers menu and the other is blank. I ask when they were installed, “2 years ago, they never worked” his reply…..I hear my Service Managers comment of “plug and play”….”my ass” I think to myself. I am introduced to the engineer, a young lady, no English at all….but a fast learner…..we manage using the international language of engineers with a smattering of hand gestures, drawings and smiley faces. Sure enough the systems were 2 years old, one of them hadn’t been closed properly and a family of crawly insects had set up home in the control box. I got both systems set up, and trained the factory staff, the second day they organized a traditional Indian meal for me outside on the grass, the food all cooked by employees….apart from being hot and humid the food was delicious. The third day was my travel back to Mumbai, and the day before Diwali formally started…..The factory manager gave me a Diwali gift, a large gift wrapped box of all kinds of dry fruits and nuts, I packed it in my suitcase….the factory gathered out the front to wave me goodbye, quite touching.
Apart from the 90 minute drive taking almost 5 hours thanks to Diwali traffic it went without incident I checked in and boarded my full plane back to Mumbai. Despite the fact that the Ahmedabad trip went really well my anxiety around going back to Mumbai was growing. I was staying at the Intercontinental Mumbai airport for 2 nights then flying to Saudi Arabia. That gave me a day to myself – but I had to actually get there first. The passenger next to me asked where I was from and we struck up a conversation. He was a doctor returning to Mumbai for the holidays, I relayed the story of my outbound trip to him……he shook his head and we agreed it wasn’t good for India. He told me that he had a car booked at the airport and would I like a ride to my hotel. Wow, would I? I thanked him and very gratefully accepted, turned out the hotel was way out of his way and I offered him some cash – he declined and asked me not to judge India purely from my initial experience.
I was taken aback by the daytime sights and sounds of Mumbai, people living on the street with nothing and skyscrapers towering above them, all kinds of vehicles some motorized and some cannibalized being pulled by livestock. So busy with so many people many of whom no doubt lured from the rural areas to seek fortune. Such a striking imbalance between rich and poor, it was humbling to say the least…..My hotel was amazing, bell boys and every modern convenience you can imagine, fully plumbed in sit down toilet even. All well hidden from the rest of Mumbai by security guards and a 12ft wall topped with cemented broken glass. It was opulent and safe and I had a sense of relief of course, but tainted by the reality I had briefly seen outside. Remembering the taxi incident of a few days before, I understood what $50 might mean to some of these people.
I left the hotel by shuttle bus to the international airport for my flight to Saudi Arabia….we got stuck in traffic a little and the now familiar sights and sounds of Mumbai. I opened my sliding window, and looked at the sights around me……we stopped at traffic lights and an old lady with a metal cup thrust her hands through the window. She had no fingers on either hand…..only palms and a thumb…..I slid over on my seat shaking my head. The driver said something and reached over and closed the window. I asked him if she had leprosy or something……he explained that people will remove fingers and even cripple their children by binding their feet…to become more effective beggars. Like it was a career choice…….
I departed on an Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai to Jeddah, the plane was a 747 and it seemed I was the only European on the flight, I didn’t have the anxiety like I did before India, but still had no idea what to expect. It turns out much of the immigrant labor in Saudi Arabia is from the Indian region, and as we collected our luggage before customs I noticed an abundance of taped and roped cardboard boxes being used as luggage. My heavy ass suitcase looked pretty modern by comparison. There were perhaps 20 customs officers at inspection stations and screening was mandatory, I noticed they all had box cutters, and were shredding my fellow travelers “luggage” without much care. I had a suitcase half full of electronic components and hand tools – I sighed. My inspector opened my case – confiscated my Diwali gift and an almost full bottle of cologne, no alcohol allowed. My magazine was also a casualty – in case it contained inappropriate images, given it was the Harvard Business Review I doubted it…Now allowed to continue to immigration I supposed….we were told to have our passports up in our right hand as we queued down a corridor. I could see people being led from the front of the queue 3 or 4 at a time into a side room, as I got closer they were remerging and finishing getting dressed further down the corridor. Ah shit again….
I made my mind up that if it involved a strip search and anything to do with rubber gloves I was going to turn around and leave. I don’t know what it consisted of as when they saw my red United Kingdom passport in a sea of green Indian ones – I was pulled out of line and ushered to the exit. The only time being a British Subject did tangible anything for me…..Saudi was great and it proved to be the first of many trips there to Riyadh and Dhahran. I returned home at the end of the 10 days, a little shell shocked, a lot relieved and a different person. I remember going out with my friends for a beer at the weekend and trying to tell them what I had seen….I am sure it didn’t register with them, but it did to me. I completed my trip report, including the mugging incident, received a great thank you letter from the Factory Manager in Ahmedabad, and submitted my expenses. A couple of weeks later a phone call from my Service Manager, expecting a pat on the back……“your expenses” he said……”yes” I replied…….”you didn’t submit a receipt for the first taxi between airports and $50 seems expensive……” I can’t reimburse you…….”Of course you can’t…” I replied, then mentally adding “asshole” to the version in my mind.
This trip was one of my earliest and perhaps one of the most challenging, although most trips even to this day contain some element of challenge…..I have grown through each and every adventure but I still never take it for granted…..so what lessons did I learn from this one?
- If you can avoid it don’t let other people arrange your travel
- Don’t use unlicensed taxis
- There is always someone worse off than you……not being able to afford the latest and greatest is definitely not poverty
- You meet the most interesting people in airports
- Random acts of kindness can mean so much
- Take the opportunity to use the bathroom when you can
- Don’t take magazines or cologne to Saudi Arabia
Part 2 of this lessons post concerns a sales trip some 15 years later to war torn Sri Lanka, 6 months after the giant Tsunami decimated the coast line, and my sales call with the Tamil Tigers. I truly hope you enjoyed this post and look for future ones.
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