Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mustaches, Unibrows and Bobble Heads

There was quite a cultural shock when we hit the tarmac in Chennai, India. First, the heat, then all the Indians staring at us white people. There are just so many cultural differences between us that it took everyone awhile to adapt.
On arrival, we were greeted by the 1.22 billion people of India. All the women were wearing their saris and the men sported their bushy, large mustaches. I saw a teenager with a unibrow that would put James Davis’ to shame and a 12 year old with a full mustache. I actually envied the mustache as some of the members on our team decided to grow one for the week. It also seemed to keep the sweat out of their mouth in the hot monsoon season days. But no matter what anyone on the team did, whether it was grow the stache or wear the clothes, we were constantly being stared at and fingers were always pointed at our bus. People would stop us just to get a picture with them wherever we went.
Everyone pampered us with extreme hospitability as the caste system showed itself wherever we went. There was someone at every door ready to open it for us. There was someone at every buffet table asking what we wanted on our plates. There was even a job for the guy giving us water bottles on the bus. Jobs are generously handed out to family members and relatives no matter how small and insignificant. However, the caste system often determined your occupation. Our doorman would never have been able to eat dinner with us and our luggage carriers would culturally not allowed to join us on our daily excursions like our guide for the week, Sundari. She was obviously Brahman as she would often order people around and get us very nice accommodations wherever we went. She was extremely helpful though when some of us got sick or needed something in particular.

The infrastructure in India is just aweful, which does not complement their quickly growing economy very well. Five star hotels and billion dollar corporations were built right up against the slums. The streets were full of motorcycles, rickshaws, big trucks,  buses full of people and the occasional donkey wagon or cow in the middle of the road. They were all honking their horns as well to let other drivers know where they were on the wild streets. Our rickshaw ride of 40 people through the city was quite an experience, sometimes a near death experience on several occasions. Don't even get me started on crossing these crazy roads with a group of 40 people. Somehow we all survived India though.
There was one distinct thing that everyone in India did which really made us laugh at first. When talking to an Indian, they will mostly nod their head sideways and sometimes in a figure eight to show acknowledgement. They honestly looked like bobble heads whenever they performed this odd behavior. To an American, it would seem like some kind of attitude in response to the one who is talking, almost like rolling the eyes. I often wanted to hold their head still while trying to talk to them since it was very distracting.
The food was also very different. The curry was manageable for us, but it was definitely adapted for our American taste buds at the hotel where we ate. Each different dish was colorful and unique, yet it still tasted good with the other dishes. Mixing things on your plate made things taste better and nothing ever clashed at all. Generally there was naan bread that you used with your right hand to scoop up the rice and sauces as well. For desert they usually had sugar balls. They looked like little munchkin donuts that were floating in hot sugar water. But with vanilla ice cream, these little donut balls were incredible. 
We spent the majority of our stay in Chennai, India, for classes at the National Management School. It was about an hour drive there in the morning, if we didn't get stuck in traffic or if the bus was working that day. We had class all day, stopping for tea in the mid morning and mid afternoon, then got back to our hotel to study just before dinner. After that dreadful class, we headed out to New Dehli and stayed at a nicer hotel to enjoy the sites and sit back until our next class.
Throughout the week we saw the camels and elephants and monkeys, straight from Aladdin. We also made it to several old monuments and mausoleums including the Taj Mahal. I had gotten sick the night before we were supposed to take the 6 hours drive all the way to the Taj. Thankfully, I broke my fever and got a good nights sleep and felt well enough to face the day. The Taj was just incredible… The entire facility there was completely symmetrical all except for one thing inside, the tomb of the king. The Taj was originally built for just the queen and her tomb was placed in the center of the Taj Mahal. Later on, the king died and they stuck his tomb just adjacent to hers, ruining the symmetry. It was extremely hot at every monument we explored while all the Indians were anxious to get our pictures and the street vendors were shoving their way to sell us their trinkets.  

Overall, India was a neat experience. However, I don’t feel the need to ever return. Between the heat and the sickness and just my body reacting differently to the entire culture, it wasn’t very enjoyable. But, those that enjoyed the curry and change of scenery say that it was their favorite place!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cruisin' to England! London free days

What side of the street are we on?!
After The Netherlands, we took an overnight cruise ship to London! The boat rocked us to sleep as we ventured across the North Sea to our next location. In London, we were given a bus tour and two free days to experience it ourselves. We walked all around the city, which seemed more condensed than Paris. But it still tired us to walk everywhere we went while taking pictures of Big Ben or the London Eye. Westminster Abby along the river was also a major tourist attraction.
However, by this time most of us were exhausted of seeing the sites. It was all starting to blend in together with the other locations we had already seen. It was all brick and mortar to me and we just wanted to be able to relax a little. So, we got our fish and chips then went to see the Broadway production, Wicked. I will definitely have to give London another chance though. It was cold and rainy which discouraged us even more from walking the city. The farther we go along the program the more desensitized we are becoming to the artwork, the gold leaf, and the ancient structures. A change of scenery is definitely needed! India is next and it will take 11 total hours of travel to get there!

Pictures of our London adventures here

Pit stop in Brussels, a few days in Holland

On our way to The Hague, we made a stop in Brussels, Belgium, for a corporate visit to the European Union Parliament. It was amazing to see the actual EU Parliament and where all these current decisions are being made. We toured the forum room and were told that all the delegates were coming the next day to discuss the current situations. After that we ate lunch in town and, of course, enjoyed our chocolate and waffles. 

Then we continued on to The Hague where our European coach driver is from. We toured Amsterdam a little bit with its big old windmills and canals. The city is actually similar to Venice in that it is built next to all of these canals and waterways since a great portion of the land is reclaimed from the sea. You can even notice some buildings leaning different directions as their foundation is primarily in the water. We had a paper due at the end of the week here, so we didn’t get out very much, but we still got a bus and boat tour that week. We also took tours of the Diamond Exchange and DELFT, the blue hand painted china maker.
Next stop is a cruise ship overnight to London!

Pictures of Brussels and The Netherlands! 

Paris: City of Love

We left Switzerland to go to Paris, France, and I would have to say that this was my favorite place so far. The city is absolutely huge and you could easily spend a month there and still have things left to do. We had about a day and a half of free time to experience the whole city by ourselves. But first we took a corporate visit to the OECD where I was an “official delegate” for the day.

After that, we went straight to the palace of Versailles in our corporate dress up. The gates were coated in gold and the history behind it reflected in every room. Each ceiling was totally covered with mural scenes and chandeliers were hanging about. Statues and sculptures were throughout the hallways with gold overlays on all the crown molding. We went into Marie Antoinette’s bedroom and saw the famous painting of Louis XIV hanging on the wall. Despite the beauty of the palace, it was difficult to really take in the history and elegance of the rooms since we were tossed into the middle of about 500 Chinese tourists rushing from room to room with their video cameras or iPads that they were holding up into the air while taking pictures. It looked funny to see someone videoing the entire palace with a big iPad screen above their head, but this wasn’t uncommon for the rest of Paris as well. I was also mistaken a few times for working at the palace since I was in my corporate dress up; they were very surprised that I didn’t know where the bathrooms were or what the name of that painting was.
Our day off in Paris was just amazing. Against our own temptations to sleep in, we woke up early to start our self-guided tour at 8 am. First stop was the Sacre Coeur, a huge, white and gorgeous church overlooking the entire city. Personally, I would consider this to be even more beautiful than the Notre Dame. After that, we took the metro to the Louvre, the art museum that holds the Mona Lisa. The entire museum holds so much art that if one was to look at each piece for 2 minutes, it would take them 6 weeks total to see everything. We decided to just go see Mona and some other major pieces from the 4 floors and three different wings of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa was only about a foot tall, and again, a large group of Asian tourists swarming around it. My favorite part was seeing different pieces of art that I always saw in my history book in elementary school as well as the Code of Hammurabi.
After the Louvre, we stopped for lunch and continued on to Notre Dame, a large church in the middle of the city. It was gorgeous inside with its stained glass windows and a choir singing on the stage. The architecture was amazing with its intricate designs and portrayals on the outside. We wandered around the city from there, making our way to the Arc de Triomphe. But, we had to stop at the local Paris Lamborghini dealership first. The Arc was in the middle of a giant traffic circle where you would have to be mad to go around. Our bus driver took us around it 10 or 12 times on the coach the first night we were here. That was quite a scary experience! But he loved it.
For the end of the night, we finally made our way to the Eiffel Tower just in time for the sunset. We climbed 600 steps to just the second level which is probably only a third of the way up. After that we took an elevator to the very top! We could see the entire city on all sides from the top and it was a long way to the bottom. Everyone looked like ants walking around and waiting in line. We could see the EuroCup fan park packed with people and we could hear the cheers from Portugal and Spain fans during the end shootout. After the sun went down, the city lit up and the tour boats were flashing as people took pictures of the tower when they went by.
I will most likely come back to Paris someday. It was an amazing place to be, but couldn’t be experienced to its fullest in the 3 nights we were there.  

Pictures here!

Geneva, Switzerland and Mont Blanc

Things are starting to all blend together as I am trying to catch up on my blog. Buildings are starting to look the same and the gold paint is blending in with each new city we go to. Geneva, a very wealthy city, was no exception. We stayed at some sort of dormitory with one toilet and shower per floor of about 20 people. Not sure exactly how we figured out showers besides the threats and bartering about when we were going to wake up the next morning.

Fortunately, the views and scenery just keep getting better and better the deeper we get into the Alps. We took a few mountain excursions away from our awful hotel to get us out into the fresh air. We also made a stop at Nestle headquarters. Their corporate headquarters were right next to a lake town, which was full of sun the day we were there. Nestle was a very unique organization. The company is so large, you could eat three meals a day with snacks in between and not even know that everything you had was made by Nestle. They have an amazing corporate responsibility strategy as well. They actually invest money in their farms and 3rd world suppliers to provide fresh water and better farming techniques. This allows the farmers to prosper and Nestle is supplied with more higher quality products.
One day while staying in Geneva we took a day out to Mont Blanc, which is close by in France. At the base of the mountain is a small tourist town called Chamonix and we took a cable car all the way to the top of the mountain. The first cable stop was only about 1500 meters up and the view was amazing, but the next stop was 3800 meters! We weren’t exactly on the tip of Mont Blanc but you could see it just to the side of the observation deck once we took an elevator to the tip. Words cannot describe the feel of the air and the look of the scenery. Pictures don’t do it justice either, but it’s the best I’ve got.

I also ran out of space on Google Picasa web albums so here they are on facebook!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Austria: Innsbruck and Swarovski Crystal

This week IBI was in Innsbruck, Austria! We actually got to stay at an Olympic practice facility where athletes stayed and practiced before they go off to the Olympics. The stadium was right next to us and we even played ultimate frisbee and soccer on their turf fields! There was an Austrian team there while we were and I think we figured out that one of them was a three time gold winner for skiing. We never got a chance to talk to them though.

Innsbruck is just beautiful with the Alps mountains on all sides of us, some with snow still on the top. It was actually close to 90 degrees all week too! This is rare for Austria, our hotel didn't even have a/c! On Sunday, we made an excursion to a mountain lake. The water was really cold but that didn't keep us from jumping off the diving boards and water trampoline. The water was green and fairly pure as well. We played volleyball and wandered around for the remainder of the day until we went back to our hot hotel.

We had classes most of the week with a test on Monday and presentation throughout the week. On Wednesday, we visited Swarovski Crystal, the most popular manufacturer of crystals in the world. The company is still family owned and operated except on a very large scale now. The tour was great and we had the opportunity to experience the Crystal World exhibit (pictured left). Outside were some tents and other pieces of artwork scattered about. A fashion show practice run was taking place in a tent to the left also. The actual exhibit though starts just underneath the face with the waterfall. The entire thing was underground and featured many different crystal works and other forms of "art." Some of it was extremely odd but most was very creatively featured with lights and lasers bouncing off of large crystal sculptures. Then, at the end of the exhibit, we were dumped into the gift shop where every body had to buy something.

Austria was a beautiful country, but tomorrow we leave for Switzerland!


Monday, June 18, 2012

Dachau Concentration Camp

The gravel rows were once barracks that housed the prisoners
On our way to Austria, we stopped in Dachau, Germany. There is a major concentration camp located there that was considered top notch during the WWII era of holocaust and human destruction. It was very humbling to be there on a very hot, dry day with the sun beating down on us wherever we went which only let us imagine what everyday life would have been like in the concentration camp during that time.
They exhibited the crematorium, where the bodies of the dead were burned. The walls scattered with traces of bullet holes from mass executions were wrapped around the perimeter of the camp. There was even a room used specifically for gassing large amounts of people after they were told to walk in to get a shower. Killing was a common event on the camp and became a part of life for the prisoners. They rarely received food and were forced to starve until they were just skin and bones. There were a total of 200,000 prisoners that went through Dachau and 32,000 died there.
It was a very eye opening and humbling experience to see the affects of the Nazi regime.  Several monuments have been built at the camp now, including a church for remembrance and prayer. The camp is now a representation of the former German past. They recognize the things that happened and how horrific it really was, and now they remember those that have past and were affected by this tragedy.

Dachau Concentration Camp