As they say in India, “India is Great.”

India, February 2009

I’ve always wanted to travel to India.  I’m not sure why but perhaps it is their history which is so closely linked with that of South Africa.  We were both British Colonies.  We were both touched by the hand of the Mahatma.  And, particularly in my city of Durban, we’re both party to the food and culture of Indians.

I was invited to speak at the INDIASOFT 2009 conference by the ESC through their association with SmartXchange to which THUSA is a sponsor and partner organisation. ESC paid for the flight but because INDIASOFT was just the week before CeBIT, I had to arrange to fly from the host Kolkata direct to Germany.  This meant potentially forfeiting my dti sponsored flight to Germany for CeBIT so I requested my ticket be changed to allow Vulani lead developer, Colin Alston, to attend CeBIT as well.

At no extra cost, the Indian travel agent assigned to me booked me to fly into New Delhi a week before I was required in Kolkata.  The Indian capital of New Delhi and Vijay Prasad and his wife Ronita Das thus became my first official CouchSurfing experience; and what a way to start!

I landed in New Delhi via a tatty Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) and, as instructed by Ronita, caught a prepaid taxi to their apartment in Dwarka – a suburb alongside the new IGI Airport due for completion in time for the Commonwealth Games late next year.  I’m glad I was told about prepaid taxis because the Rs. 250 I paid was far less than the Rs. 1200 one of the standard cabbies offered.

Dwarka is large residential area, split into several sectors, with apartment block based housing projects going up in each sector and a metro rail station always nearby.  Dwarka is a product of the revitalised and rapidly developing new India and its inhabitants appear to me to be mostly of the rapidly growing new middle to upper middle-classes.

Ronita welcomed me to her home with a typical cup of “chai” (tea) in the traditional Indian style; aromatic, perhaps with some coconut in there – but not overwhelmingly spicy like the “Chai Tea” which one orders at facny schmancy places in South Africa.  Theirs is a humble little apartment with two bedrooms and a set of single beds in the spare/CouchSurfing room.  Ronita and Vijay have hosted many a CSer but have not yet themselves been hosted.  I very much hope to have that opportunity sometime in the future.

The day after I arrived, Sunday, a CS event had been arranged called a “Foodie Walk” which involved being led through old Delhi by well known New Delhi Intellectual and Travel Writer, Dr Ashish Chopra, and tasting the different styles and types of food on offer in this ancient part of the City.  More information and photos about this event are included in a previous post.

At the Foodie Walk, I met Shyam Singh, who would, the next day, be my second CS host in his and his brother’s house in the Corporate Part of New Delhi – Gurgaon (pronounced, as I eventually mastered, Gurr-goww).  Shyam is a call centre worker and works night shift at the plush “AmEx” (American Express) Customer Service centre in the larny part of Gurgaon, right next to the new and shiny Audi dealership.

It seems that call centre jobs are now very run of the mill and there is no longer much prestige attached – Shyam is biding his time and earning some money to travel as much of the world as he can before going back to his hometown in more rural India to take over the family restaurant and support his parents.  I’d like to visit him there someday and, yes, I’d love to host him in South Africa sometime.

One of the more “colourful” daily experiences in India is the normally normal task of getting from A to B, driving in a car or on a motorcycle.  But in India this experience is anything but normal; rather it is quite terrifying – a sustained lower ebb of terror, but terror nonetheless.  Saying there are no rules whatsoever might be a spot on the harsh side but certainly there is utter contempt for any rules. 

Traffic circles are traversed via the shortest route possible, overtaking is performed at random from any position, without indication and normally with only a few centimetres to spare, and driving between lanes is unusual – in fact there are signs on the highway which say, oddly, “LANE DRIVING IS SANE DRIVING”.  If you want to make money in India, I think designing a cheaper, longer lasting brake pad might make you rapidly one of the richest people alive.

Now my mother will certainly chastise me for this, but I did get out alive and thus will recount the story of the motorcycle ride that nearly scared me to death – let alone the more obvious proximity to the dark place.  One evening Shyam, another CS friend who shall remain nameless, and I went out for a drink.  Shyam was working that night so he left the two of us in the pub after a couple of drinks; I would be getting a lift home with the 3rd member of our party.  I was a spot worried that the other fellow might’ve had enough to drink so deferred when the next round was suggested, motioning instead for the bill and expressing and interest in bed.

We got up to go, and I could see from the sway and what I’d previously thought was just a very strong accent that my ride home might be a somewhat wobbly one, especially when I discovered we were to be travelling on his motorcycle as he’d recently had an oopsie with his car.  Splendid.  To add to the joy of the occasion, we weren’t quite sure how to get back.  What proceeded was quite possibly the longest single period of sustained terror I have ever experienced in my life.

My pilot proceed to smoke, talk excessively, and regularly turn his head to talk to me while driving Indian-style (read Kamikaze) on his Hero Honda all the while telling me the guest is god India and he would not let anything happen to me.  Thank goodness he told me that – it set all my fears aside and made me feel completely safe.  I think it took between 45 minutes and an hour to find home but it felt like a bloody week.

Driving in Kolkata was even more chaotic.  We bumped into other cars along the route but this was par for the course and nobody stopped to check damage or swap details – bumpers are there for a reason in India!  Give me cowboy-style South African driving anyday!

I have my life still.  I am blessed.  If there is a big bearded wise man played by Morgan Freeman living in the clouds, then praise be to him for keeping an eye out for me.

While in Delhi I got to watch Slumdog Millionaire and most of the Academy Awards Ceremony where it won a stunning 8 Oscars.  SDM is officially a British movie, but it was filmed in Mumbai with Indian actors, had an Indian co-Director, the music was written by Indian Composer Rahman, and many other key roles filled by Indians.  I think it is now in my personal top 10 movies.

This extract from the Slumdog Wikipedia article conveys perfectly both the relevance of the movie and the people it portrays: “Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote Slumdog Millionaire based on the Boeke Prize winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize nominated novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup.  To hone the script, Beaufoy made three research trips to India and interviewed street children, finding himself impressed with their attitudes.  The screenwriter said of his goal for the script: ‘I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy.'”

Kolkata, where INDIASOFT was hosted, is a beautiful old City which was the Indian Colonial helm until 1911 when it was moved to New Delhi.  Everyone I had met before going to Kolkata had spoken fondly of the people, the place and the food; I was not disappointed.  Kolkata, or as many Indians seem to prefer calling it “Calcutta”, is known as the City of Intellectuals and places like College Rd with all of its bookstores (hundreds and hundreds of them) and the Coffee House – hangout of Indian intellectuals for over 300 years – are certainly testament to this perception.  This City has a soul – I could feel it, but my two short days there, with INDIASOFT taking up the daylight hours, robbed me of a chance of finding out much more about that soul.  I am going back the very first chance I get.

India is country alive with people, diverse in religion and culture (1.2 billion of them), energy, colour and progress.  Progress is being made, warts and all; corruption reigns, important technical skills are scarce, but they are progressing rapidly as a developing power.  This charging Tiger, however, and somewhat unlike our own Tiger, is moving swiftly with grace and humility – fighting to retain its cultural ethics and values in the face of rapid advancement.  I like India.  I like its people and their spirit.  I want to spend more time there.

Germany, CeBIT, CouchSurfers, Banks, Mr H and Hameln

Germany, March 2009

Germany is cold, grey, efficient and to a certain, and perhaps understandable extent, lacking in soul.  Compared with South Africa and the India I have just come from – two countries alive with diversity, colour and energy – Germany does appear particularly drab and unexciting.

CeBIT in Hannover was the focus of my trip, and being the largest technology trade show in the world, it was somewhat overwhelming for a first time participant.  My focus was on manning my little stand and making sure I did not miss a single opportunity, and so I did not get much time to get around and see the other 20 something halls, each of them larger than the ICC in Durban.  Everyone who had been to CeBIT before said that this year’s event was much smaller and the number of people attending significantly lower – I can only imagine what a busy year must be like!

Upon landing in Germany, I withdrew the €1100 of the €1320 I needed to pay the rent for the two bedroom apartment I had booked for Colin and I to stay in near the fairground (Messe).  After that I was unable to draw anymore… ponderous.  Sure enough, Standard Bank phoned me a few moments later to tell me someone in Germany had drawn a large amount of money and I realised I had forgotten to notify them of my travel – an amateur error which I hope never to repeat, because it has taken me two weeks, no thanks whatsoever to German customer service, to get the issue resolved.  Deutsche bank flat refused to assist me each of the three times I went to them pleading for assistance in obtaining hard cash, the use of credit cards, it seems, is not a regular occurrence in Germany.

In the end, I paid a large restaurant bill with my Credit Card and pocketed the cash contributions from the rest of the diners.  A fist full of €uros I have.

The highlight of the trip is without a doubt meeting a few special Germans; some CouchSurfers (Florian, Doerte, Sebastien, Cornelius et al and Marc and Susanna) and a few of the people working for the South African Government in Germany (Marion and Marc).  If the initial perception is of a Germany lacking colour and soul, these very good people certainly put that perception on trial.  Now they all need to come and visit me in South Africa so I can share with them my pride and joy.

After the very metropolitan experience in Hannover, I decided that with y remaining 48 hours in Germany, I would head to a small country City called Hameln just West of Hannover instead of Berlin, as suggested by pretty much everyone.  Berlin is massive and I think it needs at least a week to experience properly – and I needed some time out, some peace.  Hameln, Marc and Susanna were that peace.

The afternoon of my arrival, Monday, they took me up onto the hill to look down upon the very beautiful fairy-tale City, and then down into the Old City for a walkabout.  Very chilly, but very charming to be in the City of the Pied Piper – rats and piper boys at every turn, on every pub and house in some way or another.

Marc and Susanna met one another at a CouchSurfing event – be sure of this, they did not meet online – they met, first time, in person at an event arranged for CouchSurfers to get together.  They’re both in their forties and if they had not told me they only met a year ago, I’d have though they’d been together for a lifetime.  It was a privilege to share their home for two days; share in their tasks such as chopping wood for the heating oven; entertaining the cats; shopping; preparing pizza; and recounting travel stories and photos.  It was just the rest I needed to feel ready for another ten days away from home in another cold part of the world.  Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder and home is definitely where the heart is.

I am glad I have visited Germany and glad I met people who are open minded and able to speak about some of the contentious issues in Germany society, most relating to Nazi Germany and the legacy that regime has left for anyone calling themselves German.  Coming from a country where the miracle of reconciliation through the Magic of Madiba seems so obvious, I was quite taken aback that nearly 65 years after the end of the war the German people I met were still so burdened by their past.

I had, until now, a perception that the final release was the 2006 FIFA World Cup where Germany showed the world colour, energy and fun – playing the perfect host to the world.  But, it seems, the shadow of Mr H and his atrocities will continue to haunt these people for decades to come.

We should never forget, but we should always forgive – and the German people should have been freed of this guilt generations ago.


Tips for travelling Germany (Hannover)

1. Carry cash and be able to draw cash – credit card facilities seem few and far between

2. The tram in the City is free if you are an exhibitor at CeBIT (or any other show at Deutsche Messe?) for the days of the event otherwise you purchase a ticket for you or your group for just the zones you need to travel in.  Ticket checks are very seldom done but I believe the penalties are very steep if you are caught.  Tram lines are numbered 1,2, 3 and so on and designated with the blue symbol U for the tram line.  Tickets can be bought at most stops from the automatic machines.  Check for schedules/pricing.  A 1 day pass for 2-5 people in 1 zone cost €4.80.

3. To get to Messe on the tram you need to get to BothmerstraBe on the 1/2 line and ensure you are on the tram to “Messe Nord”.

4. DB (Deutsche Bahn) is the overland train system and their lines are designated with the red DB symbol.  The station in Hannover is upstairs from the Hauptbahnhof tram station – not obvious from the signage – just ask.  A ticket from Hannover hbf to Hameln cost €10,30 and took 45 minutes while the return from Hameln to Hannover Airport cost €13,30 and took an hour or so.  Check for schedules/pricing.

5. Tips are not included in restaurant bills and even if you pay by card, the tip needs to be paid in cash.