Asia: The Strangest Business Trip Ever

Gurgaon, India

Over a week on the road and I’ve finally gotten a chance to sit and gather some of my thoughts on what has got to be the strangest business trip I think I’ve ever been on. The weird feeling comes from the locale surrounding me when I’m in an Italian suit going to work in a Beijing taxi, the driver intent on trying to knock over the man on the bike alongside, balancing no less that 300 eggs in a plastic milk crate on the handlebars. I honestly can’t believe we sell supercomputers the size of a refrigerator to companies in some of the countries of this region but these are purportedly the new economic engines of the world. I am also baffled that I get paid to experience all of this.

Nothing can describe walking through Tiananmen Square on a rare, crystal clear night with the temperature hovering around 28*F, then three days later be standing in Old Delhi with what feels like most of the inhabitants of the city passing in both directions on a shop-lined street 20 feet wide – many screaming “Hello” or “How are you?” Mix in a few mopeds, bike rickshaws, cows, dogs (“Hi ‘Mange’”), and children carrying chai to the shop vendors and you’re getting somewhere close. Intense would be a word I would use pretty liberally here. I got a chance yesterday to return to the largest mosque in India – the exact location where I took the photo of the “Beggar Girl” on the steps facing Old Delhi. She wasn’t there, but another was, with a look just as striking.

My favorite moment today was when I was in our nice wood-lined offices outside of Delhi and after an hour the regional power grid went down plunging the office into darkness, the only light provided by the laptop screens, but no one batted an eye. Fifteen minutes later the power was back and all was well. Three total outages today and my greatest fear is getting stuck in the elevator so I stick to the five flights of stairs. During one of my tea breaks I watched the Untouchables dig through the garbage in the field across from the office tower (this sounds cold but I’m just reporting it exactly as I’m seeing it) then we were off to lunch where eating with your right hand sans utensils was expected regardless of the attire.

Eating in India has always been easy – and there’s nothing like this kind of cooking at its source. China and Korea on the other hand were always adventures in eating, and a ginger pick through the bowl of whatever with your chopsticks was a requirement before committing and pulling something out. My first day in China I fought the jet lag and chartered a car out to a remote section of the Great Wall two hours north of Beijing. After my morning four hour climb we stopped at a “farmers” restaurant which consisted of three four person tables in the living room of this family’s home. TV was on and the two teenage boys were watching some sort of Karaoke show. It was full of smoke from the kitchen, or was it the other two tables of Chinese men smoking Marlboro reds like they’d been banned, ashing and putting their butts out on the floor. My guide ordered us lunch then told me we had to go and pick out our fish.

Pick out our fish. Out to the front yard we went where a large grey concrete tank with one of the two TV-watching teenagers was now perched with a net. He pulled out an enormous two foot long catfish which he whacked on the head then weighed. Four kilograms (9 lbs) was the size, but my guide told him it was too big. He told her it was already dead so it was going to be our lunch. Done. Back inside, seated at the table when yet another teenage boy entered the room with three plastic burlap bags – all moving as though something were alive. “Mountain chickens”, my guide “Tina” says with wide eyes – she immediately ordered us one which the TV-teenager now needed to go outside to kill, gut and pluck for us. Needless to say we had food for about twelve at a table for three. When the food arrived the full fish tail was sticking out of the top of the bowl and hanging over the side; it looked like they’d killed a mermaid. The driver started fishing around the bowl for the fish cheeks (attached to the head) while Tina started to serve me some. A moment later I found out that the fish had been chopped into pieces with a cleaver, so de-boning needed to happen with your tongue and chopsticks. I learned to press the fish meat down into a pancake sort of circle to have all bones rise to the top before eating. I could go on for days about the various meals in China – ox bone marrow, chicken feet complete with talon, fish heads – but I’ll spare you the details.

Notice three days of Seoul not mentioned here. While Seoul is ultra-modern with the Koreans always mentally trying to out-do the Japanese, all of this has left the city without it’s own spirit and even in the most “energetic” parts of town it’s the reserved sense of their culture that permeates everything. There’s no excitement or power that comes from any part of the city – only the humble, bow at everyone as not to offend them attitude prevails. It also appears that the architects in some of the older parts of the city were taught by a corps of graduates from the Lenin-Brezhnev Institute.

Enough said. Further reports as news warrants.

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