Seven Days in Chennai

In August 2007 I had the opportunity to visit Chennai, India's 4th largest city, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The goal of this meeting was some intensive working sessions with Cognizant, the ICT provider of Organon (for whom I was working at the time). A packed agenda of 7 briefings would be discussed over the coarse of two days, with two additional days for answering questions, clarifying inconsistencies and giving the team the chance to finish the final proposals for the projects.
Initially the plan was to visit Chennai from Monday to Friday, but a lack of flights that would leave enough time to work at the offices eventually resulted in a 'slight change of plans'. I'd be in Chennai from Thursday to Tuesday, giving me a weekend to explore the surroundings. As you can imagine, I therefore could not resist the temptation to write another travel journal about my ... Seven Days in Chennai.

August 7th - Schiphol

It had taken some serious arguments, but I did check into the Schiphol A4 hotel (one third of the costs of the proposed hotel of Organon's travel agency) and after parking the car in the area for long parking I made my way to my room. Or should I say ballroom? A lack of standard rooms had resulted in a 'free upgrade' to a 4 person room, including a huge bathroom and two desks. Seeing the regular price of the room (300+ euro) was shocking to say the least.
When I ventured out of the room to get a drink from the vending machine in the hall a small boy of about 5 years old came up to me. He was sobbing and asked me where his mommy was. I was just about to take him to the reception area when his mom came around the corner. After a final phone call with Judith I went to sleep.

August 8th - Schiphol to Chennai

Rising and faintly shimmering at 5:30 AM, enabling me to catch the first shuttle to Schiphol. I've always preferred some margin in time. Better be early than having too rush and stress. The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful and had a good breakfast served. Frankfurt's business lounge was uncomfortable and crowded so I went for an early check in at the gate. The flight was slightly delayed because somebody's luggage had to be unloaded from the plane. Memories of Katmandhu came back to me where a whole plane had to waiting for an hour while I was being rushed to the hospital and my luggage was unloaded.

The flight to Chennai was good. To be perfectly honest, business class on the way to Chennai might not even have been totally necessary since the flight was around 8 hours after the transfer in Frankfurt and I would arrive around midnight. So no real necessity to sleep on the plane (like I would do on the way back) and with a 3,5 hour time difference one night of slightly later sleep should be enough to adjust. Then again, I won't admit that it was very comfortable and I filled the 8 hours effortlessly with two meals (one European, one Indian), half an hour of meditation (bordering dangerously close to dozing off), watching two movies - Shrek III (disappointing compared to I and II) and Perfect Strangers (with Halle Berry and Bruce Willis, not bad at all) - and reading a large portion of Egbert's new book Kloteklanten (which was both a fine read and annoyingly repetitive and off-topic at the same time).

I had expected major difficulties at the airport after some of the stories I read and Prasanna's expectations but I have to admit that this was without a doubt the smoothest entry to an Asian county I ever experienced. Even the baggage reclaim was amazingly fast. I was slightly worried when I'd almost arrived at the end of the line of people holding signs with visitor's names when I spotted 'Mr. Eddie Sanders'. Okay, close enough. George, one of Cognizant's private drivers, helped me with my suitcase and off we were in his air conditioned car.
Yep, this was without a doubt Asia. Sticky heat and absolute traffic chaos, even at one o'clock at night. It seemed like the exit of the airport was at a junction with an endless steam of construction worker's trucks. And of course the less time between sounding your horn, the more fitter you are considered to survive. It always makes me smile. I have to fully agree with what one of the Cognizant employee's said a day later:"If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere".
Check-in to the hotel also went amazingly smoothly and the room was comfortably non-fancy. I unpacked, sent a last text message to Judith and was off to bed, safely tucked away beneath the blanket while the temperature in the room was getting chilly of the air-co.

August 9th - First Day in the Office

I woke up around seven, got out of bed, washed and took the lift to the roof terrace. I just had to see the swimming pool on the roof. Smaller than I expected but inviting enough for a dive later on. Unfortunately I found out that the pool closed at 19:00 hours, around the time I would be back in the hotel, so the plans changed to an early morning refreshing dive for the next day.
After a nice breakfast of an unholy combination of Indian meals and Danish pastries I grabbed from the buffet, I packed the bag and was surprised by George turning up 10 minutes early (what's with the "Indian people are always 15 minutes late", I'd been reading about?). The drive to the Cognizant office through morning traffic again confirmed the chaos of Asian roads. Still, there seemed to be a strange kind of order in this chaos, which I hadn't spotted before in Asia. Motors, cars, trucks, tuk-tuks and even cyclists struggled their way along the main veins of Chennai. Markus, a German colleague of mine, had once told me he was baffled by the recklessness of Dutch cyclists. Well, he hasn't seen these folks yet!
The outskirts of the city made way to a less cramped area called Pallikaranai. Quite a strange experience. Imagine your standard Asian city limit with the roadside shops and suddenly, once in every couple of miles, there are a huge modern looking office buildings, standing there as out of place as the monolith in Space Odyssey.

Getting out of George's car I was reminded about the uncomfortable heat. A sign at the door welcomed me to the office and after having the security guard register my hardware I was taken to the seventh floor where the welcome bliss of the air-co wrapped around me like a cool shower. On this floor the team members are grouped in compartments of approximately 4 persons surrounded by 1 meter high cubicals, thus combining the best of both worlds of 'office gardens' and 'cubicals'. The whole Organon team formed a substantial part of a floor that was filled with such compartments.
I was taken to the meeting room and before long the smiling faces of Durai, Smitha, Ashok and Krishnan came in. They all welcomed me in a wonderfully warm way and after asking me about my trip I was shown me the small 'huddle room' (as they called them at P&G) where I could work privately between the meetings. After the system administrators had solved some proxy issues with my Internet access I was invited to the large meeting room where 20+ people had gathered. Some familiar faces and some new ones. Everybody (re-)introduced him- or herself and told a bit about their background and tasks within the team, after which I took the honour of adding a line or two about myself, promising them to do a more in-depth presentation about the eBiz department and treating them to the 'typically Dutch' stroopwafels. These were seemingly already quite popular among the team members who had followed a training in Holland. Also, Prasanna had once seemingly taken some back to India as well.

The meetings during the day were very productive. Writing all the briefings beforehand, giving people a chance to pre-study them and going through them in detail worked well. There were some valuable additional ideas and some good discussions about feasibility and different solutions. The easiness of understanding the Indian people differed from person to person. Most of them speak English very well; it's the only language in which people from different parts of India are able to communicate. Some people's accent makes it somewhat harder though, as do the speed of speech and typical Indian additions to the English vocabulary, like 'prepone'.
During lunch, which consisted of Indian dishes and the 'safety net' of western sandwiches (which I gladly ignored for the Asian food) we had a nice informal conversation about topics like holiday habits in Holland and India, the city of Barcelona, the Dutch Delta works and more. It really is a shame that I haven't had more contact with the team while they were in Oss. Of course they were trained by other colleagues, after which they returned to India, so the time we were actually working one-to-one in Oss was limited. Besides that, it was a rather hectic and stressful time anyway. The hospitality and friendliness did however make me regret the lack of closer cooperation so far. I am pretty convinced that most people in the team are a lot more skillful than some of us might think and that most of the problems are caused by a mixture of communication confusion, improper briefings and debriefings, cultural differences and most importantly the way in which the whole transfer process was rushed over the course of a couple of months. I also got the impression that - even though preparations for the visit might not always have gone perfectly smooth - they were genuinely glad that an Organon 'colleague' (the team members often referred to themselves as 'Organon') was visiting them and was taken to time and effort to come to Chennai.

After three good meetings it was 18:00 hours and George had arrived to bring me back to the hotel. Rush hour seemed even more chaotic than this morning and just when he was telling me that the road we were driving on was the main road through Chennai and it was quite a dangerous one, a motorcycle crashed into the back of a car right in front of us. Go figure !
Back in the hotel the spicy food of the day started to disagree with my intestines, probably also caused my the lack of movement during the day. So I had a good idea and spend half an hour on the treadmill in the gym. That and a real satisfying bowel moment brought the necessary relief. ;-) This good idea was followed by a bad one: talking a walk around the block at half past eight. Although the sun sets around seven, the sticky heat remains and after 5 minutes outside I was sweating harder than after half an hour on the treadmill. Not to mention taking ages to cross the dangerous roads. After 15 minutes I fled back into the air conditioned lobby of the hotel.
The sticky heat made dinner at the roof restaurant a bad option, so I went for the Chinese style place at the ground floor. I had a wonderful meal of meat, fish and vegetables which you could select yourself from a buffet and have prepared by the cook. Oh, and the typical Indian Kingfisher beer. After this wonderful dinner I went back up to do a bit of writing and to attempt to call Judith via Skype. Although the wireless Internet connection worked perfectly, the log-in page was clearly not designed for PDAs. There was no way to submit the log-in details. After an inventive idea to have Judith call me via Skype Out we chatted for an hour for less than 5 euro. Marvellous invention. After some more writing I hit the sack well after midnight.

August 10th - Second Day in the Office

Getting up early in the morning for a quick swim was another very good idea. Yesterday's heat had disappeared, although the sun that was coming up over the building where construction workers were already toiling away was quickly heating up the surroundings. As such the chill after the first dive rapidly changed to a comfortable warmth after the second one. Between the two dives I had a short meditation (really a shame that I didn't have more time because this one went so well that my breathing actually seemed to take on a whole new rhythm) and looked out from the roof terrace over the green patches and tall white buildings of Chennai. The weather forecast for Chennai announced a temperature of 35 degrees for today. It certainly wouldn't get more comfortable outside than this.

Swimming Pool at the Rooftop of the Raintree Hotel View over Chennai from the Rooftop of the Raintree Hotel

Although Judith had advised me not to have something spicy for breakfast I just couldn't ignore the Indian rice and small noodles. Fingers crossed that my stomach would not disagree too much. George was punctual as ever and we made our way southwards again, swerving around cows that were reclining on the road as if it was the most peaceful English pasture.

It looked like I was the first one in when I entered the 7th floor around 9 o'clock. Nevertheless all necessary persons were available when we started our meeting half an hour later. Again, the day had some good sessions. Especially the first session, about the development of a local database tool, was good because the Cognizant team had already taken the briefing one step further and had created some draft designs. Some good exchanges of ideas took place and we ended the meeting with a satisfied feeling. The second session was a bit disappointing, but mainly because the problem we needed a solution for was much more complex than the team had realised. As such, their initial proposal did not cover enough of the specific problems. A third sessions was used for the clarification of the specs of another development project. The rest of the day was spend on discussing some open calls and a presentation by Ashok and Atül about Cognizant in general and the cooperation with Organon specifically.

Lunch was another fine selection of Indian foods, so I skipped the sandwiches again (it would be the last time they'd appear on the buffet). Conversation material was interesting again, with topics like global heating, Indian food, travelling in Asia, etc. At the end of the afternoon we were invited to the birthday party of Lakshmi, one of the female team members. Tradition has it that the colleagues buy the birthday girl a cake (a substantial part of which was smeared over her face), the cake gets eaten and everybody moves to the area of the canteen where they sell little carton dishes of Indian food called chaat. Consider them Indian tapas. This is what the birthday girl buys everybody as a treat. Durai found great pleasure in having them prepare several varieties for me, although they made sure it wasn't too hot. It all tasted good to great, with the little balls that were filled with spicy water and had to be chewed quickly being the strangest experience of them all. And knowing me, I just had to try it. After three such 'tapas' I was so filled up that I skipped dinner altogether that evening. Now, if only I could remember the names of all those dishes ... Great taste in India seems to come with upset stomachs, but nothing so serious that a big bottle of Kingfisher couldn't wash away, back at the hotel.

Traffic for the weekend was dreadful. It must have taken us almost an hour to get back to the hotel (12 kilometers!). It did give George and me the chance to discuss some plans for the weekend. Amazingly enough George was available to take me anywhere I wanted to go, and after discussing some plans with him and considering some suggestions from Ashok and Atül we settled for Mahabalipuram for Saturday. Because of the smothering heat George advised to leave at 6 AM in the morning. A good idea, and I was quite knackered anyway. So I decided to answer a few urgent mails, update this journal and call it a day.

August 11th - Mahabalipuram & Dakshina Chitra

A day off and I found myself in George's car driving southwards along the East Coast Road. An area that was hit by the tsunami but according to George wasn't too severely damaged because there weren't many houses build along the shore. I had gotten up early at 5 o'clock and as I had feared there was no way to get breakfast before 6 o' clock. So I grabbed two kit-kats from the mini bar to ensure that I would at least have something in my stomach for the next couple of hours.
East Coast Road features one of the few toll roads in India and for part of the way you got glimpses of the Bay of Bengal. There wasn't much traffic yet and we reached our destination, Mahabalipuram (60 km south of Chennai), in about an hour. We were joined by a guide arrange by George, who would lead me around the town for the next two to three hours.

Mahabalipuram is a small fisherman's town famous for it's temples and bas-relief carvings, some of which are protected by the UNESCO. Most of these were made during the dynasty of Pallava kings in the 7th to 9th century. Ever since, Mahabaliparum has remained a sculptors town, with work being exported all over India and the world beyond.
We first went to Krishna's Butterball, a remarkable big boulder that seems to balance dangerously on the hillside. It is actually firmly attached at the base, but still it looks like it could flatten you any minute. Other interesting spots on the central rock of the town were several caves with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from legends, among which an absolute highlight, Arjuna's Penance, the world's largest Indian art bas-relief. This wall depicts many mythical creatures and animals (among which a family of elephants) watching Arjuna, one of the five brothers of the Mahabharata legend, standing on one leg for several years in order to get a mighty weapon from Shiva's needed to win a war.

After viewing all of these wonderful things in the centre of town, we visited a temple where active worship to Vishnu and Lakshmi was still being held (all of the other temples were only monuments). This was the first time I actually entered a Hindu temple since in Nepal this was never allowed. Quite interesting to see how the people went in and received holy water and the ingredients for creating the characteristic red dot on the forehead.

One of the most remarkable things about the temples and carvings in Mahabaliparum is that they were often carved from singles pieces of rock. This also goes for the Five Rathas: five temple chariots with accompanying stone animals, like a big elephant. Each chariot has a different architectural style and each is dedicated to a brother from the Mahabharata legend. The amazing thing is that these 5 temples were constructed by chiseled top down from the rocks. The builders came close to completing them, but the lack of details and roughness of some of the reliefs proves that they never actually did.

Krishna's Butterball Arjuna's Penance The Five Rathas The Shore Temple

The Shore Temple was the only one of seven comparable temples surviving until today. It featured a Vishnu and Shiva shrine, as well as the ever present linga and a sculpture of a sacrifice to Durga. Some of the sides of the Shore Temple had lost their detail owing to erosion by wind and water, but it still is a most remarkable building. My guide told me a story of the origin of bats (living in one of the temples shrines). According to legend bats were a rather failed experiment of Shiva trying to proof to the creator god Brahma that he could also create living beings. Another story involved one of the arguments between Shiva and his wife Parvati about who could make the best dance moves. In the end Shiva could perform one physical move which his wife couldn't, thereby proving his point that males were superior to females. I just love these stories.

Before leaving town I bought a set of postcards and a town guide after much haggling with the seller. Little did he know that previous travels to Asia have refined my value estimating and negotiating skills. Nevertheless, when I later calculated what I paid (some 60% of the starting price) I was still shocked by the relative price. I definitely need to practice calculating rupees to euro. ;-)
When we left the town we dropped the guide after I paid and tipped him and George brought me to the Temple Bay resort so I could have breakfast. One of the typical resorts in the area, it was lush and beautiful but also attracted a different crowd. I think these were the first American tourists I came across (and hopefully the last) and the available food was more American than Indian as well. Nevertheless I was able to make a nice semi-Indian semi-continental selection again.

Back on the East Coast Road to Chennai I visited Dakshina Chitra, another recommendation by Ashok and Atül. The place was a wonderfully interesting open air museum where some 25 typical buildings from the Indian states Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala had been rebuild. There was also a 15 minute movie about the way people from these different Indian states lived and the rituals around the house. All highly informative and entertaining as well, as were the two school classed of small kids that were having an excursion at the park. I must have looked remarkably much like Steve Irwin risen from the dead with the hat I'd bought in Tibet last year and my brown/green shirt and pants. I however doubt if that was the reason why they sometimes seemed to find me more interesting that the exhibitions. I lost count of the number of times I said 'hello' and 'hi'.
The staff of Dakshina Chitra has organised quite a nice and active program for the kids. Part of this program was Thomas, a magician who started talking to me while I was taking a rest in the shade. After explaining where The Netherlands was located he informed me that he was a magician, here to entertain the kids. I asked him if he was about to perform and he invited me to come into the activity hall so he could show me a couple of trick. Now, don't expect any David Copperfield, but he did have me baffled by some of the tricks that were at least beyond my kiddy-magic-box level of knowledge. Unfortunately the kids were coming in, so he wasn't able to show me more. And because I didn't want to draw away the attention from his performance, I'd thought I'd better leave. ;-)
Dakshina Chitra gave a nice impression of the diversity of India with houses ranging from the simple coastal huts of Andhra Pradesh to the luxurious merchant houses of Tamil Nadu. One of the most remarkable things I learned was how Hindu houses come with a small inner courtyard in the middle that seems to be related to the Hindu belief that the universe is square in form.

Coastal hut from Andhra Pradesh, Dakshina Chitra Hindu house from Tamil Nadu, Dakshina Chitra Fort St. George, Chennai Santhome Church, Chennai

By now the temperature had risen dramatically, as had my water consumption. It must have been between 12 and 1 o' clock when we made our way back to Chennai, where George had a couple of additional surprises for me in store. Along Marina beach, with it's 13 km one of the world's longest beaches, we headed for Fort St. George. Chennai was once one of the first outposts of the British East India Company and Fort St. George was the local stronghold. Although not overtly remarkable the place is a little town in itself and still houses the administrative seat of the state Tamil Nadu. We saw the exhibitions in the museum, including coins, paintings of British officials, mortars, suits and tableware. Nice but unless you have thoroughly read about British-Indian history (I haven't) it's hard to put it all into context. We also saw the small St. Mary church, which was most remarkable for the many memorial marble slabs and the tombstones of the officers that had died while serving at Fort St. George.

Next, George showed me Santhome Cathedral Basilica. Thomas had been one of Jesus' apostles and had died in the Chennai region. Again, I'm not all that interested in Christian icons but this was still rather interesting, and taking into account that George was a Christian himself and his brother was studying in Rome to become a priest I was glad to know that it meant something special to him. The lovely white church had a nice wooden ceiling that I've never before seen in a church. Below the church lay the chapel with the tomb of St. Thomas, which we also visited.

Seeing that I was getting tired George decided to call it a day, but not before we had visited a shop with lovely statues. They were rather expensive but I was planning to buy my regular small country related statue anyway. I found a lovely Ganesh statue, haggled a bit but not too much (lack of energy and I didn't mind if George was getting some commission as well) and off we went, back to the hotel. Tomorrow we'd visit Kanchipuram and we agreed to leave at 8 o' clock. Leaving sooner, like we did today, was no option since the temples would not be opened yet.

I ended up staying in my room for the rest of the day. I was so tired I slept two hours and after showering I didn't really feel like going out to a restaurant. I ordered room service instead. Picking something from the long list of room service menu's proved to be a challenge. I'd like an Indian dish but the names and descriptions of the meals left me in doubt if I would like it. So I opted for a chicken burger with fries instead. And a wonderful one it was, McDonalds would be jealous. Then again, which burger isn't better than a McDonald's burger (the news today included an item on one of the Indian McDonald's in Calcutta exploding because of a malfunctioning air conditioning). While a thunderstorm was sweeping the streets of Chennai clean outside, I updated the journal, chatted an hour with Judith (via Skype) and watched a DVD I had taken along. I then went to bed, planning to start the next day with a refreshing dip in the roof terrace pool.

August 12th - Kanchipuram

I never really went to the swimming pool this morning. Even though I had set the alarm clock early enough, I just couldn't get out of bed. I definitely had been more tired by the lack of sleep and the warm weather in the past few days. So I stayed in bed a bit longer. After another fine breakfast George and I headed for the town Kanchipuram, another major tourist attraction of historical value. Most of the 1,5 hour journey was done on the highway to Bangalore. And if you think traffic in the city is dangerous, you should try this highway. The average speed is twice as high, but the number of cows doesn't seem to be any lower, resulting in bloodcurdling swerves in order to hit loose cattle. The Chennai area is obviously doing very well, judging from all of the big companies that were either located on or building a location along the highway: Nokia, Motorola, a local beer brand, Hyundai ...

As mentioned in yesterday's journal we hadn't left too early this day, so when we arrived in Kanchipuram it was already getting pretty hot. However, places like this or Mahabalipuram are much more comfortable then Chennai; more open space, more wind, less air pollution. George asked me to leave my shoes in the car and went to park it while I entered the first temple (Sri Kamakshi Amman Temple). There are countless temples in Kanchipuram, which used to be the 'headquarter' of the Pallava dynasty. Kanchipuram is the 2nd holiest place in India after Varanasi and Hindu people from all over the world come to visit it. Some of the temples we visited during the day were actually multiple-building affairs, complete with a pond with holy water. When I asked George some questions about the details of the temples he wasn't able to answer me. Seemingly his Christian background had kept him from learning a lot about Hindu temples. He did however call a local guide that would be able to tell me more.
On the way out of this first temple, George pointed me to an elephant that would 'bless' you when you gave him a rupee coin. The blessing consisted of a gentle knock on the head with the trunk. Initially I was wondering if this would be a relative of the Rolo commercial elephant, but finally I decided to give it a try. Well, queuing in India definitely doesn't work, since people kept sneaking in front of me. When the elephant took my coin and patted me on the head the crowd had completely disappeared though ... I'm wondering if I maybe shouldn't have done that and if they now considered the elephant 'unpure' because it touched me.

Anyway, coming out of the temple we were met by Kumar, our guide for this morning. Well, as he later admitted he wasn't actually a guide but worked for an organisation that arrange puja pilgrimages to the city. The next temple he took me to was a Vishnu temple and one of the oldest in Kanchipuram. While he showed me some of the carvings and told me some of the stories behind them we were followed by the temple guard. At one point Kumar told us that the inner temple was closed, but that the guard would open it for us, at his own risk. For a closed day there were remarkably many people inside, getting the puja mark from the temple servant. When we came out Kumar told me that we should pay the guard 50 rupee for taking the risk. Hold on ... I don't think so sir. I told Kumar that I was more then willing to pay him as a guide for the tour - 'no sir, I'm not a guide but you can pay me anything afterwards if you were satisfied' - but I definitely was not willing to pay every person we met along the way. I also made it very clear that I didn't want to visit any shops besides the silk shop I had in mind. The message seemed to come across very clearly, because he was all 'yes sir, yes sir'.

Kanchipuram Kanchipuram Kanchipuram Kanchipuram Kanchipuram

We visited two other temples, one for Shiva and one for Vishnu (Sri Kailasanathar Temple). All with fascinating architecture, carvings and even a mural painting. At a Ganesh shrine Kumar taught me the movements of the Ganesh worship and inside the Shiva shrine even the none-Hindu's George and Ed were given a puja dot by the temple servant. When Kumar asked me if I wanted to see more temples I was in doubt. In the last two days I had seen quite a lot of them and the temple fatigue was starting to kick in. On the other hand, lacking a copy of the Lonely Planet for South India (after all, that would be overdoing it, wouldn't it), I feared that I might miss some important ones. I did however semi-trust Kumar's opinion that we'd cover the most important ones and we proceeded to Kanchi Kudil, a house that was decorated in the traditional style of Kanchipuram. A nice addition to yesterday's Dakshina Chitra, the house included furniture and articles of daily use and included a master's (man) room, a ladies room, children room, puja room (for worship) kitchen and courtyard (including a functioning well!). Attached to the house there was a canteen where we were offered a Diet Coke. Great, no stomach aches from the food but from aspartame today.
While I was discussing the expansion of IT services in Chennai and mobile devices with Kumar and George our guide let out a belch that could have triggered a small Tsunami. Some people might be disgusted, but I can only be surprised and amused by the different eating and drinking habits of the Indian people. As a matter of fact, I've become quite an adapt in scooping up food with pieces of naan. I just haven't figured out how to break the bread by using only my right hand. I must pay closer attention during Monday's lunch at Cognizant. When we left the house I wanted to buy a small version of the typical Tamil Nadu oil lamp that the women light every morning, but unfortunately it wasn't for sale.

Next and last stop was a silk manufacturer. I had been told by Prasanna and had read that Kanchipuram was a centre of fine manual silk production. Telling Judith she had immediately asked me to make sure to bring some scarfs home for everybody in the family ! After the shop owner showed me how the silk was produced (the shop included one working machine) we gathered around a table and the process of haggling began. He showed me some marvellous sarees, among which a breathtaking bridal saree, but I explained him that I wasn't looking for a saree, only scarfs. The average price on a scarf was 1850 rupees, but of course I directly got 30% discount without even negotiating. I made it clear that I still considered that rather high, so I asked what the price would be when I bought more. 1200 rupees. Too high I said, I offered 5000 rupees for 5 scarfs and no more. After the usual 'you are my first customer' and a lot of tossing and turning he finally gave in. But only if I would refer a lot of my friends and colleagues to the shop if they would ever visit Kanchipuram. Afterwards Kumar told me that I was a fine businessman, but I never really know for sure. I had seen Kanchipuram scarfs being offered on a web site for 600 rupee, but of course I couldn't compare the quality. Not that I'm an expert in silk, so how should I even tell ...
When we left Kanchipuram I asked Kumar to tell me honestly if he was getting commission on the sale. He was clearly upset by my question 'I'm a follower of Shiva, I would never do that, I don't like it that you think I get commission'. He continued by refusing the money I wanted to give him for the tour. After I said that I didn't mind if he got commission or not, and that he'd done a nice tour and I therefore wanted to pay him he accepted the money. But he was clearly displeased by my question, and I was clearly doubting his honest answer ...

Kanchi Kudil Kanchi Kudil Silk Shop, Kanchipuram St. Thomas Mount

On the way back to Chennai George stopped at the hill where the original church was located where St. Thomas had been buried. It also offered a wonderful view over Chennai, which turned out to be much bigger than I had expected. After visiting the chapel with the 'bleeding cross' that had been found nearby, he also showed me the street in a nearby neighbourhood in which he lived. After this he dropped me off at the Rain Tree so I could get some lunch, since it was already around half past 3. I told him we'd seen more than enough today and that I would take it easy; he could go home to join his family.

Lunch at the Rain Tree was brilliant. There was a buffet with a large number of - mainly Indian - dishes. I tried out a bit of at least 15, plus 5 types of desert and left the restaurant bloated like an average Ganesh statue. I decided to take a stroll around the neighbourhood and check out the art shop I'd spotted down the road. Unfortunately they had the aforementioned traditional lamps, but not in the size and shape I was looking for. Although there was much less traffic on this Sunday and it was easier to cross the street, Chennai's inner city continued to be sticky and smelly, and since there weren't any interesting shops in the close surroundings I decided to go back to the hotel, arriving soaked in sweat. I did some more reading in Kloteklanten, worked on the journal, went to the gym for half an hour on the treadmill and watched the rest of the DVD I'd started watching yesterday.

August 13th - Third Day in the Office

I got up at 7 and went to the roof for a refreshing swim and meditation again. If only I could start every day like this. After breakfast George and I went to the Cognizant office at nine. On the way he showed me the house of the vice-chairman of Cognizant, who was obviously doing very well for himself with a nice villa and BMW. Traffic was dreadful again, not only on the road but with the Organon network as well. I continued to have synchronization problems with my My Documents folders on the Organon network, seriously slowing down my work. I caught up on some e-mail and worked on a presentation about the eBuisiness department I would do the next day. As such I spent most of the day in the small huddle room while the key team members worked on their proposal documents for last week's briefings.
During lunch I asked the team to explain me how you are supposed to tear the naan bread without using your left hand. They showed me and after some struggling I succeeded, proceeding with my food in the Indian manner, to the amusement of the Indian folk.

In the morning Ashok introduced me to his boss, Sathya, a very energetic woman that talked faster than the speed of light and took a while to adjust to, so to speak. She suggested to have dinner the next day, which started a strange string of confusion since we would also have dinner with the team on the evening of the 13th and during the day this was combined with Sathya's dinner and split up again. Not being overtly active in the evenings at the hotel all was fine with me.
When leaving the office around 19:00 hours traffic turned out to be dreadful as usual. George dropped me off at the Rain Tree so I could leave my laptop and freshen up a bit before bringing me to the Residency restaurant at the Sheraton hotel. Someone had told me that it wasn't too far from my own hotel, but it actually turned out to be at the end of the street. George didn't even have the chance to accelerate. I therefore told him that he didn't need to wait for me and he should go home to his family. I'd either walk back or would have one of the Cognizant people drop me off after dinner.

As expected the Sheraton turned out to be a posh affair. It had been on the list of suggestions for hotels, but I was happy to have chosen the more trendy and modest Rain Tree. The service was just as good and places like the five start Sheraton just make me feel uncomfortable and out of place, not to mention that some of the people staying there do not seem to put a lot of effort into being friendly to the staff at their turn or putting a bit of interest in local customs and habits.
Dinner was good though, with a large buffet full of Indian food and marvellous Indian deserts. I was the first one there, the rest had also been delayed in traffic, but before long Smitha, Satish and some of the others joined me in the lobby. I had hoped to be able to interact a bit with the team but unfortunately the set-up of the restaurant was with tables of max 8 persons. Nevertheless I had some very nice conversations with some of the senior staff while Durai continued to challenge me with spicy food. He thought that the mango pickle would finally be something I couldn't handle, but after having a spoon or two without any rice and not being bothered by the strong taste too much he seemed to finally admit that he had met his rival. As a matter of fact, next day he turned out to be the one with stomach aches instead of me. ;-)
Conversations continued about why I had chosen the Rain Tree (facilities, good value-for-money and outstanding reviews on the Internet), growing and selling mariuhana in Amsterdam, clogs, tulips, windmills, cheese, Indian Kingfisher beer, the dangers of Vodka, etc. At 23:15, when only Satish, Atül, Ashok and I were left we called it a night and Atül dropped me off at the hotel, where I had a last Skype-chat with Judith, packed my stuff for check-out tomorrow and finished Egbert's Kloteklanten, before dozing off.

August 14th - Fourth Day in the Office

Check-out time at the Rain Tree. No time for a swim today. I packed my last stuff, handed over the minibar bill at the reception and went for breakfast. After checking out, George picked me up, punctual as ever. I'm getting used to this lifestyle; I will need to get used to driving my own car again in the morning. Traffic was reasonable and once again I seemed to be the first one in the office, arriving around 9 o'clock. Tomorrow was India's 60th Independence Day, a national holiday. The Cognizant offices were decorated with Indian flags and the team was getting ready to spend a couple of days with their families. We had our first meeting at 9:30, when I discussed the additional tasks of banner programming with the team. I gave them a brief training and we agreed that we had to try out some things to determine what would work best in the long run.
Today was also the day I would receive all of the proposals and implementation documents resulting from last week's sessions. Quite a challenge for the team but they managed to provide me with 4 out of 5, 3 of which I was actually able to read, evaluate and re-discuss over the course of the day. I continued to have issues with synchronisation of my files, seriously slowing down (or making impossible) some of the actions I needed to take from last week's meetings.
I had a good discussion with Ashok about the current state of affairs with the team and what we thought could be improved and what were the reasons for the 'bumps in the road' so far. A good, open discussion that will also be interesting input for the home office.

Lunch was marvellous as always, this time including some sweet Chinese chicken that they had arranged at a nearby hotel's restaurant. At the end of the afternoon I invited the team in for a presentation about Organon's eBusiness: the department's structure, goals and people. I'd wanted to close off with a more lighthearted note and a bit of motivational talk so I started making comparisons about the oddities in Dutch and Indian cultures. Out cats and dogs in our homes versus their cows on the highway. Our knife and fork eating habits and their use of the right hand (something I've started to master quite well by now). Our blond hair and pink skin and their brown skin and moustaches, and so on. This bit really seemed to hit home and people were lightening up after the serious previous slides. I ended by inviting them to a round of Chaat in the canteen, the typical 'Indian tapas' we also had last Friday.
The canteen proved to be hot and sticky. Seemingly the air-co had either broken down or had been switched off. This did not spoil the fun of the chaat though and I had just one dish because more food would be coming up later. When everybody had ordered their portion Smitha told me the total amount of the bill. 262 rupees. I thought I must have misheard what she said, but treating 15-20 team members actually turned out to be about 5 euro ! Amazing.
Before going back to the cool offices Ashok handed me a present on behalf of the team. It proved to be a wonderful wood carving of an elephant with another smaller elephant inside. A design I had spotted several times over the weekend. As you can imagine the whole afternoon turned out to be a heartwarming experience.

Durai had invited me to go to the famous temple in Chennai which I didn't have the time and energy for to visit over the weekend. I had to decline though since Atül wanted to show me an interesting presentation about the improvement plans and I still wanted to read some of the proposal documents. After all, that was the main purpose of my visit. A shame, because his descriptions sounded really interesting. Maybe another time ?
After these last sessions I handed the team some wine gum/drop candy I was carrying around. As expected, they liked the wine gums but had some doubts about the black parts of the candy. Non-Dutchman that like drop seem to be extremely rare in the world.

At 19:30 I shook hands with everybody that had not gone home yet and made my way downstairs to hand in all security related papers and passes. I would be having a small dinner with Atül and Sathya that evening, but not before George and I had bought one of those typical Tamil oil lamps. We found a small nice variation that quite resembled the one I had seen in Kanchipuram and it turned out to be a whopping 62 rupees (1,20 Euro). We tried to locate some of the Hindu stickers that I had promised to bring back for Mark, but were unable to find them after checking several shops. Seemingly they are normally sold close to temples, of which there were none around in the area.
Arriving slightly late at the Eden restaurant, Atül and Sathya were already waiting for me. We had a nice, small dinner including some of the Paneer Tandoori (grilled cottage cheese) I had eaten before in Katmandhu. We discussed the cooperation between Cognizant and Organon a bit further and agreed that it would be good to stimulate more personal contact between the two teams, whether by video/webex conferencing or physical visits. At half past 10 we said goodbye, promised to keep in touch and meet again when Sathya would visit the Oss office in September.

In the meantime, George had been trying to find the stickers, to no avail. He asked me for my address so he could buy some and send them by post. A golden guy ! As you can imagine I left him a substantial tip when we said goodbye at the airport, including a letter thanking him for his splendid service over the past week and suggesting that he might spend it on the silk he wanted to buy for his baby in Kanchipuram but was not able to afford. Traffic to the airport was sluggish. I know understood where all the construction trucks came from: they seemed to be building a raised highway in the area. The fact that there was tightened security because of tomorrow's independence day made the delays and chaos even worse. Fortunately I was flying business class so my final check-in time was later. Check-in in lasted long as well, as did passport control but I arrived at the gate well in time, though completely exhausted. After boarding the plane I took some melatonine for some good sleep but I think that might not even have been necessary. As soon as the plane took off I flattened the chair, threw the blanket over myself and slipped into Neverland.

August 15th - Back in Holland

I must have slept for some 5-6 hours when I woke up. It had not been extremely comfortable and I had woken up several times with back cramps, but it was miles better than the economy flights from Asia I was used to. Serious pressure in the lower body parts made me rush off to the toilet. After seven days of Asian food without any major problems I was finally having diarrhoea on the last day. Must be the Katmandhu-syndrome again. Fortunately it wasn't the worst I've ever had and the Loperamide I took seemed to work well enough to watch the movie Music and Lyrics in two portions. Nice movie, nice feel-good romance for which I seem to be a sucker. Had to fight to contain myself during the emotional climax. ;-)

After a reasonable breakfast we touched ground in Frankfurt and after spending some time in the business lounge, which was a lot less crowded than last week, I was off for boarding the flight to Amsterdam. Schiphol was incredibly busy with all of the holiday-goers arriving back from their trips. The luggage reclaim area was buzzing with activity and it took a bit longer than normal for my bag to arrive.
Seems like I just missed the transfer bus to the hotel, but after half an hour I was finally on my way to my car and 15 minutes later the southward tarmac of the A2 was zooming past underneath me. I had decided to drop by the office to do some urgent work since I would be taking a couple of days off for a weekend in Barcelona. It would have been more sensible to work at home for a couple of hours since I hardly got the chance to do something; everybody just wanted to know about my time in Chennai.

At half past six I was back home, hugging Judith. Tired and lots of new experiences richer.

For pictures of this trip, click here.