After a comfortable transatlantic flight Azin and I joined Randall in Frankfurt with only a few minutes to spare before our next flight to Delhi. We were all bubbling with excitement for our trip, although not looking forward to another 7 hour flight. We boarded a crowded flight and were off to another continent and the beginning of our adventure together.
We arrived in Delhi in a fog, both literally and figuratively. India is a humid place, and combined with heavy pollution visibility and air quality were poor throughout our trip. Randall was expecting the hotel to have a car waiting for us at the airport, but after a bit of searching we came to the conclusion that was not happening. Our first chance for some haggling! Actually, we decided to forgoe the haggling in this case, and booked a pre-paid a taxi in the terminal which would ensure that our driver had directions and new the address of our hotel.
That first cab ride was a good lesson in Indian communication. The answer to most questions you ask is inevitably “No problem”. “Do you know where the Grand Shoba Hotel is?”….”No problem”… “How far to the Lotus Temple?”…”It’s no problem?”…”Will we make it in time for our flight?”…”No Problem”. Suffice it to say our driver did not know where the hotel was and even the concept of having an address in the labyrinth of allies we were traversing seemed skeptical. Finally we pulled up to the hotel, around 2 am local time. Stumbling in, still on Denver time (just after lunch) we laid our weary bones to little sleep but some much needed rest.
The hotel was surprisingly cold, and damp with no heat. I pulled on my long johns put on my hat and managed to stay warm (enough) by curling up and not moving. I finally got my best sleep close to the later part of the morning and woke up disoriented and hungry. After some trial and error I found the cafeteria, where Randal, Azin and Terry were already enjoying coffee and tea. I joined them and was glad to see “American Breakfast”, so I ordered eggs and toast with overly sweetened coffee that I happily gulped down.
We discussed a basic plan for the day which included a visit to a local orginization, with ties to NIEA called Project Agape as well as acquiring SIM cards for Azin and Randall. Project Agape was formed as a prayer movement in reaction to violence instigated by radical Shick factions against the prime minister Indira Ghandi in the late 70’s and early 80’s. We had a chance to learn more about this in the next couple days. Despite a steady supply coffee and tea it was hard not to nod off when Commander Thomas pulled out a 200 slide power point presentation outlining their orginization’s “spiritual battle plan”. While our group remained politely awake, one of his own staff audibly started snoring during the discussion and Azin and I exchanged a smirk. “I guess he hasn’t read Presentation Secret’s of Steve Jobs” I could almost hear Azin thinking.
While project Agape was formed as a peaceful prayer movement it’s cultulre, rooted in military leadership had clearly become more aggressive in it’s approach, denouncing sacred Hindu temples, shrines gurus which made for a few uncomfortable moments for Azin and I. I was relieved when our final travel companion, John Wimbish, joined us changing the dry dynamic of the group. John had traveled a few days earlier for a bit of medical tourism, braving an Indian hospital to get a minor procedure done. I’ll spare you the details, but hearing about rats in his hotel room, and more than I wanted to hear about the procedure convinced me John was much more adventurous in this realm than I will ever be.
After sitting through the presentations the day improved a bit. It was a pleasure to take a tour of their Bible school where they practiced a number of sustainable efforts, with solar water heating, mustard farming, and plans for fecal fertilizer when their fish farm was up and running. We left in mix spirits, which turned to shock as we entered rush hour in Delhi. I was in the front seat as we watched two poor souls go over the bars on a motor cycle on the highway and hit the pavement at 40 miles per hour. Suddenly the prayer sessions we were participating in took on a new gravity, and the risks of traveling on Indian roads became much more acute.
We ended our day at a mall, that could have easily been in any american suburb until it came time to catch a taxi where we once again reminded our pink skin was the minority in this country. We couldn’t avoid a nearly 5x marked up taxi ride back to the hotel, although at this point I was happy it had seatbelts and four wheels.
Our second day in Delhi we planned to attend a local christian worship service in the area of the city known as New Delhi followed by plans for lunch at Kareem’s in Old Delhi. It was refreshing to see the variety of people who attended the service, and the enthusiasm and participation of the attendees. Three sisters lead colorful music and prayer was given in both English and Hindi. The service was followed by Tea and introduction to Rogen and Sonny who took us on an unexpected tour of the political buildings in New Delhi. This was our first chance to see some Indian architecture, and despite an obvious British influence the scale and symmetry was breathtaking. We stopped for photos at the India Gate, while sonny told us about the upcoming parade that was to take place on the 26th, their independence day.
After a few quick photos, Sonny had to take an exam and left us with Rogen at the Indira Ghandi museum. The museum was located in what used to be her home, which like the other houses of politicians in the area was surrounded by barbed wire, and armed guards a reminder that while India operates the largest democracy in the world, the political climate is far different than that in the states.
The museum was an homage to her secular and wordy views. It was littered with photographs of her with world leaders, and new’s paper clippings in a variety of languages including english. A few of the rooms were preserved as she had lived in them, and it was interesting to note the books in the bookshelf ranging from a Brief History of Time to the Koran and Bible. Indira Ghandi, and her brother were both martyrs in the name of secular freedom in India another reminder that political leadership in this part of the world is often a violent and dangerous career and quote by both leaders made it clear they both knew what they were getting into. Even today India’s Freedom of information act has precipitated violence despite it’s good intentions.
After the museum we hopped a taxi to the Red Fort and Old Delhi. Walking into Old Delhi was like nothing I have ever experienced and I must say I was a little scared even pulling out my camera due to the density of the crowd we were in. To say we stood out is an understatement. Rogen confidently strode ahead, as we all gawked at caged chickens, 400 year hold dwellings and a spaghetti of electrical wires above. As we approached the largest mosque in northern Delhi I had to push thoughts out of my head about America’s conflicts with places I envision to be like this.
We took a left turn in front of the Mosque down an impossibly crowded street and I couldn’t believe it when we ducked into an alley all of four feet white to wind up finally at Kareem’s. My anxiety subsided a bit as we sat down, and took a look at the menu of this 300 year old family restaurant. Despite feeling totally alien, I actually recognized most of the items on the menu as traditional Indian food and we ate the most enjoyable meal of the trip, and I am happy to report it resulted in no contempt from my digestive system.
The day came to conclusion with a beatiful sunset on the Mosque and Red Fort. I snapped a dozens of photos of glorious orange light, a tragic advantage to the considerable pollution that Delhi and all of India is trapping with it’s massive mountains to the north. It was great to find a new friend in Rogen, and having experienced Old Delhi with the Randall, Terry and John strengthened the ties with our travel mates. We went to bed, finally time adjusted and ready for our second leg of the trip.
The Red Fort near Old Delhi
We had planned plenty of time to check out, eat breakfast and catch a ride to the airport the next morning but things became a bit more stressful as one thing after another was going comically wrong that morning. Like most management the hotel’s sollution was to through more people at the problem, which we all know the efficacy of. A crowd on non-english speaking Indians were shuffling our luggage around as we departed for the airport narrowly within the window to checkin for our flight. More confusion ensued at the airport which required a printed travel confirmation to even enter (or exit ironically) the terminal. Fortunately a laptop did the trick and we all boarded the flight to Bagdogra on time. Azin and I chatted the whole way with our new friend from South Africa. Our seat-mate was refreshingly liberal and the flight went by quickly as we chatted the whole way, and I gawked at the Himalaya’s barely visible out the window of the plane.
Bagdogra, is a former military base and the main arrival point for those traveling to the Indian state of Bihar. The air quality seemed surpisingly worse here and the smell of wood a dung burning was one I never quite became used to in the next few days. We loaded into the cars with our new travel companion Sister Suzie, who was traveling from South India to visit Dr Alex and NIEA. We had not gone more than 5 miles on terrible roads, when we were flagged down by men in fatigues carrying AK 47’s. Despite our driver’s not speaking English it became clear they did not have the propper papers, and I wondered if this was going to be a bribe situation. After 30 minute of standing around, and taking some photos of the local tea farming they let us go with promises to remedy the situation. Despite corruption being a big problem in Bihar this was on the up and up, and the owner of the vehicles returned with us a few days later to straighten out his paperwork.
Having not fully adjusted to the poverty and standard of living we were exposed to in Delhi, the effect was magnified as we drove through the Bihar countryside. The “Interstate” we were traveling on was so beaten it required constant dodging into the other lane, and even when the highway was split we regularly encountered vehicles traveling the wrong way. The horn is essential as brakes on your vehicle in India, and our driver clearly had a steady command of it. The drive lasted four hours, and the road was spordically lined with bamboo shacks, and constantly lined with himalayan looking trucks and tractors, as well as occasional bicycle powered vehicles all dragging loads of tea, rice and other aggricutlure products which makes up the majority of the economy in this region of India. I was suprised to see our fist Internet Cafe at a stop for Chai a few hours into the trip. Surprisingly they were running IE8 in a bamboo shack, although the connection speed was basically that of Dial Up. Finally we arrived in Delhi, to our always smiling host Dr Alex Philip, and I was very suprised to see a group of American’s, there from T4 Global standing in the lobby of the hotel.
Our hotel was located in the village of Purnea, which most people in Bihar consider a city. Azin and I joined Randall for a morning walk and this was my first experience in a place this impoverished. Still, I was surpised and encouraged to see signs of progress all around us with signs for English and computer related education, despite an apperant lack of clean water and sanitary infrastructure. It is humbling to visit places like this and something I hope everyone from HiDef gets to experience to help understand the impact technology can have, even in these rural communities.
After a brief walk, and chance to experience the living standards of Purnea it was time to join Dr Alex, and prepare for tomorrow’s presentation. Visiting the Bible College and Hospital Dr Alex runs, it really became apparent what an influence NIEA is the area and how truly remarkable Dr Alex Philipp really is. The grounds were bustling with activity, we had a chance to eat lunch with some of those that work with Dr Alex. This was the first time I realized how truly friendly Indian people really are. After shuffling through the lunch line I had a flashback to elementary as I surveyed the crowd and looked for a place to sit down and eat. I had broken off from the rest of the crew, and in the corner of the tent a friendly Indian man was standing up motioning to me to join them. All he had to do was look at me to know I likely didn’t speak Hindi, but the table eagerly awaited my company and laughs and basic non-verbal communication ensued. My culture shock was finally starting to ease.
The group split up that day, and while John, Randall and I had a chance to visit one of Dr Alex’s more affluent English speaking schools run by his wife, Azin and Terry visited the Purnea Internet Cafe’s. We were a little disapointed to find none of the kids spoke Angika, but delighted to find a computer lab where the kids were happy to brag about their high score on games, and confirmed they had experience getting on the Internet. School was letting out as we were leaving and the kids rushed me for a chance to have their photo taken. Before school let out we poked our head in a few classrooms and the kids showed an excitement, and eagerness to learn that could not be found in a US schools. I was truly moved, and amazed by what I had seen that day and it was becoming clear the education component of what NIEA does, and the impact our project could have is truly remarkable.
Our second day in Purnea was the big event. I awoke early and did my daily leg ecxersizes before taking a marginally warm shower and dressing in my nicest clothes for the day’s event. We had a chance to review my presentation with some Hindi speakers, but no chance to practice with an interpreter as we had hoped. It was a larger crowd than anyone expected and I was pretty nervous. We had sat around the previous evenings, focused mostly on what wasn’t wrong with the preview, what had to be changed on the presentation last second, and the suprising fact that we had hardly encountered any Angika speakers up to this point. Randall had pulled me aside that night to ask what was wrong, and his encouragement was a big boost to my moral going into the big day.
When it finally came time to present my anxiety quickly subsided as I started to fall into rhythm with the interpretor and the crowd started enquiring about Wikipedia and the opportunities of crowdsourcing. The crowd was already asking about how to handle difference in dialect, understanding theological roots of passages, and how this would all work. My confidence grew as the presentation progressed and I was releaved going into lunch to hand the spotlight over to Azin.
Azin lead an outstanding session, of live user testing with a crowd of varying level of tech literate Angika speakers. It became apperant that almost nobody had an email address, but even the elders of the crowd had mobile phone numbers. It seemed tediously slow by our standards but we managed to collect a dozen votes, and demonstrate how the crowd could quickly surface the spelling errors we had intentionally injected into the Angika we recieved just minutes before. They were even finding new dialect variations, and feedback the traditional community check had not surfaced. The day concluded with a fun dinner relishing in our success, and a fresh outlook on the success of what we had come out to do. I scurried off to my room early to refine a presentation for a guest lecture we had planned at the local university, a collegue of Dr Alex’s ran.
As we arrived at the university the next morning it became apperant this was kind of a big deal. There were signs for guest speakers from HiDef Web (which they pronounced hidif) and they introduced me to a crowd of at least 200 students. The front row was taken up by our team, a well as local news crew holding the classic fuzzy mic and sound equipment. Despite being a major university with a few thousand students the electricty for my mic and projector was pecuriously pig tailed into the wall outlet and was knocked out several times during the presentation. I hadn’t been nervous leading up to the presentation but the size of the crowd did set me aback a little before I really fell into a rhythm.
It wasn’t totally clear if the crowd was grasping what we were saying, but they clearly enjoyed the event as Azin and I were mobbed by the students asking for our autograph and posing for pictures. We were rock stars, so I guess I have now had my 15 minutes complete with groupies. It’s hard not to chuckle about it, but it also feels great to have shown the audience something they can relate to and everyone was eager to apply their new knowledge and log on to Wikipedia.
That afternoon Dr Alex took us to another school in a poorer village on the outskirts of Purnea. The school was a combination of bamboo and brick structures, and it was clear many of the children would not be fed a meal without attending the school. We were honored to present uniforms to the children, and touched to show them the wonder of technology on an iPhone. My heart broke for these children, but my spirts were lifted to see what a difference Compassion Child, NIEA and people Dr Alex are making. We were also encouraged to find out almost all the kids at this school spoke Angika at home.
After presenting the uniforms and posing for some photos, we had lunch and Dr Alex told us more about the problems this school and his orginization faces. Our ears perked up when he mentioned a BioMass generator they were in need of and the need was confirmed as we could not sustain enough power to run the schools computers and were forced to run our demo on the laptops we had with us.
After a late lunch, we had a chance to work hands on with the Angika speaking children and really do a hands on user feedback session like HiDef has never done before. It was not only informative, and educational for us to do this we really saw a desire in these kids that is hard to put to into words. It was the highlight of the trip to see the impact technology was having, and learning about their challenges for steady power supply has inspired Azin and I to formalize a plan to raise the money for the generator Dr Alex mentioned the school so desperately needs.
The day ended with a song from Dr Alex’s two children, and the reminder of the power that a strong family unit has everywhere in the world. We all rested well our last night in Bihar, feeling we had made an impact and knowing HiDef needs to play a role in the lives of the children and their access to technology there.
Azin and I had planned to travel on to Darjeeling, but due to a strike we had a change of plans and returned to Delhi and back to the Hotel Grand Shoba. We headed in early with plans the next day to use a vacation day and travel to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. Our driver picked us up at 6 and we watched the sunrise over fields of rice along the highway.
The architecture of India is truly remarkable. The day was highlighted experiencing the Taj Mahal, but I was struck by the number of temples and shrines we saw dotting the city and country side. The Taj Mahal itself is truly a marvel. Constucted the same time Shakespere was writing his plays in a plague strucken England the Taj is a testament to what good management, and an army of manpower can do. Over twenty thousand workers chisseled and worked inlays on hand spun tools using marbles, brought on Elephants from quarries over 200 kilomoters away. Remarkable the delicate work and inlays are so tightly sealed, the flowers and enscribed scripture all remains as it had over 400 years ago when it was built.
After lunch we visited a local workshop, where workers directly descendant of those who created the Taj showed us the tedious process of shaping the inlays, carving the marble and creating the final product. They then showed us the art of Indian sales, convincing all three of us to leave with at least an item each for prices we did later find to be exorbitant. None the less one cant put a price on experience.
We followed this up with the Agra fort, another example of Grand Moogul architecture and a fun attraction with lots to explore and monkeys frolicking in the lawn.
For the last couple days of our trip, we did a little soveneir shopping and some final site seeing. The Indian sales process did steadily tire on us but if your looking for fine fabrics or a custom taylored suit plan a day to shop in Delhi and save your money in Agra. We tried to squeeze in some final site seeing at Arkshradam and the Lotus temple but both were closed to the public.
A mix of spiritual and cultural exploration our experiences help strengthen client relations with the Seed Co. and likely opened new exciting opportunities for community outreach through the NIEA. Most imporatenly though the trip allowed Azin and I to grow much closer as friends and as the face of HiDef. 2011 promises so much growth financially for HiDef that it’s easy to overlook the cultural growth these experiences create and this was an important reminder that HiDef is about the journey not the destination.