Rob Emrich

Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy, Travel

New Delhi, India

Thanks to everyone who has so kindly called to check and make sure I’m doing OK. India is a mind-boggling place. I rented an apartment and set up an office in Delhi, which means two things: (1) Most of my travel from now until mid-July will be based from New Delhi; and (2) I can now explore everything this city has to offer. I’m going to attempt to start at the beginning of the month and fill in all of the details. For the time being, my blog will have a more topical format and will be less chronological.

Arrival: An acrid fume wafted into the cabin as soon as the doors of the plane opened, while we sat on the New Delhi Airport tarmac. It instantly affected me, and I noticed how difficult it was becoming to breathe. It only worsened as I walked outside. It was nighttime, but dust and pollution hung like a haze in the air. Pollution in Bangkok and Mexico City pales in comparison to this.

Daniel Pepper, an old friend from Cleveland and an extremely talented photojournalist, hosted me until I came up with a game plan for India. Dan was a kind and gracious host, and it was good to catch up with him.

The day after I arrived, Daniel left for Bombay. I was on my own, save for some great advice from Daniel, to explore Delhi. Delhi is a complicated place that I am still struggling to understand.

I want to share a few things that have struck me about this place:

Poverty and Economy: Although I happened to be staying in a relatively upscale neighborhood, it was instantly apparent to me that the level of poverty in Delhi is staggering. There are people coming out of the woodwork from every possible place. The enormous population of this country comes into play at every level. There are people to do everything and anything. I’m interested in the rapidly growing Indian economy and the environmental landscape for new business. By considering the country from a business perspective, however, I was rudely awakened by the reality.

In the US, labor is expensive and imported goods are cheap. It is typically more efficient to replace old or broken goods than to have an item fixed. In India, goods are more expensive, while labor is low-priced.

As a result,there is a laborer to fix all broken goods, though people who are skilled professionals may not be the ones making the repairs. Goods are shoddily produced and repaired.It seems as if the economic culture itself is in a state of disrepair. I’ve found that goods aren’t even created or designed properly from the outset.

For example, I went desk shopping earlier this month. It’s a process that would usually take me several days. I talked to around 20 different proprietors at a disaggregated furniture market. The desks at the market were both low quality and expensive. On Daniel's advice, I found a furniture maker to build my desk from scratch using teak wood. Because labor was so cheap, the desk was less expensive and far nicer in quality.

I asked to tour the place where the desks were made. On a scooter with two others, I was taken about a kilometer away to a cement basement building with 20 people working on furniture in various states of completion. A four-foot high pile of wood shavings covered in varnish and oil was adjacent to a room with a live fire blazing. It made me think of urban labor conditions in the US during the industrial revolution. While the economy here is growing at 9% annually, significant changes must be made to get the Indian economic “lion to roar.”

Bogal Market A few days into the trip, I developed a severe throat infection, probably from Thailand, and spent the next five days resting and recovering. During that time, I ventured out into many of the local markets, including one in the neighborhood called Boghul Market. Boghul is an authentic middle class Indian market. Complete with Chai hawkers, wild chickens, goat carcasses, cell phone shops, and sock stores, it’s a massive conglomeration on a 10-block radius in the middle of a residential area. I was welcomed during my first trip into the market by a plastic bag of muddy water thrown at my feet. I thought I had been targeted based on my being an outsider. That assumption stayed with me until my next visit when I witnessed two Indian women walking together; one woman was smacked squarely in the face with a full water balloon. As I looked on in horror, I realized something bigger must be at play.

After a few inquiries I found out this was related to the upcoming festival of Holi.

Holi: From a visitor’s perspective, Holi is more of a free-for-all where at any moment you could be doused with water and then covered in powdered dye. Everyone is on alert for the few weeks preceding this melee. I loved it. You can see from my pictures the net result. Even at the time of this writing, my hair is still dyed magenta. All the colors have finally come out of my skin (after a week of five to six showers per day), but my blond hair was apparently starved for color and doesn’t want to let go. All over India now, I am signaling to everyone I meet that someone may have gone a little too far in celebrating Holi. The only other people I see still dyed are kids ages five to seven, so I feel a little silly waiting for my hair to grow out. Unfortunately, my auto rickshaw prices, which have to be negotiated every time, have gone up by about 25% as I look like a complete tourist without a clue.

Here are some things I like or find amazing about India: The voice recognition software used by companies for telephone customer service will not work with my accent. I could not even talk to a customer care rep to get my phone setup. I ended up solving this problem by doing my best to talk in a terrible imitation of an Indian accent. I know nowtospeak to customer care only when I am all alone and no one can hear me.

  • Tipping: Affluent people in India only go to a store once. While there, they take in what the store offers, get a card or number and from that moment on, use delivery. It is possible to never leave your home, provided you have all the right numbers. The result is an endless supply of delivery boys. These kids almost never get a tip for running or biking all over town. I always make sure to give them something. A 10-rupee tip (around 25 cents) is like a hundred dollars to them. I am almost inclined to order things only so that I can give tips. The ability to make someone’s day by only giving a small amount doesn’t get old. Tipping in Dehli is probably one of my favorite things to do.
  • The Gym: This is more about India and Thailand. I joined a gym here called Stamina, which managed to be both expensive and not very nice. Nonetheless, I am by far the strongest person in the gym. This was also true in all the places I went in Thailand. Many of you know that I have a serious shoulder injury and have had multiple surgeries. I started an intensive strength training program a few years ago, knowing that no matter what I did, I would never be strong compared to other people who work out as often as I do.That is not true here. (1) I max out the weight bench and all of the machines. For those of you who lift in the US, you can guess how gratifying this is. (2) When I am getting toward the end of my sets, I look up to find that I have an audience watching me put up the weight. This is funny, considering how much I groan, grunt, make faces and turn red. I am a spectacle in the gym. (3) There are spotters/workout assistants in the gym. In the US, people workout in pairs or have to ask for help spotting. In India, there is a person who just sits in the gym and helps all day. Because I am lifting so much for Indian standards, it takes three of these people to spot me. This, by itself, is awesome.
  • Friends hold hands: Here, as in many parts of the Middle East, if two men are friends and are walking together down the street, they may decide to hold hands. Every time I see this, which is frequently, I think of how outrageous this would be to do with my friends in the US. I can imagine how visibly uncomfortable Grant Keating, Matt Youngner, or Ned Sackman would be if I reached out to hold their hands while heading out to a bar. I think Dan Riffle would be up for it, though, so I hope he’s ready.
  • Actually: Many Indians who don’t speak perfect English choose to start or insert the word “actually” into every sentence—sometimes more than once. It’s the equivalent of a 14-year-old girl saying “like” between every word. At first it really threw me off because it seemed unnecessarily confrontational. Here are a few examples:Me: How much is that carton of milk?

    Store Owner: Actually, its 20 rupees.

    It’s as if I claimed that the milk was 10 rupees, but he was correcting me.

    ***

    Me: Is this seat being used?

    Person on Plane: Actually, this seat is not presently being used.

    ***

    Me: How much is the rent?

    Broker: Actually, the rent is being 50,000 rupees.

    Me: OK, fine I never said it was anything else, I was only asking how much it was.

    Broker: Actually, this is a very good price for the neighborhood and all of the furnishings.

    Me: OK, fine I never said it wasn't.

    Broker: Actually, how much are you willing to pay for it? You give me a price.

    Me: I never said I was interested. This is nuts!

©  Robert Emrich. All Rights Reserved.