India Trip Report

On Wednesday I flew from Frankfurt to Madras, and got in at about 2am Thursday morning. The flight from Frankfurt was supposed to land at 11:30, but we circled for an hour or so to avoid a thunderstorm over the airport. Impressive lightning bolts in the clouds! At least the rain brings down the heat, which has apparently been up to 105 already. This is the hot part of the year, until the monsoons come back in June or so.

My contact was kind enough to meet me, and took me to a guest house in the city, where I stayed the week. We spent most of the work-time at the Y2K factory at Ambattur, just outside Madras (or Chennai as it is now officially known).

We toured around the software factory. People have small individual spaces, like carrels, in generally large halls. It's a very communal environment, with very often 3 or so people clustered around one screen. Older PCs with 14-15" screens, typically. People generally seem pretty sharp and very friendly. There's a fair amount of physical security (gates, guards), but perhaps that's more to make the clients comfortable. Two power cuts that took out the lights briefly (which typically happened most days), but all the computers are on a substantial UPS.

It's interesting being here! I spent a bit of time being driven around the city, and it's pretty wild. Forget about Boston traffic; imagine a mix of cars, trucks, bicycles, three-wheel cycle-rickshaws, scooters, and bullock-carts, with generally no lane markers or traffic lights. The horn is a vital tool, and "zero-clearance" is a goal. Lots of ads for computer training in little hole-in-the wall schools. Domino's pizza for lunch, but a lot spicier than it is in the U.S.

Street vendors all over the place, for plantains, coconuts, watermelon, "jack fruit" (huge lumpy-looking things), etc. A mix of some first-world glitzy store-fronts, and more third-world sights. Wild local movie ads, and bilingual signs for computer horoscopes. (The local language is Tamil by the way, and Hindi is not encouraged by locals, so English is the lingua franca, and appears on most signs.)

More driving through various parts of the city. Interesting signs of high tech: ads for ISPs, and for more computer training, one huge one weighing the benefits of CORBA vs. Java! The cars on the road are an interesting blend (apart from all the other modes of transportation...) On prevalent model, the Hindustani Ambassador, is a straight clone of a small British car of the 50s, and has a reputation for being extremely rugged and easy to maintain. Almost all cars are in fact assembled in India, even if they bear foreign nameplates. Gas is pretty expensive, near European levels, so fuel economy is paramount.

I'd been intending to walk around a bit in the early morning, before it's heated up, but was mostly time-shifted to the point that that's the only time I could get a bit of sleep. The weather wasn't too bad: a bit of rain kept things not too hot. It can reach 40 degrees Celcius or more, which is well over 100 Fahrenheit. And humid to boot, since Madras is right on the ocean, or more specifically the Bay of Bengal.

Madras has the reputation of being one of the most livable of large Indian cities, and I'm inclined to agree. It's not as big, with not so many migrants and less polluted. It sprawls, but it's low-rise and not too dense. Apart from the driving, it seems pretty mellow and laid-back. (Unlike LA, the land is flat all around, so there's nothing to keep the smog in.)

I spent the weekend doing a bit of sightseeing and shopping. I saw some 1500-year-old temples, and some of the ocean front. The beaches are fantastically long, deep, and mostly deserted, especially at this time of year, but one is warned about sharks and currents. I saw almost no other tourists. Essentially the only Westerners I saw were in the 5-star hotels and a very few people visiting the company. Although I consider myself a reasonably ambitious and adventurous tourist, and I grew up overseas, always a foreigner, it's still a bit off-putting to be so much the outsider.

My contact was kind enough to take me shopping with his family, and it was great fun to look at silks and jewelry with his wife and sister-in-law, and his young daughter to act as a stand-in for my daughter Isabel.

That afternoon, we went over to IIT Madras, and we met the head of the Computer Science department. The five (or six?) IIT campuses are the MIT/Stanford of India, with a deservedly high reputation. CS at Madras has 14 professors, and an intake of about 35 undergrad and 35 graduate students per year, so it's not a huge department. They do have an interest in software engineering, but not so much in compilers (more in Bombay and Delhi, I gather).

The campus itself is fascinating, set in the Gundy National Park, which is inside Madras itself. Huge Banyan trees with their branches sometimes dropping down to form auxiliary trunks, complete with roots, enabling a single tree to form an entire copse. Spotted deer wander around. IIT Madras was set up with German help, and is particularly strong in Mechanical and Chemical Engineering.

After that I did a last bit of souvenir shopping, had dinner with my housemate from the guest house, who is on a several-month stint from US West, and got a 10pm ride to the airport. During a power cut that evening, I stood out in the garden of the guest house for a while, since it was a bit cooler than inside. As the night deepened, and the moon shown, I became aware of the bats swooping amongst the coconut palms and other trees. (A hackneyed image, but evocative enough at the time!)

Getting e-mail access was sometimes a challenge, and sometimes quite straightforward. In Germany, I once relied on manual-dial to get in through AT&T Direct (with a German phone adapter I got at Radio Shack before I left), and once using the PSI Frankfurt number from a credit-card phone at the airport. Another such phone completely defeated me. It doesn't help that I've never been able to get modem noise from the speaker on this laptop. In India, I was lent a local ISP number, which I could access easily from my guest house. I often got 28,800 baud, but a couple of times only 2400. I was not been able to get Ethernet access: offices tend to have local-only LANs, or have internet access through a proxy server, which my Eudora can't hack. In any case, internet access is over a (shared) 64 Kbit line, so it isn't that much better than dial-up. My modem, at least, tends not to recognize foreign dial-tone, so I need to turn wait-for-dial-tone off. Pulse mode is good, since even if systems recognize tones, my modem appears to send tones too quickly, and numbers get dropped. Many phones are hard-wired at the wall-end, both in Germany and India, but many do also connect to the wire with RJ-11 at the phone-end. A splitter would be useful to be able to use the hand-set in parallel with the modem, either for modem configuration debugging or manual dial if all else fails.

I enjoyed the food! Indian food in the States is good, but mainly Northern. In the South the food is quite different, and many people are entirely vegetarian. Most restaurants seem not to be pure Southern, with some Northern dishes, and even Chinese quite popular. I'm certainly not a natural vegetarian, but I enjoyed dishes like Rasam, eaten as a soup or thin sauce on rice, Sambar, a thicker curry, and Dal, or lentils. People typically eat with their fingers, of the right hand only, or scoop things up with a piece of Chappati or other bread. A traditional serving style is in a large metal platter, with a banana leaf on the bottom, then a pile of rice, and small containers of various things to pile on the rice. A very light and refreshing drink is coconut water (straight from the coconut before it's hardened into a nut) with a bit of honey and mint. There are plenty of street vendors, including some with huge piles of watermelon, but one is generally warned away from them. Things are cheap by American standards, of course: dinner for two in one of the best restaurants in town for about 30 bucks, and that's really expensive.

Actually to speak of "Southern" or "Northern" is a bit of a misnomer. My contact likened India to all of Europe, with a similar geographic size, diversity of culture and cuisine, and a similar apparent uniformity to those of very different ethnicity, not to mention a lot more people. There are four Southern states, and their food differs quite a bit. Andhra Pradesh is reputed to have the spiciest food, and I can attest to that!

All in all, quite a trip! Of course it was fascinating on a personal level. Being abroad on business gives one a very different perspective, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with people, learning more about their work and their lives.

schooler@alum.mit.edu