Archive for the 'Island Culture' Category

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My Current Business Trip…

I left the island at 10:00pm Saturday night. Landed in Nairobi at 1:00am. The organizers of the trade junket said they had arranged hotel rooms for us as we had a 5 hour layover. We went off to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel, we were told to take a seat in the lobby while they got us registered. They also said they would make us some coffee. What happened next was quite amusing. I must have written my name and passport number down on four different forms while sitting with my fellow travelers in the lobby. I complied with all of the requests, without maikng my usual comments about the inefficiency of what I was witnessing as the registration process. This was all supposed to have been arranged beforehand. All this registration activity took so long (it took forever to get the coffee too) that we told the hotel is was too late and we had to get back to the airport.

We went back to the airport went through the whole check in and customs clearance line dance and took a flight from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam. The highlight of the trip so far: it was a beautiful morning and we flew right over Mount Kilimanjaro (my camera was not available). It is kind of fun to see in person, even from a plane, a place you’ve heard so much about through the years.

When we landed at Dar es Salaam, I was singled out for special treatment by Tanzanian customs. Since I was tired, I have no doubt I had a look that said I was a great target for which petty tyrants could practice their techniques. When I caught up to my travelling party, I learned that more than half of them were missing their luggage! I managed to escape that little adventure. We finally made it to the hotel. I am paying $90.00 per night for this room. That’s right, $90.00. I’m not paying in Tanzanian Shillings, I’m paying in dollars.

This is the bathroom:

I will admit, that while of poor quality, the room is clean.

I could get way better than this for $90.00 a night in Dallas! I could probably get a weekend deal at one of the nice hotels downtown for less. This is part of a discounted package deal from the normal rates and was selected by the organizers of this trip.

The thing that really sucks about this hotel is that they don’t sell any liquor. I don’t know who set this trip up, but the culture of the island is really big on feedback forms. I can’t wait for the opportunity to fill mine out.

I don’t have…

Much of a social life here on the island.

I blame two things for this situation: one, I work all the time; two, there is no pub/bar culture here. There is nobody in the bars at night. Oh, yes there are a few nightclubs along the beach that get quite crowded with youngsters hopping up and down to sega music (and a surprising number of these people are gay, which I didn’t expect in such an otherwise very conservative society). I’m too old for that crap.

I could also put more effort into learning French. That might help, but not too much as most everyone speaks decent English.

But I think I have a real clue as to why I don’t have many friends here. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon on a three day holiday weekend and I’m sitting on my terrace reading The Box. And I’m really enjoying the book. I actually find the book entertaining.

The NFL Playoffs…

In my mind the two games on today, the conference championships, often produce the best entertainment of the year when it comes to football. The games are often very exciting.

The first game comes on at midnight local time. Tomorrow is a government holiday. (Chinese New Year, I think. I don’t pay much attention.)

There will be no place to go watch the game. The local bars, which will be a bit busy around 5:00pm when Arsenal and Man U go at it, will be closed by 10:00pm.

I suppose I could try to watch online, but I fear that is a sure path to a virus laden computer.

The mess…

That is the State Bank of India.

Here on the island, located in the same building as my school is the local headquarters for the State Bank of India. My relationship with them has been comical from the very first day I’ve done business with them. I chose them because there were convenient. Right downstairs from my office. What could be better than that?

I opened my account a few days before my first payday. My pay was directly deposited into my account, the fun started that day. I went to the service desk and asked about my debit card. I was told that it would take about a month for it to arrive!

I got lucky. It took only three weeks.

My first trip to the ATM caused the staff at the bank to think I’m an idiot. I put my card in, entered my pin and then went through the menu choices to make a cash withdrawal. I get to a screen that says simply “MUR” and gives a choice of Yes or No. I hit the yes button because I want Mauritian Rupees. That’s the local currency. After hitting the yes button, the machine spits my card out. I go through the same steps, landing at the MUR page, and hit yes again. I get my card spit back at me again. I try this several more times. Same result. (Note: the screen graphics don’t have anything other than “MUR” right in the center of the screen. There is no other text. There is no blank space that might lead you to believe this is the screen where you enter the amount.) I finally go into the office and tell the staff my card doesn’t work. The woman that is the manager of the branch comes back outside with me and we go through the same steps. I get to the MUR screen and hit yes, my card is spit back out. “See,” I said, “it doesn’t work.” She then takes the card, puts it back in the machine, asks me to enter my pin, and navigates to the MUR screen. She then tells me to enter the amount I want to withdraw. As I enter the amount, the screen changes to a look that tells you visually that is where you want to enter the amount you desire to withdraw. The machine spits out my cash, then my card, and the receipt. I get the most condescending look from the woman you could imagine. I didn’t notice a ring, but I have no doubt she’s married. At least she’s been married. That look was so withering, she’s probably divorced.

My next bit of fun was my first day in India. I asked the branch manger if my debit card would work in India, “Of course,” he says, “it’s an international debit card.” I landed early in the morning in Chennai (Madras for those of you who’ve never heard of Chennai). I was picked up by the hotel driver and we took off for the hotel. I spotted an SBI ATM on the way and asked the driver to pull over and let me use this stand alone machine. I put my card in, I was very careful with reading the screens. It didn’t give me any cash. It simply gave me a receipt with an error code and a phone number for customer service. I went to an SBI branch the next day to see if there was a problem with my card. Standing on queue waiting my turn to talk to the agent was fun. The bank lobby was unlike any bank lobby you’ll see in the U.S. It looked like the first photo in this set of pictures of bureaucrats. The bank employee took my card and disappeared into the back room. He was gone for a several minutes. When he came back he told me to try my card in the ATM at the front door. I did, it worked. Maybe the first machine was empty of cash. If so, why wouldn’t the machine be programmed to just tell me? Why give me a four digit error code and the phone number of customer service? Weird.

For the balance of my time in India the card worked as it should, no problems at all.

Up until the last day.

I went to the Air Mauritius office in Bangalore to make a change to my travel plans. Yes, I know about the internet. Air Mauritius doesn’t know about the internet. At the office the people there made the change to my ticket within minutes. It then came time to pay. I gave them my SBI card. It didn’t work. They tried several times. Nothing. So I had to whip out my U.S. based credit card to purchase my ticket. This is a good thing in that the bill goes to my home in the U.S. and the wife pays the bill, so it’s kind of like free money. The wife, however, doesn’t care for me using this method of paying my bills over here. So I managed my way around the failure of the SBI debit card.

Next up was paying my hotel bill. It was 3:00am. I needed to get to the airport by 4:30, which was going to be tight as my bank card would not work again. The desk clerk suggested I walk down the street to the SBI ATM to get money, but this would work as the daily limit on withdrawals is 20,000 rupees. Which is $400. My hotel bill was $1,400. So, once again, my wife was the actual payee on the hotel bill.

When I got back to Mauritius, I went to the branch to tell them how unreliable their card is. That you can’t depend on it to work. They asked me to fill out a complaint form. They asked me to fill it out again as I made some silly mistake on the form. They are so unhelpful down there. And when I made the mistake on the form, I got that same withering look from the woman that showed me how the ATM machine works. It’s been seven weeks since the completion of that form. No response.

The result of all this is I always carry a pocket full of cash. Something I haven’t done in the U.S. for years.

I had another episode prior to the holidays: I needed to pay several bills. The ATM in the building has a screen that announces I enjoy a 100,000 rupee daily withdrawal limit. I went to the machine to withdraw 50,000. It spit my card back at me with no money. I tried again. Same result. Third time being the charm? No such luck. I finally withdrew 30,000 without a problem. It then occurred to me that there was a physical limit to each withdrawal. The slot which the money comes through can only handle a stack of bills so thick. Now the machine doesn’t have any advice screen to tell you this, it just spits the card back at you if you go over the physical limit. What nonsense.

I would move my banking elsewhere, but I’m not yet convinced there is better available here on the island.

Adjusting to life…

On the island is an ongoing project. Part of me keeps trying to get 1.2 million people to bend to my will.

I mean, come on! Can’t they see the wisdom of the way I do things? Can’t they recognize the superiority of my preferences and ideas? Do they not realize that as an American I bring all kinds of market wisdom with me to these shores?

The answer to each of those questions is: No. And they could really not care less about what I think.

I continue to have trouble finding and purchasing the things I want to make my life a little more comfortable around here. One of my coworkers tells me to quit looking, “Just call them up and tell them to bring it to you.” I want to shop and purchase merchandise just like I would at home, but I think I’m going to adopt the island way. I’ve had enough frustration for one weekend.

Advertising…

Doesn’t much help either. Along with the location, cultural and language problem described below, add to that list the absence of advertising. I’m not claiming there is no advertising, I just don’t see any of it. I don’t watch tv, I can’t read the papers and the radio in my car doesn’t work.

I go days without seeing any advertising. This makes shopping more difficult too. As before, imagine standing in front of the coffee section and not knowing anything about Folger’s. I don’t get this help from media here on the island because I don’t pay attention to it at all.

Grocery Shopping…

In a strange land is really tough.

It is hard to imagine how grounded your frame of reference in grocery stores is centered around brands.  You know the brands of the products you like.  Take something as simple as a can of coffee.  You go to the coffee section in the grocery and there is Folger’s and Maxwell House, along with others you may be less familiar with and then also the off brand or private label coffee.  You have the ability to compare the known against the unknown.  You may be willing to try the house brand as you can see it’s less expensive than the name brand.  You don’t expect the same quality, but, because you can also rely on the brand of the grocery selling the house brand, you don’t expect crap either.

Here, where I don’t speak the local everyday language, this is not possible.  When I’m standing in the coffee section I can’t hardly tell if the coffee is instant or not.  Instant is far and away the more common type of coffee so I have to be careful in what I select.  I confess to resorting to the pictures on the label (Yes I should be working on my French as opposed to writing this post) to be able to tell if the product is suitable for my drip coffeemaker. And then I either can’t remember or find that last brand I bought if I happened to have liked it.  Continue this effort through each and every packaged good you might buy.

Oh and if you are particular about ingredients in an item, or don’t care for particular scents, the personal care items aisle is a nightmare. Deodorant, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. is impossible.  I’m about to give up and do the total Steve Jobs on my coworkers.

Then there is the product mix.  I can understand some of the differences between here and the U.S., but no where near all of it.  In a country where the population is almost 20% Muslim, why is the only sliced meat available ham?  Try and find chicken (which takes up most of the fresh meat cooler) or turkey, or roast beef.  Well the absence of roast beef is somewhat understandable too as the country is about 50% Hindu.  But then again, you can find fresh whole cuts of beef in the meat section.

With all the Hindus, and consequently a lot of vegetarians, it would seem likely that the produce section might be kind of nice with a lot of varieties available.  At least that is what I thought would be the case, but I was wrong.  The produce section is really weak in the stores I’ve been to.

Yes there is a wide variety of rice available.  Not surprising as I’m between Asia and Africa.  Way more tea than coffee too.  Most of it is, again, instant. I find this odd.

But peanut butter?  There were six jars of peanut butter in the store today.  Most of the peanut butter has sugar added to it also, you have to search for peanut butter with no sugar. I got lucky today.

Compare that with about 30 feet of refrigerated case shelves given over to various types of margarine.  I’m left to scratch my head over this as the store does not have a customer base consisting of food stamp holders buying carts full of margarine and Wonder Bread for their kids. (Admit it, you all have seen this. And I don’t even have to tell you what they look like.)

The store charges 10 rupees to use a conventional cart.  If I put one 100 rupee item in my cart, an impulse purchase, because there is room for it, I would make up for whatever costs the store is trying to defray by charging for the use of the cart.  This program baffles me. I kind of think that the principles of good grocery store management are somewhat universal and that they are somewhat easily copied. There is clearly something I’m missing.

There is one thing about the stores that Scott Wright would like to see in the U.S., they do charge for their bags.  Even I have purchased a reusable shopping bag for my grocery store trips.  People do respond to incentives.

Divali was this past week…

And the students put on a celebration for the staff!

Dancer

This had to be the strangest two hours I’ve ever spent in an academic setting. The students sang, danced, performed skits and also served us lunch.

I gave my camera to one of the staff members to take a picture of me with the mark on my forehead. I accidentally deleted it from my camera. Honest.

You Sometimes…

Just have to shake your head.

A little work story that I found funny:

One of my associates spends a great deal of time securing internships for our students.  He and his assistant, a constant source of trouble, went to visit a large multi-national consulting firm that everybody has heard of.  There might even be a reader or two that are employed by this outfit.  They had their meeting with the head of local HR about getting our students in for internships.  The meeting went well, very well.  My associate is confident we’ll be able to place several interns with these consultants.  As the meeting drew to a close, the HR guy asked my associate if he could talk to him in private.  The assistant was asked to wait in the reception area.

My associate then was told about what a wreck the assistant was and that he had better watch out.  He was given specific examples of her crappy manners, coarse and abusive language, petty and wholly unreasonable demands (demands she had no business making), the list went on.  My associate told me he was thinking he had read the meeting all wrong and there was no way we would be able to place interns with this outfit.  He was also getting quite angry with his assistant as he was being beaten about the head and shoulders with her rude performance.

The consultant finally let up and told him we would still work together, but that he never wanted to see the assistant again.

My associate walked out into the reception area to find his assistant sitting there smoking!  He told me he couldn’t believe what he saw. He said smoking in that reception area would have tantamount to lighting up in church.   He said he let her have it with both barrels in the car on the way back to school.  Her defense was that there was an ashtray sitting there, so she assumed it was OK.

Later that afternoon the consulting firm HR guy called.  He told my associate about the smoking.  My associate said, “Well, there was an ashtray there.”  It was a weak defense and he was embarrassed making it.

The HR guy said, “Did she tell you that she had to stand on our leather sofa, in her high heels by the way, in order to be able to get the ash tray off the top of the bookshelf?”

She was, to use a phrase we used at one of my former employers, shot the very next day.

So I am the only white guy…

Here in the office.  I am also the only American.  I try to be sensitive to the cultural differences between home and this island where I’ll be for a while.  I am also a senior manager here at the school.  There is one thing that I am having a hard time dealing with: birthdays!  Every one that celebrates a birthday brings in a cake to share with their coworkers.  Guess what damn near every cake made on a tropical island has as an ingredient?  Coconut!

If there is one thing in this world that I absolutely despise it’s coconut.  That stuff will fucking kill you.  The coconut palms grow like weeds around here, they are everywhere.

I can’t stand the stuff in any form.  Even, in case you were wondering, in sunscreen or tanning oils.  You can parade the hottest chick on the planet by me and if she’s wearing any tanning oil that hints of coconut I’ll run away!  Fast.

I am forced by my position, both with the school and because I am trying to fit in, to choke down a piece of cake with every birthday.

The things I do for my family.  They’ll never appreciate the burden.