Monday, March 30, 2009

Cars Trucks

When I was young, I'm told, my favorite book was "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go", by Richard Scarry.  Apparantly this affinity is genetic.  

William is no longer interested in other books.  When presented with books, his request is always for "cars trucks".  He's quite good now at finding Goldbug on every page, and he can identify Dingo.  Every once in a while he sees a kitty cat, or a doggie, or something like that.  Bus, truck, and car spottings are de rigeur.  Being an Indian child, he can also spot vehicles that are somewhere between a scooter/motorcycle and a car, known locally as autorickshaws, or "autos".  Autos are his favorites to spot in the street, and now in the book, too.  And today he spotted a monkey in a tree, which was great, except that there was no monkey in the tree he was looking at.  Oh well.  He's only 1.  

Sadly, the book was published in 1974, so it's unlikely that it was my father's favorite as well.  So the real challenge will be keeping the book intact for another 30 years so that William's first-born has a chance to read it, too.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Potty training already?

I had a funny experience this evening, related to William and potty training, as you can probably guess from the title.

Greg went out to a happy hour for a visiting colleague from Chennai. We were all supposed to go, but I was just pooped (no pun intended) by the end of the day on the visa line. So, I opted to stay home with William.

Lately, he's been pretty curious about potties and pee pee and poo poo and such things. Hoping to make potty training relatively easy whenever it's time (I have no idea how to do this, after all), I generally use his curiosity to explain about going to the potty. Today, though, he took it one step further and went and sat down on his little training potty all on his own. So, I explained that he had to take his diaper off if he wanted to go to the potty. While he is very verbal, I am still not sure how much he understands what I say, but apparently this time he understood it all. He said to me: "Mama, diaper, off!"

So, off came the diaper. What else was I supposed to do?

Then he sat down on his little potty, but no pee pee came out, even though he kept looking for it. I don't think he quite understands the concept yet, you see. After a few minutes, he was bored of just sitting there and ran over to the bookshelf for his Freight Train book. So, then we sat for another 10 minutes or so, William on the potty, me reading the book to him. But still no pee pee.

Needless to say, 10 minutes of one story is about the extent of his attention span. He then got up and started to run around! I tried to explain he needed his diaper if he wasn't going to sit on the potty, but all I got in return was: "No! No! No!" Yes, that word is definitely mastered.

The next 45 minutes were a little tense for me - William would run around the house a little bit, then go sit on the potty again. Then up and about, then on the potty again. Again and again. No pee pee ever made it into the potty - but none ever made it onto the floor, either, thankfully. And, eventually he got bored of the game (?) and let me put his diaper on him when he was distracted by another toy. I could again breathe easily.

As an end note, about an hour later when we were starting to walk upstairs to bed, he stopped, looked at me, grabbed his diaper, and said "pee pee, Mama." Was he actually going? Who knows. But, I think he may be starting to understand the concept and, if so, that will certainly make the potty training process easier.

3 stars in India

We spent the last weekend in Agra at the Taj Mahal - a wonderful way to celebrate my birthday! The travel schedule was a little crazy: 9PM flight from HYD on Friday night, landing late in Delhi at midnight. 6AM train from Delhi to Agra, arriving 8AM. Full day in Agra, arriving back in Delhi at 10PM. Then, Sunday we planned to tour Delhi so my parents could see the city.

Since we weren't spending much time at the hotel, I figured a 3 or 4 star place would be OK - why spend the mucho $$$ for a 5 star when we'd only be there for 5 hours the first night and only for sleeping on the second? I scouted around between various guidebooks and websites, and landed on the Hotel Ajanta. Good price and close to the train station, which would help with the early morning train departure.

What holds true in almost all cities around the world proves true for India: hotels by the train station are in sketchy neighborhoods. When the car pulled up to the hotel, I almost told the driver to turn around and take us to a Hyatt or Sheraton or something. I couldn't believe I had booked this hotel for my parents and son to sleep in ... but, the staff seemed attentive, it was already nearly midnight, and the idea of sleep was very important since i had to be up in 4 hours anyway. So, we stayed put.

Saturday morning, I was still not impressed ... stray dogs and a alley-way barber on the street, lots of people on the street staring at William, passing many more sketchy-looking hotels on the short drive to the train station ... needless to say, I once again seriously debated changing hotels that evening. But, when we got back from Agra totally exhausted, I really couldn't move. So, we stayed put.

As it turns out, Sunday morning in the day light things didn't look so bad. Shabby, yes, but not dangerous like my first impression. The hotel staff was actually very friendly - especially to William - and the sheets and towels were clean, even if they felt like sandpaper (I'm not exagerating!). The breakfast was OK and there were many other foreign guests, though they were all staying in the main building, not the annexe. When we checked in, the elevator was broken, and none of us wanted to walk up 5 flights of stairs ... so we went to the annexe. I wonder if we had been in the main building with the other foreigners if things might have looked better.

In any case, if you're travelling on a budget, a three-star hotel would probably be OK (room $50-70/night), though I expect there's some variation. This place had quite a few good reviews on and in Lonely Planet. BUT, I would caution against going anything lower than 3 star. And, if you can afford it, the extra money for the nicer hotels is definitely worth it!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Still alive, we promise

It's been some time, but we're still alive. In the intervening days, we've opened up the office for full operations and had my parents fly in for a visit. With changes at work at visitors at home (and not to mention the internet being out for a week at home), there just hasn't been much extra time!

William's enjoyed having his grandparents visit and loves having the extra people around to talk to and play with. He also enjoyed last Sunday at the Novotel in Hitech city - we went for brunch and to swim in the pool. He was quite the fish! By the end of the morning we had to watch him so closely because he would just jump in the pool not really waiting for someone to catch him! Luckily, there weren't any near misses. Then he swam so long we ended up skipping the brunch buffet, because he was so tired - oh well - next time.

Getting to swim, though, was an adventure. Our friends are members of a pool/tennis club near our house, and we had made arrangements to meet there at 10:30. Three families arrived (with a total of 6 kids between us, all of whom were ready to swim!) only to find that the pool was closed from 10:30 - 4. It is open from 6 - 10:30 and 4 - 8. When my member friend asked why, the guard replied it was too hot in the middle of the day to swim. She gently pointed out that that was the best time to go swimming, but this logic fell on deaf ears.

I can *sort of* understand the public parks being closed from 10 to 3 because of heat. After all, who wants to sit in direct sunlight or play on super hot play ground equipment in 100 to 120 degree weather? But a pool? That's a little weird. So, I asked the ladies at work, and they, of course, couldn't figure out why I was confused. They said maybe kids would want to go out, but the mothers certainly wouldn't because they would get too dark and ruin any attempts at skin whitening. Hmm... that's a new one. I also pointed out that there are brown outs and rolling black outs in the middle of the day, which would make swimming even more attractive. E.g., on Monday we were without power from 10 to 5. But, they still thought I was crazy for wanting to swim in the height of the heat.

So, maybe I'm crazy, but at least the Novotel is crazy along with me. We and the two other families packed up all 6 kids again, drove to the city outskirts, and had quite an enjoyable time. Next time, if William can stay awake for brunch, there's also aparently a bouncy castle - if it doesn't get too hot, that is!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cars and trucks and things that can be bought only with demand drafts

Car buying in the United States is generally an unpleasant experience at best.  Slimy salespeople, haggling, paperwork, lemons... Who knows what lurks in the shadows of the showroom.  

In India, it seems, it's much the same.  I wish I had counted the number of hours I spent in Ahmed's office.  Ahmed is the sales manager at the dealer where we bought our car, which means he's very busy: people in his office, using his computer, calling on the phone, calling on his mobile, etc.  This did not contribute to a speedy conclusion to the process.  Though a cup of tea here and there was rather nice, and, astonishingly, it seems that while Indians love to negotiate, haggling over car prices is minimal.  

Here was the problem: imagine trying to buy a car in the States with no checks and no credit cards.  How would you do it?  The typical way here is what they call a "demand draft", or DD, which is essentially a cashier's check.  But how do you get the money for the cashier's check if you have no account at the bank and they won't take your checks?  The answer?  Open an account at the bank.  After a week of trying to get a single credit card transaction to go through (with no success), I was done with Capital One.  

There are really two stories worth telling.  

1. On the first night when we tried to buy the car, expecting to use some cash and two different credit cards, one of the credit cards decided to set off a fraud alert, despite the fact that we had called the company just six weeks earlier to tell them we'd be in India for two years.  Anyway, in the wrangling with their own bank over all this, the bank claimed there was something wrong with the dealer's credit card machine, and suggested they try a different machine.  So, unbeknownst to me, in a fit of creative madness, Ahmed absconded with my credit card and sent it to his company's service shop the next town over!  I found out about 10 minutes later, and Ahmed was very proud of himself for his moment of service-oriented genius.  I was obviously less than thrilled.  After a moment pondering the situation, and after deciding that recalling the cards would do no good (it was, after all, a worthwhile effort, if poorly executed), I announced to Ahmed that I was going to follow the cards.  So off we went to Secunderabad to follow the cards, at 9:00 at night.  Fun.  But, sadly, to no avail.  (Yes, we're watching the cards closely, and no, nothing fraudulent has showed up.)

2.  Several days later, I was making one of my daily calls to Capital One, trying to get them to cancel this transaction that was destined to spend its four day life in a state of purgatory, approved by my bank, but never to be seen by the dealer's.  But of course the customer can't just up and cancel a credit card transaction without the merchant's approval.  So I would have to get Ahmed to talk to Capital One, whence the logistical nightmare ensued.  Ahmed, being a lowly corporate lackey in a country where people don't really completely trust each other, cannot call internationally from his office.  I, as a lowly government service, cannot call internationally from my mobile phone.  Collect calls are an unknown quantity here in India.  So how to get Ahmed on the phone with Capital One?  Then I learned a fascinating tidbit that I thought would be the golden key, the silver bullet: the Capital One call center was in Bombay.  We were all in India!  The call would be domestic!  Outstanding, I thought.  But wait: the call center, a mere 500 or so miles away, was devoid of domestic phone lines.  They could only call the States.  It was at this point that I curled up on the floor and wept.  

So what happened?  I opened an Indian bank account, wired money from the US, and had a DD of my very own, all within about three days - less time than it took for the stinking credit card transaction to cancel.  So now we have the car, a lovely red Mahindra Xylo E6 (no ski rack), which is destined to be dented and dinged as soon as it leaves the garage.  But it is ours, and William can have his very own seat.  

The postscript: The dealer, with a tiny garage underground in the middle of a major commercial district, delivers cars sans gas, but with a coupon to buy it.  But on the way home, a massive Congress party rally starring Sonia Gandhi herself had traffic snarled city-wide, blocking our way to the gas station to which the dealer normally sends customers post-purchase.  So we ran out of gas on the way home.  Luckily the driver pumped enough air into the engine (no, I have no idea what that means or why he did it) to get us to a gas station, and we made it home.