Learn from the international engineer: India

03/23/2006


Traveling internationally provides broad, enriching personal experiences, particularly in India. In millions of miles of travels to locations ranging from Manila to Moscow, I have learned a few things along the way. In recent travels to Mumbai (Bombay) and along the West Coast of India, reconfirmed lessons include the need to have a host, be prepared for economic diversity, do not plan to drive yourself, and ensure your papers are in order.

A "host" is a person that can advise about the best-suited accommodations, local customs, where it is safe to travel and eat, can communicate with locals in the native language and can assist in making arrangements for transport, meetings, or other important needs. They also can be a tour guide for more interesting experiences. Side trips in India included tours of parks, vista points, business centers, and, most memorable, a personal tour and explanation of a Krishna (Krsna) temple. A host may be a person from your company, your customer's company or a local business partner, but wherever they come from, they are of utmost importance. Unless you are well experienced with a location, do NOT "go it alone," particularly if your travels take you off the beaten path where only local languages are posted on signs and spoken. In India, you do not have to go far from the metropolitan areas to find English greeted only with inquisitive looks by most people. In my recent trip to Mumbai and onward north to Surat, my invaluable host was the definitive difference that made the trip a success.

India is one of the most economically diverse countries I have visited. The range of wealth, from mansions to ghettos, is extreme and at first, striking. In Mumbai, the magnitude of street people living in tattered plastic tarps, heated by burning street trash is, at first, concerning. Also expect to see beggars, often, young girls with babies, tapping on your cab window at streetlights. As time went on I was able to talk with people in all walks of life, and I found what I have found the world over: the vast majority of people are good, helpful, and kind. You just have to keep a watchful eye out for those very few that are otherwise.

Traffic is an extreme challenge in Mumbai, and, on highways connecting the cities, it’s probably among the worst in the world. Do NOT attempt to drive yourself. Even I, an aggressive confident driver, was intimidated by traffic and chaos, and I wasn't even driving. Consider it a requirement to hire a car or a taxi to go anywhere by auto. Taxis and hired cars are quite affordable and drivers well experienced. It is best that they dodge the tens of thousands of auto-rickshaws and swiftly cut through the swirling turbidity that is called "traffic" in Mumbai.

Seek hotels that are 4 stars and up. I stayed at the Le Royal Meridian near the Mumbai International Airport (BOM). It's about a mile from the airport, quiet, very nicely appointed, and well staffed with kind, courteous, quick-to-respond employees. If you stay in outlying areas, you must seek the advice of your host. In remote areas, larger companies have housing for guests, where you might find the rooms a bit shy of what you’re used to, but safe. As in many countries, do not drink the tap water, even at 4- and 5-star hotels. Keep bottled water at the ready. In case of symptoms of "exposure" to bad water or food, always carry proper medicines.

English is the lingual common denominator in India, the "Esperanto" of engineering and business. Gate guards may speak broken English, sufficient to succeed in entry/departure. Typically you’ll need to provide passport, visa, and perhaps your company ID when attempting entry into larger production facilities. It's best to keep your contact person's name and number at the ready and call ahead to confirm your entry time. This is important, because the traffic situation can vary your arrival time.

Most nationalities need a visa to travel to India, certainly if you are traveling from the USA. I got mine from the Chicago Indian Consulate, who serves my region. I had to send my U.S. passport, visa application forms, fees by bank draft and a supporting letter from my Indian host. Plan ahead; I had to wait two weeks to get mine, even when using a courier to and from. You can theoretically get it faster if you request and pay for expedited processing or go to the consulate in person. Once in the country, keep your passport/visa ready at all times, for identification for entry into production sites and offices, checking in at hotels, and for display for occasional stops by government authorities. I am occasionally stopped in airports and on city streets by officials who mean business; don’t be surprised if they carry sub-machine guns. No passport/visa in hand will bring trouble, guaranteed.

I wish you good business and happy travels.

—Carl Cook, President / CTO, BioComp Systems Inc .;
edited by Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering editor in chief,
MHoske@cfemedia.com





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