Kitson P. Kelly avatar

A recovering 7 foot tall cactus

Two Idiots Abroad

My boss and I recently went on trip to India. We called ourselves “Two Idiots Abroad” which was apropos we felt since we worked for Sky and Sky had the TV Show An Idiot Abroad. For any of those who have seen the series, us, in India, wasn’t far off. An American and a Scotsman dumped in the middle of India, visiting 5 vendor locations in 4 cities in 5 days.

We arrived on Monday morning at about 1AM and we got up at 4AM on Saturday to make our flights. As any modern large corporation these days, we outsource some of our IT operations to India. We try to give senior management presence in India a few times a year (I guess I am considered almost senior management these days).

In 1998 I had been to Hong Kong, which turned my senses and view of the world upside down. In 2008 I went to South Africa and saw a clear distinction between the haves and have-nots. So being sort of shoved outside of my comfort zone and having my senses assaulted by a different world I was prepared for, though I didn’t know quite what to expect. My boss, who had been twice before, was quite curious to see how I would react. I don’t know what he expected, like my head would explode or something, but I don’t think it did.

Being sort of encased in an expatriate business travel world, it is hard to get a full appreciation of what things are really like, but you can try. Like the time I spent in Hong Kong, I very much identified with that world which was very well portrayed in Lost in Translation. Where you get treated very much like some sort of alien race to be placated unless the incur the fury of the foreign invaders. You also find yourself generally sucked into a social environment out of necessity instead of out of choice. Luckily my boss and I were able to keep to ourselves, but I am sure if I was alone, I might have been even more sucked into that world.

The best thing though that happened to us was that we had an offer from one of the vendors to play some golf before we left the next morning. While my boss (as well as I) are not fond of “being entertained”, my boss, being a keen golfer and I, well let’s just say I was quite interested in the cultural experience and being able to say I played golf in India, we decided it was a good idea, knowing it would come at the end of a hard week.

That experience will go down, I think, in both our books as one of those really memorable experiences we will recount for the rest of our lives. Once of the management team from India had grown up in Bangalore and had some school friends that he liked to golf with. So it was a very casual atmosphere, with business totally left behind. Not only was the golf enjoyable, but the company was the best part of it. We broke out of that cocoon of expatriatism. We had some food at the club house afterwards, had a few drinks and just chatted about life and how things are similar and different being separated by 6000 miles. Truly enjoyable!

The thing that I most noticed about India was the excess of people. I kept calling it the “Division of Labour” which I think is the potentially “scary” thing about for us in the west, if we were worried about world dominance. Having excess cheap labour allows specialisation which we haven’t had in the west for a long long time. While I knew it was going to happen, largely based on the excellent book The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, that if we had a driver, he would be our driver for the day. What I didn’t realise was that he was our driver from the time we set foot in the city until we left again. He would pick us up and drop us off at all unreasonable hours of the day, always nearby if we needed him. My western mind kept thinking “what does he do all day”.

Almost all the conference rooms we were shuttled into had a dedicated attendant who would fetch us coffee or tea or anything at our beaconed call. A couple of times we needed a level of support in setting up a projector or using something in the conference room and I think in every case at least two people showed up to try to resolve the issue. I was walked to every room in every hotel I checked into and often chatted to make me feel welcome. You simply get used to people schlepping your bags around without you even being consciously aware of it after a while. With such a division of labour, India can simply people away any problem.

The biggest challenge is directing them in the right way. The number of half done construction projects littered across the cities of India was staggering. Discussion with locals often resulted in eye rolling about how the state couldn’t get agreement with the national government and all sorts of rows and debate about why the whole project was stalled. I am sure west during the Industrial Revolution was in a similar situation, so much power and might, just not all of it focused in the right direction. It is easy to see though why the west may very well be a dying beast to the likes of India and China now.

One of the things my boss and I wanted to do was to keep the troops back home entertained, and one of the ways we did that was that I decided to shoot some video and create a summary of our experiences, which I make available to you below for your viewing pleasure: