Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Indians are coming

The Indians are coming to America.

The first time India had dealings with the West was in the 15th century, shortly before Columbus. The nation of Portugal was benefitting from the distribution of information and knowledge that doctors, naturalists and college-level teachers had been doing at the beginning of the Renaissance: new discoveries were being disseminated, in letters written in Latin, throughout European centers of learning.  Portuguese sea maps of coastlines were becoming the best in the world, and gaining in importance to the government there. The government had been paying privateers to go further and further south along the coast of Africa, and getting reports back of new lands discovered beyond the Sahara. At one point the locals would pay in ivory for European trade goods, so that area on the newest maps was labelled "the ivory coast," followed by "the gold coast" and so on down to the Cape of Good Hope.

With ships heading north up the east coast of Africa, Portuguese princes wondered if the Egyptian philosopher Ptolemy might have been right in his prediction that Africa could one day be sailed around. That is, circumnavigated.  The Portuguese, with their accurate maps, were the first Europeans to do so. They found Muslims as far south as present-day Kenya, and the Arabic language in use. This was handy:  Portugal had come out from under Moorish rule that century, and many sailors could speak Arabic for calling on Moorish ports.

A ship loaded with trade goods made it as far as Riyadh. (An educated Arab asked, "How did you get here?")   The ship's captain located a pilot who could guide them to Kalkota (Calcutta, in the West), and plotted coastline positions on their maps along the way. When finally received by the Raja, the Portuguese offered woolens to tropical India, and were instantly rebuffed. They and their ship were sent away. The Indians thought the Portuguese had been errant sailors on a lone ship, off on some crazy adventure. But the true mission was to find and plot the exact location of Kalkota!

So they left, and re-circumnavigated Africa, stopping at Portuguese way-stations and Portuguese-friendly harbors along the way. And then Portugal built an armada.

The armada sailed around Africa, secure in the knowledge that they were the only people in the world capable of doing so. And they sailed across the Indian Ocean directly to Kalkota, destroyed its navy, laid waste to the palace, killed the raj, and took over all shipping. Within 15 years, every ship running between Riyadh and Singapore paid a tribute to Portugal.

And no one even knew where it was.

The other European countries started copying Portuguese maps from captured ships, and soon Spain was circumnavigating Africa (and sending Columbus off on his wild goose chase). The other ocean-faring countries, France, England, Netherlands and even the Swedes to an small extent, went east in search of riches.

Britain eventually took over almost all of India, save for a treatied Portuguese colony town called Goa, which remained Portuguese until about 1970. Goans speak Hindi and Portuguese, in addition to English.

Let's come to present-day India. 
India's colonial history is much the same as America's: predominantly English.  Use of English was enforced by Great Britain.  Hindi and other languages such as Gujarati or Urdu were suppressed. 
Britain freed India in 1947, whereupon it split into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan.  East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1970. 
English is the second language in these three countries.  Educated Indians speak English, and English words abound in Hindi. 

The years just before the dot-com bust in 2000-2001 brought worldwide expansion in internet communications and the fiber-optic infrastructure it runs on, mostly paid for by large multinational communications giants.  That recession led many giants to sell off their new comm networks.  Smaller Indian comm companies bought fiber-optic lines in and around India, and bought access into fiber-optic lines worldwide.
Then they used their English-language background and newfound web-tech savvy in new ways: people in Bangalore were trained to sound like Americans, Irishmen, Canadians, and Englishmen, and these people staffed call centers that cater to the people of these nations.  The system works well.  When you have trouble with your computer and ask to talk to a "real person," the real person may be talking to you over superfast fiber-optic lines from the other side of the world!  Likewise, there are call centers for internet-based companies, online shopping companies, American and Canadian store chains and what-have-you. 

I was once a medical transcriptionist.  Now it's faster and cheaper for a medical company to contract with an Indian transcription firm.  The workers are paid a low wage by American standards, but that's a pretty high wage by Indian standards.  Plus, their daytime is our nighttime, so audio tapes from the doctors are changed into files, emailed over to India, typed out overnight, and delivered back as transcripts the next morning's email.  There is currently no way to beat that. 

Indians are earning good money from Western companies, as well as having their own startups that are successful both in the East and West, due to the triple advantage of:
a. English language background
b. lower wages than in the West
c. high-speed internet

And these people are really curious about The West.  India's GDP grows at double the rate of America's.  Granted, that's from a low base GDP.  But it gives rise to an interesting fact:  India's middle class numbers about 300 million people.  That's equal to the population of the entire USA.  And what are they doing with their money?  They are travelling. 

India is experiencing solid growth in tourism and travel.  I've been working with groups from India since 2008.  They don't pay as well as Americans, and tipping is not part of their culture.  But, given the choice of having work or not making any money that day, I'll take the money and walk...holding up my umbrella to follow. 

On such a walking tour recently, our group was going up Broadway from The Battery to Wall Street.  Along the way are sidewalk-width plaques bearing the names of those who have had tickertape parades in their honor, through the years.  I pointed out the plaque honoring Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose parade was in 1965.  The result was really surprising: the entire group clustered around the plaque, speaking quickly in Hindi.  They were awestruck!  All the cameras came out, and photos and videos of the spot were made.  A woman brought her hands to her cheeks, staring down wide-eyed.  We stayed right there for a few minutes, until everyone got their photos in. 

Typically, an Indian tour company works with an American counterpart that is owned and operated by Indian nationals living here.  Most of my clients have been from Mumbai, but some came from Kalkota in the last group I worked with, last month.  The group before that had been in the Indian Air Force, so they'd been from around the country. 
Indians fly in from Kalkota, taking the Pacific route to the West Coast.  They spend a day in LA, a day in San Francisco, followed by a day in Las Vegas. ( I wonder what they think of America after having spent time in Las Vegas?)  They then fly to DC, spending a day touring there by bus.  The bus takes them up the coast to New Jersey, where they stay in inexpensive hotels in Newark, Secaucus or Jersey City.  
I am given the group leader's phone number, and meet them on Liberty Island.  Then I either escort them back to Liberty State Park and we bus to Manhattan, or the bus comes over--under, really--and we board at Battery Park.  
My guests want to see four specific things: the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park and the United Nations.  We usually turn up Trinity Place to see the WTC first.  Then up Church Street to Worth, east on Worth to Chatham Square and Chinatown.  East Broadway to Allen Street through the Lower East Side, and north on First Avenue.  I try to get to the photo stop at the UN before 5:00 PM, when they start taking down the flags.  India is about the 35th flagpole down the line (staringt with Albania and working down to Zimbabwe).  The Indian flag flies just south of the northern entrance of the UN, and they really get a charge out of seeing it! 

We disembark for a few minutes at Rockefeller Center.  By this time I've already told them of John D. Rockefeller Senior, and things that his immensely wealthy son, Junior, did for the city, such as the UN, The Cloisters, and Rockefeller Center.  We go to the plaque that holds Rockefeller's words about mankind.  We gaze across the skating rink and I tell them the story of Prometheus and Zeus behind him, about mankind's quest for fire and then for electricity, resulting in this center that trumpets the victory of worldwide communication.  The Indians know just what I'm talking about, because that victory of communication has paid for their trip here. 

The people know basic things about America, but ask a zillion questions about those basic facts, hoping I can fill them in.  A typical bus tour has the following among their questions:
Where are the robots that build cars?
About a thousand kilometers west of here, in Detroit.
Where does Rockefeller live now?
He is dead, but the Rockefeller family is still rich and still active. 
Why don't Americans speak Hindi?
We were conquered and settled by the English, who pretty much set the standard of language, though Americans come from every country and can speak many languages, if needed.  As more Indians move here, more Americans can speak Hindi. 
How do you bribe your police?
We buy things the police produce, such as hats or bumper stickers.  Those often induce police officers  to let people go for minor infractions.  But those who commit large crimes must go to trial.  There is no way to avoid that.  A billionaire who stole people's money is in jail now. 
Do you know any movie stars?
No, but I've carried a few on my pedicab, which you would call a "cycle-rickshaw." 
This spawns myriad questions about why a guide would pedal a cycle-rickshaw, which they see as a low-class occupation.  I tell them that I do tours of Central Park, and that the only ways to see the park without walking are by pedicab or by horse carriage.  Then I mention that my pedicab boasts a mountain bike frame, a differential, a hydraulic brake, 21 speeds and LED lights fitted into a Fiberglass body.  They come to appreciate this, since Indian pedicabs are all steel and have only one speed. 
Greenwich Village--which they show little interest in, BTW--is a very old, intricate neighborhood.  I explain further that I have a pedicab tour of the Village that buses are simply unable to do.  It's an advantage to use a pedicab there.  My guests marvel and shake the tops of their heads back and forth, which means they understand what I'm saying but don't necessarily agree with it. 
We leave Rockefeller Center and take a left through Times Square, on the way to my Empire State Building dropoff.  I tell them that Rockefeller Center was built as a center of the American radio and television industry, two decades after Times Square established itself as the center of America's stage industry.  The stage and television industries are often a springboard to the film industry.  They nod: it's the same over there. 

We'll hang a right on 33rd so they can see Madison Square Garden, and go around the block to 34th, for the Empire State Building dropoff. 

Vegetarianism is widespread in India.  When we get near the ESB I tell them of two nearby restaurants, Maui Tacos on Fifth at the dropoff point, and the more expensive Hangawi on East 32nd, where the staff wear traditional Korean costumes.  And, if they want South Asian food and are good walkers, there are several Indian restaurants clustered on Lexington near 28th Street. 
We part company either at or at the top of the Empire State.  There is no tipping, because tipping is not part of their culture.  The only people you pay "a little something extra" to are government officials.  It's a "Peace, out," with the word 'namaste,' which means 'peace.'

I hope that I've left them with a better understanding of what New York City is, and more particularly what America is.  They are part of the rising Indian middle class, and this won't be the last time they deal with Americans.  I really want to give them a fair first impression of us as a nation.  I'm always trying to hone my craft toward that end.  Indian tourism is rising, and they're coming to New York.  I can work with them, since they speak English.  I've been thinking recently of taking some Hindi lessons.  All of us guides had better learn a little Hindi, because more Indians are coming every year.  While they do speak English, I'm sure more complete understanding would come from our knowing at least a little Hindi.  It couldn't hurt. 

I bought an NYPD Bomb Squad T-shirt in the 1990s.  The back says, "IF YOU SEE ME RUNNING, TRY TO KEEP UP."   The Indians are beginning to run.  The rest of the world had better keep up.

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Best wishes,

Stan O'Connor

licensed sightseeing guide

member, Guide Association of NYC

member, NYC Pedicab Owner Association

1 comment:

TonyD said...

Absolutely fascinating.