Monday, September 13, 2010

Stephen Hawking's new book - Grand Design

Haven't read it yet - some tidbits from the web on Stephen Hawking's latest - "Grand Design".
  • He tells CNN that Theology is unnecessary (news)!
  • On God, Science and Origin of Universe in WSJ (Link)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming to India - Part III - Arrival and Settling

We reached Delhi early February, in nice winter weather, and with plenty of luggage. The relocation plan was to stay at a hotel for a month, look for school and rental, get to know the city and settle down with the help of a relocation specialist. It turned out a rediscovery of India after nearly 20 long years!

Intercontinental Hotel: This is a good hotel in many ways, but I am not able to justify 5-star status or the room rent. The staff is very polite, the food is great and it has an excellent gym. The rooms are good, but my first disappointment was there were no rooms with double beds (except for two twin size beds) - that seems to be the case with most India hotels. I couldn't believe the receptionist was expecting the four of us to sleep in one king size bed! We paid for an extra bed for the 3-4 weeks we stayed. The elevators were too slow, or in perpetual repair, and worked in seemingly strange logic. They had good Wi-Fi, but would allow only one laptop at a time! The worst of all was they allowed a smoker in non-smoking room, and the entire aisle was filled with smoke. When I complained to the hotel this was unacceptable, especially when staying with small children for several days, they first responded "What to do sir - the customer is not listening".
I blasted the manager asking him to fumigate and charge his client. In the end, they gave me a suite in another floor without additional charge! Finally, the security at the hotel and adjoining building is a joke - they'd pat down men, but no body checks for women and children, or check one pouch of the laptop bag and not others. Overall, the hotel offered a first glimpse of the mixed bag of good and bad!
The relocation was supposed to include a car rental for a month to help us get around, but it turned out every time I needed, I had to make an online booking, which would mostly be too late - they need at least half a day notice. The easy way was to hire yellow taxis at the hotel, which were decent for local rides. Private cabs are good, except that some drivers are just unsafe, and have a propensity for their favorite loud music that we may not like! Looking at the traffic and chaos, I chose to live close to work, so we won't need to buy a car and hire a driver (no way I'll drive, and school bus served children).
School: There are many popular good schools in Delhi. However, school admission is probably most nightmarish experience for any parent, due to the excess demand. Most of the schools will not even let you inside the gate, don't have documented procedures or someone who will reasonably explain - which really makes you wonder how it can be a good school. Yet, parents manage to find out, and file applications on time. Our relocation specialist had success in getting information from only a couple of them with the "international" tag, which is different from "global" or "world" schools, though none of the terms have any standard definition. Schools in Noida, however, are a bit far out and expensive - hence demand is relatively lower - so they are happy to talk to parents and have the time to explain. We had a good experience with Lotus Valley International school in Noida had a fairly straightforward process. Within a couple of hours, they completed the evaluation and interview with the principal and accepted our kids for admission. We were also successful at a couple others in Delhi, but one was too expensive (like embassy schools), and the other was much cheaper, but they ticked off our kids with a 4-hour entrance exam!

One principal lectured us on the virtues of Indian education system, and how they emphasize (hand) writing skills early on, citing that even adults in America don't have a good hand writing. What she did not know, however, was that the teachers in my kids' class were stunned watching them read an entire book aloud on their own - none of the other kids could do it, as there is no emphasis on reading, story-telling sessions like in American schools! Further, our kids whine that the teacher always want them to write something, doesn't allow them to play outside (games sessions are used to teach some stretching exercises), and a boat load of things related to hygiene, manners and so on - all of which they learned and loved in American schools. The good stuff, however, is that they have picked up Hindi language, reading and writing words and will possibly learn to speak Hindi down the line. Another friend of mine in Bangalore had warned me few years back that regardless of new concepts in Indian schools, it is still spoon feeding and about academics!

Rental: The real-estate market in India is large, but ad-hoc and undeveloped and operates with a premise of distrust. The brokers or real estate agents are dreaded or despised, and landlords try to shortchange or avoid them as much as possible. Our relocation specialist showed us a good bit of properties with her broker partners, but it was so difficult to converge on anything. Either it was too large for us (they think ex-pats will always want big homes over 2000 sq.ft), too far with nightmarish commute, too expensive (even $2000+ rents), weird floor plans or unacceptable lease terms. We were advised by another colleague who had been through similar experience to check out another real-estate agent. It turned out, we found a rental to our liking within a day with this new agent! The trouble is finding these good agents that landlords exclusively work with, without an orderly market.

Once we found the rental, we moved in quickly and bid goodbye to the hotel. Though the food was good and 5-star service, we were getting tired, and my kids got sick a couple of times which warranted home cooking. The fact they got sick forced us to find pediatricians and medical shops - a referral from a colleague quickly helped us find a good doctor and hospital, that were good. In general, medical services are good in India, except that procedures may not be as well defined, capacity, quality and liability could be an issue for complex situations. We also rented furniture on a monthly basis (referred by our broker), as our household goods was still going to take a month and a half. We could rent almost anything - sofa, bed, TV, refrigerator, washer, cooking gas etc, and the quality, rent, delivery and pickup process was very reasonable.
Bank: My company deposits salary only with specific banks with which I must open an account. It looked seemingly easy to open an account, when someone sent me an email with the application form and instructions. When filling out, I figured it was asking for information that isn't needed for business purpose. This was surprising, since I expected the multi-national would have brought in privacy concepts from abroad. A friend of mine told me the way it works - "You can fight it based on principle, or comply in order to get the work done". I filled it out with half a dozen signatures, and then had to ping them a few days to pick it up - I couldn't go to the downstairs branch to get it done! The pick-up guy found some signature mismatch, and advised me to sign one more time beside the mismatch to fix it! He also asked for a copy of the back of my employee-id as well, which didn't have any useful information, and asked me to sign that copy. After a couple of weeks, they opened the account, but sent me a letter stating an ID copy such as tax-id, passport or driver license was missing. I told them I already included them with the application, and they came back saying the missing document was employee-id! So much for the front and back copy and signatures! Some wise guy had decided internally that is not required to open an account and took it out, but their central office figured it was necessary for salary account. I made them search for it in vain and ended up giving another copy!

In the meanwhile, the company sent me a draft (cashier's check) the first month pay, since I couldn't open the account by then. The bank wouldn't deposit it for several days! When I called, they explained there was a name mismatch - it did not have my middle name! They cited RBI regulations, which is a generic excuse for all the illogical things that banks do. It is true that RBI has strict guidelines, but I am perplexed how the bank could accept the check once I gave another copy of my id with the full name - that still doesn't establish the two names are the same person! The branch also offered experience with clerks who process more than one customer at a time (forget queues), are easily distracted and I am still learning the different ways to shake my head (almost lost my first job in US shaking my head the "wrong" way!).

I thought only my bank was like this, but my colleague said he had similar experience with another bank as well. The bank manager sat down with him, offered coffee and all that, but in the end lost his passport copy that required him to re-do and revisit the bank. Though they talk politely, the red-tape and illogical service is only a shade better than the government run banks. Critical thinking is low due to lack or training and exposure, and they come up with rules to protect their ignorance.
Phone/Internet/Cable: We called up Airtel, and the phone and DSL connection was installed the next day. The installer did a pretty good job, though I'd have liked his company to provide him proper shoes (he had to walk on roof top and walls to fix outside wiring) and better tools. I don't speak Hindi well, and that was disappointing the guys and me - luckily my wife speaks well, which was the saving grace at home. The modem engineer also did a good job, except that I couldn't access my work site or Citibank website from home! I had to teach him different settings so all website will work safely, but I think I'd have been toast if I was not tech-savvy! They tried installing IPTV, but the set-top would not output HDMI and my TV wouldn't accept PAL format (only NTSC) - they just took it back, instead of suggesting a way to fix! The local cable company had a similar box, but found me a PAL to HDMI converter. We got our iPhones unlocked (found a good place in Chennai for this) and could use with local SIM cards from Airtel or other.

Cooking Gas: Since there are power cuts, the preferred mode of cooking is using gas cylinders/stoves. They told us they'll mail us a card to our address in about 20 days that we need to bring back to them as proof of address. We waited, but what they didn't tell us is that during March, it takes 30 days for them as they get busy with tax stuff. It cost us an extra trip to inquire what was going on, but worked out soon after.

Customs Clearance: The movers had a local agent company (Writer Corp) that was tracking our goods with the shipping and customs. They periodically notified us of status, and finally gave us an appointment for customs clearance - almost 4 months after it was packed backed in US! It was a fairly straightforward process at the customs depot, with just a couple of hours waiting time. They checked if the goods had any alcohol or some controlled items, and I had to fill out forms for key items of value (such as TV, fridge etc). They made an entry in my passport and gave back. The next day, the movers delivered the goods at my home and installed them. I had to provide them with even basic tools like hammer, screw driver, stool, extension cord, and re-assembly instructions - otherwise they'd just slam things together the way their carpenter deems fit! Despite the long wait for 4 months, the movers part was by far the smoothest experience and professionally done.
Groceries, Water & Misc: My wife gets groceries and drinking water delivered at the door, though the store springs a surprise occasionally that there is no one to deliver - in those times, she feels having control and driving to Safeway herself was better! One fine day, water supply was cut-off thanks to some caste dispute upstream (one of the castes control the dam that supplies Delhi!). We have to be prepared for such surprises, but largely it works out. Our kids enjoy the local parks, but badly miss the parks and library in US. The parks have swings and slides, but not safe, undeveloped play grounds, and mixed crowd of school-going kids and untaught parents/kids. Shopping areas where you can get everything cheaper exists, but parking woes, sidewalks obstructed in some way that forces you to walk on the road, which again is unmarked for any meaningful pedestrian crossing, or even vehicle traffic, making it a frustrating experience. Mall stores are a saving grace, and we have used them to buy groceries all the way to air conditioners (Delhi is very hot, then very humid and we couldn't do without AC). Luckily, we only have occasional power-cuts - some places around Delhi have 15-hour power cuts in 45C summer! Delhi and surrounding area has high population and a lot of them are very poor. Most are honest and eke out a frugal living, but a small portion of them take up to crime - leading to kidnapping, extortion, murder for gain and rape type of serious crimes. Safety and security is a concern in any city, and more so in Delhi.
All this got us "settled", but you can see it is a mixed bag. In my opinion, it is worth it only if you have a significant reason to go through it - else, don't rock the boat! It is part of the country's growing pains and being in the middle of transition is painful. It is possible to create a system that works for you, and many people from abroad live here, but requires having the right mindset and expectations.

Coming to India - Part I & Part II

Coming to India - Part II - Preparing for departure

Preparing for relocation in the US was involved, but fairly straightforward to plan and execute. The main things were the following: Household goods, Home sale/rent, Car sale, notifying school, utilities and other places.

Household goods: We started selling on Craigslist some of the household items like patio furniture, yard swing set, strollers, baby beds, futon, cabinets etc, things that we felt wouldn't be needed in an apartment setting in India. However, a relocation specialist advised us to keep many items for shipping saying we won't get such good models in India. He said it is better to wait until movers make an assessment. So we kept many items such as sofa set, Ikea beds, dining table, TV, washer/dryer, refrigerator. I also bought 220V to 110V voltage converters/stabilizers for these based on his advice to get good quality ones from the US (1000W for fridge $150, 500W for TV $100 - both with stabilizers, and couple of 500W/300W converters $40-50 each). The assessment was however at a high level, to determine that I need a 20-feet container to fit everything, and that shipping by air will be way too expensive than by sea. I think the company paid about $6000 for the container and shipping door-to-door. Since the movers didn't make recommendations on specific items (unless they were hazardous, liquids, food, or not allowed), everything went into the 20-feet container. Ideally, I would have liked to dispose a lot of junk. The movers took 2 days to pack and load everything, and noted all the package contents and condition. It is necessary to pay reasonable attention to the condition of the items, since we will need that to claim any damages up arrival.

Also, it is necessary to ensure items like jewelry, important documents like passport, certificates, credit cards, photos, sentimental items don't end up in the container! It will take 4 months to arrive, and if you need them in between or it gets lost or damaged, you are toast!

They arrived in good shape, though it took 4 months (3 months on the ship to Mumbai, and another 3 weeks to get on the train to Delhi and a week for customs clearance/delivery).

Looking back, I think it is better to sell Ikea furniture, and as many older appliances as possible. Better to bring only if they were relatively new and/or expensive, that selling won't make sense. Here's why:
  • The movers have a hard time reassembling, and don't guarantee Ikea - they told us just a day before packing, so I didn't have time to sell them! We got lucky they could reassemble, with my guidance, my toolkit and with only few screws missing!
  • Toasters are over 1000W output, and cannot be used with voltage converters - we donated them.
  • Our 42" plasma TV works fine, but required a PAL to NTSC/HDMI video converter ($200) and 110v to 220v voltage converter/stabilizer ($100 for a good 500W type). The alternative is to settle for a lower model LCD available in India - it may not be a bad choice, since brands like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic are available in India as well.
  • The DVD player is specific to regions, so not all DVDs play. It is possible to reset the code settings by calling a local engineer that knows such things, but still a tricky thing as our own DVDs may stop playing!
  • Though packed well, there is a risk that some internal damage happens and it doesn't work. This actually happened to our Whirpool Washer and Dryer - some seal broke inside during the move across the seas, and motor oil leaked causing a overheat burning smell. The Whirlpool service center was quick to send a technician who identified the issue and suggested we replace the motor and gear box for $250. However, since it was an imported model, he couldn't guarantee it will work after repairs. We just bought a new one that cost around $400 - though the local model is front loading, not heavy duty capacity like the one we had. It serves our needs though. We had to give away the dryer for $15 scrap value.
  • One of the voltage converters was dead on arrival, and I can't go back to US to return it to the store! Luckily, it is not the expensive one I bought for the TV and fridge.
  • Mover insurance pays only if there is external damage - not for internal damage. For this reason, they refused my claims on washer/dryer. The risk of these things not working doesn't seem worth it.
Home Sale/Rent: We tried to sell our home hoping to leverage on the little upside in the housing market, and use the closing cost benefit from the company relocation package. I spent some money on staging and it showed very nicely. The offers were good, but not compelling enough to sell, due to the depressed valuations (blame the foreclosures), and we ended up renting it out. Renting was relatively easier. For now, it turns out we are actually happy it is renting, as the math works out and allows us to come back in future.

Car Sale: I had to time this for final week, but luckily I had a decent offer close to the blue book value. I closed the loan since it was a small amount, and the pink slip (title) was in the mail - takes up to 3 weeks. That wasn't a good idea, since it gets a little tricky to do the DMV paperwork without title. If the loan is active, the bank will take care of a few things. If you have a title at hand, it is easy - just fill the buyer/seller entries and mail the relevant portions. But, I had to go to DMV for this, they suggested filling out a transfer and duplicate title. A couple of days before departure the actual title arrived by mail and made it much easier. I rented a car for a few days that final week.

Air Tickets: This was fairly straightforward as well. I used Expedia and found a good deal. It is important to get the travel documents in order, such as passport, OCI/PIO or visa related. This may also be a good time to book tickets such that you break the journey and take a few days vacation enroute.

Next... the long story of arrival and settling in India

Coming to India - Part I & Part III

Coming to India - Part I - Reasons for moving

It has been more than 6 months since we relocated to India from the US. Now that we are a bit settled, I thought I'd share some of the experience. There are 3 parts of this mega blog, since it is too long for one post.

Why we chose to move back to India?
There wasn't any compelling reason to rock the boat, though we could attribute the following reasons that influenced our decision to move.

  • Parents/In-laws getting older, with moderate health risk, staying alone etc. They could no longer travel to the US nor permanently settle down in the US due to other obligations. The extended family support exists, but it was not fair to take their time and energy for several years. Senior homes are only now becoming an acceptable norm, and not so yet in our family.
  • Kids were just 5-year old and we felt they can quickly adapt now than later, to learn a new language, culture and bond with the extended family of cousins, uncles/aunts and others.
  • Personally, it was an opportunity for potentially exciting change, possibility to break from mortgage and health insurance that take over our lives in US. After more than 15 years, it was getting monotonous at work, and my wife could use maid help with household chores, stop driving, find baby-sitters among relatives, and we felt a better work-life balance may be possible. As well, there was a feeling of being able to contribute to our country of origin.
Contrary to popular belief or reasons typically given by others who have returned, we did not feel compelled to return to bring up our girl children in the traditional Indian culture, nor felt school education in India is better since it is focused on academics, nor that we did not fit well with the American culture. We think, and many are now realizing, that India is undergoing a cultural transition with the economic growth, and the new found freedom and change is leaving the young and old confused at this stage - part of growing pains. We were happy with the local schools and our kids performance was very fulfilling. We were not very excited to adopt the spoon feeding and book worm academic approach typical in Indian schools, however "international" they project themselves to be. As well, we felt our mindset fit very well with the American culture, and we have had a lot of friends across ethnic groups in our neighborhood and beyond.

I jumped on an opportunity that came by within the company to relocate to New Delhi, India. It would have been ideal if the position was in my hometown Chennai, but Delhi seemed a good compromise being only 3 hours away by air.

Next... Preparing for departure and settling in Delhi.

Coming to India - Part II & part III