Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hay, Kochi is amazing!

On their first visit to Kerala, a German family finds plenty of things to be amazed about

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Cornelia Hay stepped out of the air-conditioned coach of the Jana Shatabdi from Thiruvananthapuram at the Ernakulam Junction station with her family, she was flabbergasted. Two porters lifted the huge suitcases and placed it easily on their heads and went up the steep stairs of the overbridge. "We were finding it difficult just to walk up the stairs, and here they were carrying these boxes up," she said, an amazed look on her face.

This was her first visit to Kerala and she was accompanied by her husband, Martin Hay, the managing director of Steag Ketek, a subsidiary of a power plant company based in Germany, and their two children, Caroline and Thomas.

So what was it about Kerala that Cornelia found most attractive? "The bustling markets and so many people walking around," she says. "We are not used to seeing so many people on the streets in Germany."

The family was amazed at the chaotic way the traffic moved. "But, somehow, the people were calm and worked their way through," said Cornelia. "They seemed sure the other person would not be abiding by the rules. If we had the same traffic problems in Germany, there would be fatal accidents every three hundred metres or so."

A smiling Martin said, "The only way to survive the traffic here is through a sense of fatalism."

Martin has come to India several times since 2002, when the company first set up business, but this was his first visit to Kerala. "The people are kind, polite and relaxed," he said. "In Germany, people are stressed-out most of the time."

Cornelia, a lawyer by profession, could not let go of her memories of God's Own Country. "Kerala is such a green state," she said, her grey eyes sparkling with excitement. "In India, we have seen rich and poor areas, especially in Delhi, but we did not find it so much in Kerala. There seems to be much less poor people." She was thrilled that she could see rice fields and palm trees for the first time in her life. "A lot of construction work is going on and I am sure when I return after a few years, things will look very different," she said. "There is a boom going on."

Yes, indeed, Kerala and India has a booming economy, as is well known. So what is the German view of India? "When Mittal Steel bought Arcelor, one of the biggest steel companies in the world, it had a big impact on us," said Martin. "People in Germany realised that India now has a powerful economy. But there is also a feeling that jobs will be lost. So, there has been a mixed reaction to the rise of India and China."

But Germans, like Martin, cannot avoid grasping the business opportunities that are arising. Asked about his experience of doing business in India, Martin said, "The Indians are indirect, while the Germans are very direct. There is also a language problem. The same English word might have different meanings for both people. But now that we have set up a subsidiary, Encotec India, we don't experience much of a problem."

Sitting next to the couple on a sofa at the Taj Residency, and smiling constantly, was Caroline, 15, and Thomas, 14. For Caroline, the most stunning discovery was the dresses the women wore. "The saree is so bright and colourful," she said. "My Mum and I would say, 'Hey, look, there is another beautiful one.' The colours are very bright. If we wear a saree in Germany, everybody would stare at us." She said the women wore subdued colours and when they did wear bright colours, it was only one garment, like a T-shirt, not the entire outfit. "Here, a woman walks past, wearing bright pink and green," she said.

Thomas, who wears braces on his teeth, said his most amazing experience in India was seeing the Taj Mahal. "I have never seen anything like that before,” he said. “There are also so many trees in Indian cities. In Germany, trees are not allowed to grow in cities. You can only see them in the countryside."

Their Kochi-based friend, Joseph Vadakkel, said, “For the Hays, the backwater cruise off Marine Drive at sunset was their most amazing experience of their Kerala trip.”

“The sight of the Vypeen islands was spectacular,” added Martin.

But the family had one complaint: the harassment by salesmen, wherever they went in India. "We could not sit or stand anywhere without being bothered," said Cornelia. "The moment one salesman left, the next one would come with his wares."

However, she said, the problem was much less in Kerala. “In fact, one day when we stepped out of our hotel in Kovalam, one autorickshaw driver shouted, 'Do you want to go by helicopter or do you prefer to walk?' When we told him we preferred to walk, rather than use his helicopter, he smiled and did not trouble us after that."

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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