Monday, July 9, 2012

A Dream Project

I went into Consulting right after college. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to travel to incredibly glamorous places like Monaco, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and <insert other awesome city names>.
I readied my passport and looked up all the nearest embassies in New York to streamline my visa processing times. A few days later, I ended up in my first project…at Rochester, New York…in the middle of January.
Rochester in winter - they called it the "Lake Effect"...those bastards

As I shoveled my car out of 5 feet of snow, I told myself the next place would be better. Years passed and I worked at Richmond, Connecticut, Jersey, but never Barcelona. When I ended up in Wilmington, Delaware, that was the last straw.  I said “Fuck this” and I quit.
For a year and a half, I worked at a place where I went back to my apartment every day after work. But soon, the travel bug in me started to stir. I got an offer from a consulting firm and I succumbed!
This was where I got the opportunity to be part of a “Dream Project”. I call it the “Dream Project” because that’s what it was: I traveled the world on somebody else’s money.
My client was an oil and gas company with various manufacturing plants around the world. We were to travel to those plants, interview the business units and understand how well or poorly they managed their documents. It seems like a trivial problem to solve, but when companies have to manage several terabytes of data, they end up wasting tens of thousands of hours and money trying to find the right documents (I promise that’s the end of my sales pitch).
My first stop was Hamburg, Germany. It was cold, I was incredibly jet-lagged and I had insomnia-induced heartburn all night. When I reached Sens, France, I hadn’t slept for 4 days and my heartburn still danced around my chest all night. I finally called home and yelled at my Bengali father for passing down his weak digestive genes to me. This made me feel slightly better.
I finally decided to find a pharmacy store to get some Zantac. Sens was a small town situated two hours from Paris, and had a population demographic of 50 people.  They only spoke French there. Realizing I will need to climb over the language barrier in order to get my medication, I decided to bring some reinforcement with me: I dragged my analyst, Brandon, to the Pharmacy.
As we walked through the street, Brandon asked: “Why do I need to come with you, again?
“Because I said so,” I replied.
“Oh, right.”
We reached the pharmacy and I said “Bonjour” and the pharmacist replied, “Bonjour!”
Then I stared at her awkwardly, unsure what to do next. Brandon decided to help by pointing to my stomach and making a puking face. The woman looked confused. I told Brandon to stop that because it clearly wasn’t helping. Then I proceeded to point to my stomach and made a puking face.
The woman frowned slightly and then went to the back wall to look for the medication. Brandon and I high-fived as we always did when we were successful with something. The woman came back with two boxes, one that said “Constipation” on it and another that said “la diarrhée”.
“Hmm,” I replied, “Close but not quite.”
Then I started to point to my chest, making pained expressions until the woman finally understood and gave me the French version of Tums. Technically, I wanted pills like Zantac, but I settled since this was the furthest I was going to get with my French-speaking and miming skills. 
By the time I got to Paris that weekend, I felt like a new person. Those must have been Tums on steroids! I started eating everything that came my way, which, in France, was invariably delicious.
 Brandon and I went to a crepe place and I decided to order a crepe with Nutella. I saw the word “fraise” and thought it was “whipped cream”, which I thought would be delicious with my Nutella. So I pointed at the menu and said I wanted that too. The waiter looked skeptical but complied. Brandon decided he wanted the same thing in the exact same combination and the waiter looked even more unhappy. Turns out, “fraise” means “strawberry”. 15 minutes later, Brandon and I were met with FOUR large crepes: two Nutella crepes and two Strawberry crepes. I ate one of them and I forced Brandon to eat the other three, promising him great ratings during his performance review. He realized halfway through the third one that I had absolutely no say in his performance review, but it was too late. I felt bad and I gave him my French Tums.
Endless crepes
After France, we went to Scotland, which turned out to be one of my favorite places. The majority of our stay was at Dunfermline and after meeting the friendly people and eating the delicious food, I decided I would love to find myself a Scottish husband and settle down in Edinburgh. I quickly created a profile on (the results of which I will divulge in another blog post).
Finally, we landed in Kongsberg, Norway, which is about 2 hours north of Oslo. It’s a ski town and we lived in a place called “Grand Quality Inn” situated near a huge river that frequently had slices of iceberg float past you.  Any hotel that has to convince you of its grandness or quality through its name is usually not the best place to stay at, and, in this case, it was completely true….not the best place, but it sufficed. 
Apparently, kebobs in Kongsberg are famous and we quickly found the most delicious kebob place ever! I seriously have never had such good kebobs in my life. We ended up going there day and night and became great friends with the owner, who we called “the kebob guy”. Since we had an Indian, a Chinese and a Singaporean in our group, he specially made a hot sauce for us, which he called the “Super Spicy Sauce”. We put that shit on everything: kebobs, pizza, pasta, ice cream. Everything!
Hot sauce ice cream...mmmm

In Kongsberg, we met users at each end of the technology spectrum: some were extremely knowledgeable, and utilized all available systems and tools to quickly do their work, and some could barely put a desktop and a mouse together in order to use it. I was presenting to several users about the merits of an Enterprise Content Management system: “you can not only categorize your content with metadata, you can also search across repositories, run reporting and other metrics on your logs and automatically archive any documents past your retention policies!”
At that point, a user, who looked bored and unconvinced, interrupted me and said “This system may help me find a document, but can it help me find a word within the document?”
“….sure,” I replied, “…but…. you can do that right now, too.”
“Oh,” she replied, now awake and excited, “How do you do that?!”
“Well,” I said, “it’s ‘Crtl-F’.
She nodded vigorously and wrote that down onto her notepad. I looked at Brandon then and saw him trying to keep a straight face. 
No need to spend millions of dollars if you have the power of "Control F"
At the end of the trip, we had to catch a train from Kongsberg back to Oslo. We were running a few minutes late so when we reached the train tracks and saw the train’s wheels slightly hissing, like it was just about to leave, we panicked and started running with our very large suitcases. The client grabbed my suitcase since I couldn’t run with a 70 pound bag.
We had to run down a flight of stairs, cross the tracks and run up another flight of stairs to come out on the other side. My middle-aged manager ran ahead of us like a mad man with his suitcase balanced on his head, both, surprising us with his sudden speed and agility and humbling us with his single-minded determination to go home. He leaped into the train, threw his suitcase inside and dramatically held the doors of the train open, yelling, “I won’t leave without you guys! Hurry!”
Brandon, with his analyst’s drive to always please his boss and get a stellar performance review, did as our manager yelled and dove into the train. My client stumbled and tripped with both his and my suitcases and fell into a crumble inside the train. I finally joined the lot of them and we all took turns wheezing and high-fiving each other.
That’s when we looked up and saw the Norwegian passengers look at us like we were crazy. Turns out, the train wasn't about to leave for another twenty minutes. Right after our dramatic entrance, we saw an old woman with a walking stick shuffle up the steps of the platform towards the train. Each of her steps was about a minute long and we wheezed and panted as we watched her take all twenty minutes to climb the stairs, cross the platform, and enter the train in excruciating slowness.
“Well,” my manager replied in his usual succinctness, “that was the dumbest thing we’ve done in a long time. I’m exhausted.”
“So am I,” agree the client.
“I can barely breathe,” I wheezed between breaths.
“Wait a second,” Brandon replied, and looked at me in confusion. “Why are you tired, Shilpi? You didn’t even lift any suitcases.”
“I...have no idea," I wheezed back.
“That’s unacceptable, soldier” replied my manager, “Drop and give me 50.”

What my client looked like carrying our suitcases (minus the heels)

A week later, we were in Singapore. Singapore is crazy hot. As usual, I spent the first few days jet-lagged and cowed down by indigestion. I then spent the next few days walking between air-conditioned buildings. Singapore is known for its food courts and it, singlehandedly, redefined the term “food court” for me. I had no idea it could be this amazing. The food court I went to had an Opera-theme, so the ceilings were draped with fake chandeliers and there were sculptures and plush seating around the food courts. Lining the walls were stalls with cheap, incredibly delicious food from every imaginable place in Asia.  I ate the best crawfish of my life, and then I ate Thai food, Korean food, Singaporean food, Indian food, Chinese food, and finally finished it off with a fresh fruit juice consisting of carrots, tomatoes, dragon fruit and various other ovaries from various other plants.
Finally, I landed in Brazil. We stayed at a place right across the beach. The weather was 75 degrees Fahrenheit.  There were half-naked people walking around. And there was fresh seafood at my disposal. I was in my element. Every day after work, I dashed into my hotel room, put on my swimsuit, changed into my flip flops, and ran into the sea like a crazed dog. The waves were incredibly strong and I invariably lost my flip flops in the water and had to walk back to my hotel barefoot.
And there it is; the end of my dream project. It was amazing while it lasted and I can only thank my lucky stars that I got the opportunity to do something like this. I met a lot of great people along the way, and when we had a final week in Houston, all those people came to the meeting scheduled by my client. I looked around the table and saw those familiar faces, each face reminding me of a place and a memory. It was an incredible feeling.

Cheezy picture to get my point across

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