A Better Day

Alright! Things are happening. In the morning on my way to work I get an SMS from Karilyn, our personal Mumbai expat guide, who tells me that all I need to do to get gas in my apartment is have the building’s doorman flag one of those gas delivery guys on the bicycle down. (Thanks!)

Of course, this was after I had already gone, for a third time, to the gas distribution office, where they promised gas is on the way. My driver even insisted to have a word with them himself. So when I got that SMS, I tried to get his confirmation – it took a little while, but eventually he enthusiastically exclaimed: “Yes Yes, Sir, bicycle much cheaper, watchman smart man, 10 rupees tip! Bicycle no salary, 2 rupees commission!”

Ok, so that makes a lot of sense. Screw that office and their customer number!

Then, at work, I get a call from the long lost furniture guy. The furniture is ready for delivery in the evening. As it happens, when I got home, not only did I have new big shiny (ok, I exaggerate) gas cylinders, but I also had some yummy food in the fridge. So I thought, I should go with the swing of things and call the TV guy, who had never showed up to install digital cable. Amazingly enough, he said, his guys will be over in ten minutes.

Alright, so it wasn’t 10 minutes but more like an hour and a half, but they showed up – incidentally pretty much as the same time as the furniture guy. So the house was full and the confusion complete, when the TV guys asked where’s the computer? I didn’t quite get what they needed a computer for, but it turns out that the cable guys were under the impression I want internet cable access. Well, apparently some sort of typical misunderstanding, but I couldn’t argue with that and just said: “Sure, who cares about digital TV, just give me your broadband cable internet access – how fast is it?” – “64 kilobytes, Sir” – “You have something a little faster?” – “Yes, 128 kilobytes, Sir” – “How about 256?” – “Yes, we have, too, Sir” – “Alright, if that’s the fastest, I want that.”

So while the two cable guys started playing around with my router settings, etc., the furniture guy, his sister, and their cab driver were spreading out the furniture on the terrace, four chairs and two little tables, with gorgeous wood carvings and golden inlays. At least I think it’s gorgeous, because our terrace was a bit dark already. But then I noticed that one table was smaller with the other table, so I asked what happened here, how come this is smaller? I couldn’t really get a straight answer or explanation, aside from an unsuccessful attempt at convincing me that that was what we had wanted, so I said, ok, you can either come back with a table a bigger size, or you’ll have to give me a discount.

In reality, I found this more amusing than anything else, but I am kind of starting to like this whole bargaining business. Anyways, so the response was that they can make another table with the same size, but it would be a different design. Smart move on their part, because even though there was zero logic to that, I didn’t really want to risk getting a plywood table top in exchange, so I said, ok, I’ll keep it, but I am not paying 10,500 rupees (which was the originally agreed on total). Ok, so the game begins, but these guys are pretty good and I knew I’d lose, especially after I then started with a half arsed counter offer of 10,000 rupees.

Of course, they looked very shocked, and just said: “500 rupees less? No, Sir, impossible!” – “Ok, how much?” – “200” – “300” – “No, Sir, impossible, 200” – “250”, at which point everybody was pretty much laughing. “No, Sir, impossible, 200.” Alright, so I give them 10,500, because I didn’t have exact change and I ask, so do you have 200 rupees change? Well, of course they didn’t, so the whole bargaining procedure was completely useless, and that really made me laugh. Alright then, what the hell! So they took the money, everybody is smiling and then, as they are walking out, he asks, “Oh, and taxi money!” Well, that was a nice try, because I know we had argued about free delivery weeks ago, and they had eventually agreed, and so I just said, no way, that was included, and so they didn’t argue with that and off they went.

Meanwhile, the cable guys had real problems with my router, so eventually they gave up and connected my computer directly. Fine, I’ll figure it out myself. So we started a little test drive – and it turns out that 256 kilobytes broadband connection actually manages a blazing fast speed of 90 kilobytes per second. Well, that’s pretty shitty, but for now it’s better than nothing. Plus, they are coming back for the digital TV setup tomorrow afternoon.

Daily Life

I am afraid this will be another whiny blog entry, but such is life. So on Monday it was raining some more. Well, a lot more, and the office was closed. Our maid still made it on time, which was great. Unfortunately, she ran out of gas while boiling some rice – literally, and not because of the rain. Our apartment has a gas cylinder beneath the kitchen stove, and if it’s empty, then you call for a new one, and it gets delivered.

So far so good, except today is Thursday, and there’s still no gas. Calling the number for the gas man didn’t work – first, because I didn’t have the number, then because the number didn’t work. I guess I am not the only one whose phone isn’t working because of the rains, so I had to go there myself.

The gas man is basically a tiny office behind a screen, so nobody can hear a thing being said. After I practically forced my way behind the screen so I can at least try to communicate with the guy, above the street noise and beyond the usual language problems, the conversation went pretty much like this: “I would like to have a new gas cylinder, mine is empty.” – “Eight days, Sir.” – “what do you mean, eight days, I don’t have any gas to cook.” – “Ok, Sir, today or tomorrow.” – “Well, can you be a little more specific?” – “Ok, Sir, tomorrow before 10 will do?” – “Ok, tomorrow before 10 is good, but it has to be before noon, before 12, oherwise there will be noone at home, ok?” – “No probs, Sir, tomorrow before 10 will do?”

So, apart from people really saying ‘no probs’ a lot, it wasn’t really a surprise that of course nobody showed up the next day. In fact, I expected as much, so I made a point of stopping by the place at around 9, asking them whether they will deliver the gas today, before 10, and of course the answer was yes. Well, that was this morning, I know the maid was here untill 12:30 at least, but there is still no gas. And the probably very yummy chicken dish she had made on Monday, before the gas ran out, is gone as well – but that’s because I told her that if there’s no gas today to have the chicken with, then I don’t want the chicken anymore (it’s a bit too hot here to have chicken that was cooked four days ago, and the chicken is a bit too spicy to be had without any rice).

Anyways, so what better to do in such a situation than go out for food, besides, after all, a lot of neighborhoods don’t have any gas at all, but instead stand in long lines to purchase kerosine, which comes in a wild assortment of plastic containers, which are sold to them basically in the middle of huge mountains of garbage on the street.

So on my way to a new eatery that I tried to discover in my neighborhood tonight, I walk by a real modern Reliance WebWorld shop, i.e. an internet cafe, which I had discovered last night. I regret very quickly not having hired a rikshah for the short distance of maybe 200 meters, because by the time I get there, I am already pretty exhausted from the heat and humidity, not to mention my unsuccessful attempts at trying to avoid getting splashed by cars and rikshas that are passing me at very close distance while running over another pothole puddle.

In any event, I get to WebWorld at 9:30 tonight, hoping to check some gmail (which is blocked both at work and on my BlackBerry), before they close at 10 – except tonight they were in the mood to close right in front of my nose, so I am writing this from my BlackBerry. I guess I mentioned that my landline phone is still not working?

Alright then, so let’s find a place to eat. A few near death experiences as a pedestrian later I walk into a place called D’Nosh, which greets me with an American Diner style interior with a black and white checkered bar counter, a large flat screen TV showing some Rap for the pretty pictures of some rapper ladies doing their thing (I am guessing, because there was no sound and the picture was quite distorted due to bad reception), plus, most importantly, The Scorpions followed by Led Zeppelin followed by other crimes to humanity commited at least 20 years ago – of course played by a real DJ at the CD deck, and played at full earsplitting volume with a number of air conditioners and fans adding to the general feeling that I might have walked into the wrong place.

Not surprisingly, the food was equally bad, but I didn’t really care anymore and marked it down as yet another day that I have been unable to find a place that doesn’t try so damn hard to look American. It would be nice to find some place that has music that’s maybe post-1985 and not Bollywood pop, but untill then I should probably stick to the regular dark holes in the wall that just have great food designed to strengthen my immune system. Or maybe I should just stay at home on my terrace, having nice home made food. Oh, wait, there’s still no gas in the kitchen, and I have never heard back from the furniture store that was supposed to deliver some terrace chairs last Tuesday. Hm, I guess I should call them, except their phone is not working either. Oh, and even if it does, no doubt they also expect that somehow someone is always at home to greet their delivery.

I must be doing something wrong, because the TV cable guy certainly seemed quite surprised not to find anybody, not even my wife, at home this afternoon at 4pm when he tried to install a digital cable box for the TV. That conversation went pretty much like this: “Sir, there is noone at home.” – “No, I know there is noone at home, because I am at work.” – “I am trying to get into the flat, but noone opens the door.” – “No, there’s noone at home, that’s why I said twice, you need to come before 12, when my maid is at home.” – “Ok, Sir, tomorrow will do?” – “Yes, tomorrow will do.”

On the plus side, when I got home after that bizarre Rapper/Scorpions experience, I made a very quick kill. Maybe that cockroach had just had dinner as well, but it was too fat and too slow to survive for more than two seconds under my “NEW! HIT! Cockroches – Rs.33 off!” spraying onslaught.

Weekend In Pune

Last weekend, before the flood disaster, we drove to Pune with my co-worker. Pune is about 100 miles from Mumbai and there’s a three-lane express highway. Still, it took three hours to get there and four hours to get back, due to heavy rain and insane traffic on the way out of and back into Mumbai. But it was worth the trip.

When we drove there, it was dark, and we didn’t see much of the landscape. What we did see where heavy trucks crawling up the Ghats mountain range at the speed of snails – except we didn’t actually see them, because hardly any of them had any rear lights, and a lot didn’t have any front lights either. Of course, that didn’t stop them from using the middle lane or pulling over to pass an even slower truck without much notice. Add to that a good amount of wind an rain and an “express highway” that, while in surprisingly good shape can have curves like Marilyn Monroe only more dangerous, and one can say it was an exciting trip.

Apart from the truly insane truck drivers, there was also a number of people parking their cars right in the middle of a blind spot after a curve, where there is no emergency lane or anything, so basically on the middle of the highway. Why? Well, because they were in the mood to get out of the car for a piss or maybe to take some pictures.

Anyways, we got to Pune at 11pm or so and checked into a little hotel with the obligatory Barista on the grounds, right next to the Osho Ashram. One of the first things I noticed in Pune was the number of hipsters walking around, sitting at Barista, and standing around in front of some modern movie theater/mall. The term hipster of course simply denotes college kids in jeans and t-shirt, as Pune is actually also known as the Oxford of India, due to the number of IT colleges and universities here, so don’t think East Village, as the dress code is rather unimaginative, and labels win over originality any time.

Now, we are anything but hippies, but the Osho Ashram promises to be a very quiet green space where one can relax and meditate. Osho, of course, is the guru that at some point got deported from the US for tax evasion, and whom Western tabloids used to refer to as the sex guru, because he had pretty liberal views on sex. But really, it is just big business, and a pretty weird place. I had somehow expected that we would only find Westerners there, but there were about 30% Indians as well.

The first thing that happens when one gets there is you need to pay Rs1200, fill out a bunch of forms, show your visa, have a picture taken, and get an HIV test done. No, you don’t see anybody having sex or anything, but basically, it’s part of the belief that sex is natural and shouldn’t be discouraged, and besides Osho apparently was pretty paranoid about hygiene, so there’s also big signs everywhere about how not to handle the food, where not to go if you have a cold, and where to wear socks instead of bare feet.

Then, during the day, everyone has to wear a maroon robe, no exceptions. In the evening, they have a huge two and a half hour evening meeting, where white robes are mandatory. At the swimming pool, maroon swim suits only. It’s all quite cultish and rather unenlightened, and of course they want you to buy these things on the premises for inflated prices. On the other hand, the pool is very nice, and they have a sauna and a tennis court (for extra cash). Oh, and taking pictures on the premises wasn’t allowed either.

We also went to a couple of meditation sessions, which are basically a mix of dance therapy and Osho philosophy brainwash. An interesting experience maybe, but why anyone would want to devote his or her life to this sort of thing is a bit beyond me. Add to that the obvious big business mentality – Osho’s Rolls Royce is exhibited right next to his ashes in the “Silent Meditation Area” – and one could easily get pissed off by all of it. Or one could travel thousands of miles from Europe or elsewhere, just to spend a few weeks here, as many people do.

The big evening meeting was in a gorgeous auditorium – a huge square space with a black marble floor and a huge triangular ceiling. Absolutely no coughing allowed for two and a half hours. There were 200 or 300 people there, and the thing starts with some music and “meditative” dancing, which in our case ended with some freak woman hysterically crying out for Krishna, untill she got escorted out. Maybe she was a real freak, or maybe the whole thing was staged, either by her or by the Osho Ashram head of marketing, who knows.

Then there is an hour long or so video of Osho giving a speech. I kind of fell asleep at some point, but basically he was saying that Western religions have been created by the poor and for the poor, with Jesus having been a carpenter and Islam promising 72 virgins after death, Christianity promising heavenly paradise, etc. while Indian religions were created by kings, who had everything materially, and desired nothing but solitude and nothingness. No wonder than that Indian religions have found such a large following among the spoiled and sated Western population, while Hinduism has nothing to offer for the poor in India, he said.

Well, I don’t know, it sounded like an odd mix of half-truths and bullshit, but it certainly seemed to show that Osho knew his target group and built a pretty successful marketing and product line around it, because Westerners are coming in droves. Besides, he probably had trouble getting laid, so what better idea to help him out on that account than coming up with a sexually liberal cult targeted at rich Westerners? I had thought this was a cliche, and maybe it is, but we definitely saw a number of single older Western ladies hanging around with young Indian boys.

In the immediate vicinity of the Osho Ashram is a “German Bakery”, which was crowded with Indians, hippies, and regular travellers, and, as Ksenia observed, the atmosphere was a pretty much like they took everything stereotypical Indian, digested it in California, and spat it back out here in Pune. Somewhat interesting, and somewhat revolting, just like the Osho Ashram itself, which would make a fine relaxed place to go to, as it is clean and green and has nice facilities, if it weren’t for the cultish freaks and the many strings firmly attached to visitors’ wallets.

Anyways, bottom line: I am still not enlightened, despite having walked around in a maroon robe all weekend, looking like I don’t know what.

The Maid

In NYC, we used to have a cleaning woman, who’d come in every two weeks and clean everything in three hours. She is from Chile and does a great job. Now, having a cleaning woman in NYC was strange enough for me, at least at the beginning. It’s not like I grew up on Beverly Hills or Windsor Castle, quite the contrary. But living in Mumbai, it is pretty clear pretty quickly that spoiled Westerners that we are, we need a maid on a daily basis, at least part time. First of all, this place is dirty and our apartment would get covered in dust very very quickly. Also, we have no idea what to buy in terms of groceries etc., where to buy it, and what it should cost. And even if we did, we’d have a hell of a time communicating with the shop owners. So we were recommended a maid and hired her.

She came with a number of references and spoke English quite well. She said she would clean, do the shopping (or rather order the stuff for delivery, since everything can get delivered), do the laundry and cook a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the fact that having a maid is basically a full-time job. We were naively thinking that you could just have her come in, and she would know what to do without much prompting. Instead, Ksenia tried for a week to show her how to clean, to convince her to do the shopping, but basically nothing got done.

Other people confirmed then confirmed that getting a good maid is very very difficult, and that one basically needs to spend a few months explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Our maid basically refused to do the shopping, because she said there are no shops around (there are, besides, then she made a big long face when Ksenia asked her to call somebody for delivery). After a week of her cleaning our living room, our telephone was still covered in dust, because she didn’t know that we wanted her to clean the telephone, too.

We still don’t really have any idea about how this works, but we sort of thought that if our cleaning woman in NYC can figure out without being told that dusting the living room includes the telephone, then it should not be too much of a problem here. Well, apparently it was, plus at the end of the week we think that we are missing a number of Rs500 bills from a locked drawer, and although we cannot be 100% certain what happened to it, we figured it would be better to let her go.

Our landlord told us that you basically cannot trust any maid and that they will all rob you and need very strict supervision. Another expat told us that in her Indian friend’s family, the maid is basically locked up in the kitchen, where she sleeps on the floor. So what do you do? We obviously want to treat our maid like responsible adults, but it turns out that this may be easier said than done.

Anyways, so we have now hired a different maid, who was also recommended to us with all sorts of references. Her English is not quite as good, but so far, she’s quite a bit more thorough. She was cooking a tasty chicken dish today, and while she didn’t do the vegetable dish that she said she would do, nor cleaned the kitchen cabinets that she said she would clean, she did call the grocery to get the chicken and vegetables delivered.

Speaking of which: at this point, we have slowly lost any concept of believing what anyone says. The cable guy said he would stop by in the afternoon to get us digital cable; he never did. The dry cleaner said he would stop by in half an hour to pick up some shirts; he never did. The furniture shop said they would come at 2pm to deliver the furniture; they never did. We then drove to the shop ourselves, and then the story was that the furniture was actually made in a different store outside of town and that it can’t get delivered until Tuesday because of the floods. The travel desk at work told me they’d come by in 10 minutes to give me Ksenia’s tickets to NYC; they never did. When I went there myself, it turned out that the tickets were double booked and that the real ticket will be an electronic ticket. I guess we have yet to learn how to get this sort of information on the phone, without actually having to show up in person. There’s countless stories like this, and maybe even more so than the heat and the rain and the traffic and the pollution, it makes India quite an exhausting place to live.

In any event, I guess it’ll be interesting how things will go once Ksenia is off to NYC for two months, and I will only have half an hour or so in the morning to tell the maid what to do. I think I might be bitching about my maid and become a Desperate Housewife myself. Of course, Ksenia thinks I will spoil her and let her get away with doing nothing, and then she will have to fire her, when she gets back, because her tolerance for questionable work ethics is a bit lower than mine, but we’ll see. I am already calling Ksenia My Good Colonialist, but really, we have no idea what people were talking about when Indians in the US say: “Oh, you are going to India on US salary – you are going to live like a King, you’ll have a maid and a driver, and everything is going to get delivered!” Yeah, right, but I’ll have to quit my job first, so I have time to manage my maid and my driver.

The Flood Recap

So far, the monsoon season has been very nice and pleasant to us. Temperatures are in the high 20’s celsius, as opposed to mid or high 30’s, and although it is very humid, the air feels better and fresher than before the monsoon started. It rains every couple of days for a few hours, but that is that.

But then last Tuesday, all hell broke lose, and as our luck would have it, we had the pleasure to experience the heaviest rainfall in Mumbai’s history. As of today, over 450 people died in the State of Maharashtra, and about 60 in Mumbai. Some parts of Mumbai got 90cm of rainfall, that’s three feet.

The rain started sometime in the early afternoon, when I was at work and Ksenia at her yoga class. Around 5pm we were told we could leave the office early. I took off with Manish from work in his Tata Sierra, a fairly heavy SUV. The rain was absolutely incredible, stronger than anything I have ever seen. It soon became clear that it’ll take a while to get home. The traffic was crawling, but still moving, sort of. Eventually, cars started to use both lanes in both directions. Initially, the water on the streets was only a few inches, but soon it reached about half a foot, and in some spots a foot or more.

So by 7pm, we had gone through one particularly deep spot, we were maybe 3km away from the office and we were stuck. The water was too deep, and besides, people had started abandoning their cars in the middle of the streets. By now it was dark, and the traffic lights were out; there was no electricity anywhere. For some reason, I managed to call Ksenia on her mobile, and she said that she is walking home. Our car was flooded, she was knee deep in the water, and our driver was walking her home.

Luckily, Manish’s aunt lived nearby where we were stuck, so we turned around and managed to park the car in a better spot. But both of us wanted to get home, so we started walking. We were about 7km (5 miles) from home, and, well, it took us five hours. The water reached our hips very quickly, and in some spots our chests. Now, of course, I am using the term water quite liberally – think sewage. Luckily, it was dark, so we couldn’t really see what’s floating by, but it wasn’t pretty.

At one spot, the current was so strong that it kept pulling us back and I couldn’t get a firm hold with my feet. Of course, I was still wearing my office shoes and, actually, my best suit pants, not to mention my tie. Anyways, somehow we managed to get cross that particular spot and kept wading through the floods. There were abandoned flooded cars and city busses everywhere. People were resting in the busses or waiting for God knows what, plus there was a good amount of thunder an lightening, so the whole scene had a bit of an apocalyptic touch.

The street lights were out, but the lightening then and again made them go on, which didn’t really add to my general feeling of discomfort. Wading through hip deep sewage for a few kilometers is not exactly my idea of fun, especially when you know that it’s quite possible that you make a wrong step and get stuck in a pothole, or worse, end up in a manhole. The people around us seemed to have a blast though. First of all, they had no problems touching the traffic light posts, thunder and lightening or not. But apart from that, they were generally laughing, a few were singing to the rain God, Ganesh, and they were all holding hands to help each other through the sewage, so that was nice.

Some overdid the fun part a little, I guess: Ksenia told me later that where she was, there were rats swimming around all over the place, trying to huddle up on top of the gas tank of a motor bike, which was just above water level – and if that’s not enough, there were a bunch of teenage boys with sticks picking up the rats and throwing them towards the people passing by. Thankfully, no-one was hit, so the little pricks weren’t very good at it, and I didn’t see any of that – I just met a whole lot of people greeting me with “Hello foreigner, how do you like India?”

Eventually, Manish and I reached a higher spot in Juhu where there was no flooding, just by the JW Mariott Hotel, which was bizarrely lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it pays to have your own generator. An hour or so later, I reached home. Our street also was not flooded, but I had to restrain myself not to strangle the woman who asked me, her cell phone in hand: “Excuse me, but why is there so much traffic on Linking Road?”

Poor Ksenia had gotten home quite a bit earlier, just to find our apartment flooded in two inch deep water. The drains on our terrace were clogged, so the water was overflowing into our apartment, despite all doors being shut. Of course, these drains are a joke to begin with – there’s only two of them, each maybe an inch and a half in diameter, and our terrace is pretty large. Needless to say, our upstairs neighbors throwing plastic bags and newspapers onto our terrace on a regular basis didn’t help.

So she and the driver spent hours getting rid of the water, and of course the driver had no place to go, so he slept in our second bedroom. Ksenia wouldn’t have found her way home without him, so we were very lucky to have him. On the plus side, Ksenia was able to take a few shots with her camera.

We had no electricity and eventually also no water, nevermind no landline phone, so the next day and night were a bit of a challenge. Electricity and water came back Thursday morning, but of course still no phone. One would think that the telephone is a fairly proven technology, but not around here. Strangely, mobile phone service was working for the most part, except for a relatively short disruption for a few hours and heavy congestion.

Also quite striking was the complete lack of any police, fire department, ambulance or any other kind of public service. Rail and airport service were of course completely shut down for almost 40 hours, but people were generally completely left to their own devices. One would think that in an area where heavy rains are an annual fact of life, there would maybe exist some kind of emergency plan, maybe even inflatable boats, but I guess not, which maybe isn’t surprising, given that the sewage system is such a joke, i.e. in large parts non-existent and otherwise completely useless.

So today everything is pretty much back to normal, except still no phone and conflicting reports on whether there’s any flights going out of Mumbai. Ksenia was supposed to leave for NYC tonight, so we will see. We are still planning to go to a dance performance in the evening, and her flight is scheduled for 2am. At least I have now found a Barista cafe with WiFi access and it actually works, with a good speed to boot. But Ksenia is taking her laptop with her, so my fun was limited to today. On the bright site, on TV they said that I can now worry a bit about getting leprotosis from the rat piss that no doubt was plenty in the sewage that I had been walking around in – yummy!