After The Flood

Well, we survived. 500 or so in Maharashtra, 80 or so in Mumbai did not. Three feet of rain within a few hours are no joke. As of this morning, we have water and electricity again, but of course no phone. I love my Blackberry though, which strangely seemed to work most of the time, and I am writing this from the Blackberry browser.

More on this little adventure in a few days, but it was quite something. I ended up walking home through 7km/5miles/5hours of knee to hip deep (and sometimes chest deep) sewage floods, at one spot with quite a strong current.

There were no street lights, it was dark evening, there were thousands of laughing people and hundreds of abandoned flooded cars and busses everywhere – and the intermittent thunder of lightening gave the whole scene a bizarrely apocalyptic touch.

When Ksenia reached home, a few hours before me, our apartment was in two inch deep waters from the overflowing terrace. The two miniature drains proved useless and our upstair neighbors having a penchant for throwing newspapers, plastic bags and sometimes even food from their balconies didn’t help matters.

Anyways, so much for today. I might try getting to work tomorrow, provided our driver can come up with a new car, because the one he had he had got flooded. He ended up abandoning the car and walking Ksenia home – he really was priceless. Not to mention that this morning he thought it was necessary to come to our door after a one hour rikshah ride, just to apologize for not being able to drive me to work, because he doesn’t have a new car yet…

Incredible India indeed.

Not Quite DSL Ready

Well, it looks like our apartment is not quite DSL ready. Why? Because our phone lines don’t work when it rains, or when it has rained, or maybe when it is about to rain. So, basically: never, with being monsoon season and all that, except, of course, when the landlord is over to convince himself that the phone is not working, so that he can call MTNL, who would then have to certify the line as being faulty, so that the landlord can ask an electrician to fix it. Needless to say, nothing has been fixed yet.

Too bad, because there’s lot’s of things to talk about, but for now, just this: We spent the weekend at the Osho Ashram in Pune, we fired our maid, and, oh, yes, our phone still isn’t working. More on that when we are back online; it could take a while, or it could be tomorrow, noone can say for sure.

Shopping for Furniture and DSL

Our apartment has nice modern furniture and a big terrace with a little roof to sit under in the rain, but no terrace furniture. But what better place than India to buy this sort of stuff? Mumbai is full of little woodcarving furniture shops, mostly owned by Muslims. There are also many shops that make furniture from bamboo cane, but the woodcarving stuff is really quite something. So last weekend we went from one to the next, trying to figure out the different types and prices. We are probably deluding ourselves, but we start thinking that we are getting a better idea about whether people are giving us a totally inflated tourist price or only a medium inflated price. But basically, we kind of go by what we like and, almost equally important, which of the sales guys we like. Eventually, we end up at one shop where the people are very relaxed and laid back and seem to have prices that are not obviously completely out of line.

Of course, even the outrageous quotes are probably a quarter or less of what this stuff would be anywhere in the West, but we don’t really want to be taken for complete idiots either, and I am slowly beginning to take a liking in the bargaining and haggling game. Anyways, so we get a bunch of lounge type chairs and small tables, with carvings to Ksenia’s specification, made of rosewood and with some inlays on the table tops. They supposedly will get made to order in 10 days. The people were really quite nice. We went back there three or four times, were forced to have a cold Pepsi, and apparently were a bit of a sensation in that neighborhood. We also got a rocking chair, at some other place, which just got delivered.

Also last weekend, we went out for drinks and dinner with another expat from work and some expat friends of his. Before we came here, we didn’t really think about whether we’d make Indian friends or hang out with expats, but I guess we also have reached a point where we realize it’s nice to have a bitch and moan and vent session with expats then and again, where you can just sit down and commiserate about the general insanity and craziness of this country. Indians might get defensive or offended by this sort of stuff, just like I have been asked on more than one occasion why the fuck I came to the US, if I have to bitch about this or that, so when Indians asks me how I like India, which they do very often, I don’t particularly feel, tempting as it might be, to say exactly all the things that might be on my mind. It would take too much time anyways.

Apart from yet another elephant that we saw walking down the street today (with the guy riding it asking for money, of course), we also saw a Hindustan Motors Ambassador Avigo. Now, we had already given Rs15,000 to the Tata showroom to book a Tata Sumo, and we even had already a certified check for another Rs85,000 in our hands, ready to be turned over to Tata, but when I saw that HM Ambassador Avigo, I just couldn’t help it and completely changed my mind. This car is an absolute beauty. I don’t care what Indians tell me, which is usually that it’s a shit piece of junk and that I should buy a Mahindra Scorpio or some such US style SUV, I think this car is absolutely gorgeous. I admit, the regular HM Ambassador Grand leaves a bit to be desired in terms of interior styling, but the Avigo looks great, is cheap for a car its size, and is made for Indian roads. So I reversed my Tata Sumo booking and ordered an HM Amby Avigo.

The only downside is that it’ll probably take four or five weeks, and that the paperwork is not any less than for any other car. Apart from a copy of my passport, my permanent residency permit, my landlord’s phone bill, they also want the original copy of my apartment lease agreement, and a letter from my employer on company letterhead, which confirms my status and confirms that I moved from the hotel to an apartment and basically begs the vehicle registration office to please register my car, Yours Faithfully etc. blah blah… Apparently, at least that was the HM car dealer’s explanation, the vehicle registration office has a real problem with people faking their proof of residence documents, which, given the amount of paperwork these bureaucrats require doesn’t really surprise me, especially since the permanent residence permit, for example, is basically printed on toilet paper, so easy to fake that my grandmother could do it, and she is dead.

At least when you go to the post and telegraph office, which we did to order a DSL broadband connection, you know to expect the worst, and our expectations were sort of satisfied. The PTO is now actually run by a semi-government entity called MTNL, and when you go there, it is a bit like entering the twighlight zone. The MTNL workers, many of them, none with much of anything to do, sit behind large schoolroom desks of plastic wood veneer, hand you an application form that we had to have our landlord signed, since our phone line is on his name. Fair enough. When we get back, they read the form very carefully, slam three official stamps on it with full gusto, rip off a little bit off it at the bottom and say “OK, two to four days”. We couldn’t quite believe what we heard, so then they clarified that in two to four days they will forward the application. “And then what?” our inquiring minds wanted to know. Then they clarified that the service guy will come to our apartment. But nobody knew what day exactly, let alone what time.

So when we argued that we’d like to know the day and, if possible, have a rough idea about the time, they said “I don’t know”. Well, honesty is always a good policy. But when we asked, what if we are not home, the woman taking our application gave a fantastic shy smile and just said “Oh.” I am not sure exactly what that meant, but I can only assume that she assumed that we have a maid (which we now do, but only part-time). Or is it really possible that it never occurred to her that people might not be home?

Anyways, so she sent us to the second floor to talk to the field manager, I guess. The building is old, smelly, and from the looks on people’s faces, no Westerner has ever set foot into the place, at least not onto the second floor. There’s huge metal drawers on the walls, ca. 1930. The field manager now says one week. Then we kind of lie and say that downstairs they said two to three days. The brief answer: “No, impossible!” But then, I don’t know what happened, her colleague started wiggling his head, and all of a sudden it was no problem and he promises Thursday, in three days. Exact time? “After 12.” Well, looks like we are starting to figure stuff out here, so we are already very happy. For now. Who knows what will happen Thursday, but the poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the field office was promising. It had his portrait and underneath, the following, paraphrased from memory:

The customer is not an interruption of your work; he is your reason for being.
The customer should not be thankful that you serve him; you should be thankful for getting to serve him.

It went on a bit more in that vein, and I don’t remember the exact words, but seeing this faded black and white poster in this five by five feet field office was truly worth getting the visitor’s pass that we needed to go to the second floor. About as worthwhile as the hand-painted sign above the elevator: “This lift is not available for going down.”

One thing we haven’t quite figured out yet are our 70 or so switches. The other day, I accidentally switched off the power plug for the fridge and didn’t notice for a good while, and we also had somehow managed to switch off the door bell, so the poor woman that came for an interview as a maid was waiting outside for half an hour, because we also didn’t hear her knocking, as we were in the kitchen, and the ventilator, stove exhaust, and washing machine combined are a bit too noisy to hear much of anything. Not to mention our melodic water filter. The electrical outlets are also a bit of a challenge. They come in two different shapes, but each seems to be able to actually fit a variety of plug types, except of course our US types, and in any event, a few of our appliances require 120V, not the standard 220V in use in India (give or take 20V I guess, with the power supply being said to be a bit shaky here). I never understood the US system either, where it seems to be preferred to have poster size warning labels on every goddamned power cable, as opposed to manufacturing plugs that are actually safe and don’t bend like straws at the slightest touch, but I guess that’s where the German in me comes out, because there’s something to be said for proper DIN norms.

Anyways, we had to make two trips to an electrical supplies shop, and the 13 year old kid there was fantastic. He seemed to know everything and anything about electrical supplies, Watts and Volts and amperes, and whipped out his calculator to figure out the power needs of all sorts of things. Try that at Radio Shack and you’ll risk an unexpected death. Anyways, we hooked up our PC, and are now DSL ready, the MTNL and Gandhi willing.

Moving Day

So our move sort of went smoothly. Deepak, our driver, had his day off, the first in four weeks. I am not sure how that works, really, but we had a different driver on the day of the move. Ksenia pretty quickly stated the obvious: “I don’t think he knows how to drive”. Well, he really didn’t. He had no clue where he was going, when to stop at the green light, or when to go at the red light, and, best of all, he spent more time honking than I would have ever thought possible. Deepak honks the horn quite often as well, but at least one can sort of see the reasoning. This guy seemed to use the horn for no reason whatsoever. I guess it’s true, as it says on the back of every truck in this country, and I am not making this up: “Horn OK Please”. Well, sometimes it says “Horn OK Pliese”.

Anyways, we ended up being half an hour late for the handover of the apartment, but it was OK. I had not noticed when I had looked at the apartment, but of course, Ksenia noticed right away: Whenever the elevator door is open, it plays an atrocious midi melody, kind of like an ice cream truck in NYC. But that was not enough. The kitchen has a water filter that also plays music. The filter is some mysterious contraption with an electric switch, and whenever it’s ready for use, and in fact for the whole time thereafter, it plays an even more annoying midi melody. Maybe it’s designed to help scare off the germs in the water, but in any event that’s what we have in our kitchen.

The next thing we notice, because the owner of the apartment gives us a tour of it, is that this 2 bedroom apartment must have about 70 light and other switches. It seems like each individual light bulb and electric outlet has its own dedicated switch, and none of the rooms has one main light, but instead a whole assortment of light sources that one can switch on or off in endless variations. Of course, since none of the light bulbs appears to be more than 10W, it’s nevertheless a little dark, or maybe let’s say there is always a nice ambience. Anyways, the sheer number of light switches is dizzying. We had wondered about the TV commercials for Euroswitches, which we had seen a few times, but whatever those really are, people seem to have a real love for light switches here.

Unfortunately, Ksenia also developed a serious case of toothache, so we took the opportunity to ask the apartment owner about a good dentist. Back in the hotel, where we picked up our second load of luggage, we also asked the front desk, but when we called the dentist they recommended, we were told that he was already gone for the day. That was at 11:00am. The apartment owner’s dentist seemed to be a better bet. He also had already gone, but he’d be back at 4:30pm, and so we went there in the afternoon. We had the dental office give our driver directions over the phone, but he still had to ask two people on the street and call the dental office back some more. Maybe we aren’t the only ones who can’t make much sense of addresses in this town. The dental office, proudly going by the name “Only Smiles”, turned out to be a good find. There was hardly a wait, the prescribed anti-biotica were $1.20, and the x-rays were done the next day. Unfortunately, Ksenia needs a root-canal, so that’s not so great, but she’s scheduled for next week, and on the plus side, we no longer have the shits. We both had a mild to not so mild case of the shits, but that’s over for now.

Before we went to the dentist, we spent the afternoon hunting for kitchen and cleaning supplies. But first we had yet another fantastic meal at a restaurant. The waiter recommended to go to KNB or to Shopper’s Shop for kitchen and cleaning supplies. He must have been confused, because both places featured women’s dresses and a very small selection of tea pots and such. Shopper’s Shop is kind of a mall and not exactly what we needed. When we asked a sales woman there about kitchen and cleaning supplies, like mops and spunges etc., she tried to steer us to her water boilers, apologized for not having any mops for sale and recommended another store around the corner. Now, that store was a little closer to what we needed, at least they sold ashtrays, right next to the women’s dresses and men’s shoes. So we bought an ashtray (with the usual ceremony of one guy selling, one guy wrapping, one guy taking the money, and a fourth guy handing over the ashtray), and walked out of there. Luckily, Ksenia then remembered a store somewhere near a Barista (the Indian Starbucks), which should have everything we wanted, so after a few futile inquiries about the
location of that Barista, we eventually found it. And, indeed, Rs2,200 later we were loaded up on spunges, a mop, toilet paper, and mosquito repellent – just the sort of stuff one needs to get started. Interestingly, toilet paper really does seem like a luxury item here. At $5 for six measly rolls, I was tempted to look for the golden prints and silk embroidery, but they were just plain white and expensive.

Our moving day ended with the discovery of a very cute pink Lizard in the living room, and of a less cute but thumb-sized cockroach in the kitchen. There wasn’t much in terms of pots or pans or anything in the apartment, but a big can of anti-cockroach spray there was, and it came very handy. Ksenia went after it with full gusto, and that was the end of it. Our pots and pans etc. arrived the next day, yesterday. Ksenia is still in pain with her teeth, and we have interviewed a maid. Tomorrow, we’ll go to a dance festival and continue the car buying saga. We still need to get DSL, but at least there is something called instant internet here. It’s dead slow, but works from any phone line on demand, so I am writing this via e-mail from Ksenia’s G4, since I haven’t set up my computer yet either. The weather is quite nice these days, and Ksenia sways back and forth from “If it weren’t for the food, I’d hate this country” to being quite taken with the various fabrics she has found, as well as with her Indian dance and the yoga classes she is taking. So, all in all, we are already on our way to a normal life. And, still, I can’t wait to get a car, so we can get out of town, for a totally different India altogether, I am sure.

Kanheri Caves

So today we went back to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which was very nice. It’s green, it’s less than an hour from the city, and given that there are 16 million people in this town, there were surprisingly few people in the park. There were a bunch of rather loud teens in party mood (including beer and whiskey bottles), but most were families on a picnic. Even the trash was quite a bit less obvious, although we did see a monkey playing with an empty bag of junk food. Yes, there’s monkeys there; they like to hang around people, who usually feed them, unless they are as scared as Ksenia, who was very much afraid that they’ll jump onto her head and bite her.

We didn’t really see much of the park though. There’s a lion and tiger safari to see, but we went straight to the Kanheri Caves, which are over 2000 year old, and later became a center of Buddhist teaching and meditation. Most of the over 100 caves were quite simple, but a few were very impressive. There was a rather large church-like one with very high ceilings and huge statues. Even the simpler ones had some pretty interesting details, and were bigger and seemed more sophisticated than the Maya caves we had seen in Mexico.

Apart from the teens and families taking a plunge in the little river that ran through the area, we heard some people sing Hare Krishna. I was a bit surprised when we later saw them, because none of them had the Hare Krishna clothes I had expected, nor did they look like the Buddhists we had seen earlier. Instead, they were all dressed in regular clothes, and there were no women.

Strangely, there was also a temple in ruins that looked like it had been built with Soviet white marble. It didn’t really make any sense to us, but there it was, with an odd little public bathroom size construction next to it, a statue that was cut off at its hips, and someone was kind enough to put some fresh red flowers on the steps.

Anyways, it was a nice little excursion. Good to know there’s a place this close where one can actually breathe some fresh air (even though it was very humid). We didn’t have time for the tiger or lion safari, but we’ll definitely be back.