Saturday in Mumbai

Things are looking better. Of course, traffic is still an amazingly huge madness, and the two sports channels on television don’t seem to tire of showing World Wide Wrestling or replays of last weeks Cricket, nor do the other channels seem to have anything better to offer than atrociously bad soap operas or American Idol style crap, but today was a good day nevertheless. We managed to find a very interesting store full of fantastic Indian designer clothes; we found a bunch of art galleries with a mixed bag of paintings and sculptures, some of them very nice; we had incredibly good dinner at some vegetarian place (at less than $2 for the two of us), and I got myself a long overdue haircut that wasn’t any worse than anywhere else, except at a tenth of NYC prices. Well, ok, it was a little worse than usual. We also ordered two tailored shirts, and if they turn out well, I’ll get some tailored suits. The choices and prices of fabrics are simply amazing and even though Ksenia insists that the fabrics aren’t quite Italian quality, the tailors definitely seem to know what they are doing.

Ksenia definitely likes it here. Well, she keeps saying “Incredible India” is definitely the right choice of words. She already seems to have made up a long list of fabric and design stores that she wants to check out. We haven’t even been to any museums yet, let alone ventured outside of the city, but next week there will be two fairly big dance festivals to go to, so we definitely won’t be bored. The music scene seems to be very small, there’s only about ten listings in all of TimeOut Mumbai (which covers two weeks) and five or seven of them appear to be Karaoke – not exactly our idea of live music. Also, clubs apparently close at 12:30am, unless they are in a hotel, in which case they close at 3am, but we really have no desire whatsoever to go to hotel bars or clubs. Lounge bars are also not really our thing, but Mumbai seems to have a lot of them, although they are not easy to find.

The other day, Ksenia ran into some Indian girls. One of them was an English teacher who told her that for a wife to call her husband by his first name would be rude; it should be the first name plus jaar or jah or something like that, i.e. the polite form. Ah well. In other news, a woman who got raped by her father-in-law got condemed by a fatwa to live separate from her husband, since her rapist would now be considered her husband, which would make her real husband her son. Also, a young couple that, elsewhere, dared to elope got condemend by their village to leave town. I guess the fact that these things are actually reported in the newspaper would mean that they are newsworthy and unusual or controversial, and in fact there is an organization of muslim women that very strongly condemned the fatwa as a gross misinterpretation of the Koran.

Still, the English teacher will have an arranged marriage and insists that every one of her friends that had an arranged marriage is very happy. The idea is that your parents would have only your best interests in mind and that they would pick someone with your culture, background, and caste. And maybe that’s great, after all, people do want to marry someone that they have things in common with, but to have someone else, your parents, look for the commonalities and to have these commonalities be so narrowly defined by caste or clan or village seems rather … well, a little difficult to comprehend, and to see the same girl be on a shopping spree at The Mall and running around in blue jeans listening to Indian hip-hop on her IPod, doesn’t exactly make it easier.

Getting There

So I think we are slowly getting there. Well, first of all Ksenia got here. Four and a half hours late, but she did. The various arrival monitors at the airport indicated her flight as having arrived, or being delayed by anything between 30 minutes and two hours, but eventually she made it. The next day she took off to Crawford Market and to a dance performance at the National Center of Performing Arts (no entrance fee, and the performance matched the price). We still don’t have an apartment, but the process is moving along smoothly. While at Crawford Market, she had her ass grabbed only once, so it went relatively smoothly, even though she did call me at work at some point, because some guy had been following her for the last ten minutes.

On the plus side, we are spreading out in the hotel and in our hotel room, which is really more like a NYC size small one bedroom. Her cooking at home is definitely better than the Italian restaurant, which is good, but at $50 per person a bit too pricey for everyday use.

I am still not fully set up at work in terms of network connectivity and file access, and I am still on my prepaid SIM card as opposed to a regular mobile phone and data service subscription deal, but we are getting there, and I feel like I am actually having pretty normal work days while Ksenia is discovering every nook and cranny of Mumbai. I am not sure about it, but I would think that our driver is also happy that he gets to drive around a hot blonde all day, as opposed to sit on the parking lot waiting for me. Strangely enough, the left back door is still in the same shape it has been since it got crushed by the city bus, but I don’t really care. It leaks a bit if we are driving through a strong rain, but other than that it’s ok. Of course, our driver still hasn’t gotten the concept of keeping the A/C at moderate temperatures, so the commute is still ice cold on a daily basis.

At least I am done with the “business center” in the hotel. Ksenia brought her G4, and we are connected via the hotel room’s ethernet. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap either, but still better than the business center. Maybe it’s the rain or maybe it’s something else, but neither Ksenia nor myself have taken any pictures yet. One of these days, we’ll take some, but right now, we feel odd enough as it is, and running around taking pictues wouldn’t exactly help. Besides, in April, I drove around in auto rikshahs, which are great for taking pictures from, because they don’t have any windows. Now, I’d actually have to make an effort and, well, I haven’t been in the mood yet.

Things I Have Learned So Far

I can go the same distance, say an hour (i.e. 5 miles in this traffic), in a hotel cab for 2000Rs, or in an auto riksha for 100Rs (43Rs are 1$, so do the math). The hotel cab is nicer, but not 20 times as nice or fast as the rikshaw. In fact, the rikshaw is kind of more fun, and it might even run on compressed natural gas, like most of them do now. That’s definitely a plus over the Toyota Camrys that the hotel has.

Yes, definitely may very well mean no, never. I heard that yes, definitely a couple of times now, either when calling a car showroom about whether I can see or maybe even test drive a car, or when calling the hotel reception to see whether there’s a place anywhere in town where I could see a Federations Cup game (football, or soccer, for some people). In both cases, I was told that they’d call me back with an answer very very shortly, but that never happened.

The Indian head wiggle can mean yes, no, or maybe. It looks a bit like a regular head shaking, but it it comes with a slight rotating motion, which can look quite elegant and artistic, actually. In any event, it’s fascinating, but I am usually not sure what it means. I think in most cases, it means yes. Now, whether that yes actually then turns out to mean no, or maybe, or I don’t know, or why don’t you just go fuck yourself, is a different matter.

It’s a bad idea to ask a woman for directions. The first time I did, it was a young student in jeans and t-shirt and she looked at me like I was the dirtiest old bastard she’s ever met. Ooops. The second time, I had forgotten about the fist time, and this time, also someone dressed in jeans and shirt, a little older, she just walked away. Hm, maybe I really should work on my German accent, but I think I better just ask men.

There’s McDonald’s, Subway, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, and all kinds of other American atrocities one can consume here. US-style SUVs get high praise, US import cars even higher praise (despite an import tax/duty of over 100%). The celebrity pages in the Times Of India (there’s about four of these pages every day) are full of color pictures of Bollywood celebrities’ parties and breakups, and a dizzying array of relationship, shopping, and make-up advice. A whole lot of them sport the usual US casual wear, there’s t-shirts with the Stars and Stripes, sunglasses (of course, they are called shades) here, I think Miami Vice must be still a hit. There’s definitely CNN, CNBC, CNBC in Hindi, the Hallmark channel, and Friends on television. At least there’s also BBC World News, but other than that, the US has clearly taken over from the Brits.

Nevertheless, the Times of India is now the largest English language newspaper in the world, with a circulation greater than that of USA Today or the WSJ. Obviously, the customer base for these products is the rapidly growing Indian middle class. Apparently, just as it is considered absolutely cool in Russia to go out and be seen at McDonald’s, the biggest attraction and the thing to do for fun around here, seems to be to go to the mall. Crawford Market is out, The Mall is in. So here I am in India, determined to find the places that are modern and accessible, yet original and Indian. Well, not really all that determined. I am pretty sure Ksenia will find those very cool and original, very modern, yet very Indian stores and venues and restaurants, so I might leave that up to her.

One thing I haven’t learned is a single Word of Hindi. That will have to change. Rumor has it that one can get by with just English in India and while that’s true, it’s only about as true as it is for say France or Italy. A lot of people don’t speak or understand a word of it. A lot of people do speak English, but with an accent so strong that I have never any idea whether they are speaking English or Hindi right now. I read in the paper that in some province somewhere, people (or some political party) demanded that the teaching of English in school be banned. It’s quite possible to find a restaurant with an English menu but noone speaks English. While trying to get a mobile phone subscription (as opposed to prepaid), I had to deal with a whole number of people from AirTel calling me and we could simply not communicate whatsoever. My driver speaks a little English, but it would be absolutely hopeless trying to explain to him, for example, that I am not sure yet when I’d like him to pick me up the next day and that maybe I could just call him an hour so in advance when I do know. So I always ask him to pick me up at a certain time, and I usually end up having to let him wait forever. Anyways, so the point is, just as much as speaking English is an absolute must for anyone growing up in India who would like to jump onto the middle-class bandwagon, learning a bit of Hindi will be an absolute must for me and Ksenia to get around a bit easier and to see and experience a few things outside of The Mall.

The Laptop

So now I have a mobile phone (SMS somehow stopped working), a car and a driver (at $800 a month), and am slowly becoming functional. I am still missing a bank account, my own apartment (for the first month, I am staying in that posh hotel), my own car, a home computer, a regular bar,…

The bank account was surprisingly easy to setup. The passport picture would have been the most difficult part, so I am glad I had stocked up on those. It’ll take a while to get an actual account number, debit card, ATM PIN, customer number, phone banking PIN, online banking PIN (yes, these are all separate, different, and distinct), but not more than two weeks or so. Hopefully, it will then be cheaper to wire some money once a month, as opposed to getting charged 3.5% every time I use an ATM.

The car and the driver also work out nicely. The driver isn’t driving all that manical anymore since the other day, when he tried to pass a big red bus, only to find that bus making a wrong turn and putting a big red dent into the left back door. The bus driver didn’t even get out of his bus, and the driver just looked at the door for a few seconds, visibly saddened, and then moved on. At $800 a month, I figure I’ll be better off buying my own cheap car and selling it when we are done here. So I am driving from showroom to showroom, of which there are not too many, and none of which seem to have any cars whatsoever to show, let alone to test drive. Besides, untill I have registered with the FRRO and have an Indian bank account, I wouldn’t even be able to order a car anyways. The service in the showrooms always comes with a glass of water, maybe even a coffee, and sales people ranging from very eager to make a deal to utterly desinterested in talking with me unless I can show some proper documentation – i.e. the FRRO document, or a phone bill, which would be of equal legal standing, I am told.

The apartment hunt is moving along as well. Most apartments within my budget are dark, small, with horrible furniture, on a loud street. But for some reason they all have two bathrooms. Eventually, I see a very nice apartment with usable furniture and even a terrace. The monsoon has started, the temperatures have dropped, and this apartment is on a relatively quiet side street, so I guess that terrace might actually be really useful.

Unfortunately, sending Ksenia some pictures of the apartment (and blogging), is proving a bit costly. My posh little hotel charges $10 for thirty minutes in their business centre. Dining there also comes at NYC prices, so I am thinking maybe I should rent a laptop untill Ksenia arrives with hers, because my room does have an ethernet connection. Well, that’s another story. I found a laptop rental place online, and miraculously even find the adress somewhere in the depths of Irla, another part of the suburbs (forget about making a deal online), but as I get there, they want to see some purchase order from my company. Since this would be for private use, I refuse, and offer a cash deposit instead. After a lot of back and forth, they agree, except of course, I would like that cash deposit to come from my credit card, since I don’t have an Indian bank account yet, nor do I even have 50,000Rs ($1200) in cash. Sure, no problem he says, except, he doesn’t have a credit card swiper, which doesn’t really surprise me, since we are in an industrial building in the back of a back road, with carpentry and tiles shops and god knows what else in the same building. The office suites are randomly numbered 31, 73, 52, etc. and contain equallly random businesses and as I walk along the floors, and it took a good while to even find this laptop rental place to begin with

So, I say, ah well, I guess I am out of luck then. I am also late already for an appointment to see an apartment. But not so easy, the guy was not about to let me go just yet. Instead, he makes a number of phone calls, talks frantically with the proprietor, and lets his servant hand me another coffee. When I tell him, I need to go, I am late, he insists that I wait a minute. 15 minutes later he says, ok, we’ll come to your hotel with the laptop later tonight, no problem. Ok, no problem.

So later that day I am back in the hotel, and he asks whether I can come to his office in half an hour. Curious about what he might have in store, I get back there. He, laptop in hand, two guys with him, are already waiting for me and are jumping into my car, so off we go around and around various sidestreets. The traffic, as usual, is of course unbelievable madness. Eventually, we stop at a little Indian incarnation of NY deli, Radio Shack, and Canal Street backpack and umbrella store all rolled in one; a store of about 5 by 5 feet. Lots of commotion, but apparently, the owner is willing, ready and able to swipe my card for the deposit. Well, untill he sees my card and apologizes profusely, because his little credit card swiping machine only handles Visa/MC cards issued by an Indian bank. The disappointment all around is heartbreaking. Can’t we just call my company again, it’s just a formality, that purchase order, the laptop guy says. Some more phone calls, and this time some tea. Finally, someone has the brilliant idea to ask me whether I have American Express. I can only assume they’ve seen some American Express commercials where some stranded traveller was magically rescued by his AMEX Gold Card. Well, I do and since I’ve always been wondering about that commercial myself, I actually call them. But I guess the magic of my AMEX card isn’t all that powerful, because I am told that I would have to go to their office (which is two hours away downtown), and in any event they would charge me a fortune for their rescue services.

So that was that. No company stamp, no Indian bank, no laptop rental. I guess I will be feeding that business center like a slot machine for the time being.

Must Have Passport Pictures

The other thing I decided to do was get an Indian prepaid SIM card. The hotel has those, very conveniently. Except they need a passport picture, otherwise no SMS card. Plus copies of my passport. I guess an SIM card could easily be used for subversive acts. Luckily, I still have a whole bunch of passport pictures, because I needed four or five to register with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). I had to spend lunchtime getting driven around in the hunt for a place that makes such pictures. We found one (well, the driver did, I wouldn’t have recognized the little shack as a place for Kodak moments), took off our shoes, as it is the custom in many small stores, and walked off with 10 passport pictures with a gorgeous red background and a bit of redeye to match.

Not that I am actually already registered at the FRRO yet. There’s a lot of work that goes into that, mainly paperwork. And rumor has it that foreigners are well advised to go with an agent, so as to not having to deal with disgruntled government employees themselves. Fair enough. So my appointment is scheduled for next week. As usual, my father’s name was a required piece of information for registration with the FRRO. So when I bought my SIM card and again was aksed to fill out my father’s name, I didn’t really flinch anymore. They didn’t care too much at all about my mother’s or my wife’s name – unlike Ksenia, who as my wife will be asked for her father’s name, or her husband’s name as an alternative, or maybe as a backup.

That SIM card was then handed to me right away. Not that I could make or receive any phone calls with it. Of course, it needs to get loaded with some Rupees, but needless to say, you can’t do that in the hotel. For that, I go to some little place along the road and there I am, a proud owner of an Indian mobile phone number!