Holidays

So I haven’t blogged in a while, but we are still sort of alive. It’s not that the holidays were particularly time consuming or that nothing happened, but basically it seems like the entire town of Mumbai is getting new roads (and even some sidewalks) these days, so traffic has been, well, even worse. In fact, I’ve been heeding Ksenia’s advice and now let Deepak drive me home then and again – and even he has been quietly complaining about the traffic. They basically ripped open everything left, right and middle between home and work and are slowly starting from scratch. With hammers and little buckets of concrete carried by women in flip-flops, mind you, but there’s plenty of those around, so I guess it could be slower.

Of course, people still like to double park wherever they please and rickshaws still like to wait for customers practically in the middle of the road, and everyone still loves to make a u-turn against all odds, blocking all traffic in both directions. Nevermind the hawkers and slum dwellings that seem to re-appear within days on the shiny new sidewalks, pushing the pedestrians into the road. Anyways, I’ve been getting wild fantasies of running over rickshaws, pedestrians and little children, so I guess that was sort of a sign that maybe I should let Deepak drive then and again.

The holidays were pretty much non-existing. No snow, no Christmas trees (apart from plenty of fake ones in malls and stranger places), no days off, a busy business trip to Kanpur between Christmas and New Year, it was not the best birthday for little Jesus. It got a lot worse when we went to church on Christmas eve and the church choir started to sing, because not a single one of the 10 singers could get out a straight note. In fact, they were all solidly atrocious. Nevertheless, the church was packed to the hilt, people practically sitting on our laps, the fully unmemorable sermon and the, entirely dysfunctional sound system nonwithstanding.

Speaking of sound systems, we have yet to see an event where they use some sort of sound system that actually works. It is a given that there will be ear splitting feedbacks, crackling drop-outs, and some sound technician jumping around trying to fix the unfixable. Of course, if and when it does work, usually for a few seconds at a time, the volume is turned up to deafening levels, probably to make up for whatever was missed during the drop-outs.

But what else is new? Well, for starters, our apartment is missing a large mirror, a curtain rod, and the rod for the terrace awning. All gone since the last days of renovation while we were gone to Kerala. Instead, one wall is already leaking moisture again, and the awing has got a nice little hole now. That hole is new, courtesy of our neighbor who for some reason dropped a heavy steel kitchen utensil from her balcony. I have no idea how that utensil is called, suffice to say that it ripped straight through the awning and would certainly have killed anyone who might have happened to sit under the awning. Maybe when people talk about spiritual India what they really mean is that these sorts of things don’t even faze you all that much any more.

Or maybe they mean people like Deepak, our driver. He is the only one working in his family of mother, wife, kid, and two brothers, but he’s always in a good mood. He had tried to get a job in the army but was too slow a runner, and he tried to get a job with the police, but can’t afford the ridiculously high bribes required for that – $3000 or so, he says, and even that doesn’t guarantee a job; they might just keep the money. So now he’s a driver, and he says: my job no future, but I enjoy. Of course, the big attraction to a position with the police would be the large extra income in bribes, but we can’t even imagine him being able to take a bribe, he just seems more like the type who’d be happy to make the world a better place by standing at some road junction detangling traffic jams.

Anyways, he went out of his way to buy Ksenia a flower for Christmas, and we love him. At Rs7000 a month for five days a week, we are paying him a bit more than the standard Rs5000 or so for six days a week, but I think we’ll make him a big present when we leave, and I am not even sure he would take money. Our maid, by the way, has already asked us whether she can come with us back to New York, and if it weren’t so decadent and illegal, we’d actually be tempted, because she is great as well, even though she was very upset when we got back from Kerala and said to Ksenia: Oh my God, you are turning black! Madam, you have to use bleach creme!

One thing that isn’t illegal, but should be are Bollywood movies. The other day we made another desperate attempt at finding some quality entertainment and so we got Salaam Namaste, which was a big hit last year and apparently caused a bit of a circus, because it features a live-in relationship. Bottom line is, it’s simply and utterly unwatchable crap. How on earth anyone above the age of four can find this stuff funny is totally beyond me. It’s not even Louis De Funes or Jerry Lewis kind of stupid funny, it’s just painfully atrociously unbelievable not funny. It’s way beyond so unfunny that it even passed any chance of becoming funny in a twisted kind of way again. That’s how bad it is, and, yes, that’s pretty bad.

But enough of that. Wednesday is a holiday. I don’t even know which one, really, but we are off to the South again, until Sunday. We might have cramped our itinerary a bit too much, but the plan is to go to Nrityagram near Bangalore, then to Mysore, two nights in Mudumalai, via some weird mountain railway and a night express train to Kanchipuram, and then back home via Chennai.

Kerala

Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.

We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.

The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.

In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.

Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).

Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).

After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.

We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.

Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.

Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.

Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.

So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.

But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.

Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.

Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.

Crying About Your Nanny

So I’ve been kind of lazy in terms of writing here, but while Ksenia was a bit obsessing about sewing some curtains and pillow cases, I was obsessing about re-writing my photo blog. Neither of us is done yet, but then again, nor are the painters, so our apartment is still a construction site. Of course, the difference with the painters is that they haven’t even started yet. I guess that’s a good thing in a way, because we really were not in the mood to have these guys make a bloody mess again – at least not right under our noses, so we told the landlord to have them patch up the walls while we go on vacation.

So rather than them doing a real full paint job while we are at home, they’ll do a crap paint job while we go to Kerala for a few days, starting tomorrow. Not that they wouldn’t have done a crap job anyways, but the hope is that they will actually be done by the time we come back. One can always hope. We’ll be happy if the currently still barren and exposed walls display some sort of resemblance of paint when we get back.

So our flight to Kerala is tomorrow at 5am. Speaking of hope, the idea is that we’ll catch a few days of semi-clean air in a reasonably laid back setting. Here in Mumbai, whenever Ksenia goes out during the day for this or the other errand (such as getting her own debit card from HDFC, which apparently is impossible, but that’s another story), it only takes about two hours until she’s entirely exhausted. I also have been feeling slightly sick for a good two weeks now, probably due to the air – after all, the daily pollution chart on TV keeps telling me that pollution is at unhealthy levels, usually just barely below hazardous. As if I needed confirmation.

Kerala holds the promise of green landscape, backwater boat rides, and mellow people. I am betting on a huge population of mosquitos as well, so we better unpack our Malaria pills. Everybody keeps telling me that Kerala is great, but then again, a lot of very intelligent people apparently really loved the movie Swades (Our Country). I only saw the last 10 minutes of it, but Ksenia had gotten it, because it supposed to be a thoughtful movie by the same director who did Lagaan, and not yet another Bollywood trivia. Apparently, I only needed to see the last 10 minutes, because there was more use of the word motherland than you can shake a stick at. It was an utterly unbearable patriotic shmaltz production all the way. Still, I was kind of disappointed that I had missed the best scene, which was when the main actor Shahrukh Khan (probably the top Bollywood actor at the moment), who played a grown up scientist at NASA, started to cry like a little girl because he was missing his childhood nanny…

Anyways, in other news, we tried to go to Shivaji Park twice now (to play frisbee), but both times the place was mobbed with hordes of pretty looking followers. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the acronym for Shiv Sena is SS, because they do look like a bunch of Hitler Youth guys (khaki shorts, white shirt, black head gear, dull faces), and they have an insane ideology and plenty of criminal energy to match. There were cops everywhere, including cops with machine guns cruising around on decrepit scooters. Not our scene really, so that was that in terms of playing frisbee in the park.

Alright, so I am trying to finish this on a good note. Ok, the weather is decent, the maid is great, we love Deepak, and we are going to Kerala tomorrow. Work is a mixed bag of good stuff and incredible insanity, but compared to other things, it is a place of retreat, which says something about Mumbai I guess. Which reminds me: a colleague at work told me that he was trying to bribe the MTNL clerk to get his DSL service set up properly and quickly. Believe it or not, the clerk ended up calling my colleague’s father: Your son has very bad manners, I don’t want a bribe, we have a capacity problem! Yes, apparently, everybody knows someone with influence in Mumbai, and it’s ok to complain to grown-up men’s fathers about their son’s manners. I really need to see that scene with India’s Brad Pitt crying about his nanny…

Holiday Party

Well, our apartment is still a bloody mess and of course nobody has showed up yet to start painting the walls, so they are still dusty with cement droppings everywhere. On the upside, we got rid of our entirely overpriced and underperforming internet cable service. The bastards had charged us almost $100/month for a broadband connection that was 56kps dial-up at best. But Ksenia finally took matters into her hands and went down to MTNL, the semi-government telephone provider.

Back when we had moved in, MTNL weren’t able to get us a working phone connection for ages, but I had been told that once they install DSL, it is actually very fast and cheap. We had tried at some point, but nothing ever happened after they determined that the phone lines in our building are crap. Funnily enough, they had left the DSL router in our apartment for about two months. Phone bills come every other month, so we weren’t all that pleased when we discovered a few weeks ago that they were charging us for DSL service anyways.

However, to our great surprise, two days after Ksenia went to their office (it’s a decrepit building that looks more like a prison, and the office rooms look more like disorganized torture chambers), they installed DSL and everything worked. Well, they couldn’t be bothered or were incapable to get their DSL play nicely with our router, but that was to be expected, and we took care of that ourselves. But since then, speed is great, Vonage works, and we are happy.

There were more positive developments this week. Our new maid started and she’s great. She is Karilyn’s maid’s aunt, a bit older, and positively pleasant. She actually figured out to best mop the terrace, which is really advanced service. Also, Deepak, our trusted driver, keeps cracking us up. He always seems incredibly disappointed when we tell him that he doesn’t have to work tomorrow and asks but why, Sir? And when Ksenia told him that on Saturdays I am her driver, he cracked up laughing. If I happen to see him in the evening when he drops off the car at work, he always tries to drive me all the way home, even though that means he’s got to take the train all the way back to his home, and he can’t believe that I of course insist to drop him off near where he lives and drive myself.

Ksenia tries to teach him a bit more English, so by now he knows that it’s not something something but a little bit. Apparently, it took him quite a while to learn the words a lot, inside, outside, and flyoverflyover is what Indians call the highway bridges that cross local roads, and Deepak would always call them flowers instead. Anyways, we are overpaying him by quite a bit, but he’s great.

Finally, yesterday was my company’s year-end party at the JW Marriott. The theme was Bollywood Bash and it really was the strangest company party I have ever been to. In New York, the company usually pays for some professional entertainment at these sorts of events – some band and/or acrobats or whatever. In Mumbai, employees insist that they will provide the entertainment themselves, no outside help needed.

So they had a sort of competition with a number of Bollywood movie scenes being re-enacted, including the costumes, dance and singing. Of course, I didn’t understand a word, but within minutes, the crowd of about 500 was absolutely ecstatically screaming and cheering. The whole thing culminated in senior managers doing an absolutely gay looking and incredibly funny dance scene, and that kicked off the open floor with hours of Bollywood dance music (interrupted with a bit of Smells Like Teen Spirit, oddly enough).

There was plenty of food, but no tables. I had wondered about that at the beginning, but I then realized that nobody needs any tables, because absolutely everybody was dancing like crazy. And I mean like crazy – dancing at Indian office parties apparently does not mean to shake your leg a little, trying not to make a complete ass of yourself. No, making a complete ass of yourself is the absolute requirement here, it is in fact the whole point.

Rather than just dance, you have to re-enact the dance scene of the movie that the song originated from. I had seen a bit of that in clubs, but I had not realized that my colleagues apparently were all total experts in Bollywood movies, because they re-enacted, and how! Grown-up men in their 40s doing the silliest dance moves imaginable, the arms waving wildly in the air, legs all over the place, hips going left and right, and pelvis going back and forth. The whole deal, for hours, and unlike in New York, they weren’t even slightly drunk. It was quite a scene, and of course the only one making an ass of himself was me, by trying very hard not to make an ass of himself…

So this was a pretty good week, I have to say.

Ready To Strangle Someone

Well, I think we’ve about reached our all-time low in India these days. At least I have, but I think Ksenia is following suit at a life-threatening pace. Today we moved from the hotel back to our apartment. We are not sure yet whether that was a good idea, because the air in our apartment definitely has a certain aura of cancerous dust and disease about it. Then again, our almost three weeks in the Grand Hyatt cost us bloody $1200 just for food and laundry etc. alone. Not that the food had even been any good. In fact, we got pretty sick of their menu, really. Worse, their morning coffee was absolutely poisonous. When the waiter asked me the other morning whether I’d like some coffee, I just told him, “yes, I’d like some coffee, but your coffee is so atrocious that I’d rather decline”. I suppose it is a bit of sign of my current state of mind, because I don’t usually treat waiters like that.

Anyways, either our relocation guy is even more useless than I had thought, or maybe it’s the Grand Hyatt that’s to blame, but when it was time to check out of the hotel, nobody seemed to have any idea about the fact that my company will be paying for the room, while I pay for food and laundry, etc. A bit of name dropping and half an hour later they had sorted it out and presented my with my bill of fifty-two thousand Rupees. The price tag of Rs9000 a night didn’t even include their crappy breakfast. To top things off, the concierge made me sign my bill twice, because he wasn’t pleased with the way my signature looked like the first time around.

We stopped at Barista on our way home for some coffee and breakfast. How is it even possible that breakfast for two at Barista is 10% of what they charged us at the Grand Hyatt? Of course, at Barista they served us our coffee, but then they completely forgot about our food. Add to that the fact that some motorbike rider on crack drove into my car the other day, giving it a seriously nice big scratch. Oh, plus, every evening that I’d come back to the hotel from work, their security staff would stop every car, look underneath them, and peek into the trunk.

They didn’t actually really look into the trunk, but they did insist that I open it every single evening. Which, because it’s an HM Ambassador, meant that I’d have to switch off the engine, get out of the car, open the trunk, close the trunk, get back into the car, switch on the engine, and drive off. Why? Because I have yet to find a single person around here who is capable of closing, i.e. actually locking, the trunk. Granted, the locks don’t seem to be the strong points of my car – it regularly takes 10 minutes every time I get gas for the attendant to figure out how to properly lock the gas tank.

Anyways, so it wasn’t even 11am this morning and I was already fully in the mood to kill someone. Mumbai is bloody hot these days and the noise and dust and pollution just never stops. Coming back to our apartment didn’t exactly improve my mood. There was cement dust everywhere, there still is. It smells damp and poisonous. It took my an hour to clean my PC – obviously, my landlord’s brilliant construction crew had not even considered covering my PC. Our shoes they had managed to first cover in dust and then just throw onto the terrace. Last we spoke to our landlord he proudly announced that he had cleaned the apartment, whining about how much money he had spent, but of course wherever we touched, our hands got covered in dust. The furniture shows nice streaks of dust, because some genius had simply used a dirty wet cloth to smear the dirt around a bit. The couch now displays a cigarette burn, and a piece of wooden ceiling just in front of the terrace is now completely ruined and covered in cement.

So eventually we needed some food and we drove to this fairly decent vegetarian restaurant. Last time we were there they had valet parking. I always use valet parking, because there is zero regular parking to be found in Mumbai. Anyways, this time the guy in the restaurant tells me to just park over there, on the sidewalk. Ok, I park over there and some other guy comes running towards me and tells me to park over there, where there’s obviously not enough space for my car. So I go back to the restaurant guy and tell him what the story is, but he obviously doesn’t give a fuck, nor does he speak any English now. So I yell at him a bit and ask him why he doesn’t just tell me right away that he doesn’t have any valet parking. Then I get back into the car, trying to drive off and somehow manage to rip off some other car’s front license plate.

Of course, that car’s driver gets out, doesn’t speak a word of English either, but starts gesturing around. We are immediately surrounded by a dozen gawkers. I tell one of them that there’s nothing to fucking see here, why doesn’t he just move on? His very thoughtful reply was: “This is India. This is not your country.” So the driver can’t explain to me what he wants, or rather: how much he wants, but then this very important looking woman comes along, and she’s obviously the owner of the car. She has no idea what to do either, other than ordering her driver to write down my license plate number and than turning towards me and telling me all huffy and puffy that I should have seen her car. “Yes, I should have, but I didn’t.” – “Well, if you drive, you should look.” She quite clearly was the expert driver, which would explain why she needs to get driven around by her chauffeur, but I left it at that and drove off.

Our next stop was some other restaurant where the waiter insisted that he doesn’t have any cold bottled water, only mineral water that comes in a bottle that is cold. It’s one of those small language things. The food wasn’t bad, but unfortunately we were sitting outside, next to a main road, and one could just see and smell the dust and exhaust fumes settling onto our dishes. I haven’t had a cigarette in two weeks now, maybe that’s why I am in such a pissy mood these days, but clearly I am just about ready to strangle someone, or to get out of this shithole, because it’s giving me a serious headache these days. But I think we need to clean our apartment first.