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.

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.