The other day, Deepak, our driver, went to a big party. He was very tired. The party was in honor of the birth of his friends child, and Deepak drank a lot. Big drinking, he would say, and he felt sick. We never knew that Deepak drinks at all, and sure enough, it turned out that they were drinking two liters of Coca Cola. Very cold, Deepak said. His stomach really didn’t agree with all that coke, and we really can’t blame him for taking a sick day.

A few weeks earlier, he had been very upset and told Ksenia that he couldn’t sleep all night. The evening before, he had picked me up from the office and we dropped off two friends from work. As he was driving, I made some remarks about Deepak being the best driver on the planet, but he completely misunderstood and thought that I had said he’s the worstdriver on the planet. He didn’t say anything until the next morning, but he really could not sleep after that.

Luckily, we managed to assure him that this was a misunderstanding. Ksenia did teach him a number of new English phases, so now Deepak knows that I know doesn’t mean No, and that something something usually better translates as a little bit. These days, whenever yet another rickshaw driver cuts Deepak off, he will happily announce in almost perfect English: Bad man. Very bad man. I am angry.

Sadly enough, I have received plenty of unsolicited phone calls on my mobile from AirTel, pestering me about this that or the other discount offer – and quite frequently the person on the other end speaks even less English than Deepak. But Deepak says he likes his job – he will be very sad not to drive the most beautiful car in Mumbai anymore, which as he often happily remarks is not perfect, but I couldn’t really imagine him being satisfied in a call center.

The Cigarette Lighter

When we got back from Goa, we found a dead rat stuck in the A/C grill leading out to the terrace. Ok, maybe it was a mouse, but it would have had a decent size if it hadn’t already been well on its way to decomposition. We never got into the right mood to remove it, until Ksenia and the maid decided to take action. Well, more like Ksenia decided, and the maid took action. The same maid that only a few weeks ago complained about our neighbors throwing their food onto our terrace – although I think it seems to be dry food only now, no more wet French fries. So she fingers the thing out of the grill and without much looking throws it over the wall onto the driveway to the parking lot. Luckily, there was nobody walking around there, or maybe there was, but nobody seemed to mind.

Maybe it’s the same thing with the ongoing road construction saga. A few months ago, pretty much the entire stretch of 13km road between Bandra and Malad was reconstructed. Well, at least the sidewalks. Not there was much of a sidewalk to begin with, but in any event, they built nice new walkable lanes to the left and right of the road. It stayed sort of nice for a few weeks, so nice in fact that at least some of the pedestrians chose to walk on it, instead of on the road itself. That was over after a while, when cars started to park on it, the garbage and dust piled up, and it slowly turned into a public bathroom again.

So far so good, no news here. But what’s amazing is that last week or so they ripped open the entire stretch of sidewalk/bathroom again, the entire new stretch of 13km. Maybe they weren’t happy with the first results I thought, but in fact it turns out that apparently they had forgotten to put in the electric cable and sewage pipelines. No big deal, let’s just do it all over again and take care of it. I am willing to bet that they’ll do a third time in less than a couple of months, maybe for the telephone lines.

It is this sort of spectacular incompetence or corruption or maybe both that’s the most mindboggling about Mumbai. The fun part of it is that during the last almost two weeks, I had to make this trip in the auto rickshaw, because that’s how long it took the service station to do the regular 10,000km maintenance and a bit of a paint job on my car. Going in the rickshaw in Mumbai inevitably means being stuck between a hot stinking bus on the right side and a pre-war truck on the left, preferably with the truck’s diesel exhaust pipe sticking right into my face, which always makes for a good dose of black fumes anytime the traffic jam moves a meter or two.

I guess I could take a regular black cab or even a cool cab instead, but that only means four to six times the price of a rickshaw, plus the regular cab’s exhaust pipes quite often seem to end right in the passenger cabin themselves, and the cool cabs aren’t that cool, because the A/C typically doesn’t work as advertised.

I took the trains a couple of times, but watching grown up and relatively well-to-do men fighting for their lives in a desperate attempt to get a seat in the first class compartments is not my kind of fun early in the morning. Nevermind that the first class cars going uptown in the morning are actually not crowded at all, people nevertheless seem to think that unless they knock someone over while jumping onto the train as it enters the station they haven’t done a good job upholding the traditions of good train travelmanship.

Meanwhile, it took Ksenia and Deepak an hour or so to explain to the car service station what needs to get done to the car. After plenty of nodding and reassuring Yes, Madams, they said the car would be ready three days later, last Saturday, but then changed their mind to Monday. Monday turned into Tuesday, Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and then it turned out that they did the paint job, but forgot about doing the regular 10,000km maintenance. Instead, they seemed to be genuinely surprised that you would want to do the 10,000km maintenance when the car only has 9,761km on its clock.

The paint job was equally so-so – in fact, Deepak speculated that maybe they didn’t have enough light on the right side, which looked substantially less polished than the left side. Ok, so the maintenance job would take another two days, but unfortunately, they are out of stock on a number of spare parts needed – including suspension pads and petrol tank lock, both of which we needed, especially the lock, because it regularly takes half an hour at the gas station for the attendant to figure out how to lock the tank.

Anyways, to get those spare parts would take another month. Two days later, they hadn’t done much and the job obviously wasn’t finished. Deepak observed dryly that at least they seemed to have washed the car. But there was not much left of that when we went back again today. In fact, some of the interior was black with oil, and the brake pedal was squeaking and one door was rattling more than ever. Not to mention an entirely new big scratch they’ve added for extra convenience.

So, what have you done? we asked and the guy tried to convince us wholeheartedly that they’ve done everything, all painting, all maintenance services, and new lock for the gas tank. I tried to check out the new lock, but was immediately assured no, no, new lock, new key, but then we wondered, wait a minute, so where did you get the new lock from, we thought you were out of stock on those? Maybe not surprisingly, it turned out that there was no new lock and no new key after all, the guy was simply and completely talking out of his ass.

So we talked to the manager instead, who was reasonably straightforward, and we explained to him that we’d like to see the list of things they have done. Well, we’ve done everything as per the regular maintenance service (as per is always a good expression to impress with). Ok, we asked, what does that regular maintenance service include? As expected, just like the other guy, the manager also answered this question with the attempt to reach for our service handbook, so that he can read its contents to us.

Well, we were not in the mood for a little reading session, and the obnoxiously demanding foreigners that we are, we asked for their checklist, some work list that shows that some mechanic has checked of on his the oil change, and the transmission fluid, and maybe even the brake fluid. After some shuffling around someone comes back with that list – except it didn’t mention brake fluids or engine oil, it only listed the really essential parts of the regular service: side mirrors, backseat reading lamp, and most importantly, the cigarette lighter.

At that point, I almost lost it, but there it was: a signed and approved checklist for the cigarette lighter, but no such thing for brake fluid or engine oil – after eight months in Mumbai, some things still manage to shock me. The manager’s explanation was that the engine oil and brake fluid and such they have to do, but the cigarette lighter they do, because people complain, so they make a checklist to their customers’ satisfaction.

Anyways, so that was our Saturday afternoon. Three hours at the service station. The rest of the time there we spent waiting for them to fix the door rattling and the brake pedal squeaking. The door they managed, the brake pedal apparently was a lost cause, and we didn’t even bother with the steering wheel squeaking. After that, we took refuge at the mall, which, given our contempt for malls under any normal circumstances really says something. At least we passed on McDonald’s though – I think we’d rather drink that new brake fluid that our car may or may not have gotten than go there – but we did end up at an Italian restaurant, which wasn’t half bad.

Meanwhile, our little adventure in Mumbai is drawing to an end. We’ll go trekking in Sikkim for two weeks in April, and then we are out of here. Not that we regret having come here, not at all, it was definitely an experience, but maybe Central Park in May won’t be so bad either. We’ll ride our bicycles around Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, in the middle of traffic on 2nd Avenue, and we’ll think: aahhh, New York City, fresh air, quiet roads, laid back people. But we’ll also search for the perfect Dosas and masala chai, we’ll miss Deepak and our maid, and if we ever find a dead rat in our A/C, we’ll know what to do with it, no problem.


In case I ever said anything about Mumbai being polluted and having bad air, I take everything back. Now that we’ve spent five days in Rajasthan, we can proudly announce Bikaner to be the most unbreathable place we’ve been to in India so far.

But let’s start at the start. Our flight to Jaipur was uneventful enough. Deepak insisted on driving us to the airport, and we survived the usual shenanigans of chaotic security checks, travelers cutting in line and middle aged men picking their noses with gusto in public. We arrived at our hotel (the Umaid Bhawan) quite early in the morning, and the place was very nice with a lovely rooftop.

We took off in a car to the City Palace, which wasn’t all that great, followed by the very nice Amber Fort, where we spent a long time wandering around. There was plenty of Western tourists and the appropriate number of touts and hawkers to match, but overall, it was a lot less hassle than we had anticipated. The weather was quite cool in the morning, but it got pretty warm later in the day. Jaipur really is quite nice, thanks to one of its founder, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), who according to our travel book was a bit of an urban planner and introduced some revolutionary ideas, namely hygiene, beauty and commerce. Of these, only the last one seems to have survived into the 21st century, but at least the wide roads of the old city are still pretty wide, the town is still mostly pink, making it almost possible to walk around relatively unscathed, at least in the morning.

Unfortunately, hygiene standards don’t seem to have been upgraded in the last 200 years, so there are plenty of open sewage canals, everybody is spitting and snotting everywhere (just like Mumbai, only more so), and an abundance of camel and cow shit takes care of the rest, not to mention the autorickshaws, which are (thankfully, slowly) replacing the bicycle rickshaws. Some of the sidestreets really are an incredible sight of disgusting filth. Nevertheless, Jaipur is a shopping heaven, at least in terms of quantity and curiosity; quality not so much, but we are almost used to that caveat by now. Even the hawkers and touts we could deal with, or maybe that’s because we had feared the worst and therefore immediately shut up anyone who got on our nerves too much too quickly.

We left for Bikaner by late afternoon the next day. We’ve know by now that train stations in India tend to be the cleaner parts of town, and at least when we are leaving a town, there’s less of a chance of getting hassled by some rickshaw driver about which country we are from, where we want to go, and that he will drive us anywhere we like. Of course, there’s still always someone who will try to lure us into his rickshaw back into town, even as he sees us walking fast and straight towards the station entrance. The train arrived 90mins late in Bikaner, but on the upside, we only had to stand in line for half an hour to fill out the application for seat reservations, which as usual required vital information such as our gender, age and address. Since the clerk was unusually slow even by local standards, the crowd got proportionally more pushy, as if rubbing belly against backpack could speed things up and as if ruthlessly cutting in line were a matter of spiritual pride and honor. When we told someone to back off, the helpfully happy and proud explanation was this is the system here.

Late as it was when we finally made it to Bikaner, the town came as a bit of a shock even to us jaded expats. The rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel was like cruising through a garbage can in a desert, which incidentally describes Bikaner quite well. The town is dusty as dusty can be and the rickshaw fumes eat at your eyes like little ants. Someone said traveling India is like traveling for Graduates (Thailand I guess being for amateurs), but at this point we are wondering whether it maybe isn’t more for the demented. Then again, as we now look at our pictures, the explanation is clear: all pictures lie, because they are never able to show the dust, and the stink, or record the cancerous coughing and yacking all around you. All the Rajasthan travel books show gorgeous colors, graceful women, majestic forts and beautiful landscapes, but the predominant impressions, at least this evening and most of the next day in Bikaner, are incredible dirt and filth, unbreathable air, and enormous pollution. If I had to go here in the summer, when it gets as hot as a frying pan, I’d shoot myself, even though there were a lot of gorgeous empty houses in Bikaner’s old city.

On the other hand, our hotel in Bikaner (Bhairon Vilas) was the best we’ve stayed at so far in India. The owner is a descendant of the Maharajas and of the Prime Minister of Bikaner, a young guy who decided that he likes restoring old furniture and stuff, so his hotel has a lot of character and is quite lovely. Maybe we should have stayed in the hotel all day, because there was a film crew doing some shoots of a traditional Rajasthani music and dance troupe, but we went to the fort instead, which was rather shabby.

We also went to a camel farm, which was a bit sad looking (although the two minute camel ride was surprisingly comfortable), and to the Karni Mata Temple in Doshnoke, where hundreds of unhealthy looking rats live in and run around in filth, enjoying being worshipped as the reincarnated relatives of the local villagers. There were a few equally scrubby looking Western tourists around, who may have thought this temple was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we kind of thought that it was … well, interesting, and sheer insanity.

Back in the hotel, the film shoot continued as we were having dinner. There was a British guy who had spent five days at the temple shooting a documentary and a female Spanish dope head who we speculated was doing the hotel owner. As they were finishing off a bottle of rum at the bar, three middle aged Germans talked loudly and waltzed right into the film set, twice. We briefly considered joining the bar, but then thought better of it, so we could get up in time the next day for our train to Jodhpur.

The train ride to our last stop was another 7 hour affair, but the 3AC class is comfortable enough and you get a pillow to sleep on. Our hotel wasn’t exactly nice or beautiful; in fact, it seemed to have on offer a large number of small imperfections. Some call that charming, we find it inexplicable, whether it’s the layer of oil swimming on top of the coffee, the curtain rods being installed in all manners crooked, the curtains being of wildly varying length, the hot shower being cold, the bed sheets missing, the paint being applied rather liberally at the wrong places (i.e. on the windows and lamps), etc. etc. In an effort to save electricity, the city shuts it down from 8am to 11am every morning, but at least it wasn’t as cold as Jaipur, and the roof top restaurant was actually quite nice (well, not the rooftop, nor the restaurant, but the view was). In terms of air quality, Jodhpur was only a marginal improvement over Bikaner, but the fort is high enough above the rest of the city that it was ok.

That fort was actually quite nice, even though one would have to be a real nut for armor and weaponry to appreciate a lot of the exhibition in these Rajasthani forts. It was the first such place that offered an audio tour (more expensive than a live guide; I guess they know how annoying those guides can be), and it was pretty well restored and preserved, with money from both the Getty Foundation and the UN. The tour was well done, although at the end they lost it a bit, when two female descendents of the Maharaja were asked to talk about their lives now. One was shamelessly promoting her publishing house, while the other was blubbering incoherently about how looking at the fort to her is like looking at a computer window and how she’s crying thinking about it and how it’s all for her family god.

Anyways, at that point my camera battery was empty and we were pretty exhausted after all this, so we just made a quick stop at the very decent Jaswant Thada memorial to Jaswant Singh II, and then took off to the airport. Arriving back in Mumbai, we had to yell at some tout as soon as we left the terminal, since he wouldn’t take our ignoring him at first and then saying no twice for an answer. Soon after that we took in some fresh Mumbai air, realizing that maybe this place isn’t so bad after all; there’s always worse, apparently.

We are still a bit puzzled about the great allure of Rajasthan to Western tourists. The British guy in Bikaner had told us about Peru, and slowly walking up the Andes or floating down the Amazon river sounds so much nicer right about now. We are also wondering whether we could possibly be the only Westerners prepared to tell the endless touts and hawkers and scammers to fuck off, because they obviously keep trying and sometimes seem genuinely surprised when we respond unkindly. Could we possibly be the only Westerners who are wondering what people must be smoking when they talk about spirituality here? We see a lot of in-your-face religiosity and a lot of praying and talk about god, yes. Everything seems religious here, but spiritual? Not so much. We can’t see much spirituality in driving like an ass, talking out of your ass, cutting in line like an ass, or feeding plastic garbage to your holy cow. Another one is warmth and hospitality. Getting asked literally fifty times a day which country we are from stops feeling warm and fuzzy real quick, as does getting stared at like a two-headed Martian in the zoo. The usual mix of having people bend over backwards to crawl up our ass on the one hand and getting scammed and taken for a ride on the other doesn’t help much either.

Anyways, enough of that. Not sure where we’ll go on our next trip, maybe Orissa, maybe Gujarat, and maybe we’ll have a little less to whine about then.


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.

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…