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.

Dhamaal

Monday evenings is Dhamaal night at the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. Dhamaal means turmoil, frolic, and is a kind of song which is sung at the Holi festival. Basically, there were eight or so different performers and groups performing Shakespeare-inspired pieces for 10-15 minutes each. Sort of an open mic evening, except better, because they actually had to do an audition. Entrance was free, and the MC was a French-Indian guy.

The place was pretty much packed with about 200 people, mostly hip looking young people. The first performer was a very cute 10 year old boy doing a funny sketch, in English, about how William Shakespeare is actually an Indian guy. There were a number of pretty intense young men performing. Almost all the performances were in Hindi, but it was pretty interesting to me nevertheless. My Scottish expat friend and her French roommate were doing a scene in French, and even though probably hardly anyone in the audience understood a word, it was well received.

There was a very very good young actor doing a Hamlet scene in Hindi, and a very good older actor doing a scene from The Merchant of Venice twice, in two different ways (both with a fabulous colonial British accent). A smart-looking comedy scene had everyone cracking up, and there was a very weird slapstick scene of a bunch of guys pretending to be from Nagaland. Nagaland, a small province in the Northeast, has a number of indigenous tribes, so people were laughing before the troupe even entered the stage. So then they did this strange primitive dance thing around Romeo and Juliet, which sort of reminded me of how Native Americans used to be represented in very old American Western movies. Pretty dumb, a little scary, but generally harmless. It was a bit embarrassing, but people seemed to think it was very funny, which was sort of remarkable, given that the same audience obviously also had appreciated the very serious acting skills of the Hamlet guy.

Anyways, what do I know, after all, I could only get the acting and movements, and didn’t understand a word for the most part. But I will definitely be back to Dhamaal.

In other news, Ksenia is finally coming back tonight, so I am very excited!! Next week we will have our old trusted driver Deepak back. Apparently, he has a salaried job, but he seemed pretty eager to quit his job and work for us. He seemed really happy back when I picked up the Ambassador with him and was looking forward to driving it. Speaking of the Ambassador, I took it to my regular gas station today. They usually also check the oil and water, but what really cracks me up every time is that the guy there seems to like to burn his fingers. Every single time he checks on the oil, he burns his fingers, then laughs about it, and then reaches for a piece of tissue paper to wipe off the oil from the stick. Then he throws the paper on the floor, reaches for the water coolant container, burns his fingers again, and laughs again. It is very strange.

Speaking of throwing paper on the floor, last Sunday I was in a public park in Dadar to play some frisbee with some expats. As I was walking around a bit, I saw three different people throwing their plastic garbage on the floor. Just like that. The park accordingly looks pretty shitty. Another day some guy was throwing his empty plastic bottle out of his car while driving. Just like that. Ugh!

Today is a holiday, Dassehra, by the way. From what I gather, it is a festival in honor of the goddess Durga. Dassehra means ‘the tenth’ and it is celebrated at the end of the nine-nights Navaratri festival, during which hymns are recited to Durga. Apparently, Dassehra is a special holiday for brides and engaged people. All I can say is that somewhere in my neighborhood last night there was a big disco evening, and they played that incredibly awful song by Queens We Will Rock You. Over and over again.

Family Electrician

Well, against all odds, I actually got my car. The dealer called me Friday to tell me that I can pick it up at 5:30pm on Saturday. And, surprisingly enough, it actually was there, in all its beauty, ready to get picked up, and so I did. Of course, it quickly turned out that I had bought a piece of crap junk car, just like many Indians had told me. The door handles are pretty flimsy, the doors are close to impossible to lock from the inside, and the gear box is one clunky piece of mechanical engineering gone pretty wrong. And the engine sounds a bit like some badly underpowered 70s Oldsmobile, but I love this car with all its faults.

Sadly, I had to say Good Bye to my wonderful driver. We had developed a very nice relationship, and he turned out to be fantastic. He was pretty sad, but I told him that we will call him, when Ksenia comes back from NYC, because then we’ll need him again. The last couple of weeks, he had sometimes tried to teach me a bit of Hindi, so now I know that sticking your pinky finger into the air means going for a pee. And the main phrase he had learned from us was “a little bit”, because up until recently, he would always say “something something” instead. Whenever I thanked him at the end of the day, he would say “It is my duty, Sir” and laugh – at one point, when he had found me a place to buy TimeOut Mumbai, he actually said “It is my duty, Sir” and laughed like Ernie from Sesame Street, as if he was laughing about that phrase himself, which he probably didn’t. Or maybe he was, I don’t know.

Our maid also seems to be doing ok. Well, she came pretty late twice, and she left some laundry in the dryer instead of taking it out, but I don’t really care. She’s not bad, and I quite like her. Of course, the other day I made a bit of blunder when my landlord came over with his family electrician yet again, and I actually tried to introduce him to my maid. So when I asked him, have you met my maid, he looked at me as if I was out of my mind, and just said “I don’t know, if I did, I don’t remember her face.” Ooops. I guess I had forgotten that in some Indian households the maid never leaves the kitchen and actually sleeps on the kitchen floor.

The landlord by the way is a bit of a character himself. He had lived for a while in NYC, so he’s quite understanding about a number of things. But since our phoneline is still not working, he keeps bringing his electrician in, always repeating the same old and apparently cricially important story that this electrician works exclusively for his family, because it is very hard to find one in India, so he works exclusively for his family. Why the electrician keeps coming back for “full investigation of the problem” (quote my landlord), and nothing actually gets fixed, I don’t know, but that’s a different story. Bottom line is that the walls must be soaked with dampness and mold (the mold is actually showing everywhere on the walls), so the main fuse keeps blowing then and again, and one of the many switch panels is unusable, because turning any of its switches will make the lights go out in the whole apartment. The funny part is always that clearly the landlord is telling the electrician what he needs to do, because apparently the family electrician is not really an electrician. But the two of them keep showing up in my apartment unannounced, seemingly discussing the progress of their full investigation.

The landlord also told me that I can park the car on the little parking lot that’s part of the apartment building. There’s really not enough space for the six or seven cars standing around, so I asked him, how does it work, and whether it’s on a first come first serve basis, or what? He assured me, no problem, I can park, there are no designated parking spots. So when I tried, the watchman makes a few wild gestures, so I understand I should park on the other side of the building. Now, there is a very small elderly’s home in the ground floor of the building, so as soon as I park there, some young modern chap comes up to me telling me in a very important sounding tone that that parking space is reserved for the doctor. Of course, the doctor doesn’t live there, he just works there, if that. He probably just shows up then and again, because the home is pretty small, the size of my apartment. Anyways, but the parking space is for the doctor, very important. I am not in the mood to get into an argument with either the landlord or the neighbors, so I guess I will be parking on the street, which should be fine.

In other news, I finally found a very cool little club that’s the way little clubs should be like. It’s in a stinky little hotel that looks like it had seen better times. The club was nice and very laid back, people obviously just wanted to dance, so there were no posers, macho guys, or bimbos, like there are in so many clubs in any city you go. The music was pretty good as well, so I guess I will be going back there some time.

Oh, and very funny, I find, is this

The Flood Recap

So far, the monsoon season has been very nice and pleasant to us. Temperatures are in the high 20’s celsius, as opposed to mid or high 30’s, and although it is very humid, the air feels better and fresher than before the monsoon started. It rains every couple of days for a few hours, but that is that.

But then last Tuesday, all hell broke lose, and as our luck would have it, we had the pleasure to experience the heaviest rainfall in Mumbai’s history. As of today, over 450 people died in the State of Maharashtra, and about 60 in Mumbai. Some parts of Mumbai got 90cm of rainfall, that’s three feet.

The rain started sometime in the early afternoon, when I was at work and Ksenia at her yoga class. Around 5pm we were told we could leave the office early. I took off with Manish from work in his Tata Sierra, a fairly heavy SUV. The rain was absolutely incredible, stronger than anything I have ever seen. It soon became clear that it’ll take a while to get home. The traffic was crawling, but still moving, sort of. Eventually, cars started to use both lanes in both directions. Initially, the water on the streets was only a few inches, but soon it reached about half a foot, and in some spots a foot or more.

So by 7pm, we had gone through one particularly deep spot, we were maybe 3km away from the office and we were stuck. The water was too deep, and besides, people had started abandoning their cars in the middle of the streets. By now it was dark, and the traffic lights were out; there was no electricity anywhere. For some reason, I managed to call Ksenia on her mobile, and she said that she is walking home. Our car was flooded, she was knee deep in the water, and our driver was walking her home.

Luckily, Manish’s aunt lived nearby where we were stuck, so we turned around and managed to park the car in a better spot. But both of us wanted to get home, so we started walking. We were about 7km (5 miles) from home, and, well, it took us five hours. The water reached our hips very quickly, and in some spots our chests. Now, of course, I am using the term water quite liberally – think sewage. Luckily, it was dark, so we couldn’t really see what’s floating by, but it wasn’t pretty.

At one spot, the current was so strong that it kept pulling us back and I couldn’t get a firm hold with my feet. Of course, I was still wearing my office shoes and, actually, my best suit pants, not to mention my tie. Anyways, somehow we managed to get cross that particular spot and kept wading through the floods. There were abandoned flooded cars and city busses everywhere. People were resting in the busses or waiting for God knows what, plus there was a good amount of thunder an lightening, so the whole scene had a bit of an apocalyptic touch.

The street lights were out, but the lightening then and again made them go on, which didn’t really add to my general feeling of discomfort. Wading through hip deep sewage for a few kilometers is not exactly my idea of fun, especially when you know that it’s quite possible that you make a wrong step and get stuck in a pothole, or worse, end up in a manhole. The people around us seemed to have a blast though. First of all, they had no problems touching the traffic light posts, thunder and lightening or not. But apart from that, they were generally laughing, a few were singing to the rain God, Ganesh, and they were all holding hands to help each other through the sewage, so that was nice.

Some overdid the fun part a little, I guess: Ksenia told me later that where she was, there were rats swimming around all over the place, trying to huddle up on top of the gas tank of a motor bike, which was just above water level – and if that’s not enough, there were a bunch of teenage boys with sticks picking up the rats and throwing them towards the people passing by. Thankfully, no-one was hit, so the little pricks weren’t very good at it, and I didn’t see any of that – I just met a whole lot of people greeting me with “Hello foreigner, how do you like India?”

Eventually, Manish and I reached a higher spot in Juhu where there was no flooding, just by the JW Mariott Hotel, which was bizarrely lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it pays to have your own generator. An hour or so later, I reached home. Our street also was not flooded, but I had to restrain myself not to strangle the woman who asked me, her cell phone in hand: “Excuse me, but why is there so much traffic on Linking Road?”

Poor Ksenia had gotten home quite a bit earlier, just to find our apartment flooded in two inch deep water. The drains on our terrace were clogged, so the water was overflowing into our apartment, despite all doors being shut. Of course, these drains are a joke to begin with – there’s only two of them, each maybe an inch and a half in diameter, and our terrace is pretty large. Needless to say, our upstairs neighbors throwing plastic bags and newspapers onto our terrace on a regular basis didn’t help.

So she and the driver spent hours getting rid of the water, and of course the driver had no place to go, so he slept in our second bedroom. Ksenia wouldn’t have found her way home without him, so we were very lucky to have him. On the plus side, Ksenia was able to take a few shots with her camera.

We had no electricity and eventually also no water, nevermind no landline phone, so the next day and night were a bit of a challenge. Electricity and water came back Thursday morning, but of course still no phone. One would think that the telephone is a fairly proven technology, but not around here. Strangely, mobile phone service was working for the most part, except for a relatively short disruption for a few hours and heavy congestion.

Also quite striking was the complete lack of any police, fire department, ambulance or any other kind of public service. Rail and airport service were of course completely shut down for almost 40 hours, but people were generally completely left to their own devices. One would think that in an area where heavy rains are an annual fact of life, there would maybe exist some kind of emergency plan, maybe even inflatable boats, but I guess not, which maybe isn’t surprising, given that the sewage system is such a joke, i.e. in large parts non-existent and otherwise completely useless.

So today everything is pretty much back to normal, except still no phone and conflicting reports on whether there’s any flights going out of Mumbai. Ksenia was supposed to leave for NYC tonight, so we will see. We are still planning to go to a dance performance in the evening, and her flight is scheduled for 2am. At least I have now found a Barista cafe with WiFi access and it actually works, with a good speed to boot. But Ksenia is taking her laptop with her, so my fun was limited to today. On the bright site, on TV they said that I can now worry a bit about getting leprotosis from the rat piss that no doubt was plenty in the sewage that I had been walking around in – yummy!

Moving Day

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

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

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

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

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

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