An Even Better Day

Incredible India! So I was able to get my router play nicely with my cable internet access and I just dialed my NYC number – and guess what? My phone in India is ringing!! Gotta love voice over ip!

Even better than that: this morning, I got a call from my car dealer, and my lovely HM Ambassador Avigo has arrived from the factory. It still needs to get registered though. Unfortunately, that requires the original of my lease plus some official letter from my company, both of which I had left in the office. So I had to go pick them up, but that was no problem. Of course, the car dealer also wanted the full amount of money, but I insisted that they only get another installment and then the full payment once they have registered the car and hand me the keys. Apparently, that’s not how things are done here, but eventually they agreed.

So I went to the bank, then to the office, then back to the car dealer. I was thinking the car has arrived means I can actually see it at the dealership, but no such luck. Apparently, it’s on some lot somewhere outside of Mumbai. Ah well. But the registration should only take a few days, so the sales woman promised everything will be done and ready next Saturday. Life is Good.

The Maid

In NYC, we used to have a cleaning woman, who’d come in every two weeks and clean everything in three hours. She is from Chile and does a great job. Now, having a cleaning woman in NYC was strange enough for me, at least at the beginning. It’s not like I grew up on Beverly Hills or Windsor Castle, quite the contrary. But living in Mumbai, it is pretty clear pretty quickly that spoiled Westerners that we are, we need a maid on a daily basis, at least part time. First of all, this place is dirty and our apartment would get covered in dust very very quickly. Also, we have no idea what to buy in terms of groceries etc., where to buy it, and what it should cost. And even if we did, we’d have a hell of a time communicating with the shop owners. So we were recommended a maid and hired her.

She came with a number of references and spoke English quite well. She said she would clean, do the shopping (or rather order the stuff for delivery, since everything can get delivered), do the laundry and cook a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the fact that having a maid is basically a full-time job. We were naively thinking that you could just have her come in, and she would know what to do without much prompting. Instead, Ksenia tried for a week to show her how to clean, to convince her to do the shopping, but basically nothing got done.

Other people confirmed then confirmed that getting a good maid is very very difficult, and that one basically needs to spend a few months explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Our maid basically refused to do the shopping, because she said there are no shops around (there are, besides, then she made a big long face when Ksenia asked her to call somebody for delivery). After a week of her cleaning our living room, our telephone was still covered in dust, because she didn’t know that we wanted her to clean the telephone, too.

We still don’t really have any idea about how this works, but we sort of thought that if our cleaning woman in NYC can figure out without being told that dusting the living room includes the telephone, then it should not be too much of a problem here. Well, apparently it was, plus at the end of the week we think that we are missing a number of Rs500 bills from a locked drawer, and although we cannot be 100% certain what happened to it, we figured it would be better to let her go.

Our landlord told us that you basically cannot trust any maid and that they will all rob you and need very strict supervision. Another expat told us that in her Indian friend’s family, the maid is basically locked up in the kitchen, where she sleeps on the floor. So what do you do? We obviously want to treat our maid like responsible adults, but it turns out that this may be easier said than done.

Anyways, so we have now hired a different maid, who was also recommended to us with all sorts of references. Her English is not quite as good, but so far, she’s quite a bit more thorough. She was cooking a tasty chicken dish today, and while she didn’t do the vegetable dish that she said she would do, nor cleaned the kitchen cabinets that she said she would clean, she did call the grocery to get the chicken and vegetables delivered.

Speaking of which: at this point, we have slowly lost any concept of believing what anyone says. The cable guy said he would stop by in the afternoon to get us digital cable; he never did. The dry cleaner said he would stop by in half an hour to pick up some shirts; he never did. The furniture shop said they would come at 2pm to deliver the furniture; they never did. We then drove to the shop ourselves, and then the story was that the furniture was actually made in a different store outside of town and that it can’t get delivered until Tuesday because of the floods. The travel desk at work told me they’d come by in 10 minutes to give me Ksenia’s tickets to NYC; they never did. When I went there myself, it turned out that the tickets were double booked and that the real ticket will be an electronic ticket. I guess we have yet to learn how to get this sort of information on the phone, without actually having to show up in person. There’s countless stories like this, and maybe even more so than the heat and the rain and the traffic and the pollution, it makes India quite an exhausting place to live.

In any event, I guess it’ll be interesting how things will go once Ksenia is off to NYC for two months, and I will only have half an hour or so in the morning to tell the maid what to do. I think I might be bitching about my maid and become a Desperate Housewife myself. Of course, Ksenia thinks I will spoil her and let her get away with doing nothing, and then she will have to fire her, when she gets back, because her tolerance for questionable work ethics is a bit lower than mine, but we’ll see. I am already calling Ksenia My Good Colonialist, but really, we have no idea what people were talking about when Indians in the US say: “Oh, you are going to India on US salary – you are going to live like a King, you’ll have a maid and a driver, and everything is going to get delivered!” Yeah, right, but I’ll have to quit my job first, so I have time to manage my maid and my driver.

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.

H2O

So last night we went to H2O. It will be the closest lounge bar to our apartment when we move there next week. The place is Rs500 per person for drink/food tickets, and it’s a bar/restaurant on two floors, with a terrace on the upper floor. When we got there, at around 9:00pm, we were about the only people, except for two Western women. The place has a whole army of neatly uniformed waiters, one of them jumping the very second I reached out to touch one of the movable A/C fans that they have on the terrace. Then there’s a few head waiters, and everyone is very friendly and professional, and we don’t even get stared at for a change. The cocktails are expensive, but way less than NYC, and the food is actually fantastic.

For some reason, the music is unfortunately quite atrocious 80s stuff, but ah well. I guess we’ve reached the point where we can do with a little escape from the noise and dirt and stares of the street, so we don’t mind too much. By around 11:00pm, the place is quite crowded with the modern jeans and t-shirt crowd. I think Ksenia is the only woman wearing a saree. The CDs aren’t skipping like they did at The Myst last weekend, and as the evening goes on, either the music got better or we got drunk. We waited in vain to see whether people are going to start dancing, but then again, we were too beat to wait around. Apparently, the place closes at 12:30am, maybe later, if there are no cops around, but we went home, thinking, ok, we can deal with a place like that in walking distance from our apartment.