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!

Not Quite DSL Ready

Well, it looks like our apartment is not quite DSL ready. Why? Because our phone lines don’t work when it rains, or when it has rained, or maybe when it is about to rain. So, basically: never, with being monsoon season and all that, except, of course, when the landlord is over to convince himself that the phone is not working, so that he can call MTNL, who would then have to certify the line as being faulty, so that the landlord can ask an electrician to fix it. Needless to say, nothing has been fixed yet.

Too bad, because there’s lot’s of things to talk about, but for now, just this: We spent the weekend at the Osho Ashram in Pune, we fired our maid, and, oh, yes, our phone still isn’t working. More on that when we are back online; it could take a while, or it could be tomorrow, noone can say for sure.

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.

High-Tech India

My driver was an hour late this morning. He was very sorry, I was half an hour late to a meeting, but I think the reason was because he got us a new car. Well, it’s not a new car, it’s a different car. The same little Maruti (I think), about the size of a Mini Morris but not quite as sexy. At least the left backdoor is now working again. The A/C is just as crap as before; it’s either below freezing or just as hot an humid as outside. I am rather annoyed that I have to pay $800 a month for this, just to get around and to work at all. That’s when you start missing the $70 NYC subway monthly. Of course, this town doesn’t have a subway. 16 million people, but only two suburbian train lines, and a big bus network, that’s it. Everybody suggests to stay away from the trains and busses, way too crowded, way too unreliable, always late, and a little dangerous. Not to mention the fact that neither have any windows or any doors that would close, so if there’s a nice monsoon shower, you are bound to get soaking wet. I have no idea what they will do in this town if and when in a few years half the population has its own car and they are all going to try to get to work in it. There’s just no way anyone will have a commute of less than an hour or two, not to mention the pollution, which is already incredible. But a subway or a mono-rail in the largest and most important city in India? Not happening.

On the way to work we passed a huge crowd of people blocking the entire traffic on a two-lane street, because they had to take a very close look at the motorbike that was just being pulled out from under a big truck. No idea what happened to the guy on the bike (or maybe it was a guy and a woman, her sitting sideways behind him, as they usually do here), but, basically, anyone cruising around on a bike in this town has to be seriously suicidal. Not only are there regular speedbumps everywhere, but there’s potholes everywhere, huge crowds of people left and right and crossing the streets without any notice whatsoever, plus the autorikshaws are always going zig zag, plenty of rich boys in SUVs driving like complete assholes, and of course busses and trucks literally do not stop for anything. Still, helmets are optional, and there’s quite a few bikes with dad and mom and two kids scrambling not to fall off and onto the road. It is quite amazing.

Later today news came out that there was a terrorist attack in London. A couple of days ago, some militant muslims tried to bomb a Hindu temple in northern India, basically to take it back from the hindus, who a decade ago or so had destroyed a mosque that was located at the same place and replaced it with a hindu temple. That time, 2000 people died in the resulting riots. Of course, way back, the place had been hindu to start with, so when the muslims originally came into the area, they replaced the hindu temple with a mosque. And so I guess it’ll go back and forth for the next 1500 years. What’s strange is that some parts of the opposition party BJP called for a strike to protest the terrorist attack. The logic somehow escapes me, and I am trying to imagine the Democrats call for a strike after 9/11. Anyways, the BJP is apparently basically running under the banner of Hinduism and Nationalism, and they are always happy to use religion as a way to get votes, in quite the same appaling way as the Republicans. Not sure what platform the other main party is running on, but since they’ve ruled the country for almost the entire time since independence, with abrief exception, it’s probably safe to assume that they are corrupt buerocrats to the bone.

Corruption is by the way pretty much a given. Students openly say that they got placed at prestigious colleges because they had some family friends. Doctors may refuse treatment unless there’s some upfront cash (and, yes, people die). There’s big signs in the airport telling travellers to report any airport staff who attempt to get a bribe. Not to mention the real estate market, which is full of illegal constructions, demolitions, etc., all courtesy of greased palms.

Closer to home, I am being told that the reason SMS isn’t working on any of our two pre-paid SIM cards is that you have to actually call the mobile phone company to activate your SMS services. Except that the phone number you need to call is always busy, so a nice voice tells you to call later. Today I have actually received the post-paid, i.e. subscriber SIM card. No SMS either though. Now, in the case of a subscriber SIM card, one can actually call to activate SMS. Except, it takes a minimum of seven days untill that activation actually happens. Needless to say, voicemail does not come standard with mobile phone service, pre-paid or post-paid, and noone seems to have it. So much for high-tech India.

On a different front, it now looks like we will move to our apartment next Monday or Tuesday. So the last thing we’d still need around here would be a car. We are still waiting to be able to get some money wired over here, it’s taken three weeks to get that Indian bank account fully setup, meaning: the netbanking password is still in the mail. The easiest thing of course would have been to pay with a credit card, but that’s not an option. The car dealers don’t seem to have credit card machines, or if they do, they insist that the customer pays the 2% extra that VISA/MC/AMEX gets out of every deal. So at this rate, we might have a car in three weeks or so.

Luckily, the weather is actually not so bad. It’s very muggy and quite warm, but not too hot. It was quite a bit worse when I was here in April, and the smells in some of the crowded residential areas were dizzying. Anything from the wildest spices and incenses (often to be found on the little dashboards of cabs and autorikshaws), not to mention the thousands of street food vendors, and of course plenty of piss and shit and molding buildings and god knows what infested puddles of old water. Now I kind of miss them, although I do think of Central Park sometimes. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it already. I guess I’ll have to go back to Crawford Market, and this time I should shoot some pictures.