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Can I get an Amen?

June 29, 2012

The best of Hong Kong so far.

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Chance encounters

June 24, 2012

There are some moments and some people you meet who resonate with you. In Agra, at the Taj Mahal, Jon and I met four women on their own pilgrimage to the Taj.  Throughout our trip to Agra, it seemed like every family wanted to take a picture with us. On our way out of the Taj, I spotted four women whose picture I wanted to take.

Why? Four ladies in Saris are nothing new in India. But these women had something special about them. They were sitting on the floor of the exit, in everyone’s way and barely noticing. Their brightly colored sari’s were tied in an old fashioned way, and they sat chattering and resting their feet in the cool shade of the exit hall.

As throngs of people asked to take a picture with Jon and barged up into my face to snap a phone pic of the gori, we approached these three. In broken Hindi, I attempted to ask if could we capture this vision of them, sitting so calmly in  the mob. They misunderstood, in the sweetest way. These elderly women leapt to their feet and grabbed my hands, pulling me closer to them and bowing their heads over and over. Their excitement that I had asked them hastened their chatter as they told me a flurry of questions  in a language I couldn’t begin to understand. . Their traditional greeting and saris pulled up over their heads made me think they must be from some small town or village, less cosmopolitan than Bombay or Delhi.

We took a hurried picture as visitors trickled out of the Taj. The sun was so bright coming through the lattice work and the women stood still for such a short time, that none came out. 

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But to our surprise, we ran into them later that day at the Agra Fort train station sitting, again, in the middle of everything with their chappals kicked off and hugging their knees. After deliberating about how to get back to Jaipur and which station to go to, Jon and I had chosen Agra Fort.  And so had our friends.

The Inevitable, The Incredible, The Taj Mahal

June 23, 2012

After nearly two years in India I finally got myself to the Taj Mahal. It took my good friend Jon visiting to get me to make the leap, and some rejigging of travel plans mixed with good old Jugaad to get us there, but we made it.

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I can’t say I have ever been so mesmerized looking at a structure. It’s as beautiful as they say, as huge as you can imagine, and impossible to believe this was built before cranes and computer imagery. The capability of humans, and what we can achieve with inspiration, is unreal. I should really let it speak for itself.

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The gates to the imperial gardens, entering the Taj Mahal grounds.

 

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Count ‘Em Out Loud

June 14, 2012

This blog evolved from a Tumblr I used to keep about my experience in India. I migrated the most important posts…but I recently found this one from when I first moved to India and still laugh/cringe with embarrassment.  (Note: I really have NEVER visited that cleaner again)

 

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This is the Dhobi Ghatt. This is not where my undies got cleaned.

 

Warning! Reader Discretion Advised. Undies are mentioned below!

So, while some strange things have happened to me and around me during my 1.5 months (!) in India, not much that has been truly personally embarrassing has occurred. Yes, there was that little incident where my boss made my birthday cocktail hour semi-mandatory for the people I work with (cringe), but that was quickly forgotten when people had fun, and realized the order had come from above, not me.

Cut to Thursday Aug. 19. I have a day off from work, Parsi New Year, and have been desperately trying to get my clothes to the Laundromat/drycleaner for days. I’m always working during their open hours. Anyways, I waltz in SO excited to soon have clean clothes. I have my clothes in a bag so that they may weigh them, or, alternatively, a list of the bag’s contents if they choose to charge per piece.

Neither of these methods is acceptable to our grey-haired laundry master. He dumps the bag on the counter, and counts each piece at a painfully slow and meticulous rate. Leave no bra unturned, no t-shirt un-examined!

Now, I have put my personal laundry in a small plastic bag. Number of undies marked on outside of bag. But no! These too must be counted individually. THREE times. Our laundry proprietor splays my underwear across his counter, and separates (I swear!) by color, then recounts, then calls by color and number to his attendant so he may mark them down on my bill. “Blue, polka dot. 2. Pink striped, 1…” the list continued.

I find myself backpedaling through my years in CCD, wondering if there was a patron saint of embarrassment, or laundry, or undies- someone I can pray to for this show to stop. Meanwhile, as I’m squirming and encouraging Monsieur Underwear-Counter to “Challo!!!” (hurry up! Let’s go!) a small queue has formed in the doorway.  All are dutifully watching my unmentionables get mentioned…and mentioned and mentioned.

Clearly I can never go to this Laundromat again. Luckily, just 1 week until have my new apartment and a washing machine of my own.

I once read that Kid Rock never wears the same undergarments twice. He simply buys new ones. Clearly, he does this out of luxury. I may do it out of sheer necessity: as I cannot experience this ever again, I swear it.

This is What a Bundh Looks Like

June 12, 2012

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I’ve wondered before what the streets of Mumbai would look like with no cars, and no people.

I always thought this was impossible, something we’d have to computer-generate.

Turns out that all it takes is a nation-wide strike.

It’s easy really. Get three political parties to throw a fit over the government mandated rise in petrol prices, and have them declare a national strike to protest the price change.

One of their key arguments, by the way, was the rise in prices of petrol would add to inflation and make domestic items more expensive. With a (further) weakened  Rupee,  India may become less competitive. The answer to this is clearly….stop working for an entire day at an estimated societal cost of INR 500 Crore (USD $90 mn).

 

But what happens to your average office goer when the entire country goes on strike?

pre-1) I obsessively check the news and twitter the night before to see if there even will be a bundh. I want a day off badly, yaar! Bharat Bundh means everyone? Everyone in India? If I don’t care either way about the cause, then I just get the day off, right?

1) Day of Bundh: Office are closed, but not my office. I call my manager and ask if I should come to work. He recommends that I “try” to get a cab, otherwise work from home.

2) 20 minutes later I’m still in bed, and my manager calls to admit he’s seen no cabs on the road and I probably wont find one. Trains are not running, but buses are under a separate authority and are running. I opt not to even try to figure out the bus. Good thing, too.

3) I inform my manager in Dubai of the Bundh. He’s heard about it already, and after six years outside Bombay is pretty sure this means RIOTS IN THE STREETS. I am advised by him it is unsafe to go out at all (so stay home and work damnit!)

4)  I get my work assignment for the day and figure out that I need extensive use of the internet and as usual, my home internet is not working. I know if I call my boss and tell him this, he might drive to Bandra himself to bring me to work. And I would prefer to work in my pajamas. So I head to a friend’s house to steal her net connection for the day. Despite the warnings from the Dubai managers about how a Bundh definitely means I’m going to die.

5) Step out of my door and realize BAM, I still live on a street with a Shiv Sena headquarter office. Shiv Sena is one of the political parties that has instigated the Bundh. Multiple police cars are parked in front of their headquarters (which, by the way, is just an open garage with a television and an effigy of their leader). Oops… I should have stayed inside but now I’m committed. Also I’m hungry and hoping there is some food shop open along the way.

6) Obviously nothing is open. Even the Pan-Wallahs are  on Bundh. The lone rickshaw or two goes by, probably charging 100 rs per kilometer.

The streets, being empty for a change, are mostly deserted except for the Catholic community of Chapel Road which has taken this opportunity to built an altar in the street and have a massive hymn session. I’m confused, mostly because cars can still use the roads, there just aren’t any cabs out. The below picture is on a pretty narrow, and important, street. 

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But it’s OK, I think Shiv Sena won’t mind. After all, these are the guys who built a giant clap-board castle on my road once and people lined up for hours to receive a blessing from a mechanized mannequin (as in the mannequin figure of their leader had a motor in it so it could wave its arms and give blessings. It was wild.)

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And by 5 pm when I finished my work and left my friend’s house, the Bundh was mostly over. The middle class was complaining about the lack of rickshaws and cabs (they ended the Bundh selectively and were only full back on duty when the late shift began). The trains were running again and once again packed with office goers, maids, hijaras and day-laborers.  Shops were selectively open, and by 8 pm even liquor stores were open (hurrah!). Somehow, having an unproductive Thursday made it feel like a weekend day, and the usual Thursday night parties raged on harder than usual.

 

But realistically, the Bundh meant almost nothing to me.  Strikes happen often enough in Mumbai that while they are annoying, people can mostly work around them. Taking the day off work or working from home was no surprise to the middle class Mumbaiker.  Who was really hurt by the Bundh? The lower class. Day laborers couldn’t get to their job sites and lost a day’s pay, or worse, may have been replaced. Maids who travel from Borivali to Churchgate missed a day of work, and may or may not have been forgiven by their Ma’am. Even beggars who work the train cars must have had a rough Bundh with no one on the streets, they surely made no money.

 

The very people the Bundh was supposed to speak for- the poorest and most vulnerable who would be the most effected by inflation of any sort- suffered the most from the misguided Bundh while the rest of us enjoyed a day off and dodged work calls.

 

India’s misguided politics strikes again. Great job Shiv Sena (oh, and NDA and BJP).  But Shiv Sena is right outside my door, so easiest to blame them Winking smile

Ode to the Visitor

May 26, 2012

An open love letter to thee who visits me in Mumbai:

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The Visitor may take many forms: backpackers rambling in from Sikkhim and Varanasi, corporate bankers in the Indian-Tiger Economy for 5 business days, volunteers gearing up for life in Calcutta, jet-set friends flying in for a weekend, sisters on a pilgrimage to where Baby Maeve call’s home these days.  The Visitor is always different, with an agenda and an expectation all their own (even when the absence of agendas and expectations defines the journey).

 

And I think it’s time to note why expats should celebrate all visitors. Sure, they carry tokens of home and Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese. They bring photos, new jeans, quinoa and camaraderie. But most importantly, they bring with them enthusiasm and wonder.

 

Life abroad can be hard at times. Every city gets monotonous, her flaws stand out sharply as you compare her to an inflated memory of home. Friends may call you and ask what “crazy wild experience” you had this week, and frankly the only answer you have is that you went to work and survived seven days. Just because we are somewhere new does not mean everything is foreign: feeling lost, helpless, frustrated, and overworked is unfortunately a familiar demon.

 

Enter: The Visitor. She reminds you that where you are is beautiful. He reminds you that every action you take is slightly different than the ones you took before. They alert you to the sensory experiences you have let go dull: the smell of the Tandoor, the film on your cutting chai, the sindoor in an auntie’s parted hair. She asks questions about why things are this way. You don’t always have an answer, but you start to remember when you too asked these questions…before you threw up your hands and said “It’s India, only.” Before you let this city just wash over you.

 

The Visitor has no idea that India is as tall as the US, as diverse as Europe, and as bureaucratic as the DMV. The Visitor thinks that you can visit three Indian cities in a weekend. Scoff at the idea and get anxious, but The Visitor’s blind faith pushes you to do it, to get out of Mumbai and get back to your main objective: Exploring. The Visitor thinks everything in Rupees is ridiculously inexpensive, and reminds you to part with some cash and just enjoy your life already.

 

But finally, the Visitor’s awe at the “Incredible India” reminds you exactly why you moved here. Why you bother to build a life and an identity in a place so foreign, so corrupt, so intense, and so rewarding. Why this challenge called Mumbai is ultimately worth it, and completely irreplaceable.

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Helpless Expats and The Other Road To Agra

May 18, 2012

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India confounded me again this week.  Her overflowing numbers of beings  in varying degrees of wealth and want are apparently all traveling.

This is known among expats as “Maid Runs Away to Native Place” month, or the first month of Indian public school vacations.  All (well, most) of Mumbai’s domestic workers have scooped up their school-aged children and traveled far and wide to wherever they call home-wherever they left to pursue better fortunes in the Maximum City.

And the once-independent expats are left helpless. Countless emails go out on the message boards, pleading for short-term household help. As if we all forgot that we used to clean our own homes in Sweden and America and London.

The few maids left in town can happily capitalize on our new-found dependencies. If I were a domestic worker- I feel as though this month I’d take on a zillion additional jobs and charge obscene rates…then chill the other 11 months of the year. (I imagine this is how calendar-store owners function, right?)

Helpless in more ways than one. Try to book a train right now, and you’re S-O-L. When 1 AC (First-class-fancy-wallah-sleeper-car) is full, one could deign to take 2AC. And you know that for a short journey, sleeper class always has more room! ( A million Purell-toting tourists just shuddered, a million real travelers just cheered). But not during Native-Visit season. Every compartment that is usually full is full (1 and 2 AC, 2 non-AC) but all of the truly accessible train compartments- ones that charge fees affordable for your X000-rupee per month maid and her children are also full. No option to jump on the waitlist and see if you’ll make it…waitlists are in the 100’s.  Hours of train travel are often the only way to reach Gujarat, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh for a domestic worker.  And they had the good sense to plan ahead.

Where does this leave me? Boxed out of every class of every train from Delhi to Agra. I have a good friend visiting from Abu Dhabi whose one request is to see the majestic Taj Mahal. I can’t deny him his “Incredible India” moment. So how do we get to Agra?

Buses are an obvious solution to the train problem. But these are largely booked too! And overall, I have to strongly recommend avoiding bus travel when possible in India. Sometimes it’s useful, or the only way….but mostly it is just unpleasant.

So HOW to get to Agra? CUE: Stroke of genius. Travel from Jaipur- the Pink City in Rajasthan. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner- probably Indians would know to look into this route. But for two years in India, it has been drilled into my head that the only way to Agra is from Delhi. But equidistant from Agra and Delhi is….Jaipur!

I’m overjoyed to have booked a train and a hotel in Jaipur I am convinced is 3x cheaper than a comparable one in Delhi. Even more overjoyed to be traveling for the weekend with one of my dearest friends from NYU. OVER-THE-MOON to be finally visiting one of the seven wonders of the world, the ultimate symbol of Love, The Taj Mahal.

Pictures to come!