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Archive for June, 2010

Malaysia

Anyone who knows me will have noticed by now that a major character in my life has been missing from this blog: Food.

Yes, my favorite thing in the world has gone unmentioned because, while I loved the sights and people and culture of Indonesia, I found that the food didn’t knock my socks off. I got into the Nasi Gorings and the Pisang Gorangs (that would be fried rice and fried banana to those of you who inexplicably do not speak Javanese) — but, as they say, it wasn’t anything to write home about. When I crossed the border into Malaysia, however, I found enlightenment.

Where did I find it? In the form of cheesy crabs.

What is a cheesy crab you might ask? Well, it’s very simple and yet while you’re eating it you can’t possibly imagine ever eating anything else again. You take crab meat out of the shell. Mix in some cheese. Put the mixture back in the shell. Then bake. Whoah nelly.

Georgetown architecture

Daniel and I began our time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, which is known as the culinary capital of Malaysia. The main town, Georgetown, has beautiful colonial architecture and is a UNESCO heritage sight. But none of that really matters while you’re eating cheesy crab.

And not just cheesy crab. We also had this dish that consisted of fresh oysters cooked (baked? fried? who knows) into an egg mixture with some herbs and a tomato sauce on top. Or, at another restaurant, we had a lemongrass prawn curry whose sauce I could have just kept eating all day. It was pure delight.

After our food binge in Penang we hopped over to the island of Langkawi. This was intended to be our 2 days of ‘beach time’. Again, anyone who knows me knows that I am not one for sitting on a beach. But Langkawi is a breathtaking combination of stunning beaches, towering mountains, and jungles that come right down to the surf. So while in Langkawi I mostly just read under a tree, looked at the ocean and enjoyed the moment of peace and calm before heading back into Mumbai (while thinking of cheesy crab).

The beach, jungles and mountains of Langkawi

I’d also found some unexpected comforts here. As I’ve been away it’s been continually hard to reconcile the distance that separates me and the people I love. There have been moments where the unfamiliarity has hit me.

But I was lucky enough to have a quick succession of little signs telling me that wherever I am in the world, home is always close by. My first day in Langkawi I was walking along the beach when I saw a sand dollar – it was smaller and more misshapen than the ones we find in South Carolina. But it was undeniably from the same family. A few moments later as I sat reading, I saw that the guy sitting in front of me had a shirt with a palmetto… and a crescent moon… and when he stood up I saw it read “Charleston, SC.” I struck up a conversation with him and it turned out that he had lived in Charleston for a few years and was from Virginia originally. A little piece of home all the way out here with me. I hope that moments like that can help relieve the pangs for home as my days in Asia turn into weeks and months.

We left Langkawi for Kuala Lampur, a complete turnaround. KL (as they call it here) is about as modern a city as you can imagine. We pulled into our hotel and across the street I saw a mall with a ‘Forever 21’ and down the road was a Starbucks. Everything is clean and sleek and anything that hasn’t been built is certainly in the process of being built.

We went to Chinatown for lunch and had another amazing meal. We had laksa, a coconut shrimp soup. We walked around the city’s Chinatown and I couldn’t stop marveling at how the old colonial architecture melded together with the shiny new. It will be an interesting juxtaposition to go back to Mumbai.

But go back we will. Tomorrow night we’ll leave Malaysia and board a plane back to our new home. With our apartment (hopefully? theoretically?) ready for moving in it’ll be round two in the adventures of setting up our life. I think after our time away we’re ready to go back. We’re once again ready to let India take us in.

Addendum:
As I was going through pictures I realized that we were constantly taking pictures of particularly funny signs. Malaysia seems to have an abundance of them. I’m going to share a few below:

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Yogyakarta

The only way for me to describe Yogyakarta is to start with my vantage point from a becak.

Becak

A becak is like a rickshaw where the bicycle is in the back, so as you ride around you see only the city in front of you. Imagine that you start by negotiating with a becak driver, most of whom appear to be above the age of 50. You offer someone at least twice your age to ride you across town for $2 and they laugh at when you offer this price because apparently $2 is HILARIOUSLY overpriced. You are then clearly marked as a silly tourist for thinking that a human being riding a bicycle for 20 minutes with two people attached is worth the exorbitant price of $2. You should have offered less than $1.

But what you see as you go through the town is that this is one of the most charming place you can imagine, pulled together by an amusing range of transportation options. While riding around you’ll see families in cars, becaks with Yogyakartans and their groceries, actual honest-to-god horse-drawn carriages, and motorbikes with 2 year old children holding the handlebars as their parents hold them. It’s a busy city and a small town all at once, bustling with the movement of all the various ways to get around.

Family on a motorbike

I’m going to pause here to explain what in the heck Yogyakarta is, because I myself didn’t know about it until Daniel told me it was a place he wanted to go. Yogya (as its called for short) is in central Java (a one hour flight from our Bali paradise) and is considered by many to be the soul of Indonesia. Art and culture permeate this domestic tourist hub. If the Westerners flock to Bali to see Indonesian paradise then Yogya is the answer for Indonesians looking for their own heritage.

And beyond the initial vantage point of the becak, what I have found here is that Yogyakartans, are kind and interesting like the Balinese, but with a sophisticated urban edge. Our first day here started with lunch and a walk. But I soon found myself in need of a restroom – and none were to be found. A man seemed to notice we were looking for something and so he asked if he could help. He told us to come on a walk with him. Along the way he told us he was the Sultan’s accountant and that we could

In the Sultan's palace

use the restroom in the Kraton, the Sultan’s palace. The Kraton is the center of Yogya and it’s public areas are only open in the morning – so we were getting to go in post-tourist time.

When I emerged from what was described as the ‘cleanest toilet around’ (really a squat toilet with no flush or toilet paper), Daniel said our friend had had to leave because he was late to meet his wife. But HIS friend also worked at the Kraton and offered to show us around. Really. I kept waiting for the catch, but there wasn’t one. Our new friend’s friend took us all around and told us the story of the city- he explained that in all of Indonesia only Yogya is governed by a Sultan. And even the Sultan sounds like a good guy – he and his wife have five daughters, meaning he has no male heir to the Sultanate. But he has dismissed previous Sultan’s methods of taking concubines because he is a believer in women’s rights. Could I love the people of Yogya any more?

Me with Slamet Riyanto (amazing Batik painter) and our new painting (the yellow one)

We tell our new friend as we’re leaving that we were hoping to buy some Batik – the traditional art form in Indonesia that is a painting made with a particular type of wax dye on cotton – and he told us the best place to go where the artists were creating original works and that wasn’t a tourist trap. Once again I waited for the catch, but there wasn’t any. Various Batik artists had pieces on display in this gallery and we were able to buy one piece there and another from a nearby artist’s studio. For prices that I’m too embarrassed to even share (because they really are incredibly cheap), you can get some incredible one of a kind art in Yogya.

Borobudur exterior

Borobudur entrance

Our second day we left Yogya to go see what everyone comes to central Java for – Borobudur. It is the country’s MOST visited tourist attraction and yet 75% of these visitors are domestic (most of the others are from Southeast Asia or Japan). Borobudur is a 9th century Buddist temple that is over 10 stories high (or about 400 feet). It is a massive circular structure with hundreds of buddhas looking out onto the mountains. It was hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered in the 19th century. A huge UNESCO restoration project in the 1970’s saw the whole structure taken apart, new foundations and drainage put in, and then the entire temple was rebuilt (its actually unbelievable to see before and after photos).

But the most amusing part of Borobudur is that the structure is not the most exciting tourist attraction for visitors: we are.

Me fulfilling the role of "giant white person" aka the bule

Yes, Daniel and I are the most interesting phenomena here. After the first group of giggling teenagers asked to take a photowith us our guide explained that it was because we are ‘bule’, Indonesian slang for white people. “Most of them never seen white tall person before. So they take your picture and then they show it back in school.” Great. At every turn people asked our guide if they could have their picture taken with us. Kids. Families. Mothers with infants who cry as they look at us (I’m not kidding). Each with a dutiful photographer cradling multiple phones with cameras so that no one person misses out on the photo with the bules. But none of them minded while I shot video as well, so at least for our own amusement we have a record of this hilarious phenomena.

We spent our third day among the hidden temples across the region and the other main temple, Prambanan. It’s truly incredible the amount of history that exists here. And yet, it shouldn’t be surprising since Indonesia has 240 million people and is the 4th most populous country in the world. Somehow I didn’t know that before coming here. Indonesia had never seemed to be a particularly important place in my limited worldview, but how blind I was. I feel so incredibly lucky to have experienced the sights, culture and people of this wonderful many-island nation.

Daniel and Ali at Prambanan

We’re off next to Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia. A new country and a new adventure before we return to Mumbai!

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Bali

(Side note: I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking why I haven’t been writing. I see this blog more as a place to share my experiences living in a new culture, not as much a travel blog. So while I’m travelling I won’t be writing every day, but I will be posting a few times. We’ll be back in India June 30th though!)

So…

The second time we tried, India let us go. And we arrived in Bali – a tropical mountainous volcanic paradise halfway around the world from where we started in New York.

Mount Batukaru and rice paddies

We drove an hour and a half north to Ubud, which is in the center of the island. When most people think of Bali, they do not first think of Ubud (unless you’ve read Eat Pray Love where Ubud features prominently. And at this point it seems everyone has read it). Bali to most people is beaches, partying and, unfortunately, nightclub bombings.

Daniel and a monkey side by side in the Monkey Forest

But Ubud is a thousand years away from any party central you can imagine. Ubud is an ancient city hidden among jungles and mountains. When we arrived we first went to a forest that is literally called “Monkey Forest.” It’s called this because when you walk inside you curiously find yourself walking along with hundreds of monkeys. Most are waiting for you to feed them one of the bananas you can purchase at the entrance (“Official Monkey Forest Bananas”. The only thing official about them is that they are 10 times the price of a normal banana). But these monkeys live among thousand year old temples in a forest sanctuary. Let me just say it is not something you see every day.

Daniel and Ali in Monkey Forest temple

Our first night we met a driver named Wayan, and we agreed with him that he would take us on our varying excursions over the next few days. Meeting Wayan I think was the luckiest part of our stay in Bali – but as Wayan would say, “You do good things, so you have good karma, so good things come back to you.” That is the wisdom of Wayan. He is a man who owns his own business in partnership with his friends, speaks three languages (English, Japanese and Balinese) and is devoutly Hindu. I think that the wisdom of Wayan should be written down somewhere, so I shall do it here. A sampling:

“No one feel stress as long as they don’t have target. Target means you must make more money than you make now or must get better job. But without target, you just happy living your life.”

or

“I do not understand Muslim Jihad. Why would they want to hurt people? Jihad brings very bad karma I think.”

or, after Daniel asks how the government prevents tax evasion in cash businesses like his:

Me and Wayan on a rice paddy

“Yes, the government doesn’t know what I do. But God does. So even if I get away with it with government, I would not really get away with it. Bad karma.”

Karma. What a beautiful amazing concept. It drives Wayan and it certainly seems like a very good way to live. But, as you learn wherever you go in the world, people can lead happy successful lives but they are still only privy to the knowledge that their society affords them. And while Wayan lives by his karmic wisdom, not everyone around him does. For example, when we ask Wayan if he has a website he says he can’t have one anymore, because its too expensive. But more importantly, it’s too dangerous because the website operators in Bali will take bribes to steal emails from their site and give the emails to competitors. If they pay even a day late the operators will send viruses to their computers.

Seriously.

So Daniel very animatedly told Wayan about how you can build a website for free or even just get a domain name very cheaply. It really hit home that education and technology can do so much to even the playing field in a world where monopolizers will take what they can when they can. So, while I write this, Daniel is currently helping Wayan build his website. Wayan says this is good karma. I certainly hope so, because we need it after our initial difficulties in India.

Gunung Kawi

Prayer march at Besakih

But beyond website building we’ve also been able to explore the incredible and varied sights of Bali. On our first day with Wayan we went to a number of ancient Hindu temples, such as Besakih, which was built in the 14th century at the foot of a large volcano. You can’t imagine a more beautiful view.

Besakih

On our second day we decided to take the more scenic route and go for a hike near Munduk, in the north of Bali. Wayan took us to meet his friend Budi, whose family owns a plantation in Munduk and gives tours of the plantation and the nearby waterfalls. It turned out that Budi was no ordinary tour guide – he speaks 5 languages, has a civil engineering degree from a university in Tokyo, is an architect, and is sought after for his knowledge of coffee, specifically the rare Kopi Luwak coffee (if you’re thinking this is the world’s most expensive coffee that is made after a cat-like creature digests the beans, then you are correct).

Daniel and Budi in Munduk

And yet, when Budi was asked to speak in Denmark about his architecture (he designs and builds villas when he’s not running the plantation or showing people around the plantation. Naturally.) he didn’t enjoy it because the cold was too off-putting. Like most Balinese people he can’t really imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

And when you tour the plantation with Budi you tend to agree with him.

What I’ve come away with from my trip to Bali is that for all the amazing things there are to see, the people here are very special and that whatever their station in life is, they all tend to find comfort just in being from Bali. I think that in itself describes the beauty of the island.

I know this blog is more about people than places, but for the rest of our visit the pictures truly are worth more than any thousand words I could write. I also have included a video – because things like monkeys up close, sprawling vistas, waterfalls and loud bugs that sound like the whole world is coming to an end are things you can only watch for yourself.

Gungung Agung

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I am getting the sense that there’s a theme for me in Mumbai: when I want to do something, India often has other plans. And in the race between me and India, I’m usually not on the winning end.  I wrote last night that Daniel and I were off for vacation.  Unfortunately, we were paid a visit by the notorious Indian bureaucracy. They hadn’t met us yet and they surely wanted a day of our time.

We got to the airport, checked in and then went to exit immigration. I was asked some questions and checked through – a new red 16th of June exit stamp started drying in my passport. But as I prepared for us to continue the immigration officer asked Daniel “Where is both your registration?” We explained that we had been told that we only needed to register for residency once we were going to be here for more than 180 days. Alas, we were wrong.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, immigration has tightened up considerably (similar to the US after 9/11). And niceties that used to fly a year and a half ago are just not so anymore. Instead of falling asleep on Malaysian Air we were taken to Indian customs.

We sat in a room with no windows and nothing on the white walls except constant black scuff marks from years of office chairs leaning against walls. Our captor sat at a desk with only a plain blue Duty Officer sign on the wall to identify him. He made us wait as he thumbed through a worn ledger, uninterested in our plight. When he finally eyed us over his wire rim glasses he said simply, “Sorry, rules are rules. You did not follow the rules.” We tried to reason with him. We were handed a booklet and told, “This pamphlet says you cannot leave until you register.”

Daniel scanned it. “Where does it say that in this pamphlet? I don’t see it.”
“Well, it doesn’t say that directly, but that is the rule.”

We were at a stalemate. Our passports were looked over and discussions were had in Hindi while we sat. One Duty Officer talked on a red phone in the corner. Our officer continued to be disinterested. We tried to reason some more. Surely if we came back and registered it wouldn’t be a problem? Apparently it was.  My passport was taken and a crisp CANCELLED was written across my new red stamp. We were done for the night.

Dejected, we waited by Malaysia Airlines for our bags to come back to us. We sat on the floor like the pathetic losers we had been deemed to be – it was our own fault for believing what we had been told, and that was that.

Our poor driver had had to return to the airport and wait for us to be freed, for our bags to come, and for Daniel to finally be able to rebook our tickets after circling through various parts of the airport with various guides giving us varying instructions.  We got into the car exhausted and hoped to make it back to our guesthouse quickly. Late at night there apparently are no traffic rules in Mumbai and our driver merely honked at red lights as he went through them.

We woke up the next day with a new determination to get our residential permit and so off we went to the Foreign Regional Registration Office. It was a madhouse. Lines were everywhere depending on what your purpose was. Luckily our line was inside the office in air conditioning. Even luckier that we weren’t from Pakistan, where a separate floor altogether awaited nationals from India’s rival who were trying to declare their own detente.

Our room was like a world snapshot. In one corner an Eastern European woman tried to encourage her children to cry louder so there would be an incentive for their name to be called. In another, a woman in a burka searched through her fake Louis Vuitton bag to find her cell phone and start texting. Two older African women, held steady by canes and their feet resting on their bejewelled pink flip flops, kept entertained by whispering to each other and laughing. Daniel immediately made friends initially with some other expats while we waited. I watched a brightly colored 24 hour news channel celebrating its 1 year anniversary while breaking news banners played constantly at the bottom.

Our names were called and I was asked to sign forms. “What is your occupation ma’am?” I was asked. I tried to explain that for my time in India my visa wouldn’t allow me to earn money so I didn’t really have an official occupation at the moment.  “Housewife, then. You should have written housewife!”. And so it was done.

We cut out passport photos and pasted them into various documents- arts and crafts immigration. Every page of our passport was examined. Other documents were needed and sent for. We went in and out, hours spent re-watching the news channel and observing the new people who walked in, wondering why each had come to India to make their life for the time being.

Finally, we were given our Registration Report and Residential Permit. It was official – no turning back now. We are residents of India, perhaps because we have now been given our bureaucracy baptism by fire.  And as residents I would dare say we are now allowed to go on vacation. But I won’t bet on it until I’m out of the country and sure that India has no other imminent plans for me yet.

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Monsoon, monsoon, monsoon. It’s something we’re going to have to get used to over the next few months and yet I’m still in awe of it. The heavy rains supposedly don’t even come until July, yet the rain woke me up this morning at varying intervals. Sometimes the rain is so heavy you can’t see the trees through the sheet of water.

Phoebe got her first monsoon walk this morning and it was a lesson in grooming – While I may be able to survive with a big umbrella, Phoebe really can’t avoid getting soaked. She tiptoed across cobbled pavements searching for some respite. Phoebe has quickly learned that she also can’t avoid the rains. But, as a result, on a day of errands we decided the first must be for Phoebe to get a haircut. We took a grooming recommendation and dropped Phoebe off in some seemingly very capable hands.

We spent the rest of the day running errands while dodging the monsoon. We stopped at Daniel’s office. Bought a new filter for his camera. ATTEMPTED to get my iPhone unlocked so that I could continue to use it abroad, but sadly, I was without luck. Despite going to a grey market that our broker had recommended I found that I was punished for newness – my iPhone had been recently replaced recently and the newest version is currently impervious to unlocking. So there’s one comfort of home I’ll have to go without – or at least, as the salesmen said, “wait two months and we’ll have it figured out”.
We picked up Phoebe and she looked ready to go! She’d had a cut and even some bows put in her hair (Daniel IMMEDIATELY took them out). I was heartened to see when I got home I had an email from the groomers with a photo of phoebe, with some interesting borders and design below.

On a different note, there’s something else that has been a struggle for me here that is a daily reality check: we all know that old habits are hard to break. But old habits that can potentially get you sick make you feel incredibly moronic when you can’t break them. Try, for example, brushing your teeth with bottled water when you’ve just woken up. See what happens when you’re done. Almost as if on auto-pilot you’ll reach for the handle to turn the water on to rinse your toothbrush. If you’re in India then you’ll add a subsequent action: shrieking with horror at your own stupidity. It’s been drilled into us that Indian tap water is kryptonite for foreigners and woe be the fool who can’t control his own actions. Luckily, Daniel created a logical, if not silly looking solution to this particular problem:

But it’s everything: taking our morning Malarone and remembering to wash our hands before touching it. Eating toast and discarding the portions we’ve touched (I now understand my sister’s life a little better). Keeping your mouth completely closed while showering. Not even biting your nails out of boredom unless you want the dirt under your nails to give you an excuse to spend a day with your head in the toilet. We’re yet to get sick and we’re probably giving our newness away with the paranoia. But that doesn’t mean the tales I hear from every local and foreigner about Indian-style illness haven’t made me want to be carefree about potential illness.

So, with that completely paranoid sidebar aside, we are off to Malaysia and Indonesia for two weeks. We can’t move into our apartment until July 1st and once Daniel begins work it might be awhile until vacation becomes a reality again, so we’re jumping at the chance. “Why Malaysia and Indonesia when you’ve JUST arrived in a beautiful huge country called India?” you might ask. And so for perfect closure to this day’s tale, I take you back – the monsoons. They are everywhere except the himalayas, and I think our jetlagged bodies may not take well to adding altitude sickness into the mix. So we’re off.

I hope to keep writing – these will be travel tales for 2 weeks instead of “moving to a new foreign land” stories, but hopefully it’ll be interesting nonetheless. And June 30th we are back and ready to truly settle in – with a home, a newly groomed Phoebe and a certainty that rain will continue for many weeks ahead.

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Today I felt my first hard dose of disappointment and frustration, Indian-style.

We had settled on the apartment I loved. Daniel was convinced and I was starting to feel like moving forward in India would be easier than anticipated. But when the broker called just to see if we could look at it one more time, we found out someone had put in an offer this morning. Just like that and my dreams of sitting on the balcony watching the monsoon hit the sea while drinking a cup of masala chai were dashed.

Instead I sat drinking my masala in a coffee shop while our broker tried to persuade the owner into considering our counter-offer. No luck. I stared into my milky tea trying to not let that overwhelmed feeling creep back in. I didn’t want to get frustrated with India, with all my warnings about everything moving slowly and inefficiently.

We decided to put an offer on our second choice right away so that we wouldn’t face the same problem again. It had been Daniel’s favorite to begin with and I had liked it before I became so singularly focused on the beach.

We drove into La Paloma, the second choice building, and walked in. I knew what I had loved about it at first, so I went straight to it – the terrace. While we might have lost out on a view of the beach we were gaining an outdoor space that is legitimately larger than our old apartment in New York. And in a city like Mumbai where the average family home often consists of a shack in the slums, I decided to stop being a brat and let go of the old apartment.

With a verbal offer in place I took Phoebe for a walk in the neighborhood we’re staying. We had to maneuver around Monsoon puddles on the way out, but once past those we encountered an obstruction of a different kind.

As we walked I heard a shout from behind – a young Indian girl in a red plaid Catholic school uniform and red barrettes was looking at me. “Can I touch?” she asked, motioning towards Phoebe. I nodded, and then remembered that in India, indicating yes actually entails tilting your head from side to side, akin to the Western standard for no.* “Of course,” I said, since I wasn’t sure that my head tilt was going properly yet. She touched Phoebe’s tail and then ran ahead to catch up with her mother.

When we turned the corner I saw what was happening: school was out and all the sudden the street was filled with a color explosion. Mothers in saris of all different hues escorted more girls in red with red barrettes or red bows. Tiny red patent something shoes (could they be made of cow leather for Hindis?) walked next to sandals. Snow White and Hannah Montana backpacks hung over the shoulders of children climbing into three wheeled open-air rickshaws. One of the Muslim mothers, wearing a hijab, held the hand of her child in school regalia, who carried a backpack emblazoned with a photo of Barbie wearing a hijab just like the mother’s. The whole picture was the weirdest intersection of East and West I had yet to see.

(There’s no picture here for this, sadly, because my desire to capture the imagery is often at odds with my desire to be respectful in residential neighborhoods. Respectful won this particular round. But here is a photo of Phoebe in a quieter area – just to show she’s looking happy!)

The reaction to a small furry ball wandering down the street in a red harness and leash was certainly varied. The children parted either to stare at her or shriek in fear or reach out to touch her. She looks like none of the short-haired large street dogs that roam the streets of Mumbai so she must have looked like a zoo animal. In either case, when the tide of little red dresses receded I think both Phoebe and I were relieved.

At the end of the day we settled in to watch some World Cup action- a perfect bookend to a day of cultural learnings. If Cote D’Ivoire can tie Portugal then maybe I too can conquer Mumbai and get past any new hurdles I might face tomorrow.

*(For those wondering about the Indian head bob thing, I found a Youtube video that hilariously encapsulates the issue)

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“Oh these rains? This was just a drizzle compared to the pounding that’s coming soon”.

That’s how my second night ended – thinking I had survived the first afternoon of monsoons only to be told that we hadn’t seen anything yet. I was prepared to write about and post video of the unstoppable and sustained violent rains I had watched through the evening. However, as I’m learning, it’ll take me a long time to see what Mumbai has in store.

But long before the monsoon, we were awoken at 4am by the arrival of Phoebe, our dog, fresh off her flight into Mumbai. Daniel opened her crate and she shot out. She was embracing Mumbai because it wasn’t a confined space on a plane. And with that early morning arrival our little Mumbai family was complete and ready to look for a home to make our own.

And that search was to be the focus of our day: find an apartment. Make sure it’s clean. Don’t get ripped off for being foreign.

We were greeted at 10am by our broker. She immediately came off as a powerhouse. She made demands of brokers we were meeting into her iphone: “”Is it a renovated exterior? Or a dilapidated exterior? Because we only want new”.

And so we drove into Bandra, one of two areas we are considering. It’s the northern suburb that has become a small city in itself. Tree-lined streets and colorful sidewalks play host to varying apartment buildings and restaurants of every possibility.

We went to apartment after apartment. We learned early on not to let on to the countering brokers what our highest limit was, because suddenly every apartment would cost that much. Some exteriors WERE dilapidated by any western standard. But they still held home to brand new interiors and expensive rents. Others were a beautiful shell hiding dingy bathrooms, peeling ceilings and lizards running up walls. Our broker made demands of the other brokers in Hindi, Marathi and English.

After noting a few buildings we liked, I finally fell in love in the most unexpected place. Despite saying off the bat that we didn’t need a view (“we’ve never had one in New York so it doesn’t matter to us”) and that we wanted a new looking building, we walked into just the opposite. The exterior was fading and peeling. Rain stains were visible on the paint before you even walked in. But it looked out onto Bandstand’s beach and the promenade and I saw myself suddenly seeing character and charm in the beachy building. Once again, in such a short 2 day span, Mumbai had taken my expectations and turned them on their head.

We walked in to an apartment that was kitschy and beachy and pure India. I would never decorate an apartment like this one on my own, but for our time here it seemed to feel right. And looking out at the beach view I felt this was an oasis of calm in a crazed city. I’d still have to convince Daniel and our broker still wanted to show us buildings in the Central Belt, but I was hooked.

We drove into the Central Belt next. It was, as we’d heard, the opposite of Bandra. Just yesterday I had been convinced that this would be the place for us. It’s right in the middle of the city – it sits between Bandra and South Bombay where Daniel will be working. All the buildings are brand new with modern facilities. But the downsides are only understandable once you’re there: they have to contend with slums and no neighborhood to speak of. “It’s ok though”, our broker said, “You’ll have a compound with a gym and pool and when you want to leave you can just drive to the mall.”

It truly feels like the new Mumbai – everywhere you look you see structures of building rising quickly among cranes and scaffolding, itching for occupancy in this growing part of a metropolis. I looked out of one building and saw a large swath of slums in between where we were and the newer buildings on the water. I ask the broker: “What happens when the developers inevitably want to build where the slums are?” “Some developer will probably just set fire to them if the people in the slums don’t negotiate. It’s sick”. I just kept looking out the window to the complete dichotomy that faced the old and new residents of the central belt.

We went last to a building adeptly named “Planet Godrej”. It was huge. And coming from New York I believe that’s saying a lot. It was 5 towers of 50 floors. A massive space overlooking massive grounds that held the aforementioned pool and gyms and squash courts and gardens. It’s so new that Tower 5 is still under construction. But the apartments inside were gorgeous and the definition of modernity. Marble floors, even layouts and floor to ceiling windows looked out onto the racetrack and the sea. Yet the building I had expected to love was paling in comparison to my kitcschy beachy yellow-walled Bandra apartment.

We drove away and prepared to see more tomorrow. And as we did the rain began to fall. With it, people came out – overjoyed that the oppressive heat of summer was ending and monsoons were coming. I’ve always seen rain as a nuisance. It blocks my quick walk up avenues and afternoons in Central Park. In Mumbai this sentiment doesn’t appear to exist. Rain trumps heat. Three months of rainwater provides showers and drinking water for the entire year. Hands reached out of taxis to touch the rain. Men women and children walked through the streets – some casually holding umbrellas but others just grinning and bearing it. I’ve never seen so many people walk through a torrential downpour as casually as if it were a sunny day.

We were meeting our friend Elise for dinner but traffic stopped us. How can you move in a 3 wheeled rickshaw or a 20 year old car when rain is beating down faster than you can imagine? The slow traffic of Mumbai halts in the rains and I’m starting to wonder how we’ll survive the next 3 months of daily rains and constant floods. But a dinner of Indian seafood and a familiar face quashed my fears. And as we drove back the rains stopped and I could see Mumbai once again.

It feels like we’ve been here forever but tomorrow will just be our 3rd day. I’m ready for more monsoons and more apartment hunting and, hopefully, I’ll end my next day having convinced Daniel to move forward in my little oasis of calm.

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