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Archive for July, 2010

Before I left New York I tried to stock up on Malarone, an anti-malarial mediation. Our doctor had advised us to take it every day, and despite a lot of other people telling us it wasn’t necessary, we figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

However, the pharmacists in New York thought I was part of some anti-malaria stockpile conspiracy and they refused to give me more than a one-month supply.

I had tried to argue my way out of it, but there was no chance. Rules were rules and I just was going to have to get more Malarone once we got to India.

I mention this now, because my experience with Indian pharmacies has been dramatically different.

In order to find Malarone in the first place I’ve had to call around. As is customary here with almost any store, if they decide they don’t want to talk to you, they just hang up or hand the phone to someone else. So my conversations have sounded mostly like this:

Me: Hello? Is this the chemist?
Them: Hello?
Me: Hi. Chemist?
Them: Hi.
Me: Hi, are you the chemist?
Them. Hi. Yes.
Me: Ok, do you have Malarone?
Them: What?
Me: Malarone? It’s a preventive malaria drug.
Them: What?
Me: Malarone.
Them: Hold on

(Pause here anywhere from three to ten minutes while they ignore you or pass you off to another person)

Them: Hello?
Me: Hi. Did you find it?
Them: What?
Me: Malarone?
Them: What is Malarone?
Me: I talked to someone earlier about whether you have Malarone, it’s an anti-malarial daily pill
Them: We don’t have.

Now is the part where you hear the dial tone because they hung up.

Exciting, isn’t it?

But once you’ve found the drug you’re looking for you’ll have no problem actually getting your hands on it.

Indian pharmacy's array of medicines

I finally found a pharmacy that confirmed the existence of Malarone. I walked in and was greeted by a small woman in a lab coat over a yellow salwar kameez.

“How can I help you ma’am?”
“Hi. I called earlier about Malarone –“
“Ah yes,” she said as she turned to go looking for it. I looked at the prescription sitting neatly in my hand, waiting to be passed over. She hadn’t asked for anything. Here I was apparently not a criminal for wanting extra Malarone – on the contrary, it seems I could’ve asked for a multiple-month supply without giving any reason at all.

I stood waiting and eavesdropped on the conversation taking place next to me, between a gangly pharmacist and an older gentleman peering up at him from round spectacles.

“It’s an imported medicine,” the older man was saying,
“Ah, do you know if it’s legally imported? Because we might have it either way, but if it’s legally imported then we’re more likely to be able to get it in,” the pharmacist replied earnestly.

I turned away – I didn’t want them to see that I was listening. But soon my pharmacist came back.

“How much do you want?” she asked.

I took a three-month supply. Why not?  I’ll never know whether the older gentleman got his medicine – legally or illegally imported – but I suppose, like me, he can get whatever he wants. Just perhaps not over the phone.

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I am starting to feel some pressure to beef up my Hindi.  After all, if a person tells you that your language skills give them a sense of national pride, you need to try as hard as possible.

This all started with a trip to purchase a phone – Nisha’s phone broke so we went on an expedition for a new one.

While we’re out, Nisha and I have gotten into the habit of prodding each other – I’ll make her read signs and she’ll make me repeat numbers back to her in Hindi.  I’ve needed the extra help with the numbers, because learning them in practice is tricky – even if you can say them all fast in a row, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can remember a specific number off the bat (I.e. you might count to ten in succession, but do you remember which one means eight?).

This has proven even harder for large numbers. If something cost 1,260 rupees, you have to remember how to say one, a thousand, two, a hundred AND sixty. It looks like one number on the page when in reality you’re remembering five numbers and putting them together.

The reason I used this number as an example is because when we got to the phone store, we were told that the basic phone cost 1,260 rupees. And as the store clerk announced this, I chirped back at him “Ek hazaar doe saw sarth” (or 1,260 in Hindi). I looked to Nisha, as I always do, to make sure this was right. But once I saw her nod I turned around and noticed that every one of the seven people helping us was staring at me in amusement.

“You know Hindi?” one of them said.
“Tora, tora Hindi boltay,” I said, (roughly translates to “I speak little, little Hindi”). They clapped their hands with delight.

“Where did you learn Hindi?”  I nodded towards Nisha but their curiosity wasn’t satisfied, “Why you learn Hindi? Where are you from?”

“Well,” I started, “I’m from America. And I only know very very little Hindi. But I’m learning it because I think it’s important to know the basics while I’m living in India.”

They all looked at each other and nodded. One man who had been silent up until that point suddenly came to the front of the counter and looked me dead in the eyes.

“You have no idea what this is to us,” he said. “If people like you want to come here and speak in our language it means something great for India.”

“We are very happy to hear you speaking Hindi,” another man said. “Yes,” another concurred, “It gives national pride.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to this. My basic Hindi gives these people national pride? That I can recite numbers (extremely slowly) in Hindi? How could I possibly believe that?

The many helping hands in the phone store- new phones and new sims

Here I was, surrounded by more than half a dozen young Indian men who spoke perfect English and yet they wanted to praise me for the rudimentary Hindi words I had picked up.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t learned very much yet, but they would hear none of it. They spoke in quick Hindi to Nisha trying to find out more information about me.

I wasn’t going to protest. After all, this was why I’d wanted to learn Hindi, right? I wanted to be politically correct and culturally sensitive and all of that. But it’s one thing to think that you should try hard to respect the culture you’ve moved into; It’s quite another to have someone tell you that it’s meaningful to them that you’re trying.  It made me feel like I should be trying harder.

And this certainly wasn’t the first time my terrible Hindi has received a shocked reception. Everywhere I go – at bars, in rickshaws, at markets and now at the phone store – most Indians seem bemused that I’m at least trying to speak their language.  No one expects white people to try at all (since English is the co-national language here), so even the basics in Hindi are congratulated.

And I’m sure that for most people, half the fun is in watching this foreign person struggle with a bad accent at their language. But every time my bad Hindi makes someone laugh, or whenever they ask me to repeat my words again for their friends, I’m getting the sense that it’s the most crucial way for me to adapt. It’s an immediate signal that I’m trying, ever so slowly, to fit into Indian culture instead of trying to make it adapt to me. And that seems to be appreciated.

As we left the store I waved and said, “Muje apsay milnee acha laga”.
“It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am!” they replied, before talking animatedly amongst themselves while continuously looking back at Nisha and me as we walked away

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It’s hard to face a birthday in a foreign country where you have few friends and most of your loved ones are thousands of miles (and many hours time difference) away from you.

It’s even harder when you wake up with a severe cold.

I’ve been really lucky since I’ve been here. Other than one night of feeling a bit off, I have not been ‘India’ sick at all (aka food poisoning). All the horror stories of inevitable sickness in the first few weeks had scared me into being very careful – and so far (knock on wood) it’s paid off.

But the monsoon also attracts another, more basic, illness: the common cold. It’s been going around like wildfire here. Friends have had it. Nisha had it. Then Daniel had it. I was doomed to get it. No amount of safe drinking water and properly cooked food could help me avoid the sickness lingering in the air.

I just really didn’t want it on this day.

I’m usually pretty into birthdays (anyone who knows me is laughing at this point, since this is an understatement). I love anyone’s birthday – who can say no to celebrations, cake and giving/receiving fun gifts and cards? But I’d been thinking that this year I would avoid my birthday a bit – how could I celebrate when most of the people I love are far away? I guess my low-key birthday plan had evolved, unbeknownst to me, to include the extra joy of a fever and cold.

When I woke up, it was still the previous day in the US – so no messages were waiting and I couldn’t expect any phone calls for a few hours. Instead I took my temperature – 99.8. I took some Tylenol Cold to try and get back to normal and then I opened some birthday cards my parents and a friend had sent. I figured that would make me feel better, and it did for a moment (they were hilarious). But when I picked up the phone to call and thank everyone, I realized I couldn’t. It was too late on the east coast.

I groggily sat up with my headache pounding. So this was it, huh? Daniel was at work (to be fair, he had arranged for me to get a massage in the afternoon and had planned a great dinner, so Daniel gets bonus birthday points) so I was just in my house alone with a minor fever, a major cough and some birthday cards from people too far away to share the joy with. I must have looked pretty pathetic.

And it figured – the previous day Nisha had explained that my birthday was cursed anyway. To Mumbaikers, July 26 is a very bad day. On July 26 2005 Mumbai saw some if it’s heaviest flooding ever – over a thousand people died, countless lost homes and many people were without power and transportation for days or even weeks.

Nisha explained, “When you say ’26 July’ to someone, it is understood you’re talking about that very bad day. I personally couldn’t get home for 3 days. When I finally made it back, my whole house was flooded and all our gas cylinders were burst”

So who was I to complain about anything mildly bad that happened to me on the 26th of July?

I was determined to turn my day around – a cold was no reason to let the day get ruined. And then, as if right on cue, Nisha came in the door with a huge bag.

Birthday flowers in a bundle!

“What is that?” I asked.
“Birthday present!” she said, pulling out a dozen pink roses. But then there were more. Like multi-colored performers jumping out of a clown car, she pulled one bouquet after another out of the bag until the whole counter was covered.

“You didn’t have to do this!” I said, shocked at the amount of flowers taking over my apartment. I had never received so many flowers in one moment in all my life.

“Oh, I got a good deal,” she shrugged, “And my sons told me I wasn’t buying enough! I figured this would work though.”

I smiled. It definitely would work. It brightened my whole morning. It shook me out of my silly funk and reminded me that I was here, in India. I had chosen to come here; I had known I would be far away. And I was trading the comforts of home for one year so that I could have new experiences and meet new people.

flowers in vases

And I was reminded of that again as Daniel and I were coming back from dinner – I had spent most of the day trying to ignore my sickness, enjoy my flowers and enjoy a day of relaxing. I’d dressed up to go out to dinner so that even if I felt gross on the inside I could fake it ’till I made it on the outside. However, I was tired, and the day had been my first real cold reminder of how far away I was from my regular life.

My amaaazing birthday cake

But, as that thought was sinking in, I got a phone call – two of my new friends here had baked me a cake and wanted to know if I was well enough for them to bring it over. I said of course (sickness never trumps cake).

I soon answered the door and was handed an incredible vanilla cake with a pear/mango/deliciousness filling. I made some lemongrass tea and we sat around and talked for a few hours. I didn’t feel sick and I certainly didn’t feel alone.

I’d made it past my first real day of feeling actual-sick and homesick, and I’d made it past pretty well. This July 26th wasn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think it’ll be a very good year.

P.S. If that cake looks good to you (and it should, because it was awesome) the recipe for it will be posted tomorrow on http://bobosbakery.wordpress.com. Not only do I have a new friend who bakes, she also shares her recipes. How great is that?

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I had watched carefully as the carpenter measured out the space for our bookshelves. He was a small man – no taller than five feet – but he had no trouble imagining our bookshelves as six feet high.

I showed him some images on my computer of bookshelves and tv stands that I’d found online.  He nodded, talked to Nisha in Hindi a bit and we agreed he would come back in one week. I asked him how much it would be. He calculated out each item – two bookshelves, one tv stand, and one entry table with shelves.

“Six thousand?” he said.  This was less than $130 for four pieces of custom made furniture.  I still couldn’t get over it- I keep getting shocked by the low cost of anything custom-made.

Our new bookshelves

Of course, he worked on Indian time and the bookshelves actually took two weeks to make. And he tried to apply a ‘gora tax’, attemping to raise the price to 8,000 rupees for no particular reason (we still paid him 6,000).  But now, here they are — our bookshelves and tv stand made to the exact dimension of our space.

Yet while I marvel over my new bookshelves, I’m starting to realize that my love of all things ‘custom-made’ sets me apart from everyone else around me.  Indians themselves place no premium on an item being custom-made. It’s a clear-cut case of ‘the grass is always greener’. Western people love custom-made items because they are exclusive – it implies that your item is special and probably more expensive. Indians, though, can have anything custom made. What they love is an imported item, or a well known brand (I’m going to pause here and say that I know this is a gross generalization. But it’s what I have observed for the most part).

I had initially found it interesting that most Indians suggested furniture stores for our bookshelves instead of using a carpenter.  Every single suggested store carried expensive imported furniture. All we wanted was something cheap, since we’re only here for a year. But no one could fathom that we would rather have something custom made, even if it was cheaper. Nisha finally put us in touch with the carpenter she knew, but it was only after we’d driven around to various furniture stores.

And this attitude pervades into other items as well. When Daniel asked around his office about getting suits made, most people were shocked. Why would he want a custom made suit when he is from New York and can go to Bloomingdales or Macys? Why wouldn’t he want the brand? It was a shocking response to Americans who wish they could have a suit custom made to their exact measurements.

It’s also the same for women’s clothes. Expats run around looking for a great tailor to copy designs they see in magazines. Locals like to go to the chic Indian designer boutiques or the overpriced Western clothes in malls (although they will all get each item fixed by their tailor eventually).

It makes sense – you always want what you can’t have (or what other people can’t have). In my case, I’m just glad we’ve got our bookshelves. They may not be imported, but they surely fit right into our space.

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If you’re ever hoping to sound stupid in front of an Indian person, try explaining Halloween.

It’s easy to forget that some of the most ingrained elements of American or Western life have no corollary here.  Most basics like food and clothing can be compared to Indian food or clothing. But some concepts just don’t translate.

On this occasion, it all started with my pirate peeler.

My pirate peeler with its 'pumpkin' peels

My pirate peeler is one of  my favorite possessions – it’s a basic peeler painted to look like a pirate. Nisha used it to peel pumpkin (or what she called pumpkin – it looked to me like a long green squash, but who am I to argue) and thought it was very funny.

“What is this supposed to be?” she asked.
“It’s a pirate!” I replied, not realizing how dumb I probably sounded.
“What?”
“You know? Pirates? Did you ever see Pirates of the Caribbean?” I lamely exclaimed, hoping that those movies had perhaps made their way here.

“Yeah, I know,” she nodded.

“Well, at University my roommates and I liked pirates and we dressed up like pirates for Halloween and so for Christmas one year one of them got me the pirate peeler.”

Nisha stared at me like I was speaking gibberish. And to her, I was. Here I was telling her that I dressed like a pirate while supposedly studying at University.

“I assume there’s no Halloween here?” I said.  Nisha looked at me blankly. Then I started digging the hole:

“Well, it’s this holiday. I think it originally came from a holiday called All Hallows Eve where spirits and ghosts could come out. Then somehow… it became a holiday where children dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for candy.”

“Why candy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it religious?”
“No.”
“What kind of costumes?”

I was starting to feel like the whole thing sounded ridiculous to someone who had never seen it. And it is a little ridiculous. But it’s an accepted part of our lives so I’ve never questioned it.

Culture is a funny thing – to most of the world, unique traditions probably can look incredibly stupid.  Many evolve over time to the point where they’re impossible to rationally explain. Why DO we give candy and dress up on Halloween? Why is the birth of Jesus celebrated most often with presents and Santa?  Why do most Americans (of Irish-descent or not) take St Patricks day as an excuse to wear green and drink?

I’m sure there are reasons – but the average person couldn’t explain why. We just go along with it because its something we’ve always done and its fun.

But, right as I was feeling like I could never explain Halloween, I was reminded that ridiculous cultural traditions may each be unique- but everyone has them.

“My favorite festival in Mumbai is Ganesh Chaturthi,” Nisha said. “All the Hindus take statues of Ganesh and bring them into the sea. That probably is as crazy as Halloween.”

And just like that, I didn’t need to explain myself.

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When I asked our new driver where we could buy cheap plants for the apartment, I wasn’t expecting the place we ended up.

We drove into Santacruz, a few miles north of Bandra. Once off the highway and down a long road, we started slowing down.

“Ok, here ma’am,” the driver said.

The side of the road plant market

The houses behind the plant market

I looked out my window as he pulled over and stopped. I hadn’t noticed as we’d been driving, but the entire roadside was lined with plants. Plants up and down as far as the eye could see – trees, bushes, flowering plants, everything . And behind the rows and rows of flowers and trees were small slum houses. It was a jarring sight – colorful luscious plants hiding the homes of the people selling them. And the many sellers were out, watching us emerge from the car.

We immediately got a sales pitch: “What you looking for? What you want? I have good plants, very good trees. Or flower you like? This one tree is 300 rupee,” one seller said, pointing at a large tree.

“Teen-saw rupiya? Neh, neh” I replied, indicating that 300 rupees was too much. In reality 300 rupees is only $6 and change. It’s hard to see a five-foot tall tree for the price of a large ice cream in New York as a bad deal. But you can’t think like that here – if you constantly convert in your head you’ll allow yourself to be overcharged over and over again. You have to bargain for what is fair.

As it’s been with most locals, the seller found even my very very limited Hindi quite surprising. No one expects me to know anything, so the most basic phrases and numbers get me far. I kept walking, with the hopes of now being taken more seriously.

For shopping, this tactic has generally been working for me now that I’ve learned the basic numbers. And once I’ve confused people with my little bits of Hindi, I use a foolproof phrase that makes them like me as well (or at least gets them to laugh at me enough to like me a little bit more than they would normally). I had realized the power of this phrase a few days previously while negotiating with a man selling me bananas.

“Kitna huah?” I’d asked (How much?).
“40 rupees ma’am”
“Chalees rupiya?” He looked at me, surprised that I knew the word in Hindi for 40.
“Yes,” he laughed, “Chalees rupiya. That is the price.”
“Neh, neh.” I said, knowing full well that a dozen bananas should be closer to 20 or 30 rupees. But I knew my white face was stopping him from treating me fairly.

“Kyoo gora tax?” I asked

The banana seller laughed. I had asked him why he gave me a white person tax. He found this very amusing and immediately changed the price. With some price knowledge attached to a bit of humor I could at least escape some of price gauging that came with my race.

So I asked the flower seller the same thing: “Kyoo gora tax?”

Nisha started laughing immediately while the seller just looked at me. He started chuckling, clearly amused. He walked over to his fellow sellers and began to talk animatedly. He was telling them what I said and they all were looking over and smiling. I’d won them over – I was willing to make fun of myself and so now we could begin to bargain with real prices.

potting the plants

We picked out one large tree and four medium flowering plants. After my cajoling and Nisha’s instance, all the plants together were priced at a more realistic 345 rupees. The young boys who’d been watching the negotiations intently were now instructed to begin potting the plants. They sat down on the wet ground, dug up mud, tenderly picked away old dirt from the roots, and placed my new plants in their containers.

I’m not used to slums yet. It’s still hard for me to negotiate with a man when I can see that his house is barely standing and that he has no toilet or running water. But for this time at least I felt like everyone had gotten a fair shake – and perhaps a little amusement.

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Crow-cophony

I know this is going to make me sound like a crazy bird lady, but the crows outside my windows drive me nuts.

Mumbai has all sorts of creatures roaming around (I would like to be politically correct and say this is mostly due to the tropical climate, but in all honesty the plethora of animals may also stick around because of the trash layer that permeates a majority of the city). There are lizards of every shape and size crawling outside our walls and occasionally inside. We saw a rat the size of Phoebe on our porch the other night. Cows live on the streets. On our block alone at least ten street dogs have claimed the territory.

My new favorite toy AKA the mosquito racket

And the mosquitoes are so ubiquitous that we had to buy ‘mosquito rackets’ — electric tennis rackets that kill bugs on impact (When I say ‘we had to buy’ I really mean ‘I thought it would be fun’).

I don’t mind most of these things. Nisha is scared to death of lizards, but Daniel and I are ok with just sweeping them away. The rat so far seems to be a one-time thing that only came out due to heavy monsooning. The dogs leave you alone and the cows are normally tied up. And the mosquitoes now offer a chance to watch uncoordinated people try to chase a fast-moving insect around an apartment with a racket (i.e., me).

But the crows are inescapable. They’re inescapable and — dare I say it — a little bit psycho? When I first got here I thought they were like bigger and more tropical looking pigeons. But I was wrong.

Crows are everywhere

The insanity starts every morning as the sun comes up. They fly around, sit on telephone wires and chatter about their mornings. As the day continues they migrate to the rails of my porch. They sit, molt, do their business and look at me as though thinking, “What are you going to do about it?”

But recently, the crazy crows got even weirder. When the monsoon is imminent it would seem normal for animals to act a bit off. But for these crazy birds, ‘off’ is an understatement. The other day heavy rain was on the horizon. So the birds decided to have an angry convention on my terrace. They flew in droves in circles above my head. They didn’t stop – they just circled and circled with a madcap intensity. Dozens gathered to sway on the telephone wires and watch the circling. And the noise was deafening. You would have thought the end of the world was coming (If you need evidence, I’ve embedded a video to give you an idea). I have no idea what started it, but only the torrential downpour of the monsoon could (literally) drown them out.

But it never stops for long. Even as I sit here writing, the birds are crowing. They’re saying goodnight as the sun goes down. I usually get a bit of peace and quiet until morning. Yet even as I write about how obtrusive they are I can’t help smiling – they’re insane and impossible, but even when I want to complain about them they’ve become such a part of my surroundings that I can’t help but feel a bit protective. They’re lunatics, but they’re the lunatics who reside on my porch.

Only a crazy bird lady would say that.

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