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Archive for October, 2010

The Small Victories

I have looked bureaucracy in the face and I have emerged victorious.

You might think that dealing with your local Department of Motor Vehicles is difficult- imagine trying to negotiate from 8,000 miles away.

The core of this particular story actually began an entire year ago – and the length of time it took to fix really took on a time-line worthy of its Indian end.

It all started last November when I got a ticket for turning right on red while driving for work on Staten Island. I had thought that it was banned only in Manhattan. Apparently it is city-wide (take note drivers who move to New York!).

The details are a bit boring, but in essence: I tried to explain my confusion on the rule, because I was originally from another state and had only recently swapped my old license for a New York one. To my shock, the cop called me a liar (and used some choice expletives) and said I would have had to take a test to exchange my license -as such, I should’ve known the rule.

By the time he checked and realized he was wrong (ie: there was no test), his response was, “Sorry, I would have just given you a warning, but I already wrote the ticket.”

I certainly wasn’t going to pay a $200 ticket for something that the cop openly admitted deserved just a warning. I decided to plead Not Guilty – after all, who wouldn’t want to stick it to a rude, cursing cop?

I was soon given a court date – scheduled for five months later- but the week of the hearing I had to switch with someone at work, so I pushed it back again.

Then we decided to move to India. And the real fun began.

I called the New York State DMV and sat on hold for an hour. Finally I got through and explained that I needed to move up my court date before I moved to India.

“Ma’am, there is no earlier court date.”
“Well, what should I do then?”
“You can plead by mail if you no longer live in the state.”
“Great. Can you send me the form?”
“You have to have already moved for us to send you the form.”

Bureaucracy at its finest – I had to move my court date again to give myself sufficient time to actually move to India so I could prove to them I was moving so I could prove that I couldn’t show up for a court date that I would have gone to if they had moved up the date. Sensible?

So once we moved, I stayed up late one night for the appropriate time difference and tried calling. Every line was busy. For 4 days I tried getting through, every single night. Once I did get through it was never to the right person – no one seemed equipped to know how you plead Not Guilty by mail to a foreign country.

After about a week of frustrating phone calls, I finally spoke to someone who knew what they were doing and they agreed to send me a form.

Weeks later it arrived- banged up, but there it was: my chance to plead Not Guilty. I filled out the form, wrote a statement, and had it all signed by a Notary Public. Then I waited.

After two months of waiting I had started to wonder whether anything had been received. Would I look like a no-show at the court hearing? Would the DMV track me down in India and declare me a fugitive?

My victory

But my wondering was for naught: yesterday, victory was mine.

 

8,000 miles away. Countless hours on the phone. Months of pushed back court dates. But I had done it: I was found Not Guilty.

It’s an ironic victory in a country where people not only turn right on red, but speed through red lights as they see fit. A lot has changed in a year.

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Let’s Discuss

There’s been so much talk about Obama’s upcoming trip to India. For people here, it’s both exciting and a nuisance – the same person who will marvel: “Did you hear that he’s staying in India longer than any other country he’s visited?”, will turn around and scoff “Doesn’t he have enough cultural sensitivity to not come during Diwali? Did you hear no one can use fireworks?”. At any rate, it’s certainly a topic on everyone’s minds – and as an American I definitely hear all the opinions in the peanut gallery.

So when a friend asked me if I would be willing to sit on a panel about youth opinions on Indo-US relations, I agreed. After all: I had lived in Britain when George Bush was president. How much more hatred could I receive as an American than I had during that time? Wouldn’t it be fun to get back to the roots of my International Relations degree?

The panel was being held by Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai. As the time of the panel got closer I started to worry that maybe I’d agreed to something a bit larger than I had expected. I found out that the content of the panel’s discussion would be used to frame a paper on what the new generation of Indian and US professionals feel should be discussed by Prime Minister Singh and President Obama. The paper would then be presented to the US Consul General to pass along to President Obama. No pressure there.

Then in the run up to the panel the Times of India ran a promotional piece. I just hoped that I wouldn’t make our American side look completely inferior.

The panel

But the day arrived and the discussion got underway. We had three Americans, including myself, and three Indians. The discussion was moderated by the head of the American School here. The questions ranged from nuclear relations to climate change to education to the UN. I tried to keep in mind advice Daniel had given me the night before: “no one likes the person on the panel who talks too much. Just say something when you know what you’re talking about and keep it brief.”

 

And overall, I actually think it all went pretty well – by the time the audience question time had arrived they were all raring to jump in and ask us our opinions and the dialogue felt real and genuine. I think everyone on the panel had gotten over their initial nerves and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to speak about the issues facing the US and India.

And who knows- maybe the paper will make it into some important hands. Or not – either way, I at least enjoyed a chance to be part of the dialogue in a small way.

(Also: If anyone is interested, Gateway house has posted portions of the discussion online (I’ve included Part 1 below)).

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I know I’ve been having some technical difficulties here of late, but I didn’t expect for the actual sky to fall down.

Early Sunday morning, as I was just starting to wake up with my first cup of tea in my pajamas, I got a knock on my door from one of our downstairs neighbors.

“Do you mind coming to look at something? I’m really sorry to bother you,” she said, tentatively. I didn’t know what could be so important that early, but I said yes and started walking down the stairs with her.

“I just thought you should see this,” she said. I was now really curious. We walked into the apartment and I gasped- all of the plaster from the ceiling in their bedroom had fallen down. The light fixture was hanging by a cord, dangling precariously. I could see every beam and it was clear that the damage had come from some water damage above. Her boyfriend was talking angrily in Hindi to a construction worker who was assessing the damage. I realized we were standing right below our terrace.

“When did this happen?” I asked. I didn’t want to ask how it happened, since I was pretty sure it was coming from somewhere in our apartment.

She explained that the night before she and her boyfriend had heard a crash while they had guests over- luckily they had been in the living room. They came into the room and saw the damage. They had called their landlord who obviously had contacted the builder of the building.

We decided to go up to the terrace and try to figure out where it was all coming from. It became pretty obvious once we saw that the space where rain water was supposed to drain was directly above the area where the ceiling had collapsed.

The builder’s ‘man’ arrived and tried to smooth-talk us all. Oh, it will only take a few days to fix. Oh, it’s not a big deal. Oh, this is pretty standard.

We insisted on getting their time-line in writing. Suddenly they weren’t such smooth talkers. Eventually we got them to agree to a timetable in writing and we concluded that they would start working on Tuesday.

It’s sometimes a scary thing in India when you consider the lax building codes and standards. Another friend of ours also had her ceiling collapse a few weeks ago – and hers included beams and everything, so I guess we got lucky. In the US we take for granted the stringent standards and building codes – it would make news if a part of a building collapsed. But here, it’s not really something anyone would bat an eye at. Now I know this post has probably scared my mother so I’m going to say this: the areas of the ceiling that collpased were cosmetic and fell because they were damaged by water. All the structure and beams were thankfully intact and show no signs of wear! But its still a bit jarring to see everyone so blase about something that could have potentially been dangerous.

And I felt really bad for our neighbors – they were getting the ceiling of their other room checked out a well, which would mean a hole carved in their second bedroom’s ceiling. They had no full roof to sleep under! After everyone left, Daniel offered our neighbors some beer – I thought we might as well enjoy the terrace if it was wreaking so much havoc. They agreed and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon enjoying some beer, then lunch, then a cup of tea all a few feet from the drainage that had made their sky fall in. It was a lemonade from lemons moment – we all might have to deal with a lot of builders over the next few weeks, but at least we got to know the people who live in such close proximity.

We’ll see whether the builders show up tomorrow.

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Among my many grievances about India’s (lack of) addresses, it has always struck me as particularly bizarre that rickshaw drivers won’t know basic street names but can accurately point out the home of every Bollywood star.

Instead of saying, “I need to go to Bandstand”, you can just say “Shahrukh Khan’s house.”

It’s uncanny – If you get into a rickshaw armed only with a street name, you’ll never get where you’re going; but if you’re going somewhere near a Bollywood star’s home, you’re sure to find your way.

It’s especially true in my little suburb of Bandra. In recent years it has become well known as a Bollywood stomping ground and every day there’s some new story about someone moving out here. It reminds me of how whenever any movie star moves out to Brooklyn there suddenly becomes a lot of press about how Brooklyn is the new hip place to live – even though it’s clearly nothing new.

I mention all of this, because I have just discovered the root of the loud construction that began a few days ago- and while inconvenient, it may prove to be useful when I’m trying to direct people to my building.

After her daily rounds of gossip with the doorman and other people who work in the building, Nisha was very excited to inform me that a Bollywood ‘star’ and her athlete fiancé have purchased the entire fourth floor of our building (I’m not going to mention names since this blog is searchable and I don’t want to give out anyone’s home address…).

I, of course, being the silly white person that I am, had not heard of either of the people in question, but Nisha’s level of interest seemed to indicate that it was a big deal. She quickly rattled off all the movies the woman had starred in. So who was I to argue with that?

On the other hand, when I mentioned it to a friend here, he felt the fiancé was actually the bigger celebrity and that the starlet was “a-list; not A-list.” So who knows? Either way, it can’t hurt in a building that no one can ever find.

And if you’re really curious about who the couple is: don’t worry, I’m sure the rickshaw drivers will be able to tell you soon enough.

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One of my favorite – and simultaneously least favorite – elements of living in India is that I’m constantly being forced out of my comfort zone. And after living here a while my comfort zone now includes dirt and poverty and sweat and chaos. But yes, even after getting used to the glaring differences between the US and Mumbai there’s still a plethora of minor divergences that challenge me to let them get in the way – or conquer them and feel victorious.

I mention this because, as I wrote about previously, I agreed to do some video work for a group of non-profits and educators who were holding a conference on innovation, called InspirED. Unlike some of the other projects I’ve agreed to, this one seemed easy: I had a budget, they were overseen by great organizations, we eventually had top-notch equipment donated and, frankly, they were inside a real building (not something I ever would have considered a factor before moving here).

Of course the ‘what could go wrong’ attitude probably doomed me from the start.

After months of planning for and shooting in schools, my emergency trip home was needed right as the conference was happening. I missed the whole thing.

I tried to mitigate the circumstances by writing a long email to the people who were going to take over filming that detailed what every camera should be doing at every moment.

But when I got back, the challenges stood in front of me like a solid brick wall: the film school that had donated the equipment couldn’t figure out how to get the tapes onto a hard drive into a format that was readable. After a month of back and forth, once I got the material I realized that 90% of what I had asked to be filmed wasn’t. I had wanted to do multiple videos, one especially that followed some of the teachers I had interviewed before the conference. But they hadn’t been interviewed. The only interviews anyone had done were a series of two minute “how did you like the conference” interviews.

Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.

To make matters more complex, practically everyone in India uses Final Cut Pro (the Mac editing software). I was only used to Avid – but there wasn’t one to be found here (it’s MUCH more expensive than Final Cut). This was the ultimate wrenching from my comfort zone. On an Avid I could edit the video together in a second. In Final Cut, I’d barely know where to find my video. However, for this project and almost all future ones I’ll have to use Final Cut, so I knew I’d have to suck it up and learn it.

But this was the hand I had been dealt. It was such an India-type problem: you don’t have exactly what you want, everything’s a little broken, but we’re going to pull it all together anyway.

I wrote a script around the interviews that we had. When I got to Film City to edit, I had a 10-minute crash tutorial in the differences between Final Cut and Avid. I got to work.

It was slow goings at first. The computer shortcuts I knew in my sleep were no longer guiding me. Every few minutes I’d come on a problem that my short tutorial hadn’t covered and I’d have to test out a few theories or go to the help manual.

But eventually, I got the hang of it. It wasn’t so different to Avid once you learned the keyboard differences. And even though it took six hours to make a three-minute video (very slow for me), I did it. I did it.

I felt like jumping for joy when my draft was finished. It looked good. I had done it in Final Cut. I had a legitimate draft that I could send out.

I’ll have to get comments and go back and finish up the editing. But it was a moment of victory in a world where nothing is ever as easy as you expect. I’m used to working in a realm of professional equipment, with people to guide me and someone there to fix any malfunction or difficulty. But here, when you do figure it out on your own, you get the feeling you can do anything. This was not my comfort zone. But man, am I glad I was pushed out of it.

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I’ve been here long enough that I take a lot of India’s quirkiness for granted at this point. I hate that I’ve become a bit used to some of the things that used to wow me. But it was nothing that a horse-drawn amphibious carriage couldn’t fix.

Daniel’s week had consisted of bouncing from one city across India to the next for work without getting much sleep. Mine had continued to go downhill: Bank of America forgot I lived in India and shut off my card; my internet stopped working again; my driver and housekeeper decided they hated each other for a little while and wanted to yell about it (long story…). So on Friday Daniel announced that we both needed some time to ourselves to just relax. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We decided to go to Alibaug, which is a beach town about two and a half hours outside of Mumbai. I loved driving out – its calming to watch as the crazy dirty chaos of Mumbai turns into quiet high-rises and then morphs into craggy hills, as though one of the world’s major cities wasn’t just a stones throw away. We got to the hotel and spent the first day just zoning out- reading, eating and sitting were the main criteria.

But for the second day in Alibaug we wanted to experience the beach and the Kolaba fort, an 18th century fort on an island about a kilometer from the beach. It was a gray and misty day but, as always, it was still plenty hot. And as we walked up towards the pier, I noticed there was something a little different about this particular beach.

Alibaug Beach with Kolaba Fort in the distance

The tide was out so far that half of the beach was just wet sand. The fort stood in the distance with water surrounding it, but we watched as people waded their way up to it. The water was so low that all you needed to do was hike your pants up and start walking for about half an hour from the beach and you’d reach it – no swimming required

But there was an even more curious spectacle to take in as we got to the beach’s edge. Strangely rigged horse-drawn carriages were at the ready to take tourists across the shallow shores. Instead of regular wheels they had the kinds you would normally see on a dune buggy. They were equipped for sand, water and the weight of whatever number of people wanted to cram into their chariot.

We came up to one and asked the driver how much. “Teen-saw”, he responded. 300 rupees, or a little less than $7. This was not going to be like the $50 carriages in Central Park. I still had to haggle, just to save myself a little respect.

The view from our horse

“Doe-saw?” I replied (200). The man nodded and waved us in. I realized that while our carriage ride was going to be less than $5, based on his easy acceptance of my offer, I probably was overpaying by at least half.

With that, we trotted off. It seemed like we were in some weird dream sequence. We looked out onto gray skies and black sand on our way to an eroding imposing structure in the distance – I felt like a character in a fairy tale. The horse hit the water and kept going. The carriage – all wood and metal, with paint flaking off every plank – teetered and tottered but we got there eventually. Our transport waited and we went for a stroll around the abandoned fort.

Kolaba Fort

Daniel commented that it was easy to imagine this place as it must have been. It was true – there weren’t a lot of people around and perhaps it was the clouds that darkened everything but it seemed like we were in some sort of abandoned piece of history.

Daniel and our chariot

We made our way back and I watched as ‘land’ started coming closer and closer. Our horses decided to make a sprint for it at the end. The whole thing was fun and weird all at the same time. And it had cost us around $4.50. Only in India. I’m glad we got away to be reminded that there’s so much more we can continue to be amazed by.

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Break Time

I finally got what everyone said I was in for. After four months of defending and deflecting and rolling my eyes assuming that others were just weak, I got my comeuppance.

Yes, I have finally had my India breakdown.

I had heard from everyone that within a few weeks of living in India, I would have a nervous breakdown of some kind. I would get sick, and then things would take too long, and then people would cheat me, and then everything would break and suddenly I would just be consumed with a hatred for my new home. But it didn’t happen. I loved living in India and I found it rather humorous that other people had succumbed to their frustrations. It just takes a bit of patience, I always thought to myself.

I admit that we have had it pretty easy compared to most people who move here. Delayed shipments and apartment move-in dates can cause panic – ours were only delayed a week. Unsavory drivers or housekeepers can lead to multiple firings before finding someone reliable – we had no such experience. And every little thing (furniture, household items, internet, plumbing, electric work) takes longer and is harder than you ever imagined; but somehow we were able to get everything with always only a little headache.

So I guess in a country of Hindus, I was bound to get hit by karma eventually. After spending so much time assuming that I was just really good at handling everything India threw my way and keeping calm, I was in for it.

And it was the perfect storm.

Our internet, newly installed after months of agony, once again stopped working. The clutch on our car inexplicably broke, so we couldn’t drive anywhere. One last monsoon shower decided to grace us with its presence after weeks of retreat, and all the cushions on our outdoor furniture got soaked to the bone. A transcription service I was using for one of my video projects informed me that they just don’t do time codes (trust me, I know most of you won’t understand why, but this is incredibly frustrating). Five of our newly installed light bulbs decided to burst.

And now, this morning, there is some unannounced construction on our building and the pounding sounds are inescapable.

So, I broke down. I admit it. I curled up into a ball and just gave up for a little bit. And once you give up, everything you miss suddenly comes pouring out. I want milk that does not come from a box. I want people to not stare at me when I walk down the street just because I’m white. I want to drink a Starbucks chai (I know that one is ironic). I want easy public transportation. I want to not have to haggle over the smallest items. I want the time difference to not impede my relationships with friends and family.

I just let myself break down until I felt good and sorry for myself. It was a bit pathetic, but I needed it. I needed to just allow myself to be frustrated with India.

And after a little while, I got out of my ball. I stood up and made myself stop whining and I went back to attempting to be strong and patient and calm.

But I felt better. I guess I needed to admit to myself that its ok to sometimes be that Western person who gets frustrated being that fish out of water.

I am not from here. It’s a difficult place to live if you’re not accustomed to it. But I moved to India 115 days ago and for almost every one of those days I have loved being here.

So it’s ok to have not loved it today.

(*Note – I had 7 hours from when I wrote this until my internet started working again. And by now I’m ready to love India all over again – until I allow myself to be frustrated the next time)

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