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Posts Tagged ‘bandra’

The Simple Things

It’s always the simple things in life that you take for granted. And luckily (or unluckily) for me, I get a constant reminder of that in my day-to-day life here.

A few days ago I found myself in need of labels. Nothing fancy, just a few names and addresses printed out on sticky labels to then put onto some envelopes.

In my previous life this would be a simple task – either I would print them out at my office or I could pop over to Kinkos and have it done in five minutes. This, clearly, was not in the cards for me with these labels.

I started by asking Daniel. That should have solved it – he has an assistant and everything! But, lo and behold, Daniel’s Indian assistant has actually been outsourced to Chennai and therefore couldn’t print anything personal for him. The world is indeed a strange place.

So I began calling printing companies. My conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Hello, I’m calling because I want to print out some labels. Can you do that?
Them: Hold on

(wait for ten minutes and then a new person arrives)

Them: Hello? Why you calling?
Me: I want to print labels.
Them: What?
Me: Labels
Them: What is label?
Me: A sticky thing with an address printed on it.
Them: Called a what?
Me: A label.
Them:What is a label?
Me: Like I said, it’s a sticky piece of paper with an address printed on it.
Them: Who are you?
Me: My name is Ali
Them: Where you calling from?
Me: Bandra
Them: Why you are calling?
Me: Again, I’m calling about labels. LABELS
Them: Hold on

You then wait another ten minutes, have the same conversation again with a different person (who is equally confused by the concept of labels) until finally someone says:

Them: We don’t do
Me: Is there anyone you know of who can?
Them: Yes, call this number

Of course, the cycle then continues because the next person I called did the same thing, and the subsequent ten places all were equally as non-committal on the subject of labels. Finally I was put in touch with a man named Mr. Desai who said I should just come to his office.

I went with a friend of mine who was in town and we walked around a parking lot and pile of trash with goats surrounding it until we found Mr. Desai’s office.

A still-in-use printer

It was like we were transported back in time. The roof of the office consisted of sheets of metal with patches of light streaming through the various holes and cracks. The room was dark and dingy with floors so coated in dust our shoes made small footprints when we walked. Mr. Desai sat at a desk with piles of dusty old ledgers, like an Indian Ebeneezer Scrooge staring into his calculator. And in the corner stood a printer that looked closer to Johann Gutenberg’s era than Kinkos. It was absurd.

 

“You have emailed to me your file?” Mr Desai said slowly, unsure of his English.
“Yes,” I replied, indicating that I’d sent it to the email address he’d given me on the phone. But, of course, there was no computer in sight, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to be accomplished.
“Excellent. It will only be a minute. You sure you want it sticky?” he said, as though I might be confused by the concept of what I needed.
“Yes, it needs to be sticky,” I responded simply.
“Acha, Okay,” he said, and then went back to his ledgers.

We sat and waited. I was so grateful I had someone with me because as the minutes ticked on it seemed like we might be there for hours.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, a man walked in the store, triumphantly holding papers above his head. They weren’t quite labels, but they were addresses printed on paper that would stick, and that was all I needed.

They were labels, India-style.

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Sometimes words are not enough.

That’s how I feel about the last 24 hours – after all the excitement, all the buildup and all the anticipation India won the Cricket World Cup right here at home in Mumbai. The city exploded. Fans flooded into the streets. Cheers could be heard until the morning. Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan came out in his car and Bandra was suddenly an excitable mob scene.

The next day, we happened to walk into the Taj Hotel for tea and lo and behold – the entire cricket team was leaving. It was pure chaos – fans shrieked and shouted and pushed and shoved just for a chance to touch their team and their god, Sachin Tendulkar, holding the cricket world cup. And we got it all on video. Incredible.

What a case of the right place at the right time. The right city for the world’s biggest event of the moment. The right hotel to actually see the players. And only photos and videos to even begin to explain it. Go India!:

Shahruk Khan waving the flag

Waving flags on Carter road

People standing on a public bus

The ecstatic crowd at the Taj as the players left

Sachin Tendulkar with the actual World Cup

Daniel and I with our very own India shirts

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Post It

I’m not quite sure how I had managed to avoid the Indian Postal Service until today. I didn’t realize I was missing one of India’s greatest bureaucracies in action.

Normally when I have to mail a letter, Daniel can send it from work. But I wanted to mail some presents to friends in the UK and I figured it was a little more complicated so I should do it myself. Of course, I’m really a fool for assuming that something more complicated would be a better task to take on.

The difficult to identify Bandra Post Office

I arrived with my lovingly packed presents in hand. The presents themselves represented one of my favorite things about India: they were two unique hand-made gifts and I’d wrapped them in a beautiful hand-painted yellow wrapping paper made from recycled paper. But my I-Love-One-of-A-Kind-Amazing-Things-Made-In-India joy for my presents was soon mockingly destroyed by the fact that India’s own postal service wanted to crush my spirit.

 

I tentatively walked into the Post Office, or, more accurately, what looked like an abandoned building. Confused by the darkened hallway, I walked up to the only window I could find. Heavy wooden shutters were open onto a window with heavy wooden bars. The only large opening in these bars was well below my height (clearly, and understandably, made for small Indian women), so I ducked my head down and said hello. The representative looked back at me, amused. He seemed delighted by the fact that a gangly white person in a kurta had to be so uncomfortable to talk to him.

My new friend and his wooden bars

“I’m trying to mail two packages to the UK. I want to use the regular Indian Postal Service.”
“No Indian Postal Service now ma’am.”
“Why not?” I replied
“Ma’am, Postal Service only until 2pm”
“Oh, you mean it won’t go out until 2pm tomorrow?”
“No, we do not process after 2pm. You can only do Speed Mail now, but its ok because then you can track it. Look at the sign.”

The very useful sign

I looked over to my right at a large red sign that indeed had a whole listing of times for different services. Of course, you wouldn’t know these times unless you were standing in this particular post office. And, of course, it also made no sense. Why couldn’t they process their own mail system after 2pm? I decided to not ask these kinds of questions to a man sitting with a ledger instead of a computer. In fact, when I looked behind him stack upon stack of dusty old ledgers sat haphazardly as if they’d been there a lifetime.

“Hand me the packages, I’ll weigh them to determine the cost.”

I did this and he started opening and looking through them- and not in a gentle way that indicated his love for artisanal wrapping paper (I know, I’m lame), but in a way that one would normally handle trash.

He actually opened them...

“Oh… sir… I… those are wrapped. They’re presents!”
“So?”
“So…. You’re ripping the paper.”
“I just want to see what they are.”
“For customs?”
“No, I’m just interested. What ”

I stood there, dumbfounded. He looked up and me and saw that I wasn’t amused so, as a gesture, he started to tape it all back together. With packing tape. I gave up trying to salvage my paper.

“Ok,” I responded, “So how much is it to send two packages to the UK?”
“Well if you send separate it is 900 rupees for each. If you send together it is 1,000 rupees. It is based on weight, you see.”

I didn’t really see. It made no sense. But I made the executive decision to send them together (the packages are going to two friends anyway, so I figured they’d see each other). My new friend told me to go outside and deal with a guy who would help me with my customs form.

What could he possibly be making?

Baffled as to why this would take place outside, a new man gestured for me to come towards him on the sidewalk, so I just went with it. I tried to explain that I’d need bubble wrap or paper or something to keep everything from breaking. But he wasn’t’ really listening.

I started to stare intently at what he was doing – what was he doing? He had taken what looked like a piece of burlap and was sewing it with a large needle and a piece of string. I couldn’t make out what he was creating. So I just stood there, in the street, where homeless people were sleeping and one child was urinating while a man from the post office sewed something together that apparently was needed for international packages. No one else seemed to think this was weird. To them, I was what was weird.

Finally it came together – he was sewing a sack to put everything in. Was this intended as my bubble wrap or buffer?

Yes, my presents are inside

No, no it was not. This was my package. There’s no “International Mail Box” I was being given or even a padded envelope. I was required to send my packages via burlap-sack. Then handed me a customs form to fill out and I wrote in all the details and gave it back to him. He started sewing the customs form onto the parcel. I had to stifle a laugh. It was just too absurd. Really? Really? I’m standing on the street while a man sews a customs form onto my burlap parcel?

He handed it back to me and told me to go inside to pay. I went back to my original friend and gave him the package.

“It’ll be ok, right?” I said, hoping he might tell me about the greatness of ‘Speed Mail’.
“Ma’am, only God will tell.”

I guess in three to five business days I’ll know how the sack held up.

My customs form being sewn on

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I’d like to think that the name Pitlochry is difficult for almost anyone to say convincingly. It took me a good number of years living in Scotland before I could pronounce many of their town names.

So why is this the name of a building around the corner from me?

I know I’ve written before about the interesting trend of not having real addresses in India. It is true that I do not really have a street address- only a building name and a naive hope that friends and delivery-people alike can somehow locate my abode.

Our neighboring building

But the more hilarious (sad? preposterous?) part of this equation is that most of the building names are not easy for any Indian person to pronounce. My building is one of the more innocuous ones — La Paloma — and even that is difficult for most people.

The building next door to us is called Chez Nous. Imagine not knowing English or French and then trying to pronounce those letters together. Two of my neighbors who live in Chez Nous often describe their pronunciation to delivery-people as “Chez Noose” (with a hard C-H like chair and a full pronunciation of the Z). It’s all they can muster to get anyone to find them – otherwise their pizza will be carted around by a person looking for a building with the words ‘Shay Noo’.

C'est mo

Down the street from Chez Nous is another inexplicable french masterpiece: C’est Moi.  Do they think it adds a touch of elegance to the dilapidated exteriors to make their names unpronounceable but foreign? The funniest part of C’est Moi is that the I has fallen off the end of the sign – so if you lived in that building you’d probably have to describe your place as ‘Sest Moe’.

It would be funny if we weren’t already on the one-way street with no discernible landmark without a main road to turn off of. We live in a bizarre European hamlet that no one can find with buildings like Chez Nous, Suares and Rendezvous.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

Another aptly named building

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I started missing Western hospitals right around the moment that I was standing in a thin hospital gown with my face against an X-ray machine while a small man steadied my head so that my nose was touching the right spot on the panel.

This adventure had begun about an hour and a half earlier. My ‘birthday’ sickness hadn’t gone away, and a full week later I had started to wonder whether it was time to finally let a professional have a look. I’m usually a wait-and-see kind of person – if it sounds like a cold and feels like a cold, I usually assume it’s just a cold. But I’d had a low-grade fever every day for 8 days and my coughing was starting to scare small children, so I ventured out to a hospital.

We were lucky that a colleague of Daniel’s had recommended a doctor at Lilavati Hospital, one of the supposedly better hospitals here in Bandra.  We made an appointment for today (shocking) by talking to the actual doctor (also shocking) and we were on our way.

All my payment paperwork

Right off the bat we learned that the most interesting difference between an American hospital and an Indian hospital is that in India (or, at least, at Lilavati hospital) you pay up front.  There’s no “We’ll bill you later” and there’s certainly no chance to see the doctor and then pay.  You go to a desk, tell them what you’re there for, they give you a plastic card that’s wired with your information, and then ask for your credit card.  It’s also shocking that to see the doctor only costs about $17.

We waited for about half an hour. I sat and watched the crowd as everyone sat there patiently. There were men and women of all ages – some were dressed in modern clothes like button down shirts and jeans and others in full-length saris.  But the one commonality was that everyone turned their heads sharply to stare at me every time I coughed.

When we went in to see the doctor he went through the basic procedures – although the light to look at my throat was an actual flashlight. He had a desk that he sat in when he wasn’t examining me. There was nothing on the walls and no windows – it was an odd room to spend your entire day in with people coughing and sick all around you.

When he was done looking he immediately diagnosed me with a chest infection – the doctor said it’s been going around in the monsoon and he’s seen a lot of people with it. Apparently it mostly just manifests itself as the bad cough and cold I’d been experiencing. He assured me that some antibiotics should do the trick, but he also wanted me to get some blood drawn and take a chest x-ray just to be safe.

I had to go back to the front to pay for my new procedures before I could continue. It was 840 rupee combined for my x-ray and my blood tests (Divvied up that meant my blood test cost about $5 and each of my two x-rays would be about $6). I took my payment slips and walked over to the blood lab – it was in and out, very efficient. It certainly seemed like this private hospital had found a good system for getting everyone from one treatment to the next.

A jarring sign...

I went and waited for my x-ray. I sat next to a woman in a burqa on one side and an entire family surrounding one seemingly sick person on the other. It was two microcosms of India in one waiting area.

I looked around at the signs on the wall to occupy myself while I waited. One stuck out to me: “Determination of the Sex of the foetus is not permitted in this hospital. It is legally prohibited.” Apparently there’s been a problem with sex-selective abortions in India, and this is the only way to curb it. People told me later that it got to be such a huge problem here that they just outlawed allowing people to know. It’s signs and notices like that that sometimes jar me into remembering how stark the cultural differences can be here. While I was sitting around marveling at how modern and Western-seeming the hospital is, that sign was a poke in the arm telling me not to get too comfortable.

But as I was getting lost in that thought, the x-ray technician beckoned me in. I changed into a hospital gown and he led me over to the standing x-ray. He carefully pushed my face up against the machine, seeming very concerned that my nose press up against an X in the middle. When the x-rays had been taken he handed me over my very own copy. Apparently I’m as entitled to one here as my doctor.

I picked up my prescriptions and went home – the whole ordeal had taken less than 2 hours and cost me only a bit more than $30.

Many many medications

Of course the funniest part came when I realized quite how many prescriptions I’d been given. Maybe my new doctor believed in the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, or maybe he just wanted to be extra cautious with the white people, but I walked away as the proud new owner of a large stash of medications. He’d given me two separate antibiotics (why?), a pro-biotic prescription supplement, an anti-inflammatory normally reserved for ulcers, an antiseptic ‘germicide gargle’ (basically just iodine and alcohol with mint flavoring), and a cough suppressant with codeine.

At least he wasn’t taking any chances?  I decided to self-diagnose that I wouldn’t need both antibiotics and that the anti-inflammatory and codeine-ridden cough suppressant could be put aside.   I was going to get better and I was going to take my new Indian doctor’s advice, but I was still keeping a bit of my American sensibilities.

I’m still sort of proud that I haven’t gotten sick from food (knock on wood), and experienced the true ‘India’ sickness. But now I’ve at least been initiated into monsoon sickness and had my first dose of Indian health care – as well as my new ‘germicide gargle.’

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I have finally begun what I hope will be a long-term effort during my time here in Bombay.

Everyone has been asking me since I arrived: What are you hoping to do here? And the answer to that question ranges from vague to very specific. It’s either: “I’m hoping to take a step back from my hectic life and do something valuable.” or, the more honest and blunt, “I have no actual plan.”

I knew one thing: I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned over the last few years to be truly valuable somewhere in a way others couldn’t. The only question was, what on earth would that entail?

Luckily I was put in contact with a woman who certainly understood my vantage point. She is a former journalist who tired of the profession and started her own non-profit that aims to give underprivileged women a voice through the use of media and communications.  After listening to my story and hearing what I was hoping to do, she suggested a seemingly great solution: I could go to the various NGO’s her organization partnered with and document their stories. They could use it for their websites, or presentations or fund-raising — wherever it would be helpful.

We decided to start with an organization that works with domestic violence victims in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It’s hard for me to explain Dharavi in any knowledgeable context, since my first visit was very short and contained. But just the statistics alone can bring some perspective. It’s estimated that at least a million people live in Dharavi — an area that’s less than one square mile. Or, to use a National Geographic estimate, there’s 18,000 people living on every acre. Rents can be as low as $4 a month. And you won’t have trouble finding it – Dharavi is a 15-minute drive across the highway from Bandra. This prime real estate has led to some controversial re-development proposals in recent years (although none seem to be quite able to get off the ground, from what I have been told).  Most people in the West became familiar with Dharavi (even if they don’t know it) because the childhood scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire were shot there.

With all that in mind I drove into Dharavi to discuss the work that I would be doing.

I didn’t see a lot – the organization is based in a public hospital on one of the main roads, so I have yet to experience the teeming mazelike interior of the slum. But even just driving down the road you can understand why there are two very different mindsets about this place.

The obvious negative descriptions are apparent – Most of the structures appeared to be built with sheets of materials cobbled together, often rusting and filled with holes. One building’s owners had tied ladders horizontally in-between wall materials in order to create an open window. Dirt was everywhere, casting a dark pall on the haphazard structures. The bright bursts of color that exist everywhere else in Mumbai were only visible on the saris of women walking through the street.

But it was clear from the outset why this place is also known for a sense of community. Those sari-clad women chatted animatedly as they walked together down the street.  Down the road, a man tried to lift something into a truck and another man crossed over the street and offered to help. The main road was lined with every kind of shop imaginable – grocery markets, restaurants, clothing stores. You can understand why residents have been so vocally against development — they have created a life here and their neighbors and families own businesses. It is a city unto itself.

I went into the hospital, up to the small area cordoned off for the domestic violence center. The woman accompanying me told me that the public hospitals are often empty because the doctors who are appointed to work there just don’t show up. Since they are political appointees, no one higher up notices (or chooses to notice) the absences that take place throughout the system.

But the center itself was full of life – the women who worked there were in full motion — holding meetings, typing away at computers, and discussing work over chai.

I took a glass of chai when it was offered and began speaking with the center’s director about what might be useful. What she wanted was to be able to tell the story of their work to the outside world as well as to the organizations that give them funding.  We agreed that I should begin by spending a few days with the women before filming in order to gain a bit of trust and goodwill before jumping in. I could then start filming the women’s daily life in Dharavi as well as the work of the center.

We shook hands and agreed to touch base next week after she’d run the plan by her board. As I got up to leave she announced to the office, “This is Ali. She’s going to do some work with us.” I was immediately inundated with various women coming over to shake my hand and welcome me.

Even in that first meeting, I got the sense that this was a place where I could bring some value. And I hope in the next weeks and months I will be able to.

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“What are you doing here?” the woman asked me as she openly stared at me. She looked at me from top to bottom — from my white face, to my green and gold kurta, to the waterproof crocs on my feet.

“You mean, in this frame shop?” I responded. I had come to this store to buy frames for the Batik’s we had purchased in Indonesia.

“Nahee, nahee. Here in Bombay. What are you doing here?”

The question wasn’t meant as rude. In fact, I get it quite often because here, I am an oddity. I stand out.  Because of this, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to stare at me as long as they want and to verbalize whatever questions their inquiring minds are bursting to ask.

In India, these questions are normal: Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you here with your husband? Do you HAVE a husband? Where are you living?  Everyone wants to know. And so the solution is very simple –they just ask.

“I live here. I’m living here in Bandra.”
“Ah. Ok.” She then turned her honey colored eyes towards my paintings. “Where are those paintings from?”

Before I could answer, another younger woman decided to pipe up, “Did you paint them? What is this kind of painting? What is this material?

“No,” I responded. “I bought them in Indonesia. It’s wax on cotton and the type of painting is called Batik.”

The women wiggled their heads in affirmation that I had given them the answers they were looking for. Everything was ok now. Their curiosity was satisfied and I was deemed acceptable because I had willingly answered all of their questions, like a good foreigner living here should.

I said thank you to the man who had taken my order (who seemed very glad that I had answered all the questions he had probably been wondering) and went home.

I walked into the apartment and plopped down with a cup of tea, happy that in at least one place I wasn’t strange.  But as I sat reading the paper, the doorbell rang.

I opened the door to an elderly woman in a long colorful sari. She smiled at me.

“Namste,” she said. I replied, “Namaste.” I, of course, didn’t know what to say in Hindi past hello. I made a mental note to ask Nisha how to say, “How can I help you?”

Nisha heard that I was stuck and walked over. She started speaking to the woman in Hindi.  This wasn’t unusual — we’d had people at the door practically ever day. Do you have any papers or cardboard to pick up? Do you need bottled water? Do you want to buy vegetables? Do you need someone to help clean the house?  None of these people ever spoke English, so I was happy Nisha could always politely say “no thank you.”

I listened to the conversation in Hindi, hoping to pick up a few phrases. I, of course, could only really understand the words that were in English. To me, the Hindi conversation sounded like:

“Hindi, hindi, more hindi, lots of hindi, English, a bit more hindi, way more hindi, macaroni, hindi, hindi, concluding hindi.”

The woman said thanks and left.  I turned to Nisha.

“Did you tell her we were English and therefore only ate macaroni?” It was my only guess based on the two words I had known.

She laughed.  “Yes, she was coming here trying to sell vegetable. She wouldn’t hear no, so I told her that you didn’t like Indian food and only ate macaroni every day.”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was, once again, the crazy foreigner.  it’s so funny that to people here, the idea that white people could eat only macaroni all the time seems plausible.

Why wouldn’t we eat macaroni all the time? We look different. We dress different. We speak English in a way that’s hard for people to understand even if they DO speak English.  Why wouldn’t it seem completely normal that we might eat only strange food all the time?  It was a very good excuse that Nisha had created, because now that woman wouldn’t bother us again. So what’s the harm in saying I eat only macaroni?

I am an oddity. And for now, that’s ok.

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