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As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”

We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.

No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.

A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.

Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.

It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.

News coverage of the bandh in Mumbai

Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.

We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).

Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.

An empty Turner Rd - one of the main streets near us

When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.

But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.

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I am beginning to understand the root of “Indian Time” a little bit better. It’s not (as my Indian friends at home would have me believe) just an Indian way of life where they are allowed to be late to things because its inherent to Indians.

I think in actuality it’s related to something much simpler. Indians are late to everything because, at least here in Mumbai, there are NO STREET ADDRESSES.

That’s right. Street addresses do not exist. In fact, street names are barely recognized. Instead, there’s a system, that doesn’t work, of just telling someone what ‘landmark’ you’re near, and then hoping for the best. But when they say landmark, they just mean another place or business. So when we give someone directions to our apartment, it goes something like this:

“It’s La Paloma, it’s on St Cyril Road across from St Anthony’s road. Do you know it? Ok, well do you know where Turner Road is? It’s off Turner Road, towards St Andrews College. No? Do you know where Holy Family Hospital is? How about the American Express bakery? Yes? You want me to meet you there and then show you? Ok. I’ll meet you at the bakery.”

This is really how it has to be done. Because you can’t just say “Oh when you get to the bakery go straight, turn right on St Dominic and then left on St Cyril because NONE of these roads would have a sign indicating that that is actually the name of the street.

Not to mention that the main road, Turner Road, actually (if you look at a map) technically changes into Gurunanak Marg right before our house – but no one knows that. To them it’s still just Turner Road. Even after it THEN turns into Perry Rd.

And you’d think you could solve this problem with a driver, but you can’t. Today I wanted to go a store to buy some Indian style clothes. The store is well known and its called FabIndia (I could delve into the awesomeness of that name, but I won’t now). And when you look it up online the address is: Navroze Building, Next To HDFC Bank, Pali Hill (Yes, that is the actual full address). So you’d think you could find it easily – but you would be wrong.

When we went to Pali Hill (an area in Bandra), near the market there is an HDFC Bank but no FabIndia. We drove around, asked around, looked around. Nothing. We finally called FabIndia and solved the mystery. We were meant to know its next to the OTHER HDFC bank in Pali Hill. Up Zigzag road. Not by the market. Obviously.

This applies to any address. For example, one of my personal favorites is the address for Phoebe’s groomer. It is (and I mean this is the actual mailing address):

Tail Waggers Pet Salon
Near Hotel Mini Punjab
Pali Village Behind Hawaiian Shack
16th Road
Bandra West, Mumbai 400050

It’s hilarious, completely Indian and yet an all encompassing theory to explain the Indian loose relationship with time. It’s inherently frustrating but you can’t help but love a city where people find their way around SOLELY based on trusting everyone’s local knowledge.

So if you want to come visit me, just remember: La Paloma doesn’t exist. Just go to the tree in the middle of the road in St Anthonys Rd next to the hospital, next to Lemongrass Restaurant, next to CitiBank, next to Crosswords bookshop. Then ask someone where to go. And don’t worry if you’re late- we’re all on ‘Indian Time’ here.

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My stomach churned and it stopped me in my tracks. No! I’m not ready to get sick, I thought. I’d avoided feeling ill for my entire time here so far. I’d heard everyone tell me that it was inevitable, but I wasn’t buying. Yet here I was with my stomach doing somersaults and I was armed with only Pepto Bismol.

I felt the thick pink liquid going down my throat like troops on their way to fight the war in my stomach. I ignored the jolting momentary pangs of pains and instead I got dressed and went outside with Daniel to go to a bar to watch the World Cup. My stomach is just a minor hiccup, I told myself.  I hadn’t even eaten anything questionable that I could think of.  I rationalized and justified the situation, thinking that my mind could ignore the true matters in front of me.

But as we drove along the bumpy Bandra roads I had to concede defeat. The somersaults had turned into full-on routines. It was official. My first night in the grips of India’s notorious stomachaches had begun. I told Daniel to stay out while I slinked home, disappointed that just the mere will to stay healthy hadn’t cured me.

It was lucky though – in the annals of illness history this one wouldn’t go down as painfully memorable. Instead it was a warning shot. Just know what we can do to you, India was telling me. Don’t let yourself forget that you’ll always be on guard here. It’s not truly your home. I curled up with Phoebe, willing myself to sleep.

And I did. I woke up the next morning and the sound of a jumping stomach had been replaced by pounding rain outside. The monsoon was back – India’s second reminder in 24 hours that it could make trouble for us whenever we got too comfortable.  And the trouble remained all day.

Monsoon soaked happy Phoebe

Just as I had tried to tell my stomach no, I thought I could say no to my fear of the rain. I could model myself after all the Mumbaikers I saw wandering the streets while they got instantly soaked. I took Phoebe out for a walk on our new street umbrella in hand (can’t throw TOO much caution to the wind). But India once again laughed at me. The elevated pavement did nothing to shield us from the soaking power of passing cars. Phoebe looked up at me like I was a traitor in the ranks. She kept trying to pull me back to our apartment building. Why are you doing this to me, her eyes pleaded. She was soaked completely after just a minute. Indians in rickshaws slowed down as they drove by to watch the crazy white lady walking her tiny dog in the morning’s downpour.

But the sun came out in the form of that tiny dog. Phoebe was the strong one in the face of the chaos. The same dog who had curled up next to me the night before in solidarity came inside from the rains, shook herself off and seemed utterly unfazed. She was happy – she ran across the floor, sliding in the water coming off her own body, completely happy just to be back inside even if she was soaked head to paw. If Phoebe can let the rain roll off her back, figuratively and metaphorically, then so can I.

Bolstered, Daniel and I took to our errands in the rain. We drove a few blocks that had only taken 2 minutes the day before, but now it took 10. The streets were crowded, flooded, and the traffic knew no rules. Everyone was trying to get somewhere and the urgency only crowded and slowed the streets more. We stepped out of the car to go into a store. A car immediately splashed us. We took off our shoes and went inside, soaked. On the way out I went to put my shoes back on only to see that a long worm had coiled its way through my waterproof shoes.

Illness. Rain. India had thrown it all at me today trying to see if I would crack. But I haven’t.  Because today, I stood in my still mostly empty apartment and unloaded groceries that Daniel and Nisha had gone to buy and it started to feel a bit more like home. And Phoebe kept smiling at me.  Bit by bit I’m saying to my new city, “Bring it on”. I just hope that that audacity doesn’t earn me another case of illness.

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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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“Spitting Spreads TB. Don’t Spit”.

Seeing a bumper sticker with that phrase was the first thing that made me laugh after sitting in 15 minutes of silence leaving the Mumbai airport. I’d been trying to take everything in. Here it was, my new home Mumbai. Madcap, colorful, dirty, amazing. And apparently hilariously straight forward and matter of fact.

After walking out of the airport and losing the ability to see due to the humidity hitting my glasses and fogging them up, I got a reality check. As we drove into our new city, I kept wondering: How can an American raised in South Carolina, used to living in New York, adapt to this environment? I let that marinate as we drove past the construction, the families of 5 crowded onto one scooter and the buses with dozens of faces starting back at my own. We were only on the highway and I was already overstimulated.

But then Daniel pointed out the bumper sticker.  And the feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted from traveling was overtaken by the sheer excitement of living in a place that could be so many contradictions at once.

As we continue driving in, the most glaring thing I notice about Mumbai is that the disparities everyone talks about when India is mentioned are so overt its shocking. It’s not just that some people are wealthy and others are impoverished – it’s that two cities are co-existing and growing together, like two plants in the same pot. The seemingly brand new gleaming glass Price Waterhouse Coopers building is in between two dilapidated buildings. The whole city is one big construction boom with modern towers coming up inside of shaky scaffolding and built by cranes with the paint peeling off.  Mumbai’s modernity fights with it’s past right in front of you.

As I’m thinking this, looking at a sleek highway with a shantytown under it, I am jolted. A young girl has just pressed her face against our car window and she’s staring at me, hoping for money. I look down – everyone I’ve spoken to has warned me that this will be the hardest thing to adapt to. How can anyone say no to helping a child staring at you? “But you have to just say no”, I’ve been told over and over again. “The money won’t go to them”, “It keeps the cycle of poverty” “you’d go broke”. I heard it all from the comfort of Manhattan. Nothing prepares you for it.  So I just don’t look. And when we drive away I look at the window and see there’s a smudge from where her face was – it’s there for the rest of the day, a constant reminder that I’m entering a world that, for an outsider like me, will be infinitely more complicated and difficult than the one I left.

We arrived at our guesthouse in Mumbai’s suburb of Bandra and I was happy to put down my belongings and rest for a moment. Wireless internet. Bottled water. Air conditioning. The city of contradictions had quickly made me a contradiction – one moment you worry about all the difficulties you’re seeing right in front of you. The next you’re thanking your lucky stars that you’ve been allotted the amenities you crave.

We left before we our jetlag coerced us into napping. We drove to South Bombay and stopped at the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s own Statue of Liberty of sorts, the first thing a ship would see from the Harbor. It’s a remnant of the city’s British past but today it is pure India. Indian tourists cram in to take photos while vendors sell food and horse carriage drivers try to recruit passengers.

We finished our day driving through the neighborhoods of the Southern end of the city – I was surprised to see that this area was still just as busy and hectic as the rest. I’d read that the house prices, in relation to per capita income, are the most expensive in the world.  Yet the constant construction, the sleek buildings next to crumbling relics, the new spas next to abandoned unfinished concrete — it was still there even in the mecca of Mumbai real estate. It made me love the city a little more.

We drove back to Bandra over the sea link, which connects the southern part of the city to it’s north. I laughed when I realized it looks just like Charleston’s new Cooper River Bridge. A little piece of home connecting Mumbai together.

It’s a lot for one day. And even that long rambling explanation doesn’t even come close to covering everything I saw. But that’s what you get from one day in India – a lot of observations and not a lot of time to gestate. But I’ve got that time laid out in front of me. I’m excited for the year – still a little overwhelmed, but ready for tomorrow.

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