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Posts Tagged ‘Central Belt’

I found myself out dancing last night. Head bopping to Shakira, I looked around the setting. What city were we in? We could have been anywhere. A DJ was at front while the Germany-Uruguay game played behind him. Neon green lights darted across the room, hitting a sleek white bar in the back packed with late night revelers.

I was dancing with new friends, friends of Daniel’s, friends of friends from home, and some people I hadn’t even been properly introduced to yet. It was expat night at the Blue Frog and while we were surrounded by a sea of Indians (dressed very differently on the inside than perhaps many would on the outside) but a little enclave of outsiders had formed in the middle. Here I was, someone who normally hated clubs (even if I love dancing – the two don’t usually get to go together due to the massive crowds in New York clubs) and I was having a great time.  It was my first real night out and I’d been able to wade through it with a little help from the community I now belong to.

While I live in Mumbai and I’m trying to experience it to the fullest, I can’t deny that I live in a second world as well – I’m an expat. The expat community of Mumbai lives in the same city as the native Mumbaikers and the millions of Indians who come from all over the country. Yet they have their own way of flowing through the city while still creating their own space in a crowded metropolis.

Expats are like a venn diagram. Every circle interacts with the Indian circle in its own way – on the street, through their jobs or volunteer work, through slowly learned Hindi – but there’s always going to be a portion of an expat circle that stands alone. And so, they all stick together – giving each other advice, living in the same few locations, and crowding certain bars and restaurants. They establish outposts in the city.

Living in Scotland for four years in college never felt like this – I was part of the University community, I belonged. And I was proud that I tried my hardest to make friends primarily with British people (and not corner myself off into an American clique). That felt important to me then – what was the point of going abroad if you only wanted to hang out with people from home?

In a non-University context and in a culture clearly much more different than that of our neighbors across the pond, I think it’s okay to admit that the situation here is different. Here I’m more of a fish out of water – and while it’s admirable to hope that I can immerse myself into Mumbai and it’s people, it would be naive to think I didn’t need the comfort of the built-in community in front of me.  You can make friends on both sides of the aisle here – but as an expat it would be hard to fight the natural inclination to befriend people who a) understand you but b) also are always happy to have and accept new friends, since theirs are always coming and going.  Young expats here are transient. Most come for months or at most years, so being a new person is part of the natural expat life cycle.

Luckily for me, it’s been hilarious realizing that most of the young expats in Bandra are all connected.  A girl I was put in touch with through an Andover connection happened to be living with one of Daniel’s old friends who was in Mumbai. They invited me out last night with a guy who I’d already been put in touch with through another friend from home. And a friend of Daniel’s from work who is also living here is now temporarily living with a girl who turned out be someone Daniel had known in high school. Just when I thought I didn’t know anyone, everyone I COULD know already knows each other.

It really puts the phrase “It’s a small world”, into a funny context.

The friends issue been one of my larger fears moving here – how can I leave my great life with my great friends to go move somewhere where I don’t know a soul? But it’s the expat openness that makes those fears start to recede, even in these early stages where I’m still pretty much on my own (with Daniel of course).

Listening to American pop music in a bar with my own enclave, even for a night, makes it seem like even when the whole world is in front of me, I’ve got pieces of home standing squarely behind me.

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I have learned a very important phrase in Hindi, one whose usage can have a grave impact on your wallet. Kitanā?, I can ask. And by saying this in Hindi I can be sure to reduce the cost of any item, even if the cost will still remain in the range of ‘white person price.’ The biggest problem, of course, if that I’m not far enough along in my Hindi to know what the responses to this question mean.

Kitanā, as you may have guessed, means ‘How much?’. In my phrase-a-day approach to learning Hindi, this has been one of the more useful ones. People may get a kick out of me saying ‘Mujhē bhindi achee leh gee’ (I like okra very much) or ‘Tora, tora Hindi bolteh’ (I speak little, little Hindi), but it doesn’t have quite the disarming effect as showing a seller that you’re perhaps a bit wise to their games. Or at least wise enough to have learned the phrase, if not yet the numbers they respond with.

But it’s still, of course, not enough to get a fair price. I think even a lifetime worth of Hindi and the long kurta’s I’ve been wearing wouldn’t get the price as low as if I just looked like I belonged.

Luckily Daniel and I had Nisha along for a day of shopping for household basics, and she had given us strict instructions:

“Don’t let them see us together. Walk in front of me and touch the things you like. I’ll go by a few minutes later and get the real price. Then we can decide if we want to buy.”

Side streets in Crawford Market

We went to the famed Crawford Market in South Bombay. It’s a building, its a neighborhood, it’s a conglomeration of shops and stands and street-hawkers.  Everyone has something to sell no matter the size or shape of their stall or storefront; and every seller is ready to make a deal. It’s a tourist attraction and local haunt that’s known for its cheap wares and myriad inventory.

We started out testing our pricing system with drying racks. I looked at a few and touched on the ones that we liked. We asked how much. It was 1,500 rupee (about $32). We scoffed and walked away.

A few minutes later Nisha came back.  800 rupee was the new price. But when we went back together to pay, the price suddenly increased to 1,250. We knew we’d have to try and get most of what we were looking for at one place – where they’d have too much to lose if we walked away from all the items.

While Nisha was searching for a singular place to purchase, I wandered over to a lighting store to look at standing lamps.

“How much?” I asked.

“4,400 rupees,” the man said, clearly under the impression that $94 for his most basic cheap standing lamp was a reasonable price to offer a gora.

“Nahee, Kitanā?” I asked (“No, how much”).

“Ah. 2,500,” he replied, still ripping me off but with a little bit more realistic intentions.

I walked out shaking my head at my own stupidity for even trying to negotiate in a place where people would never give me a reasonable rate.  And as I walked, lost in thought, I stepped into one of the monsoon’s ubiquitous puddles, splashing mud into my waterproof shoes and covering my legs. I sighed in frustration.

Many, many shops

But a man in a nearby shop shouted my way and pointed at a bucket of water next to him with a ladle. I said “Shukriyaa” in thanks and began pouring the water down my legs. Here was a man who probably would have tried to screw me if I’d come into his store looking to buy something. But he saw me in distress and immediately wanted to help.

It’s funny – the price structure isn’t personal here. It’s not malicious. It’s just everyone trying to make as much as they can off of the small sales they make.  And for every moment that I get exasperated with India, the people here never fail to make me love them an instant later. It’s just the way it is.

Nisha called me in to the shop she had selected and I thanked the man again for his help. I went in and she handed me a pre-written price list with all the items we needed. The owners weren’t going to haggle with me – they knew we’d walk away if they tried to change so many already agreed upon prices. We had found success.

We spent the other portion of our shopping day in the opposite setting to Crawford Market. We pulled up to the Phoenix Mall and went into a store called Big Bazaar, which is like a dingier Bed Bath and Beyond with a grocery store thrown in the back. We picked up the items we couldn’t get at Crawford Market.

Big Bazaar's rice and lentils

But even at a mall that housed a Zara, Marks and Spencers, Burberry and McDonalds under one roof, you couldn’t stereotype it into a completely Western context. Upstairs in Big Bazaar you can go look at saris and kurtas. And when you walk into the grocery section you run smack into big tubs of rice and lentils, surrounded by prospective shoppers putting their hands in to test the quality. The two men in charge just scoop out bags and bags of the staples as customers flock to their most important section.  It’s a comforting piece of an Indian market sitting in a grocery aisle lit by florescent lights and decorated with signs showing happy families in polo shirts and jeans.

When we came back to our apartment, purchases in hand, we felt victory was ours. We’d gotten the basics we needed and we’d added some Indian cookware and flatware to our repertoire. But of course, when we tried to take it all upstairs the elevator had stopped working – and haggling and Hindi couldn’t buy us out of this one. Never a dull moment here – and never a time when we’re allowed to forget that we’re always going to have to try a little bit harder to make it all work.

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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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