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Posts Tagged ‘construction’

I’ve been really lucky — through my various film projects and Book of My Own- to be able to spend time in many different kinds of schools in India. But few stand out like the one I went to today.

A friend of mine works for an organization called Mumbai Mobile Creches, and she suggested that Book of My Own do a donation at one of their schools (If you didn’t read about Book of My Own before, click here for a previous blog about it). Mumbai Mobile Creches is a particularly special organization because they are looking out for the children who probably have one of the hardest upbringings imaginable – in slums on construction sites.

When you drive around Mumbai you can’t miss the shells of empty, growing buildings around you.  Everywhere you look another skyscraper is rising from the ground, aided by giant cranes that take over the skyline. The city is expanding as quickly as could be imagined and it seems like the construction is never-ending.

One of the untold stories of all this construction is the slums that pop up around the building in order to accommodate the influx of migrant laborers that work on-site. 30 million Indians live like this. They move from site to site, shifting their homes every few years after they’ve built homes or offices for someone else.  And it’s often entire families that are along for the ride.

What Mumbai Mobile Creches does is set up daycare, pre-school and primary school on the grounds of the construction site. Often they put the school in the building itself, as it is being built. The kids learn Hindi and English, they’re given three meals a day (a life-saver for many parents) and a doctor visits frequently to make sure the children have adequate medical attention. Essentially, they’re creating a life and a community for those who otherwise might have nothing.  I was excited that Book of My Own could give back a little bit to this organization and the kids they are serving.

Books in hand, we drove into the construction site that held one of the schools – on the site three thirty-story concrete buildings stood half-completed. The school was in its own stand-alone building. The classrooms were painted with charts similar to the kinds you would see hanging in a school at home, only these were more permanent. It was a good attempt to brighten up and liven the rooms.

Students picking out books

As soon as we walked in the kids were curious. But once we started laying out books a group crowded around to see. The floodgates burst when we finally let them in the room. They rushed over to the wide pile of books to start finding the one they wanted. They all carefully surveyed the books, walking around them and staring at covers before gingerly picking one up and flipping through. The students were different ages and different reading skills. Some were only mastering the English alphabet. Others could manage basic reading. But all were excitedly trying to decide which book to take.

 

Reading books

I love watching the kids pick out their books and seeing what they love about them. Some like the more tactile books – with pop-ups or different materials. Others are attracted to pictures. Some love the particular stories, if they can read that much. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching how excited these kids get over a book.

After the first round some of the kids went to swap and found new ones. Eventually they started putting them back in the original pile. I didn’t understand — but apparently they didn’t really grasp the concept of keeping the book. They thought they’d have to give them back. We explained that they each got one book to take home. One of the teachers started handing out books without looking at which ones they were, but I insisted that the kids pick the books out, again, themselves. One girl started searching and could not find the book she wanted. My friend who works for Mumbai Mobile Creches asked her which one she was looking for, and she started jumping up and down like Tigger. We immediately located the Winnie The Pooh book she had been looking for.

With a round of ‘goodbyes’ from the teachers and children we left, our box of books much lighter than when we began. I craned my neck to look up at the huge concrete buildings and really appreciated being able to be part of this incredible program for just a day.

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In India, there are times when you can get frustrated, and others when you just have to laugh at the constant absurdity of life here.

About a month and a half ago I wrote about how a leakage from our terrace had caused our downstairs neighbors’ ceiling to collapse. One would assume by now that this entire ordeal would be over, right? Au contraire.

The first round of porch construction

The original work included ripping up the entire side of our porch to get into the piping system. What had been quoted to us as taking a week instead took three. And it wasn’t hard to see why: the workmen would show up two hours late every day; they would then take a two or three hour lunch; in the afternoon one guy would work while the others sat around. And then every night we got the icing on the cake: they would declare that they needed to stay late, because they weren’t finished. I’m sure they saw this as the perfect overtime scam. Unfortunately for them, we would always kick them out.

But after weeks of cement dust in the house and an unusable terrace and cranky workers and shouts about overtime, they were finished. They just had to replace the wooden siding.

Except that the siding they used originally was no longer available. They, of course, hadn’t checked to see whether this was the case prior to finishing. So it took another week to find a solution (they ended up painting siding to try and closely match the original).

I couldn’t have cared less about whether the wood matched the original. I was just happy to have my house back. And I was happy that my neighbors would finally get to replace their ceiling.

So you can imagine my joy when Nigel, the supervisor, knocked on my door a few weeks ago.

“Ma’am, there has been a problem with the construction,” he said, pretending to be nonchalant.
“What kind of problem?”
“Well, there is still some leakage.”

I liked the phrase ‘still some leakage’, as though it implied that something had been done and there was only a little bit left to be fixed. It turned out that they hadn’t really known anything about where the leak was coming from – they had just made a guess and hoped for the best. The guess, shockingly, was wrong.

I made them wait three weeks while Daniel’s parents were here – I wasn’t going to have them come all the way to India and then have to live with construction!

After they pulled up some of the tiles

But now the time had come again. This time, I made them bring an engineer with blueprints of the building to try and prove to me that they suddenly understood the problem. They started by pulling up a few tiles to see where the crack in the ceiling really was. Eventually it led to tearing out the whole left side of the terrace.

This time around, I wasn’t going to agree so readily. I tried to ask as many questions as I could to understand the whole process. But the response to every question always somehow included ‘but ma’am, you’re foreign, so you don’t understand the way Indians do things.’

Our newly destructed terrace and the many workers

But the joke is on them: we’ve lived here now for almost six months and at least we know how to make a few more demands, Indian-style – we called the head boss and made him come over and speak to his workers; we got a written work plan detailing what needs to be done every day; we’re having someone come from the head office to supervise every day to make sure work gets done; Daniel even got the company to give half the workers wages to him so they have an incentive to finish in time.

And most importantly: I made sure they already had purchased the tiles before they started. For me, that’s progress. A sign that maybe we’re adapting to India a little better than perhaps the construction supervisors would have liked us too.

But of course, I’ve lived here long enough to also know that all of those assurances still will probably mean it will all take much longer than they’ve quoted. Luckily, I’m taking my new Indian self back to America for the holidays – so I luckily won’t be around to see! It’s the best of both my worlds.

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

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

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

Our new bookshelves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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