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Posts Tagged ‘cultural differences’

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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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing young girls hanging out of a rickshaw on their way to school with Hannah Montana backpacks over their uniforms, or watching a family strolling down Carter Road with small pink spoons dipping into a Baskin Robbins cup. The Indian interactions with American products and companies are often jarring and comforting all at once. In a foreign setting it can make you start humming “one of these things is not like the other…”

But it’s often even more interesting how lower-end American brands can become upscale here. McDonalds and KFC are ubiquitous and are often seen as a sit-down restaurant (and yes, you can get a McCurry but no beef burgers here).
So when everyone started talking about the new California Pizza Kitchen coming to town, I wanted to take a seat and watch the action. Who could resist seeing what happened when an American pizza chain decided to plant itself into a city that has it’s own odd love affair with our cheese, bread and tomato concoction?  Watching cultures collide, and having at least a small understanding of both sides of the coin, is part of the fun of being an expat.

The crowd waiting to get a table

And the collision was massive – we went for a weekend lunch day and it was packed. Every table was full and by the time we left there was a line out the door. But the most jarring piece of the puzzle, was that this American chain had an oddly wealthy clientele. The pizzas were on average around 400 to 500 rupees (or a bit more than $8 – $10). That might not sound crazy, but considering most other sit-down pizza places sell for 100 to 200 rupees, it’s a bit steep.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see well dressed grandmothers in pearls doting over pizza-hungry grandchildren or teenagers toting their Louis Vuitton bags – but it was such a weird disconnect. We were in California Pizza Kitchen! This just wasn’t normal.

We got to talking with one of the ‘Franchise Management Specialists,” who basically spends his life overseeing the openings of California Pizza Kitchen’s across the world (who knew that was a job?). Due to India’s heavy import taxes, they’d had to find a way to make every element in the restaurant feel authentic while being purchased locally- except the oven. Apparently no CPK pizza could be complete without its specific oven.

The team on hand had come from their California headquarters to train the Indian servers. It apparently had been tough to instill their values: don’t bring appetizers and entrees all at once. Assume people aren’t sharing all their food. Service with a smile. Could Indians really emulate Californians?

It was all such an odd pairing – sure, you could get guacamole, but it was made with the less fleshy Indian avocados that don’t taste quite right. You could certainly order a classic pizza, but there was also an option for curry pizza (really?).
I was happy when my pizza came – for just a moment it was good to step out of ‘learning and exploring’ mode and just allow myself to enjoy the familar. It’s always nice to find small oases of home in a unfamiliar place. But I like my Indian things to be Indian. The cultural collision isn’t quite as interesting as the actual culture, although it seems like the Mumbaikers around me would disagree- they want that piece of California.

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Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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You are Invited

As someone who aims to write a blog that someone finds mildly interesting, it is always exciting when your friends send you emails such as this:

From: B
To: Ali
Subject: hey
I have to head to town at some point this week to go to “wedding invitation street” by chowpatty. Would you be interested in seeing that?

Obviously my immediate response was yes. Who could resist such an invitation (no pun intended)?

My friend B is getting married in March back in the US but she is trying to coordinate her wedding planning from India (very brave indeed). One benefit of this is that everything here costs less. She first started finding planning a wedding in India enjoyable when she realized she could get the beading on her dress done here for thousands of dollars less. And so with invitations the idea was that the same concept might apply. She had already talked to a few vendors and was hopeful that the reduction in cost would outweigh the headache.

So with all this in mind we set off to wedding invitation street- the hopeful bride-to-be looking to get her items made properly and the amused friend tagging along always looking for a hilarious Indian experience.

A couple stores on 'wedding invitation street'

We arrived on the street and I was taken aback with how literal it was – actually every single shop on this entire lane in the middle of Bombay was devoted entirely to invitations. Professional looking shops with dozens of examples in the windows mingled with open-air rooms that barely boasted little more than a desk and some stools. Stacks of paper samples sat out in the humidity while store employees read newspapers or looked in a mirror while combing back their hair.

I loved this part of India where people still had a craft. I love that here you can find a shoemaker and a tailor and a leather-worker all on the same row. Cheaper multi-purpose all-encompassing stores haven’t yet weeded out singular skills. I was a little bit enamored with this crazy street made just for the sole purpose of the unique art of invitations.

Closeup of Indian-style invitations

It was hard to even know where to begin – there were so many stores to choose from and, after all, no store had Western examples in their windows. They were all populated with brightly colored and loudly designed rectangle shape invitations. Drawings of elephants or intricate motifs overtook even the most modest designs.

We started with one vendor who B had spoken to earlier. But when we went in his store, of course, he wasn’t actually there. His employees dialed his number and he informed B that he would be in tomorrow. It didn’t seem odd to him that we had assumed he would be in his store on a Tuesday afternoon.

Undaunted, we continued to a few other stores.

“Hi, I’m hoping to do a Western-style invitation… do you speak English?” B would ask. We’d look at the shopkeepers to see if there was understanding beyond the immediate nodding. A few tried to help – but they didn’t have the right card stock or their examples didn’t inspire confidence. Finally one vendor (in an open-air store with just one desk and a small stool) sighed and pointed us towards a more professional looking place. We thanked him and decided to take his advice.

We walked into the new store and were met with skeptical stares. After all, how many white people are looking to get invitations made here? But after it became apparent that they were familiar with Western-style invitations and that they had good card stock, we started negotiating. We would need invitations, RSVP cards, place-cards, the wedding program and a save the date. What kind of deal could he give us?

It was hundreds upon hundreds of dollars less than even the cheapest place in the US. But, of course, B’s original vendor was cheaper. We’d have to come back another day. We’d met ‘wedding invitation street’ and we liked what we saw. But as with everything in India it might just take a little bit of time.

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It’s amazing how in Dharavi something as small as a mat can make you feel accepted.

This afternoon I went to the home of a woman who volunteers with the non-profit I am going to be making the film for. She had invited one of the field workers to come and talk to her neighbors about domestic violence.

Her home was approximately fifty square feet (or about seven feet by seven feet). She, her husband and three sons shared one twin-sized bunk bed. They had one stand-alone dresser, a television, a small fridge (that had a built in lock), a television, and a kitchen counter whose space was taken up by a small burner. Washing hung from lines above the bed. The walls were cement and the roof was made of aluminum siding that was held up by wooden beams. If you looked straight up at the ceiling you could see small slivers of light peeking through in various places.

But despite the small venue the home was filled with life. Photos of her parents stared down at us (unsmiling, as all Indian photographs are). Pictures of Hindu gods were interspersed with small posters for Bollywood movies and brightly colored calendars.  And despite the treacherous path filled with garbage and feces that existed outside her home (hard to ignore), you probably could have eaten a meal off the floor.

When I walked in she clapped her hands excitedly and stopped me as I tried to sit on the ground with the rest of the group. She pulled out a small mat and insisted that I sit on it.  I tried to tell her that she should sit on it, but she told me through my translator (who is a budding filmmaker and someone I am very excited to have on board) that she was so glad I was there and that she was very adamant that her guest should be comfortable.

As the women arrived it was explained to me that our host had encouraged her neighbors to come and listen. She had become involved in the non-profit through one of these meetings and she felt very strongly about preventing domestic violence. She shared that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic who had beaten her sister very badly. Ever since then she had wanted to try and affect even the smallest change in her community.

The meeting started when everyone was seated. It was a small group – five women, our host, the field worker, my translator and myself. We all sat on the floor and we could barely fit. It struck me how time consuming it must be to have these meetings in such small venues. But the field worker explained that most of these women wouldn’t come if they had to travel all the way to the non-profit’s office. While you could drive there in 10 minutes, they would have to walk, and it would take too much time out of their day. So having small meetings with the neighbors of volunteers is the only way to effectively spread their message across the crowded maze of Dharavi.

The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves and my translator started by explaining who we were and why we were there. She said her name and then started to say my name but I stopped her.

“Meera naam Ali hai,” I said to the whole group. My translator looked at me. “Its one of the few things I know how to say in Hindi – I wanted to say it myself!” I said, and we both laughed. She translated my second comment to the women who all laughed as well. It had broken the ice a bit and we were ready to start.

As with all these meetings they had to start with general issues. The field worker explained the work their organization did – she said they could help with rations (Indians below the poverty line are entitled to food rations, but the system is very corrupt and its often difficult for people to actually get a ration card), legal services, health services and other basic issues.   She also tried to entice them by saying at one recent event two Bollywood stars had shown up and given presents. My translator explained that sometimes this is the best way to get people involved – even more than free vaccinations or free classes for children.
The field worker asked if there were any questions.  One grey-haired woman in a bright blue sari spoke up – she said in her neighborhood there had been a problem with people stealing electricity, causing everyone’s bills to rise. The field worker then emphatically responded with a story about a similar situation where they had helped put in safeguards and reduce the bills. Apparently this has been a large problem across Dharavi.  She encouraged the woman to come into their office for further help.

She then started to ask about domestic violence. First, she asked, did everyone know what constitutes violence? She said there were four kinds of violence and she started with physical violence – everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging the concept. She then continued by explaining the three other kinds of violence – emotional, financial and sexual.

As she talked about each kind of violence the mood in the room shifted.  The topic of emotional violence was met with some skepticism. Everyone seemed to agree that fighting for financial independence was important. The most uncomfortable reaction came when the field worker explained that even if a couple is married, it doesn’t give a man the right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants.

The woman in the blue sari leaned over and started talking softly to the woman sitting to her right. The field worker asked her to stop talking in general, but (as my translator conveyed), she had also had to ask her to stop talking in Tamil. Apparently these women had originally come from Tamil Nadu and as such they spoke to each other in Tamil.

I tried to break the awkwardness of the moment.  “Tora, tora, Hindi boltay. Tamil, neh!” I had said that I speak only little, little Hindi but no Tamil. Everyone laughed. I can always use my terrible Hindi to amuse people.

The field worker continued. She explained that her organization helped with counseling and legal action as well as awareness. The women listened intently.

The conversation was broken up for a moment when our host’s teenage son walked in.  He stood in his crisp blue school uniform with his Liverpool football club backpack and said hi to the crowd of women taking over his small space. He put the backpack down and waved goodbye- there was nowhere for him to stay. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what on earth it must be like to be a teenage boy and share a bunk bed and room with your parents and siblings.   Every time if I try to look at Dharavi with rose-colored glasses that notice the colorful pictures or the clean floors or the posters on the wall, I have to stop myself from the attempts to glorify. These people are doing the best they can and are trying to improve their community, but this life is incredibly hard. And just seeing the happy but resigned expression on that boy’s face reminded me that every individual in Dharavi is working with a set of cards that gives very little. The poverty here is so much more pervasive and extreme than the poverty we see in America.

I was brought back into the conversation as my translator explained that now we were talking about individual experiences. The field worker obviously had to ask, “Do you know anyone around you who has experienced violence”. By framing it this way women often feel more comfortable raising issues that are happening to them without revealing themselves. They could get questions answered about the available services without feeling embarrassed in front of their friends and neighbors.

Once all their questions had been answered and the conversation about the non-profit was finished, our host served small cups of chai and all the women turned to me. Did I have any questions for them?

I asked (through my translator of course) whether they felt the meeting was useful. The all nodded enthusiastically.

“Will you tell your neighbors about this meeting?”

All of the women started talking – they were telling me how they all gossiped and all the women would definitely share what they’d heard today. The field worker, listening, seemed relieved that they all felt this way.

“Would you feel comfortable if I came back with a camera? Would it be an invasion of the meeting?” Everyone shook their heads adamantly and started talking.

My translator laughed, “No, they say they think it is important to tell this story and speak about these issues, but they admit that they might come very dressed up if you are going to film them.”  I responded that I might have to dress up too, then.

They laughed. One of the women started talking to me and motioned towards her sari. I assumed she was asking if I had a sari.

“Sari, neh. Kurta!” I said, pointing toward the green and gold kurta I was wearing. They all laughed and started talking to each other.

“They’re saying you have to come and they’ll show you how to put on a sari. They are all inviting you to their homes.”

I felt really touched. I asked if they had any questions for me, since they had answered all of mine.

My translator asked and then said, “They say they have no questions, but they want to tell you they are really happy you came here. They are so proud that a foreign white person wants to take the time to tell their story and try to help an organization that is focused on Dharavi.”

I didn’t know what to say. I always feel a little weird that my whiteness always factors in – why should I be more welcome or more exciting just because I am white? It reeks a bit of a bizarre colonial legacy but on the other hand I think most people are just glad to see that their stories and their issues are not lost to the world at large.

Either way, I was glad that they were receptive to the work we wanted to do.  And by the time I left I was invited to four houses for a cup of chai, one Independence Day ceremony this weekend and one woman’s daughter’s wedding.  It was certainly something to feel honored by – even more than a mat to sit on.

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It’s funny when my old world information sources suddenly collide right into my new world.

Last night I came across an Op-Ed article in the New York Times about slum tourism. It was written by a Kenyan who has been appalled by the growth of this cottage industry that shows mostly Western tourists what life is like in the slum. Mumbai is mentioned as a ‘hot spot’ (if there is such a thing when it comes to slum tours).  The article is now sitting in the New York Times’ most emailed list.

Living in New York, I always read articles like this one with great interest – what are the many things I am not seeing from my small island’s perspective?  We often rely on journalists and writers and filmmakers to teach us about the vast portions of the world we’ll never experience or see in our lives.  And we hope their perspective would be our perspective

So it was very strange to see my go-to paper covering an issue that doesn’t appear to be high on the radar here (in my experience, at least compared to much more pressing issues)– and claiming Mumbai as part of this horrible trend. I certainly can’t claim to know the feelings of most people here about slum tours. But I do have my own perspective – one that has changed since I came here.

I heard from various people when I arrived that you could take a slum tour. My initial reaction was the same as the author of the article – it’s exploitative, it’s degrading, you’re making people’s lives into tourist attractions.

But as I spent some time in Dharavi I started to realize that it’s not so simple to just dismiss it.  The most recognizable slum tour here is run by Reality Tours – they do not allow photography (one of the main complaints in the NYT article), they focus on showcasing Dharavi’s economy (recycling factories, leather workshops etc), 80% of their profits go to Dharavi NGO’s and they fund and run a school.  They are trying to show and improve a community, not just stare at poor people. How can this side of the story be dismissed so easily?

This particular subject has been on my mind a lot lately because obviously I’ve been spending a lot of my own time in Dharavi.  I’ve really thought a lot about how to not be intrusive, how to write in a realistic but sensitive way, how to possibly keep even a basic perspective on something I can’t possibly understand. But while all of these issues should be considered, I think the most basic fact I’ve come away with is this: the people I have encountered in my short time in Dharavi all just want to improve their community. Slum tours (that are run in a thoughtful way) raise money that provides education and services. So most people that I have met seem to not be bothered by it. A few people I have asked have actually wondered why we would think it is bad.

Again (once again with the caveats!), this is only my one experience. I’m sure plenty of people in India and Dharavi (who have lived here much much longer) hate the tours. But my own experiences changed my opinion pretty quickly.

So, with all that percolating and marinating in my mind for weeks, reading this article struck me in a strangely personal way.  I’ve only been here a very short time, but I suddenly became defensive of my perspective – how could this person who has only seen Kenya’s experience lump in Mumbai, without ever having seen it?

And I guess that is the funny thing about perspective and why it’s been so important for me to travel and experience the world: you can read every article, watch every news program and study every book, but making sure you have your own opinion in the narrative is essential.

I just feel grateful that on this subject I can even begin to have a semi-informed opinion and engage in the debate.  And so, Kennedy Odede, Op-Ed contributor in the New York Times, I respectfully disagree with your assessment because I think it ignores the good some slum tours do. But thanks for raising the subject – and I welcome any others to disagree with me.

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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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One of the most interesting effects of the monsoon is how it can stop anything in an instant. And in a city as vibrant and full of life as Bombay, that truly is something.

Rickshaw in water

You can be driving along a road at a normal speed in normal traffic when suddenly the rain comes out of nowhere. It only takes a moment sometimes; clear-looking skies and dry weather are overtaken first by small drops, then persistent rain, then a heavy downpour, then rain so thick you can’t see your hand in front of you. And that whole shift can take place in a matter of seconds.

In that instant, the traffic snarls to a halt. Windshield wipers are practically useless in the deluge. Hazard lights are turned on just so that each car will know where the cars around them are basically located. A trip that could take 30 minutes suddenly takes two hours.

You can always spot a few victims once the rain lets up enough to let you see out. Usually in heavily flooded areas you’ll see abandoned rickshaws, not strong enough to get out of a flooded area.  Parts of roads will remain flooded for hours afterwards, since the water has nowhere to drain.

I’ve gotten sort of used to living this daily rainy existence – there’s never a full day respite, but some days aren’t so heavy or often it’s just a light drizzle. And I know what to expect once heavy rains start to fall.

But the one thing I can’t get used to is our internet connection.

Our high-tech cable running from our roof to our neighbor's roof

It was installed as soon as we moved in, and the process itself was humorous. A cable was run from a few buildings over – over and around and up the side of our apartment building the cable went. It’s not underground, it’s not through a wall, it’s just across some buildings and drilled neatly into our wall.  But it’s a cable and it seemed simple enough. We bought a wireless router and thought that that would be that.

However, nothing is so simple. It stops working at best for an hour a day. Sometimes, like now, it stops working for a few days at a time. And every time Daniel calls up the company they say “nothing works right in the monsoon.”  If the power goes out in one of the buildings along our one cable line, no one has internet (At least, this is what they say. I don’t know if I actually believe that this is the real reason).

Now, I understand why our cable dish doesn’t always work in the monsoon. We get a message on our tv saying something is wrong and I think of the small dish trying to get a signal through the deluge. But a cable? What could be so wrong with this cable every day? How can the monsoon be an excuse for constant failure of an entire product?

Our television during heavy monsoon...

Yet it’s everyone’s excuse here – our carpenter was late because of the monsoon (what exactly about the monsoon, we don’t know), people are always late to dinners and meetings because of the monsoon, our shipment was late, items can’t be delivered because of the monsoon. Doesn’t this happen every year? Don’t you think by now people could have figured out how to work around it? It’s a bad rain, but its just rain.   It apparently is also a great excuse.

So today I am only connected to the wider world via a wireless card Daniel can plug into his computer. It’s slow but it’s a useful backup – after all, there’s still another month of monsoon. Who knows when our internet will come back on again.

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I am starting to feel some pressure to beef up my Hindi.  After all, if a person tells you that your language skills give them a sense of national pride, you need to try as hard as possible.

This all started with a trip to purchase a phone – Nisha’s phone broke so we went on an expedition for a new one.

While we’re out, Nisha and I have gotten into the habit of prodding each other – I’ll make her read signs and she’ll make me repeat numbers back to her in Hindi.  I’ve needed the extra help with the numbers, because learning them in practice is tricky – even if you can say them all fast in a row, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can remember a specific number off the bat (I.e. you might count to ten in succession, but do you remember which one means eight?).

This has proven even harder for large numbers. If something cost 1,260 rupees, you have to remember how to say one, a thousand, two, a hundred AND sixty. It looks like one number on the page when in reality you’re remembering five numbers and putting them together.

The reason I used this number as an example is because when we got to the phone store, we were told that the basic phone cost 1,260 rupees. And as the store clerk announced this, I chirped back at him “Ek hazaar doe saw sarth” (or 1,260 in Hindi). I looked to Nisha, as I always do, to make sure this was right. But once I saw her nod I turned around and noticed that every one of the seven people helping us was staring at me in amusement.

“You know Hindi?” one of them said.
“Tora, tora Hindi boltay,” I said, (roughly translates to “I speak little, little Hindi”). They clapped their hands with delight.

“Where did you learn Hindi?”  I nodded towards Nisha but their curiosity wasn’t satisfied, “Why you learn Hindi? Where are you from?”

“Well,” I started, “I’m from America. And I only know very very little Hindi. But I’m learning it because I think it’s important to know the basics while I’m living in India.”

They all looked at each other and nodded. One man who had been silent up until that point suddenly came to the front of the counter and looked me dead in the eyes.

“You have no idea what this is to us,” he said. “If people like you want to come here and speak in our language it means something great for India.”

“We are very happy to hear you speaking Hindi,” another man said. “Yes,” another concurred, “It gives national pride.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to this. My basic Hindi gives these people national pride? That I can recite numbers (extremely slowly) in Hindi? How could I possibly believe that?

The many helping hands in the phone store- new phones and new sims

Here I was, surrounded by more than half a dozen young Indian men who spoke perfect English and yet they wanted to praise me for the rudimentary Hindi words I had picked up.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t learned very much yet, but they would hear none of it. They spoke in quick Hindi to Nisha trying to find out more information about me.

I wasn’t going to protest. After all, this was why I’d wanted to learn Hindi, right? I wanted to be politically correct and culturally sensitive and all of that. But it’s one thing to think that you should try hard to respect the culture you’ve moved into; It’s quite another to have someone tell you that it’s meaningful to them that you’re trying.  It made me feel like I should be trying harder.

And this certainly wasn’t the first time my terrible Hindi has received a shocked reception. Everywhere I go – at bars, in rickshaws, at markets and now at the phone store – most Indians seem bemused that I’m at least trying to speak their language.  No one expects white people to try at all (since English is the co-national language here), so even the basics in Hindi are congratulated.

And I’m sure that for most people, half the fun is in watching this foreign person struggle with a bad accent at their language. But every time my bad Hindi makes someone laugh, or whenever they ask me to repeat my words again for their friends, I’m getting the sense that it’s the most crucial way for me to adapt. It’s an immediate signal that I’m trying, ever so slowly, to fit into Indian culture instead of trying to make it adapt to me. And that seems to be appreciated.

As we left the store I waved and said, “Muje apsay milnee acha laga”.
“It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am!” they replied, before talking animatedly amongst themselves while continuously looking back at Nisha and me as we walked away

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