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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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Malaysia

Anyone who knows me will have noticed by now that a major character in my life has been missing from this blog: Food.

Yes, my favorite thing in the world has gone unmentioned because, while I loved the sights and people and culture of Indonesia, I found that the food didn’t knock my socks off. I got into the Nasi Gorings and the Pisang Gorangs (that would be fried rice and fried banana to those of you who inexplicably do not speak Javanese) — but, as they say, it wasn’t anything to write home about. When I crossed the border into Malaysia, however, I found enlightenment.

Where did I find it? In the form of cheesy crabs.

What is a cheesy crab you might ask? Well, it’s very simple and yet while you’re eating it you can’t possibly imagine ever eating anything else again. You take crab meat out of the shell. Mix in some cheese. Put the mixture back in the shell. Then bake. Whoah nelly.

Georgetown architecture

Daniel and I began our time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, which is known as the culinary capital of Malaysia. The main town, Georgetown, has beautiful colonial architecture and is a UNESCO heritage sight. But none of that really matters while you’re eating cheesy crab.

And not just cheesy crab. We also had this dish that consisted of fresh oysters cooked (baked? fried? who knows) into an egg mixture with some herbs and a tomato sauce on top. Or, at another restaurant, we had a lemongrass prawn curry whose sauce I could have just kept eating all day. It was pure delight.

After our food binge in Penang we hopped over to the island of Langkawi. This was intended to be our 2 days of ‘beach time’. Again, anyone who knows me knows that I am not one for sitting on a beach. But Langkawi is a breathtaking combination of stunning beaches, towering mountains, and jungles that come right down to the surf. So while in Langkawi I mostly just read under a tree, looked at the ocean and enjoyed the moment of peace and calm before heading back into Mumbai (while thinking of cheesy crab).

The beach, jungles and mountains of Langkawi

I’d also found some unexpected comforts here. As I’ve been away it’s been continually hard to reconcile the distance that separates me and the people I love. There have been moments where the unfamiliarity has hit me.

But I was lucky enough to have a quick succession of little signs telling me that wherever I am in the world, home is always close by. My first day in Langkawi I was walking along the beach when I saw a sand dollar – it was smaller and more misshapen than the ones we find in South Carolina. But it was undeniably from the same family. A few moments later as I sat reading, I saw that the guy sitting in front of me had a shirt with a palmetto… and a crescent moon… and when he stood up I saw it read “Charleston, SC.” I struck up a conversation with him and it turned out that he had lived in Charleston for a few years and was from Virginia originally. A little piece of home all the way out here with me. I hope that moments like that can help relieve the pangs for home as my days in Asia turn into weeks and months.

We left Langkawi for Kuala Lampur, a complete turnaround. KL (as they call it here) is about as modern a city as you can imagine. We pulled into our hotel and across the street I saw a mall with a ‘Forever 21’ and down the road was a Starbucks. Everything is clean and sleek and anything that hasn’t been built is certainly in the process of being built.

We went to Chinatown for lunch and had another amazing meal. We had laksa, a coconut shrimp soup. We walked around the city’s Chinatown and I couldn’t stop marveling at how the old colonial architecture melded together with the shiny new. It will be an interesting juxtaposition to go back to Mumbai.

But go back we will. Tomorrow night we’ll leave Malaysia and board a plane back to our new home. With our apartment (hopefully? theoretically?) ready for moving in it’ll be round two in the adventures of setting up our life. I think after our time away we’re ready to go back. We’re once again ready to let India take us in.

Addendum:
As I was going through pictures I realized that we were constantly taking pictures of particularly funny signs. Malaysia seems to have an abundance of them. I’m going to share a few below:

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