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Posts Tagged ‘housekeeper’

Rain Be Gone

My extraordinary salad

It was a very weird, unsettling milestone: we ate a salad at home.

This might seem bizarre as a momentous occasion, but as India newbies amidst a monsoon we had steered clear of the most likely route to sickness – raw vegetables. Every vegetable was meticulously cleaned and then cooked. Every fruit was peeled. Hands were washed before eating anything we were about to touch.

Yet in the past few weeks a drastic change has settled into the Mumbai we’ve come to know and love. The rain has steadily stopped. It started with a few days of clouds peeking through the storms. Then longer periods without precipitation. Then full days of the sun declaring its presence. And now, just like that, there’s no more rain. The monsoon has taken its bow and retreated until June rolls around again.

For most who live here its a blessing and a curse. The rains are over but now they settle in for a hot month before it cools down again in November. However for us, its just unfamiliar territory. I am so used to carrying around my small umbrella and stepping out in my waterproof shoes. I am so accustomed to knowing that no matter what the sky looks like, it will absolutely rain today. I am in the habit of not solidifying plans until I can tell whether or not we’ll get a full dose of monsoon or whether there will just be a drizzle.

I had never lived in a world where it rained every single day. And now I must oddly accustom myself to a world where I will not see a drop of rain again for nine months (unless we have one or two surprise rains left to break this spell).

Which brings me back to salad: I (knock on wood) have not had any food-related illness since I have been in India. This is obviously a trend I hope to continue (although now that I’ve put it in writing I’m sure I’m doomed). I think part of it is luck, but part of it has been having a very conditioned approach to food – I avoid anything suspicious, even if I really really want to eat it.

But the rains (and the dirt and disease that comes with the rains) are over and so vegetables are less of a danger. Nisha suggested to me the other day that it was safe to eat a salad.

“I know you are missing salad, so I will clean it really well and make one.”
“Are you sure that I won’t get sick?”
“Ha,” (yes) she said, “I promise you will not get sick. Monsoon is over, lettuce is not bad anymore”

I wanted a salad, so I decided to go for it. That night, I sat down at the table and stared at the freshness in front of me. Cherry tomatoes. Lettuce. Onions. All former enemies now claiming to come in peace. I stuck my fork in. It was so delicious – it felt like the antithesis to every heavy curry spicy meal I’d eaten over the last three months. And I didn’t get sick.

It may be unsettling. But rains, I’m glad you are gone.

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It’s hard to face a birthday in a foreign country where you have few friends and most of your loved ones are thousands of miles (and many hours time difference) away from you.

It’s even harder when you wake up with a severe cold.

I’ve been really lucky since I’ve been here. Other than one night of feeling a bit off, I have not been ‘India’ sick at all (aka food poisoning). All the horror stories of inevitable sickness in the first few weeks had scared me into being very careful – and so far (knock on wood) it’s paid off.

But the monsoon also attracts another, more basic, illness: the common cold. It’s been going around like wildfire here. Friends have had it. Nisha had it. Then Daniel had it. I was doomed to get it. No amount of safe drinking water and properly cooked food could help me avoid the sickness lingering in the air.

I just really didn’t want it on this day.

I’m usually pretty into birthdays (anyone who knows me is laughing at this point, since this is an understatement). I love anyone’s birthday – who can say no to celebrations, cake and giving/receiving fun gifts and cards? But I’d been thinking that this year I would avoid my birthday a bit – how could I celebrate when most of the people I love are far away? I guess my low-key birthday plan had evolved, unbeknownst to me, to include the extra joy of a fever and cold.

When I woke up, it was still the previous day in the US – so no messages were waiting and I couldn’t expect any phone calls for a few hours. Instead I took my temperature – 99.8. I took some Tylenol Cold to try and get back to normal and then I opened some birthday cards my parents and a friend had sent. I figured that would make me feel better, and it did for a moment (they were hilarious). But when I picked up the phone to call and thank everyone, I realized I couldn’t. It was too late on the east coast.

I groggily sat up with my headache pounding. So this was it, huh? Daniel was at work (to be fair, he had arranged for me to get a massage in the afternoon and had planned a great dinner, so Daniel gets bonus birthday points) so I was just in my house alone with a minor fever, a major cough and some birthday cards from people too far away to share the joy with. I must have looked pretty pathetic.

And it figured – the previous day Nisha had explained that my birthday was cursed anyway. To Mumbaikers, July 26 is a very bad day. On July 26 2005 Mumbai saw some if it’s heaviest flooding ever – over a thousand people died, countless lost homes and many people were without power and transportation for days or even weeks.

Nisha explained, “When you say ’26 July’ to someone, it is understood you’re talking about that very bad day. I personally couldn’t get home for 3 days. When I finally made it back, my whole house was flooded and all our gas cylinders were burst”

So who was I to complain about anything mildly bad that happened to me on the 26th of July?

I was determined to turn my day around – a cold was no reason to let the day get ruined. And then, as if right on cue, Nisha came in the door with a huge bag.

Birthday flowers in a bundle!

“What is that?” I asked.
“Birthday present!” she said, pulling out a dozen pink roses. But then there were more. Like multi-colored performers jumping out of a clown car, she pulled one bouquet after another out of the bag until the whole counter was covered.

“You didn’t have to do this!” I said, shocked at the amount of flowers taking over my apartment. I had never received so many flowers in one moment in all my life.

“Oh, I got a good deal,” she shrugged, “And my sons told me I wasn’t buying enough! I figured this would work though.”

I smiled. It definitely would work. It brightened my whole morning. It shook me out of my silly funk and reminded me that I was here, in India. I had chosen to come here; I had known I would be far away. And I was trading the comforts of home for one year so that I could have new experiences and meet new people.

flowers in vases

And I was reminded of that again as Daniel and I were coming back from dinner – I had spent most of the day trying to ignore my sickness, enjoy my flowers and enjoy a day of relaxing. I’d dressed up to go out to dinner so that even if I felt gross on the inside I could fake it ’till I made it on the outside. However, I was tired, and the day had been my first real cold reminder of how far away I was from my regular life.

My amaaazing birthday cake

But, as that thought was sinking in, I got a phone call – two of my new friends here had baked me a cake and wanted to know if I was well enough for them to bring it over. I said of course (sickness never trumps cake).

I soon answered the door and was handed an incredible vanilla cake with a pear/mango/deliciousness filling. I made some lemongrass tea and we sat around and talked for a few hours. I didn’t feel sick and I certainly didn’t feel alone.

I’d made it past my first real day of feeling actual-sick and homesick, and I’d made it past pretty well. This July 26th wasn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think it’ll be a very good year.

P.S. If that cake looks good to you (and it should, because it was awesome) the recipe for it will be posted tomorrow on http://bobosbakery.wordpress.com. Not only do I have a new friend who bakes, she also shares her recipes. How great is that?

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If you’re ever hoping to sound stupid in front of an Indian person, try explaining Halloween.

It’s easy to forget that some of the most ingrained elements of American or Western life have no corollary here.  Most basics like food and clothing can be compared to Indian food or clothing. But some concepts just don’t translate.

On this occasion, it all started with my pirate peeler.

My pirate peeler with its 'pumpkin' peels

My pirate peeler is one of  my favorite possessions – it’s a basic peeler painted to look like a pirate. Nisha used it to peel pumpkin (or what she called pumpkin – it looked to me like a long green squash, but who am I to argue) and thought it was very funny.

“What is this supposed to be?” she asked.
“It’s a pirate!” I replied, not realizing how dumb I probably sounded.
“What?”
“You know? Pirates? Did you ever see Pirates of the Caribbean?” I lamely exclaimed, hoping that those movies had perhaps made their way here.

“Yeah, I know,” she nodded.

“Well, at University my roommates and I liked pirates and we dressed up like pirates for Halloween and so for Christmas one year one of them got me the pirate peeler.”

Nisha stared at me like I was speaking gibberish. And to her, I was. Here I was telling her that I dressed like a pirate while supposedly studying at University.

“I assume there’s no Halloween here?” I said.  Nisha looked at me blankly. Then I started digging the hole:

“Well, it’s this holiday. I think it originally came from a holiday called All Hallows Eve where spirits and ghosts could come out. Then somehow… it became a holiday where children dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for candy.”

“Why candy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it religious?”
“No.”
“What kind of costumes?”

I was starting to feel like the whole thing sounded ridiculous to someone who had never seen it. And it is a little ridiculous. But it’s an accepted part of our lives so I’ve never questioned it.

Culture is a funny thing – to most of the world, unique traditions probably can look incredibly stupid.  Many evolve over time to the point where they’re impossible to rationally explain. Why DO we give candy and dress up on Halloween? Why is the birth of Jesus celebrated most often with presents and Santa?  Why do most Americans (of Irish-descent or not) take St Patricks day as an excuse to wear green and drink?

I’m sure there are reasons – but the average person couldn’t explain why. We just go along with it because its something we’ve always done and its fun.

But, right as I was feeling like I could never explain Halloween, I was reminded that ridiculous cultural traditions may each be unique- but everyone has them.

“My favorite festival in Mumbai is Ganesh Chaturthi,” Nisha said. “All the Hindus take statues of Ganesh and bring them into the sea. That probably is as crazy as Halloween.”

And just like that, I didn’t need to explain myself.

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“What are you doing here?” the woman asked me as she openly stared at me. She looked at me from top to bottom — from my white face, to my green and gold kurta, to the waterproof crocs on my feet.

“You mean, in this frame shop?” I responded. I had come to this store to buy frames for the Batik’s we had purchased in Indonesia.

“Nahee, nahee. Here in Bombay. What are you doing here?”

The question wasn’t meant as rude. In fact, I get it quite often because here, I am an oddity. I stand out.  Because of this, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to stare at me as long as they want and to verbalize whatever questions their inquiring minds are bursting to ask.

In India, these questions are normal: Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you here with your husband? Do you HAVE a husband? Where are you living?  Everyone wants to know. And so the solution is very simple –they just ask.

“I live here. I’m living here in Bandra.”
“Ah. Ok.” She then turned her honey colored eyes towards my paintings. “Where are those paintings from?”

Before I could answer, another younger woman decided to pipe up, “Did you paint them? What is this kind of painting? What is this material?

“No,” I responded. “I bought them in Indonesia. It’s wax on cotton and the type of painting is called Batik.”

The women wiggled their heads in affirmation that I had given them the answers they were looking for. Everything was ok now. Their curiosity was satisfied and I was deemed acceptable because I had willingly answered all of their questions, like a good foreigner living here should.

I said thank you to the man who had taken my order (who seemed very glad that I had answered all the questions he had probably been wondering) and went home.

I walked into the apartment and plopped down with a cup of tea, happy that in at least one place I wasn’t strange.  But as I sat reading the paper, the doorbell rang.

I opened the door to an elderly woman in a long colorful sari. She smiled at me.

“Namste,” she said. I replied, “Namaste.” I, of course, didn’t know what to say in Hindi past hello. I made a mental note to ask Nisha how to say, “How can I help you?”

Nisha heard that I was stuck and walked over. She started speaking to the woman in Hindi.  This wasn’t unusual — we’d had people at the door practically ever day. Do you have any papers or cardboard to pick up? Do you need bottled water? Do you want to buy vegetables? Do you need someone to help clean the house?  None of these people ever spoke English, so I was happy Nisha could always politely say “no thank you.”

I listened to the conversation in Hindi, hoping to pick up a few phrases. I, of course, could only really understand the words that were in English. To me, the Hindi conversation sounded like:

“Hindi, hindi, more hindi, lots of hindi, English, a bit more hindi, way more hindi, macaroni, hindi, hindi, concluding hindi.”

The woman said thanks and left.  I turned to Nisha.

“Did you tell her we were English and therefore only ate macaroni?” It was my only guess based on the two words I had known.

She laughed.  “Yes, she was coming here trying to sell vegetable. She wouldn’t hear no, so I told her that you didn’t like Indian food and only ate macaroni every day.”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was, once again, the crazy foreigner.  it’s so funny that to people here, the idea that white people could eat only macaroni all the time seems plausible.

Why wouldn’t we eat macaroni all the time? We look different. We dress different. We speak English in a way that’s hard for people to understand even if they DO speak English.  Why wouldn’t it seem completely normal that we might eat only strange food all the time?  It was a very good excuse that Nisha had created, because now that woman wouldn’t bother us again. So what’s the harm in saying I eat only macaroni?

I am an oddity. And for now, that’s ok.

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I made 200 rupees today.  That may sound impressive. And perhaps it is. But you should know that 200 rupees equal a whopping 4 dollars and 28 cents. But I made it from selling something that I formerly considered trash.

Our apparently valuble cardboard boxes

I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday I said to Nisha and Ray (the manager of all the work going on in our apartment, who today fixed a broken light, our broken toilet and a broken doorbell. There seems to be always something new!) that I needed to find a way to throw out the many furniture boxes we had sitting around. I couldn’t put them outside because of the monsoon but they were just taking up space in the spare bedroom.

“Throw out?” they both responded, looking at me like I had three heads.

I stared back. “Well, we have to get them out of the house eventually,” I said a bit sheepishly. I didn’t know what I’d said that was incorrect but clearly I was in the wrong somehow and I might as well be preemptively embarrassed for my own stupidity.

“No, you get these guys,” Nisha explained in the manner of someone talking to a very nice but very slow child, “they come around every day. They buy cardboard and newspaper from you. You can get money for it.”

“I tell guy at gate if they come by to send them up,” Ray said, as he walked out of the apartment, clearly on a mission to inform my doorman (or “guy at gate”, apparently) to send strangers into my house foraging for heavy-duty paper products.

And as promised, they arrived the next morning. They came in and sternly began evaluating my ‘goods’. They spoke in quick, sharp Hindi to Nisha. She turned to me and said, “They’re offering you 150 rupee. I don’t think that’s enough.”

“Well, tell them that it doesn’t bother me if they sit in the extra room for a few more days.”

“Yes,” she said, “Good. We’ll get them to 200.”  She talked animatedly to the man in charge, clearly rejecting his initial offer. He moved away from her and started to look at the boxes more closely. I wondered what on earth he was trying to find. It clearly was part of his negotiating strategy.

She leaned over to me as he looked away. “Say to me loudly that you don’t need the boxes to go away yet if they don’t give a fair price.”

I just looked at her. “They don’t speak English, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know the difference.”

To make the point, I said some make-believe gibberish about pigs flying in my most stern voice to see if I could get Nisha to laugh. She did, but with her back turned to the men all they heard was my insistence. Clearly I was VERY serious about pigs flying.

But it worked and we had a deal. The men agreed to 200 rupee and began to collapse and take away the boxes. Nisha took the plastic wrapping off some of the boxes.

“Is ok if I take these? My roof is leaking from monsoon and this will help.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to go over to her house and single-handedly fix her roof (as though I could do that without breaking her roof and/or killing myself). I wanted, though, to not embarrass her.

“Yeah of course. Take whatever you need!” I said, as though my enthusiasm for plastic somehow made it all better.  But it’s only ME who is embarrassed. She seems to feel this is a normal question that shouldn’t faze me as it is clearly not fazing her.

It’s a funny thing, the American guilt. It’s clearly one sided and not even recognized here. She’s not upset; she just wants some plastic.  It’s me who is embarrassed, not her.  It’s me who has to get over it because she was never in it or under it. She folded up the plastic without noticing my own pathetic internal Greek tragedy.  And the boxes continued to be collapsed and taken away.

Victory! The newly earned 200 rupee

A moment later, once they finished, I opened my hand and two crisp 100 rupee notes were pressed into it.  Success. It was my very own trash into treasure story, but clearly I could take no credit for the victory.  It marveled in the uniqueness of that experience.

“Some things are very different here,” I said to Nisha.
“Like what?”
“Well, I never knew you could sell cardboard to men who came to your house.”

Just then the monsoon started up again and the noise took over the room.  “And this constant rain is different,” I said.

“You don’t have rain in New York?”
“Well, we have rain, but we have it in short spurts all year.”
“You have rain all year?”
“Yes, but it’s not like this all year. It rains for a day or two then it doesn’t rain for a few weeks. Then it rains some more and then no rain for a bit.”
“Even in winter? Or spring?”  She was clearly shocked at the idea of rain in November or March.

That question, that kind of moment, is when I’m reminded that there’s a whole world whose experience with even the most basic parts of humanity – such as rain – is completely different to my own.  There’s no right or wrong – just a whole new way to see the world.

I had spent a larger portion of my day at a coffee with the American Women’s Club than I did with the boxes or the conversations about rain. But the interaction with the day-to-day life of India stuck with me more than the attempt to find remnants of home here (even if it was nice to be around a bevy of American accents for 2 hours and I will definitely be happy to have those coffee respites while I’m in Mumbai).

What a world of learning I’ve entered into. Today: rain and cardboard. Tomorrow, who knows what’s next.

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I woke up with a start at the sound of something hitting the roof so hard it seemed the ceiling could collapse.  I squinted at the time. It was 6:30am. The sun was just starting to peak out from behind the buildings – but it was covered by a full heavy sheet of rain, the source of the pounding. No thunder or lightning accompanied it. The volume of the rain itself made enough sound to wake me, and it seemed like there was no chance it was waning anytime soon.   With that in mind, I got out of bed and began to get ready for the day.

It was meant to be a full day of apartment finishings – the gas needed to be connected, furniture assembled, internet installed, cable dish secured to the roof and curtains hung. I groggily got up, preparing myself for the day ahead, and went into the bathroom. 

Our lovely broken toilet

For all the steps forward we would have that day, I was about to get one severe step back: As soon as I sat on the toilet I heard a crack. A moment later my left side gave out and I was tumbling sideways. The toilet had cracked off the wall and water was spilling out.

I stood there, watching and marveling at the distinctly poor engineering and installation that must have occurred for my small frame to have broken this large instrument. I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. Of COURSE the toilet fell off the wall. In our brand new gleaming apartment we still couldn’t escape something breaking even as we were already working to get other things fixed.

The water soon stopped spilling and I stopped laughing.  I pulled myself together because the day needed to move forward. Nisha arrived and was soon managing all the various workers who had come over. At the same time she was washing and preparing vegetables.

She was like my own personal godsend – translating everything into Hindi and back, constantly asking if I was hungry and giving Phoebe a pat every time she walked by. How did I ever manage without this woman?  I loved the smell our apartment took on as she unraveled a cilantro-esque herb from its twine wrapping.  And I loved hearing her firm voice with every worker who she felt wasn’t doing their job properly. She was looking out for me and I truly needed the help. My earlier discomfort was being replaced with sincere appreciation for her presence.

She asked later if we could call her old employer – the woman wanted to speak with Daniel and I to make sure WE were good enough for Nisha. We gladly obliged and got further confirmation that we’d struck a pot of lucky by finding our new member of the family.

Throughout the day she and I watched over the goings-on in the apartment while we chatted about life and homes and our pasts. The only English that would trip her up were idioms, like when I mentioned, “I stick out like a sore thumb” or “that toy of Phoebe’s has seen better days.”   She would look at me with a blank expression and I knew I was failing her. I caught myself later as I used the phrase “good cop, bad cop,” and realized I would really need to be more cognizant of this if I didn’t want to suddenly sound like I was speaking gibberish.

I still felt pangs of my initial guilt. As I took an orange out of the refrigerator to peel Nisha came over and said “give it to me.” I thought maybe she needed it for something else but as I stood there I watched as she started peeling it for me.

“You don’t have to peel my orange for me,” I said, trying to still sound nice and appreciative while getting the point across. It didn’t work.

“Don’t be silly” she said, with a finality that made me think I shouldn’t fight her on it.

Phoebe waiting for all the work to be done!

“Ok. Shukriya,” I said, meaning thank you. I’d asked her to teach me one Hindi phrase ever day and that had been her first.  My phrase of this day was “Chai penge,” or, “Do you want tea?” She laughed at my pronunciations but I was glad to be learning.  And I used that original phrase over and over to every person who was helping complete all the tasks that had to be done throughout the day – gas was connected. Tv mounted on the wall. Furniture assembled.  Progress!

Nisha left at 7pm after having cooked a meal of roti and bindi (also known as flatbreads that she made from scratch and an okra based vegetable dish).  I waited for Daniel to come home before eating. We both took bites and looked at each other – it was amazing. Sorry to every cook in the south whose okra I’ve ever loved, but THIS was certainly an okra revelation.

The toilet in our room still remained in pieces on the floor. But I couldn’t seem to think of that while bindi and roti sat on my plate. The morning’s small step back was dwarfed by the meal in front of me and the thought of all the day’s steps forward.

Revalatory okra

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

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

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

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

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

Monsoon soaked happy Phoebe

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

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

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

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

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