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Posts Tagged ‘monsoon’

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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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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Crow-cophony

I know this is going to make me sound like a crazy bird lady, but the crows outside my windows drive me nuts.

Mumbai has all sorts of creatures roaming around (I would like to be politically correct and say this is mostly due to the tropical climate, but in all honesty the plethora of animals may also stick around because of the trash layer that permeates a majority of the city). There are lizards of every shape and size crawling outside our walls and occasionally inside. We saw a rat the size of Phoebe on our porch the other night. Cows live on the streets. On our block alone at least ten street dogs have claimed the territory.

My new favorite toy AKA the mosquito racket

And the mosquitoes are so ubiquitous that we had to buy ‘mosquito rackets’ — electric tennis rackets that kill bugs on impact (When I say ‘we had to buy’ I really mean ‘I thought it would be fun’).

I don’t mind most of these things. Nisha is scared to death of lizards, but Daniel and I are ok with just sweeping them away. The rat so far seems to be a one-time thing that only came out due to heavy monsooning. The dogs leave you alone and the cows are normally tied up. And the mosquitoes now offer a chance to watch uncoordinated people try to chase a fast-moving insect around an apartment with a racket (i.e., me).

But the crows are inescapable. They’re inescapable and — dare I say it — a little bit psycho? When I first got here I thought they were like bigger and more tropical looking pigeons. But I was wrong.

Crows are everywhere

The insanity starts every morning as the sun comes up. They fly around, sit on telephone wires and chatter about their mornings. As the day continues they migrate to the rails of my porch. They sit, molt, do their business and look at me as though thinking, “What are you going to do about it?”

But recently, the crazy crows got even weirder. When the monsoon is imminent it would seem normal for animals to act a bit off. But for these crazy birds, ‘off’ is an understatement. The other day heavy rain was on the horizon. So the birds decided to have an angry convention on my terrace. They flew in droves in circles above my head. They didn’t stop – they just circled and circled with a madcap intensity. Dozens gathered to sway on the telephone wires and watch the circling. And the noise was deafening. You would have thought the end of the world was coming (If you need evidence, I’ve embedded a video to give you an idea). I have no idea what started it, but only the torrential downpour of the monsoon could (literally) drown them out.

But it never stops for long. Even as I sit here writing, the birds are crowing. They’re saying goodnight as the sun goes down. I usually get a bit of peace and quiet until morning. Yet even as I write about how obtrusive they are I can’t help smiling – they’re insane and impossible, but even when I want to complain about them they’ve become such a part of my surroundings that I can’t help but feel a bit protective. They’re lunatics, but they’re the lunatics who reside on my porch.

Only a crazy bird lady would say that.

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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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Monsoon, monsoon, monsoon. It’s something we’re going to have to get used to over the next few months and yet I’m still in awe of it. The heavy rains supposedly don’t even come until July, yet the rain woke me up this morning at varying intervals. Sometimes the rain is so heavy you can’t see the trees through the sheet of water.

Phoebe got her first monsoon walk this morning and it was a lesson in grooming – While I may be able to survive with a big umbrella, Phoebe really can’t avoid getting soaked. She tiptoed across cobbled pavements searching for some respite. Phoebe has quickly learned that she also can’t avoid the rains. But, as a result, on a day of errands we decided the first must be for Phoebe to get a haircut. We took a grooming recommendation and dropped Phoebe off in some seemingly very capable hands.

We spent the rest of the day running errands while dodging the monsoon. We stopped at Daniel’s office. Bought a new filter for his camera. ATTEMPTED to get my iPhone unlocked so that I could continue to use it abroad, but sadly, I was without luck. Despite going to a grey market that our broker had recommended I found that I was punished for newness – my iPhone had been recently replaced recently and the newest version is currently impervious to unlocking. So there’s one comfort of home I’ll have to go without – or at least, as the salesmen said, “wait two months and we’ll have it figured out”.
We picked up Phoebe and she looked ready to go! She’d had a cut and even some bows put in her hair (Daniel IMMEDIATELY took them out). I was heartened to see when I got home I had an email from the groomers with a photo of phoebe, with some interesting borders and design below.

On a different note, there’s something else that has been a struggle for me here that is a daily reality check: we all know that old habits are hard to break. But old habits that can potentially get you sick make you feel incredibly moronic when you can’t break them. Try, for example, brushing your teeth with bottled water when you’ve just woken up. See what happens when you’re done. Almost as if on auto-pilot you’ll reach for the handle to turn the water on to rinse your toothbrush. If you’re in India then you’ll add a subsequent action: shrieking with horror at your own stupidity. It’s been drilled into us that Indian tap water is kryptonite for foreigners and woe be the fool who can’t control his own actions. Luckily, Daniel created a logical, if not silly looking solution to this particular problem:

But it’s everything: taking our morning Malarone and remembering to wash our hands before touching it. Eating toast and discarding the portions we’ve touched (I now understand my sister’s life a little better). Keeping your mouth completely closed while showering. Not even biting your nails out of boredom unless you want the dirt under your nails to give you an excuse to spend a day with your head in the toilet. We’re yet to get sick and we’re probably giving our newness away with the paranoia. But that doesn’t mean the tales I hear from every local and foreigner about Indian-style illness haven’t made me want to be carefree about potential illness.

So, with that completely paranoid sidebar aside, we are off to Malaysia and Indonesia for two weeks. We can’t move into our apartment until July 1st and once Daniel begins work it might be awhile until vacation becomes a reality again, so we’re jumping at the chance. “Why Malaysia and Indonesia when you’ve JUST arrived in a beautiful huge country called India?” you might ask. And so for perfect closure to this day’s tale, I take you back – the monsoons. They are everywhere except the himalayas, and I think our jetlagged bodies may not take well to adding altitude sickness into the mix. So we’re off.

I hope to keep writing – these will be travel tales for 2 weeks instead of “moving to a new foreign land” stories, but hopefully it’ll be interesting nonetheless. And June 30th we are back and ready to truly settle in – with a home, a newly groomed Phoebe and a certainty that rain will continue for many weeks ahead.

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