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Posts Tagged ‘Phoebe’

Locating the Zen

I’m having a difficult time moving my body today. And no, it has nothing to do with my recent illness.

It really mostly has to do with my own sad un-athleticism and lack of doing anything remotely representing a workout for years and years of my life. That is, of course, until Daniel and I started yoga.

When you move to India, everyone seems to think that the natural thing to pick up is yoga – why not learn about America’s favorite Indian import in the land of yoga itself? But for a long time I avoided doing yoga much like I’ve avoided doing anything athletic my whole life. As a New Yorker you can convince yourself that you don’t need to work out because you walk so much. And for me this was always a bit true – I’d walk the dog every morning and night. I’d walk to and from work. I kept up a brisk pace in all this walking. It seemed to me like I was moving enough to avoid a gym.

But in Mumbai, there’s not a lot of walking. There aren’t a lot of places to take a stroll. And even when you are near a place you could stroll, the weather (monsoon or extreme heat) usually makes it seem sort of unappealing. So Daniel and I both agreed, after living here for some time, that we needed to try something in order to not resemble the elderly when walking up a flight of stairs. Yoga it is.

To avoid extreme embarrassment we agreed it would be best to have a teacher come to the house. Luckily here that ends up being cheaper than most large yoga classes you’d find in New York. On recommendation from a friend we were put in touch with Niranjan, a yogi who specializes in private instruction. We agreed he would come four times a wee, whip us into shape and perhaps give us a little enlightenment.

He showed up for the first class and we introduced ourselves. Phoebe was jumping around excitedly, as she always does when a new person arrives, and he leaned down very slowly and calmly to pat her. He quietly asked if we were ready and then led the way.   He certainly had the demeanor of a yogi – every step seemed deliberate; every move was fluid. I began to think that he was in for a big treat with us.

We began with breathing exercises that made my head feel light. Niranjan assured us this would get better with time. Then we started with some asanas, or positions. Our flexibility was certainly in question. Daniel couldn’t really cross his legs, and needed the help of a pillow to do it. I kept losing my balance when I needed to stand on my toes. But with every apparent failure Niranjan would just smile and say, “In time, you’ll be able to do.”

Phoebe found this all quite a bit more exhilarating than we did. She didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was going on, but to her it seemed like one big game. With every move or position change she’d try to lick our faces or sit on the yoga mat or run in circles expecting us to follow. She sized up Niranjan and would only sit quietly next to him, looking up and hoping he would give her another pat. She certainly didn’t understand why her parents looked so tired and strained. I’m sure Niranjan began wondering very early on whether the pathetic white people with the overly-excitable dog could ever really accomplish anything.

By the end of the first lesson I was starting to look forward to the asana where you lie flat before going into ‘cobra’ pose. My arms were like jelly and my legs were stretched to a point where it was tiring just to stand. Our ‘Yoga for beginners’ is not an easy route to greater flexibility and balance. It is an all-out full-body workout with an instructor who corrects us when we’re trying to cheat and and ensures us that we actually can go into our sixth mountain pose, even if we’d rather just lie down and take a nap. He does this all while maintaining his unbelievable air of calm and demonstrates every pose that is being done incorrectly with indescribable ease.

By the third lesson Niranjan seemed to beleive that we had already begun to improve flexibility. “Look at how much further you can go toward your toes?” he said as I leaned over, grasping more for my calves than my toes. He put his hand on my back and pushed me to try a little harder, grab a little further. Daniel was able to cross his legs without the pillow.

I know these are not drastic improvements. I was still winded by the end and my body still hurts today. But slowly, with a lot of practice and a lot of help, I think we’ll get better. I’ll still probably look forward to the breathing and meditating more than the asanas, but it all comes as a package. Four mornings a week we’ll do salutations to the sun and hope we’re improving our bodies a little bit too. India style.

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Grow Up

For some reason it has started to hit me more and more lately that we live here. For a long time we responded to queries about of length of time in Bombay with, “Oh we just moved here.” But it’s funny how time creeps in and you go from having been here for days to having been here for weeks to realizing it’s been more than two months since you stepped onto a plane into a new life.

You begin to notice this shift through your actions. The transition starts with allowing yourself to eat food with your hands and then eventually you let yourself brush your teeth with the tap water and then suddenly you’re responding to everything with “tikke, tikke” and doing your own version of the Indian head bob.

Phoebe before and after the haircut

This all struck me a bit today because Phoebe got her second monsoon haircut and it seemed crazy to think that enough time had passed for that to be necessary.

The first haircut came over two months ago when we had initially arrived- it was instantly apparent that she was suffering from the oppressive heat under her constant mop of long wet dirty fur.  So as one of our first activities here we took her to a groomer and afterward I posted a photo on the blog showing off our new India-ready pup.

But before we knew it, it became apparent that our India-ready monsoon-proof Phoebe had slowly been overtaken, like weeds on a vine, by the initial mop.  And if the growth of hair can be a visual representation of time passed, then she surely had become a daily reminder of the days we’d spent in India.

But, as always, time marches on and Phoebe went to the groomer. When she came out we were once again presented with a lighter, more monsoon-proof version of Phoebe, happy to be free of the confines of the heat.

For a little while with this new short hair she becomes almost like a puppy, able to jump and play without tiring quickly under the temperature.  It’s like she’s excited to move to India all over again and search and seek until the weight of her own hair becomes too much once more.

I suppose it’ll be like a bi-monthly reminder of our length of time here – a cue that every time we get comfortable we have to try and recreate our initial excitement so we don’t get too lethargic.  Like the trip to Pune, we need to be reminded that our time here will go so quickly and we have to make the most of it.  We’ll need to get our own India haircut every few months to remember that we need to keep seeing this place through new eyes.

Ideally, we should never be just settling in, but always responding that “we just moved here.”

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“Sahth, sarth and satr?” I asked. “Don’t those all sound very similar?”

“Oh yes,” Nisha replied. “Sometimes I can’t tell sahth and sarth apart. When people speak quickly you don’t know the difference.”

“But doesn’t that confuse people with numbers? You can’t make seven and sixty sound exactly the same. What if I asked how much something was and you said sixty but I thought seven – I might get really excited by how cheap it was!”

Nisha just laughed as she continued to sort mint leaves from their stalk. I was sitting on the counter and she on her stool – we were both drinking our usual cups of chai and she was (attempting) to teach me how to count.

We’d gotten into a good pattern with our learning. She would teach me a few Hindi words a day and I would practice reading with her. It was a good trade. We’d spent the previous part of the morning trying to go over why certain words in English needed an E on the end.

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

“But why is there an E? Why isn’t it B L U?”

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

“How would I know that that word doesn’t sound like bloo-ee?”

I thought about it for a moment. I really am a terrible reading teacher. I’ve gained a new-found respect for primary school educators– how can you possibly explain the English language when it doesn’t make logical sense?

I’d started with packaging. That was the easiest place to find simple words. On this particular day we were reading the label on a box of flour, and the company’s name was ‘Blue Bird’. Nisha knew all the letters from the beginning, so that had made the task easier. But now we just had to try and learn what each one sounded like in the context of a word.

I looked at ‘bird’. Nisha was sounding it out, “Buh…. Ih… rrrr… duh… Byrrduh…Beard…. Bird?”

“yes!” I said.

“yes?” She smiled at me and then looked at Phoebe. She cupped Phoebe’s face in her hands. “Phoebe, that says bird. You can’t tell because you’re a dog.”

We both laughed. Poor Phoebe was used to staring at us – she sat there hoping a morsel of food would come her way, but instead she had to watch as we repeated words over and over again.

But then it had been my turn. And just as quickly as I had been annoyed with how silly English writing was I soon turned on Hindi.

In English, our multiples of ten are simple. Twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty… It made sense. But in Hindi? Seven and sixty sounded practically the same, but six and sixty don’t even start with the same letter. Why was two ‘do’ and twenty ‘bees’? Why is eight ‘ought’ and eighty ‘asi’? My mind swam with numbers. I just tried reciting.

“Ek, do, teen, char, panch,” I said over and over, counting to five. Nisha chuckled at my pronunciation. Hindi words don’t have hard endings – so while I might say teen with an emphasis on the N, in Hindi it barely registers. At least my pronunciation gives any Hindi speaker listening a good laugh.

And slowly but surely, we’re both coming along. While I can’t pronounce the Hindi words and Nisha can’t understand why English isn’t logical (we had the most trouble with the word ‘onion’. Can anyone explain to me why it is spelled that way?) it’s the small progress that counts. And that’s all anyone can hope for. At least we both have each other to laugh a little bit along the way towards bettering ourselves one day at a time.

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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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It was a moment I’ve been oddly dreading.

At 10am this morning we left our guesthouse and went over to the empty apartment. Waiting for us was Nisha, our new housekeeper, arriving for her first day. She’d been recommended to us through an expat group and we were relieved to have found someone so quickly and someone who didn’t want to live with us (often a requirement here).

I’ve been of two minds about having a housekeeper. One side says: it’s a job for this person, they’re making a fair wage, it’s not that much work compared to larger families. But the other side, the side that has this weird American anti-colonialist guilt keeps saying: how can I pay someone the low amount that they’re asking for? It’s criminal. She’s almost twice your age – she’s supposed to pick up after YOU?  Pick up after yourself.But rationality wins the day. We had accepted the wage she asked for, so it pushed my guilty conscience a bit to the side.

When we stepped out to meet her she took to Phoebe right away, which put me at ease. She and I decided that first up we would go shopping for some household goods.

It turns out that she had previously been working for 12 years in catering, a job that required her to get up at 3:30am every morning to travel down to South Mumbai and begin cooking very early in the morning. She’d gotten sick of it and wanted to be able to spend more time with her two sons. This job will allow her to live at home and keep more normal hours – even if her home is a full 2 hours by train from ours. Guilt for her travel time? Or happiness that a woman who wanted a more manageable job has found one?

She helped me navigate the home store – while every sign and number was in English, the people working IN the store seemed more comfortable and ready to help in Hindi. My early reluctance was beginning to fade. I need this help, I thought.  Then I came up to the register to pay for my odds and ends – cleaning supplies, a few odd dishes to tide us over, an iron – and I looked at the total. I looked at Nisha to see if she saw. She didn’t. The total was only a little bit less than what she was earning in a month. The number blinked at me from the register and I quickly moved to pay.

I met Daniel back at the apartment and I didn’t have time to dwell on the blinking number still burning in my mind.  We had to go get furniture if we ever wanted our empty apartment to turn into our home.

Home Town - India's "Largest Home Making Destination"

We left Nisha with Phoebe and drove out to the aptly named Home Town – an Ikea-esque store in every visible sense. But we found that there was one difference: like every other part of Mumbai, Home Town existed in India Time.

India Time refers to the fact that Indians don’t really seem to suffer from the grips of punctuality. There’s always a traffic jam, always something making everyone late or slower or arriving the next day. And no one here seems to mind because they all live in India time.

Daniel, however, does not. We started inquiring about furniture. “How long until we could have this couch delivered?”

“25 days. It’s not in stock.”
“And this one?”
“25 days as well. Also not in stock.”
“Why don’t you show us things that are IN stock.”
“Ok, this couch here is in stock. 6 days for delivery”
“Why would it take 6 days to deliver something you already have?”

And on and on it went. Our customer service representative, who’d greeted us with a badge that said “Ask me for help!”, was continuously confused by these two gora (aka white people) who didn’t seem to live in the same time zone that they did.  Why ever would we need a mattress quickly? Don’t we understand that things in Mumbai don’t just appear, even if they are in a store only a short drive from our house?

The conversation continued. Daniel asked to speak to the manager. He got them down to two days. It was consensus.

And as a bonus we were going to get voucher for a certain amount off since we bought a bed and mattress set. But the voucher was upstairs. Then it was lost. Then they needed a new one. I looked at Daniel – if he had been a cartoon character steam would have been coming out of his ears as he tried to remain calm. We had to get back to meet an electrician. It would be ok though – they’re all on Indian time too. They expected us to be late.

We came home to a happy Phoebe who looked from Nisha to us and back again. She had given her seal of approval. And as we dropped her off at the train I watched her walk away feeling like the day had gone as well as it could. This is the world we’re living in. Indian time and unfair-seeming wages and all – it was ours now. And now at least we’ll have a guide who can help try to keep us on the right track.

(Just FYI, for anyone who is concerned Nisha is not our housekeeper’s real name. I’ll be using aliases throughout this blog for anyone who specifically hasn’t mentioned that they don’t mind me using their real names)

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I stepped off the plane from Kuala Lumpur and took in the heat and the distinct smell of Bombay. It was time to really sink my teeth into the city. I walked briskly towards immigration with my Residential Permit in hand… and like a car in the back of a traffic jam I halted abruptly.

A young Indian man — also barreling his way towards immigration — had run into an elderly man going towards a flight. The crash sound was perceptible and both men fell back, staring at each other, shocked. I waited for the scolding that the younger man seemed to richly deserve. But instead the elderly man helped his fallen foe up by grasping his elbow and patting him on the back, almost hugging. It was a gesture that said “It’s ok. We all make mistakes.” And then, just like that, they parted.

It’s those small moments that make me feel at home in India so instantly again. There’s a brotherhood and mutual understanding among kinsmen. Mumbaikers number in millions and yet for moments they seem like a small community. I walked into customs and proudly held out my residential permit. Where do I live? Here. I am a resident of Mumbai.

Phoebe in the new, empty, apartment

But by the next morning that little fantasy had been dealt a swift blow.

“We’re just going to leave the apartment unlocked and the workers can come in to finish painting. It’s not like we have anything here yet.”

We were leaving our broker and our landlord’s broker to head to lunch. We’d taken ownership of our apartment and the wheels were in motion. There was painting to be completed and odds and ends to be fixed, but in a few hours some workers would come over and finish.

“You can’t leave the apartment unlocked,” our broker said, matter of factly. “The workers can easily steal your stuff.”

Daniel and I blinked at her, still confused. Nothing had been moved in. “All that’s here is the refrigerator.” Daniel replied.

“Right. They’ll steal that.”
“In broad daylight? A fridge?”
“If you leave anything unlocked – your car, your apartment – big things and small things will be taken. The people downstairs wouldn’t care. Don’t leave anything out.”

Our landlord’s broker nodded enthusiastically. The locksmiths working on changing the locks on our door just carried on without a word. What happened to my trusting, forgiving society?

As I stood bewildered, Daniel silently handed over the box to our new lock that the locksmiths were installing. As if the universe was trying to wipe the smug enjoyment off my face from my stolen moment the previous evening, I looked at the box. Among the ‘Features’ listed (such as Patented Lockable Knob and 3 Heavy Duty Bolts) there was this:

Enables Locking of servants and thieves within your house, it said.

I tried to stifle a laugh. Really? Lock your SERVANTS and THIEVES in. Together? What will they be doing there, I wonder. Locked together the thieves and servants of India are plotting to take over our fridge? Once again, there goes my simplistic romantic view. India is, of course, so much more complex than a few days spent here in its shadows.

I went to lunch and was treated to another piece of home and my past. Catherine Tousignant, my Andover English teacher, was visiting Mumbai on what I wanted to call an “Andover Mission”. They’re working on teaching a more global perspective and as such she and a few teachers are here meeting with students and local teachers to try and find pathways of collaboration. It truly made me a little jealous of current students.

But the day was still dedicated to work. When I returned from lunch there were errands to be had. We have an apartment to fill, after all. The servants and thieves need items to be locked in with.

All the curtains waiting to be purchased

So we started with curtains. Haggling and curtain draping, more haggling and fabrics. Daniel discussed and bargained while I tried to not get in the way. I tried to furtively look the salespeople in the eye – are our prices fair? Or are we always just going to have to accept the foreign price.

“For furnishings, make sure to go to the fixed price stores. There aren’t a lot of them, but you’ll need it,” our broker had said nonchalantly. I find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that we’re going to have to keep proving over and over again that just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we want to get ripped off.

The heat of day and the errands of the day had wiped us out. We came back to the guesthouse (where we’re still staying until we get furniture) to sit down before dinner. I started looking at emails. I looked at the date.

“Oh my goodness, Daniel”, I said after a minute.

“What?”

“It’s our 6 year anniversary today.” We both laughed. We’d talked about it a few days ago in Kuala Lumpur. But somehow the day had just gotten away from us. There’s so much Mumbai absorption that the days and weeks just ran together and took us over. Our old life is hard to keep track of here. And furniture and curtains await.  Oh well. Tomorrow maybe we can keep our heads on straight.

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