As evidenced by the extra tab on top, I love the signs in India. On my recent travels I’ve picked up a few more and they are all posted on the ‘Amazing Signage’ page.
But I’m posting my two favorites here:
I know it’s the most boring topic one can write about… but sometimes you just have to mention the weather.
When I started this blog it was just the beginning of the monsoon. The rains were a constant reminder that I was slogging along in this city – everything I did took longer because I was new and everything was more difficult because of unfamiliar impediments. It was beautiful but challenging.
For me the city was a place of rain. The view from my window was misty and gray. And so I made my header for this blog a photo from our porch, my own personal view of Mumbai.
The longer I’ve lived here and the easier my day-to-day life has become, so too has the weather morphed from rains to heat to the sunny balmy winter. And the blog needed some changes to go along with it, starting with a more weather-appropriate photo. The header now at the top is a photo from today. Dry, sunny and beautiful (Of course, this winter solace is already starting to be replaced by rising temperatures and I’ll soon get to see the city through the prism of a prisoner of the heat wave).
Additionally, I’ve updated the signage page with some particularly amusing signs from my trips to Tamil Nadu, Munnar and Rajasthan – so for a good laugh click on the page at the top (‘Amazing Signage’).
I’ve also added a visit-widget to the side of the blog. WordPress recently sent me an email about my 10,000th visitor, which is pretty mind-boggling for me to think about (and they don’t even count my own visits! ha). So I’ve added the tally to the side, mostly as a reminder to myself about how lucky I’ve been to be able to write about something I find so interesting that hopefully a few others have enjoyed hearing about as well.
Anyway, I’ll have another real post soon but for now I wanted to explain the changes and mostly just extoll the virtues of this lovely, soon-to-be-fleeting weather.
I’ve been wanting for awhile to add an extra page to my blog extolling the virtues of India’s signs. And I finally have.
You see, a lot of the things I see here deserve one simple posting. But the signs are one of my favorite parts of India. They run the gamut- they’re politically incorrect. They’re gramatically incorrect. They remind you of crazy scenarios that don’t exist in other countries. And sometimes they just have their own charm about them that makes you shake your head and say, ‘this is India.’
So I’ve made a page (click here to go) and I’ll keep adding more photos as I see them. But for today: thank you advertisers of India, you keep me constantly amused.
A few of my favorites:
There’s a whole slew of signs like this one. In America you’d have luxury brands with taglines like “Now everyone can have this item.” Here it’s always “You can have this if you’re incredibly elite. Nothing reminds you of the caste system like a sign that extols the extremely un-American value of all men NOT being born equal (and then making sure that the point has been made by adding “So True”).
Why would God not approve? Why must we invoke God into our littering campaigns?
I love the mangled English and the implication that a ‘fresh’ graduate is akin to a lemon or lime. The real question is: when do we go rotten?
This is one that’s funny because its so Mumbai and so unintentional. The Mumbai bus service is called ‘BEST’ (whatever that stands for. Like MTA in New York). But, of course, anyone without that know-how would assume this sign just means that you’re about to get on the very best bus in a very special lane. It made me laugh when I first saw it and even after it was explained to me, I still like the idea that no one seems to have caught on to the joke.
I started missing Western hospitals right around the moment that I was standing in a thin hospital gown with my face against an X-ray machine while a small man steadied my head so that my nose was touching the right spot on the panel.
This adventure had begun about an hour and a half earlier. My ‘birthday’ sickness hadn’t gone away, and a full week later I had started to wonder whether it was time to finally let a professional have a look. I’m usually a wait-and-see kind of person – if it sounds like a cold and feels like a cold, I usually assume it’s just a cold. But I’d had a low-grade fever every day for 8 days and my coughing was starting to scare small children, so I ventured out to a hospital.
We were lucky that a colleague of Daniel’s had recommended a doctor at Lilavati Hospital, one of the supposedly better hospitals here in Bandra. We made an appointment for today (shocking) by talking to the actual doctor (also shocking) and we were on our way.
Right off the bat we learned that the most interesting difference between an American hospital and an Indian hospital is that in India (or, at least, at Lilavati hospital) you pay up front. There’s no “We’ll bill you later” and there’s certainly no chance to see the doctor and then pay. You go to a desk, tell them what you’re there for, they give you a plastic card that’s wired with your information, and then ask for your credit card. It’s also shocking that to see the doctor only costs about $17.
We waited for about half an hour. I sat and watched the crowd as everyone sat there patiently. There were men and women of all ages – some were dressed in modern clothes like button down shirts and jeans and others in full-length saris. But the one commonality was that everyone turned their heads sharply to stare at me every time I coughed.
When we went in to see the doctor he went through the basic procedures – although the light to look at my throat was an actual flashlight. He had a desk that he sat in when he wasn’t examining me. There was nothing on the walls and no windows – it was an odd room to spend your entire day in with people coughing and sick all around you.
When he was done looking he immediately diagnosed me with a chest infection – the doctor said it’s been going around in the monsoon and he’s seen a lot of people with it. Apparently it mostly just manifests itself as the bad cough and cold I’d been experiencing. He assured me that some antibiotics should do the trick, but he also wanted me to get some blood drawn and take a chest x-ray just to be safe.
I had to go back to the front to pay for my new procedures before I could continue. It was 840 rupee combined for my x-ray and my blood tests (Divvied up that meant my blood test cost about $5 and each of my two x-rays would be about $6). I took my payment slips and walked over to the blood lab – it was in and out, very efficient. It certainly seemed like this private hospital had found a good system for getting everyone from one treatment to the next.
I went and waited for my x-ray. I sat next to a woman in a burqa on one side and an entire family surrounding one seemingly sick person on the other. It was two microcosms of India in one waiting area.
I looked around at the signs on the wall to occupy myself while I waited. One stuck out to me: “Determination of the Sex of the foetus is not permitted in this hospital. It is legally prohibited.” Apparently there’s been a problem with sex-selective abortions in India, and this is the only way to curb it. People told me later that it got to be such a huge problem here that they just outlawed allowing people to know. It’s signs and notices like that that sometimes jar me into remembering how stark the cultural differences can be here. While I was sitting around marveling at how modern and Western-seeming the hospital is, that sign was a poke in the arm telling me not to get too comfortable.
But as I was getting lost in that thought, the x-ray technician beckoned me in. I changed into a hospital gown and he led me over to the standing x-ray. He carefully pushed my face up against the machine, seeming very concerned that my nose press up against an X in the middle. When the x-rays had been taken he handed me over my very own copy. Apparently I’m as entitled to one here as my doctor.
I picked up my prescriptions and went home – the whole ordeal had taken less than 2 hours and cost me only a bit more than $30.
Of course the funniest part came when I realized quite how many prescriptions I’d been given. Maybe my new doctor believed in the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, or maybe he just wanted to be extra cautious with the white people, but I walked away as the proud new owner of a large stash of medications. He’d given me two separate antibiotics (why?), a pro-biotic prescription supplement, an anti-inflammatory normally reserved for ulcers, an antiseptic ‘germicide gargle’ (basically just iodine and alcohol with mint flavoring), and a cough suppressant with codeine.
At least he wasn’t taking any chances? I decided to self-diagnose that I wouldn’t need both antibiotics and that the anti-inflammatory and codeine-ridden cough suppressant could be put aside. I was going to get better and I was going to take my new Indian doctor’s advice, but I was still keeping a bit of my American sensibilities.
I’m still sort of proud that I haven’t gotten sick from food (knock on wood), and experienced the true ‘India’ sickness. But now I’ve at least been initiated into monsoon sickness and had my first dose of Indian health care – as well as my new ‘germicide gargle.’
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Spitting Spreads TB. Don’t Spit”.
Seeing a bumper sticker with that phrase was the first thing that made me laugh after sitting in 15 minutes of silence leaving the Mumbai airport. I’d been trying to take everything in. Here it was, my new home Mumbai. Madcap, colorful, dirty, amazing. And apparently hilariously straight forward and matter of fact.
After walking out of the airport and losing the ability to see due to the humidity hitting my glasses and fogging them up, I got a reality check. As we drove into our new city, I kept wondering: How can an American raised in South Carolina, used to living in New York, adapt to this environment? I let that marinate as we drove past the construction, the families of 5 crowded onto one scooter and the buses with dozens of faces starting back at my own. We were only on the highway and I was already overstimulated.
But then Daniel pointed out the bumper sticker. And the feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted from traveling was overtaken by the sheer excitement of living in a place that could be so many contradictions at once.
As we continue driving in, the most glaring thing I notice about Mumbai is that the disparities everyone talks about when India is mentioned are so overt its shocking. It’s not just that some people are wealthy and others are impoverished – it’s that two cities are co-existing and growing together, like two plants in the same pot. The seemingly brand new gleaming glass Price Waterhouse Coopers building is in between two dilapidated buildings. The whole city is one big construction boom with modern towers coming up inside of shaky scaffolding and built by cranes with the paint peeling off. Mumbai’s modernity fights with it’s past right in front of you.
As I’m thinking this, looking at a sleek highway with a shantytown under it, I am jolted. A young girl has just pressed her face against our car window and she’s staring at me, hoping for money. I look down – everyone I’ve spoken to has warned me that this will be the hardest thing to adapt to. How can anyone say no to helping a child staring at you? “But you have to just say no”, I’ve been told over and over again. “The money won’t go to them”, “It keeps the cycle of poverty” “you’d go broke”. I heard it all from the comfort of Manhattan. Nothing prepares you for it. So I just don’t look. And when we drive away I look at the window and see there’s a smudge from where her face was – it’s there for the rest of the day, a constant reminder that I’m entering a world that, for an outsider like me, will be infinitely more complicated and difficult than the one I left.
We arrived at our guesthouse in Mumbai’s suburb of Bandra and I was happy to put down my belongings and rest for a moment. Wireless internet. Bottled water. Air conditioning. The city of contradictions had quickly made me a contradiction – one moment you worry about all the difficulties you’re seeing right in front of you. The next you’re thanking your lucky stars that you’ve been allotted the amenities you crave.
We left before we our jetlag coerced us into napping. We drove to South Bombay and stopped at the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s own Statue of Liberty of sorts, the first thing a ship would see from the Harbor. It’s a remnant of the city’s British past but today it is pure India. Indian tourists cram in to take photos while vendors sell food and horse carriage drivers try to recruit passengers.
We finished our day driving through the neighborhoods of the Southern end of the city – I was surprised to see that this area was still just as busy and hectic as the rest. I’d read that the house prices, in relation to per capita income, are the most expensive in the world. Yet the constant construction, the sleek buildings next to crumbling relics, the new spas next to abandoned unfinished concrete — it was still there even in the mecca of Mumbai real estate. It made me love the city a little more.
We drove back to Bandra over the sea link, which connects the southern part of the city to it’s north. I laughed when I realized it looks just like Charleston’s new Cooper River Bridge. A little piece of home connecting Mumbai together.
It’s a lot for one day. And even that long rambling explanation doesn’t even come close to covering everything I saw. But that’s what you get from one day in India – a lot of observations and not a lot of time to gestate. But I’ve got that time laid out in front of me. I’m excited for the year – still a little overwhelmed, but ready for tomorrow.