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Posts Tagged ‘unpacking’

Our shipment has arrived

I couldn’t believe I had to stand here and watch another heated discussion over cardboard.

Our security guard and the man from our moving company were going ten rounds over which of them got to keep the boxes after all of our belongings had been removed.  I watched, bemused, but nothing could keep me from the happiness of seeing my own items slowly emerge from their lucrative cardboard containers.

We have been in our apartment since June 30th. We had been told our shipment (clothes, kitchenware, some furniture – everything) would arrive the next day, on July 1st. Of course, as with most things here, it took quite a bit longer. Our shipment couldn’t be scheduled to come into India because the monsoon and overbooking had backed up flights. The monsoon?! As though they didn’t know a monsoon was coming and couldn’t have planned for it.  Then the airline left half our shipment behind on the layover in Qatar. Then it had to get through customs.

But here it was, 15 days late, and I still couldn’t get unpacked because somehow cardboard needs to be a recurring theme in my life. Daniel finally stepped in.

“What is the problem?”

“Sir, your security guard says he helped unload so he should get boxes in return.”

“So… again, what’s the problem?”

“Well sir, these boxes belong to our company.”

“No, they belong to me. Don’t they?”

“Well… yes sir. I guess sir.”

“Ok. So lets give him some boxes and you take the rest of the boxes.”

There he was, my mediating hero, solving the second great cardboard dilemma of 2010. Our security guard went downstairs, triumphant at his (partial) victory, while the movers continued to unpack.

As each item came out, our apartment felt more like home. But I was also struck by how many items we’d brought that we wouldn’t need. Every cotton polo shirt or light spring cardigan now appears to me as heavy as winter clothing. I’ve gotten so used to wearing light kurtas and thin cotton leggings or flimsy nylon t-shirts and linen capris.

While we packed most of our winter clothes, we were still foolish to think that we could just fully pack up our old apartment and transfer it uniformly to the opposite side of the world. A good percentage of our stuff is going to be shoved to the backs of closets, never to see the Indian light of day and only re-emerging into the New York air.

The (almost) finished apartment

But it’s ok because we’ve already been preparing ourselves for some of these replacements. Nisha has bought pans for roti’s and a pressure cooker for rice – our wok will probably just get a year off. I’ve already stocked up on free-flowing lightweight clothing and so the out-of-place elements in my closet will just seem new again in a year. Even our kettle will get a breather, since Indian chai needs a pot to boil both water and milk (used in the same proportion).

But while some items are replaced, for the most part it’s a merging of the two worlds – our kitchenware sits in a cupboard next to one of the ubiquitous gas cylinders everyone has here.  Photos of family and friends now intermingle with our new bar and rocking chair.  We can watch our DVDs while looking out the window to see huge Indian crows staring back. It’s a new kind of home — but with our belongings arriving late on Indian time, we’d at least been given a couple weeks to prepare.

Another view of the apartment

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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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As our dinner wound down we were warned, “Make sure you leave before midnight. That’s when the bandh will start and you don’t know what kind of protests there will be.”

We’d been lucky enough to be invited to the home of a friend who lives with her family in South Bombay. Being in a home around a family made Mumbai feel like my own safe home. But we had to escape the previously safe roads before the city turned into the proverbial pumpkin at midnight.

No one knew what the scale of the bandh would be – but we didn’t want to be out and about to find out.

A bandh, as I had learned earlier, is the Indian version of a strike. This one was called by the opposition parties over rising fuel prices and the end to some fuel subsidies.

Unlike any strike we see in the US, this bandh was stopping a billion people from working, shopping, going to school or safely traversing their streets. And even more unlike the US, while the opposition parties sponsor the bandh, it doesn’t just effect the supporters who decide to come out and rally– it shuts the whole country down. It would be as if the Republican Party declared a strike against the health care bill and every person across every state in the nation stayed home for an entire day.

It doesn’t mean that the whole country was necessarily in agreement with the bandh or that every part of India was massively affected. Some cities saw much more active protests and riots. Other cities didn’t appear to participate on any large scale. And even on a more individual level, most of the people we spoke to here in Mumbai were closing shop or staying home more out of a fear for safety than a sign of solidarity with the protesters.

News coverage of the bandh in Mumbai

Then again, there were reports of protests turning violent even in Mumbai, so there clearly was anger over the issue for some segments of the population.

We’d been warned that if we did go out, we should wait until the afternoon, since the protests usually were more active in the morning in order to catch the news cycle and get coverage (some things NEVER change wherever you are).

Last night was our final evening in the guesthouse, since our furniture had arrived and we could officially move in – so our plan was to head over to the apartment in the morning. We figured since we live in suburban Bandra (and most of the municipal buildings and transport centers are in South Bombay) the likelihood of the protesters reaching us seemed slim. But as we watched news coverage in the morning of some of the protests across the country and in Mumbai we decided to heed the warning of the native Mumbaikers we’d spoken to and wait until the afternoon to gather our suitcases and make the short 5 minute drive to our apartment.

An empty Turner Rd - one of the main streets near us

When we left the guesthouse, the street was as empty as if it were 3am – but the sunny skies turned the scene upside-down. Shops were closed and very few cars drove in the streets. The frenetic soul of Mumbai seemed to have vanished and all that was left was the city’s shell.

But the emptiness didn’t seem fearful. Our gut instinct about our portion of Bandra not being a target appeared correct, and we made it easily over to our apartment (so much easier than normal, in fact, since we had no insane traffic to contend with).
We lived out the rest of the bandh in our own oblivious unpacking mode. By the evening both the traffic and the monsoon had returned – all was back to normal. It’s yet to be seen whether the bandh has any political impact. But whatever the outcome, I have to admit that I, at least, was impressed by the massive feat of stopping approximately one out of every six people in the world in their tracks for a day.

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