There’s something about being in India that compels me to write. When I was here in June, staying at my in-law’s and then in Chennai, I wrote so much. Well, as much as I could given that my husband and kids were here too, and we traveling around a little, visiting relatives and whatnot.
But this time I’m here alone. I’ll be in class most of the time, but my free time is mine, and I envision that I’ll spend it sharing India with you.
This morning is my first morning here. After traveling for 26 hours to get here, I went to bed around midnight last night and I woke up at 8:00. That’s a good sign that the jet lag will hopefully not be too bad. Last trip, it took me about 4 days to recover.
After getting out of bed, I Facetimed with my kids, called my mom, did a little bit of yoga practice (mostly just laid on my mat), then got dressed.
At 9:30 I ventured out into the common area of the service apartment where I’m staying. This service apartment concept is not something that exists in the US. It’s pretty unique and pretty neat.
This company owns a few apartment units around the city. They are fully managed by a 24-hour onsite manager. The manager at the apartment where I’m staying is a nice young man named Mukesh. He speaks some English, and let me tell you - one day he’s going to make someone a really great husband. More on that in a minute.
Each bedroom in the apartment is rented individually. My room has a queen size bed, a small desk, a TV, a small table and chair, and an attached bathroom. And it has AC, which is important. It’s not fancy - just simple and clean.
There are two other bedrooms in this apartment unit. Each bedroom locks with a key and, as is the norm in India, locks from the inside with a big sliding deadbolt. Well, two in the case of my door - one at eye height and the other is vertical at the top of the door.
The apartment’s common area is very spacious and is furnished with two sofa sets - one wooden and the other wicker - and a dining table always set for six.
Mukesh is responsible for this unit and another one on the 3rd floor. He is the receptionist, housekeeper, concierge, cook, laundry do-er, and tech support. He has a co-worker named Manu who does not speak English and who seems to primarily help out with housekeeping and cooking.
So this morning, when I came out of my room at 9:30, Mukesh greeted me with a smile and went off to cook me some breakfast. I was really tired when I got in last night, but I vaguely remember agreeing that I’d like to eat pooris (puffed up fried bread) and eggs for breakfast.
I could hear Mukesh and Manu busily working in the kitchen, and after about 10 or 15 minutes Mukesh delivered breakfast to the dining table: pooris, a perfect omelet, some delicious tomato-y potato concoction, some fresh watermelon juice, and tea.
So delicious, and so nice to enjoy a meal solo, without kids, without having to cut anyone’s pancake, or warn that someone’s hot chocolate is too close to the edge of the table, or answer 1000 questions like “What is 12 plus 587?”, or take anyone to the potty. I just ate my food. And it was pretty glorious.
After breakfast I changed into my Indian clothes and worked up the nerve to go to the grocery store. Mukesh gave me directions that were simple enough: Go down to the street level, turn right and keep walking, when you see the Crown Plaza take a left and the store is there. He said it was a 5 minute walk.
What his simple instructions didn't take into account is traffic. Traffic in India is something to behold. Everyone just *goes*. In a mass of courteous chaos, cars, big trucks, busses, bikes, and pedestrians co-exist on the streets. And despite the fact that there are few traffic lights or stop signs, there are rarely car accidents.
Special considerations for pedestrians… Sidewalks are not a given. There may be sidewalks or there may not. Mostly not. If there are sidewalks, they’re probably made from pavers that badly cracked, broken, and very uneven. Dirty goes with out saying, as does the occasional smell of urine. Be prepared to bob and weave to avoid the DIY power lines.
In the case of no sidewalk, walk on the edge of the road. Navigate around randomly parked cars, motorcycles, scooters, bikes, vendor carts, construction, police barricades (for traffic control), trash piles, taxis/ubers, tuk tuks (auto rickshaws), and DIY telephone and cable lines.
And if you’re a woman and/or a tourist, be aware of your surroundings and mind your purse and packages. Look like you know where you’re going. I’m not sure of the best protocol for declining the countless offers from taxi drivers for a ride, but I think it’s probably ok to politely say thank you, shake your head, and keep walking, or maybe pretend you didn’t hear them.
One challenge for pedestrians is that there are no crosswalks. And given the traffic situation, walking with the intention of going somewhere is no small feat, especially for someone like me who is accustomed to the relative order of US suburban streets.
Crossing the street is a complicated task that I’m not good at yet. Crossing at an intersection is a death wish. I’m not even going to try that. I’m actually not sure if anyone crosses at intersections - I didn’t see anyone do it on my walk this morning.
I must have looked pretty ridiculous, walking to the end of the block, contemplating how to cross at the intersection, then chickening out and doubling back 100 feet so I could cross in the middle of the street. There is *so* much traffic, in both directions, with cars on the opposite side of the road than what I’m used to, that the safest course I could figure out was to cross half the street at a time.
I’d watch the cars coming from the right, wait for a gap, then cross to the middle. Not a median, mind you, just the middle of the road, more or less, because there may or may not be a dividing line. (I’m hope my mom’s not reading this!) Then I’d watch the cars coming from the left, wait for a gap, and cross to the other side of the road.
I laugh to think about this now. If anyone was watching me try to cross the road I bet it was hysterical.
At one point, I saw a petite woman who looked like she was going to cross, and I just walked when she did. She waited for a small gap in traffic, calmly crossed to the middle, then waited for another small gap, and calmly crossed to the other side. I followed her to the middle, but then I was so spellbound by her ease that I got distracted and didn't manage to cross to the other side with her. So I waited for the next gap and did my best to cross calmly and casually.
Then I walked down to the corner saw the international grocery store, Amma Naana (“Mother Father” in Telegu, which is a language from another state), then remembered that when I was standing in the middle of the road with the petite woman, I had spied a handicrafts shop. I decided to go there before the grocery store.
The Handicrafts shop was like being in a museum. It was filled with amazing brass, bronze, and wood statues of all sizes. The brass and bronze statues were incredible. Small ones and big ones, amazingly artistic and beautiful.
I saw gorgeous brass door handles in the shapes of mango leaves and peacocks and I saw a bronze elephant-themed “chandelier” (it was more of a hanging decoration than a chandelier - it didn’t have a light source) that was really impressive.
But what I really loved were the carved wooden statues and decorations. Oh. Em. Gee. They were amazing. There was an astounding, intricately carved rosewood swing. The pillars were at least 6 feet tall. The bench at least 5 feet wide. Just beautiful. I fell in love with a 5 foot tall wooden Ganesh statue that was made up of 3 parts: the base, Ganesh, and a backdrop/arch. I was spellbound by it.
I saw an enormous, perhaps 8 foot tall Ganesh panel priced at over Rs. 800,000, which is a rupee value I’ve never seen written before. US$12,000. Wow. So many gorgeous things. Makes me wonder who buys them.
After promising the shop owner that I’d come back another day, I made my way to the two next-door grocery shops. I was astounded by the variety of available international foods. But boy, you sure do pay a premium for them!
I picked up a 2L Aquafina water for Rs 35 ($0.52), a converter for my laptop cable for Rs. 75 ($1.10) and a small bottle of Heinz Apple Cider Vinegar (I use it as hair conditioner) for Rs. 350 ($5.15! It costs less than $2 in the US).
I was certain the shop keeper overcharged me for the ACV, so I checked the price in the next door shop. The same exact bottle was Rs. 400 ($5.89!) and even crazier, the Bragg Raw Organic ACV was Rs 900!!! $13.25 for a small bottle of apple cider vinegar! Super crazy.
Glad I noticed that though, so I knew to be cautious about buying American brands while here in India. I picked up a few more staples and headed out.
Oh, a side note, buying groceries in India is very different than buying in the US. It’s probably a chicken and egg thing - refrigerators are smaller (probably by design due to the intermittent nature of available electricity) and foods typically contain fewer preservatives. So people shop more frequently and buy fewer groceries and store them in their little refrigerators for just a couple of days.
The packaging on this tiny loaf of bread instructs the consumer to eat it the day of purchase. How cute is that?! I love the idea of buying less and eating fresher foods, but sadly, it’s a bit of a shock for a person who is used to the super-sized portions, packages, and grocery stores in the US.
Anyway, in addition to the bread, I picked up a small plain yogurt, a few Asian pears and a couple of grapefruits (“malt oranges”) at the grocery store, then carried them back home to the apartment along with my 2L of water, ACV, and a couple of other things. Getting across the streets was a bit easier since I’d figured out a strategy. The weather is relatively mild this time of year, but I was hot and a little sweaty by the time I arrived.
India will be good for me. A little walking, some careful grocery choosing, and lugging the groceries home is good exercise. Plus, it’s a good practice in slowing down and being present. Gotta be present to avoid getting hit by a car. :)