Friday, November 28, 2014

Around the Apartment

Here's an insider's look at expat apartment living in Mumbai. Bungalows (houses) are rare in our area so most people live in high rise apartment buildings. This is ours - we are on the top floor of a very long elevator ride which I use to make friends with fellow neighbors. We share a common "garden" with about 10 other buildings but it's only open for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening.


As you enter, you stop at the security gate for them to raise the bar. Visitors have to tell the apartment number of their guests or take their best guess.

You pull under a covering to an open lobby with a security desk and your choice of 4 elevators. The guards always wave and stand up when we come through but more importantly, they stop anyone else from coming up to our floor without signing in and wearing a security pass.

There are four apartments per floor but often one person will buy two on one side and made a massive home. Our front door is on the left and is one of the plainest. People "build-out" their entrances with paneling, stone work, paint, furniture, plants, or temples. Shoes are left outside the door. We arrived home to a pile of shoes and knew the air conditioning repair guys had finally shown up! But what we really need is a double door like the one on the right so you can stay safely locked in while checking out the many people who make it passed security. Assault is, sadly, prevalent so you need to be very cautious about who you let inside. 


Garbage collection happens twice a day - 10 am and 4 pm. You simply put anything you want to throw away just inside the door to the stairs and two guys ride up and down in the elevator with big cans to haul it away. In four months, I've only seen them once. These guys are pros!

The main areas of the house...Most of the oh-so-lovely furniture came with the apartment but we spruced it up a little with some artwork, bookshelves, and a piano to save my sanity ;)

The kitchen sealed the deal. We looked at dozens of apartments that all had narrow galley kitchens that lacked ovens and dishwashers. Pretend you hear an angelic choir singing because that's what I did.


Through the kitchen is a small laundry area where all our drinking, cooking, tooth brushing, and vegetable washing water sits. We use two 20 liter jugs a week which a delivery boy replaces as soon as we call. Through this room is my least favorite invention - the duct rooms.


Each room in the apartment has an individual AC compressor and and each sink has a mini hot water heater - a geyser - which take up a lot of space and create unwelcome heat. The geyser is the small white thing on the left and needs constant resetting (not a normal thing - just an old thing). To activate your hot water, flip the black switch UP - the red light indicates power is on. One cold shower and you learn really quickly to remember that step.

We had the hardest time finding a dryer that actually dries. People line dry their clothes here in these duct rooms (which are roasting hot) or out a window or on a balcony. The problem is that each duct room is wide open to the outside which translates into dust, dirt, and pigeon droppings. We finally found a good sized dryer but it's a steam dryer. Somehow it pulls the water from the clothes, converts it to hot air to dry the clothes, and then collects the remaining water in this container underneath which needs to be emptied every so often.

Down the hall we have three bedrooms, an office, and four bathrooms that each have a door leading into dusty, dirty duct rooms.


This handy gadget dehumidifies the air and gives my hair a chance to look normal around the house. Two of them work 24/7 and both are full each morning when we wake up. Light switches are another really tricky experience. The few electrical outlets are located halfway up the wall on some of the light switch panels, but you have to remember to turn on the outlets or nothing will work - not even the air conditioners. Indians find it wasteful to leave the sockets on so workmen, cleaners, or even guests will switch them all off but I don't notice until my phone isn't charged or dinner isn't cooking or the house is roasting hot. The dial turns on a fan and the little circles on a switch mean there's another switch somewhere in the apartment that operates that same light. There are SO many switches that we still have no idea which one does what or where the twin is. When Ty locks up for bed I can hear "click, click, click, click, click,click" as he searches for the winning combo.


I've saved the best for last - the perks of long elevator waits and 10 minute rides while you stop at every conceivable floor - the roof top terrace! The flight of stairs just inside the front door lead to this oasis.

This wonderful little place we've found to get away from the craziness of India is finally starting to feel like home and that's made all the difference. Now, bring on the visitors!

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Secure Job

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008 inadvertently created a lot of jobs. Security guards were suddenly en vogue and every store, restaurant, hotel, office and apartment building hired them by the dozen to stand at their new gates, collect at their entrances, and to sit in their elevators. Years later, the rituals are firmly entrenched while the actual security part is highly questionable. Most seem really bored and uninterested like this guard at the cell phone store.

We walk through 'security' check points many times throughout our day, we beep and buzz as we step through metal detectors, my purse is scanned and physically rummaged through, a hand wand is ceremoniously waved in our vicinity, but no one has ever given any of the beeping or flashing red lights a second thought.

For example, a trip to the mall requires everyone to pass through security gates at the street, security guards outside the main doors, and airport style security checks at every entrance.

The men go through metal detectors to the left, beep loudly, step on a small platform, get wanded, beep several more times, and walk away. Women go to the right, bags are inspected then scanned while the women enter a curtained booth for a wanding experience, beep several times, and walk away.

Once you're inside the mall, each store has their own security guards with places like the movie theater and grocery stores having a second set of security personnel, metal detectors, booths and wanders. No store will let you enter if you have shopping bags or back packs. A purse is okay, but all other items have to be checked at a counter either outside the store or just inside the door to the store. It is a serious deterrent for shopping - you think long and hard about whether you REALLY want to browse through a store when you know you have to stand in another line to check in your bags and then again to claim them once you leave.

Any purchase you make inside the store, HAS to be stamped by the security guard on your way out. Oh, and by the way, photography is forbidden. 

It is virtually impossible to return things, but if you want to loose your patience and several hours of your life, you need to present a stamped receipt that every employee in the store will feel impelled to study and ruminate on it. If you pay in cash, a second worker has to circle and initial the change given back to you verifying that you actually received it - or more likely, that they didn't keep it.

Even the little grocery stores in our tiny town have metal detectors and bag-check counters. I avoid the Dmart that's popular with the Indian shoppers because you have to wait in an additional line to have your purse zip-tied shut. The cashier has to snip it open at check-out to make sure you haven't swiped something while shopping. This is the Haiko where I do most of my shopping - you can see the clumping of people at the entrance as they wait to get in. You have to grab your grocery cart before entering and hand it to a security guard while another one watches you beep your way through a metal detector before handing your cart back. I keep trying to side-step the metal detectors but while our elderly guard may not care that you beep, he really cares that you attempt to avoid beeping.

When we first arrived, I was constantly getting chased down for not getting receipts stamped or for walking around a security check-point. Now, I rarely give it a second thought. The other day I actually caught myself chasing down a distracted receipt-stamper to get my verification in ink - my very own gold star for a safe and legal shopping experience. No security guards at a restaurant, store, office, or apartment?!? Why, that feels completely unnatural and is the reason why the security guard's job is the most secure thing in India.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Best Friend

Relationships between boys and girls are considerably different in India than in Western countries. Schools and activities are strictly segregated so unless they have siblings, girls grow up associating only with other girls and boys grow up hanging out with other boys. Dating is non-existent, but longed for, and the young single adults in our branch (we have a lot of them) dream about how wonderful American church dances must be - not only do you get to talk with a girl/boy but you get to touch their hand! One of our YSA girls actually went on a "date" with a visiting returned missionary this week. They met at KFC and had a fast food dinner (very little talking and definitely no hand touching) that sent the entire branch into wild marriage speculations, massive amounts of grinning, and knowing head-wagging. She will never be able to talk about anything else!

So the stigma of boy/girl association is quite prevalent, but nonexistent when it comes to guys hanging out with guys. One of the bigger surprises for me were the shear number of guys who ride on motorcycles together. It's so common that when you don't see two guys riding together, you're surprised and hope they are on their way to pick up a friend.

It's also fairly common to see three guys scrunched together on a motorcycle.

What really shocked me into asking piles of questions, were the frequent sightings of guys holding hands. It turns out that holding hands or walking with an arm on another's shoulder indicates a relationship so close that you would trust your life to that person. It's a sign of a bond stronger than brotherhood and it's envied by those who don't have it. Indian men are proud of their friendships.


Normally on a Sunday, we have a substitute driver so Sabby can spend the day with his family and at his own church. This particular Sunday, though, Sabby decided to drive us. He had never seen Ty in a suit before and was very impressed. As we got out of the car, Sabby had a favor to ask, "Sir, could I have a photo with you? And will you put your right hand on my right shoulder - just like this - and hold your brief case in the other hand? Very nice, Sir. You are looking very smart. This is most excellent, Sir. My friends will not believe that this is me!" 

And that is how Ty got his new best friend. Sabby, who I'm certain would lay down his life for Ty, never gets tired of telling me how wonderful 'Sir' is and how blessed he feels by God to work for him and just yesterday he texted me, "I will also be by Sir's side. I'm very happy to be at his service." It would be ridiculous if it wasn't so sweet. There isn't a moment where Sabby doesn't jump to Ty's defense and extol all his virtues. No wonder Indians are proud of their relationships - they have this friend thing perfected.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Hindu Funeral

I walked past this structure several times when we were at the beach a few weeks ago without paying it much attention.

Later, Sabby (our driver) walked by with me once and casually said, "Ma'am, this is for Hindu funerals." Stunned that it wasn't some sort of picnic pavilion remnant, I made sure I had heard him correctly, "Do you mean that this is where people cremate bodies?" Indeed, that is exactly what he meant. My Western sensibilities had just assumed cremation took place inside a building that had a closed incinerator. Fascinated by my lack of knowledge, the entire branch started teaching me about Hindu funerals.

After much animated debating between themselves, this is what they decided I should know:
1. When someone dies, they are cremated within a day - the quicker the better.
2. The relatives and friends wrap the body in a sheet, cover it with flowers, and walk in a procession down the street to the nearest cremation center.
3. Sometimes there is a lot of crying and emotion in the procession (which is mostly men).
4. Someone with an offering walks in front.
5. The family stacks loads of wood to make a base (considerable debate about which type of wood - I think pine might have won...).
6. The body is placed on the wood base with most believing that you took the sheet off to view the face during cremation - a kind of good-bye moment.
7. More wood is piled on top.
8. A family member lights the wood (no agreement on who gets to do this) and everyone stands back to watch. They all vehemently agreed that standing back was VERY important because the brain will 'pop' and you don't want to be a part of that (vigorous head wagging).
9. After the body has finished burning, the ashes are gathered and carried to the nearest body of moving water. It seems they prefer rivers but any water that isn't stationary will do. This is the reason all cremation areas are built next to rivers or seas.
10. The ashes are scattered over the water - none are kept in a vase or container (I asked and they thought it was the most backwards suggestion - who in the world would want to keep ashes in a container in their house?!? That idea was so ludicrous to them that they couldn't think of anything to say (a first) nor find the strength to wag their heads). Oddly, no one seemed to mind the fact that in addition to all the excrement and garbage already polluting their water, there were also human ashes (lots of them!) in the mix.

Armed with my new-found knowledge, I started noticing cremation sites all along my normal route. The beige building in both pictures is the same one from different views. I have seen this so many times and never knew what it was.


Some neighborhoods do use incinerators - their tell-tale narrow black smoke stacks can be seen all over the city (now that I know what to look for). The first one is a very popular one.

And sure enough, off to the side about a half mile down the road from one, there was a procession.

Without Sabby, I'm fairly certain I would have missed all of these things. To people in India, it is a normal part of their lives - they think nothing of it. They were surprised at my ignorance and amused at my curiosity and I am left wondering about what else I'm missing. One more down, about a hundred left to go!