Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Care package

For those of you who have had the pleasure of moving into a new home, you probably know the typical challenges you would face while settling into a new house. Since our move to India is not a permanent one, we did not ship furniture or transfer household goods (like linen, towels, kitchen utensils, cooking supplies etc.). Yet, we moved into our new place on Sunday and were up and running by Tuesday morning.

The secret? Mona's mom!

A few days before we moved in, five large bags and one suitcase arrived by courier from Mumbai. When we unpacked these on Sunday, an endless stream of supplies seemed to flow out of these bags - bedsheets, pillow cases, napkins and rags (all neatly washed and ironed) to kitchen utensils (including fine china) and kitchen supplies. If you are unfamiliar with an Indian kitchen, this is the most complicated part of the household to setup. Indians use about half dozen different types of flour and over three dozen different types of spices. And all of this is specially processed by hand using raw ingredients purchased from shops scattered all over town. Getting our kitchen fully operational would have easily taken over a month.

Mona's mom has surely labored over this for weeks (after returning from a trip to Australia with a broken wrist). She has thought of every little detail in putting together this stuff and has taken into account our special quirks and preferences regarding food. Her thoughtfulness and effort has made our transition into our new place smooth and thoroughly enjoyable.

I salute you, mom!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Homecoming (or going?)

We have finally moved into our new apartment (or flat as it is commonly referred to here)!

Four weeks after we landed in Bangalore, we now have a place we can call home. We were expecting to be able to move in within days of our arrival. But this was before we really understood the mechanics of how time works in India (for more on this, refer to my earlier post on this subject).

We first saw the apartment the day we landed (Jan 1 '07). Judging by the work in progress (carpentry, painting and electrical), we realized with a sinking feeling that this could take a few days longer than we anticipated. The landlord and the contractor assured us that the delay was only a few days and the place would be ready for us within a week.

One thing you learn very quickly here is that planning, estimation and time management are not part of a general contractor's vocabulary. Neither is the word - deadline! People make commitments with the intent to end the conversation.

It seems like nobody anticipated the holidays (Republic day, Sankranti, Moharram - yes, this is in a span of three weeks!) or labor fatigue (just did not feel like showing up) or productivity swings (did not feel like working hard today) etc. Hours stretched into Days which stretched into weeks and finally a month has gone by. We begged and we pleaded and we threatened. Not sure if any of this had any impact but the work is finished (well ... almost!).

Now that we are in our place, the wait seems well worth it. We were anxious about logistics, furniture and utilities. But all of that went surprisingly smooth. Suppliers were very flexible and accomodating to our frequent requests to change delivery schedules. But everything was delivered on time and services were activated pretty quickly.

More about the place in a future post.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Honey, I shrunk the sticks!

One of the thing that strikes you about India is the "smallness" of everything. From buses to elevators to fruits to match sticks - stuff is small here. I had not noticed this until one day I was making toast and picked up a match box to light the stove. The match sticks were about five times smaller in length and volume compared to their counterparts in North America.

Then I started noticing this all around me. Tea cups, plastic bags, soda cans, sandwiches etc. are all much smaller than what we are used to. Perhaps this is a conscious conservation effort. Maybe there is a desire to limit waste. Or probably Indians are just not into BIG. Whatever the reason, the consequences of this are positive. Humans buy less, use less and consume less over here.

One exception to this are billboards - which are too many and too big. But this is a topic for an entire post. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Water Dance

A nation of billion people uses a lot of water and water shortage has been a problem that Indians have lived with for decades. I vaguely remember my dad waking up (over twenty years ago) before sunrise to fill up pots of drinking water before the water supply turned off. Water tanks on top of buildings and homes are a common site. Many homes have a system consisting of an underground tank that collects water, a pump that drives the water to an overhead tank which is then routed through pipes by force of gravity to the taps. I did not think that I would ever have to deal with this problem in my life.

WRONG! I am back here now and guess what? Continuous, dependable water supply is still a problem out here. First week was relatively comfortable but problems started in week two. We are renting two bedrooms in the service apartment and each has it's own bath. One day, the water supply in one of the bathrooms was shut down completely for several days. We had to fill buckets of water in one bathroom and carry it to the other. Since the kids had to leave for school at around 7:30am in the morning, this dance would have to start pretty early. After several calls to the manager, the problem got resolved. But around the same time, one of the water heaters conked out. For those of you who are unfamiliar with a geyser this is a small water heater that is installed in each bathroom and is used to heat water. There is no central water heating facility.

So now, we have water in both bathrooms but no hot water in one. So the water dance continued for a few more days until the heater was fixed. A day later, the cold water supply stopped in the second bathroom. Now hot water had to be transported from one bathroom to the other.

There is a positive side to the story. This early morning workout has helped me knock off a few pounds!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Life in a “self”-service apartment

The rapid pace of growth in business in Bangalore has led to a surge in demand for temporary housing. Hotels have no vacancy and room rates have gone through the roof ($300-400/day is the norm in the city). There is a construction boom in the city and huge residential complexes with hundreds of apartments are being built all around. A service apartment industry has been created to provide alternate housing to accommodate business professionals and executives.

Full service apartments are regular apartments that are rented out for a few days to several weeks. These apartments offer home-style comfort with full-services that include laundry, meals, cleaning services etc. The apartments have a full-time caretaker, who lives in the premises and is your primary service provider.

Unfortunately, we landed in a service apartment that was more like a self-service apartment. The place was sparsely furnished and the poorly maintained. On the first day, when the handle to one of the bedroom doors came off, I knew we were in trouble. Kitchen supplies were minimal and there was no facility for food and hot beverages. We ended up buying basic supplies, cooking breakfast and keeping the place clean and organized. Mona had to take charge and began supervising the caretaker. I had to iron my shirts for the first time in years.

But don’t let this scare you off. I spent six weeks at a different service apartment in October and November. It was quite a different experience there. With the right caretaker and management in place, these can actually be pretty comfortable places to spend a few weeks in.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tomorrow never comes

No! This is not the title for the next James Bond movie. It is a phrase that I have coined to explain the concept of time in India. Here, time works differently than most other parts of the world. People unfamiliar with this can suffer from dizziness and disorientation when first exposed to this. Once you get used to this system, your stress level goes down and you begin to feel the same pleasurable sensation that you feel while vacationing in a tropical island.

In order to understand this phenomenon, you have to learn to interpret the words and phrases related to time within the Indian context. This is best explained through a few scenarios:

Scenario 1:

You are planning to meet a friend for dinner in the evening.

He says “I will pick you up at 6pm

He means “I will pick you up some time between 7pm and 10pm

Scenario 2:

You call a colleague at work to discuss an important sales presentation and she is on another call.

She says “I am on another call and will call you back in 5 minutes”

She means “I am on another call and will call you back later today or tomorrow (if I remember)”

Scenario 3:

You have just ordered some furniture and are discussing the delivery schedule with the store manager.

He says “We guarantee next day delivery. This furniture will be delivered to you on Tuesday.”

He means “We guarantee next day delivery. You can expect this furniture this Tuesday or the next or the next or the …”

Simple! So how do you plan and work within this system? I will tell you tomorrow.

Friday, January 12, 2007

India Poised!

I left India 20 years ago for the US. At that time, I could not imagine the transformation that would take place in the next two decades. I am back here after 20 years and I see the change around me and still have a hard time believing that it is actually happening.

The change is evident by the energy, enthusiasm and optimism of the people around here. You can see it the attitude and lifestyles of the new citizens. Change is also physically evident in the buildings, roads, bridges, cars etc. You can see it, smell it and taste it.

On the other hand, you can also see an India that remains unchanged. The common man faces many of the same challenges that he faced 20 years ago. Many of the beat up buses, trucks and auto rickshaws that were on the road 20 years ago are still driving around!

Times of India has coined 2007 as the Year of India. The media company is running a 6-week campaign called India Poised during which it is examining this transformation. It is an interesting study and if you are interested, you can check it out here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Back to school

Monday was the first day of school. Parents were required to accompany new students. Aanish and Ayaana are joining school in mid-term and we are all anxious. The drive to school is longer than expected (a 5-minute stop at a railroad crossing did not help matters either). The road (if you can call it that) to Indus School is undeveloped for a large stretch with potholes the size of a small Jacuzzi! Driving this stretch in a mini cab makes you feel like you are in a cartoon show.

None of this really matter when you pull up to the gates of the school. The school campus is gorgeous. You could be inside a palace or at a Las Vegas casino! There are beautiful Romanesque buildings surrounded by spectacular gardens on a forty acre property. Classrooms are big, neat and well organized. The indoor sports complex is huge and the outdoor swimming pool looks inviting. The administrative staff is extremely helpful and courteous.

We had the opportunity to attend the school assembly in the outdoor amphitheater. After the school prayer, the principal welcomed the students back to the new term. This was followed by a series of announcements followed by introductions of new teachers. The older boys were chided by a school official for their long hair. These students were told to return to school the next day with hair cuts or pay a visit to the school barber. The assembly ended with the Indian national anthem, which remarkably both Mona and I were able to recite from memory!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Living the nomad life

It’s one thing to live out of a suitcase when you are a road warrior but it’s an entirely different issue when you are moving across the globe with your family. It’s been a week since we have landed in Bangalore and we are still several days (hopefully) away from moving into our new place. This has given us an opportunity to live life as nomads in a temporary service apartment.

We traveled with eight check-in and six carry-on bags. Have you ever tried to locate a tie or that special pair of socks or a game charger for a Nintendo DS in fourteen bags? I do not recommend this. I must admit that I have developed a lot of respect for gypsies, nomads and other traveling tribes that are moving continuously and setting up a different domicile every few months. I speak from personal experience – it is hard work!

Our landlord just informed us that our new place will not be ready for another week. This is disappointing news but we are hoping that all the work being done will be well worth the wait. On a positive note, I have just learned that this week is not an auspicious one for a move. Next week, the stars are in a much better alignment. So there is some good news out of this after all.

We are eagerly looking forward to the day where we are settled in our new place and life is a bit more organized and the kids are no longer tripping over pieces of luggage and I don't have to wear the same orange shirt to work every other day!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Rose Bowl 2007

The biggest tragedy about the timing of our trip for my son was the fact that we would miss the USC/Michigan Rose Bowl game. He is a die-hard Trojan fan and sports fanatic and could not imagine missing the game of the year.

Under the circumstances, I did what any good, caring father would do for their child. I woke up at 4AM and accessed a near real-time play-by-play game update on my Blackberry. If you have never experienced the joy of staring at football game updates on a tiny screen at an ungodly hour with an excited twelve year old while your head is pounding from lack of sleep, I highly recommend it! This was the best experience I have had watching football in years. No peanuts, nachos, beer and big screen TV, but just bleary eyed excitement at 6am in the morning.

Best of all, USC won 32-11! Fight on.

Rise and Shine

Here’s a piece of advice for your next trip to Bollywood land. You can leave that travel alarm clock at home since it is not in the least bit necessary here. I learnt this fact on day one.

The place wakes up (quite noisily) at about 4AM and wakes you up along with it. Around this time, a variety of noises start making their way through glass and walls into your bedroom. These are a mix of a muezzin’s call to prayer, tollywood (yes, the Tamil film industry is actually known as Tollywood!) songs, devotional music and loud conversations! All of this is against a background of barking dogs, highway noise and other unrecognizable sounds. And this was not a unique celebration of New Year’s day because the entire performance repeated again on day two.

I have been told that it takes about a couple of weeks for your brain to adjust to these noises and treat it as normal background sound. At this point, the brain is able to push these sounds to the back of your mind and peaceful sleep would return. I will let you know when this happens. Meanwhile, pack a dozen ear plugs!

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Move

M-day is finally here and we are going through mixed emotions. We are excited and enthusiastic about our upcoming adventure while being sad about leaving our home and friends and anxious about the challenges ahead.

Our cousins, Umesh and Trupti along with their daughters Dvisha and Brinda were driving us to the airport. Our life was neatly packed in eight chec-in luggage (carefully optimized by me to meet the 50lb Lufthansa airline weight limit) and six carry-on (caution thrown to the wind as far as weight is concerned) bags. I was convinced that we would need a fleet of cars or a U-Haul truck to carry all of this to the airport. But Umesh’s Chevy Suburban fit it all … and all the passengers as well! I have renewed respect for this beast of steel.

Check-in and security at the airport was extremely smooth and our flight took of on time (German punctuality at its best). New Years eve was on the plane as we flew over Mumbai. Champagne was served on the plane and the passengers cheered as the captain heralded in 2007. Not quite the “dropping of the ball in Times Square” but definitely beats the heck out of curling up on a cramped airline seat and trying to catch a wink of sleep.

Arrival in Bangalore would have been totally uneventful except for the fact that one of our eight bags did not make it from Frankfurt. This delayed our exit from airport since we had to wait for all the bags to be unloaded and file a lost baggage complaint. All in all, a fairly good trip and we are now in Bangalore – our new home for the next couple of years.