Friday, November 23, 2007

Photos of Kolkata From My Camera Phone:

Ekta Heights

We live in Jadavpur, in the southern section of Kolkata.




Will looking out the window onto the terrace.



Living Room



Living Room



Terrace

On the Road to Santoshpur

Every morning we drive through Santoshpur on the way to Ruby Hospital. Will's school is right behind the hospital. These photos are shots of everyday street life.










I love this photo, and this is so typical of India (at least here). This gent is delivering a refrigerator on a cart pulled by a bicycle.

E.M. Bypass

After passing through Santoshpur, we merge onto the E. M. Bypass (Eastern Metropolitan Bypass) which is a direct route to Salt Lake City, the Airport and other points northeast of Jadavpur.









Ruby Hospital

Behind Ruby, there is a small pond. Many people live around it, in shacks and ramshackle lean-to's. I will write more about this photo at another time.



Back to Santoshpur

After dropping off Will at school, I return to Santoshpur to pick up my coworker, with whom I share a car. This is also where I go shopping, at Ambuja, Big Bazaar, etc.




The Produce Department. Vegetables of every conceivable type can be found here, many that I have to idea what they are or how to cook. The farmers get in very early to set up shop.




The Meat Department. On the left, you can see the big slabs of Betki, some of the finest fish in the world. It's flesh is firm, similar to swordfish or mako, but less fishy - more like a flaky whitefish. Hilsa, another local fish, is not so mush a favorite for my taste because there are a ton of pin bones. On the right, the white lumps are live chickens in large baskets. Yes, everything is very fresh.




A place to buy gum and cigarettes.




The Lane to my coworker's house.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Color of Dawn

I stayed at a friend's house this past weekend and woke up to the sound of birds. They owned birds, kept in cages on the veranda. Brilliantly colored lovebirds, parakeets, cockatiels and finches were all making noise waking me up early. The house was locked up with metal grates on all the doors and windows. I was, in effect, caged as well. It was very quiet except for the birds, but as the sun rose and warmed the air, the wild birds came to visit. The two-story house in the next compound was painted a warm butterscotch yellow with melon orange trim, mint green shutters and window grates and lilac pipes. The shaded space of the balconies and porches were painted turquoise. The doors were painted orange. The bright colours of the house were muted in comparison to the riot of color from the birds, and flowers everywhere.

First to come were tiny little grey birds with long thin beaks and flippy tails that were long in proportion to their bodies. They are about the size of hummingbirds, but do not fly like them. Next to arrive were larger bright yellow birds, orioles, with black caps. Other even larger generic looking black and grey birds vied for footing on the tree branches and shrubs outside the windows.

The lush garden of hibiscus, cannas, palms, weeping trees, flowering maples and other tropical plants and vines attracted dragonflies and butterflies, flitting along on the breeze. Chickadees dared to enter the veranda to search for fallen seeds on the floor. A spotted brown dove arrived, but was deterred by the window grate. It flapped its wings hysterically, before finding a roost on a nearby tree.

Around nine AM, wallas starting shout-singing their wares down the quiet lanes. The parakeets emerged from their little ceramic pot house to preen their feathers. Music from a distant radio started playing Bollywood show tunes. At one point, there were 12 chickadees, wrens and sparrows between me and the caged birds, looking at me, looking for seeds, looking at me, looking for seeds, then jumping to the window grates to watch the birds in their cages. The wild birds dispersed as the caged ones grew more animated and loud.

The parakeets started getting jiggy with each other, rubbing their faces against each other. The finches stared to sing a rather tinny, robotic song. The lovebird chreeched regularly at this point. He was a riot of color, like a melted box of crayons. He kept trying to tip his water bowl over, which was bigger than he was. The cockatiel, who, when I first stepped out on the veranda, became quite upset, flexing her crest, jumping from roost to roost, dancing on the floor of her cage with her feathers splayed - she'd calmed down and sat still with her beady eyes watching me write. The lovebird did a few more spins before settling down. That's when the parakeets started getting a bit noisy.

At my place, I get more than my share of crows, which are larger than U.S. crows. They have interesting plumage, black with charcoal grey heads - quite striking. Plus I have at least two mating pairs of kites that spend a lot of time using my terrace as a lookout point. I've also had visits from smaller, jay sized black and white birds. They remind me of water birds, with extremely long legs in proportion to the body. They have crisp white bellies...

Suddenly, the wild birds flew away with a great flapping of wings and cacophony of whistles and the caged birds went stark still and silent. I took it as a reaction to my flipping the page in my book. Then I looked to my right to find that a beautiful feral cat had silently padded its way close to me and crouched two feet away. Her tawny coat had flecks of black. Her lime green eyes were slits ringed in black. Her tail, with rings of black, flitted back and forth and her butt twitched ready to pounce.

A head popped through the curtains at the door.

"Tea?" she asked.

I looked down. The cat had disappeared.

"Sure," I said. "Can I help?" I asked, as I rose from the chair. It was going to be a beautiful Sunday.

Guest Post: William Goes to School

Well, I guess I should being by telling the story of The Others:

About the time we moved here, my mom was contacted over myspace by an Indian skater by the name of Zubin. (Editor's Note: Zubin is a kid who knows my friend Nick, who owns sk8 Goa, just south of Mumbai. It is the only professional skatepark in India. Nick had mentioned to Zubin that we were moving here and that I was interested in building a skatepark in Calcutta. Ever since, he's been stalking me about it.) I was overjoyed by this unexpected and seemingly fantastic notion of a group of Indian skaters. They call themselves, the skate group, The Others. The Others include Zubin, Ben and Tim (Canadians), Akshay, and Varun, and yours truly.

All of them except Akshay attend Bridge International. Akshay studies at Cambridge
and I myself am receiving my education at Calcutta International (C.I.S). Apparently, The Others are famous throughout all three of the schools, as the schools are all tightly connected with one another.



The first day of school:

Upon entering the gate, I was struck by the amount of eyes zeroing in on the funny dressed American. Well, after receiving my instructions for the day, I was put in with my class group walking up the steps to class 8-B. The classroom itself was smaller than I expected, but in my opinion more comfortable.

A few people began to talk to me, asking where I was from and so forth. Then a few more people walked in, and immediately came walking up to me.

"Are you Will?"

"Um, yeah."

"Don't you know Akshay and The Others?"

"Um, yeah?"

"Oh cool, bye."

"Um, okay???"

That whole theme continued throughout the busy day. I am currently learning French on Mondays and Korean on Tuesdays. We have gym every Tuesday as well. Other than classes we have quite a few breaks, allowing us to visit the school and perhaps hang out in the basketball court and shoot some hoops. (Yeah, I'm not as good as I was in the States.)

My other classes are Algebra, English Language, English Literature, Physics, Geometry, Art, World History, Geography, Chemistry, Biology, Drama, Computers and something called Science Club. Whatever...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Durga Puja!

Shubo Durga Puja! This came to me in the comments section of my last post, but I felt it deserved a post of its own. My experience of Durga Puja was mine alone and I seriously didn't explore the depth that can be found if you endeavor to spend 4 solid days venturing out to pandals. I wanted rest and relaxation more than anything else. A reader posted a comment on this blog that links to amazing pictures that show the depth and breadth of the beauty and intricacy of the pandals.

The thing that is so amazing is that most of this work occurs within one month prior to the celebrations, and are taken down and submerged in the Hoogly River or other water source at the end of the four days.

Check these photos out. They are just incredible:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/creativeiris/sets/72157602518371549/show/
(Step 1: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 2: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 3: "Save" this setting
Step 4: Enjoy... )

or

http://www.flickr.com/photos/creativeiris/sets/72157602518371549/detail/
(Step 1: Click on "View as slideshow"
Step 2: Click on "Options" at the right hand bottom of the screen
Step 3: Tick on the tab "Always show title and description"
Step 4: "Save" this setting
Step 5: Enjoy... )

These are the kind of pandals I would gladly support - there is one with hundreds of little cubbies, another with columns lit some inside... breathtaking stuff... Please take a look.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Durga Puja in Kolkata

On Monday, I answered the doorbell to find three men at my door. Once again I was being asked for Durga Puja money. This time it was for meals. I asked what the last 400 Rupees was for and they replied that that was for building the pandal only. Now they wanted money to pay for our meals. I told them we hadn't made plans yet and asked if we could purchase them if we decide to go. They replied no. I said we weren't going and closed the door.

On Tuesday another group of three women showed up at my door. This time they wanted Durga Puja money to pay the security guards tips. They wanted another 400 rupees so that everyone got their share... At this point I was pissed off. I told them I would tip the guards myself. They insisted that that was frowned upon, that everyone should get an equal share. There are some workers here at the building that have been very nice and have helped me since I moved in. I insisted that the men who worked harder should be compensated accordingly, and that they didn't seem to have a way to accurately account for how the rupees were distributed. At this point, the discussion became more of a debate between political theories, so I just said no and closed the door.

Wednesday evening couldn't get here fast enough. My whole team had finished all of their projects earlier so they were basically watching the clock as well. Many were loitering outside smoking cigarettes or talking on their cellphones. I had wanted to let everyone go early but HR wouldn't allow it because they said it wouldn't have been fair to other groups. I won't comment on that, but as soon as their time came to leave, I pushed them out the door.

I took the car to Santoshpur to pick up DVDs and supplies for the long weekend. The traffic was absolutely crazy. There was a sea of women dressed in their finest sarees and salwar khameez. Men were dressed in their finery as well. I saw many of them in traditional kurtas and pants. A lot of people were wearing western clothing as well. There was loud drumming and music coming from every pandal.

Durga Puja is the celebration of the Goddess Durga, who comes to earth to save us from evil. That, unfortunately is all I have learned so far. Thursday evening our cooked arrived at 6:00 to take us pandal hopping, a traditional activity here. Will wore his black kurta that we'd bought at City Centre in Salt Lake - a good friend had suggested we get one and helped us select it. Wise decision. The cook was very pleased to see him in traditional dress.

Pandals are temporary structures with displays of the goddess within. There are typically a few other goddesses and gods, like Ganesha, and sometimes an evil dude or two along with animals and other decorative elements. They are not small, typically four or five feet tall, sometimes much larger in size. We tried to get a cab outside, but ended up getting into an autorickshaw for the first mile or so, then we switched over to bike rickshaws for the rest of the trip. We traversed down tiny little backstreets and between buildings, finally getting to our first pandal.

The pandal was three stories tall. There was a lot of gold and yellow. There were intricate carvings of gods all over the exterior of the building. There were people everywhere, and the crowd was controlled through the use of thread. Two guys held the ends together, letting people through at regular intervals. The crowd would surge toward the line, the guys with the thread would move back to the safety of the sidewalk, then fight their way back to the center with their thread to keep the crowd at bay. When it was our turn, we just let the wave of people push us through rather than fight the storm surge. We entered the structure; it was brightly lit. Inside, it looked like a small theatre. There was a group of musicians playing music in front of the stage. Above them was the Goddess in all her glory with animals and attendants. The crowd them pushed us out the side door. In all, we waited about 30 minutes to spend about 20 seconds looking at the Goddess. We then walked to the second pandal.

It was a magnificent structure, looking like a woven basket with rich details added to the intricate weave pattern of the exterior. There was a carefully landscaped walkway guiding you to the entrance. Two bright yellow barriers restricted movement down to a six foot span in the roadway. Two guards blocked any forward progress. The crowd here was much bigger and the crowd tighter. I used my elbows to keep people from stepping on me or pushing me off balance. Will was a few people back and I focused on not losing the cook in the crowd - she was a few people in front of me. Once the guards moved, the crowd streamed in. We walked past beautiful water features with lily pads and lotus flowers, then entered the pandal itself. This one was different. Inside the lit interior was a 20 foot tall column in the center of the room slowly spinning with images of the goddess on all its sides. We walked around the walls of the pandal and ended up outside again. We then headed to my cook's house for dinner, after which we spent over an hour trying to get a cab, then another or so taking the cab home. I gave extra money with a cheery "Shubo Durga Puja!" He smiled and said something back at me in Bengali. When we got into the house, both of collapsed onto our beds and were asleep in mere seconds.

Friday began early with a few hours of more pandal hopping, but by now I'd done all I could do with them. I loved looking at the mendi-wallas' stamps and there were plenty of items to purchase to perform the puja, like flowers and offerings, but at this point I just wanted a cup of coffee in an air conditioned room.

We hit the CCD (Cafe Coffee Day) in GolPark. They had a special menu just for Durga Puja and all I wanted was a cup of coffee. Apparently I wasn't going to get one unless I wanted chocolate ice cream and flavoured syrup. I spent maybe ten minutes convincing the waiter that I just wanted a simple cup of coffee, no ice cream, no syrup, no sugar. Eventually, he complied. While waiting for the coffee to brew, we watched Hindi music videos.

The woman dancing in front of the pack was wearing this shiny pleather jumpsuit all sliced open horizontally across the front of her legs. "Shania Twain called, she wants her pants back." This cracked Will up. Finally coffee arrived. Three cups of coffee and three snacks cost us just under 600 rupees. "Must be the Durga Puja rate," Will offered, when he saw my look of surprise.

We decided to just go home after that to watch DVDs. Maybe we'll venture out again tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Buying Beef in Kolkata

There is a place in Kolkata called Beck Began, where you can purchase meat and fresh produce near Park Circus. Beck Began is located in a mostly Muslim area and it was rumored to sell beef there. I visited this place last weekend after work Saturday. We grabbed a cab as it was getting dark and headed over there. The traffic was crazy. Everything was stopped and every space between cars was filled with pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and dogs. Each time a light would change, no one seemed to move and there was very little movement. Some of the lights would take ten minutes to change, so cars are turned off, and people open doors, and walk around trying to see up ahead. When the light finally turns green, all the drivers scramble back to their vehicles and turn them on. If the car doesn't immediately start, the horns start up and don't stop until you move.

We finally made the left turn toward the market. The smell of meat was quite strong, mixed in with assorted other odors, including some you didn't want to acknowledge. We entered the maze of stalls making a left here and a right there, passing large piles of artfully arranged vegetables, some I've never seen before. Gorgeous, plump pomegranates, citrus fruits, tiny little green grapes, and bananas the size of your fingers were everywhere. Lights were bare bulbs strung along live wires strung along the tops of the wood posts from stall to stall. The floor was sometimes dirt, stone, cobbles or bricks. Newspapers and trash floated by like tumbleweeds. You had to watch for holes and high spots that could trip you.

"Yes, Madam"?"

"Madam, look at my freshest vegetables."

"What can you be wanting, Madam?" There was a barrage of people asking for my attention. I just followed my friend forward.

We walked through until we reached a smaller enclosure where a group of men were seated on a bench. There was a small portion of beef hanging from a hook on the ceiling. My friend asked in Hindi for a half kilo. One gentleman looked as us, then stood up pulling a sharp knife off the stone counter. There was dirt and other detritus covering the blade and the counter itself. He cut large chunks off the slab and threw them toward another man behind the counter, coating the meat in the dirt. It was wrapped in newspaper, we paid him then moved to the chickens. (Later, we scrubbed and washed the meat carefully as part of our cooking prep.)

"Yes, madam?" The chickens were small and were kept in a basket, still alive. My friends asked me how much chicken I wanted. I looked at the chickens clucking away and said just one, and I told her I couldn't watch this. It was one thing to select a block of meat off a hook, but seeing live chickens, made me so sad. I walked toward the fish market where there were many small cats roaming. Dogs were sleeping on some of the stone slabs where the fishmongers weren't set up. I approached one vendor with large shallow pans of fish and prawns. They were very fresh. I hadn't seen fish this fresh since purchasing them off the docks in Gloucester MA at 4:30 in the morning. I selected a kilo of tiger prawns for 250 rupees. They used a large sickle type blade to strip the shells and a second person removed the head. One of the men threw fish entrails to the cats.

It's quite a symbiotic relationship between the strays and the fishwallas. It's not like you see them petting the animals or treating them like pets, it's more like they serve a purpose of taking care of the parts of the fish that could not be sold.

My friends came back with a very warm package wrapped in newspaper. I was a bit nauseated about the chicken because it was the only creature that I had seen alive. Americans are so used to seeing their meat in a plastic wrapped foam package, carefully trimmed and appointed that it doesn't seem like an animal. Here, that mental divide isn't available. I think if I'd lived on a farm and had to prepare my own animals growing up, it would have been different.

After that, we went back to the produce area where we selected all sorts of fruit and vegetables. My friend showed me how to clean the veggies with salt and water to get them cleaned up. This market had very fresh produce. Comparing it to the U.S., I much preferred the quality here. The grapes I purchased in the U.S. came from Chile had no flavor compared to the ones from Beck Bagan. The tiny limes gave out much more juice. The herbs were spotless and lasted much longer than the "fresh" ones I'd purchase from the supermarket back home. The basics, onions, potatoes, garlic and ginger, were plentiful and in great condition. That day, we discovered beautiful oyster mushrooms, milky mushrooms and button mushrooms that were practically perfect. I hadn't seen this level of freshness anywhere in the U.S. except for when Chanterelle season hit in Washington State. We picked our own mushrooms off the forest floor and these seemed just as firm and fresh.

All in all, the entire trip to Beck Began cost around 20 U.S. dollars, including around a pound each of prawns, chicken and beef, plus a weeks worth of fruits and veggies. I was really pleasantly surprised because everyone kept sending me to food malls, where you find the prepackaged stuff and Pringles, Tang and Ragu. The food at Beck Began was far better quality at a tenth of the price.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monsoon Mania

The monsoon has been dealing us a tough hand this week. It has been raining nearly nonstop from Saturday through Monday. In the evening, just before work was about to end, I received an IM from a friend.

"It looks like it's going to rain 40 days and 40 nights," she typed. As usual, I am complete unprepared for any type of weather.

"Is there a spare umbrella in the office?" I typed. I was not looking forward to standing out in the rain in front of Menoka Cinema waving my hands frantically at any cab that might pass by...

She responded, "I don't think so. I have one, but not a spare."

"How easy is it to get cabs in a downpour like this?" I asked.

"Not that easy," she said. "We can share a cab and I'll drop you off. The thing is that I don't know where we'll be able to catch a cab in this weather. They're also going to charge a lot. We might have to get on a bus or an autorickshaw."

"All the way to Jadavpur?" I asked.

"One of the many adventures Kolkata has to offer," she replied. Yeah, I guess so... :-)

I was not looking forward to that. Neither option was very appealing. My next thought was asking someone at the front office. There is one person I can always count on to help me out and he was busy with a number of other things. I begged him, "please. please, please... can you help out a foreigner who barely knows her way home, doesn't speak the language... yada, yada, yada..." and he came through. He let me know that one of the other GLs (Group Leaders) would provide me and my coworker with a way home. What a relief.

Just then, my coworker IM'd me again. "Save everything on your computer because water is getting in." I found this a bit hard to believe because there are four steps up into the office. I contacted the GL, confirmed when/where to meet and decided to wait with the rest of the folks outside the office. I turned off my computer, turned off my lights, and opened the main door to find water half way up the steps and rising. I now understood why everybody was walking around with their pants rolled up around their knees, as I was now doing the same.

We waited outside commiserating with other workers while we waited for the GL. The water just up to my knees. It was starting to rain again. The GL came around the corner and beckoned us to move along. We followed him a short way down the lane to a car half submerged in the street. He opened the door and the water poured straight in, filling every available space. When we got in the back, the water was about halfway up our shins. The car started, much to my surprise, considering its tail pipe was under water. I kept my window open so I could see where we were going. There was not a lot of traffic on Southern Avenue, but the water was halfway up the side of the car. People would yell from the sides of the street because of the wake the car was producing as we passed. None of the homeless were anywhere to be found, but the stray dogs were sleeping on tops of piles of sand or bricks or anything high enough to keep them dry.

As we got closer to GolPark, the water got shallower but there were a lot more cars to navigate around, some stalled in the middle of the roundabout. As we climbed over the bypass, I wished I'd had a cup or something to start bailing out the water from the car. Everytime we started or stopped a wave of water would end up in your lap.

Heading south, traffic became really snarled. We were stuck at the light from hell where Gariahat Road and Prince Anwar Shah Road meet - then we realized why - there was a huge tree down on the north side blocking all traffic. They were using the north side of the road for traffic going in both directions. The car would rock side to side due to the waves of bigger truck and cars... It was really a madhouse. I was really glad to arrive home safe and sound.

I opened the door and asked Will to get me a bucket and antiseptic to soak my feet and legs. Both the GL and my coworker strongly advised me to, since "you never know what's in the water". One of my direct reports at the office has been out sick with Typhoid, so I took their advice. I went out on the terrace to see the extent of the water problem and I seriously couldn't see any streets. Some of the ground floor spaces looked flooded. Lots of lights were out. Then I saw a firework go off. Then two. Will came out and we watched fireworks going off all over the city. We still have no idea why, as the rain misted down a firework would burst open to the left, then the right, and then far to the north near the Howrah bridge.

Will said, "I'm hungry, let's eat. It's wet out here." No kidding.

Bicycle Rickshaws

On Saturday, after completing work, a couple of friends came with me to go furniture shopping at Steel Junction. Will and the rest of us piled into a taxi and took off toward Salt Lake. When we arrived, I realized it was yet another mall with expensive designer stuff, not the metal bazaar I had expected. They did have some furniture, most was not my taste. I did love the railings, door fittings and accessories, though they were quite expensive. I was being followed around by many sales clerks that would jump to answer any question I might have. I decided to have a little fun at their expense.

"Does this come in pleather?"

"I'm sorry Madam?"

"You know, animal pleather?"

"Pleather? I will just go see..." He conferred with 3 or four other sales clerks, giving me time to sit on things, test stuff out, and touch the fabrics without feeling like someone was watching my every move. By the time he came back to tell me no, I had already decided what I wanted to get. We purchased a glass and steel table for around 7,000 and four leather and steel chairs to match at around 1,200 each. We also selected a convertible couch that can be pushed up on one side to make a double-wide chaise lounge, or folded lengthwise as a couch or used flat as a bed. This cost a little over 18,000. The modular sofa I have my eye on is 40,000, but that will have to wait for another day... Delivery is 400 rupees and we should have it tomorrow. It will be so great to have furniture!

After that, my friends suggested Big Bazaar for all of my other metal needs. With a dog with a long wagging tail, we have already broken every single glass in the house. I wanted simple steel cups. I wanted plain metal thali dishes as well. Nothing fancy. So we jumped into the taxi and headed to Santoshpur. The place was packed as expected on a Saturday afternoon, but I went nuts as soon as I got there. They had everything I had been look for at normal prices. Towels, clothing, socks, paper towels, food, liquor, wastebaskets, even an international food section! I was exhausted. We had two full carts and two pails completely filled with stuff and when we finally were able to check out, my debit card wouldn't work (probably because we spent over 30,000 earlier at steel junction, but it's a debit card...it shouldn't be that way). We quickly pooled our resources and we were around 1,500 short, so my friend said she knew of an ATM close by.

Will and my other coworker stayed with all of the stuff with she and I left the mall.

"It will be faster if we take a bike rickshaw," she said.

"Great," I said with a grimace. Now, I had previously had a conversation with my other friend that I would not ride in a hand rickshaw because I could not use another human being as a beast of burden. He agreed to some extent, but didn't feel that a bike or autorickshaw was the same. We approached the bike rickshaw guy and my friend struck a bargain with him. I climbed up, making the rickshaw tilt to one side; she got up on the other and he sat on the seat and we set off. Apparently it was up hill... The wind was blowing, catching the top of the rickshaw like a sail, making it even harder for him to make it move. He was standing up using all of his might to keep the bike moving forward. One of the stray dogs passed us. People walking on the sidewalk passed us. Eventually we made it along the lane to the ATM.

I got my money and we climbed back up into the rickshaw, returning back to Big Bazaar. We jumped down and my friend gave the guy a 10 rupee note. He pointed at me and started arguing with her.

"He must be charging by the pound," I laughed. She laughed and gave him 2 more rupees, then we headed back into the bazaar, paid the store and left, getting a cab and heading home.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Holidays & Birthdays

Last week, three strangers showed up at my door while I was cooking dinner. They were requesting 400 rupees for the upcoming Durga Puja celebration, which is probably the biggest they have here in Kolkata. It turned out that they wanted a 400 rupee "donation" in order to host a celebration in the courtyard.

"Everyone must donate, Madam," one of the men said.

"So, it's not really a donation, then is it?" I replied.

"Everyone at Ekta Towers contributes, Madam," he said with his hand outstretched.

"What if I don't celebrate your holiday?" I asked. (Sort of checking out my options.)

"Everyone contributes." was the reply.

The woman who accompanied the two men asked where I was from.

"The U.S." I replied.

The other man then offered, "It is a minimum 400 rupees donation. You can give us more."

I asked, "So if I decide that I want to celebrate, oh I don't know, Yom Kippur or Buddha's birthday, I could just walk around and solicit 400 rupees from everyone?"

"No, maam. That would not be possible." the man replied, his hand outstretched again.

I sighed and got my purse. I had no problem with giving them 400 rupees. If they had asked for a donation with my choice of amount, I probably would have given them a 1,000 rupee bill as a gesture of honoring their culture and holidays. This was exactly like dealing with the condo police back in New Hampshire, those retired old people that had nothing better to do with their time than run around and tell everyone else what to do.

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I turned 2 on Saturday. (My sister-in-law suggested I use the numerology base number for my age from now on.) An hour or so after I arrived at work, I had 30+ people crammed in my office, and I was given a huge bouquet of flowers, candy, and the largest card I've ever seen.

"Seriously, folks, couldn't you find a bigger card?" I asked. It was really nice.

Then they started singing "Happy Birthday" and when they came to that part in the song, where you sing "happy birthday dear so-and-so...", they hadn't really planned. It was really funny. Some people said Jeanne, some said Mada... oh no! and others just faded out. Here at the office, I am known as Madam. I can tell whenever someone is talking about me because "Madam" is the same in English, Hindi and Bangla.

It makes me uncomfortable to be called Madam because in the U.S.:
1. "Madam" is usually some old lady living alone in a house with w-a-a-a-a-y too many cats.
2. "Madam" (or "Ma'am" as it is usually used) is typically said by arrogant sales ladies at wildly expensive makeup counters in very pricey department stores accompanied by a sneer to indicate "You are not good enough for our products - go away". It is ALWAYS used when you ask for samples.
3. "Madam" is used by telephone customer service representatives instead of the word "B**tch". I think it actually says that in their training manuals: "No, I will NOT get my manager. I'm sorry, Madam, but the policy states..."
4. "Madam" is the title used by the proprietor of a brothel.
5. "Madam" just makes me feel old.

I made it pretty clear when having meetings with my staff to never call me "Madam", but it is so ingrained in the culture here, that it makes people uncomfortable to call me anything but. :-) I'm getting used to it, slowly, and I understand it REALLY IS a term of respect.

I was in a meeting with my Team Leaders when the one presenting called me Madam. I muttered something under my breath about calling me Madam, and it really disconcerted him. He became a little flustered and took a second to gain his composure. I've stopped doing that.

It was pretty funny to listen, though. The "Happy b-i-i-i-rthday dear Mada... oh,no!" was just priceless and made my day. :-)

**************************************

Later that evening, Will asked if I had had a good birthday, I replied, "Of, course. I got to spend it in Calcutta, India, didn't I? Isn't that great?"

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

I Bought Liquor By Myself, Sort of.

I asked the driver to pick up Will and bring him to the office. I asked him to accompany me on my quest to buy something all by myself. He said, "Mom, if I'm with you, it's not all by yourself." Okay. Truth is, I knew this could be a bit hairy, so I wanted him along. Havng a 6'1" beefy white dude couldn't hurt. We told the driver where we wanted to go. I was pretty sure where the place was, and I was able to locate it without too much fuss. It was dark by this time, and the only bright light emanated from inside the shop. There were four steps up to the iron cage that kept the people out. There was one hole in the grating, big enough for money and bottles to pass through. My car was about 15 feet from the steps. Will and I got out and approached the steps. Will said, "I'll stay down here in case there's trouble." He was standing there looking like a Secret Service agent - lots of furtive glancing, arms crossed over his chest, big scowl on his face.

I went up the steps to join the 8 or 9 men crowded around the entrance. Inside the store was brightly lit. There were lots of very small bottles and a lot of imported brands tucked in everywhere all the way up to the ceiling. I watched the men order - they were typically spending about 5 to 10 rupees on pints of whiskey. I asked how much the Skyy Vodka was. 1,500 rupees. I ask about the Smirnoff Triple Distilled - 430 rupees. I ended up choosing the Blue Riband Gin at around 200 rupees a bottle. I hand over the money and they wrap up the bottle in newspaper and hand it back. I head back down the stairs into the darkness, and into my car.

That wasn't so bad. Overall, it took maybe 5 or 10 minutes. I had a couple people tell me I was crazy attempting to buy my own liquor. Apparently, Bollywood starlets still get flak when they are found out to smoke cigarettes or drink. There is the possibility that people on the street may make assumptions about me and cause me trouble. Here's where everything I stand for, everything I believe in comes to play. I can either work within a flawed system and assimilate, or I can believe in myself and self-worth and not care what some dude on the street thinks of me. And as usual, I do not go quietly.

It may have seemed a simple thing, it may have seemed a stupid thing to do, but it was a big step for me in asserting my independence, something I do not take for granted.

The Importance of Finding Your Sense of Place

I was over on IndiaMikes earlier and there was a posting from a young English woman in Delhi asking "when will I ever feel like I'm home?" It got me thinking about how lost I've been feeling. Don't get me wrong, people have been incredibly gracious and go out of their way to help us get whatever we need, but I just don't have that sense of autonomy that I am so used to.

As a person who has set up households in many different states of the U.S., I had come to think of myself as pretty self-sufficient. I could take whatever I needed and get whatever else when I got there. But here, the rules are completely different. When I ask someone in my office to help me find, for example, paper towels, they'll typically tell the office boy who will get me paper towels. When I ask how do I arrange a driver for tomorrow, someone runs off and does it. All I have to do is show up and a car is there. Now I don't take this for granted. The fact that people are willing to manage this stuff for me is certainly something I appreciate. The issue I have with this is that it makes me completely dependent on the kindness of strangers, and I'm no Blanche DuBois*... or am I?

After being in Kolkata for, what, five weeks now(?) I still can't get myself from point A to point B without completely stressing out. I can't feed myself unless I go to a restaurant. Sure, I have found some food stores, but they are lacking certain must haves, like, hmmm... meat. vegetables. I still haven't found kitty litter or how to buy gin by myself. I am hampered by a great many hurdles, most of my own doing.

A good friend at work keeps telling me to meet my neighbors and get feedback from them regarding who to hire as a cleaner, driver, etc., but being from the U.S., I have a general unease when it comes to meeting people in my building. Basically the premise is, the better you know your neighbors, the higher the possibility that they'll want to borrow your stuff, the more they'll think they can ask you to turn your music down, and the more they'll expect you to invite them to your parties.

It is of general consensus to anyone who calls me a friend that I don't make friends easily, that I generally blow them off a couple of times before I actually show up, but once I open up to a friendship, I am the loyalest of friends. I have never been accused of being outgoing, just outspoken.

What does this have to do with India? I have a personality flaw, a serious one, that makes life much more difficult here than it has to be. If someone came to me, all wistful and full of handwringing like this, I'd pretty much tell them to knock it off and get over it.

I've located a liquor store on the way home. It's a hole in the wall. When we passed it yesterday, I noticed that there was a grate over the front of the store and a number of men milling around. I plan on being assertive and joining the fray in my search to build up some semblance of a bar for entertaining. This will be my first discovery on my own since I moved here. Not knowing the language, being a woman, being a foreigner, oh well... let's see what happens. Next time, it will be lawn chairs or the purchase of a can opener. Hey, a girl has to have her priorities...


* It's always nice when you can add a Tennessee Williams reference to your writing. The sultry air of Calcutta makes me feel required to do so occasionally. The play is called "A Streetcar Named Desire". Blanche Dubois is one of the main characters, a faded beauty who always "depended on the kindness of strangers". She slowly goes insane during the play.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Clarifications

First off, It IS Gangurams, not Gangrene, as previously posted. Wills read the sign as he was speeding past. Sorry for the confusion.

Second, the car and driver does cost between 900 and 1,200 rupees per day when you use a car service. I am using them temporarily until I purchase a car of my own, and then I will hire a driver. In Kolkata having my own driver will cost me anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per month. We've had some random drivers with a wide range of ability, but all were FAR better than taxicab drivers. Even if they were unfamiliar with an area, they still knew the major streets and were able to navigate effectively. I am wondering how to find a driver and how to understand just how much he knows about the city.

From what I understand, I will need a "sweeper". This person will clean bathrooms only. I will need a housekeeper, someone who does the rest of the house. Someone to wash my clothes. Maybe someone to cook. Maybe someone to shop. Someone to manage my money and pay my taxes. Plus the car and driver. I've never experienced the servant side except for my year in Mumbai and I never had to hire, supervise and fire them... It's all new to me.

I've been dealing with a serious cough since we landed here over a month ago. I've started calling it "Calcutta Cough". I don't know if it's the pollution, the A/C to outside heat exposure or just a general malaise everyone gets when they move here... I just need to get rid of it. I have been dreading going to see a doctor, but I need a cough syrup with codeine to get rid of this. They have chemists every 20 feet but they either pretend they don't understand what I'm asking for or they just say no. So far I haven't been able to get anyone to explain just what you CAN buy in one of those places other than Paracetemol (their version of Tylenol), which is all they give me when I tell them I have this cough. See what I mean?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Spirit Guide Decides to Visit.

It was an auspicious occasion this morning. I woke up to the caw, caw, caw of the crows which fill this city like pigeons in NY, but above the cacophony, I heard a high pitched shrill, a scream.

Back in 1978, after finishing high school, I had intended to attend college at Cooper Union in NYC, intern at BBD&O eventually becoming the Creative Director for a number of high profile clients. I simply expected to get in without a problem, so I didn't spend the time carefully crafting my application and presenting my portfolio. Needless to say, I did not get in, and ended up going to a college in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.

I was only there for one semester, but it was long enough to engage me in Native American studies. One of my classmates, Joe Red Bear, was the first of his family to live off the reservation and they called him an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside). He was a big, burly dude with a huge smile. He was taking criminal science so he could go back to the reservation as a cop. His grandfather was a shaman, an elder who knew the ways of the old medicine, who had taught Joe a lot about his religion and instilled a pride in him as one of the few living indigenous peoples of America. He was willing to take me to see his grandfather.

After many trips to the reservation, speaking with his grandfather about the old ways, I was invited on a Spirit Quest. Typically, Native Americans don't allow white people to participate because many of these new age, yoga practicing, granola eating hippies tend to turn it into something crass. It is a sacred rite of passage and I was lucky enough to be someone that the grandfather had seen something within and granted me passage to this other world.

I can't go into many of the details of this journey - let's just say, there are substances injested that aid in enabling your spirit guide to show themselves. Spirit Guides are typically animals that provide you with their strengths in order for you to reach higher realms of existence. The activities begin in the early evening and go at least all night, but for as long as required. I was told that my spirit guide would appear and show me the way. When I met her, it instantly made sense. I lay there on the ground at the mouth of a cave on the side of a mesa. The red tailed hawk soared above me, slowly circling in the rising heat coming off the desert. She dove down and rose, dove and rose while I watched the sun go down. There is a lot more to this story, but let's get back to Kolkata.

We just moved to Ekta Heights and live at the top of one of the buildings. I woke up to her call, amidst the din of the crows. I sat up, looked out the window overlooking the terrace, and there she was. This hawk was more brown, and bigger. Its talons gripped the pipe fence and it extended its wings to full span. I approached the door expecting her to leave in a flurry of feathers, but she stayed there, looking at me as I closed the door behind me. She tucked in her wings and settled down. She was about 20 feet from the door. The crows were incensed with her. I walked slowly toward her until I was about 8 feet away. She eyed me suspiciously, but stayed motionless, ignoring the crows. I very slowly sat down cross legged on the floor of the terrace still looking at her. I stayed quite still. Suddenly, in a burst of feathers, she flew right over my head, causing me to jump in alarm.

I then realized there were three or four hawks flying in and out among the four towers, chasing crows and being chased by crows. I consider this a most auspicious greeting - to be welcomed by a spirit guide is quite an important affair. I was meant to be in Kolkata, at Ekta Heights, for a reason and I'll need to find out why. Most times, the connections only happen later, with the crystal clear view of hindsight. The last hawk who visited me was in Aurora, IL where we had been living for 4 years. She came to me just before Lee asked me to go work for him in Chicago. While the job was less than pleasant, I met and befriended Jason who was married to a woman from Pune. He was in the midst of moving to India and he inspired me to finally make my move here as well. I wonder what is in store for us in the future. :-)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gangrene Sweets Open Since 1882

We are finally moving to our new apartment today. We closed yesterday paying three month’s rent as a security deposit, plus first month. I only found out a couple of days ago that I’m going to have to come up with another month’s rent for the agent. They get paid by the renter and the landlord one month each. Not bad for him.

We went out shopping yesterday and Uttam, one of the most helpful people I know, took me everywhere that I needed to go to pick things out and then he took the list of stuff I didn’t need to approve. From cups and cutlery to a toaster, induction plate, plastic storage containers, glasses, etc., he got everything. For all of the basics, it cost around 11,000 rupees. I paid 13,000 for a small Whirlpool refrigerator (about half the size of a standard American one), around 6,000 for a Samsung microwave (that also grills), 17,000 for a 1.5 ton Carrier air conditioner, and about 8,000 each for two mattresses. Manish gave us a set of microwave items including a rice cooker, which I could have used in the states. I plan on getting some real furniture next month or maybe October, after Will’s school has been paid off. Electronics cost around the same here as in the US.

I am hiring a driver to take me back and forth to work again. The taxicab thing isn’t working out well for me. There’s too much stress when I don’t know where I’m going and the taxis are just not trustworthy. Maybe trustworthy is too judgmental. Some of them aren’t thieves, they’re just stupid and know as little as I do about Kolkata streets. Regardless, I don’t know enough Hindi or Bangla to argue with them. It’s just not worth the trouble. I will be paying about 900 to 1,200 rupees per day, which I think is more than reasonable considering they work from 8am to whenever each day. If I were visiting Kolkata, I think I’d hire a driver for the day to take me wherever I wanted to go. If I go visit Mumbai, I will do the same.

Once I get paid in September, I will be looking to purchase a car. I’ve been told to get a Nissan or Honda, but I have my heart set on an Indica. Don’t ask me why, but I just love them. Maybe I can find a battered up ‘98 white Indica - I’ve been using that image as a metaphor at work to describe something that is familiar and has been dependable and working well, but now it’s tired and dated and needs to be cleaned up and modernized. I’ve grown a bit fond of that car…

The weather has been very humid, and it seems the rain is coming down after I arrive at the office. I keep seeing my staff come and go with umbrellas, but I never see the rain. Now, with the big terrace, I’ll be much more in touch with the weather. I have a friend who is going to help me set up the terrace like an oasis in the air. I’ve been considering borrowing Lee’s idea of using a hot tub without the heat, and keep the bubbles, as a sort of pool, along with lots of banana, mango and citrus trees, hibiscus and jasmine. I’m so excited about this move. I haven’t been home since my property was moved!

Will just came in to the office. He was telling me there is a shop near the house called Gangrene Sweets. It’s been open since 1882. Makes you wonder.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"The World Loves Our Sweet Dark Beauties"

Shopping in India is at times overwhelming, frustrating and always interesting. Since we are moving to our new place this coming weekend, we needed this weekend, to find a basic minimum of stuff to make the move as least disruptive as possible.

We are simple people. We don't need a lot of stuff, but what we do need, we really really want to have with us. I'm looking for two mattresses, twins really, that we can later use as the base for custom couches or connected together to make a bed for the guest room. I need a few towels, some plates, cutlery, glasses... just typical stuff. We could also use a small fridge which can later be used in Will's room when we get a bigger one. And an air conditioner, just one for the living area.

Okay, now, where do we get this stuff? All the regular stores that we've been sent to are like malls, large structures with small stores within. Everything is expensive, not American expensive, but Kolkata expensive (I'm beginning to appreciate the difference). I know for sure that most Kolkatans do not go to City Centre to buy mattresses, but where? After going to many places, Will and I just gave up and went to the Crosswords bookstore.

We love books. We miss our books. I sent about 900 of my first editions, handmades, familiy heirlooms, art books, classics, etc. to my brother, and left thousands of them at my old home because I simply could not ship the weight involved. The cost to purchase new was less. Wills finished the last two Harry Potters on the way over here, and has read three more books since arrival. He really needed something to read and I've just missed having free time, let alone using it to read...

We arrived at the bookstore around one and decided to check out the whole store befor epicking up any books. Temptation was everywhere.

"Good Afternoon, Madam." The door was being held for me by the guard. We stepped in. There were three people in a small foyer. Each said good afternoon. Two followed us up the stairs. Two more people dressed in blue polo shirts joined them.

"Good afternoon, Madam, are you looking for something in particular?"

"Just looking, thank you." We walked from the stairwell toward the shelves. Another blue shirted beuaty appeared from between the shelves.

"Good afternoon, Madam, how are you today?" Total so far, five people following us around the store. I pick up Buck's "The Good Earth".

"Would you like that in a card cover version, Madam?"

"No, thank you. Will, put this in a basket." One of the people gives Wills a basket in which to put the book. I move. So do they.

Now, we're not the only people on the floor. It's quite busy actually; Sunday afternoon on Elgin Road is not a time to expect peace and quiet. There were other people looking for assistance, book in hand, but we seemed to be granted the larger share. We move toward the back of the floor, past the fiction, sighting architecture books. I was interested in finding a book on Indian architecture. None. I ask. Three blue shirts scatter. We take advantage of this and attempt to leave our entourage for another floor. As we start up the steps, we realize they are on floor duty. They don't accompany us up the stairs. Will said something about using this to our advantage.

When we got to the top floor, which was childrens' books and a cafe, people literally stopped talking and stared at us, everyone except the kids who were going about their play. I was beginning to wonder whether we'd made some big error somewhere. Now in America, by the time I'd seen two assitants looking at me I would have already asked for a manager and taken his/her head off. This kind of treatment is typically one of security guards/shop assistants watching to make sure you don't steal anything, and I for one never liked being treated like a thief. Here, it's a different kind of intrusion - we're uncomfortable because we're not used to this level of service, but I also feel that this level of service wouldn't have been the same if we hadn't looked like Westerners. A black (ahem, African) friend of mine says he doesn't get served at all here.

Anyway, we walked to the front of the store where the cafe is and looked at the offerings. A sign, "The World Loves Our Sweet Dark Beauties", was taped to the front of the treats case. It got me thinking. There aren't a lot of Indian women tapped for America's Next Top Model or featured on the covers of Vogue or Glamour, but there are some seriously beautiful women here in this country. And I'm not talking about the Bollywood archetype with skin whiter than my own, but women with an innate sinuous grace, shiny long hair that smells of jasmine, eyes as dark as a mystery, and a smile as bright as the sun. Women here walk with a sense of dignity and awareness of their quality. It's pretty amazing stuff. I related this to Wills over a felafel sandwich.

"Yeah, they've got some hot babes here," he replied.

The men aren't bad either, but that's a story for another post.

Monday, August 13, 2007

American Style Malls

Wow. We heard a rumour that City Centre may have a pet store, so last night after work, we asked the driver to take us to Salt Lake's City Centre Mall. First off, getting out of work occurs at 7:30, and I knew the stores were closing at 8:30, but looking at the map, it looked no farther away than where our new home will be from the office. Boy was I wrong. It took nearly an hour to get there, so we watched the stores close up, but the mall didn't close until 10:30 so people could hang around the food court.

The food court!!!! Wills was so excited. The place was huge. Five stories of cute little shops, Levis, Tommy Hilfiger, home furnishings, lots of iPods, Xbox and other electronics, Bose - you name it, they had it. We were like two kids looking into the windows of the candy store. "Oooh, look at that... Mom, can I get a new game for the PSP next time? ... Hey look at that shelving system - wonder how much that costs..." We rounded a corner to see, yes, Pizza Hut and KFC.

Now, I know we've only been here a few weeks, but Wills is really missing his friends and he hasn't started school yet because we're waiting on the bank account to be set up (so I can pay the school). When he saw KFC, I thought he was going to cry. He didn't want to go in though because it was very busy. He's beginning to get overwhelmed with the attention he gets. He asked if we could come again later when it wasn't so crowded. I felt bad for him. I know it's just a matter of time getting adjusted to it, but even so, it's tough at times. when we were at New Market - I had the same feeling - people zeroing on on me, memsahib can I show you this? Mamsahib, paise hai? What part of 'no' do you not understand? I saw a sign for an Italian restaurant on the fourth floor, so I suggested we go there.

OMG. Hushh has an interesting interior - all black on black. Will went for the fried calamari and I started with the pasta salad, which was kind of weird because they put lettuce in it. The pasta could have been a bit more cooked through (it wasn't handmade either) but the pesto vinaigrette was very well balanced. Will selected a conchigliere with seafood for his entree, and I chose a prawn risotto with saffron. I wasn't expecting much - risotto is a risky choice because it's easily ruined, but with skill, it is the star dish on a menu. Wills and I both had tonic water, mine had the local gin added with a bit of lime. Both entrees were impeccable.

I have to say that until yesterday, my favorite restaurant for risotto was Felidia's in NYC. There was an abundance of saffron flavour and a blooming frangrance of the sea. The aborio rice was perfectly cooked, not too hard and not gummy, the two areas where risottos typically fail. The color and presentation of the dish were beautiful - if anything, I'd use a little more imagination on the garnish - a crispy carmelized onion would have been interesting or a mushroom saute finished with sherry could have been nice too, but overall, the stunning flavor didn't need any elaboration.

Will's tomato-based gravy was bursting with intricate flavors. I detected a nice touch of fennel playing off the prawns and squid. There was a certain smokiness to the sauce that I couldn't define, but it was very, very good. Again the pasta did not seem home made, but the attention on the sauces more than made up for it. This time the pasta was cooked through.

Will had the dark & white chocolate mousse for dessert. Skip it. There was one other bothersome thing - there were three different sources of music heard at our table. We had jazz directly above us, 70s pop and disco towards the interior of the restaurant, and something else everytime the entrance door opened. The entire meal, with a 10% tip was around 1,800 rupees, with about 600 of that for the gin. We're definitely going back. I was so surprised to find a foodie restaurant. There seems to be a few more at this mall, so I think we'll be going back. Often. It was a nice respite to find something comfortable and familiar and best of all exemplary here. I should have expected it, with the skill every cook in this country has with their spices, that they could make simple dishes all the most interesting with a deft hand at the herb and spice rack.

Bottom line? Still no kitty litter, but well worth the trip. :-)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Monsoon

Weather is bad. It's been raining for a full day with no end in sight. The roads are flooded and most of my team won't be making it in to work today. Since I'm only around the corner, and my driver made it to the house, I came in.

Last night around 10:00 pm, BOOOMMM!!! I was awakened by a blow to the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of me. As I curled up into a fetal position, I realized it was Grace whining and looking for a place to hide. BOOOOM BBOOOOOMMM!!! She became even more panicked. The rain was coming down in solid sheets (still is). I opened up the doors onto the balcony to watch the rain come down. The smell of ozone was overpowering. Lightning was crashing everywhere. I closed the balcony doors and went to see if Wills was okay.

Of course he was sound asleep. He can sleep through anything. BBBB--BB--BBB-BOOOMMM!!! It was really really loud. I woke him up by pushing him and shaking him. I wanted him to see the city. He wanted to sleep. Oh, well.

I went back to the balcony to watch the rain. The city had an odd colour to it. The lights were reflected by the bottom of the heavy clouds that were obliterating anything over 8-9 stories. (Made me wonder whether moving to the tenth floor would be a good idea). The entire city was misty, making everything look like a shimmering mirage. Nothing looked real. I must have watched the rain come down for an hour. The one thing I noticed? No car alarms. Just quiet.

Thunder's still going off over my head now. I ran five feet from the car to the office door and was drenched completely, only to meet a stray dog huddling in the corner of the stairwell, completely wet, shivering... I really wanted to pick up the dog, get him a bath and a vet visit, and take him home. Poor thing. There are strays everywhere. My team's just coming in. I guess the rain is coming down even harder now. Must go.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Registering at the Foreigners Office

The first thing I recommend to anyone moving here is to step off the plane and immediately go to the nearest passport photo shop and get ten or 12 made. You'll need them for applying to everything, the sports club, ordering your wireless internet, applying for school, getting a bank account, and registering at the Foreigners Office.

You have 14 days to provide proof of address, proof of employment, etc, and each office requires their own set of paperwork. On my first attempt, I went with my colleague and he said to not expect it to be completed that day, that this would just be a visit to ensure we had everything we needed. He was right. We had everything listed online, but they had other ideas.

At my particular office, I was required to bring a copy of my passport showing the photo page, date of entry page and the visa page. Same for my son. Then the form from the internet was not accepted. They had their own form, one for each of us. They required 4 photos for me, 2 for the minor. I needed a letter from my company confirming employment, plus my contract, and a letter from me requesting permission to live peacefully in their city with my son. This meeting took 45 minutes.

At my second appreance, which I did with my son in tow just in case, we had everything, but I had to go over every piece of paper with two different people, then sign my name to every page again in front of a third person. I also had every original with me. If I hadn't none of the copies would have been accepted. I also brought a second copy of everything just in case - I was told that a different office in the city required 2 copies. This meeting took about twice as long as the first meeting, and I was finally told to come back on the 14th. They didn't explain why, but I'm assuming I'll get a booklet confirming our registration.

It was a little less painful than going to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the US, except everyone is speaking a different language. I never realized how lost you can feel as an immigrant. People are making decisions for you based on your presentation of your paperwork - and you have no idea how things are being interpreted. Luckily I have found that, here in Kolkata, a smile, having a sense of humour and being patient, goes a long way.

Hindi toro samaste hain! :-)

Finding a Place to Live In Kolkata

Originally we had planned to move to Salt Lake, a planned section of the city, but those who live there say it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to the office. Right now, I'm about ten minutes and really didn't want another commute from hell, so we decided to look elsewhere. The office is just around where Ballgunge and Tollgunge meet, so we looked in both.

The first day of looking we looked at three different properties. The first, a fully furnished place was situated on a main boulevard close to work with a lot of architectural detail - too much. The floors were beautiful white marble, but the space felt cramped, dark and there wasn't much to really like. The furniture was WAY over the top - I couldn't have lived there. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like very clean, simple lines with little or no ornamentation (I expect my artwork to decorate). My furniture should keep my butt off the floor - very utilitarian, and with multiple uses if possible. He wanted 25,000 Rupees for the space, plus 4 months deposit. So, no go.

The second place was in a brand new building on the seventh floor. It looked very modern on the outside, with massive backup generators, and architecturally, the external design with visually stunning. The elevator inside was something else and when we stepped out onto the 7th floor, I stumbled over several pairs of shoes. I knew this was not going to be the place because I already disliked my neighbors. It was way too hot, no electricity working, many of the finishes weren't complete and I really did not want to move in with a punch list of stuff that still needed to be done. There was also a significant mold problem in the master bedroom which they were telling me was because of construction. Uh uh. I'm the daughter of two architects. It's because of a defect in the the construction (or design or both). I'm not dealing with it. They wanted 30,000 rupees a month with a six month deposit.

The third place was the place on Southern Avenue that we had planned on renting. They agreed to 25,000 rupees a month, but would not budge on the 6 month deposit.

Get this. A typical rental agreement is 11 months, and basically the landlord is asking for more than half upfront, an entire 7 months of rent. I find that excessive. Plus I'm told not to expect any contact with the landlord once we sign the agreement, so what's in it for me? So time to look again.

The streets in Calcutta are on sensory overload. Everyone moves around one another - all driving here is based on a dare. Whomever is going faster or looks crazier has the right of way, plus you share the street with bullock carts, bicycles, cows, packs of wild dogs, lots and lots of people, buses, trucks, trams, hand rickshaws, bike rickshaws, motor rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, scooters, handpulled carts overloaded with goods going to market, construction materials, etc. ... and no one uses a lane (they're not even marked - I think they gave up on the notion), and no one heeds the traffic lights or the traffic cops. Drivers use their horns constantly. It's noisy, polluted, hot and sticky, and overall, a most unpleasant undertaking.

The sides streets, on the other hand, are quite beautiful. They are so skinny, most of the two way streets only have enough room for one car. The trees are so overgrown, they are entwined across the tops of most streets, so they are dark, quieter and more peaceful. You can only see the windows of the ground floor, so the windows on the remaining 2-3 floors have just tree limbs for a view (they must get their sun from side and back windows...)

This past weekend, we traveled south to Javadpur in the most southern part of Tollygunge to look at Ekta Tower. We looked at the penthouse apartment on the tenth floor and it was amazing!!! There's about 1,800 square feet of living space, plus a 1,000 square foot terrace. 3 bedrooms, 3 baths (the cat gets his own bathroom again), plus a large living/dining area. We have balconies in three directions, and we're literally the highest point we can see. :-) They were asking 35,000 rupees and 6 months deposit again, but our agent talked the owners into a great decrease in the rent and a 3 month deposit in exchange for a 3 year agreement with a 5% increase each year. We made a verbal agreement yesterday and just need to wait for the papers. In the meantime, I have to scramble to get cash. I'm hoping to have my bank account set up next week, so at that point I can see what I can get wired in to pay for this, plus Will's school (more sticker shock - just under 200,000 rupees to get him in the door, then about 3,000 per month).

If it weren't for the corporate group helping me with getting set up, I would be completely lost. I was able to get myself registered with the Foreigner's Registration office this week, but only after making the trip once with help, and a call during my second attempt. The people in corporate have helped with arranging suitable temporary housing, arranging a car/driver, setting up my bank account (the amount of paperwork for foreigners is massive), finding an apartment, suggesting restaurants, even providing helpful phrases in Hindi and so much more. I doubt an American company has ever provided all this to their employees coming from overseas. I am completely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the people here.

And of course, "I'm worth it" as the L'Oreal commercial says. We work six days a week, 9:30 to 7:30 M-F plus 9:30 to 2:30 on Saturdays. It doesn't feel like a long day, but by the time I get home, I'm done. Will heats up dinner for me (he's such a good kid), we watch a bit of TV and then bed. **Yawn**

Thursday, August 2, 2007

First Impressions

Instead of staying at the Landmark Hotel as expected, the company put us up at a flat associated with the Princeton Club. It is a three bedroom, two bath on the fourth floor of a group of appartment buildings called the Merlin Residency. Being very close to the office, it works out fine.

Differences: all marble floors, with high thresholds that we keep stubbing our toes on. Even the cat and dog have had a tumble. No central A/C. There are window air conditioners in two of the bedrooms, but none in the living/dining area or the kitchen. TV in the room with no A/C. (Constant struggle with the decision of whether to read in a cool room or watch TV in a hot room; usually the book wins out.)

Similarities: every modern convenience is available, including cable TV, stainless steel appliances, etc. Speaking of TV, they have everything, "My Name is Earl", "ER", "The 4400", "That 70s Show", they even have US soap operas like "General Hospital". MTV India is quite lascivious, much to my surprise - was not expecting that.

We went looking for our own flat a few days ago and looked at a place we really liked on Southern Avenue, even closer to work than where we are now. The flat is on the sixth floor of a newer building (anything after the British split) with white walls, colourful terrazzo floors and huge windows overlooking most of south Calcutta. There's a park just below us, so mostly you see heavy banyan trees and palms and just the tops of other buildings - there are a few high-rises (20-30 floors) to the south. The other half of the view is sky, and with the monsoons, you can see the dark clouds rolling in, dumping sheets of rain and lightly scurrying out to the east. It's a very open and airy space, very light. One of the people at work has been helping us with negotiating the price. It's quite beautiful. It has been explained to me that once you negotiate the price and put down the rather large deposit (4 months), the only time you'll hear from the landlord is if you don't pay the rent. Don't expect them to perform maintenance and such. I hope that works both ways and no one will be complaining about my dog or my noisy son.

Will should be starting school soon as the Calcutta International School. It's a brand new building. He took his admission test on Saturday and he thinks he did well. We had an interview at the school and we had to make a decision whether to have him redo 7th to make his transition easier, or dump him into 8th grade, which started more than a month ago. We're starting 8th and getting a tutor to help him align his math to where they are in class.

Will is enjoying life here. We joined the Princeton Club so he can swim and use the gym. We have someone who comes to the house every morning with the driver bringing our breakfast, then he accompanies me to work. Will can then use the driver to go to the mall or food bazaar during the day. I work 9:30am to 7:30pm M-F, plus 9:30am to 2:30pm on Saturday.

Lance is still upset because we can't find kitty litter. We're using sand right now, and it's not working too well. Two things I can't find yet in calcutta - kitty litter and Gin. I could use a good G&T this evening...

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Flight

We arrived at O’Hare with plenty of time to get everything arranged. There were few people in the airport and no waiting involved. We flagged down a skycap who helped us manage the four boxes, three bags, two pet carriers, one guitar case and our two carryon bags. We walked up to the desk and told them we were picking up our tickets. They were there as anticipated. The Air India agent looked at everything we had and excused herself, opening a door into a back room. After a moment or two, a gentleman came out and started asking questions, “Where will you be staying? Why all these bags? Why do you need these animals?” I explained that we were moving there.

“One way?” he said, eyes wide.

I nodded.

“So, you are returning home, yes?” he said, jokingly.

I replied, “In a way, yes.” I explained how I had lived in Mumbai as an exchange student when I was 15 and how I had always wanted to return, blah, blah, blah. He hesitated for a moment, looking at me, then he talked with the agent. I paid $266 for each of my pets, and $133 for a box and that was it. They made photocopies of the pet’s papers, and we were done. Tickets in hand, the skycap escorted the pets and us to the arrivals area, where we could walk Grace and keep Lance near us. We had over three hours until our plane would leave, but we had to wait until 30 minutes before to hand over the pets and go through security. Bored, we waited. I had anticipated going through security, getting something to eat, settling down in a spot to check email, get a drink or two, buy some magazines… all we managed was the magazines when we were finally able to drop off Lance and Grace.

We took off about 45 minutes late, but once we were in the air, the flight was uneventful. I read magazines and Will started reading the seventh “Harry Potter” book he had just received from his Gran. Next to Will was an older woman dressed in a burkha who didn’t speak any English. She had keep getting up for us because we were always moving around. After a while, I motioned for her to take the window and she declined. She used the little English she knew to tell me her knees bothered her and that aisle was better. She asked me to complete her Customs paperwork and she handed over her passport. After our next meal, she shared her after dinner digestive with me, a palmful of caraway and other seeds to freshen your breath and aid digestion. Not being a big fan of caraway, I took just a little bit and thanked her, popping it into my mouth. She shook her head, took my hand and dumped a bunch more onto my palm. I thanked her and chewed on the rest… She was really nice. I wanted to ask her a lot of questions regarding the culture of the burkha, but that will have to wait until another day, another woman. The food on Air India was actually quite okay for our palates. We ordered the Indian non-veg and were happily surprised. Whenever we were expected to eat continental style though – not so good.

When we finally arrived in Mumbai, it was 11:00 pm. Immigration was a breeze, taking only a few moments – not even one question from the officer. Next came the part I had been dreading – Customs.

When we arrived in Baggage Claim, I looked at the available luggage handlers and selected one who I thought could help. I told him that I had $40 on me and needed assistance with a large amount of cargo through Customs. He jumped to attention, assembling 3 or 4 other young men with trolleys to await my bags. I had expected my pets to come off first. When they didn’t, he went back into the loading area to find them. They were inside within five minutes. As soon as Grace saw me, she went nuts whining and barking, causing everyone to stare. It took six guys to get her crate (with her in it) off the revolving carousel. They kept stepping on each others feet and Grace shifted her weight, nearly causing the crate to tip over onto them. As soon as I could, I got her out of the crate and on a leash. She was the center of attention. Everyone was looking at us. Staring at us. The luggage guy was barking out orders to all the other helpers while Will was busy pointing out bags, boxes, and cases. The luggage guy wanted to know where we were going and well, there was a problem.

I had called Sprint before we left to make sure that my phone would be India-ready. I was sold the International package and didn’t have a way to test it. Apparently, the International package only works on the phone in the U.S. making calls INTO foreign countries. Once I arrived in Bombay, the phone did not work. My contact at the office had called while we were waiting at the airport in Chicago to let me know that he would be emailing me the name and phone number of the contact who would meet me in Mumbai and take me through to the domestic airport. Unfortunately, I never had access to my email and now had no phone access as well.

I explained this to my luggage handlers and they recommended taking the Jet Airways shuttle over. It was free. They would help me get on it even though we didn’t have our tickets. They were sure they could talk us on because my contact had thoughtfully sent the ticket numbers ahead, and I had them listed in my notebook. We started through Customs and with 8 trolleys full of bags, boxes, cases, and crates, plus about 8 or 9 people, a barking and whining dog, a cat, I think we overwhelmed the Customs agent. The luggage handlers kept loading one item after another, yelling to each other – by the time the last box went through, everything else had already left the area, like a tidal wave have come, sweeping all things away, leaving just me, the Customs agent, and one box. He asked me what was inside. I said personal items. He wanted to know where my papers were that listed every item. I looked at him blankly. He said open the box. Another agent came over and slit it open.

The box contained a Tibetan statue of Tara, the Goddess of Compassion. He had a lot of questions, but once I said I bought it on Ebay, he said, "go." We were pushed through the Jet Airways lines and through to the waiting room. I didn't even ask how they did it. We sat for a moment, then were ushered out onto the tarmac where a bus completely filled with people waited. The luggage handlers pushed our bags into any available opening, then stuck Will and the pets in the rear section of the bus, where they keep the tools, cleaning supplies and such - Grace had to make a five foot jump to clear the barriers - and then sent me to the front. A discreet request for a tip, money changed hands, and I stood in the stairwell of the bus as it sped off to the domestic terminal. It arrived about ten minutes later. Overall, the entire process took about 30 minutes.

When we got to the next airport, we had to ensure we had all the bags, boxes and crates, plus get my son and pets out of the underbelly of the bus. They jumped out covered in soot and grease, but okay. We approached the Jat Airways desk to arrange the next leg of the flight. At this point, Grace had had enough of this whole trip and refused to get anywhere near the crate. She was whining and barking, and the sound of her echoed around the nearly empty airport in the early morning hours. It sounded like someone was gutting an aminal alive. Of course, all eyes were again on us. Lance's crate was on top of Grace's, both sitting on a small trolley, the only size they had. While speaking with the agent, Grace pushed all her weight against the cage, sending her crate crashing down, and Lance's hurtling through the air landing on its top. Upside down, Lance joined in the cacophony and now everyone in the airport had stopped doing anything and just watched us, as we pulled the cratesopen, checked the animals for injuries and righted averything again. Grace must have realized her mistake because she stayed quiet for a while after that.

We had about five hours to kill, so we found a quiet corner to keep both animals out of their crates once we had our boarding passes. This calmed them down until it was time to hand them over to the agent. After a quick flight to Kolkata (just under two hours), we were finally able to meet our contact from the office who, with his staff, arranged everything getting us and our stuff out of the building and into two cars for our drive to the guest house.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quick Check-In

We safely arrived, all of us, including dog and cat on the 25th of July. I don't have an internet connection yet, but will post the details ASAP. I am LOVING it here. My housing is great, the job is fabulous and right now, I am deep in the midst of apartment hunting, finding kitty litter, etc., etc.

Will post as soon as I can. Cheers! :-)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

White Knuckle Time.

It's getting down to the wire. Only a couple of things left to do now. I need to get the car cleaned out and sell it today. Other than that, I'll repack again just to organize everything and distribute the weight better. All of the paintings have been cut from their stretchers and rolled up saving a ton of space. I have a couple of calls to make, and really, that's it.

I spoke with Jason, my friend who just moved to Chennai. He said that the energy is amazing, "Say goodbye to the American wage slave lifestyle and say hello to the adventure that is India. The energy and optimism here is like US pre-9/11. The people are great, the food can’t be beat. I love living here. Yes, it has its ups and downs, but you’ve been to India before, so you know the drill."

Three days and a wake up to go. The suspense/excitement/fear is killing me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm Loving the Landmark Hotel

I just received an email back from Raju at the Landmark. They are happy to host us while we look for a flat. I can even order pick up service from the airport to the hotel. They have a special rate for those booking online, which is quite good.

"Landmark Hotel is located 10 kms from the Airport, just 2 minutes from Science City. Away from the pollution and the hussle of the city.

Landmark Hotel is friendly, warm and modern with an aesthetically pleasing ambience.

Driving time to the hotel from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport is 20 minutes. Howrah or Sealdah Station is just 45 minutes away."

We are 7 days and a wakeup away from departure. Still to do:

1. Detail and sell the car.
2. Buy pens as gifts.
3. Finalize packing.

Once ticket confirmation is received:
4. Arrange for transport to the airport.
5. Call Air India regarding excess baggage & pet transport.
6. Try to relax.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Finding a place to live in Kolkata

Immediate need is for the hotel for when we first arrive. The Landmark Hotel has responded and I provided them with more information about the dog and cat. So far, no response from the others. I am learning that if you don't hear anything quickly, you'll probably never hear back. Some people (and businesses) never seem to check their email. You would think a hotel would deem most requests as requiring a response. It is a most disappointing first impression of their service.

I found a good real estate agent who specializes in the Salt Lake area of Kolkata. I found him on Clickin.

Sindhu Banerjee
FD 57 Salt Lake City
Salt Lake Sector III
Kolkata - 700106
IM: sindhurealestate123@yahoo.com
www.sindhurealestate.com
phone: 9830128830
email: info@sindhurealestate.com

He has been very responsive so far - I have told him I will contact him when I arrive in Kolkata.

I put up a wanted ad and have one response too.

All our bags are pretty much packed and ready to go. William got everything he needed at Zumies, our local skateboard shop, and I picked out some dresses as well. It's nice to have something new.

I have four boxes, two larger luggage pieces, two carryons, a giant crate for Grace and a regular size crate for Lance. We also have Will's bass guitar. If everything goes as previously quoted, our baggage costs will be:

Grace & crate - $ 399
Lance & crate - 266
2 boxes @ 70 lbs. - 266 (all boxes under 70 lbs. are $133 each)
2 boxes @ 40 lbs. - 266
-----------------------
$1,127

Yesterday, I went to Kinko's, scanned in our passports & visas, them emailed them to my web email account. I should have done the same with the pet stuff. If I have time, I will.

Other things I will need to do:
- get my car detailed and sell it at Carmax.
- cash in Will's savings bonds & close his savings account.
- arrange a car to the airport.

Is that it? I guess we're just about done. Phew. This has been physically and emotionally draining.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pet Friendly Hotels in Kolkata

Landmark Hotel
36F Topsia Road
Kolkata 700 039

Great Eastern Hotel
1-3 Old Courthouse St
Kolkata 700 069

Lytton Hotel
14 & 14/1, Sudder Street
Kolkata 700 016

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The visas are here!

The visas arrived yesterday. We have everything we need to hit the airport. I sent my contact in India the news and everything is going as planned. I found another really good website: India Tree, which is very similar to IndiaMike.com. On this site, I found someone who is moving to Hyderabad and brought her German Shepherd with her! I have so many questions as to how she did it.

I found some videos of Kolkata on YouTube. Enjoy.





I would like to find a modern flat like this!


Calcutta, with a little bit of Darjeeling mixed in. It can't hurt to have a Led Zeppelin soundtrack...


Appropriately titled "Insane Traffic in Calcutta"


More traffic. Just listen to all the horns. Calcutta is definitely a place that puts you into sensory overload.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Medical /Healthcare Information Clearinghouse

East West Medical Center
38 Golf Links, New Delhi 110003
tel. 11/462-3738, 11/469-9229, 11/469-0955, or 11/469-8865
fax 11/469-0428 or 11/463-2382

East West can provide a referral list of doctors, dentists, opticians, chemists, and lawyers throughout India. It is also the only clinic in India (so far) recognized by most international insurance companies.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Packing

I got Lay-Z working by bribing him. I told him I would buy him a PSP if he got everything into the pod. He's taking a lot of time, but it's over 90 degrees (F) outside and really humid. Sort of Kolkata weather. I'm a mess in this heat.

Originally, I had planned to bring a selection of my books, DVDs, CDs, but I'm beginning to think this is a bad idea. I was looking at prices of things and it really makes sense to bring money and buy it there. The only thing I couldn't find was a bass guitar and amp, and a decent skateboard, both things on Will's "Must Have" list. We'll have to stock up here. It will cost us more than $1,000 to ship our boxes and I think I can buy more with that money than what I'm shipping.

I found local sources for ordering utilities:
Kolkata Yellow Pages

Cable or Satellite TV:
Linkmen Services Private Limited
BD 80, Sector 1, Salt Lake
Bidhan Nagar,
Kolkata 700064
Phone: (33) 23597057, 23217605

West Bengal State Electricity Board
Salt Lake City, Baguiati, Hooghly, Sahaganj
Bidhan Nagar,
Kolkata 700064
Phone: (33) 25910346, 23591930, 26342913

Dry Cleaners:
Avinandan
Salt Lake City Shop # 18,
Bidhan Nagar,
Kolkata 700064

Drinking Water:
Chatterjee Enterprise
Sector 1, Salt Lake, C.E. Market Shop # 14,
Bidhan Nagar,
Kolkata 700064
Phone: (33) 23219142

Banerjee Gas Distributors
A.E. Marekt
Bidhan Nagar,
Kolkata 700064
Phone: (33) 23374921

Wireless Phone:
Tata Phone Centre
51, Mizra Ghalib Street, Park Street
Park Street H.O.,
Kolkata 700016
Phone: (33) 22294633

Broadband:
Regent Park Broadband & Allied Services
148/28, Near Central Bank
Regent Park,
Kolkata 700040
Phone: (33) 24815157

Moitri Veterinary Clinic
15 B, Deshapriya Road
Tollygunge,
Kolkata 700033
Phone: (33) 24640773

This site helped me figure out my budget on general stuff like refrigerators, TVs, DVDs, books, etc.:
India Times Shopping

Phew. I'm glad I've got a list to work up. Will just came in - looks like we're 90% done packing the pod. It leaves at 9:00am tomorrow for Boston. One more thing to check off the list. :-)

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