It’s 18 months ago today that I arrived in India, for the first time ever. Three jet-lagged days later I started my new job.
I’ve been trying to avoid “Robinson Crusoe” accounts of living here — notching up the days — but this feels like a bit of a landmark and anyway I’ve not really been counting since it was 1 year. What I’m really interested in is documenting how it feels to become an ex-pat for the first time, and the process of adapting to a new culture.
That said — the blogging is starting to feel a bit burdensome. I love writing, but as with anything of value there comes a point where it stops being love and starts being hard work. I have a couple of blog posts here that are still unpublished and unfinished because they’ve turned into monsters, or I ran out of time and energy and didn’t get around to finishing them.
Case in point: I travelled to Uttar Pradesh up in the North (Ganges territory), almost 3 months ago now, and this was the last bit of holiday I had. It was a really fantastic trip, and I was so full of enthusiasm for my experiences when I got back that I wrote loads…. the post started to become somewhat epic, but then ran out of steam before it was anywhere near finished. (Although I did write something for my Hindi homework a bit later.)
The main issue really seems to be that I have two distinct lives here. On a day-to-day basis I’m in just as much of a rat-race as I ever was back home, working more hours a week and doing more teaching than would even be allowed in the UK, plus more responsibilities and admin stuff. Blah blah blah…
And on the other hand, in the thin strip of almost-free time that we get in between the 4 terms a year that we teach, a.k.a “term break”, I try my best to get away and see something of this amazing country. And for that I’m very grateful.
But anyone who’s only ever visited a country as a tourist won’t realise what it’s like to actually live and work there, and to deal with the day-to-day bureaucracy and constant tribulations. Fortunately I’ve been able to meet up with a few friends from back home who came here to visit, and who helped me to see India through their eyes, like I did during the honeymoon period when I first arrived. And welcoming visitors to your new home is a great way of getting a bit of perspective on things.
Anyway. Life definitely feels different now from what it did even 6 months ago.
When I was blogging about being here for 120 days, I discussed Culture Shock… at that point I think I was just getting over the “Oh my god, I’m still here” phase. Since then things calmed down quite a bit and Bangalore started to feel “normal”. Or as normal as anywhere can be when you still see crazy, funny, bizarre and shocking things on a daily basis. I suppose you start to expect the unexpected.
Some things are just a fact of life now. When I need drinking water, I have to phone some guy that was recommended to me (who presumably works for a shop nearby), and I order a 20 Litre container of water. He always says “Yes sir, half an hour”. And he always arrives an hour and a half later. In India, this is what I call “reliable”. (And he’s in my phone contacts as “Pani-wala – Reliable”!). The MRP for one of these is about Rs 35 (40p), but he charges 50 including delivery. I usually tip him another Rs 20 anyway. 20 Litres of drinking water for 80p! That’s a 20kg weight this tiny guy has to carry to my door.
The auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore, who are notorious for ripping people off — especially people of a lighter-skinned persuasion — are no longer such a source of stress either. Before I came out here I never liked haggling and I was never good at it, but I’ve improved a lot. Mainly, if you know how much the journey should cost “on the meter”, then you know where your bargaining point is. (80-90% of the time the drivers don’t want to put the meter on though.)
I recently scored my first victory against an auto-wala who I booked at the “pre-fixed price” stand near work, when I had to go into town to visit the bank. I do this exact same journey on the first Saturday of every month, so I know the route and I know how much it costs. When he tried to drop me off before we’d “reached”, I told him I knew what he was up to and he was ripping me off, but I insisted we continue to where I wanted to go. When he carried on the charade and tried to charge more as we arrived at my destination, I took out my phone and photographed the license plate that’s (meant to be) displayed in all autos, with his photo, license number, address, local police station etc on it. He wasn’t at all happy, but he backed down and accepted what was on the “pre-fixed” ticket, on condition that I delete the photo, which I did in front of him. Result!
There’s usually a bunch of auto-walas outside my apartment block in the mornings, and often I will approach them asking for “Star Bazaar”, which is the big supermarket below the college where I work. It’s got to the point now where the drivers I recognise will just say “come” and we don’t even discuss the price, because we both know. Whenever I walk past them, as I have to do whenever I leave the apartment, they smile or wave and shout “Star Bazaar!” which now seems to be my nickname. It could be worse, although it’s the equivalent to being called “Tesco”!
I feel like I’m pretty much on top of most stuff by now, even down to doing my laundry in a bucket (washing machine is broken, but it’s a rubbish one that only uses cold water anyway), and taking my shirts to a dhobi on the street corner to be ironed — on a hand-cart parked in the shade, using an iron full of hot charcoals that looks like something from 1890, for 10 rupees each.
I’ve also learned not to take anything for granted. Gas for cooking comes out of a bottle, like when you’re camping but bigger, and there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to get more when I need it because you’re supposed to be “registered”… although the black market will probably come good anyway.
After drought conditions in Karnataka this summer, we had several “shortages”… One morning I got up and went to have a shower but no water was coming out of the taps. And more recently Bangalore’s mains water was shut off for 3 days last week while repairs were carried out.
Just before this, with no warning, the state enacted 2 “dry days” when alcohol couldn’t be sold, which is apparently normal procedure when there’s an election. But nobody seemed to be expecting it, plus it was the weekend and just when the Euro 2012 football had started. Not a popular move. It seems that some days are more “dry” than others.
And in this flat where I’m living now, power cuts are just as frequent as the last place (possibly more frequent), but we have a generator. I’m so used to this now that I can actually tell whether my flat is on mains power or the generator just by the speed of the ceiling fan over the table where I often sit, using the computer. When we’re on the generator, the fan runs faster — presumably the voltage is higher. The significance of this is that on the generator you can’t use anything that requires a large current, because it trips something and all the power goes off again: microwave, toaster oven, kettle, air-conditioning, water heater. A couple of times the power has gone off on Sunday morning before I could make coffee, or in the middle of making breakfast, which is annoying but mostly you just work around it. And remind yourself that you’re living in a developing country with limited infrastructure.
But no big deal — these are all things that you can get used to.
Back in that post about being here 120 days I wrote about the idea of “falling in love” with a country, and how it’s possibly more important to actively seek to love it rather than expecting it to “happen to you”. The reality is probably a bit of both. The trip to Uttar Pradesh made a big impression on me, and I started to see a side of India that tourists are wowed by.
In Varanasi I got up at 5am to go on a boat trip on the sacred river Ganges. Just me and a man in a rowing boat, watching the sun come up, and then seeing all the people come down to the river to pray and bathe and sing. Later I visited the main “burning Ghat” on the banks of the river, where Hindus who are cremated on the outdoor funeral pyres are guaranteed Moksha, the final escape from the cycle of suffering and reincarnation. Truly magical experiences. Another world entirely. And impossible to do it justice in a couple of short punchy sentences. (Which is why I ended up writing the as-yet unfinished epic…)
Then I caught a train to Allabahad where I think I was the only white man in the whole city. And hardly an auto to be seen — mostly just beautifully-painted tricycle rickshaws. I had a very enlightening discussion there with a local high school student called Mohammed, in a park where I went to hide from the heat, but which turned out to be full of students revising for exams. Although I had been hoping to improve my Hindi while I was there, bizarrely I ended up teaching him some French. (He told me he talks to a lot of French tourists.)
I spent a couple of days in Lucknow too. Apart from being on holiday in U.P. and finally relaxing a bit, I was seeing another side of India that just isn’t accessible to me when I’m working flat-out in the college, in modern, air-conditioned office accommodation, and in a relatively modern metropolis.
Plus it’s the North, not the South. Big differences. And I could try out my limited Hindi, and reading Devanagari script — which came in pretty useful when travelling by train because the timetables weren’t translated. So I guess I was getting more into the language and the culture than I would be able to during my normal daily routine.
Just when I was about to leave Uttar Pradesh and come back to Bangalore, in an email to a friend, I said:
I wrote something on one of my first blog posts about “falling in love with a place”… I’m not sure, but I’m thinking maybe it just happened. :)
I’m still not sure… I can only just remember how that felt. It’s really hard to reconcile these amazing little trips around the place every 3 months with the 12 weeks of intensity, madness and drama at work in between. (And there’s easily been enough drama in 2012 to make it into a soap opera, but let’s not go there…)
But I do know that it feels really good to be here. (And I haven’t even mentioned the possible implosion of Europe, did you notice?)
My 2-year contract is set to expire at the end of December, and if things carry on as they are, then I will be renewing it. There’s so much to learn and to experience here that 2 years isn’t anywhere near long enough to even scratch the surface. So I suppose I’ll be here for longer.