Friday, February 11, 2011

A FOREIGNER'S BLOG LIVING IN INDIA FOR A YEAR

Mike Spends a Year In India
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I spend a year in India, follow the trials and tribulations.

Bonus post
In India gas stations are called “petrol bunks”.

For my Indian readers:

In the US petrol bunks are called “gas stations”.

Posted on February 10, 2011


Anecdote
Walking home today I was on the lookout for a restaurant because Thurs. is the night I “bring home something Indian” to experience.

Found a great place. As I was waiting for my food a guy came with a black bag and plunked it down on the cash register counter. The cashier and the delivery guy exchanged a glance and the guy left. I figured this might be my food as it was about the right size (a bit smaller than my fist) so I walked over with a questioning look. He looked at me like I was crazy; OK, not my dish. That’s fine.

The cashier summons another guy over who gives him a quizzical look - he clearly has no clue what it is either.

I kid you not the cashier says one word only - it sounded to me like: “Pooh”.

This doesn’t help quizzical guy, the quizzical look remains, if anything more intense, the look on my face is likely somewhere between interest and revulsion.

So the cashier repeats it, louder with emphasis (some shoulder movement and a gesture with his hand): “POOH”…

Neither I nor quizzical guy are any more likely to grab it from the counter than we were before. At that moment a young guy darted out from behind another counter, grabbed the bag and ran back to what I assume was the kitchen. Quizzical guy and I haven’t moved a muscle… For good measure, as if it will explain everything the cashier says it one more time: ”pooh”. With a gesture to the door the young guy went through.

That’s enough for quizzical guy, he leaves without saying a word. I just continue waiting for my food, although with a bit more apprehension than before.

The food I got was Panier Machurain (my spelling is wrong I’m sure), it was awesome.

Posted on February 10, 2011


Cost of things
I’ve been speaking about how some things are cheap an others not so much so I thought I’d share the prices of some things in USD to give some perspective:

Having a shirt ironed = $0.08 each

Hiring a driver = $170 / month

A year of cable (100 channels 30 or so English including HBO) = $80

2006 Suzuki swift (~30K miles) = $7000

1 pound of ground chicken at hypermarket = $4

16 ounces (small jar) of Skippy peanut-butter = $5

A light lunch (a chicken puff and a can of soda) = $0.70

Groceries for the week for us = ~$40-$50

750ml of Jack Daniels = ~$60 (yikes!)

750ml of domestic Indian whiskey = ~ $5-$10

Gas/fuel/petrol = $5.30/gallon

Posted on February 8, 2011


I’m a regular
Every day between 8 and 9 am I leave for work. As I mentioned in a previous post I walk up to the tea stand to catch an autorickshaw. Things have gotten 1 step better now as most days I don’t even have to announce my destination or negotiate a price. They all know me, know about what I’m going to pay and about where I’m going. They typically gesture me into one yellow ride or another (I guess they have sorted out who my driver will be today before I got there) then off we go without a word spoken. I only have to speak to indicate my exact drop off location.

One driver in particular has driven me 5 or so times now and he knows exactly where to drop me off. If he is there the whole thing can be done without a word being spoken.

I’ve been here a month and I am now a regular.

Posted on January 30, 2011


Birthday party
I attended a Birthday party today. It was great fun, the big difference between this Indian party and a US event was the fact that in India the cake came first. Before lunch and before gifts came the cake cutting and eating.

Loved it!

All the children at the party (with the exception of ours) were really well behaved despite the sugary snack without a meal to moderate it.

Many thanks to Ramya and her family for having us at her daughters birthday party. It was a very nice time.

Posted on January 29, 2011


Small difference
In India - sometimes instead of a yellow traffic light there is a digital countdown telling you when the light will change. This allows people to have a better idea if they should push through the intersection on “yellow” and when to restart their engines after waiting at a red.

This isn’t universal however - in many places they have the traditional yellow light instead.

Posted on January 27, 2011


Food
Food… ahhh food. Love it. I’ve had the fortune of being exposed to many different takes on the sustenance we all must have. Growing up my Mother cooked an eclectic style with one thing in common - the ingredients were always on sale. My families roots are generally Germanic and Ukrainian, but we’ve melted into North American style of eating - which frankly is not at all in opposition to Germanic traditions. I’ve also had the benefit of living in a multicultural city like Ottawa (small yes - but multicultural none the less) so I was exposed to a lot of other types of foods often by native eaters (so to speak).

So yeah, I love good food.

With that as background I’m sure you can understand how much I was looking forward to eating all the great foods in India. Bangalore is a great city because the economic boom has attracted people and their foods from all over India, all in one place. So here is the low down on food.

Food Safety:

Safety first right? My co-worker Sevak visited a couple weeks ago and in addition to being a great public speaker and knowledgeable in software development he has a degree in bio-physics. Meaning he knows a bit about food and digestion. He let me know that the safest meat to eat is chicken, when cooked properly there is very little chance it will make you ill - it’s also very easy to cook properly. The biggest risk of bacterial infection comes from ground red meats - beef and lamb. Veggies and grains especially cooked are pretty much always safe to eat. Following those rules has kept me from picking up any food borne illnesses (so far. Knock on wood). I will be branching out more and more, I’m here for a year and I don’t like chicken THAT much.

Tap water is NOT drinkable. I also brush my teeth with bottled water and keep my lips sealed in the shower although Mieu thinks I’m being silly. We have a home filter (a very nice plug in operation) and we’ve been drinking water from it. So far that has been fine. At first we drank only bottled water (for a few days), then we started boiling the filtered water. After not getting sick there we started drinking the filtered water and it has been fine. On a locals advice we also boiled the milk at first - the results of that can be… ummm… unpleasant. So we put the kibosh on that operation. Also seems fine. The problem was putting the hot milk in the fridge for later and finding yogurt. I actually don’t like the taste of milk here so I haven’t been drinking it at all.

Yummy street food

Street food can be a greasy mess, but it can also be absolutely delicious. A meals worth of food is cheap ($0.50 or so). I tend to walk up and watch the vendor for a minute just to check out their health standards. Does the guy that handles money touch food? Does the guy touching raw meat also do the final prep? Are there dogs or cats a little too involved in the process? Simple observations like these are important, just because a place is small (or is a cart) doesn’t mean that the food is unsafe.

Sit down restaurants

There are a ton of casual dinning options. You can easily have a good sit down mean for $5, but the sky is the limit if you go to some of the fancier places. I’ve eaten at a couple sit down places that specialize in American food, and although the places were nice I found that they miss the mark ever so slightly on the American food front. Pizza hut is a casual dinning restaurant here and although the pizza was good it was also different. Indian sit down places I have found to be universally great (knock on wood again). Amazing food with helpful and polite staff. Sometimes there is a language barrier, but in those cases I just go with the point and hope method. It hasn’t let me down yet.

Home cooking

First you’ve gotta find a good source of ingredients. A place like “star bazaar” or “food bazaar” is great for staples, fruits and veggies. Very reasonable prices (although foreign stuff is surprisingly expensive). Indian food has been a staple of ours for a while so we figured Mieu would have no trouble churning out great meals. The ingredients are different however, and it’s taken Mieu a bit of practice to get her cooking mojo back. For example everything she has made with tomato has come out not as well as it used to in the US. Not sure if we’re buying the wrong tomato’s? The one big thing missing is cheese. It’s hard to find good cheese. Just today we finally found a “SPAR Hypermarket”. I guess the name supermarket was already taken by the neighborhood shops that sell veggies, grains AND dairy. Anyway the Hypermarket was great. It had a HUGE cheese selection as well as a great selection of meats, and western items. It’s a happy day, we’re going to try Lasagna again (last time it came out smelling like fish - there was no fish in it). We intend to use western prepackaged tomato sauce rather than raw tomatoes which should help. Fingers crossed!

Despite the horror stories you see on western TV about food and drink from the streets, if you pick carefully things are fine. Fresh cane juice or fresh grape juice is really amazing and I’ll miss it when we leave.

Posted on January 25, 2011


Money and Bank Accounts
Since I’m hoping other expats who travel to India might be able to use this blog as a guide I thought I’d write a mundane entry on the topic of money.

First off, you need to have your Foreigner Registration form to open the account, so don’t count on getting a bank account until you’ve completed your registration - See my other post about that!

Once you have that form you need to find a bank that offers an expat account. You will want to avoid accounts for Indian nationals as they are harder to get and offer no additional benefit over an Expat account. The only things I needed for my account were:

•Passport (original)
•Foreigner Registration (original)
•My US drivers license (or other government issued document showing your foreign address - they were perplexed that my passport didn’t include this)
•A passport sized photo of myself (needed for EVERYTHING - bring lots of copies, I’ve probably burned through 10 so far)
Opening the account itself was easy. Also Bank service in India is very good - when a couple more documents needed to be signed the fellow from the bank actually came to my workplace so I could sign them.

All my signatures where examined (by an “expert” no less) to verify the authenticity and a few days after I signed the last document the account was open. Nothing happens quickly in India so leave plenty of time.

The next step will be an International transfer to fund the account - which also takes 7 or so days, but this time on the US side. I found that’s it’s actually quite costly and most US institutions want you to show up in person to perform the transfer (I assume to prevent fraud) - oh oh I didn’t think of that before I left. Fortunately I found E-Trade has no such limitation which makes sense since they have no physical branches. Also international transfers to India are not cheap - at the time of writing E-Trade charges $25!

So I have to transfer my savings to E-Trade so I can make one bulk transfer vs. many small ones. Then transfer to my Indian account. This whole process will take 2 weeks!!! Fortunately my ATM card (bank card, cash card) from the US works fine in India. So I’m not short of spending cash in the mean time, but I can’t buy a car to get around with until the money comes over.

Moral of the story - bring enough cash with you to live on for a while and having an ATM card is a must to get extra spending cash.

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