Thursday, 30 June 2011

The two-week wobble

I'm not very good at working from home at the best of times. I am at my best in a busy environment, surrounded by people whose work I respect and connected to them even when I am working on a solo project (this is why, even though I love writing, I've never managed to have a great deal of output on anything that's not being done as part of a team project or that's not required for my work). So even though I'm part of a very small team here, having a desk at the office of our Indian joint venture partner has been really important for me in staying motivated.

Now, due to some last minute glitches, I'm cutting it very fine to get my appointment booked at the Foreigners' Regional Registration Office - this is mandatory within the first 14 days of arriving in India. As a result I decided to work from home today and tomorrow, the better to be able to drop everything and hotfoot it to the FRRO at short notice if required.

Sadly, this coincided with a point with which I am familiar: the two-week wobble. It's that point when you've relocated to a strange place, when you've been there long enough (i.e. longer than the average holiday) to start feeling the absence of friends and family, but not long enough to have established a routine or made any real connections. It's not a nice time - you have to dig deep into your inner resources to avoid being overwhelmed by it. (Holland was an exception - 2 weeks in and I was already well into play rehearsals, and had no time for wobbles!)

So today was not great. I spent the morning fighting a horribly slow net connection and my own lack of energy and desire to pop down the pub with a mate (yes, at 10.30 am). I got a bit bad tempered with my maid, Vineeta, who kept interrupting me every three minutes to ask me what I wanted to do with one thing or another (not that there's much point asking me, since she speaks not a word of English and my Hindi classes don't start until the week after next). I shouted at my laptop (attracting some surprised glances from Vineeta, who already clearly thinks I am insane). I reorganised my email folders in the vain hope that it would speed the computer up. I made three cups of tea and sulked over them.

At lunchtime I decided enough was enough and relocated to a cafe in the Defence Colony market. I was instantly cheered to find that they were playing a chanson album by Wende Snijders, a Dutch singer who I thought was completely obscure outside the Netherlands. I treated myself to a cheese pancake (less healthy than my usual diet here, but I needed comfort food), got a coffee and managed to make the afternoon a whole lot more productive (even though quite a bit of it was spent trying and failing to get hold of the manager of the British High Commission club).

The lesson of today is that, even if I don't really know anyone here yet, there are times when I just need to have other people around me (Vineeta, though an absolute godsend, is not terribly effective as a sanity-maintaining companion). Tomorrow is the dreaded trip to the FRRO (the stories I have heard about Indian bureaucracy give me good reason to be apprehensive) and then I have resolved that I shall use the weekend to explore Delhi. Yes, I still have a hundred things I need to sort out in the flat, but stuff it. The weather has cooled down a lot, so I'm going to be touristy. And ask people stupid questions about historical monuments. And take photos of EVERYTHING.

Monsoon, schmonsoon.

Anyway, wobbles aside, I am fine. And this too will pass, I know.

Love to all back home.


Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A brief tour of Defence Colony

I went round my neighbourhood with a camera today. Unfortunately, I feel so self conscious as a sweaty foreigner snapping away that I tend to try to take them reallyreallyreally quickly. This usually means they are completely out of focus. However I did manage a few that were half decent - will try again this weekend and try not to be so neurotic this time.

Another poor bugger dragging a ton of stuff around on a bike. Why don't these guys have thighs like tree trunks?

There are a lot of lovely parks near my flat. Note to self: buy badminton equipment. Further note to self: learn how to play badminton.

Start of the market area. At this very specific spot it smells horrible, and I'm not sure why. Three feet further on and it's gone. Weird.

By far the cheapest way to get fruit and veg in Defence Colony. I just wish I could work out how to know where exactly he'll be at any one time.

The main street in the market. The middle is quite a cute little park (see below).

Sagar restaurant, purveyor of the aforementioned masala dosa, God bless 'em. A couple of doors down is Cafe Coffee Day, which is a big chain here (and doesn't charge 240 rupees for a coffee).

Defence Bakery. Best (only?) baklava in Delhi and some truly amazing-looking cakes and chocolates, which I have so far resisted (it's bad enough that here I apparently have a size 34 waist).

This is the little park in the middle of the market area. Generally occupied by sleeping old men.

This is a little roadside stall round the corner from my flat (not far from the man with the ironing board, who I haven't snapped). Very handy indeed for the basics in life.

No, no, this one is SUPPOSED to be blurry. It's an action shot.

Right, that's it for the moment. I was going to post about the joys of Hinglish and settling into an Indian office, but I think that will wait for tomorrow - these photos took a horribly long time to upload (me and technology again) and bed is calling.

And DAMN I wish my TV was working so I could watch some of the tennis... :-(

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

It's not that obvious, is it?

Slightly bizarre conversation today with a pleasant-looking young Sikh gentleman in the queue for Metro tickets.

Him (in beautifully accented but very clear English): Are you coming from England?

Me: Yes.

Him: Manchester?

Me (slightly perturbed): um...well, yes.

Him: Ah.

Me: Er, how did you know that?

Him (as if it were the most obvious thing in the world): Your face. (followed by impressive look of impenetrable and ineffable wisdom).

I got home and studied myself in the mirror. Now, obviously English I can understand....but obviously Mancunian? Let's have a look at some of the more famous people to have come out of my home town:

Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I don't see the physical similarity that would lead me to jump out as a Mancunian to a random bloke in Delhi. Now, if he'd guessed Edinburgh, I'd have just assumed he was a Proclaimers fan and thought nothing more of it.

But anyway, it gives the lie to all of you who think I've lost my Northern roots. Now excuse me, I have to carry on with my research into where I can buy fruit tea, hummus and sun-dried tomatoes in this city...

Sunday, 26 June 2011


OK, I am having to write this quickly. We just had another power cut (in the middle of Frasier, dammit) and my computer has about 40 minutes before it dies. But I just had a very lovely dinner and feel the need to share!

Delhi is great for food, actually. Because people come here from all over India you can get a taste of everything here (and international food too, of course). And where I live has a ludicrous number of great eating joints from cheap and cheerful to really quite opulent (but still cheap by London standards). I was a bit worried about Indian food because the stuff you get in restaurants in the UK tends to be quite heavy and oily. Of course, the reality here is rather different.

I have a preference for South Indian food, which tends to be lighter and less meat-based - in fact I've barely eaten any meat since I have been here and am seriously considering just going veggie. Top of the list is the masala dosa. I didn't think it would be possible for a pancake to top the mushroom, garlic and cheese extravaganza from La Creperie De Hampstead - but the masala dosa does.

For those who haven't had it, a dosa is a thin, fantastically crispy pancake made from rice and lentils. It's stuffed with vegetables, potatoes and spices and comes with an array of scrummy sauces. It's normally eaten at breakfast, but in my view works brilliantly at any time of day. Tonight I had two of these amazing things delivered to my door for around £2.50. Here they are (the second one is still in the bag):

I believe the technical term is "nom".

Sooo good. Healthy, light but filling, and amazingly tasty. I can see myself living largely off these for the next two years. The only problem is there's always a ton too much sauce, which is now sitting on my coffee table looking forlorn and no doubt attracting flies. Such a waste...

The more astute of you will have realised that the existence of the above photo means I have managed to purchase a replacement charger for my camera, so hopefully the blog should get a bit more interesting from here on in. You lucky people!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

On moving slowly and buying clothes

I tend to have two speeds: stationary and manic. It's been my general approach to life to spend half of it bumming around and half of it being the proverbial blue-arsed fly, and while it might not be conducive to controlling stress levels, it's generally got me through.

Well, I'm going to learn how to do things differently. It's increasingly clear that until the weather cools down a bit my speed setting is going to be stuck on slow. Walking down the street of necessity becomes a gentle amble, and I still get to my destination dripping. Lists of tasks that need to be done are stripped down to the most basic priorities, because the running-around-doing-30-things-in-a-day trick just isn't going to work here.

On the one hand this is a bit frustrating. Suddenly I have to plan properly, because last minute whirlwinds of activity are out of the question. On the other hand, having to move at a slow pace does a funny thing to you: it kind of makes things seem less urgent, and so less stress-inducing. Maybe I will come back in a few years doing everything on Indian time (in which case God help you if we have an appointment).

Anyway, today took me (eventually) to SouthEx to check out those clothing stores. I didn't pack very cleverly - I have tons of shirts but only a few pairs of trousers, the rest being en route and due to arrive some time in August - and I was in desperate need of a couple of new suits.

I always find buying clothes overseas interesting, because it says a lot about the local culture. In Seoul it was impossible to get the shop assistants to stop shoving items of clothing under your nose every five seconds when you were trying to have a quiet browse, which resulted in me walking out more often than not. In Holland it was sometimes hard to get them to acknowledge your existence at all.

In Delhi, a small gaggle of them appear as soon as you enter the shop and then follow you doggedly around, rarely making any sound and only occasionally showing any interest in the clothes on display. Once in a while one will offer commentary on some item you have picked up, such as "this is trousers". Eventually when you have decided to buy something they will spring into action, usually consisting of one of them taking the item from you and giving it to another of them, while another goes and gets a bag and gives it to another, and a fifth runs to the checkout to tell a sixth how much it get the idea.

I exaggerate slightly. The truth is that the service is rather good, if delivered by three times more people than necessary. And in most of the higher end places a senior bod will appear, usually with perfect English, who will provide just the right mixture of helpfulness, expertise and reticence to make the whole experience quite pleasurable. And everyone is so damn nice it's quite impossible to get annoyed even when they are being useless.

Plus they don't get annoyed about ridiculously sweaty westerners trying on their nice clean suits, for which I could only be extremely grateful.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A cup of coffee says a lot

, I had a meeting today at a branch of Costa Coffee in SouthEx (South Extension), a fairly upscale part of Delhi not far from where I live. Not having been there before, I arrived in plenty of time and (after having noted that there are a large number of rather decent-looking clothes stores there) went into Costa and ordered a cold coffee (no ice. Never ice).

It was 240 rupees.

That's £3.50, folks. Or for you international readers (of whom I have, oo, at least 2), about 5 and a half US dollars.

I was gobsmacked. I mean, I knew Delhi could be expensive, but that's more than it would cost in London. This in a country whose per capita income is less than $3,500 even at PPP, and where more than a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. For a substantial chunk of Indians, that coffee cost over half a week's wages.

Actually, inequality in India actually isn't all that bad. In Gini coefficient terms, the UN gives it 36.8, not far off the UK's 36. By comparison, Denmark is the most equal country in the world with a coefficient of 24.7, and Namibia comes in last with 74.3 (thanks Wikipedia). But after less than a week here I've already seen how opulence exists alongside squalor - and Delhi is a long way from having the worst poverty in the country.

India, inc. is soaring, with an economic boom based largely on high-tech industries, supported by investments in higher education and based in hubs like Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi. It's quite astounding how rapidly this has come to be the story with which we're familiar when it comes to India, replacing the old image of desperate, poor and disease-afflicted India that I recall from my childhood. But the truth is that both Indias exist, and the more the economy depends on those high-tech hubs it seems the further apart the two are destined to drift.

Which is why India needs to invest in other areas of the economy and, particularly, in skilling the workforce in areas other than high-end IT, engineering and science where it has been so successful. Happily, the government seems to be taking this issue seriously (which is a lot of the reason why I'm here). So maybe, not too far from now, that coffee might be within reach of rather more Indians.

It'll still be a rip-off, though.

Monday, 20 June 2011


Delhi is vast, and getting around can be a struggle, though not as much as it used to be (so I'm told). Anyway, here's a wee post about the extremes of Delhi locomotion.

I used a cycle rickshaw for the first time yesterday. This has got to be one of the toughest jobs in the world:

I tend to avoid them because I feel so damn conspicuous and, well, white, sitting all sweaty and imperious in the back while the poor bugger on the bike heaves his way to my destination for a few crappy rupees gives me a bad case of the heeby-jeebies (remember that liberal guilt thing I need to get over?). But yesterday I had been shopping for various necessities around the house and kind of overdid it (it was hot, dammit) and not seeing any auto rickshaws about, this seemed like the best option.

Yeah, I felt bad. Especially since my accumulated goods added a good few kilograms to the load (which was already heavier than it should be, on which more later). Fortunately, such niggles can be cast out by the magic process known as Giving A Large Tip. He'd earned it.

At the other end of the scale, behold the Delhi metro, on which I had my virgin experience today:
Oooh, it's nice. It's sleek, it's roomy, it's air conditioned, and best of all the tickets are basically tiddlywinks. Most of it is elevated, and the stations stand out above the Delhi skyline like immense palaces or temples to the gods of commuterland. There's the slight annoyance of having to go through a scan machine and pat-down every time you use it, but otherwise I was seriously impressed (and, I might add, safe).

My favourite thing about the metro was the announcements. Some were comfortingly familiar (they say "mind the gap"!), others seemed to my jaded English ears to come from a different age (I don't think the Tube will be instructing male passengers to "vacate those seats reserved for ladies" any time soon). All delivered in Hindi and perfect, upper-class English with an Indian twist, while an endless landscape of temples and high rises, parks and slums unfolds before you.

London Underground? You can keep it.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


So I finally made it to India. I've been here for two and a half days now, which has been just enough time to get an internet connection sorted and start to find my way around Defence Colony, the little, green corner of Delhi I now call home.

The beginning was not auspicious. Having slept dreadfully on the plane, I arrived at about 10.30 on Friday morning with a strong desire to check into a five star hotel, have a long bath and book a masseur. Unfortunately I had instead to go to my new apartment, which was likely to be scantily furnished if at all and which would certainly lack a masseur. However, before I could do so, I had to find it.

The Delhi street address system resembles the Seoul street address system in the following way: they are both insane. As in Seoul, Delhi neighbourhoods are divided up into sub-units, within which houses are numbered. As in Seoul, there is no discernable logic in the way in which this is done, meaning that if you don't happen to know exactly where unit C413 is, you could spend a good hour driving round before you hit upon it.

My driver did not know where unit C413 was.

Another thing about India is that if you ask someone for directions, they will give them to you whether or not they have the first clue where the place is.

My driver asked for directions about 15 times.

Altogether I was quite proud of myself for staying calm and using the time to think about how I would amusingly convey the experience in the present blog post. We made it eventually, and I was happy to find that my apartment did in fact have furniture (albeit with a touch of the 1970s about it) and functioning bathrooms (albeit with one mysteriously missing toilet seat).

It's hot. Seriously hot. It's pre-monsoon here, so the height of summer has yet to be broken by the rains (though we have had a couple of storms which in the UK would be thought significant). The problem with heat is that it slows you down, which when you have a thousand and one things to do on arriving in a new country is a bit of a problem. I've developed a pattern over the last couple of days of doing two or three things, then stopping for a juice or a coffee. Fortunately there is an excellent market near me with a couple of nice air conditioned cafes that don't object to sweaty westerners visiting every couple of hours.

So far I've done pretty well in terms of getting essentials sorted. Groceries are expensive, at least in Defence Colony, so I need to work out a better place to go shopping. And I haven't quite figure out how to attach the toilet seat (which eventually turned up) to the toilet. On the plus side, I don't need to worry about ironing, because there is a man with an ironing board who stands on the corner by my local park and does shirts for 5 rupees each (about 7 p).

Words can't really express how glad I am that this man exists.

The rhythms of Indian life are so totally different. I doubt I will ever get used to the existence of "servants" or be comfortable with the way in which such relationships are conducted here. I already knew this of course, and knew I would have to put aside my liberal prejudices and accept certain roles to which I am not accustomed. But this is going to take practice. When I leave my flat, for instance, it's quite clear that I am not to latch the gate behind me. This is one of the many diverse duties of Santosh, who is for want of a better term the security guard. Invariably as I emerge from the gate, Santosh is already trotting towards it to close it behind me. When I insisted on closing it myself my reward was a look made up of equal parts reproach and hurt.

I have not closed it myself again since.

Anyway, I don't want to start all this off with an enormous post so I will save the rest of the long, rambling discussion I have in mind for future entries. Love to all back home...