Fire-breathing A/C

At exactly 2am last night the ancient industrial air conditioning unit that’s about 12 inches from where I sleep started spewing smoke and flames. I mean, it has been running on high non-stop since February, so I guess I shouldn’t have been suprised by this violent uprising. But I bolted awake to see what looked like a jumbo sparkler whizzing and popping from beneath the machine, and immediately started screaming FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! while running for the door. Poor Husband leapt from the other side of the bed, unable to see the fire-breathing a/c but alarmed by the smoke and my screaming. By the time we both collided, there was a crackling POP and then darkness: the beast had exploded and fizzled out.

We took a moment to collect ourselves. Did that really just happen? Is there any damage? Did Husband believe that I was running for the fire extinguisher, and not to save my own ass?

The next morning we were greeted by a very nonchalant maintenance guy who didn’t seem concerned in the least by the fact that I seem to be plagued by blood-thirsty household appliances wherever I go. Apparently the motor burned out in the middle of the night. No biggie. Happens all the time.

I’m not sure why exactly that would happen all the time. But I can tell you this: I am actually excited for the cold smoggy weather to roll in so I can turn the damn things off for a few months.

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Beep beep.

Husband threw himself in front of a car today.

We were crossing a street with heavy pedestrian traffic. A street with an actual crosswalk protected by several speed bumps. A street with wide lanes and an unobstructed view. In other words, a street where you should feel reasonably confident that a car headed in your direction will see either you or the crosswalk and slow down.

Except that we’re in India. And in India, you can only reliably count on drivers giving exactly zero f&*# s about anything in their path. They’re more likely to speed up, or at the very least continue their forward trajectory without a care in the world, because it’s not their problem if you don’t get out of the way quick enough.

This can be frustrating/terrifying for us Westerners, who make the silly assumption that pedestrians always have the right of way, or that it’s common courtesy to not run over a human being you come upon in the middle of the road.

I guess this morning it was more frustrating than terrifying for Husband, because after one car nearly ran over his foot and another continued to plow toward us with no intention of slowing, he lunged from the crosswalk directly into the car’s path. The driver swerved, but didn’t seem ruffled in the least because that’s what he’s used to: human Frogger. But Husband lunged again, slamming his hands on the hood this time, forcing the guy to stop.

Everyone on the sidewalk was staring. I was terrified/embarrassed. When we finally reached the safety of the sidewalk a few feet away, I gave Husband my angry/WTF face.

“What?” he said. “They should stop! He SAW me and didn’t stop!”

I understood his frustration at this complete lack of logic, the utter disregard for the most basic principles of the universal social contract: see other human, don’t hit gas. But did he really think that stunt was going to change anything?

“Babe, we live in their country. We have to play by their rules. If you want law-abiding drivers, go back to Austria.”

Husband grumbled. We parted ways. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that crosswalk confrontation. It just speaks so clearly to the low grade fury that these tiny cultural differences can cultivate; the tiny but constant grind of a place that does things so differently, in a way that makes no sense to you. It can cultivate some nasty expat rage, usually toward really inane things. Grocery store rants, anyone?

But if I’ve learned anything these past 6 years, it’s this: don’t let yourself get consumed by frustration at the foreign world. It’s easy to do, and sometimes a necessary step in the expat adjustment period. But don’t linger in that stage. Find something to love. Find a way to laugh it off. Or at least find yourself a friendly crossing guard.

Breathing uneasy.

Let’s talk about the air. In most places there’s not much to say: you breathe in, you breathe out, end of story. But here in Delhi, the air is a common topic of conversation. Mostly because it makes its presence known much more overtly here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. You can smell it seeping into every crevice of your house in the morning. You can see it spread across the horizon in a brown haze. And you hear it going through the air purifiers, a gentle whirring reminder that it is now safe(ish) to inhale.

The air here is bad. Millions of cars and natural dust guarantee that every breath you take is not going to be the most pleasant experience. But come winter time, the fires start. Every evening as the temperature starts to drop, millions of tiny camp fires pop up across the city, sending plumes of soot and smoke into the sky. When the sun goes down you immediately start to smell it. If you happen to be outside, it seeps into your clothes and hair. When the sun comes up, its sometimes hard to see through the foggy, smoggy, smokey mess.

We are constantly wiping up black soot around the doorways and windows. The kids’ bikes outside need to be hosed down every few days. When we landed in Delhi after a trip to Cambodia last week, we were immediately hit with a cloud of smog – INSIDE THE AIRPORT.

I think this must have been what Dickens-era London was like: coal dust hanging over everything and hacking coughs on every corner.

If you want to get technical, the US, Embassy has an air quality monitor, which measures PM 2.5 particulates (otherwise known as crap in the air) on a scale of 0 to 500 (great to completely hazardous). Anything over 50 is where you start crossing into unhealthy territory. I think a bad day on the LA freeway is around 60. This time of year in Delhi it’s often in the 300-400 range or higher. So, much like Beijing, we should be wearing masks at all times when outside. Unlike Beijing, no one here really seems to be bothered, except for a few expats.

In a cruel twist of fate, this is also the most beautiful weather we’ll get all year – mild sunny days that hover in the 60s. So it’s hard to stay inside all day, really hard to keep the kids in all day, and impossible to make them wear tiny breathing masks. What can you do? We’re hoping all the clean crisp mountain air we gulped in Austria will help balance out all the stuff-I-don’t-want-to-think-about that we’re breathing in here.

But just in case, I’m also thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign for a south Asian Mega Maid in 2016.

 

 

Freeeeeeeedom!

I drove today. Drove myself and two toddlers through the streets of Delhi, AND NO ONE DIED. No one got close to dying or even remotely close to getting into a fender bender! This, my friends, is truly a small miracle.

I should note here that I am a good driver on my own turf. My experience behind the wheel dates back to the tender age of ten, when my dad would let my brother and I take the battered mini-van on joy rides up and down our long rural driveway. I took my driving test at 16 on a stick shift. I’ve driven across the country and back. I had to teach Husband how to change a tire.

So my sense of triumph here is not because I’m some timid grandma on the road. It’s because driving in India feels very much like a hyped up version of Mario Kart, complete with strange creatures hogging the road and exploding obstacles flying at your windsheild. Add to that a few bicycle rickshaws, limited road signage, and a population of people who seem to have little sense of self preservation when trying to cross the street, and you have a typical Saturday morning driving experience in Delhi.

Oh, and did I mention the complete lack of rules? Sure, there are lanes. But they offer only the loosest of guidance, and the solid yellow middle one is a mere suggestion. Merging into the many traffic circles takes speed and agression–show any hesitation and you’ll be edged (or honked) off the road. Generally speaking, the bigger vehicles expect deference from everyone else. A packed city bus will not think twice about careening across four lanes of traffic without notice to make a lefthand turn.

Driving here requires your mind and reflexes to be on high alert. You could be cruising along peacefully when WHOA! WHERE DID THAT ELEPHANT COME FROM!? And then HOOOOONK a bus driving down the wrong side of the street! And SHITBALLS DON’T HIT THAT DOG! You swerve around that mess and then the guy in front of you stops dead in his tracks, gets out of his car and starts rummaging through the trunk. I am not kidding.

Meanwhile you’re still trying to get used to shifting with your left hand and keep turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turning signal. This is why we have a driver during the week, and almost always drive with a wingman on the weekends. You need that extra pair of eyes to warn of impending dangers and find another route on the map when you hit a random road closing.

Understandably, I haven’t felt too pumped to venture out on my own yet. When I pulled out of the gate today the gaurds looked worried. But I did it! I made it to the embassy and back. And I feel like I could conquer the world. Or at least a trip to the mall next weekend.

A simple trip to the tailor.

Say you live in Delhi and you need a tailor to sew together the blouse that goes under your new sari. So you call up the guy that a friend recommends, the one that serves all the expats and comes directly to your house. He arrives, takes a few measurements, makes an extra hard sell for his bespoke suit services and then disappears for more than a week. You text a few times to see when he might be bringing back your sari blouse for a fitting, to no avail. Finally he calls one day out of the blue and says he’s on his way to your apartment. Which is wonderful, except you’re out of town. You make plans to meet the next day.

When your fancy tailor finally returns with your finished choli, you are slightly alarmed because it seems baggy and the zipper is misaligned. But your tailor assures you he has made it this way so you can breathe easier. You pay him 2000 rupees and after he leaves your housekeeper tells you your new blouse is way too big. And it’s on backwards.

Because your housekeeper is pretty much the most wonderful person on earth, she sends you to a tailor she knows. She has explained to your driver (who happens to be her sweet husband) what needs to be fixed on the blouse, so he can explain in hindi to the new tailor. At the market your driver leads you through ramshackle fabric stalls and past a random street festival tent to a dark and crumbling corner where a young man is working feverishly on an ancient foot-powered Singer sewing machine. You are sent up a steep ladder to the attic to change into your blouse among the long forgotten scraps of fabric and garbage.

Once back in the shop, the new tailor takes one look, a few measurments and says to give him 30 minutes. While you wait, some guys from the street festival burst in the door with huge tin cannisters of curry and rice, passing out plates to everyone in the shop and urging you to try some. And in less than 20 minutes, you’re back up in the changing-attic, admiring a blouse that has been expertly fitted and freshly pressed. You pay the tailor 100 rupees (about a buck 40), which your driver tells you is only so expensive because we needed the work done urgently. You thank him for all of his help, and make a mental note to stick with the locals next time.

Days like these.

There’s a nifty graph that gets passed around whenever we move to a new place that shows the stages of adjustment. There’s a honeymoon stage, where everything seems new! and exciting! and did you see that?! Amazing! This quickly fades into hostility, as you start to realize that the locals may be friendly, but buying milk is going to take 3 hours and an advanced degree in linguistics. The hostility toward all the stupid ways people around you are doing things is supposed to ebb as your sense of humor returns and you make some friends who can show you the ropes. And finally, through time and effort or the discovery of cheap local booze, you feel at home. Or at peace. Or at least a bit buzzed.

I’ve certainly experienced these stages, but they have never happened in such a neat linear fashion. I feel like I run through most of them on a weekly basis, especially in the first few months. There are those days when you stumble into the perfect cafe, conquer the metro system and survive whatever gauntlet the local phone company throws down. You power down the weird supermarket aisles thinking I GOT THIS! I am WINNING the Amazing Race! Here’s to kicking this foreign country’s ASS!

And then 45 minutes later you get mugged on the train and forget how to say HELP! in the local language.

Then there are days that just feel like one long, slow grind against your very existence. Every effort at fulfilling basic needs is met with a roadblock. The bananas are different and the toilet paper is absurdly scratchy and the light switches don’t make sense and even the air you’re trying to breathe is just foreign. Every cell of your body bristles at the foreigness of it all, and it’s exhausting.

At the end of those days you crawl into bed and try to laugh about the absurdity of life. Then you make a plan. Sometimes the plan is simply “wake up tomorrow and survive.” Sometimes the plan is “book a trip to the Maldives, immediately.” But usually the plan is take a deep breath, get some rest, and get ready to kick this country’s ass again tomorrow.

(Aack! just realized this might imply that I was mugged! I was not. At least not in India, anyway. Just speaking generally about all the possible ups and downs of living in a new place!)

Dear people of Europe

Please for the love of god, stop making me bag my own groceries. I’m already stressed out by the language barrier, and worried that I forgot to weigh my produce, and feeling sheepish about my conspicuously large, undoubtably American-size haul of goods. Oh, and I’m probably not feeling too good about the toddler screaming in the cart and the infant strapped to my chest either. So is it too much to ask that you just slide my groceries into a bag (that I paid for) after you scan them?

Apparently, yes.

Here’s how shopping goes in Austria: you push your wayward cart through the tiny aisles, using all the strength you can muster to keep it from swerving into the giant barrel of serve-yourself sauerkraut. If you’re wondering a) why the cart is so wayward and b) what’s up with the barrel of sauerkraut, let me explain: every single cart here, no matter the store, has wheels that are on the swivel. So as you’re trying to make forward progress, it haphazardly glides sideways. Usually into old ladies or the aforementioned barrel of sauerkraut. Which is apparently so popular that it needs to be sold in bulk.

Anyway, once you have all your stuff, you glide sideways with your cart toward the dour-looking cashier. He/she sits and stares at you with dead eyes as you unload nearly everything in your cart onto the conveyor belt. Only then does he/she perk up, as it seems the cashier’s only joy in life comes from watching customers scramble to the other end of the belt, fumble with their reusable bags, and frantically try to keep up pace with the rapid scanning.

I usually get about 3 items into an actual bag, and then resort to throwing everything back into the cart. It’s during this process that the most damage occurs: in all the haste, I’ve dropped yogurt containers, smashed bananas, and seen others break jars of jam and bottles of juice. No one in the store seems alarmed by all these damaged goods. Casualties of war, I guess. Perhaps they’re saving so much money not bagging your groceries that they can afford to waste a few things.

Once you have about 2/3 of your goods back into the cart, the cashier is ready to ring you up and the other patrons in line start breathing down your neck. So you have to dig out your wallet and work the credit card machine one handed as you continue to chuck groceries blindly in the direction of your cart. If you have a toddler kicking in the front seat, that spot may have shifted 2 feet to the left, thanks to those swivel wheels.

Cart chaos.After everything is paid for, you move quickly to the bagging area. This is where you take all the items back out of your cart and try to sort through the madness and get everything evenly dispersed into bags before your children implode. Then, you guessed it, the bags go back in the cart, and you go out to your car, where the bags go into the trunk. Finally, after returning your cart and getting your euro back (oh, did I forget to mention the part where you have to pay for a grocery cart?), you drive home, and one last time, just for fun, you pull all the groceries out again and put them away.

Does that sound like a whole lot of extra steps to anyone else? Aren’t the Austrians supposed to be super efficient? Should I write a letter to the UN or something to see if we can get this situation fixed?