India-Letters #2: Settling In

May 19, 1999
Dear friends,

Thanks for your great replies to the first installment of
this adventure. It's great to get feedback and word from
home. Thanks especially to Michael Vitti for his request for
descriptions of smells and sounds. They're a visceral part
of the experience here, and the story wouldn't be complete
without them.

Last night's showers have given way to a beautiful Tuesday
morning: blue skies with a variety of cloud types moving
quickly through them on the strong breeze. The sounds of the
night's falling rain, thunder and the silence of lightning
have all given way to the ever-present background of traffic
sounds. The constant rumble of small, poorly-tuned engines
filters up through my flat's open windows. This is peppered
with a frequent battle between horns of all types. Like in
New York or any city, though, those sounds fade into the
background and sometimes you barely realize their presence.

I've had quite a few adventures in the course of converting
our flat from the state in which we found it to a livable
one. In addition to telling you about the apartment, I'll
share two of those stories today.


First, some basics about the apartment (called a "flat"
here). We're on the fifth floor of a 9-story building. It's
got an elevator ("lift"), though we usually take the stairs
for exercise. There is a lift man, Devu, a friendly, helpful
guy despite not speaking English, who is kind of like the
building superintendant. To get to the street, you walk out
a driveway that is gated at the street and protected 24-7 by
a guard. The guards, or "chokidars" in Hindi, are a friendly
bunch, but have proven pretty useless when it comes to
getting anything done.

The flat is put together in such a way to deal effectively
with heat and monsoons.

The floors of the flat are all large stone tiles with very
thin grout separations. This keeps the floors cool underfoot
and make them easy to sweep or wash.

The windows all open out and have horizontal metal bars
across the frame, which first struck me as off-kilter
security bars, but now I suspect is to protect against the
dangers of windows shattering in monsoon rains and winds.
We've taken to leaving our windows open all day and closing
them at dusk to fend off the bugs.

Every room has a ceiling fan and the living room/dining room
has two. A large balcony, about 15' by 4', opens off of the
living room and one bedroom. Another bedroom has it's own
smaller private balcony.

There's a phone and radio/cassette boom box in the living
room, and we now have internet access at home, too.

Each of the three bedrooms has its own bathroom, with a
Western-style toilet, a sink, and an Indian-style shower.
I'll explain. An Indian-style toilet is a hole in the floor,
sometimes with appointed spots for your feet on either side.
No cultural prejudice intended, I much prefer our Western
toilets. An Indian-style shower is the only kind here, if
you have a shower at all. There is no separate shower stall,
or bathtub. It's just there on one side of the fully-tiled
and well-drained bathroom. Everything gets wet, but things
dry quickly here.

Our kitchen is a sink and countertop (both too low for our
taller-than-the-average-Indian heights), a small fridge, a
two-burner portable cooktop, and a gas cylinder. Curiously,
our refrigerator, like all of them here, is lockable with an
included key. I suppose it's since most households here have
servants in and out all day. We've recently acquired an
awesome addition to the kitchen: a 20-liter Bisleri
dispenser. Bisleri is the most popular brand of spring water
here, and we now have an ample supply and a company that

A quick side note on water here: As a foreigner, you
shouldn't drink tap water. You may or may not be OK with
filtered water, which is served in most restaurants and
present in many homes. I've found that I'm fine with it. The
best choice, though, is mineral water/spring water. (Really,
the same is true in the States, it's just that our reactions
are more intense here.)

The kitchen is pretty functional. You toast bread on a
skillet, make Indian flatbreads with the skillet and open
flame, and cook the rest as normal. I haven't missed the
oven, microwave, toaster, or steamer that most US kitchens
sport. We do need to get a blender, though. For those
interested in the cooking scene here, I put together a web
page chronicling our first Indian meal cooked at home. It's
at http://www.lukemelia.com/travel/firstindianmeal.html complete
with photos!

I hope that gives a feel for the place. The rent here is
10,000 rupees a month, which is exborbitant by local
standards. In US dollars, that's about $240/month. It's
actually more space than we need, but when we have visitors,
I'm sure we'll be happy we have the space.


As I mentioned at the close of my last letter, the place was
looking pretty dirty when we arrived here last week. So
mission number one was to get the place cleaned up. Over the
course of our first full day here, we consulted a few
different guards (a different one each shift) to see if they
could send a maid to our flat. They all promised they would.
We had our doubts.

In the meantime, we discovered a place called Food World, a
US-style supermarket whose very existence sent Meeta into
fit of surprise; she'd never seen anything like it in India.
At Food World, we bought cleaning supplies. We returned to
the flat and began cleaning, with the music going.

About an hour later, the doorbell rings and at the door
stands one of the guards, now out of uniform. He's finished
his shift and wants to clean for us. How much do you want?,
Meeta asks. (This is all taking place in Hindi.) Whatever
you want to pay me, he says, taking a look around the place.
With that, we assent and he gets to work. This guy worked
faster and more efficiently than most professional cleaning
crews I've seen. A few hours later, he's done and the place
looks so much better. Meeta paid a maid 600 rupees per month
in when she was living in Ahmedabad earlier this year, so
she had a ballpark figure in mind when she asked the
guard/cleaner what he would like to be paid for the work. He
says 500 rupees. A smiling but uncomfortable squabble
ensues, in which Meeta states that 500 rupees is way too
much and shares what she has paid in the past. To his
credit, the guard says something to the effect of "Look, I
said pay me what you want and you asked me what I wanted, so
now I'm telling you 500 rupees." We ended up settling at 300
rupees, far more than market value for the job but still
less than eight dollars to clean the whole flat.

One lesson learned is to negotiate prices for services up
front. At that moment, though, we were just happy to have
the place clean. And we didn't have to clean up the dead
pigeon. (The whole maid/servant/driver/guard etc. thing here
is pretty weird to me, and I'm sure I'll write about it


Upon moving in, we were given a copy of the key to the
padlock that locks our flat door. Now since there's two of
us, we thought it would be wise to have two keys. Having
gotten copies of keys made in the US, I believed this would
be one of the easier tasks on the list. I couldn't have been
more wrong...

On Monday, at a food & housewares store called Nilgri's, we
asked about having a key duplicated. "Shivajinagar," we were
told. "You have to go to Shivajinagar." We asked again
elsewhere and got the same answer. So when we returned home,
we checked our map of Bangalore, which had posted on the
kitchen door for easy consultation.

So if you wanted a key copied you had to go to a specific
part of town. When we ventured to Shivajinagar, walking
distance from our flat, we found it to be more like the
India we had known before. Crazy narrow streets lined with
tiny specialized shops and full of crowds of people, animals
and the occasional motorcycle or rickshaw. The sounds here
are of people and the smell changes every 20 yards depending
on the snacks being sold in that area. Peanuts, fruit, chai,
and more... Every industry is grouped together in this
markets. Streets of shoe shops, then sunglasses, now
cookware, now paper goods. So sometimes all the competition
in the city on a product would be in one square block. I
still haven't figured out the economics of this one.

In our quest for key duplication services, we came across a
tool shop, and decided to buy a hammer. Impulse shoppers
that we are, we asked for a small box of nails to make the
purchase useful. "No, no. We don't sell nails. Few shops
down that way, sir." And of course, the nail shop doesn't
sell hammers. Interesting...

I spotted the hanging display of door locks and made a
beeline for the first such shop. "I need to have a key
copied." "Duplicate key," I said, slower this time. "No,
sorry. We do not do that. Go down this way." "How far?"
"Little little way." Continued down the street, stopping in
a few other shops and getting approximately the same
results. So we walk on through the crowd...

Finally, we end up at the start of a fruit and vegetable
market. Frustrated and tired, we buy some garlic and some
tomatoes and then take a turn into the narrowest of the
paths we travelled that day. There on my right, I see locks.
"Can you tell me where I can have a key duplicated?" I ask
as slowly as my frustration will allow. He nods and holds
out his hand for the key.

I can't believe we've found it. Sure enough, there are
several key duplication specialists in this narrow alley.
Feeling satisfied with myself for finding this remote place,
I step to the side to let a scooter pass and watch the guy

I thought my eyes we're deceiving me. He had taken a similar
make key blank and clamped it together with the original key
in a vise in front of him. Now, he had a big metal file in
his hand and was hand-copying the grooves and notches on the
keys. He copied the whole key like this, held up the pair in
smaller vise for us to inspect and see that they were
similar enough. We still had our doubts, but when we
returned to the apartment, both the copy and the original

It had never crossed my mind that there was a way to
duplicate keys with out the machines they've used for every
key I've had duplicated in the States. But even if they had
had those machines on the street I was on, they wouldn't
have electricity to run them on there...

That's it for now. I never ended up buying nails for that
hammer we bought, but I used it tonight to open a coconut,
so I'm happy with the purchase.

All my best,