Sunday, September 2, 2012

Success and failures: Time for an update

Since living in Hyderabad, I have found that every day I experience some successes and failures.  Sometimes, the day is a huge success and sometimes it’s just hard and feels exhausting.  So let’s recap the past couple of weeks starting with this weekend and back-tracking.

The Play
Last night I went to a play with two of my roommates (Tanu and Ritika) and a couple of other fellows (Joe and Vivek).  It was a play called the 39 Steps which was a comedic take on a Hitchcock films I believe.  200 rupees down the drain.  The play was definitely a failure.  I’m not sure if I’m just overly critical, but I didn’t even smile once during the entire performance even though it was supposedly a comedy.  Actually, that’s a lie – I did smile once the torture was over.  If I only could have dumbed-down my brain to that of a 5 year old, I could have laughed.

Pizza Hut
Tanu, Ritika and I went to Pizza Hut afterwards.  I had a Caesar salad with grilled chicken and it was so tasty.  That was definitely a success.  First salad I’ve had here and it was tasty (once I picked out all of the cilantro / coriander leaves off the top).  That’s one thing about Indian food or Indian-ized American food, cilantro (or coriander leaves as it’s called here) is put on the top of everything.  Even if it’s not mentioned in the recipe.  It’s a bit frustrating, because coriander leaves are what I would categorize as a fail.

The Hunt for Salad
Anyway, after having the caesar salad I really wanted to find lettuce.  There’s lettuce on sandwiches at all of the fastfood places like Subway, Quizno’s, McDonalds, etc.  But I wasn’t able to find any in stores, despite being able to find salad dressing!  But today after I went to the gym, I stopped in at this place called Nature’s Basket (on the swanky Road no. 10) and beheld iceberg and romaine lettuce available.  The romaine looks pretty sad so I went with the iceberg.  Yum.  A whole head of iceberg for the equivalent of $0.75.  That’s a deal.  Success!

Imported groceries
Nature’s Basket is this grocery store I’ve found on Road no. 10 that is both wonderful and terrible at the same time.   First off, it’s terrible because of how expensive some products there are (because so much of it is imported).  But it’s wonderful because of things I can find there that I cannot possibly find in other grocery stores (as far as specialty items):
  • Monin flavor syrups (that American coffee houses always use in drinks)
  • Poptarts (like the Poptarts brand in different varieties but for the equivalent of $7.18 a box, no thanks!)
  • All kinds of Asian food needs (like fish sauce, oyster sauce, thai curry pastes – I know where to go if I want to make my own panang curry or pad thai)
  • Barbeque sauce (I’ve found only 1 brand at other stores, but this one that a couple varieties which includes Kraft and some kinds of rib sauces and chicken wings sauces)
  • Mexican condiments (taco sauce, salsa, other stuff)
  • “Western” condiment (mustards, different varieties of mayonnaise, other stuff Westerns may like)
  • “Western spices” (Finding stuff like paprika and dried thyme can be a challenge here.  I’ve even found something labeled “creole” seasoning here)
  • Tomato sauce (also found at other stores, but the variety is more)
  • Pasta (found at other stores, but there’s a bit of variety here)
  • Salad dressing (more varieties of salad dressing including expensive brands from the UK and Australia)
  • Organic fruits
  • Organic vegetables
  • More than 2 varieties of pesto sauce (but it costs an insane price)
  • Some expensive drink mixes (including Tabasco Bloody Mary mix from Louisiana)
  • Varieties of Oreos (including golden oreos and chocolate cream oreos)
  • European chocolates
  • Baked cookies
  • Nice imported cheeses (that cost again way too much)
  • Kraft cheese (the blocks of sharp cheese and all varieties of the singles, but again, the Britanna brand here costs so much less and it tastes the same)

Overall, Nature’s Basket is a success I terms of find the “comforts” of back home.  However, it’s a fail in terms of costs!  Some things don’t costs too much though, so I can at least get lettuce there.

Cost is something I’ve been trying to discuss with people abroad lately, but I’m not sure if I’ve been successful.  The variances of what things cost here are somewhat different than in the US.  So for a base idea 500 INR (rupees) is like $9 USD (right now).   And 54/55 INR is like $1. 

I feel like the way I look at costs in terms of expenses in the US is usually like this : groceries / food (costs the least most of the time) , then clothes , then monthly gym membership, then electronics , then modes of transportation (cars, motorcycle, etc), and then rent.  This could be different for other people, but this is how I felt things matched up in NYC.

However, here – I feel like things like groceries / food, clothes, and gym are kind of grouped together.  For example, if I go to lunch sometimes during work – I sometimes get daal (lentil curry) and a chipati (bread) for 71 INR ($1.25).  That’s a good deal!  Sometimes, if I’m feeling like I can spend more money, then I will get a meat-based curry and a chipati for about 200 INR ($3.60).  Still a good deal. 

The things is I get the question of how cheap things are.  Well, for the meat-based curry and chipati -- it would be like $20 with tip (1,100 INR) for the same thing in the states.  Crazy right?  But I feel like that’s not the entire story. 

I’ve purchased a meal for 200 INR ($3.60) but I’ve also bought pants here for 150 INR ($2.70).  Ok, that would never happen in the US.   Part of it is the difference in culture/clothing here (women wear kurtas, salwars, and leggings!).   That’s ok to wear in India, but in the US, the culture doesn’t really embrace the same clothes (except for the leggings). 

So if you buy “Western” clothes, get ready to spend an equivalent amount to that of the US.  And that also varies by brand.  There are Levi’s here, Aldo (OMG – same prices as the US), Wrangler’s, Mango, Puma, and other’s.   The big brand costs the basically same, except for during sales.  There are some “Western” clothes here that “seem” cheaper than in the US, but the quality is that of Forever 21 (crap) at the equivalent price of Forever 21.  So in actuality, no, Western clothes (on the whole) are not cheaper here.   Sometimes, you will get lucky and find things cheaper here (that may still be quality), but then again – the style of things are different.   For example, the “Western” wear I’ve found at the kind-of high end store called Lifestyle is actually straight from the juniors department of any US department store.  I don’t want to dress like I’m 15, so I’m not interested…

Back to food costs, I’ve recently been bringing my lunch to work some days.  And the things I bring for lunch is sometimes even cheaper than $1.25 per meal and can be healthier than a ghee-laden daal.  Here, I can purchase a loft of bread for 22 rupees (40 cents has never tasted so sweet).  I can buy a bag of carrots for 30 rupees (54 cents).  Peanut butter costs $3 (180 / 190 INR) and Jelly costs $2.50 (140 INR).   With only those supplies, I can make lunch for each day of the week (7 days) for under $1 (55 INR).   And peanut butter and jelly lasts for longer than just a week so if I didn’t need a variety of food I could stretch out those goods and for 14 days eat lunch for 31 INR or $0.55.  Nice, huh?  I can get a head if cabbage for $0.50.  So awesome.

But there’s always a “but”!  I mentioned it before; it gets tiring eating the same stuff all the time.  I mean, even Indian food.   Because I’m in India, Indian food is relatively cheap unlike where in US it’s a specialty.  I had sushi here for 450 INR per roll ($8.10!)!  And that’s before taxes and service charge!  If you’re going to frequent Chili’s, TGIF, Hardrock CafĂ©, or some other like restaurant where you can get “Western” food, expect to not save a whole lot of money if you do that every day.
Here, I like to think of things in terms of rupees and think of things relatively (especially since I’m trying to live on the stipend given while here).   Also, to sum things up, some things are way cheaper like milk and bread.    Other things are not cheaper like Aldo shoes.  J 
Costs can most of the time be a success as I’m not too picky.  It could be a fail if I really want to eat some kind of specialty foods though.

The Gym
I recently joined a gym this past week (during its annual sale) for 12,500 INR for the year ($225).  It’s usually 22,500 supposedly ($405) per year without the sale.  Can you believe that?  I think the gym at my old employer in NYC costs the equivalent of 12,500 INR a year.  And to actually pay for $405 a year to use a gym in India (outside of Mumbai) seems crazy.  But I went for it during the sale since $225 isn’t bad for the year.   However, there is a perk that US gyms at the same prices do not have – a trainer.  Yeah, a trainer just comes with the gym and tells you what to do.   Since a trainer (in NYC) usually costs $90 per session, $225 is a good deal.   (Honestly, knowing that trainers make $90 per session/hour in some places in the US and see multiple clients a day, really makes me contemplate being a trainer…)
The gym has so far been a success.

Work has been good.  Eric (the other fellows at DRF) and I have been working on coming up with a work plan that we can implement during out time at the foundation.   The past week though, we’ve kind of been stonewalled in the process.   I don’t think it’s a cultural difference in terms of the US / India but more of the nonprofit / corporate culture difference.   Since this is a nonprofit, the same timeliness seems to be less.  But hopefully we can start getting somewhere this week…

Scooter talk / transportation
I’ve been thinking of getting a scooter recently.  It would be cool except for my impending death.  But I think not having a scooter is probably better in terms of actually seeing how “normal” people live. 
Sometimes I walk to work, but sometimes I take the bus.  The bus is overcrowded, people are in your personal space, and it’s super cheap.  For me it costs like 4 rupees by bus to get home.  But the bus is an inconvenience not just because it’s crowed, hot and sweaty but it’s a bus so you get off at the stop and walk however far to get home from there which makes you even more hot and sweaty.  Stops aren’t numbered or marked so if you’re going somewhere new you just have to ask the bus driver or guy taking the bus fare to let you know.  Or you can try to ask the people around you, they can be helpful also.   Also, the buses usually say the starting point and end point on the front and it’s your job to know if the place you’re going is in between and on the route of the bus.  This can be very intimidating if you don’t speak Hindi or Telegue (the local language).  I don’t speak either, so I just hope and try to spot landmarks.

Anyway, that’s the bus scoop, but not having a car / scooter I think really gives you a different understanding of how normal people live.   I live in the Banjara Hills neighborhood (which is probably the 2nd nicest neighborhood in Hyderabad).   The things I “need” are right at my fingertips (despite the walk) and there is quite the expat community here.  However, despite living in Banjara Hills, there are still beggars.  There’s still noticeable homelessness.   Today when I was walking on Road no. 10 (probably the most posh road in the neighborhood), I noticed people living on the sidewalk while Nature’s Basket was less than 250 kilometers away.   If I had a car or scooter, I probably wouldn’t notice that as much.

Also, I live in a flat here with a watchman.  But it’s open, like strangers can come in and it’s whatever.  However, when one looks around some places in Banjara Hills, it’s vastly different than my living situation.  I pass gated homes that give mansions in the US a run for their money.  There’s a couple pretty close to me that are noticeable.   I say noticeable because sometimes it’s easy to not see them from the ground because they are enclosed behind high guard walls and glass and metal gates that only open for cars.  There’s one close to me on Road no. 12 actually which high white walls, a large wooden security gate, a security guard eyeing each person as they pass, and two white lions statues with their mouths in snares.  To believe that less than a kilometer away, there’s someone sleeping outside in the rain.  It’s crazy and eye-opening.

I believe that the full extent of poverty here can be masked, especially in neighborhoods like Banjara Hills or Jubilee Hills (even more posh).  Yes, there are a lot of posh places here, but there are still people living on the sidewalks /streets very close by.  For those people that are rich here, I want to ask them if they even see it anymore.  Can they even recognize the poverty here?  I mean, I can’t actually ask them though because I can’t get behind mansion walls…  The guards won’t let me through.

People in the West might be surprised to know that poverty here can be overlooked in the same way it’s overlooked in the West.  Whenever I pass these mansions behind high walls, I think to myself that there are people living in India that can actually never experience seeing full-blown poverty on a daily basis!  They get in their cars, drive to work, park in a secured garage, eat lunch at a nice restaurant, finish working, pick up groceries from Nature’s Basket or some other nice grocery store, drive home, and their security guard secures the premises again.   It can be just the like the US here, if you have the means.   
There’s a disproportionate amount of people here with the means compared to the total population.   
Transportation in general is a success unless it’s raining.

Anyway, that’s the end of the entry.  I felt like it was time for an update on life here in Hyderabad.
Until next time!  (sorry this post is so long.)


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