Normal, day-to-day errands in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and don’t have transportation are challenging, to say the least.
I suppose I should have anticipated this, but my MO, I’m beginning to understand, is to assume way too much, to take things for granted from my own very limited cultural frame-of-reference and then, only later, to chastise myself with a “Doh! Should have thought of that.”
Take food shopping. For me, transportation is the biggest hurdle. For a city of nearly 5 million, Pune doesn’t have great public transportation. There are public buses, but their schedules are difficult for a foreigner to figure out. Tourist guidebooks advise against them.
Brian’s employer for this next academic year, Symbiosis Institute for Media and Communications, provides a driver who picks him up and takes him to and from the Lavale campus each day along with other professors. Our three children, who will attend Symbiosis International School in Viman Nagar starting Aug. 1, will have a private bus pick them up and deliver them home each day.
For everything else, we’re pretty much on our own.
Drivers in India, even for middle class families, are very common; many of the people in our housing complex employ them. The car itself is usually owned by the employer, and the driver shows up early each day on a motorcycle and stays until quite late at night, often until after 8 or until whenever the family no longer needs him.
Purchasing a vehicle in India and employing a driver isn’t in our budget, so we walk, take an auto-rickshaws or, if all five of us must go some place, call a taxi service and hope somebody on the other line speaks English, because we certainly don’t speak Marathi (the regional language) or Hindi (India’s national language). These taxis, relatively new for Pune, are helpful for multiple errands to different shops outside our immediate neighborhood, as rickshaw drivers have imaginary boundaries and are limited in terms of storage space for packages and purchases.
Hiring a taxi is extremely cheap in US dollars. One trip we took to the children’s school at the opposite end of Pune from our home cost just $10 US for a total of four hours. Drivers typically charge just 1 rupee a minute for waiting. With the exchange rate currently at 55 rupees to the US dollar, an hour of waiting is less than a buck.
Arranging for these cabs takes planning ahead and flexibility, as they require at least 45 minutes’ notice and then may show up early or late, depending on how lucky or unlucky you may be. Planning ahead, I’m finding out about myself, is not my specialty. In Fairbanks, I felt like Superwoman. I’d water our huge garden, meet a friend for an evening berry picking excursion after packing up the family for a weekend camping trip—all after a full day of work, making dinner and doing the dishes.
Here, I feel completely inept at the most basic of household errands. Take a recent day as an example. The local market closest to us was out of eggs for several days, so Robin and I took off to find an egg vendor that we saw someplace down the road. The rains began to fall (it’s monsoon season) and as Robin and I walked down the road, we realized with dismay that many of the roadside vendors close up shop during a heavy monsoon rain.
Doh! Should have realized, I thought as we walked home under the umbrella. No eggs for us today.
Keeping enough food in the house for two hungry teen-age boys and the rest of us is a challenge even in Fairbanks, where I can drive my own car to that amazing one-stop-shopping wonder from heaven above, Fred Meyer.
Here in Pune, with the traffic and no transportation, everything takes forethought. If I need something beyond our local small grocery store, such as the nice little bakery called The Bread Story, I try to go to there first, as I don’t want to lug bags of groceries all over the place. My last stop is the fruit and vegetable vendors, also just down the lane from our house. I’ve become a daily customer and enjoy going to these stands. The mangos are absolutely juicy and delicious! I can usually get a fairly full bag of vegetables for about 120 rupees (a little over $2 US).
There’s also a little chai walla at the corner as well, where I can get a shot-glass serving of Chai tea for only 5 rupees. Delicious!
The closest “import” grocery store, where an ex-pat can get cheddar and parmesan cheese, deli meats, California wine and the like, is an auto-rickshaw ride away in an area known as Aundh. Across the road from this store is another place where we can get chicken and mutton (no beef in Indian grocery stores that I’ve seen, though I understand you can find beef in certain markets). This seemingly simple task can take quite awhile to accomplish and requires skill in negotiating with rickshaw drivers, some of whom don’t stick to the meter.
I’m getting better at these skills as time goes by, but I still like to bring one of the boys with me if possible. I’ll have to become braver once they start school.
There are other supply hassles. For example, a pharmacy is the only place to buy saline solution for contacts, or any type of cold remedy, vitamins or over-the-counter drug—things I take for granted at Freddie’s or Safeway in Fairbanks.
Luckily, a milk man delivers milk to us each morning in little plastic pouches. Sometimes it’s buffalo milk but lately we’ve been receiving cow’s milk.
The biggest headache was the purchase of two single beds for Rachel and Robin, bought on different days. The second purchase caused much confusion, was the basis of several phone calls hampered by language barriers on both sides, another rickshaw trip to try to straighten out the mess in person and finally, about a week later than was originally promised, the much-anticipated delivery of the second bed. I’m thankful to my neighbor Paroma for helping me make the initial purchase.
Carpenters are supposed to be here this afternoon to put the second bed together. Indian businesses and government offices operate late into the night, so I won’t be surprised if they show up at 8:30 p.m. or even later.
However, I also won’t be surprised if they don’t show at all, as we heard there was a strike of some kind, or some type of glitch. The furniture store guy sounded apologetic.
In India, patience is a truly a virtue—and it’s much harder to acquire than groceries.