Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One Two Ka Four - 4

Getting buggered at work with 2 days to get out of here. I need sleep. Or coffee and chocolate. Lots of it!

 Living in Malawi is like being inside of a economics text book. The IMF left the country yesterday, rumors of currency devaluation sent prices soaring - stuff like bread, sugar and essential commodities. Petrol went up from 380 Kwacha to 480 Kwacha - not that it made much of a difference, because there was no petrol to buy. I think inflation in the last 2 months can be pegged at 80-100%.
People are placing bets on how bad the Kwacha is going to get. A friend of mine is betting at 2000 Kwacha to a dollar (from the current 165 Kwacha to a dollar) by next March. Whee!

Monday, December 12, 2011

How Peculiar - 5

It's ironic that my last weekend in Malawi was the best yet - with me drinking water the whole night, having dinner and intimate conversation with a very good friend, followed by bizarre but hilarious conversation at Harry's till 2:30 AM with the unlikeliest of people. I learned more about my friends telling stories and laughing with them in that one night than I have in all the days of 'partying'. I'm glad it happened :)


With three days for take-off, work is threatening to kill me. I know I've gone through worse but the stress of dealing with the government (OMG! How can they not realize I'm leaving! :P ) is getting to me. In my head I know that the government has better things to do than listen to my requests so I can help them to finish their own projects, but I just wish for the next three days we could move closer to an ideal world.


Going back home means dal-roti, family, tv, friends, fuel, cars, power, internet and so many other guilty pleasures. But it is also going back into the uncertainty that dominated my life before I got here. As I was saying to a friend today, if my life allowed me to know what I was doing for more than 2 months at a time, I'd probably be shocked enough to faint. I'd rather be uncertain at home than uncertain elsewhere. I guess.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sawa Sawa - 9

I made my first foray out of the expat bubble in Malawi on Sunday when I decided to go to the old town market in Lilongwe. I took the minibus (50 Kwacha - finally something affordable in Malawi!) and walked to the main market - a sprawling covered market with narrow streets, little light and treasures waiting to be discovered.

The real Lilongwe where people live, transact business and sleep was dirty, smelly and full of frantic (legal and illegal) activity. The streets of the market were dark and narrow, with houses rising on both sides and puddles on the ground from the recent rain. With the market selling everything from vegetables, chicken to music CDs, clothes and cosmetics - walking through the streets was like walking through the Crystal Maze. I found my way in easily enough but then spent 30 minutes finding my way out and getting lost. Had it not been for Malawi and people guiding me along with a smile and a friendly question, I'm sure I would have freaked out!

Back in the bubble, we had the first of many Christmas parties at my hotel - complete with people wearing ugly sweaters (mine had green shiny Christmas trees on it!), Santa and reindeer hats, exchange of gifts under 1000 Kwacha, shortbread cookies and tonnes of chocolate!

I'm not entirely sure what Sawa Sawa means (there's a debate between "open your heart" and "open your vagina"), but I know that the song has all the makings of a hit - a sexy beat, catchy chorus and lyrics that have attracted much controversy. The song plays in the taxi, on radio, at live shows, in clubs every night.. I can't get it out of my head!
So check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbUBSeNrV3c

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shack Night - 15

I'd never though I'd say this, but people in Malawi party way too much.

The tiny expat community has built a high-school-like culture where everyone is part of a gang (the cool gang, the pseudo gang, the desperate-geek-boys-gang) and there are places that everyone hangs out on any day of the week. So it is Thirsty Thursdays at Buchanans, Harry's on Friday.. so on and so forth.
I happen to have my first night out in town on a Wednesday, which in Malawi translated to: Shack Night!

The Shack is a unique party destination for many reasons. For one, it doesn't show up on the Lonely Planet which means that the crowd consists of expats living in Malawi, some locals and regulars who head over to The Shack every Wednesday. Apart from the nice relaxed "shack-like" atmosphere and a place to run into 80% of the young crowd in Malawi, the pub also hosts the Volleyball league every Wednesday. This highly competitive league involves three tiers, rowdy matches and some very hot European boys playing Volleyball :)
Staying out till the wee hours of morning, didn't prevent wealthy Malawians from "celebrating" World AIDS Day on December 1st. The same crowd showed up to events recognizing World AIDS Day and made use of the subsidized cash bar. The most interesting part of these events was running into three fourths of the Indian community who, after showing appropriate shock and surprise at my sudden arrival in Malawi, inquired after my health, invited me over for some much needed dal-roti and then (on-the-sly) told me that they would give me a better rate if I wanted to exchange dollars in the black market. :D
As Friday evening approaches and my friends decide whether to go Carol Singing at the Four Seasons or Harry's for a few drinks, I can't help but think ... people in Malawi party way too much!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“Serious, wicked business!” – 17

I’m sitting in the dimly lit, cozy lounge of Kiboko Hotel in Area – 3 in Lilongwe listening to bartender singing along to cheesy songs by Malawian singers (example in the title!). Lilongwe is a sleepy little town that is slowly waking up due to the government moving there with bag, baggage and Parliament. Not particularly organized or well planned, the city is still divided into “Areas” that seem to follow a (somewhat) chronological order through out the city.

Area 3 is the Colaba of Lilongwe. It is right next to the Old Town market and houses the city’s 3 grocery stores, 5 restaurants and 3 banks. As locations go, I’ve just moved to the hippest and most expensive part of town. It is so hip that I walked into a grocery store and could buy my favorite comfort food – peanut butter! – for a very very expensive 700 MK.

Malawi is also clearly plagued with the problem of inflation. I may understand imported peanut butter costing 250 rupees but paying 2000 rupees for an adopter plug and 350 rupees for a meal of curry and rice in Africa seems cripplingly expensive. With the tobacco companies leaving, the tea industry dying out and the lack of any natural resources to exploit, Malawi’s situation is indeed dire.

This week has been full of personal dramas that were blissfully absent for the past so many months. While some of my people managed to destroy relationships due to sheer immaturity and very very bad judgment; I managed to humiliate myself by assuming that friendships wouldn’t change in the course of a few months if I put enough effort into them. For all the advice about letting go at the right time, I’m always depressed by my inability to cut and run when I see that the other person doesn’t care and I’m going to get hurt if I stay. It’s a skill I need to develop – immediately.

For all the sad drama, I know that even if I die alone, I will have lived in the hippest address in Malawi. Now I bet not many people can make that claim :)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stranded on the Wrong Beach - Malawi Weekend

Having had a stressful and hectic introduction to Malawi last week, I decided to take up the offer of going to see Lake Malawi with my fellow volunteer and her friends this weekend. Though I was skeptical, my friend insisted that the Lake was so big that there were bays and beaches all along it which had become very popular expat tourist spots. What I didn’t know, was that going with a bunch of white people on a beach trip in Africa is a concept that comes with its own complications, high points and contradictions.

The best parts of the weekend…
  1. Actually finding a beach along the lake, complete with sands, rocks and waves. The dark blue water and the small islands jutting out were untouched and breathtaking.
  2. Peace Corp volunteers! No matter what country I visit, Peace Corp volunteers are a breed of their own. They are interesting people to talk to with very deep insights into the country they stay in and are willing to play drinking games, anytime of the night or day!  
  3. Hitch-hiking our way back to Lilongwe with a bunch of Indian-origin-Malawian guys who were oh-so-helpful. I don't think they imagined their Sunday evening drive to be with 5 noisy giggly girls squished in the back-seat of a Toyota 
  4. Riding bike taxis and being waved at and whistled at by all the villagers. With a caravan of 5 bike taxis carrying firengis, the circus had come to town, clearly!
  5. Meeting the brash, amusing and very cute South African couple. Married for 20 years, with 5 boys and still so in love with each other so as to make fun of each other the whole time!

The not-so-good parts of the weekend…
  1. Trying very hard to mingle with a bunch of North American girls and failing. Feeling sensitive and isolated is the worst thing you can do to yourself in your first week in any new country
  2. Making ISD calls to try and rid myself of the isolation, and calling the wrong person to help
  3. Not knowing how to swim and therefore not being able to paddle boat deep into the lake
  4. Not being liberal enough to go skinny dipping in Malawi
  5. The inflation in Malawi! My weekly allowance all but vanished in 2 days. And I didn’t even drink enough to throw up in the bushes! 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Malawi: A Rant

I know I'm supposed to give a new country some time before I go ranting about it but this is a special situation.

Malawi doesn't have enough forex to buy petrol. The country also doesn't have enough forex to import plastic caps required for bottled water and carbon dioxide for carbonated drinks (e.g. Coke, beer and such).

This means that as a foreigner you can't protect yourself from local germs because there isn't any bottled water or soda to drink.
This also means that there are no cars on the road (require fuel), no power at most times of the day (requiring fuel) and no water in the toilets (requiring power to be pushed up in the storage tanks).

In the middle of this crisis, the President went off on an unannounced holiday to Hong Kong last week and took with him USD 500,000 for personal use.
The public, frustrated by the shit it is being put through, protested in July this year resulting in the death of 19 people and other violence. 

This country is fucking awesome. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How the Habesha brain works

A conversation my Habesha (Ethiopian) friend had with our auto driver after he confused me to be a local.
(translated from Amharic)
Me: Man the weather is just perfect after a week in the desert (bla bla blah)
Driver (turns around to stare at me, continues driving): She's firengi??! 
Friend (afraid that he's going to jack up the price): No no, she's half-caste, her father is firengi 
Driver: Ah, that explains it, she doesn't look quite.. Habesha! Where is her father from?
Friend: India. Her mother is from Addis
Driver: Oh very nice! Do they live in Addis?
Friend: No, they live in the US, she's visiting here. She might decide to move here in the future though
Driver: Oh very good. USA is not a good place. People don't remain married forever, they break up. She won't fit in there. She should come back home
Friend:.. ahhh, I think she will finally decide to do that
Driver: Very good. Such a beautiful girl, will definitely find a match in Ethiopia!

At this point we reach our destination. And the driver gets a 2 birr tip :D

Friday, November 4, 2011


Ayzush in amharic means "be strong". Ethiopian culture features this word prominently with people saying ayzush in all kinds of different situations: when one gets hurt, when one is working late, when one isstressed or too quiet.

Genuine and sincere effort is always rewarded, no matter how frustrating it may seem in the middle of the night. Giving up isn't a bad thing, but this is not the time. This is the time to be strong and keep moving.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

First impressions

I’ve been traveling around Ethiopia for three days now. My work has taken me only 150 km away from Addis to a hospital in Debre Zeit where I spent three days finding out about treatment of HIV patients. While 1 week may not be enough to observe people, culture and community; here are some fun highlights:
1.       Ethiopians spend an inordinate amount of time greeting each other. Everytime they meet you, even if they ran into you 30 minutes ago, they will do the elaborate handshake + shoulder touch greeting, and ask “selaum, denna nesh?” (Peace, how are you?). Not replying is considered to be offensive and English words like “Fine, thanks” or “How are you” are met with scorn. So just like Indians spend the first ten minutes talking about chai or today’s news, Ethiopians spend 10 minutes greeting every single person in the room!
2.       Ethiopians love comparing people. So wherever I went I was asked why my Amharic wasn’t as good as my other expat friends. That I had been in Ethiopia for exactly 5 days didn’t matter to them!
3.       There are a surprising number of languages, ethnicities and regional identities in this country. This is to the extent that two people from different regions , both talking the same Amharic language, often fail to understand each other.
4.       Ethiopia is the first country where I’ve found coffee that *tasty*. Called the macchiato locally, it isn’t too bitter, it’s not too creamy, it doesn’t smell of preservatives and it has this lovely aroma which (for the first time ever in my experience) translates beautifully into the actual taste of the coffee.  
5.       While some Ethiopians genuinely want to talk to you because you’re a novelty to them and they believe that their community is big on hospitality – some of them only want to learn English or want lots of money out of you. I think being in Ethiopia for a long time makes expats skeptical at worse or very good judges of character at best.
In the last week I’ve met a lot of people from across the world, who have been working in Ethiopia for more than 2 years now and I’ve been curious about their reasons for staying on in Ethiopia. One such Peace Corp volunteer said that his experiences in Ethiopia were often very intense, sometimes disorienting and often crushingly lonely. But what made it worthwhile was that he was finally living the dream he’d had since he was in 5th grade. I think that’s the key to making a life thousands of miles away from home. It can’t be only the satisfaction of doing impactful work or the love of traveling. It’s a bug that’s in you – that pushes you to seek new ways to live, in completely unknown countries and trying to fit in. Another Peace Corp friend also said that those who stayed out for too long often didn’t fit into their communities when they went back home and found it very difficult to readjust themselves. Perhaps this was also the reason they left – because they wanted to find a place where they’d fit better. Personally I think it’s a idiosyncratic to move to a country of a different race, 7000 miles away to “fit in”. But then, each one dances to his own tune.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New beginnings...

It has been almost 8 years since I’ve experienced the rush of being new to the city where I live. I had forgotten what that rush was like: the urge to explore, to memorize big roads and directions, the slight fear of stepping out alone, the need to know the best places to eat, drink and entertain yourself.  Effectively, the first few weeks in any city are an experiment to see if you can belong.
Admittedly, my choice of city has been a bit unconventional, but there are still some idiosyncrasies of the city that are very similar to some of the other cities I’ve been to. Here’s what I saw in my first couple of days in the “New Flower” city J
1.       No matter where you go, if you tell someone that you’re from Mumbai they will say one of two things: “Ohh! Is it safe now? Still many terrorist attacks?” OR even better “ Mumbaaii!! You know Shahrukh Khan?” – it’s amazing how in a country of 1 billion people,  only Shahrukh Khan has managed to imprint himself on the collective memory of the whole world, literally. We underestimate the power of this man.

2.       Like any big city, locals think that foreigners are incapable of handling their public transport system. I must admit that in the case of New Flower, it was borderline. Big taxis called minibuses operate throughout the city and work by stuffing as many people as they can in the 10 seater tempos. The taxis are cramped, smelly and as a foreigner, you have to be very careful with your bags. In my maiden trip, I had to change 3 minibuses to get to my hotel and was very fortunate to be helped by this oh-so-cute-Ethiopian. Guess what we talked about? Yes. Shahrukh Khan! However, the risk of these minibuses is worth it for everyone wanting to save some money. On my way to the city centre I had to shell out 80 birr for a private taxi. Compare that with 6 birr that I paid for 3 minibus rides, and I’d take the discomfort any day!

3.       Every big city has some annoying, fucked up men who think they can con us tourists, because we’re actually 5 year olds. May it be Mumbai, Delhi, Paris or now Little Flower, these guys come up to you with some old tried and tested con act and expect you to fall right into their trap. Of course when you don’t they use their remaining English skills to say “Faaacckk, whai u nawt lissening to mee? Whaii u suchaa beeetch?” :P

4.       I think this city is right up there on the list of cities-with-best-food. The variety of cuisines available is mind boggling and so are some of the prices. Not spending astronomical sums on food just makes the whole experience of exploring a city that much more fun! Having said that, the restaurants and cafes that exclusively serve the firang crowd have consistently mediocre food. The best places are those frequented by locals and firangs and they are always the hardest to find!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Movies I don't get #1

3 people go up a mountain, none come back.

6 people go up to save them, 3 come back.

At base camp, the 3 out of 9 sing song and kiss.

Vertical Limit. Stupid but thrilling.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Once burnt, twice shy doesn't apply to me, apparently.

This is the diary of a fool who goes back again and again and again to the same person, only to be beaten black and blue, every single time. She goes back, only to be accused of being the "crazed ex-lover", of stalking him and forcing herself upon him. I thought this one time, this last time it would be different. It would last and organically evolve into something stable. Because he claimed that everything had changed. Because he had promised that he was more interested in me, and would be my friend, be supportive. That we could have a normal friendship while both of us made some big decisions in life. I didn't want to believe him, but he said that he would continue to be this way, until I decided that I could believe in him again. Foolish foolish me for giving in, only to slapped, again.

Trust me to pick the one person who runs scared at every sign of intimacy he sees. Who doesn't understand the meaning of friendship and twists and turns the truth to suit his violent mood swings. Foolish to ever take him seriously.

Was I drawn in, again? Yes. Had I begun to trust him again? Yes. Did I call him today, without reason? Yes.

The next time I want to punish myself, I will burn myself with a hot iron. It'll probably be less painful. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Love and (some hate) list!

1. I love running. 10 minutes spent reading go by very quickly. Time passes even faster for 10 minutes spent watching TV. But 10 minutes running seems like an eternity. My trainer says  it's all in the mind. That if you can convince your mind to run for 10 minutes straight, the body will follow. Deep.

2. I love Bandra restaurants. The best ones are those you discover in the small by-lanes of Bandra: small, cosy and relaxed but with enough fancy food to make it hip.

3. I hate Bandra women. They never smile, they're always so well put together in their designer clothes and high heels. And they try to run me over ever so often! I wish all the Bandra women lived somewhere else. They could take their men with them, if it helps...

4. I hate that Landmark is getting renovated. They didn't have a single book I was looking for. Not even Fitzgerald!

5. I love afternoon naps in October. The heat lulls you into sleeping for a bit. But what really makes it luxurious is the AC and the blanket in the middle of the day. I don't know how I live without afternoon naps when I work.

6. I love the festival buzz in the air. Navratri, Diwali, Christmas going right till the new year. I can't wait for the city to light up!
7. I love Bath and Body passion fruit cream. And I'm dying for winter to come fasssttt so I can use it :)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Do you ever think you're being thought about?

Whenever the winds of change blow through our lives, we all resort to dealing in different ways. I've noticed when something particularly big is about to happen, we're very closed about it, not mentioning the impending fact to most people. This happens for a couple of reasons. First, we are not sure if it'll actually go through, so we don't want to sound like all-talk-no-action. Second, we are afraid of other people's reactions so we don't tell them because we are afraid of (sometimes scathing) criticism. But very often, we end up talking about it and confiding to the strangest set of people. These are: 

1. Your personal trainer! This is the guy who knows your exact weight, how your face looks when it's scrunched up in pain, when your periods start and other gross details, so why not bounce of your ideas and frustrations on him? He also doesn't know anything about your work or anyone else in your life. And gives beautiful advice which goes... "1-2-3 -- you know, Indian Mom's worry a lot, don't take tension... 8 - 9 - keep it up - 10.... I think it's pretty cute actually. I miss my Mom...  perfect Uttara, don't stop now - 5 - 4 - 3..." 

2. Your taxi driver(s). Now this is not one person. It is many people, all essentially the same. Pan-chewing, slightly smelly, old, balding and bearded who are dying to talk while they drive between the Queen's Necklace and MHADA for the 10th time in the day. And when you're stuck in traffic and ranting about life he will say something like... "क्या मैडम, सब लोग अन्दर ही आते हैं. मुंबई के बाहर कोई जाता ही नहीं! नशा है यह शेहेर"

3. Your receptionist/ assistant. She notices everything. Your comings and goings. Who you're talking to when you have to step out of the room to take a call. When you're looking frumpy on some mornings before you do some emergency make-up. When your eyes are swollen because you haven't had enough sleep last night. Which is the next vacation you are planning... she's your default confidant without you intending it to be so. I'm sure all assistants get together every now and then to exchange the juiciest pieces of gossip! 

4. Your Family Doctor. Again, this person is, by design, supposed to know everything about your life. And has the amazing knack of turning every problem into a medical problem that she can solve. My standard family doctor conversation goes as such... 
Doc:So, how is work? 
Me: Fine, goes well but it's pretty hectic 
Doc: Found a boyfriend yet?  
Me: No, not really. (WTF?!)  
Doc: You know, you need to loose the weight. I've just discovered this amazing machine/ hormone cream/ diet plan/ pills <insert appropriate fad> which can really help you! Also, you have to get xx, yy, zz tests done, Uttara. These could be problem areas... 
Me: Ok... (WTF?!!) but I'm feeling alright and I've joined the gym.. 
Doc: Yes, but you're not going to get a boyfriend *just* by going to the gym!!   
Me: (panic! I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life) ...yes, I'll set up an appointment with you - definitely. We'll solve this problem. (annnnddd exit, stage right) 

I guess there are many more such people floating around in your life. I often wonder though, if they will think about you later… and wonder how you're doing :) 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Traveling Pants

This was the first time I visited Bangalore in the last 7 years without going to college. Sure I met people from college, discussed college gossip and politics..but I did not cross the Majestic bridge and I think that signaled quite a big step in the "growing up" process. As I discussed this with a friend, she pointed out that there were many other big steps we were taking towards that - such as marrying other people, thus leading to the advent of  bachelorette parties. Like having epic noisy get-togethers along with husbands and significant others.

Obviously, this angle of the weekend made me feel old so I decided to revisit my bucket list. I've been keeping a  list on my phone for the past few months now (after a friend put up a similar list) and adding stuff to it whenever the thought strikes me. It made me take notice of a lot of things that I've wanted for a while but have not consciously made any effort to get. Two things struck me when I looked at the list today. One, that it was still rather short. And two, that I may not ever do some of these things because of various reasons, but at least I've got my eye on what I want at the end of the day! So here goes, my current list in no particular order...

1. Get a dog
2. Act in a film: as an extra even
3. Get a tattoo
4. Visit every continent
5. Learn to play an instrument enough for it to keep me company on rainy-alone-at-home days
6. Drive a truck
7. Do the Ireland trip with the girls
8. Complete a proper canvas painting
9.Start my own business. Preferably a shop of some sort and preferably with the girls
10. Visit all the States in India

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stir Crazy

"....that's all! I've just been thinking about it, now i'm thinking about fractal equations, now I'm thinking about the origin of the phrase train of thought, now I'm thinking about trains... now I'm thinking about Jello, oh I'm back to trains, choo choo"   - Sheldon (yes, I would marry him)  

Thoughts flip from one topic to another at the speed of light. So of course, I'm documenting them right here. 

1. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is undoubtedly the best chick flick of the year. So much eye candy in one movie!! It's also pretty trippy in parts ---> like the sky diving scene where they decided to play the "saare jahaan se achcha" soundtrack in the background. It's intuition, not logic!  

2. Speaking of national songs, I was watching this English film recently and as I was standing up for the national anthem I heard a girl sitting behind me say "I don't understand why they're playing the national anthem now. It's an English film, for God's sake!" ... I mean, are these people real??!

3. I've realized that I'm a very big believer of the "jinx". Whenever I think some fact of life is very important, I'm likely not to tell anyone for fear of the imminent act being jinxed. It's scary. I might stop admitting things to myself at this rate!  

4. Udaipur is a beautiful city. The rains and clouds shroud the city in this cool blanket which make it great fun to hang out! It houses one of the biggest palaces as well as one of the most vibrant small town markets! 

5 To my imaginary readers from LJ; welcome to the new improved blogspot website! :D