Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Summer Camp Theory

I was never unrealistic about my expectations for living abroad. I knew there would be ups and downs of all kinds and I acknowledged that I had NO idea what to expect in either direction. But the one thing I wasn't worried about? Homesickness.
See, when I was 10 my parents (finally) let me go to sleep away camp with my big brother for the first time. Though the session was a month long and my only opportunity to see or talk to my parents would be a few hours on visiting day, I wasn't concerned. 

The way I remember my first day, it went something like this:
On a late June morning in 1996, I was crammed into the backseat of my family's car on my to summer camp in upstate New York. It was my brother's third year, but my first. I'd been begging to go for years, but my parents were still nervous I wasn't ready.

Their concerns weren't exactly unfounded. Even at the advanced age of 12, many of big Bro's first letters, two years earlier, had been filled with bargaining tactics hoping they'd let him come home. He ultimately settled in and eagerly returned the next year. Although homesickness wasn't a player that second summer, he arrived home at the end of the August session the proud owner of a certificate that read, "I survived puke-fest '95". My parents weren't so sure I was ready for all that. I was sure I could puke with the best of 'em.

By the time we finally reached the Mennonite  farm at the entrance to Camp Road, I was completely restless.  My father had insisted on driving the speed limit the entire way. The farm's owners, dressed in traditional garb, were out working in their corn fields and waved enthusiastically as we drove by. I was sure that we'd been driving SO slowly that we'd actually gone back in time.

Several hundred years later, we arrived in the village I was to call home for the next four weeks. Before the car had even stopped moving, I flung myself out the back door and into the cabin with my name on it.  Within seconds I was completely immersed in the very serious process of picking a bed (top bunk of course) and already chatting away with new friends.  When it was time for my parents to leave, the counselor had to remind me to say goodbye.

My empathy skills were still a tad underdeveloped, and I really couldn't understand why so many of my friends were having such a hard time.  The only tears I shed that summer were on the final day of camp when my cruel parents dragged me home, kicking and screaming. I went back for 9 summers, each with the same story.

And that is why I was POSITIVE that  though I fully expected to encounter all kinds of struggles here in India, homesickness would surely not be one of them.

I was wrong.

I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a very belated apology to my dear bunkmates. I get it now. I'm sure that, "You miss your parents and your bed? Well just stop missing them and you'll feel better!" probably wasn't helpful advice.

This morning I woke to find my Facebook newsfeed overwhelmed with updates about the final days of the July 2012 session of camp, posted by my lucky friends and former campers who are still able to return as staff. The photos are filled with children and teens grinning from ear to ear- not out of obligation but out of pure, unadulterated, unmatched, uninhibited joy. There is no. doubt. in. my. mind. that many of those same campers spent the first many days of July crying, and missing home. Many probably thought that they'd never make it through the month, they'd never have any fun, and they'd never come back a second summer. But they did and they will, and their beautiful smiles are proof.

And I will get over this too, and I'm sure that on my final day in India Tal will have to call my parents for tips on how to get me to leave.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nevermind NYC, If I can make it here...

This is the story of how I ended up eating Pizza Hut alone in my Pjs on my first Friday night in Bangalore.

The plan was to meet Tal & his co-workers out for dinner at a place called BBQ Nation.  Late in the afternoon, when I mentioned my dinner plans to my team at work, they not-so-subtly suggested other options in the same neighborhood. When Tal ran their ideas by his peers, they said they'd rather stick with BBQ Nation, as it was closer by. This should have been my first sign.

One of my coworkers agreed to drop me off on his way home. We were running 15 minutes late because it was pouring (it's monsoon season, and often rains in the evenings). I couldn't believe it was possible, but the traffic actually gets worse when it rains. When we arrived, I made my mad dash (sans umbrella) across the street in record time, but still arrived in the restaurant soaking wet.

I totally look JUST like this girl when I get caught in the rain.

Tal had sent me a text earlier to let me know they were seated on the third floor. I got in the elevator, and was puzzled, but not terribly alarmed, to discover that it only went up two floors. Sign #2.  I couldn't find Tal on the top floor, but it's a really big place so I called him and asked him to meet me at the entrance. Five minutes later, he called to ask where I was. 

We were both standing in the entrance of BBQ Nation, only, he was in a neighborhood called J.P Nagar and I was in a neighborhood called Indira Nagar.  We both asked around a bit, and learned that  it would probably take me an hour to get to where he was, given the traffic.  This really didn't seem worth it to me, so I decided to simply call a car service and head home.  I called the number we've been using, but learned that due to the weather, their drivers were booked thru 10pm. It was only 7:30.  

That was the precise moment when my iPhone withdrawal kicked in.  Without my scrappy sidekick Google, I figured my next best option was to ask the woman at the front desk of the restaurant if they had any numbers for car services.  No luck.

My only option was to try to hail an 'auto'.

Dear New Yorkers, you can all stop complaining about trying to hail a cab in the rain, because compared to trying to hail an 'auto' during a monsoon in Bangalore - ain't no thang.

Not only was I going to have to hail an auto, haggle for a price, and direct the driver to our apartment by myself, for the very first time, but as it turned out I first had to cross three streets to get in the right direction.  Somewhere around my 20th unsuccessful minute of standing in the rain, a couple walking by  dropped this bomb on me; because of the intense traffic drivers will only go in the direction they're already heading, so it's up to the pedestrian to get properly situated.  They also told me that they were pretty sure, that there might be a bus that would take me to my stop, but they weren't sure where or what number. I decided to wander in the direction that there might be a bus. Ten more minutes went by, no bus. But finally, an auto! The driver didn't really speak English, and my pronunciation of neighborhoods and landmarks is absolute garbage. But he was there, he didn't drive away,  his price was reasonable, and he was my only option. My well thought-out philosophy? At least if he was going to kidnap me, I'd be out of the rain.

It took about 20 minutes and a near run-in with 3 motorcyclists who decided that THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD was a great place to stop, but we finally rolled into a neighborhood that was familiar looking. I started to see signs and stores that I recognized and I finally felt like I could relax and stop praying. So of course, it was at this point that my driver asked me to point him in the right direction.

Nora: Ummmmmm
Auto Driver: WHERE WHERE
Nora:  Well...I think...
Traffic behind and around us:  ANGRY BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!!
Auto Driver: PICK PICK
Nora: Straight?
Auto Driver: *Head bobble*
Nora: *Resumes Praying*

But guess what!?! I DID IT!!!! Within a few seconds I knew I'd picked the right direction as my neighborhood appeared in the horizon. 

By this time, it was almost 9. I was soaked, hungry and  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit shaken.  While there are tons of places near our apartment to get food, the only one I knew for certain to be reliable* was Pizza Hut. (*You have to be very conscious of food here. Neither Tal nor I have gotten sick yet, but from what I hear it's only a matter of time.)

So despite the fact that it's been at least 7 years since I've had Pizza Hut (or really any other fast food...) I found myself ordering a Tandoori Paneer personal pan, and heading back to my apartment to ring out.

On the bright side, when my coworkers ask me on Monday morning if I did anything interesting this weekend - I'll finally have a good story to tell!!

Friday, July 13, 2012

She Cooks!

My first home cooked  Indian meal! Veggie Biryani!!

What mix?? I don't see a mix...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

He Says She Says

When Tal and I spoke on Skype each day before I arrived, he told me about the incredible, spectacular, amazing experiences he was having in Bangalore. His enthusiasm and supremely positive attitude top the list of things I adore in him most. So I'd like to begin by saying that the amount of setting up, organizing, and planning he accomplished before I arrived, in order to ease my acclimation, was truly astounding. 

It does not, however, make for a funny story.

What DOES make for a funny story, are the things Tal failed to mention.

Tal: " Not only is our apartment comfortably within our budget, but it's HUGE and only built 7 years ago! It's considered fully furnished and there's even a pool!"
Reality: Mr. Rose Colored Glasses wasn't completely blinded by rainbows and unicorns. We live on a wonderful property that is well maintained and very safe. Our apartment really IS huge… and  every single bit of the seemingly infinite square footage was covered in a layer of black dirt. Some of the dirt turned out to be a stratosphere of ants. And while it was in fact constructed only 7 years ago, it was built with the intention that each owner would want to add their personal touch. Our landlord did not feel compelled to do this, so we have cement floors, bare light bulbs, and no shower rods/walls/doors. And while the apartment probably should have been described as partially furnished, we have a totally adequate bed and a TV in our room. There is also a table in our dining area, but it is of the plastic variety, and judging by the intense layer of filth in which it was coated, it used to live outside. There are also three plastic chairs around our four person table. I found the fourth on one of our balconies, literally COVERED in bird poo. The kitchen is fully stocked with cookware, utensils and dishes. None of which had been cleaned since their last use, and the cupboards they resided in were entrenched with what could only be a millennia's worth of dirt, dead bugs and some small creature's poo (the building was surely built around these cupboards). Let us not talk about the aroma. We DO have a washing machine. FABULOUS. The  only problem is that the bathroom it's in is missing a window panel, and we seem to be subletting to an Indian pigeon. I thought this might be the case when I found feathers in my laundry basket. I KNEW this to be the case yesterday when I had to chase it out before I did my laundry. Less than fabulous.   Finally, there really is a pool and it is clean and truly beautiful. I've yet to see a woman in it.   (Thanks to the sweet woman who is our wonderful housekeeper, we now live in perfectly lovely, huge and clean apartment -which for the time being we still share with a pigeon.) (Yes, we have a housekeeper, I'll address that in another posting.)

Tal: "This city is SO full of energy and life."
Reality: This city is SO full. There are a bajillion people living here. Yes, that's the real population count. A bajillion. 

Tal: "Yea, the traffic is busy, it takes me a  while to get to work."
Reality: The traffic is ABSOLUTELY F*#$^*& INSANE. I can't quite put my finger on what makes it so nutty. Perhaps it's that there are equally massive numbers of motorcycles, buses, cars, and autos (auto-rickshaws) "sharing" the road. Or maybe it's that there are no actual lanes, traffic signals, or laws.  Though possibly, it could be the way they use their horns as turn signals. 

Tal: "Wait till you see how they cross the street!"
Reality: You know those roads I just described? Well they don't have crosswalks, at least not any that are observed. So to get across you clump up into a group; friends if you've got 'um, strangers if you're near 'um, and when there is a micro-break in traffic, you forge on into the chaos and RUN. If you don't get all the way across in one go, you stand in the middle and pray. Any of the gods are fair game.

Tal: "It's exhilarating here!"
Reality: It's exhilarating here, and so far? I love it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

One Door Closed...

I know you want read about EVERY. SINGLE. BIT. of my journey, so I'll start at the very beginning of the day I left NYC.

Oh, only my mother requires that kind of detail? Well, then I'll write this for her and for posterity and you should feel free to skim. Just know - there will be a quiz at the end of this posting, and if you don't pass you'll probably lose my love forever. But really, feel free to skim.

Actually, let's start the night before. My last night in the US was July 4th. Fitting right? I spent the evening with some of my closest friends on a roof top in Brooklyn, watching all four of the Macy's fire work displays explode simultaneously over the gorgeous Manhattan skyline.  If you haven't yet read the posting in which I explained why I haven't been crying, you really can go ahead and skip that one.  Despite my personal waterworks, it was a perfect send off.

When I got in bed that night I made myself a play-by-play, down to the minute schedule for the next day. This is something I do. It's both intensely anal retentive and nerdy, but also spectacularly satisfying and effective. You may laugh, but someday you're going to try it, and then you'll have to call me to apologize.

A combination of nerves and excitement woke me up early, so I used the extra time to take one final walk around Brooklyn, drink a veggie smoothie (I had a pretty good feeling that I wouldn't be able to order green smoothies here in Bangalore) and chat on the phone with my parents. I had my heart set on taking a yoga class before I left for the airport to help me stay mellow during what was sure to be a very, very long day(s). As luck would have it, there is a small yoga studio around the corner from my friends' apartment and I was one of only FOUR people in the entire 90 minute class. This has NEVER happened to me before in NYC.  I've been one of 50, maybe even one of 100..but never four.  I took this as a farewell gift from the God of Brooklyn Hipsters.

Sometime around the 85th minute of my class, I realized that in all my organizing, scheduling and planning, I'd completely forgotten to ask Tal for our address in Bangalore. So... I could get myself to Newark Airport, I could get myself to Frankfurt Airport, I could get myself to Bangalore Airport and I could get myself to the giant complex/gated community in which we'd rented an apartment, but after all that I'd be faced with knocking on thousands of doors until I found the right one. Obviously I had to call Tal (it was the middle of the night in India). I called four times. Needless to say he was not as happy to hear from me as he usually is.

With an address in hand, I waited outside for the car service to pick me up. The car was on time, which really is a miracle. However, when I got in and double checked the price with the driver (I'd priced out all the local companies before scheduling an appointment) he quoted me a completely different, way higher price. When he called into headquarters to check, I invited myself to be part of his conversation with the dispatcher. Despite my obvious advantage of elementary level Spanish, and the incredibly clear connection from my spot in the backseat, I did not win that argument.  Starting my day -$15 was NOT on my schedule.

My first stop was to pick up my impossibly heavy luggage from the lobby of a friend's building in Manhattan. Why were my luggage and I staying in separate apartments you ask? Earlier in the week I'd remarked that it "weighed too much" and it took offense.

So anyway, I picked up my luggage,  got back in the over priced car and was on my way to Newark. At Newark I took a quarter out of my purse to get a cart for my luggage. Turns out they raised the rental price to $5. But since my 3 bags weighed more than I do, it was necessary.

Poor girl, she has no idea what's coming.

The check-in line went quickly, and within minutes I was at the counter. I had not concerned myself with the cost/weight of my extra baggage because Tal had not had any problems. If this were Saved By the Bell, this is where the scene would freeze and Zack Morris would pan front and say, "WAIT. YOU SERIOUSLY DIDN'T LOOK INTO THE WEIGHT ALLOWANCES AND EXTRA BAGGAGE COSTS FOR YOUR FLIGHT, EVEN THOUGH YOU WERE FLYING A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AIRLINE?" Smug bastard.  No. I didn't. So when the attendant informed me that my extra baggage cost would be over $400, I nearly threw up. Really.  But... and this is a nice. darn. but. The cost to upgrade to first class, which allows three bags of any weight, was almost exactly the same cost. 

Ooooooooh Yeaaaaa.

Still. My unexpected expenses for the day were now: -$15 + -$489

Ah well. At least when I returned my cart, I'd get my five bucks back, and that would feel AWESOME.

Right. They don't give you your money back when you return the cart. 

-$15+ -$489 + -$5

I got to my gate in record time, thanks to my new high roller status.  Boarding was scheduled for 6:40pm. 6:40 went by. Then 7. 8. 8:30.. around then I started to get super hungry and was forced to purchase an overpriced snack.

-$15+ -$489 + -$5 + -$6

We finally boarded around 9pm.  The flight was spectacular. First class really is that. much. better.  They gave me REAL silverware/china and tiny salt and pepper shakers with my four course meal! The best part though was that my chair reclined into a bed, so I was able to sleep all the way to Germany. Actually, the best part was the mini shakers, they were freakin' cool.

I was supposed to have a  three hour layover in Germany. But by the timed we pulled up to our gate and the doors opened, I had 20 minutes until my next plane boarded.

When you picture me sprinting through the Frankfurt airport, please do me the kindness of imagining a graceful Kenyan athlete.  

What I actually looked like. Only, more awkward.
But I made it to my gate with four minutes to spare. EXACTLY as much time as I needed to talk the attendant into upgrading me a second time, since they made me pay so much for the first flight.

Ooooooh yeaaa.

We boarded right on schedule, and then proceeded to taxi for two hours.

At 3am two days after I'd left NYC, I finally landed in Bangalore.  I cleared customs without any snags, and my luggage was some of the first to land on the carousel.  When I arrived in the lobby with all of my things, I saw a million drivers with signs, but none said my name. I was nervous that he'd given up on me since my flight was so delayed. 

But then, waaaaay behind all of the drivers, I saw a head bopping up and down. Up and down. Then there were waving hands in the equation. Bopping and waving. Tal had come to pick me up himself.

My total for the day, including the cost of my flights, was in the range of $2,000. But finally arriving in Bangalore, and being reunited with my Tal? 


Quiz: You thought I'd forget didn't you? Awww, I'm just messing with you. If you're reading my blog at all, you have my undying devotion.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Adventure Delayed

Now that I'm on the plane, physically on my way to India, I think I have enough distance from the situation (6,500 miles to be exact) to explain what happened.

In the weeks that followed our big announcement, I was given every reason to believe that I would have a job in our office in Bangalore. Though no one ever specifically garunteed it, it seemed like a pretty sure thing. I was constantly being called into offices and being reassured that progress was being made on securing both a position and a visa. But as the days, weeks and months went by and our departure grew closer and closer, neither a job description nor a work visa had actually materialized. At some point,Tal and I realized we should think about a plan B.

I was really disappointed at first, because in all of my fantasies about what our lives would be like when we finally arrived in India, my job and my coworkers were the only thing I could realistically picture. But I was determined not to let anything get me down.  To distract myself I started to research local non-profit organizations. In no time at all I'd conjured up a whole new set of fantasies about involving myself in interesting, fulfilling volunteer work.

I didn't give up hope on my job, I simply wasn't holding my breath.

And eventually all the days, weeks and months had passed. On June 8th, we found ourselves packing up a car with the odds n' ends that didn't make it into the storage unit, and saying goodbye to our beloved Brooklyn. Though we'd filled every spare moment of the last several weeks with friends and merriment, we spent our last morning quietly wandering our neighborhood, reflecting on how much it had meant to us.

It wasn't until early afternoon when we were already in the car on the way to Tal's parents' house in New England that I even turned my phone on. Since I'd wrapped up work the day before, and all our friends and family knew our plans for the day, I didn't expect to find much of anything but junk mail in my inbox.  

Imagine my surprise when I received an email from my boss that read, 'Welcome back! We've confirmed a position for you in the Bangalore office!'.

In the initial moments after receiving the email, Tal and I were elated! How wonderful that everything was going to work out! And then we realized… I needed a new visa.  Several weeks prior, as part of our plan B, I'd applied for and received a spousal visa -but I wouldn't legally be able to work in India without different documentation.   

After several days and many, many emails with both our offices, we realized that I would have to cancel my flights and wait out a new visa from within the US.  On June 15th, a week after we left NYC, Tal moved on to London (and then India) to start our adventure, and I returned to my parents' house in Upstate New York to wait for the arrival of the paperwork I needed from my company.

After nearly two weeks and a seemingly infinite number of emails, a plan started to take shape. I was beginning to hear about deadlines from my company, instead of just placations.  It was at this point that I decide to gamble a bit.  Despite not yet having any of the documents I needed, I made an appointment for 9am July 2nd, in NYC, to file my visa paperwork. Then I booked a flight to India for July 5th.

Because we are nine and half hours behind Bangalore, I spent every single night after that waking up anxiously, hour after hour, to check my email, hoping the paperwork had come through.

At 5am on the morning of my visa appointment I finally received an email with the documents I needed to file.  At 7am I left my friends' apartment in Brooklyn, and made my way to a Kinkos in Manhattan. At 9am I was in line with 30 or so other nervous looking people, each of us hoping we had everything in order, and would be granted Indian visas.

At 9am the next day I received a cryptic text message from the consulate saying that I could come pick up my documents that very afternoon. I was cautiously hopeful that this meant I'd received my visa.

It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that that was the longest day of my life. But at 4:30pm I was ushered back up the steep stairway to the visa office and sure enough, I was handed back my passport, stamped with a work visa, valid for one year. 

"Ecstatic" wouldn't even begin to describe how was (actually..how I am still...) feeling.

So here I am, one month after I moved out of NYC, three weeks after I said goodbye to Tal, and I SWEAR several gray hairs richer- on a Lufthansa flight to Bangalore. 

Just wait till you hear THAT story…