On our previous six trips to India shopping has generally been of a predictable nature – popping into the wonderful Fabindia to buy a series of brightly coloured salwar kameez (or rather kurta and pajama or churidar in Hindi), and long scarves (dupatta), my usual garb when here, or looking for presents to take home – bags, scarves, cushion covers, silver jewellery and so forth.
This time of course it is different.
The first task was to equip our house with the basics: pots and pans, cleaning equipment, all the things you take for granted until you have to start from scratch. As a tourist one is not aware of the supermarkets and malls (and we have been incensed at the suggestions helpfully made to us on the streets of Delhi that we might like to visit a mall rather than the individual shops we prefer), but for bulk buying of household goods it makes sense to head to a hypermarket.
Just getting in is the first challenge. After going through the body scanner, one has to present bags at a desk and have the zips fastened with plastic tags to prevent one slipping goods into them. We then grab a trolley and start the hunt. We are astounded by the variety (and low price) of many things: from washing machines to sound systems, lentils to vegetable oils of types we have never come across. We make a few interesting discoveries, for example that virtually no Indian pots and pans have lids, apart from the ubiquitous ‘cookers’ (ie pressure cookers) of which India must have the largest supply in the world, and we have a few surprises: I decide to buy some oatmeal so as to make porridge, but discover when I take it home that it is spiced oatmeal – doubtless delicious, we’ll have to see!
Several things elude us in the hypermarket, and anyway we prefer little local shops, so we go to some of the town’s ‘markets’, which are really shopping areas consisting of rows of little shops. Bapu Bazar has electrical appliances, plastics (dust bins, storage jars etc), bed linen etc.
Hathi Pole has cotton goods (lovely Indian print bedspreads etc). One soon realises that it is quite tricky to mime certain household things, like ironing boards and washing up drainers, and that items one takes for granted are not necessarily part of the standard equipment over here. All part of the fun – and doubtless adding to our reputation as crazy foreigners.
In one shop recommended by a friend we are able to buy all the appliances we need and they deliver and instal them within hours. I am particularly looking forward to working with the mixer, which includes a range of blenders to grind spices and help make chutneys and sauces – as seen on Rick Stein’s wonderful TV series.
The vibrant fruit and vegetable markets are a passion of ours, and we never miss a chance to wander through them, marvelling at the riot of colours and textures (and I’m not just describing the produce!). I have always found it frustrating to be unable to buy any of the produce since staying in hotels doesn’t really lend itself to cooking up aubergines, okra, onion and garlic. We have both been looking forward to being able to do just that. So now every day we stop at one or other of the many vegetable stalls along the road and buy enough for dinner and the following breakfast. So far I have been so tired at the end of every busy day that the menu hasn’t been very varied: a mixture of onions, garlic, aubergine, okra, peppers, tomatoes and coriander, with some cumin and chillies, accompanied by rice and some chutneys and pickles. But I long to start trying out some of Rick Stein’s recipes.
On previous trips we have always been careful about what we ate, and been remarkably bug-free. But of course it’s relatively easy if you eat in hotels and recommended restaurants. Now we are shopping and cooking for ourselves. We sought advice from a number of Indian and English friends about the use of water purifiers and how to make safe the things you are told not to eat when you travel here, so we had a reasonable idea of the procedures to follow. But before we came, I lay awake sometimes worrying that I would get it wrong and poison us with inadequately washed and cooked veg. But so far so good. We have a water purifier and then boil the water we intend to use for cooking, and we scrub the veg in purified water before cooking.
For now, when at home we are following a traditionally Indian ‘veg’ diet, and it remains to be seen whether we feel brave enough to buy and cook ‘non-veg’. There are two nearby butchers, whose wares are certainly fresh as they consist of live chickens and goats outside his shop – probably quite sensible given the lack of refrigeration. I’m just not sure about dealing with a chunk of still warm goat or chicken…
It is a great delight to me to find things like chickoos (naseberries to us Jamaicans, and not a fruit I have seen outside these two countries) and to feast on papaya sprinkled with fresh lime juice, pineapple, custard apples and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast.
The Indians tend to view tamarinds as a savoury to give delicious pep to savoury sauces. I wonder if I will be able to explore making Jamaican tamarind balls (sugared tamarind flesh around the seeds, a favourite of all Jamaican schoolchildren) and guava jelly, another favourite from my childhood.
This is of course one of the scourges of India. You can’t travel a few meters through any town or country village without seeing piles of rubbish strewn around the streets. Part of the problem is that in many areas there is no organised rubbish collection.
When we had acquired a mountain of packaging material, following the delivery of appliances and furniture, we had to stop our lovely caretaker Jagdish from tipping the lot over the wall onto the adjoining unused plot. Similarly, we had to rush into that same plot to recover the household waste tipped over the wall by his wife Manju – much to her amazement and amusement. I have no doubt that they think we are quite mad. We hope to persuade a local rubbish man (on a bike) to call by to collect rubbish twice weekly, but so far he is reluctant as the other households down our lane have proved unwilling to pay the few rupees he needs to make it worthwhile (about 1p a day). So we take our rubbish when we go out in the car and drop it into a dumpster.
But virtually everything has a price here, and one of Manju’s relatives carted off all the discarded cardboard and bubble wrap which he sold for recycling at Rs 350. Maybe there will be a way of making all rubbish recycling pay so that one day we’ll see an end to the awful heaps of rubbish around the place.
We’d also like to investigate digging a compost pit in the next door field, but everything decomposes so quickly here – and attracts unwelcome animal visitors – that we will need to be careful to avoid smells and flies.
Getting things done
India’s love of bureaucracy (doubtless a relic of the Raj) surpasses that of Belgium (where we lived for many years), so we had thought it would take months to get cable TV, wifi and other services. But we were wrong. Because on our last trip we had sought the help of the one man in India who seems to know how to ‘recharge’ (top up) an iPad SIM, he greeted us as loyal customers and sold us new SIM cards and a dongle to link the laptops to the internet, with only the need for a few forms and ID photos. Et voila!
At the house, we had cable TV installed and set up within hours, and the wifi man is due shortly. The furniture we had ordered from the local store of an Indian chain before we arrived was here when we arrived, as promised, and the mattresses ordered on our first evening in Udaipur arrived a day ahead of schedule – impressive.
We have been extremely fortunate to have the help of friends who have ensured that a request to install a fan in the kitchen, to move a tap to the right height for a washing machine (not sure why that hadn’t occurred to them before…), to remove a bolt from one external door so that there is at least one emergency exit guaranteed to be unlocked on the outside (important for a claustrophobe like me) results in a man appearing within half an hour.
But we can only assume that the caste system applies to workmen. The painter obviously doesn’t think it’s up to him to move furniture or put down a dustsheet to avoid drips, the carpenter doesn’t think he should clear up chunks of wood, and the men who put in the grills around all the windows clearly didn’t think they needed to clear up cement spills from window sills or basins! Ah well!
The simpler things take longer though. Getting a trolley full of goods entered onto a cash register and paid for is a long and tedious process. More often than not the bar code reader doesn’t work so items have to be entered manually. And then as you leave the shop a guard asks to see your receipt. The first time, struggling with an overflowing trolley of brooms, mops, buckets etc, in amongst eggs, pans, oils and spices, our hearts sank as he began to look at every item. (They don’t give shopping bags, quite rightly, and we had not yet acquired them, so everything was piled into the trolley en vrac.) Mercifully, he too seemed to realise that this was going to be a hopeless task and contented himself with checking a few sample items before putting a line through the receipt to indicate it was checked. But now we had to get the trolley to our waiting car – and that meant unloading and carrying everything up and down a set of steps onto the road in the ferocious sun, while trying to make sure nothing disappeared as it waited unattended (probably an unnecessary concern). It reminded me a little of that riddle of how to get a wolf, a goat and a cabbage across a river in a small boat that can only take one passenger at a time.
We have now worked out that there is an underground car park, but it costs 20 Rupees (20 p) so the drivers have to be persuaded to use it. But it makes life a whole lot easier.
Setting up home abroad
As a couple we have travelled extensively, and moved with our children between the UK and Belgium. But this is a very different adventure.
I can’t help thinking of my beloved French grandmother. She met my Jamaican grandfather when he was a very young soldier posted to her native Normandy during World War I and she was still a schoolgirl. They married a few years later and she set off, at the age of about 20, to spend the rest of her life with him in Jamaica. Her tales of running a household in 1920s Jamaica are fascinating, and 30-odd years later I remember her sallying forth every Friday from her house in Kingston to Papine market, armed with a big straw basket, to do the weekly shopping.
My mother too, having grown up in Bristol during the Second World War, could not resist a newspaper advertisement for a PE teacher in Jamaica and sailed out to longed-for adventure in the tropics. She met my father and spent the next 20 years running a home in the hills above Kingston.
How I wish I had taken the time to ask both of those intrepid women how they felt when they first braved the Jamaican market stalls, itinerant vendors and domestic help in 1920s and 1950s Jamaica. I rather like the idea that in some small way I am following in their footsteps.
Much of what we are experiencing must seem much less familiar to John than it does to me, with my memories of growing up in Jamaica.
At the end of the long tiring days we have so far spent setting up home so that we can do something useful, it is wonderful to stand together on the roof of our little house, gazing at the Aravalli hills around us as the stars come up and the half-moon shines down, listening to the cacophony of nocturnal insects and birds. Even the sound of the occasional dog barking is different in the hot night air. Back inside we greet our friendly lizard and encourage him to bring a few friends to gobble up the occasional ant and mosquito.