Mumbai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 12/25/10

Personal Experiences from Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India 12/25/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I've lived in Seoul and Santiago, Chile previously.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, D.C. and the trip through Brussels takes 18 hours including layover.

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3. How long have you lived here?

5 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The commute time is not good. For US consulate employees it should improve after the new consulate is opened, but there's no guarantee when that will happen. Our US consulate housing is spacious but things break quite often. Although there's a water distiller in the kitchen, it's tough when the shower water smells terrible.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Fresh produce and basic staples are very cheap. If you like certain Western, Asian, or Middle Eastern foods, you may have trouble finding/affording them. An imported box of Oreo cookies costs at least $8, a can of blueperry pie filling was approximately $6, cheeses are no lower than $4 or $5 for 250 gm. It's much better to order dry goods over Amazon or Alice.com if you have access to diplomatic pouch.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nail polish, polish remover, perfume, cans of chicken broth, canned chicken (the quality of the chicken here can be poor), tortilla chips (these can run $6/bag at Nature's Basket), electronic items -- including ipods and a multiregion TV.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

American options include Cinnabon, McDonald's, Dominoes, KFC, Hard Rock Cafe, and TGI Fridays but we haven't been able to find a decent burger anywhere in the city. McDonalds has chicken but no beef sandwiches. Good local options include Trishna's (seafood), Khanekas (Indian), Indigo Deli, Mahesh Lunch Home, Shiro, Barbecue Nation, Mosate, Ray's Pizzeria (our favorite), Lemongrass, Tasty Tangles (Asian), the Bagel Shop, and Taco Fresca. Alcohol is expensive but we usually pay less for food than we would in D.C.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Nature's Basket has some organic foods. I would still wash them in bleach solution, however. Good vegetarian food is widely available here.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Since just after the end of the monsoon, we've had an ant problem. There are lots of mosquitos and it's a good idea to wear DEET repellent since malaria and denque fever are both in Mumbai.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through diplomatic pouch we can send letters but not packages. I've heard of someone successfully using Indian mail to send packages back to the US.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help is widely available, affordable, and of fairly high quality. We have both a driver and a housekeeper, and we're pretty happy with both. In some ways they make life much easier for us here than our life in D.C.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

They are available but they charge exorbitant prices for substandard services. They would not negotiate on the price--which was the same as what nice Washington, D.C. gyms charge. One popular gym in Bandra had decent equipment but I hear it's overcrowded during peak hours and the stench is overwhelming.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

The US Consulate has a Bank of America counter where you can exchange currency. ATMs are widely available.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

They seem widely available.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

English newspapers are available but the quality of the journalism is low. There are cable TV packages that provide access to English shows, but we canceled it after we found that there were few good channels and the cable company was going to charge us for repairs to their faulty equipment.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

It would be helpful to know some Hindi. Indian English is very different from American English, and many people speak only Hindi. Talking to people on the phone can be very frustrating without Hindi.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It would be very difficult. Sidewalks are in a terrible condition and you can't always count on a functioning elevator.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

From what I hear, trains and buses are usually overcrowded and can be dangerous. It's a bad idea for women to take buses and regular train cars. Trains have ladies-only cars, so you can travel to your destination without being molested by a fellow commuter. Taxis and autorickshaws are usually available and cheap. However, you shouldn't count on a taxi to arrive at a pre-specified time, and you have to watch carefully if you don't want the driver to cheat you.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

American diplomats cannot import cars into India any more. It's usually possible to buy a car from another outgoing expat. It's a good idea to buy something that can get dinged up and has clearance for the many potholes you'll find in Mumbai streets.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

We have cable broadband and it is usually pretty good. It goes out occasionally and it's not always super fast, but I find the quality better than Comcast in D.C. We tried the Tata photon, but the speed is comparable to dialup.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

No, not really. The network isn't great but the batteries on cell phones here are far superior to those in the US.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

We have pets but haven't tried out the vets yet. We've heard that a decent one is available.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

No, there aren't.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual is good for work. It's a good idea to always have a cardigan on hand since air conditioning can be very cold. I've also comfortably worn a sweater outside. It's best to dress conservatively if you're a woman, though you don't have to go overboard. A t-shirt and capris or a knee-length skirt are fine. Tank tops are apparently deemed exceptionally provocative. You'll find, however, that people will stare at you no matter what you wear.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

There is the threat of terrorism. However, crime is not much of a problem in Mumbai. Theft does not seem to be as common as it is in the US.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Excellent and affordable dental care is available. There are lots of health concerns, including malaria, dengue, and gastrointestinal issues. Sometimes there are random viruses that come and go and you never really know what they were. I haven't been able to find a doctor yet but I know they're out there.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The quality of the air usually doesn't bother me. However, during Mumbai's cooler months from November through January/February, people burn small fires on the street. The smell frequently wakes me up and smoke seems to permeate the entire house.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The monsoon runs approximately from July through early October. I found the monsoon to be enjoyable. The weather is cooler and I think the rain improves the air quality. During the cooler months it can actually get cool at night. We arrived at the end of July and, since then, we've found the weather to be rather pleasant.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don't have experience with the schools but I know parents who are pleased with them.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Preschool is very expensive. But nannies are available at a very reasonable salary.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Due to the number of activities there seems to be a lot of expats in Mumbai, but I rarely see them. Mumbai is not a very internationally diverse city.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale is okay. Mumbai is a difficult city to live in, but the consulate community is fairly close-knit.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Many people host dinners or parties in their homes. The expat community here is very social.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

There seem to be a lot of activities for singles and couples. There are a lot of single expats here from corporate and government jobs. The US Consulate has a lot of events, and many people host gatherings in their homes. There are also lots of good restaurants.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

India just overturned its anti-gay laws, but the culture is still very conservative. I do know gay people who are able to date here.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes, there is a strong bias against women. People usually address my husband first and ask him any questions that are necessary. So far it hasn't bothered me very much (maybe because my husband isn't at all sexist). Sometimes I ignore the fact that they were talking to my husband and just answer anyway. In a weird way it can also make things easier for me. I can just sit back and let my husband deal with whatever the issue is. It's quite clear that women are much less valuable than men in Indian culture.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

We've enjoyed traveling within India, to Rajasthan and Kerala. There's also good shopping, from road side markets to luxury stores. Mumbai also has a lot of good restaurants, including Asian and Mexican restaurants, as well as a decent bagel shop.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a nice break from the city. Phoenix Mills mall is a little slice of America. There are western, and even luxury, stores as well as a good movie theater. Many of the restaurants around town offer good affordable food. When you want to really indulge, some of the luxury hotels offer an extravagant brunch.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Saris, kurtas, Ganesh statues, scarves, custom-made leather goods, couch covers, bedspreads, and table cloths, as well as lots of stuff from FabIndia!

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The produce is great, both the quality and variety available--from pomegranates, to fresh figs, beautiful tomatoes, mangoes, etc. It's easy to reach Asian destinations from Mumbai. There are lots of direct and affordable flights. Within Mumbai, you can get almost anything delivered, including ice cream, donuts, groceries, and DVDs.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, it is possible, especially if you order or do without western food items. Many, many things are much less expensive than they are in Europe or the United States. This is one of the best things about this city.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

No, I wouldn't. I try to stay positive but I can't wait to leave.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

winter coats.

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3. But don't forget your:

patience, assertiveness, western business clothing, quality business shoes, rain boots, nail polish, pedicure kit, mosquito repellent, electronics.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Shantaram, Maximum City, India after Gandhi.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Slumdog Millionaire, Born into Brothels, Monsoon Wedding.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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