We have had a driver since arriving to Pune. We're paying him by the week for now since there are still some details to work out. He parks his vehicle, which he owns, at our place and uses his motorbike to go to and from our home. He's a nice guy, a safe driver, and is very professional...we really hope it works out in the long run and that he'll stay on to drive for us once we buy our own car next month.
Though he told me his workweek is 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, we don't really have that much going on until we move so I've asked him to hang out at home until I text/call him. It's worked out well so far.
Yesterday we started at 9:30am with appointments for tooth cleaning and a vaccination. We use a multi-specialty integrated hospital system which was recommended by my partner's employer. I've had a positive experience there, so far.
Within the hospital setting there are both acute and preventative care facilities, which means that almost everything can be done under one roof. As far as the actual care is concerned, the staff I've interacted with are well-spoken, skilled, and patient focused. My dental cleaning was identical to that which I would received in the US (right down to the a water laser and fluoride rinse), and the vaccination, second in a series of two for Hepatitis A (GSK Havrix, 1.0 mL), was the exact same brand and strength as the one I got back home.
Where the difference is notable however, is in the payment scheme. The hospital's services are all under one roof, but payment is required at each point of service. So yesterday I paid to: register myself and get a patient identification number (Rs. 100), get my teeth cleaned (Rs. 2350), see the physician for my vaccine (Rs. 650), and purchase the vaccine at the pharmacy (Rs. 1790). It's pretty efficient to have it broken down this way, though it does involve lots of queueing, even if the wait is momentary. I paid $77.00 USD for services/products that would have totaled at least $400 USD in the states, and was on my way in an hour and fifteen minutes.
Since my partner had off from work for Maha Shivaratri (read about it here) we decided to take our first trip outside of the city. We didn't really have a place in mind, so I did a quick web search for "day trips nearby Pune" and got Fort Jadhavgadh. "Sounds as good as any", we thought, and headed off. Google Maps estimated half an hour, but it ended up being about an hour once we got through all the traffic. It didn't really matter anyway, we were just happy to finally make it out of the city into some clean air. As the buildings became smaller and spaced further apart, we realized that we were going to get to see the plateaus we had been admiring during our plane ride from Mumbai.
The drive was almost as nice as the fort itself, even though most of the landscape is kind of dead and brown right now. On the way to the top of the plateaus there are some overlooks where the city can be seen in the distance and the valley below is a patchwork of green fields. Further still once the ascent levels off there are farms with small fields of corn, tomatoes, figs, nut trees of some sort, wheat, and fruit trees. Every mile or mile and a half there is a small family-owned hotel with a restaurant. They're immaculately landscaped mini-oases speckled between stretches of brown, though we were told that during monsoon season everything about this area is green and full of life.
We arrived at the fort, which doubles as a hotel, event venue, and museum, by driving up a rocky dirt road past some fig trees and a small grouping of homes. We wanted to see the museum first, so paid the small fee and in we went. Inside is a nice selection of artifacts, some of which date back 300-400 years. Most of them are everyday items, like hair combs, lime boxes, scrolls, cooking implements, etc. though there were a few big items like hand carried carriages. After the museum, we decided to check out the hotel. We had a light lunch there at a hotel cafe with lovely outdoor tables, and lingered over sweet lime sodas and watermelon juice while enjoying the cool breezes from the hills. Afterward we wandered around a bit to scope out the hotel grounds in case we want to return sometime. There's a gorgeous pool and it looks like there are some fun activities that guests can take advantage of in the area...I think that would be a nice weekend to keep in mind. (You can read more about that fort and the museum here. )
It looks like we're going to have a lot of fun taking little day trips like this one, and sometimes its nice to just scoot out of the city for a bit for some fresh air and a change of scenery.
This morning I had planned to visit Shivaji Market with a friend. It's an open air market in an old part of the city called Camp which is comprised of a maze of roads lined with vendors. We visited this market on our look-see trip in October, and I was excited to go back. Too much indulgence in the local restaurants has convinced me (and my pants) that it is, indeed, time to get back into the kitchen where I can control what goes into our dinner. Today's agenda was spices.
We set out on an auto rickshaw. There's a guy who is usually posted with a few others under a tree near our hotel who seems to be popular with the other expats, so we went with him. This driver is particularly adventurous. He tailgates everything within a few inches, cuts off cars, hurls an occasional insult, and makes suddens turns. It's reminiscent of being in a NYC taxicab when you've just told the cabbie you need to go to Brooklyn. Anyway, I've adopted a "don't look forward" policy when riding with him. To his credit there haven't been any problems so far, he knows the city well, and was a total lifesaver for us today at the market.
As we neared a congested road to Shivaji Market we learned it was closed for a festival. Thinking of a plan B, the driver took us to two smaller markets for spices and produce. After almost hitting some pedestrians, in particular one boy who had about 6 live, white chickens by the feet, we arrived. The market was in an alleyway with a bunch of stalls selling spices in packets and dried fruits. We stepped up to the first stall and to test how honest the shopkeeper was about prices I picked up a bag of dried almonds. I was quoted Rs. 700 (about $11.50 USD) for the equivalent of 1 lb. of almonds, which I knew was a blatant rip off, so we left and went to a stall a bit further down that had a scale and regulated pricing.
It was crowded with customers, all men who were buying things like chickpeas and almonds in large quantities, and it was tricky to squeeze in. No sooner than we found a spot at the counter did the driver come right up and assume role of translator and guide. We were shown bowl after bowl of spices, and encouraged to smell and taste things. My haul of cumin, green cardamom, peppercorn, black rock salt (read about it here), chili powder, roasted/salted chickpeas, pistachios, and a 1/2 kilo of almonds (they were Rs 300, for the record) was just under Rs. 800 (about $13 USD).
The next market he took us to was a small road lined on either side with carts. It was mostly produce and an occasional accessories stall selling household goods, bars of some sort of soap (it was giant, in a bar, and smelled like animal), and dried fish. We got some spice blends from a really ornately dressed man; garam masala, and one I can't pronounce. I also got some green peppers, called capsicum here, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions. Am looking forward to cooking with them soon.
So, some updates on "life" stuff this week: we have an apartment to move into on March 1st (YAY!) and the owner is supplying us with built-in wardrobes (aka walk-in closets), a dining room set, drapes in 2 bedrooms and the living/dining area, a water filter, and some other creature comforts. We both now also have Indian cell phones and my partner is working on getting a Indian checking account established. Our stuff from NJ is due to arrive in Mumbai also on March 1st, so hopefully we'll be seeing it by the middle of the month, and I have begun looking for a car and driver. Would be nice to find one before we move in to our new place.
Stella, as cute as she is, has taken on a monster-dog mentality and has begun to bark and be slightly aggressive toward unfamiliar people as we're walking. She's done it twice when a group of friends walked past us, and it is a thoroughly embarrassing experience to have to apologize for her, especially when she's so sweet at home. There is a very limited amount of green space for dogs locally, and I haven't been able to unleash her for exercise since we got here. I try to make due by taking long walks and running her around in the hotel courtyard, but I really hope I can find something else.
Otherwise, things are good. We're happy to be here, have made some really nice friends, and are thankful to have warm weather. I'll be sure to write another update when we move into our new home (the view from our apartment below!), maybe sooner if I have something fun to write about :-)
Ok I didn't actually kill a chicken, but I kind of did.
After scanning our cupboards and fridge this morning, I realized that it was time for an errand run, my first since arriving. We've been eating out every night, which has been convenient and delicious, but I'm really starting to miss being in the kitchen. I arranged with the hotel to have a driver and car for the afternoon, made an easy-to-follow ordered list of shops I needed to visit, and off we went. I still don't have a phone so at each stop the driver motioned to me where I would find him, which ended up working really well.
First stop was the ATM, then a nail salon for a much needed manicure. The manicure ran me Rs. 450, or $7, a very welcome change from the $25 - 30 I'm used to spending. It wasn't the most hygenic place I've ever been to, but it's not like they were doing open heart surgery so it was fine with me and, for the record, so was the manicure.
Since we are in the tail end of apartment hunting, I thought it would be a good idea to start checking out some local furniture and decor stores. We are choosing between three properties right now, and one of them has a large, rectangular room which would need some nice, big pieces to fill it out. Check out some of the stuff I found:
Next I went to Starbucks (I'm still reeling over the loss of my Starbucks Gold card) for a predictable Grande Iced decaf Americano, then headed to finish up my trip with two grocery spots that were recommended by a friend. The first place looked like a bodega in Queens, but it was filled with packaged good and food products, both local and imported. I was able to get almost everything on my shopping list with the exception of fruits/veggies (which I had planned to get at the stall right next door), and chicken breasts, which I realized I'd be on my own in locating. A few things I was suprised to learn about grocery shopping here: grocery delivery is the norm, eggs are kept at room temperature, and garlic bulbs are teeny-tiny.
After stocking up there I headed to a veg/fruit shop where the shopkeeper stressed that I should really stock up on strawberries and figs (by stressed, I mean he repeatedly began false bagging the items while nodding at me and smiling). I took his suggestion and I'm glad I did because YUMMMMMMY :-) It's a shame I don't have my canning supplies here, I could make some amazing fig jam right now!
With only the chicken breasts left on my list, I set out on a quest with the driver. He first took me to a take-away restaurant which had a familiar point-and-choose menu consisting of different fried chicken selections. After communicating that I needed chicken "for cooking", he nodded in acknowledgement and we went to stop number two, just a few minutes away from our hotel. It was a take-away stall as well, consisting of a counter, a scale, and stacked palettes of eggs on either side. Above it was a banner that had pictures of chickens and eggs.
When I walked up there was no one there, so I just stood, staring. Behind the counter was a chopping block, a tree stump with a knife in it that had probably been there for years, and a pile of discarded skin and wings to the right. The rear of the store was not visible, though I knew there was a door opened because a very warm, poultry-scented breeze wafted over me. After a minute of waiting I gave a little "hello?!" and a guy popped right up; he had been sleeping on the floor.
I told him what I wanted, and we sorted out the weight. Then he said, "about 5 minutes", and disappeared. I was expecting him to go to wherever it was that they kept their refrigerated, prepared meat cuts and emerge with my order, but there was just silence. I pieced it together at just about the same I heard him grabbing my half-kilo of "chicken breast". Seconds later he produced a live chicken, put it on the counter scale, asked me if I thought it was ok ("yup, looks good" was about all I could do) and disappeared again, with the knife this time.
Returning with a familiar looking chicken carcass, he asked a few questions about how I wanted it cut and nimbly went to work, chopping it up with skilled precision on the block. He flung the wings into the pile, stripped the skin off, and then double bagged it, swinging it to be sure it wouldn't drip. He weighed it once more and told me the price, Rs. 96 ($1.50). He wiped his hands off on a dry rag, took my Rs. 100 bill, and handed me Rs. 4 change from his pocket with semi-bloody fingers. With that I was off, a hot bag of meat on my lap as I rode back to the hotel, thinking about the clucking chicken and the chopping block, hoping that it was safe for me to eat and that the kill wouldn't be in vain.