Sunday, July 31, 2011

Laundry Day

Some days, living in India feels like camping in the outback. Many modern conveniences just aren't that common. The electric washer and dryer is one of them. The majority of homes don't employ such luxuries, mine included. Most have maids that come a few days a week and wash clothes, towels, and bedding. Anyone thinking of saving a few rupees a month and doing laundry themselves is out of their mind. Here I'll walk you through the standard Indian laundry regimen and you can decide for yourself how much your time is worth.
Two days per week, Lakshmi comes to do laundry. She starts by sorting clothes on the basis of light versus dark. In the wash area, which is just outside the second bedroom, there are two medium sized tubs that she piles the clothes into and adds detergent. Sounds simple enough, right? The fun begins when she begins hauling buckets of water outside one by one to fill the larger tubs as the outside spout doesn't work. She makes 6-8 trips from the kitchen to the wash area with these buckets of water until she has the tubs full. At that point she lets them soak for 10-15 minutes while she sweeps and scrubs floors and toilets inside.
After the clothes have soaked for some time, she begins hauling more water out to the wash area, does a brief swirl of the clothes in the soapy buckets, then start rinsing them in the fresh bucket she has just hauled out. Lakshmi then becomes the manual spin cycle. This is my least favorite part of the process because it involves her twisting my clothes into obscenely tight rope like objects and beating them against the ground in the wash area. It's as though she's taking a weeks worth of aggression out on my clothes and slapping them against the marble slab as though she's trying to beat the last inch of life out of them. I've asked her many times to take it easy during this part of the process, and even bought a bunch of extra hangers asking her to dip them nicely in a bucket of clean water and just hang them to dry, but old habits die hard and my clothes see their brief lives flash before their eyes each time they are in her hands.
Once she's satisfied with the "wringing" she's put them through, they are hung on the line for drying. Although she dedicates time and energy to abusing my clothes, she is extraordinarily efficient and can have all the laundry done in about an hour. Her fee for all of this work? Just rs100 per month (that's $2 USD).
After taking a beating from Lakshmi and even spending a few days drying on the line, I'm left with a pile of incredibly stiff, impossibly wrinkled pieces of cloth that once resembled department store purchases. I can promise you, every bit of it needs ironing, and there isn't an iron on the market that will take those wrinkles out. So what's a girl to do?
Let me introduce you to the ironing box. The ironing box is a mammoth beast of a "machine" that is filled with hot coals, only adding to the already impossible weight of the contraption. Ironing stands are every where on the street. They are typically make shift little shacks, with just a few sticks holding a tarp or a dilapidated billboard or other sign above a homemade table. This is not a glamorous job my friends. Imagine having to handle a 10+ pound iron contraption full of hot coals and spend all day in the 100+ degree Indian heat pressing clothes for others. It wouldn't be my first choice for a second career, but these stands typically have so much business that the pile of clothes yet to be ironed is taller then the person doing the ironing.

While they are generally successful in getting the wrinkles out, there is risk involved. It's not uncommon for the ironing box to get dirty and that dirt or soot or whatever it might be to transfer onto your clothes. It's also common that a piece of coal or other debris might fly out of the box and burn a hole in your outfit. But for the price of just rs4 (that's like 2 cents) per piece, it's worth the risk. And really, after the human spin cycle that is Lakshmi (and every other Hindustani I've seen washing clothes), it's your only option.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Customs in Chennai

After almost four months of waiting for my cargo to arrive from the US, I finally got the call that the ship had docked in Chennai, approx 514 km from Hyderabad. In order to schedule the customs inspection, I was requested to send my passport and residence permit to Chennai for review. Not wanting to let my passport out of my possession, I opted instead to fly to Chennai to attend the customs inspection. I was advised the entire process should take about three days and would cost me rs12500. So Zia and I took leave from the office and booked tickets to Chennai.

The one way flight to Chennai took just under an hour and cost somewhere around rs2300 per person. We arrived early Monday, around 11:30am, made our way to the hotel recommended to me by my contact (Ramesh) in Chennai and opted for a suite for a per night cost of rs2000.

The two things that immediately struck me about Chennai was the heat/humidity and the smell. Everyone stated it was because of the Bay of Bengal waters that boarder the city. I'll buy that for the humidity but unless the city is draining their toilets into the Bay, there has to be another source of that smell. It saturated every restaurant and every cab. Everywhere we went, we were inundated with the awful smell that is Chennai.

After checking into the hotel, Ramesh met us to have me sign some paperwork and hand over the documentation I had carried so that the customs inspection could be scheduled. He collected the rs12500 he told me to carry and expressed concern over my US passport. He stated the visa was issued back in May and in order to clear customs, I should have at least one year left on my visa. Considering I arrived in India the day after my visa was issued, and the ship took an extra two months to get here, I wasn't sure how that was my problem. He explained that with a US passport, I would need to get clearance from four different customs departments in order to attend the inspection of my own shipment. He suggested I sign over Power of Attorney to Zia and let him attend the inspection on my behalf to help expedite things. He also advised us to bring an additional rs4-5000 to the inspection to ensure we could "secure" everything and that there would be no issue regarding the dates on my visa. He stated that because it was already so late in the day on Monday nothing could be done that day so we should just relax and enjoy the city. That night we visited a mall, and just roamed around for a few hours, already tired from the day and hoping things would be settled quickly.

On day two Ramesh returned to the hotel with the Power of Attorney paperwork for both of us to sign and said he was 90% sure he could get the customs inspection scheduled for the next day. He said once the inspection was initiated, he could return my documents to me and we could be on our way and were not required to stay in Chennai during the entire inspection process. He requested that Zia attend the inspection alone and that I stay back at the hotel to avoid any confusion on behalf of the agents. After a 10 min visit with Ramesh, our business was concluded for the day and again we were left to enjoy the city. That night, after finding what may have been the only Hindi speaking auto driver in the city, we took a brief tour of Chennai, spent a few hours at the beach, then again ended up at a different mall where we went bowling, and did some window shopping.

Day three in Chennai arrived and Ramesh called around 9am to say he was sending a car for Zia to take him to the port. He reminded us that he should carry some extra cash in an effort to expedite things. Zia arrived at the port after the car he was travelling in was in a small accident and a fight ensued in the street over who should pay who for the damages. Luckily no one was injured and in the end no one paid anyone for the damages. After arriving to the port, Ramesh handed him over to a colleague of his who took him to the inspection office.

At the inspection office, again the concern regarding my visa having been issued a few months back came up. Certainly for the right price, things could be over looked. The customs officers began inspecting my totes, passing up anything that was marked "kitchen items" or "clothing" and going right for the craft stuff. All five totes of it. They stated that because they couldn't determine a value on it they were refusing to clear it. Zia explained it was paper, how much value could there be? He told them fine, keep the craft totes, just clear the rest of the shipment. They refused saying it was all or nothing, and if we wanted it all, we needed to pay rs2000 per tote (remember a few months back when I mentioned there were 17 totes). At this point, Zia was able to appeal to the female inspections officer and convinced her to explain to her boss that the craft totes didn't contain rs2000 worth of stuff. She agreed, convincing her boss, and they lowered the "price" from rs34000 for the shipment down to rs10000 to clear everything. Zia refused this as well, and and told them to go back, think it over, and let him know if they could do any better. They did this over their hour long lunch break, while he sat there waiting and I sat in the hotel room anxiously hoping things would be sorted out so we could leave.

While I was waiting to hear from Zia on the status of the inspection, the concierge notified me that unless I was out of the hotel room within the next 30 mins, we would be charged an additional nights stay. So I packed our bags and headed down to the lobby to wait.

After their lunch break, and inspection of a few other shipments, they returned, saying they would clear my shipment for an additional rs1800. Zia gladly paid them and five hours after leaving for the port  on day three, my items were cleared, my documents returned to me, and we were on our way to the airport to catch a flight back to Hyderabad.

On Saturday I'm expecting my shipment to be delivered to my flat. It's a good thing I took a two bedroom place as one entire room will be stacked floor to ceiling with these totes. But alas, it's finished. For as much work and expense as it was to get things cleared, I don't even plan to unpack most of what is coming. I'm hoping to move in the next few months and rather then unpack then repack everything, I think I'll just leave it toted. I know at the time of packing I thought all of these items were so important to have along. Most have sentimental value and nothing more, but looking back, had I known what a hassle it would be to get my things here, I likely would have left all of it behind. We'll see if that feeling changes once I open a few totes and am reunited with some familiarity. Hopefully I won't be reunited with the smell of Chennai.