Expat Spouse: A day in the life, Part II

Flower from our housekeeper.

Recall during Part I, we left our exceptionally sexy, unpaid, title-less, expat spouse ready to begin lunch, a sore ars serving as a reminder of his prolonged stationary status.  Let’s take a look at the rest of the day—by the end, everyone should be getting a little sleepy.

Despite lacking a job title, the afternoon meal remains a working lunch.  A bad habit for sure, but there are emails to answer, research to accomplish, chapters to map, and trips to plan to exotic locations, like Delhi for example.  There is food, usually fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, leftovers and crap like that.  However, it is extremely difficult to type, keys clicking away like the subway between Grand Central and 42nd Street, stopping to take a bite and wipe one’s hands, all while maintaining momentum and a consistent train of thought—surprisingly, writing and train of thought are not affected by a cocktail…unfortunately, it’s too early for cocktail hour.  Working lunches remain a holdover from the days of drudging into the office.

Nothing is easy in India.
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Part of a to-do list.

After lunch it’s time to work on the to-do list, currently 44 items strong.  These include things like recording the water meter reading so the community doesn’t screw us at the end of the month; sending emails to the maintenance managers when the groundskeepers are using our water on the common areas; making deposits on our pre-paid electrical service so they don’t shut off the power; providing copies of receipts for maintenance payments because we wrote ‘No. 41 Maintenance’ instead of ‘Villa 41’ in the  notes field of our electronic payment; finding a supplier for wood so we can secure our perpetually insecure doors and windows; and all sorts of things we would normally do after work in the US, but since everything is more complicated, time consuming, and just plain frustrating in India, we need to create a plan, execute, improvise, adapt, overcome, and eventually accept that we are not in Kansas, or London, or Paris anymore.  Some might be asking, “How much more complicated can it be?”  Good question!  (Remember, there are no stupid questions.)

Here are a couple examples:

In the US, when we want to book a flight, we go online, find the flight we want, put in our credit card and bam!  We have a flight.  In India, we’ll get an error message after entering our credit card information—the same credit card we’ve used for the last six months in India—informing us to call our US credit card issuer.  A call to our US credit card issuer confirms what we expect, there are no issues from their end.  A return to the airline website reveals our previously reserved flights are now only available at double the price.  We call the airline, because the only reason the flights aren’t available is their algorithm thinks we are booking them.  The airline books the flights, but can’t take a US issued credit card over the telephone, so we try our India-bank issued debit card.  The debit card requires a one-time password (OTP) acquired by texting the bank, during which the call to the airline is dropped.  Upon reconnecting, we supply the OTP, only to find out from the airline the withdrawal is rejected; however, our bank statement shows the payment complete.  Our new options are: call the bank; call the airline; call both; or wait 24-48 hours and see if the debit is credited, which happens sometimes.  If the latter, then we’ll be back online to try and book the flights again.  Also, the extremely helpful airline employee and unhelpful bank employee both have Indian accents—as one would expect—complicated by a menagerie of call center background chatter, making them a tad difficult to understand.

In the US, we pick up our mail on the way in the house after work.  Junk mail goes in the garbage and bills in the basket.  In India, we log into our mail forwarder, review a scanned image of the envelope, then make a decision to shred or have the contents scanned.  If we have the contents scanned, then we need to log back into the forwarder to review the scan and decide to shred, forward or download.  Forwarding then requires the completion of an online form.  Yes, this is the easiest method we can find without involving our relatives.

In the US we normally log into our bank account and pay bills about once a week.  Since moving to India, we have three accounts we manage, shuffling money between them to ensure there are sufficient funds to cover daily living plus any potential contingencies.  Every month we pay our rent, maintenance fee, housekeeper, and driver through our Indian bank account.  Every two weeks we transfer money from a US account at a financial institution required by my wife’s employer—which is at the worst bank on the planet—to our regular US bank account.  Finally, at least twice a month we send money from our regular US account to our Indian account, so we can continue to do little things like eat.  This process has actually gotten easier lately.

I once mentioned to another expat that I keep to a schedule during the week, to which she replied, “You mean you don’t simply wait around each day waiting to fix the next major issue India throws at you?”  The above examples are only a small sample of routine tasks completed on a regular basis.  There is also a seemingly endless stream of ad hoc items presenting themselves almost daily.  Internet outages; threats to cut us off from our bank accounts; bills for maintenance fees already paid; duplicate charges for mobile service…these are just a few of the frustrations popping up so often they cannot be considered anomalies.  The dull thud you hear each morning in the US is not a hangover, it is the sound of expats in India gently thumping our collective foreheads against the table each evening.

Idle hands make for lazy afternoons.

If lucky, by about 15:00 anything that can’t be put off until tomorrow is done or in a state of ‘hurry-up-and-wait.’  The schedule until this evening is far less rigid than the first part of the day.  Since I’m also an amateur photographer—amateur being the key word here—an effort is made to get out and shoot some photos, either in support of a story idea, or to stand alone in the coffee table book everyone reading this will soon buy so that I become a millionaire and retire to a warm island where all of my readers can enjoy plenty of fishing, sailing and good rum—there is little of any in Hyderabad—at which time Answer #2, International Man of Leisure, will become the less snarky and more accurate of the three possibilities.

Late afternoon is a great time to leave the house if photos are on the agenda.  The light and shadows create some amazing visual opportunities.  In addition, many people are heading home, which is a chance to get some cool end-of-day, dirty, working people photos.  GoPro rigged to the bike helmet, a sack full of candy for potential subjects, camera stowed in my backpack, the search for cool scenes and interesting people commences.

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Girl at the local Sri Krishna Goseva Mandal (cow sanctuary). (Photo by author.)

Sometimes this endeavor is fruitful, providing many opportunities to portray the elegance, as well as the offensiveness that is south central India.  Other times it is not, ending where it started with little to show for the effort; however, the former is more common than the latter, as in the photo to the left and this photo, both taken in the late afternoon.

It will be necessary to upload and edit the photos, perhaps today, or later in the week.  It’s getting nigh 17:30-ish and there is likely more to write or edit.  Actual tasks for the next couple hours can change based on progress made toward hard and soft goals.  Despite the seemingly haphazard nature of these stories, they don’t just shoot forth from my ars like bolts of lightning—a free copy of my first novel to anyone who can name the 1995 movie from which I paraphrased that line—it takes time, effort, and planning to draft prose that not even puppy could love.  (Puppies are born with their eyes and ear canals closed, making them effectively blind and deaf…in case someone is wondering about the reference.)

Ample progress on this week’s blog post, a hard goal, means spending time on the expat book or the novel.  If not feeling particularly creative, the novel is out, which means working on a cyber certification started a couple months ago.  Idle hands are the devil’s workhorse, or workplace, or something.  The point is to keep busy living or keep busy dying—which is paraphrased from another awesome 1994 movie, should anyone want to take a stab.

A segue: Hard versus soft goals.

While we are on the subject of goals, despite the popular opinion of many a business advisor, they—‘they’ being goals—are not the end all of getting things done.  Hard goals are important.  Statistically, stories have a better chance of being read in the US if they appear on Saturday or Tuesday mornings.  Accordingly, it is with great effort that I endeavor to publish an article every Saturday evening India time, which is Saturday morning in the US.  I am so committed to this process and to my 16 subscribers, I’ve published to www.robertjrichey.com, medium.com, and pushed to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on a Saturday night from our car while on the way to an expat event, a beer next to me in the passenger seat—it’s legal to drink and ride here in India.  (In fact, today’s missive is being posted from Thailand—the sacrifices we make for our readers.)  Weekly posts are a hard goal and will not be missed, hopefully ever.

On the other hand, soft goals, while important, are more flexible and subject to other forces.  I am writing a novel and recently finished the extremely rough draft first chapter.  Subsequently, writer’s block set in.  I may sit for hours typing a bunch of crap—and by crap, I mean crappier than the already finished super rough first crappy chapter—only to delete all three sentences at the end.  It is a soft goal and may not be achieved in the short term, but will in the long term, inshallah.

Another way to look at it is thusly: Hard goals are like breathing—do them or die trying.  Soft goals are like bowel movements—it’s okay to put them off for a while, but we won’t feel good about it.

Nonfiction during the day, fiction at night.
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Author’s awesome granddaughter, Zoie, shown where fiction is not dependent on the time of day. (Photo by author.)

My spouse, the one with the job title in the family, normally returns home between 20:00 and 22:00, although sometimes it can be after midnight.  A light working dinner and calls with people in the US round out the evening.  Flexibility is the word of the day, as dinner is planned around my spouse’s expected arrival.  Something light like cheese, crackers and vegetables?  Perhaps.  Grilled salmon, vegetables and Quinoa?  Maybe.  There is no shortage of fresh (relatively speaking) ingredients in Hyderabad.

If the creativity bug bit earlier, dinner is likely a-la-carte—much to the chagrin of my patient super hero wife, it’s hard to stop writing fiction once I start.  If it didn’t bite, there will be time to write some of that truly awful fictional novel—the novel is real, as is my opinion of its quality, the genre is fiction.  Although both are creative endeavors, usually nonfiction is a daytime pursuit, while fiction, like a vampire, only comes out at night.  Some of our more curious readers might wonder why?  Good question!

During the day, most inputs are logical inputs.  Converting 1200 rupees into dollars—since my driver just finished negotiating that amount for two pashminas from our pashmina supplier; determining items for the grocery list; deciding whether its worth taking a shower in the morning when I’m just going to need one before bed to wash off the dust.  Decisions are black or white, yes or no, stink or fragrant.

In contrast, evening inputs tend to be more subjective.  What’s for dinner and will it diminish our supply of US purchased ingredients?  Do we want something spicy or just popcorn and bacon grease?—Shout out to my mother-in-law, Micki, for exposing me to the awesome application of pork fat to popped corns!  Is there a cocktail on the agenda and if so, which one and what magic must be performed with our available ingredients to bring it to life?  Decisions require introspection, thoughtful consideration, and creativity.

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Writing fiction is an evening pursuit. (Drawing by author.)

The decision to write nonfiction versus fiction is driven by nature.  Birds migrate south in the winter and north in the summer, flowers open in the morning and close in the evening, and I write nonfiction during the day and fiction at night.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there is a long history of combining alcohol with great writing, and while I may lack the latter, it is not at the expense of the former.

Hang in there, we’re almost at bed time.

Writing or editing continues until 45 minutes before bed, albeit occasionally interrupted by clean-up duties and wine service.  Very little research—most of which would need repeating the next day—is done at night.  A shower and thirty minutes of reading brings us to bed at midnight if we are lucky, a bit later if there are spousal work calls.  Then its up at 06:00 the next morning to start the day again.

There are a few things squeezed in from week to week depending on the workload:  editing a colleague’s or another’s thesis, which have hard deadlines because they actually wants to graduate; trying to find or build a sandbox for a children’s home—I’ve attempted to find treated lumber, cedar, and even large tractor tires as options, but in a place where everything is made of concrete and the biggest tire has a 24 inch inside diameter, it’s been a challenge…maybe a kiddie pool with cement blocks around the outside for sitting…hey, that’s not a half bad idea; and hanging art work for a fellow expat, to name a few.  (By the way, I spent an hour the other day trying to figure out how to get the juice out of two coconut’s!  It’s not as easy as the eight-fingered roadside vendors make it look!)

Although we spend a good portion of each day wondering what potential catastrophe we’ll need to avert next, this is basically the schedule.  Except for Thursdays.

Thursday is grocery day.

There are few words and phrases to adequately describe grocery shopping in Hyderabad, but here’s a stab: horrible; painful; excruciating; boring; frustrating; someone please, please stab me in the leg with a fork to wake me from this nightmare.  On the best of days, when everything goes exactly according the plan, those words come as close as possible to describing the act of grocery shopping.

Admittedly, we are picky about what we eat.  Similar to our US eating habits, we attempt to buy unprocessed, fresh—although this is a relative term in India—food stuffs.  In packaged goods we look for ingredients we can identify, avoiding things like refined grains, sweeteners, and hydrogenated monoglypolyneumosacurites—which is a word I just invented and expect to see on a food label in Indian in the near future.  Unfortunately, either because of demand or evil design, the world, as well as Indian producers, decided that Indians do not deserve foods without those three ingredients—well, the first two ingredients and several other preservatives, thickeners and colorings.

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Produce vendor in India. (Photo by author.)

It’s not that additive-free items don’t exist in the markets.  They do.  We are not aware of additives in eggplant, carrots, red and yellow bell peppers, corn on the cob, apples, oranges, lemons—which are actually limes—peas, eggs—unless one considers a partially incubated chicken an additive—or lamb chops.  But  packaged foods are in a category all their own.  There are countless labels which read, “no sugar added,” only to have molasses as one of the ingredients—technically, I guess the label is accurate, but seriously?—or which read, “all natural,” and include partially hydrogenated oils.  In addition—and I can’t stress this enough—the print on the labels is far smaller than in the West, probably so people don’t know what they are eating.  It is easily something like 1 point, which is like reading this paragraph from space.

The availability of many things in Hyderabad is based on seasonality and importability.  As expected, some things are simply not available during certain times of year; however, other items become unavailable for no apparent reason whatsoever.  Three weeks ago we went to a market to purchase Kalamata olives and feta cheese so my wife could make her absolutely stunning greek dip.  Although we’d purchased them here several times over the last couple months, this week—and every week since—the Kalamata olives are conspicuously missing.  Where did they go?  Did Greece run out of olives to export to India?

Which brings me to Thursday grocery shopping…there is absolutely no such thing as a quick trip to the market.  Traffic and availability conspire to turn every trip for groceries into a three to four hour monumental test of one’s patience, perseverance, and finally, when something just can’t be found, acceptance.  Yes, there are online options, but that doesn’t make items available.  Only the relentless shopper finds (most) of their ingredients.

The process usually starts with a trip to a store 45 minutes away where we are likely to find most of our staples in one place: yogurt—low fat and greek; vegetables; sparkling water—the perfect addition to any meal because it induces that incredible sense of relief known as the burp, plus it is an excellent calorie-free addition to most cocktails; chips—where the only three ingredients are corn, oil and salt; eggs—especially ones that do not contain partially incubated chickens; and crackers without refined grains.

Our staples in hand, or not if they were out of stock, we head to our next stop for cheese, or lettuce, or some type of imported meat or ground chicken if we’ve decided to order it this week.  If not, its another 25-45 minute drive to another store to look for whatever was unobtainable during the initial stop—the Kalamata olives, for example.

During the next stop we find the Kalamata olives and buy all four remaining jars.  In India, when you find something you like, you buy it all—I bought all twelve remaining bottles of Perrier at the last stop and don’t feel at all bad for the next customer, mostly because I believe this is the reason we couldn’t find Kalamata olives or our favorite corn chips at the first store.

Presumably we’ve found almost everything we need, but sometimes we just come up empty handed.  We might climb back into the car for another 30-45 minute drive to get beer, if—and this is a really big ‘if’—we can find some that is not Kingfisher or Carlsberg.  Then, since we’re out anyway, perhaps we’ll look for the elusive camel statuette’s my wife wants for the front porch.

The entire effort from beginning to end can easily last 3-4 hours, which is why on Thursdays both cocktail hour and fiction start a bit earlier than usual.

Thank goodness the day is over.

You made it!  Congratulations!  That’s my day in the largest, most convoluted nutshell anyone’s seen since Attack of the Giant Squirrels.  Now, when someone asks, “What do you do?”, they’ll receive a card and a link to these two missives.  If they are truly interested, they’ll read them.  If not, then perhaps they will only read up until Answer #1.

If you’re reading this at the correct time—just before bed—you should be sleepy now.


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All photos and drawings are those of the author.  Copyright can be found here.

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