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Mumbai: one year in

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

It’s our one year anniversary living in Mumbai. The city really grew on me. There’s so much to do here, time flies! We decided early on that we’ll stay for a third year. After so many tours, two years really doesn’t feel like it’s enough to settle in, enjoy all the opportunities and new friendships, experience the culture, and travel the region. I think three years will be our minimum from now on, which is finally possible because we’re both mid-level officers now!

One thing I noticed recently is that it took time getting plugged in with the local art scene. At first, we were so busy going to all the main attractions that we missed a lot of the types of cultural events we love most. Now I know where to find tickets and announcements for theater, comedy, and music festivals. Plus we have a circle of friends to go out with, and plenty of ideas for date night. We’ve got a lot of fun stuff coming up, from Hindu festival season to performances by Trevor Noah and 50 Cent, to Lollapalooza, the Mamma Mia musical and local theater. Theater and music make me feel happy, and human. It beats tourists traps and mindless shopping every time.

Food wise, I’ve adjusted to Indian food so well that I don’t know if I can ever do without it again! My biggest craving these days is "ricedal" (rice and dal)—the ultimate Indian staple. I can eat Indian dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I think Indian food is delicious in general, but in Mumbai they take it to the next level with all of the refined “street food” and fusion. I can’t quite get used to the level of spice, however, and I’m still weary of food borne illness, so I continue to proceed with caution.

Having lived in Mumbai, or anywhere, for a year has the big advantage of knowing what to expect to happen when, and what stuff is like. The first year I had no clue about festivals or monsoon rains. Now I have my outfits ready. I didn’t know what the tourist season was or how to travel. Now I want to see so much I have to make hard decisions. The kids have also settled. Before, they were often bored, but now they’re enrolled in great soccer and gymnastics clubs, and learn keyboard from a cool teacher who comes to our house.

Running is my preferred physical exercise to stay sane—but not on treadmills. It wasn’t easy to figure out how to run around Mumbai, which is always hot and has the craziest traffic I ever saw, but I found my way: there are almost weekly races on Sundays, often nearby, which are affordable and fun. I realized early mornings are great for running where I live and there are even some bike paths that are ideal for this purpose (though not so much for biking). And I found a local Hash chapter!

I struggle with orientation—a defect I always felt might lead to my demise one day—so it took time, but after a year I more or less understand where I am in the city. The leafy streets of Bandra full of hidden, awesome restaurants; the semi-industrial area of lower Parel for design food and furniture.; Colaba in south Mumbai for an “authentic” Mumbai experience with historic landmarks and a hip art scene. And there are many more areas I vaguely know—Mumbai is huge.

It’s true that it can feel impossible to move around town sometimes. I pity colleagues who don’t live near the consulate like me. Their commute is horrible. Rush hour is always intense, six days a week. Traffic during monsoons and festivals is even worse. And I can also feel trapped inside sometimes because of the air pollution, although that ebs and flows.

But, when I don't want to brave the traffic or the weather I don't have to leave my house. By now I know where to get everything and how to order it online—usually by sending a simple Whatsapp message. There's a deli that delivers European cheese, a craft beer delivery guy, a bakery that sells fresh sourdough bread, a tailor that will swing by after each alteration, a dry cleaning guy, a plant guy to repot the plants. Starbucks, McDonalds, the best sushi restaurant in town... they all do instant delivery. Last week a vegetable guy showed up at my door unexpectedly—our helper had sent him over when she suddenly realized we were out of lemons (after she'd made us some excellent fresh lime sodas...)

Has India changed us? It has hugely enriched our perspective and cultural knowledge. India is a great place to learn about the past and the future of the world. But it's also spoiled us. Once you let go of the idea that traveling here should resemble traveling in the US or Europe, you start to understand the vast possibilities India offers. There are exotic beaches, deserts, and high mountains. It's safe and affordable, and there's incrdible diversity. And if you like luxury: there's no other place in the world I know with so many service people at your beck and call. Just the other day we rented an Airbnb that was a 7-bedroom villa with a large heated pool, a movie theater, a chef, and all-day housekeeping. For the price of a damp hotel room in Amsterdam. When I told a colleague about my great weekend, he told me he'd spent his weekend in the beautiful backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat he'd rented that also came fully staffed…

India is its own universe, housing a massive chunk of the world population, that feels both exotic and familiar. It’s not neat or tidy, but it’s welcoming and fun. I met more friendly people here than anywhere else (partially because there are so many people). The big cherry on top is the big American community, which makes it easy to create a wonderful social life. It makes big posts like this stand out for me. It feels like having the best of both worlds.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that my husband and I both got important promotions here. It feels like a major reward after everything we’ve invested in the Foreign Service. We’ve always been openminded, worked as hard as we could, and tried to leave a place better than how we found it. For us this career is not about becoming ambassador, but about making the best of the opportunities we’re given.

As I’m writing this I’m constantly distracted by really cool Bollywood videos playing on TV and it makes me laugh. One song reminds me of the Punjabi dance I’m currently practicing with some colleagues to perform at our yearly local staff appreciation event, which is like a big talent show. The world is so interesting.


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