Mumbai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 05/08/13

Personal Experiences from Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India 05/08/13


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

I have lived in Southeast Asia for 12 years total.

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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?

I am from the United States. It's a 21+ hour journey; I've connected through Munich and Brussels.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Arrived in August 2011 and will be leaving in June 2013.

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


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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Most expats live in apartments. I have a 2-bedroom flat in Bandra, which I don't think I'd be able to afford on my own (my employer pays the rent) because rental prices are outrageous in Mumbai. It's nice enough, has two tiny bathrooms and a small kitchen, but having come from Bangkok where I was able to afford a spacious flat with large balconies (and for a fraction of the price), I was quite disappointed to arrive at my dark, dingy apartment with no balconies and bars on the windows. Still, considering that 75% of Indians live on less than $2/day, and many are homeless, I know I am extremely fortunate to have so much space, security, and comfort; so I try to maintain a positive attitude. I live on a busy street, so it's LOUD (Indians honk constantly and for no obvious reason--and they do it into the wee hours). If possible, try to find a place that's on a smaller street with less traffic, or higher up.

It takes me 15 mins to get to work in the morning and 30-45 mins to get home due to traffic. Unless it's very early in the morning or in the middle of the night, traffic is terrible. The airport is exactly 8 miles from my house and takes 15 mins to get to at 6am. But at any other time, it can take an hour. The Sea-Link makes travel between the suburbs and South Mumbai much easier, but you can still expect to spend lots of time sitting in traffic.

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

Most things are available but VERY expensive. Not readily available are: chocolate chips, canned pumpkin, good quality broth, and vanilla extract. Canned sauces and condiments cost a fortune. Beef and other meats are available at some cold storage places. Nature's Basket sells buffalo, which is actually pretty good (tastes better than Indian beef, which I find chalky and odd), but check the dates and color of the meat. I almost picked up a package that had been packed a year and a half ago! And I wonder how many times this stuff has been thawed and refrozen.

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

More warm clothes (movie theaters, offices, and restaurants crank up the AC). Vanilla extract, canned pumpkin, chocolate chips, pepper spray (sort of kidding?), rugs, a nice sofa, furniture.

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

McDonald's, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, and other chains abound. I don't eat fast food, but I've heard it's not quite up to standard...always something that's a little off or poorly made. I enjoy California Pizza Kitchen, Sancho's Mexican restaurant, Pali Village Cafe, Indigo Deli, and Ray's pizza. Most decent restaurants, in my opinion, are way over priced for what you get. Again, this could be because I used to live in Thailand, where awesome, cheap food is ubiquitous. You can't really eat on the street here, and 6 teachers got typhoid and were out for weeks after eating at a cheap restaurant, so no thanks! There's TGI Fridays, Chili's, other big restaurant chains---some good experiences---but service is always slow, it's over-crowded, and it's often hard to get your order across and actually receive a decent meal (drinks will often arrive 20 minutes after you've already started your main course). I find it easier to just order in ( or most restaurants, like Ray's Pizza, deliver) or cook at home.

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

Ants and small roaches were a bit of a problem until I bought traps from the US. Mosquitoes are a real problem. I have never seen so many mosquitoes in my life--I'm guessing they're due to the many bodies of stagnant, swampy water in this city. There are even mosquitoes in the airport and on the plane when you depart! Malaria and Dengue are real concerns. We invested in a UV trap that keeps mozzies at a minimum in our apartment. But I still wear Picardin repellent and use a mozzie racket when needed. Close windows and bathroom and kitchen doors to keep them out. And ask your housekeeper to remember to do so.

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Daily Life:

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

I use the school's pouch. For bigger items, I use fedex. I've never had a problem having food, toiletries, books, or anything delivered, but I usually have to pay a couple thousand rupees in duty fees, so I only order when necessary. has a good selection of books and other items and deliver quickly and for free within India.

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

I have a full-time maid for $130/month. She is very sweet. She would cook if I wanted her to, but I prefer to cook myself. She goes out and buys fruit, washes and cuts it, and keeps it in the fridge for me, does all the laundry, waters the plants, etc. I love her! Her idea of "clean" isn't always the same as mine, and she often hides things away in odd places, but I tend to let these things go because I don't really feel like I NEED a maid anyway, so I'm just happy to have a wonderful helper around the house.

Be aware that in India, having a maid isn't just having someone to clean your house. You're viewed as sort of a caretaker, so don't be surprised if you are asked to lend money, offer advice, etc. Class differences are a huge deal in India. There are tacit rules and norms, and Indians have a 6th sense when it comes to determining another's or their own place in the heirarchy in any given context.

Indians are very authority driven, so you have to be very demanding and assertive. You have to literally order people around to get anything done EVEN if it's their job. You can't go by "everyone knows their job and does it well"--forget it! You will have to tell your housekeeper and driver exactly what to do and how to do it and remind them regularly. I came here with a very relaxed attitude, totally uncomfortable with ordering people around, and I paid the price: my driver was always late or didn't answer his phone, my housekeeper started coming later and leaving earlier and leaving layers of dust everywhere, etc. Get used to be being called "Sir" or "Madam" and having to play the part.

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

There's a Gold's Gym in Bandra that some people have joined and seem happy with. There are many other fitness centers, but I can't speak for their quality or price. My employer pays quite a bit towards club memberships, so some teachers, especially those with kids, join hotel clubs for gym and pool access. I used the money to buy a treadmill. The Yoga House has yoga classes for all levels---again, I am not sure how these are, but I have heard good things.

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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?

Available everywhere. India has a lot of credit-card fraud, so US Banks and card companies are quick to decline purchases and shut off your card even when shopping at reputable stores. I have to call my bank quite often to unblock my card.

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

Lots of Catholic churches in Bandra.

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

I don't have cable, but I have heard it can be had for a decent monthly rate.

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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?

Not much. It helps to know a little bit for transport. English is widely spoken, but many foreigners have difficulty with the heavy Indian accent, especially on the phone. Speaking slowly and clearly, and asking others to do so, really helps. Also note that despite the heavy accent, most middle- and upper-class Indians have been speaking English their whole lives (having attended "English medium" schools), so it can be rather insulting to say, "Wow, your English is awesome!" India has thousands of mutually unintelligible languages; English and Hindi are the official languages, but most people speak Marathi in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra. Each state has its own languages, so don't make assumptions.

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

I can't imagine someone with disabilities being able to do much in this city. There are no accommodations for wheelchairs, sidewalks are crumbling, and cars will run you over without hesitation if you don't move out of the way quickly.

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

Pretty safe and affordable, but it depends on who you're with and where you're going. I wouldn't take any transport alone at night as a woman unless it was just in an around Bandra. Trains have special female compartments. I've never taken the bus.

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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?

Traffic is crazy in India. Most people here hire drivers or taxis. I pay $600/month for a full time driver, wich is actually pretty steep here. But after getting dirty text messages from Cool Cab taxi (blue and silver cars) drivers, I decided on a more "professional" option. My driver isn't perfect (often late or sends a "sub"), but he's as good as it gets in India. If you remember that time moves slower in India, you'll be fine. If you need to leave the house at 7:30, ask your driver to come at 7 or 7:15.

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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?

I pay 11,000 rupees for a 10mpbs "24-month 260 GB" package, but it lasts half the amount of time because I download a lot of movies and shows. And it's nowhere near that fast!

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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?

Get a reliable service provider. Loop Mobile has iffy coverage. Request to be put on the "no call" list or you'll get endless junk texts and calls. Also, do NOT give your phone number out to shops and restaurants when they ask. You will regret it!

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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?

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

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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?

I don't think so. My partner was able to find some work in his field, but it's highly specialized. Still, he's doing it mainly to stay active as it really doesn't pay very much. Also, you need a work visa in order to work, and you can only get one if you have a company to sponsor you.

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

Smart casual to formal business attire. Mumbai girls don't seem to follow the conservative dress code of women in other parts of India, and you will often see shorts, mini-skirts, and tank tops, but I think it's best to keep cleavage out of sight and show as little skin as possible unless you want to attract attention. When visiting tourist sites, temples, etc., dress conservatively. Flip flops are considered "lower class" footwear and frowned upon at work unless they are glittery, in which case they are considered "sandals" and thus acceptable.

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Health & Safety:

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

I was actually pleasantly surprised by how seldom women are harassed in Mumbai compared to North India. When I first arrived, I never felt unsafe and would walk home from restaurants and bars by myself at night. But after a young female teacher was mugged at knife-point on my street, and a Spanish woman was raped in her apartment just minutes from where I live, I decided to be more cautious. Most buildings have bars on their windows for a reason.

I work near the American Consulate in a building with lots of security, so I feel safe, but Mumbai did experience a horrific terrorist attack in 2008, so we do lots of drills.

I think I feel most unsafe on the roads in India. With no traffic rules and constant overtaking, you will find yourself playing chicken with oncoming trucks more often than you want to. Drivers often remove seat-belts in the rear of the car. If you have children, especially, I would make sure these are replaced.

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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?

Don't drink the water. An article about Bandra's water supply said that the e.coli count was INFINITE. I have a wall-mounted Aqua Guard filter provided by my employer, but I only use that for cooking and washing fruits and veggies. We drink bottled water. Be careful where you eat out. Protect yourself from mosquitoes. In the monsoon, you may have to walk through puddles...wash your feet as soon as you get home.

I don't have much experience with healthcare here as I try to avoid Indian hospitals at all costs. I went to Lilavati, which is supposed to be Mumbai's most prestigious hospital, for a general check-up and was met with crowds, antiquated equipment, and very little in the way of explanation or information. It took us 4 hours to be shuttled around from room to room to be weighed, have blood drawn, blood pressure checked, etc. But I guess healthcare here IS cheap and adequate.

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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?

"Air" and "quality" are two words that have no business being together when describing Mumbai or India. If you mean "How bad are the noxious fumes and odors that pass for air?" then I'll tell you: so bad that we have seriously contemplated buying and wearing gas masks. So bad that we have seriously contemplated putting on scuba tanks and breathing through regulators. So bad that we don't often walk on the streets or take auto-rickshaws, because when we do, we spend the next day coughing, sneezing, and battling sinus headaches and congestion. The putrid smells will literally seep into your clothes and hair and stay there. When your plane lands, the fuselage will fill with a distinctly farty odor just as you pass under the layer of haze that blankets the city at all times. The weather forecast for Mumbai and other parts of India will often say "smokey" instead of cloudy or partly cloudy.

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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?

June-October is rainy season (Monsoon). November-May is bone dry. The temperature dips a bit November-February, so you may be able to make do without AC. Rainy season is VERY wet and humid. I have two Croma humidifiers (10,000 rupees each) running day and night during monsoon in order to keep molds, mildews, and fungus at bay. Otherwise, say hello to mold-coated suitcases, clothing, shoes, etc. Tip: Attach the hose at the back and run it into the bathroom drain. That way, you won't have to keep emptying the machine when it fills up.

April and May are especially hot because temperatures sore into the 90s, but there's no rain yet to cool things down.

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Schools & Children:

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

The American School of Bombay is phenomenal if you can afford it.

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

ASB tries to provide support, but they make it pretty clear that they are not staffed to handle severe special needs.

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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?

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

At our school, yes, but I'm not sure about anywhere else.

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Expat Life:

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

Lots of business and consulate expats and families. Seems pretty small, but it's hard to gauge because perhaps many live in South Mumbai and I never see them. This is a city of 20+ million, and one which is hard to get around in, so perhaps there are pockets of expats that I've yet to come across!

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2. Morale among expats:

Low to fair. Only one or two people I know LOVE their lives here. I'm generally pretty happy and can find joy in cooking, watching shows, volunteering, etc. But I don't like living in Mumbai/India and am counting down the days until I can leave! Most expats I know feel the same.

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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?

I've said quite a bit about this. Mostly eating out, work parties, some dinner parties. The Blue Frog has great live music occasionally.

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

I'm not sure it's a "good" city for anybody, really. Families tend to socialize together and have their own insular social circles, but I would be loath to raise my children in such a dirty, polluted, dangerous place where they can't play outside or be in nature. Singles who aren't into bars and clubs really struggle. There are few dating opportunities. Couples without children also struggle with relatively little to do. My partner and I have struggled to find other young couples to socialize with, but we sometimes attend or host dinner parties, go the movies, go out to dinner, or just stay home and watch TV shows. It is amazing how many seasons we've gone through in just a few months!

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

Gay singles seem to struggle, as homosexuality was only decriminalized in 2009. Homophobia is rampant. But I don't think they struggle any more than straight singles, to be honest. I know some gay couples who live together without problems.

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

African-Americans struggle with discrimination in many parts of India. Women of all ages and ethnicities attract unwelcome attention all over India, but blondes tend to suffer the most. There is a huge gender imbalance due to sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, which is not hard to see when looking around: men vastly outnumber women. Millions of men have no hope of ever finding a sexual partner, which leads to some of the highest rates of rape and sex slavery in the world. Women are often beaten by their husbands. Working with young girls in indian schools, I have heard many stories of physical and sexual abuse. Women are either hypersexual Bollywood stars or desexualized "mothers" and "sisters." Women are not respected as individuals with rights over their own bodies and their own sexuality.

I will say that for a country of 1.3 billion people, India is remarkably tolerant when it comes to religious differences. There are churches, mosques, and temples co-existing quite peacefully. There are skirmishes, but for such a huge population, it works pretty well!

And i think India IS moving in the right direction. It's not an easy place to live for a woman, but things are changing. People are outraged, and the media is focusing on violence against women more than ever before.

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

My partner and I loved the Taj Mahal. Goa was relaxing, but having lived in tropical paradise for many years, we both felt that it's only worth it if you already live in India and need a cheap(ish) getaway. We went to Kerala with high hopes, but apart from Munnar, it was unremarkable. The "Bird Sanctuary" was a perfect example of India's tendency to over promise and under deliver. Not a bird or any other living creature in sight, but we did pick up 4 big bags of trash on our 1-hour walk.

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

South Mumbai: Elephanta Island, The Gateway, tea at the Taj, shopping. Eating at Indigo Deli, Moshe's, etc.

Suburbs: shopping for fruits and veggies at Pali Naka, going to the mall (I know, I know, but it can be a relief not to have to jostle for space while shopping), Sunday brunch, sunset at Jogger's park, The farmers' market.

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

Chor bazaar (Thief's Market) has cool antiques and knick-knacks. I love the paper products at Chimanlal's. Fabindia, The Bombay Store, and Contemporary Arts and Crafts have traditional and modern Indian furnishings, textiles, decorative items, toiletries, and edibles.

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

Disclaimer: I try to stay positive and grateful, but as I am leaving and do feel that brutal honesty is a gift to those who visit this site and want to understand what it's like to live in a place by reading multiple perspectives, I am going to lay it all on the table! It may sound bitter and negative at times, but I just want to share the truth so that others who are contemplating moving to Mumbai/India fully know what they're getting into.

In my opinion, there isn't a lot that's "special" about living in Mumbai/India that can't be had elsewhere for a better price, higher quality, and generally less stress and hassle. The only thing that was truly "worth it" was the Taj Mahal. I think if you're coming as tourist, it can be exciting to experience the sights, sounds, and colors of India, but to live here and have to deal with it all on a daily basis is another story.

I used to feel that there was no such thing as pointless travel; there were always unique experiences to be had and lessons to be learned. Then I moved to India and realized that life is too damn short!

Some enjoy the festivals, Indian food, and Bollywood obsession--though for me the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

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11. Can you save money?

Hmmm. Good question! I *should* have been able to save money because I have no children or debt. But I spent a fortune on travel last year. I visited friends out of the country at every opportunity (it's how I dealt with culture shock). Also, you have to a pay a premium for "average" in India. Wealthy Indians are willing to pay a small fortune for decent food and a little peace and quiet and green space, so anything that isn't crowded and dirty will cost you.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes. I am glad I did this once because it has taught me a lot about myself, made me more appreciative of what I have--including my security and safety as a woman--and helped me understand what I truly want in life.

But would I do it again? No way! I love my job here, but it's not worth it. India forces you to become someone your're not in order to survive here. I came here thinking I could be open and friendly with everyone, regardless of gender or social class, but I quickly learned why Indians with money and education seem so cold and dismissive towards those who have less. If you smile at a man, he'll take it the wrong way and think you're flirting. If you make friends with the guards, it won't be long before they're sending you inappropriate texts. If you give money to a little girl on the street, you'll be mobbed by a gang of kids who won't hesitate to push you and try to knock money out of your hands. So you do the only thing you can do, what you vowed never to do, you roll up your windows, put on your sunglasses, stop smiling, and read your book in stony silence. I don't want to live like that! My quality of life means too much to me, which is why I'm moving on to a saner place even though I won't be making quite as much money as I do here.

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

Expectations. Generally, the lower your expectations for EVERYTHING in India, the happier you will be. You also won't need your bicycle--unless you're insane! Forget any outdoor/sports equipment, as you won't really have anywhere to use it.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sense of humor, patience, grace. I would bring a pollution mask of sorts, although I don't see anyone using one. Bring lots of shoes, as you may not be able to find your size, and shoes get damaged quickly in the humidity/rain. Bring a rain-coat, umbrellas, good quality sunscreen (expensive here), repellent, first-aid kit, any make-up or toiletries you love (expensive here), stick deodorant, Crest toothpaste, Crayola markers if you have kids or are a teacher, good quality baking and cooking equipment (expensive here), and good quality sheets and towels (expensive here).

Oh, I didn't have a sofa for the first 6 months I lived here because I couldn't find one that was both affordable AND not hard as a rock. I finally found someone (Mr. Kouch) who made me a perfectly soft, L-shaped sofa, but it cost me $800. Fabindia sells nice furniture, but it's expensive and not always very well made. Also--RUGS! Unless you want to spend a ton on fancy Persian carpets, bring your own rugs. It's hard to find anything "middle of the road" here. It's either VERY expensive boutique-y stuff or shoddy, cheap stuff from Big Bazaar. There's no Target or Bed, Bath, and Beyond where you can pick up an average bookshelf or decent area rug for a good price.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003)
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (2004)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (2012)
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
Haroun and a Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (1990)
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl
A blog called Mumbai Boss for lots of things to do in and around Mumbai. Restaurant review, etc.

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