Mumbai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 11/08/14
Personal Experiences from Mumbai, India
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
We lived in Moscow previously.
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?
U.S. and it's a loooong way away. From DC, you can usually get here with one plane change but generally count on two or more stops. Figure at least 24 hours and a ton of time zones.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We're all in apartments. Usually 4 bedroom, all have air-conditioning. Some have green spaces, pools, gyms, etc or some combination. Some have none of that. All are high-rise. The majority are a 15-20 min commute in the morning, 45-90 min in the afternoon, but there are a few in South Mumbai who have longer commutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things are fairly easy to get, especially if you're not brand-conscious. There are tiny grocery stores and big supermarkets, and of course the supermarkets (Reliance Mart, for instance) are more expensive. We order a lot of non-liquid things through Amazon because it's cheaper when we want American stuff, like Cheerios.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I ship stuff through Amazon all the time, but if you don't have access to that, I'd say ship peanut butter, mayonnaise, all personal hygiene things like toothpaste, shampoo, etc, that sort of thing. Definitely breakfast cereal and cleaning supplies. Stuff is available here, but even if it says it's the same brand, the formulation is different. So depending on how picky you are, you might want to send a lot or just buy what they have here. Be aware, apartments may or may not have storage space - some have 'servants' quarters' that are too small to be a room, but with some bookcases, make good pantries. Some do not.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Lots of fast food, tons of restaurants. Mostly cheap. Just don't expect beef. Even McDonald's doesn't serve anything except vegetables & chicken (say good-bye to the Big Mac), and places that do have "beef" actually have water buffalo. Which is pretty tasty, except nobody here seems to know how to make a burger. Everything can be delivered -- including McDonald's, KFC, Haagen Dazs, most sit-down restaurants. There are a few types of cuisines you can't get (or at least I haven't found) but most things are here, even if they're not exactly what you're used to.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes - both dengue-carrying and malaria-carrying. Dengue cannot be treated or vaccinated against, you just have to be careful not to be bitten. You can take malaria prophylaxis and malaria is treatable but it's best just not to get bitten. It's a real concern, I know people who have been sick with each. We use lots of repellent and stay inside at dusk and dawn for the most part. Otherwise, there are no other real problematic bugs that we've encountered.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Widely available, very inexpensive. Very. We have a housekeeper/cook for 25-30 hours per week and we pay around US$200/month. Our driver works six days a week and we pay him around US$300-$400 depending on how much overtime we need in a month. He also does a lot of our shopping and errands. Totally worth it, and those are good incomes for them according to local standards. Many other people also have nannies. Oh, and we have a gardener who takes care of all our balcony plants. We know it sounds silly, but it's worth US$30 a month to have him come 3x a week and do all the watering and replanting and general care.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
My work has a small gym and a lot of apartments have their own. There are tons of yoga classes available including private teachers who will come to your home. Additionally, there are places like Gold's Gym but I've heard they are more fashion shows than workout facilities.
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?
Most bigger places take credit cards and we haven't had any trouble. I've never tried to use an ATM here and would hesitate. I cash checks at the bank at work to get cash for walking around money, shopping in markets, etc and to pay our staff.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
India is technically an English-speaking country. But only technically. Many people only speak Marathi or Marathi and Hindi, including cab and tuk tuk drivers. People in larger stores or shops in areas with lots of ex-pats will be more likely to speak English. Signs and menus are widely available in English, though. If you have the opportunity, learn some Hindi, it'll make life easier. Private lessons are inexpensive and easily set-up, if you want to do it once you're here.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, NOTHING is set up for the disabled. It's difficult enough to walk on the streets without a disability.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are but don't expect them to know where anything is or speak English. There are also very very cheap auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) which are all over the place but cannot go across the bridge to South Mumbai. Again, you have to know where you're going and be able to explain it in Hindi. It's also possible to rent a car & driver, by going online (I've used www.carjee.com, myself.) I spent about US$30 for an 8-hour day recently when my regular driver was sick, for a car & driver (rather than letting a stranger take my car.)
We're not banned from using buses and trains but they are crowded and not very safe, especially for women. I haven't done it, and don't plan to. They're cheap, though.
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?
All vehicles must be right-hand drive (opposite of U.S.) and there are a lot of restrictions. I didn't even try, I just bought my car from the guy I replaced, and hired his driver for good measure. We haven't had much trouble getting parts but my car is old & we don't care if they are used/refurbished. Brand-new parts are going to be fairly expensive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We have sort of medium-speed and pay around US$30/month. It's ok.
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?
No. It was easy to bring our cats. We have a 3rd or 4th year vet student who comes to cat-sit for us when we travel, because one of our cats gets insulin. Most people just have their housekeeper take care of their animals when they travel, unless it's an extended absence. Then people ask a friend.
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.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There should be a lot, but for some reason there seem to be problems getting it arranged. There's Habitat for Humanity and a few others I've heard of, and my family and I volunteered for a kids' reading program once.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Indian clothes are popular with even Western women on the weekends. At work, women wear dresses, skirts & blouses, pants with tops, etc. Suits are uncommon. Men wear shirts & ties, but jackets not as much. Out in the street, Western men typically dress the same as for hot weather in the U.S. although shorts are somewhat unusual. Women shouldn't wear anything too revealing, if they don't want stares, catcalls, etc.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pickpockets, gropers of women, political rallies and demonstrations are the most common. There have also been some high-profile (and brutal) rapes.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Some people come to India for medical tourism, but if anyone in my agency needs advanced care, they are medevac'd. Lots of basic stuff is easily available, especially dental care. Orthodontics can be found at a fraction of U.S. prices, done by doctors trained in the U.S. Lots of people get braces here, or do laser hair removal.
There are definitely health concerns -- typhoid is common, dengue, malaria, hepatitis (esp Type A, which is the one you get from eating contaminated food), 'Delhi belly', rabies is possible, TB is endemic, other things I'm not thinking of right now. However, there are vaccines for a lot of this, and other things can be avoided with common sense and a little forethought. Don't eat street food, don't drink tap water, keep yourself from getting mosquito bites as much as possible, don't pet stray animals, etc. Most people don't end up with anything worse than Delhi belly once in a while.
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?
Horrible. Especially in "winter" when people burn fires on the street to keep warm. Some days you can't see South Bombay across the water from the Sealink Bridge even though it's only a mile or two. Strong smells abound - fish, filth, other incomprehensible things.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot, hot, sometimes slightly less hot, then hot again. Oh, and monsoon. When it rains more or less continually for a couple of months. But it's still hot. If you prefer seasons, prepare yourself. I was told once that OF COURSE Mumbai has seasons -- there's summer, winter, monsoon, and mango! But summer, monsoon, and mango only vary by whether or not it's raining and the availability of mangos. It's still hot and humid. Winter is very imaginary -- lows around 70F, only early in the morning, and people are all bundled up and huddling over fires as if hypothermia is a real concern. They stare at us in shock in our light summery clothes.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We have a middle-schooler in the American School of Bombay, which is located in the same business park as the U.S. Consulate and a lot of businesses. The school is very good in our experience. The teachers and staff really care and the educational level is high. There are sports and after-school activities and the school has a nice pool. They just started pairing with the CTY program at Johns Hopkins to offer some online courses for gifted kids (testing can be arranged through the school but if your child is already enrolled, they accept that & don't make them retest.)
They have really nice intersession programs during the long breaks, including summer, fall, and winter breaks at no extra charge. Buses and snacks are provided. They even let my daughter come to the summer program before she had officially started at the school (we arrived in May, so she had already been home bored for a few weeks, and so we were grateful she could be included).
Your child(ren) will need to have a laptop computer with specific software on it, which they use for all school work both in the classroom and at home. The specs are on the school's webpage.
The school year follows the U.S. model for the most part except that the summer break is short. School lets out mid-June and is back in session mid-August, but there are several shorter breaks during the school year, so the number of days in class is still the same. This is considerably different from the Indian school year, by the way.
Some people have their kids in the German school down south but I don't know a lot about it. They seem happy with it, though. And I know at least one person with a smaller child who was enrolled in a local kindergarten and loved it.
2. 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?
Preschool is offered at the American School of Bombay but it's extremely expensive (crazily so --around US$25,000 per year, and yes that's the right number of zeros). The German school is cheaper, but still costs a lot, several thousand dollars. (My agency does not pay for preschool, only kindergarten onward.) There are also local options. Most people with babies and really small kids have nannies/housekeepers (or both).
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Definitely through the American school but otherwise I don't know. Probably, though.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are a lot of foreigners here. Morale varies a lot - some people hate it, some people love it, sometimes that changes from day to day for the same person.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's good for families and couples, for sure. For singles, I think it's harder for women than for men.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Homosexuality is illegal in India, and it's possible to have a problem. That said, I know several gay men, and none of them has had any serious issues that I know of. I'm pretty sure they have to be circumspect in public, though, so I'm sure they sacrifice some openness for safety/passing unnoticed.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling to the Taj Mahal, which is not over-rated, no matter what you are thinking. Other trips have included Jaipur, New Delhi, and Goa. Within Mumbai, some highlights have been shopping for rugs, clothes, and jewelry, and the fact that pretty much everything can be delivered to your doorstep. There is always something to do or see, and you're always noticing something right around the corner that you've never noticed before despite going down the same street dozens of times.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are tons of things to do. If you're bored, you're not trying.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Indian culture is very rich and varied. Every day there is something amazing to see. Shopping is fantastic, people are friendly, traveling around the country is inexpensive and exciting.
7. Can you save money?
Yes, if you don't spend it all on travel and getting clothes made and buying rugs and jewelry!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That it's not as intimidating as it seems from a distance. We were nervous, and thought it was going to be completely overwhelming but we've adapted and really like it here now.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. I'm not sure we'd come back but we're very glad we were here. It's a great opportunity to live in one of the most interesting places in the world, somewhere a lot of Americans will never see. We're going to take away a lot of good memories.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter coat! Although maybe not, because you might want to take a trip somewhere cold to get away from the sameness of the weather here. But you won't need it in Mumbai. Also leave behind your need for efficiency and your impatience.
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This is a true story of families in one of Mumbai's large slums, written by an investigative journalist who 'embedded' herself there for several years.
A Son of the Circus (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
. I read this book long before I ever thought I'd even visit India, let alone live here. I re-read it after we'd been here six months or so, and it was sort of amazing what things were now familiar to me. It's just a great novel, too.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Despite the difficulties living here, and the things I listed that aren't so nice (malaria, anyone?) this has been a great 18 months so far, and we're glad we have a few months to go. We'll always look back on India fondly, and there are days when I genuinely love it here & can't believe my good fortune to experience it.