Mumbai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 03/12/19

Personal Experiences from Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India 03/12/19


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

Third posting abroad, after Mexico City and South Africa.

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2. How long have you lived here?

Three years.

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

US Consulate.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Nearly all housing in Mumbai is in high-rise buildings. Many buildings feel sort of dingy, a product of years of grime and tropic weather, coupled with minimal maintenance. US government housing is spread throughout Mumbai. Our commute is 15 minutes in the morning but can be an hour returning home late evening. Some new housing is closer to the US Consulate, a short walk away but in a less interesting area, dominated by new construction. Apartments are small by US standards; don't count on much storage space. Be aware that anything you store outside on your high-rise patio will be rapidly covered with mildew, grime, or rust.

Traffic in Mumbai is often very bad. From where we live in Bandra/Khar, it usually takes 60-90 minutes to South Bombay. It is better on Sundays or early in the morning.

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

Most shopping is at small markets, or on the street for produce. Most of it is very inexpensive. There are a few high-end grocery stores with a decent selection of imported Euro / American groceries, at 2-3x the price back home (Nature's Basket; Foodhall). Wine and liquor are expensive (several times the US price).

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

Nothing. Storage is tight in Mumbai apartments, and everything is available here.

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

Mumbai is a food paradise. Thousands of restaurants, and most are inexpensive. You can dine out, or the vast majority will deliver for free via Zomato or Scootsy. They include every type of Indian, plus Chinese, Italian, continental, Thai, Burmese, German, Spanish, and on and on. You will never get tired of the variety of food here. Although there is plenty of meat available, there is no beef allowed in most of India. Occasionally you will see 'beef' on a menu, which usually means water buffalo. Even at the most hard-core meat restaurants in town, at least half the menu will be vegetarian.

There are Indian street food vendors dotting nearly every road. They are tasty and inexpensive, but not always hygienic. With time you will get a sense for how to judge their cleanliness. The five-star hotels have have incredible weekend buffets for around $30. Some of them have 100+ dishes from around the world, including some of the most beautiful and most varied buffet food you will have anywhere.

Fast food: There exist a few standard chains (McDonald's, KFC, Dominos, etc). They're interesting because the menu is nothing like the US version. But the food from most local places is better and cheaper. Most informal restaurants don't serve alcohol. At the ones that do, you might pay $30 for a cheap bottle of Indian wine. The bar scene here is not very big.

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

Some ants and cockroaches in the flats. There are some mosquitoes outside, which can carry malaria and dengue in India. Malaria is rare in Mumbai, but dengue is common and can be very serious.

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Daily Life:

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

Pouch mail through the consulate takes about ten days from the US.

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

We have a housekeeper/cook, a nanny, and a driver. They are all terrific, and speak English well. We pay each around US$300/mo for 40 hours/week.

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

There is a Gold's Gym in Bandra. Many residential buildings have small gyms.

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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?

It's largely a cash society. Many stores will have credit card machines, but a lot of them will work only with Indian credit cards. Larger stores, hotels, etc. will take western credit cards fine. ATMs will usually work with western cards but it's hit or miss. Frequently they will be broken or out of cash.

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

There are a lot of Catholic churches with English services.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You can get by just fine with English. Most people in shops, etc. have enough English to communicate with you; random people on the street often will not. I really regret not knowing more Hindi. It would be great to have across India. I was unable to find a good teacher; there are plenty of language schools to learn English, but not Hindi!

Marathi is the 'local' language of Mumbai, but Hindi is the most useful pan-India language to learn. (Although in the south, Tamil is sometimes more common than Hindi.)

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

Sidewalks are rarely intact. There are a lot of old buildings that are completely inaccessible. There are many disabled people in India, but they do not have universal access to basic things like public transportation, housing, etc.

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

Taxis are usually safe and drivers usually honest. Uber is common, as is its Indian competitor, Ola. Rickshaws ('autos' in the local vernacular) are safe and omnipresent in northern Mumbai, but are not allowed in the south. A lot of taxis don't have seatbelts, and rickshaws never do.

An underground metro is just starting to be built, and might be ready by 2025. If it actually opens, it will revolutionize transportation in the city, and serve a many useful areas. A monorail was built several years ago, but isn't open and doesn't serve the core city.

Mumbai's famous train system is a marvel of efficiency. If it goes where you want (most routes run N-S), it is almost always faster than driving through traffic. If you're in first class (monthly pass $8) and travel during off-peak hours, it can be great. I ride the train every single day and love it, but keep in mind that like the rest of Mumbai, it is dirty, crowded, and not very user-friendly.

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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?

The roads have a lot of potholes and other hazards, but a 4WD is not really necessary. 95% of our driving has been in the city. For trips across India the roads are very slow, and we end up flying.
Any car you get here will end up being pockmarked with scrapes and impacts. Don't buy something and expect to keep it in pristine shape. Most expats (and many well-off Indians) employ drivers, which makes navigating and parking in the city far easier.

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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?

We pay US$100/month for service which is fast (8 Mbps), but unreliable. For less money, you can get extremely slow, unreliable DSL from the local MTNL phone company.

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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?

Several carriers, and they all work ok. US$10/month will get you a lot of usage.

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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?

We brought in two cats. No quarantine, but the before-arrival paperwork took months. It wasn't difficult, just slow with a lot of hoops jump through. We hired an Indian 'pet expediting' company before we arrived to help with the local paperwork; standing in line to file certificates and get forms stamped, etc. Leaving the country required less paperwork. Vets are cheap and competent. Welcome to the land of US$5 x-rays and $1 shots!

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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?

Difficult, but some people have done it. I taught a university class which was a terrific experience, but the pay was about 1/20th of what it would have been in the developed world. There is a diplomatic bi-lateral work agreement between India and the US.

There are several good co-working sites at which some expats have offices, including mine in a beautiful old British building in the heart of downtown South Bombay.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are many NGOs here. Tons of opportunities.

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

Typically formal with long pants. Despite the heat, no one wears shorts. Many Indians wear kurtas and saris formally, which can be cooler.

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Health & Safety:

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

As a man, I feel safe walking around anywhere in Mumbai, at any time of day. Because of the density of people, Mumbai feels much safer to me than Delhi, and crime statistics are consistent with this. Incidence of theft, pick-pocketing, and break-ins are very rare. The worst thing I experience is an occasional taxi driver who claims to have a broken meter.

India definitely seems less safe for women. I've heard of a number of incidents within the community of groping, exposure, harassment, etc., in the community, including some violent attacks. Some women have been crudely harassed by taxi drivers (including Uber).

While things are changing, India has very old-fashioned gender roles. Walking around the streets downtown during the day, you can sometimes see 100 men for every woman on the street. It is common that Indian women stay at home. In universities the gender balance is much closer to 50-50, but change takes a long time -- this is a huge and slow-moving country.

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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?

Besides falling into an open manhole cover or getting hit by a rickshaw, the biggest medical threats are respiratory issues, dengue, and the occasional food poisoning if you eat street food. Some people have problems with the air quality, which is very bad especially in winter.

The private hospitals and private doctors are good, not up to US levels, but fine for most care. Appointments are easy to get. Costs are usually very low, maybe about 1/10th of US cost for things like MRIs, dental care, LASIK, etc. Some of the doctors are very good, especially those who have studied in the US or Europe.

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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?

Mumbai is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Air quality is often very bad, especially in the winter when there is more burning for heat, and no rain to keep the dust down. In the summer it is sometimes OK, and during the monsoons it's usually pretty good.

That being said, we were so grateful to be in Mumbai and not Delhi. Delhi's air is often 2x worse than Mumbai's. It is the only city in India that I'd not move to.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

If you have any respiratory issues, India is probably not the country for you. It's not just car pollution, but everything: dust, smoke, incense, fish guts... a constant onslaught to your body.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Mumbai is an onslaught. It is never, ever peaceful. If you want calm quiet, don't come to India.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It's 90 degrees and humid, every day. A little cooler in winter (it can be very pleasant for a few months, where it will sometimes get as cool as 70 at night), and a little warmer in the spring. The monsoon runs from June-September, during which it will often rain hard for a few hours a day.

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Schools & Children:

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

ASB (American School of Bombay) is an incredible school. It is up there with the best in the world. The teachers are fantastic and the facilities are amazing. Extracurricular activities: robotics, swimming, climbing, model UN, drama, programming, photography, and on and on... every day, including through the breaks, and on many weekends. The school has been a huge high point of our stay here and it will be hard to leave.

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

No firsthand experience with special needs. The school has been good with individual attention and the classes are typically small (e.g., kindergarten is 12 per class, with one teacher and one assistant).

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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?

There is a decent Montessori school (TMSI) which is good for kids 1-3 or 4, at a cost that is low by US standards. ASB also offers preschool for 3+4 years olds. It is fantastic but not cheap ($15K/yr).

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

ASB has many, many sports programs: swimming, track, soccer, etc. Cricket is played everywhere in the street.

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Expat Life:

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

There are a lot of expats here. Many work in banking, construction, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, etc. in addition to government.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There are a lot of house parties, and very little outdoors!

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

It can be harder for families because of the lack of easy outdoor activities. Parks, hiking, clean beaches, trees to climb, grass to play tag in...forget about these. There is a lot going on in the city, but your activities will gravitate to the metropolitan rather than the pastoral. And getting around the city can take a long time. Having a driver makes the logistics of kids' playdates on the other side of the city much easier.

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

India is still a conservative society, but Mumbai is the most progressive place to be in India.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

I found everyone to be extremely welcoming, and I visited many at their homes. Even walking down the street for festivals, I was often invited in. Mumbai is so dense, that everyone lives close together, and there are constant social interactions.

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

Depending on the political party in power, the country itself can take a hard pro-Hindi stance. However, in the streets in Mumbai, you have a lot of people from many religions (Hindi, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh), all going about their ways, right next to each other, every day. From our deck, we hear Muslim prayers at the same time as music for Hindu festivals is going on. There is a lot of religious diversity.

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

India is a huge country, with so much to see and explore. Deserts and palaces in Rajasthan. Wildlife and salt flats in Gujarat. Peaceful and green houseboats in Kerala. The mountain and tea plantations of Darjeeling. Safaris with tigers and rhinos in Assam. Beaches in Goa. A meteor impact crater near ancient cave paintings in Aurangabad. The festivals and seafood of Kolkata. The history and density of central Delhi. The lake city in Udaipur. Mountain retreats in the Himalaya. There are dozens and dozens of different trips to take to different regions in India, each with their own food, music, colorful rickshaws, animals, festivals, and on and on.

And don't forget about the surrounding region as well. Nepal, Bhutan, Bangkok, Dubai, or Hong Kong are four to five hours away via direct flights. Mumbai is a great base from which to explore a lot of Asia.

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

A huge highlight here are the omnipresent festivals, which blocks the streets often for hours or days. Ganpati (for the elephant god Ganesh) in September is the largest one in Mumbai. Holi, Diwali, Eid, Dasera, Navatri are also big. In much of the city there are huge weddings every weekend in the spring.

Mumbai is not very tourist-friendly, and many of its interesting sites are hidden and you won't see them until you're right there. On our list are Banganga Tank (an old 'lake' surrounded by temples), the Bombay Paranjpole (a very dense urban dairy with hundreds of beautiful cows in a small courtyard surrounded by hi-rises). Juhu Beach is not very clean but always fascinating. Sanjay Gandhi National Park has some good hiking trails if you book ahead of time, and go during the week. The Fort neighborhood in South Bombay has tens of km of dense winding streets, built by the British and containing much of Mumbai's history. On Elephanta island, There are several sets of old Buddhist caves which are overrun with people, but still very neat. Several companies run walking tours through the dozens and dozens of neighborhoods, including the dense and fascinating slums, where about half of Mumbai lives. There are some nice hiking trails in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Most of them require you to make a reservation with the park's Nature Center, which is easy but very few people do. It's a great way to get away from Mumbai's crowds for a few hours, and can be really beautiful during monsoon.

Beyond Mumbai, you can get to most of the rest of India within two to three hours on inexpensive flights. Camels and palaces in the deserts of Rajasthan. Lions, birding, and salt flats in Gujarat. Beaches in Goa and further south. Rhinos and tigers in Assam. Trekking near Darjeeling. Festivals in Kolkata. And beyond that, India is a great base from which to explore Asia: Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Jordan, and Dubai are within four to six hours.

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

Ganesh idols. Saaris and kurtas and other beautiful clothing made here. Rugs, handicrafts, jewelry, and furniture, mostly from Rajasthan but available in Mumbai. Antique-looking astrolabes, telescopes, chess sets, and Bollywood posters.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

The lack of outdoor parks, and the difficulty of getting around, wear on people. However, the country of India has so much to offer, as long as you leave Mumbai from time to time.

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

Yes! Bombay is a city like no other in the world, but many people would not come back.

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

Bicycles, skateboards, warm jackets, surfboards, and skis.

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4. But don't forget your:

Calmness in the face of chaos.

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

Slumdog Millionaire. Lion (set in Kolkata, but it still paints an accurate picture).

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Mumbai tends to be very polarizing. Some people love it, and others can't wait to leave. Mumbai is an all-encompassing and overwhelming onslaught of a city. Merely walking around, you are flooded with a sensory overload of spices, smoke, drums and bells, screeching rickshaws, grime, glamorous people, piles of cow dung, and huge under-construction skyscrapers, with dozens of vendors sleeping on the sidewalks in front of them at night. There is everything here: Indian festivals. Bollywood movies. Amazing food. People from all over. Old beautiful architecture. Huge slums. Mumbai is a built city, with very little in the way of parks, natures, or green areas. India is inexpensive, and Mumbai is a terrific base from which to explore the country.

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