Cultural overview for surviving as an expat in Delhi: from markets and shopping to housing and neighborhoods; how to find domestic staff or join clubs; deal with traffic or hook up your mobile phone/cable/internet...wise advise from experienced expert expat Nicola Vickers.
“Shoot me if I ever put on a sari for the school run,” I mentioned to my husband after my first week in Delhi. It struck me that the expats we met had either gone native and embraced the whole India thing or had bubble wrapped their life in Wimbledon along with the packing cases and transferred it to Delhi. I felt there must be a happy medium somewhere.
Six months later as good weather saw our first guests arrive, I was horribly aware that I had quietly slipped into the bubble category. I was not at all ready to show my guests around the real Delhi. Apart from the markets, I had only been to very specific, mostly expatriate pockets of the city in a sort of diplomatic vacuum. I was embarrassed that my first trip to Old Delhi was as tourist not tour guide.
The day we chose was Eid Al-Addha so Old Delhi was enjoying a holiday. There was, if possible, more than your average crush of humanity around the impressive mosque Jama Masjid. Inside the mosque, clutching our shoes in an un-celebrity like way, we were tailed by the usual good-natured pack of 20 people of all ages, seemingly at a loose end and endlessly fascinated by westerners. We climbed the pitch dark stairs of the minaret to reach a breathtaking view of The Red Fort.
Back through the throngs, dodging outstretched hands and goats which had minutes to live, we made our way through Silver and Wedding streets. Here the colour, glitz, celebration and over-the-top naffness of wedding shopping, one of the main commercial arteries pumping life into India, can be found in full swing. Flagging a little, we took a cycle rickshaw to the spice market and enjoyed a random tour by our self appointed, non-English speaking, rickshaw guide. Any lapses in our concentration resulted in a firm “Hello, Hello, Hello” until he had our reluctant attention again and he could continue with his incomprehensible spiel.
By lunch time we were ready to completely wimp out and retreated to 5 star luxury at The Imperial. On the way I mourned the passing of the gung-ho explorer I was 20 years ago who had gallons more patience and energy. Safely seated in the peaceful restaurant surrounded by Art Deco glory, I thanked my lucky stars. Not just for being able to afford the peace and quiet of the moment but also for the privilege of living in a bubble.
One of the first things to do when you arrive in Delhi as a resident, not a tourist, is get yourself to the Hyatt Regency to the Delhi Network Office and buy the invaluable Delhi Network Handbook. This is an organization run by volunteer expat spouses from all over the world. They produce a book full of all the answers to many of those questions when you first arrive and I continue to use it for reference even now.
Finding a place to live in Delhi is your first challenge. It can be a time consuming and frustrating procedure or you may be lucky and have the place found for you through your organisation. There are plenty of agents who know what the expats are looking for. Delhi is booming and the property market is completely crazy. Every other house is being knocked down and rebuilt into glitzy builder flats. Landlords, or more frequently the matriarchal landladies of Delhi, know they are on a sitting on a cash cow with properties in the popular expat areas and you need to have your wits about you when negotiating.
There are several choices to be made to find your perfect pad. There are the fabulous farmhouses out in Pushpanjali, Chattarpur and Mehrauli. Farmhouse is a misnomer. There is nothing remotely agricultural about these homes. These are the mansions on the outskirts of Delhi. All have pools and large gardens. Many have tennis courts and some even have mini golf courses.
Rents on these large properties are often the same as a four bedroom place further in. Go for it only if you have a corporation looking after you, with a team of efficient maintenance chaps ready to deal with the many and frequent water and power problems. Go for it only if you can deal with the unpredictable and often very long journey to work and school. Go for it only if you have been able to speak to the people who were in it before you to discover the pitfalls. Some live in them and love them. Others have tried and abandoned them to move closer in.
The rest of Delhi has some great areas but all are in a state of change at the moment with the old homes being knocked down to make way for the more profitable new apartments. Some areas where expats live are Vasant Vihar, West End, Anand and Shanti Niketan, Defence Colony, Pansheel Park, Golf Links and Jorbagh. These areas are by no means solely expat. All are mixed colonies (word used here for neighbourhoods) with middle class Indians living alongside foreigners.
The older houses (built in 50s, 60s, 70s) offer a small garden, a terrace, garage and short driveway so there is storage space and room for outdoor play for children. They usually have un-stylish bathrooms and kitchens but good living and bedroom space with bathrooms off every bedroom. Staff quarters are usually two small rooms, bathroom and some sort of kitchen.
The new builders' apartments are modern, marble floored with smart new kitchens and bathrooms. Ground floors may have a tiny garden or top floors may have a roof terrace. Staff quarters are almost universally abysmal in these new places with one tiny room for each apartment and communal bathroom and kitchen areas. This can be a source of much grief with unhappy staff, so be warned. There has been little planning for the increase in demand for power and water with all this development and a generator and water tank are essential. Some areas have better infrastructure than others.
Help (the domestic kind)
Delhi is much cleaner than it used to be but there is still a daily battle with the dust and grime in the air. People do manage without staff here but it is very unusual. Most families have at least a cleaner to give the house and floors a full clean every day. How many staff you employ depends on your family needs. Some people manage perfectly well with one person to clean, wash and do some cooking for them.
Others, particularly those in farmhouses or with a lot of entertaining to do, have oodles of staff. There is a staff registry run by the American Women’s Association on the American Embassy Compound, where staff wait to have their files read and be interviewed. It is daunting, as they all sit outside as you walk through the crowd. It does work and many people have found good employees using this system. Word of mouth, notices at school or through groups such as Delhi Network or the British Contact Group are other good sources to find home help.
Servants may be on the premises when you move into your place. If you decide to give them a chance, do so on a trial basis for a month. No need to feel compelled to assume the conditions set by a predecessor. Bear in mind that most staff get a salary increase each year. If you have young children, a good ayah (nanny) is a blessing. A live-in one in staff quarters is even more of a joy. Some parents make the mistake of letting control slip away. Stay involved, as Indians love and cherish all children and often they can do no wrong in their eyes. Spoiling of children by staff is endemic, as is favouring boys.
Many expats have drivers. Everything you may have heard about driving in Delhi is true. Cows, tuk tuks (auto rickshaws), pedestrians, crazed bus drivers, potholes and a total disregard for lane discipline can make driving a headache or a fun challenge depending on your disposition. The Eicher city map is a must buy to get to know your way around. Drivers do get sick and have days off so it is a good idea to know how to drive in Delhi just so that you are not incapacitated without one.
Good staff are a great asset and can make the difference between a happy time and a not so happy time in Delhi. Some expats get fixated on the whole issue and staff conversations are a favourite topic amongst the coffee-clutchers. Best advice would be organise it, deal with it firmly and swiftly if you don’t like it and then keep quiet about it.
Phones, internet, etc
Once you have the house and the staff side of your life in order, the details of daily life need to be addressed. Touchtel is the main phone line provider for households in Delhi. Getting connected can be a headache. If you can delegate this maddening procedure to your office then do so. Otherwise battle on with Indian bureaucracy and finally a line will be connected. Some people never bother, relying solely on their mobile phones. Touchtel don’t provide itemized bills.
Internet connections through Touchtel can be even more of a saga. When connections are established they are painfully slow, with reports of logging on all night to download emails. There are cable providers who offer a more expensive but much speedier service. This, too, is not perfect but response time to complaints is usually within an impressive ½ hour. There are several mobile phone providers including Hutch and Airtel…very straightforward to get phone, provider and monthly itemized bill set up from their stores around Delhi.
TV cable providers will come and hook you up quickly, charging you monthly depending on the number of TVs in the household. What you get is loads of Hindi programmes, children’s TV occasionally in English, Discovery, History, National Geographic, CNN all in English and then the ubiquitous American stuff with Friends on endlessly. Luckily DVDs or the cheaper VCDs are readily available and reasonably priced.
HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Citibank and others are all here. It is uncomplicated to open an account. Go to their main branch armed with a letter from your company or organisation, passports, photos, and resident’s card. Current accounts can be opened immediately (joint or single) and cashpoint and cheque books issued. Cashpoints are all over the city, often defended by a superfluous and bored armed guard, with maximum of 10,000 rupees withdrawal a day.
Money sorted, you are ready to shop. For those with a strong disposition, everything can be found in INA market - from pots and pans, to breakfast cereals and meat. It is not for the faint hearted. It is noisy, crowded, smelly and huge. If you enjoy the real experience of Indian grocery shopping, dodging the chickens flying around your head before they are decapitated for your supper, this is the place. If you prefer to see your meat on a polystyrene tray and under clingfilm, then send your cook with cash. It is a good idea to go every now and then to keep your hand in with prices.
There is one supermarket, in the western sense of the word, way out in Gurgaon but there are plenty of smaller shops importing goods which call themselves supermarkets. Many accept credit cards. These are wonderful tiny treasure troves of goods where you will suddenly come across Tesco’s brown sugar or something equally surprising. Prices are more than you would pay at home but not too silly. A lot of these stores will deliver to your home. Most things can be found here but if you have that special biscuit, breakfast cereal or whatever that you can’t live without, load up in your suitcase on home visits.
Alcohol is controlled by the government and sold at dodgy government liquor stores. Beer, spirits and Indian wine can be bought there. Indian wine gets a bad press. The Sula brand is not great, but OK. There is a black-market of imported wines, available at a premium from some of the grocery stores stocking imported goods. Don’t shout about it, just ask quietly at the cash desk. Of course, diplomatic access to any of the commissary shops makes life easy for access to alcohol and other grocery lines.
Shopping for leisure is a favourite pastime for many expat spouses in Delhi. There are some great deals to be had and many adventures on the way. Fabric, carpets, jewellery (people get lost for hours in the Aladdin’s cave, Silverline), tailor-made clothes and shoes, linens, furniture etc. Get an old timer to show you the ropes and then go with the flow. Bargaining is part of the whole game.
Sarojini is a fun market where you can find clothes from the big stores for all the family at a fraction of the cost back home eg Gap, Monsoon, Old Navy, Banana Republic etc but be prepared to get hot and dive into piles of clothes. On the whole shopkeepers are not trying to con you, just make an honest living. They do mark up for a western face, so be firm and fair, not aggressive and have a sense of humour. A little working knowledge of Hindi helps them to know you are savvy and not a tourist.
There are door to door wallahs who bring their wares to your home, selling tablecloths and sheets, Gujarati textiles, carpets, stone and bronze ware and paintings. Bargain hard. Often they want more friends’ names. It is better not to give mobile numbers as some traders can be annoyingly persistent. Keep their cards and work on an “I will call you” basis.
If you are not in full time work, it is possible to live a life of coffee mornings, shopping trips and yoga, salsa, aerobics, tennis, mah jong or whatever is your bag in Delhi. Many people find their time made more meaningful and enriched by getting stuck into some volunteer work. There are loads of NGOs set up to help the blind, autistic, Aids patients, underprivileged etc. They are all grateful for your time in whatever your field be it admin, teaching, medicine, fundraising or stuffing envelopes. Look in Delhi Network handbook for groups who organise these opportunities.
Worship, Culture and Climate
There are international churches in the city. For Roman Catholic, lots of expats go to the Carmel Convent in Malcha Marg. The Delhi International Christian Fellowship meets at the British School on Sundays at 9.30 for a service and Sunday school and is interdenominational. Both have busy outreach programmes.
Culturally there are many adaptations to be made when one arrives in Delhi. An open mind is a prerequisite to a satisfying time here and a sense of humour really helps. Time has a different meaning for Indians and they are far less hung up on punctuality than westerners. Indian friends will invite you to dinner but don’t expect food to be served ‘til near midnight. It is customary to eat and then leave.
The climate can be tough with heat peaking at average temps of 41 degrees in May and June. Relative humidity reaches a swampy 77 degrees in August. Many expats retreat to their home countries when the children finish school at the end of May/June for a couple of months leaving working spouses to sweat it out in India.
The noise, dirt and apparent chaos can be tiring and the begging is an ongoing distress factor. With the latter, people have different approaches. Sadly it often feels like you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. It is a problem which brings intense and conflicting emotions and one faces it daily.
Life is more conservative here with public displays of affection eg holding hands, not done. Western women can wear shorter skirts or skimpy tops but can expect to be stared at and it is considered by some to be provocative. For your own comfort, you may wish to dress more modestly. But Indians really know how to party and if you go to a wedding be prepared for at least one evening of non-stop festivities. Holidays are grand affairs. Diwali is a festival of light and the whole night is filled with fireworks and fun. Holi is a day for wild behaviour with paint being splashed all over everybody- a crazy day for children and adults.
Health and Medicine
Most people have a minor panic attack about health and hygiene when they think of moving to India. There is a whole cocktail of immunisations to be had. The only one expats don’t universally take is the rabies. Like taking malaria tablets, this varies from family to family and everyone has to weigh up the risk factors in their own minds. It is wise to cover up at dawn and dusk and be liberal with the repellent spray to protect against mosquito bites. The little blighters don’t just carry malaria but dengue fever, too, so sleeping under nets and behind screened windows is a sound idea too.
Of course, there is the food and water issue to consider and all the steps necessary to protect your family from the famous Delhi Belly. As with all third world countries, common sense is required. Avoid ice in drinks and drink only bottled water. Most people have aquaguard filters in their homes to filter out some of the bacteria. They then boil it to within an inch of its life and it is clean... It also tastes horrible. Local bottled water can be bought by the case or in huge bottles- this tastes better but is more expensive than boiling your own.
All salads, fruits and vegetables need to be washed and soaked for 20 minutes in sterilising liquid widely available here- Steriliq. When you eat out, most of the 5 star hotels and good restaurants serve entirely reliable food year round.
If you get ill, there are doctors attached to British, American and French embassies with whom you can register if you are a passport holder. There is a pretty good hospital called the Apollo which deals well with most emergencies and routine illnesses or conditions. Plenty of expat women have had their babies there. Complicated surgical procedures are usually flown to Singapore. Be reassured that there are some great local independent paediatricians and other specialists. There are also some reassuringly clean and efficient group clinics like Max Medical Centre in Pansheel Park.