OK, I’ve gotten a request from someone who doesn’t wish her name or tag posted. She is looking at an extended family stay in India in support of her expat husband and wanted recommendations on what to pack. I’ll attempt to answer, but with the caveat that each person’s experience, expectations, housing situation, and comfort level is different; and what I see here in Pune may not be typical of the rest of the country.
As to our housing, we are three people: two adults and a teenager. We opted for a sparsely furnished high-end apartment and what we brought is specific to that situation. Others who rent unfurnished apartments or stand-alone villas, or who have small kids, will have different needs.
Our apartment complex has a 24-hour guarded gate, a secure parking area, a building generator that bridges electrical outages and brown-outs (albeit with a minute or two gap before it kicks in); filtered water; piped in gas for our four-burner cooktop (instead of having to buy and lug our own propane cylinders) and an elevator. Our apartment has hot water heaters in the bathrooms and kitchens (push a button and in 20 min there’s hot water); a dishwasher, washing machine, small microwave, and a refrigerator. There is no conventional oven, although we could buy a small convection one if we really want to (we don’t). Our furnishings are minimal but functional – dining table and chairs, sofa and coffee table, TV stand, beds and built-in closets/drawers in the bedrooms, curtains, student desks in the kid bedrooms, and a big desk in the bedroom set aside as my husband’s office. It’s common for upscale apartments to have one bathroom for each bedroom. We also have a maid’s room, but with no maid, it’s dedicated to laundry.
Note that India’s electricity is 240V, and the plug configuration is different than in the US, so most US appliances and electronics won’t work here unless they are clearly marked for 240v. Most computer and high tech gear is multi-voltage (100-240V) though.
I’ll break this down by categories.
Kitchen and Food
We are cooking a lot of Indian style food because maintaining a familiar Western menu is prohibitively expensive and difficult to source.
Recommend to bring – any cooking implements that are vital to you. We brought a set of good knives, pots, pans, a heavy iron skillet, my hand-grater, a chopping bowl and chopping knife, stainless tableware, metal cooking tongs, vegetable parer, a couple of funnels, and some silicon spatulas. We brought some disposable plastic storage containers (I should have brought more of these), measuring cups and spoons, and plastic wrap. We also brought a heavy plastic cutting board for meat and good refillable water bottles that are easy to clean.
Recommended to buy here – Strainers or colanders, glassware, inexpensive unbreakable Corian type dishes, plastic or steel mixing bowls, steel cooking spoons and flippers. Plastic storage containers, canisters, and bins for spices, flour, lentils, coffee, etc. Gas service is low pressure/low flow, so the following have been indispensible: rice cooker, electric kettle, inexpensive low-tech pressure cooker. Coffee maker, toaster. Wooden cutting board for vegetables, small wooden rolling pin for making Indian flatbreads. Blender/grinder if you plan on doing a lot of Indian cooking. Cheap cotton dishtowels. Thermos bottle for coffee or tea. All of the small electrics can be resold when you leave.
Recommended to leave home – Baking dishes and pans, unless you plan on buying a convection oven. Anything that would be a pain to wash or care for because even with a dishwasher, you’ll end up doing a lot more hand washing than you are used to. Or if you are engaging household help, avoid bringing anything that you’d cringe to see broken in their well meaning but occasionally ungentle care.
Cleaning and Maintenance
It’s quite grimy here from the prevalence of diesel exhaust, plus for most of the year there are no rains, and the dust flies. You will be dry-mopping floors and dusting almost every day.
Recommended to bring – A dry Swiffer holder (the least expensive one disassembles neatly for easy packing). Don’t bother bringing the disposable pads. Go to a fabric store and buy one yard of the cheapest microfleece flannel they have in stock. Take a Swiffer pad and measure it out on the fleece, then cut the yard of fleece into rectangles of that size. You’ll get about 16. No need to hem, just use them in place of the disposable, then shake them out and when you’ve got a pile of dirty ones, toss them in the washing machine. Bring a small vacuum if you have or plan to have rugs. I brought my Roomba, for which a 240v adapter is available on the iRobot website. A small tool kit (hammer, wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, etc.) is very useful. Bring cheap brown packing tape and duct tape. We had windows that didn’t close completely, and needed to tape plastic bags over the gaps in order to exclude mosquitoes.
Recommended to buy – Mops, buckets, brooms. You’ll need them all. If you have a balcony, get a broom just for outside, because it will quickly get too filthy to use indoors. An iron and ironing board, unless you plan on sending everything out for laundering and pressing. (If you do, be warned, it’s hard to find a place that does this gently, and we haven’t yet found a satisfactory dry cleaner.) Clothes drying racks – dryers can be had here, but electricity is very expensive. You’ll want to dry things on a rack or line, either indoors (cleaner, if you have the space), or outdoors (quicker, but only if you have a secure place to do it, and don’t mind dust-dingy clothing). Laundry detergents, all fabric bleach, and other cleaning consumables are all available.
Recommended to leave home – Unfortunately, you can’t ship most cleaning products because they are caustic, this includes scouring powder (like Comet or Ajax). This is a shame because on the whole, the stuff available in the US is more effective than what’s on the shelf here. But what’s here is good enough if you apply extra elbow grease and determination.
Tech and Entertainment
Recommended to bring – Dual voltage flat screen TV that has a hook-up to use with a laptop computer in order to watch pre-recorded material. A small hard drive loaded with the same (we have a DVR at home, and on it we brought five years worth of laagered favorite movies and shows with us). Laptops for each person (schoolkids need their own to bring with them, the working spouse will need one, and the accompanying spouse will need one to maintain sanity, too). You’ll appreciate Skype to keep in touch with the folks at home. Tablets, iPads, or other readers – books and games are bulky; readers allow you to subscribe to the home newspapers or magazines on line, plus read all you want, wherever you want, without accumulating a weighty and expensive pile to ship back home, plus they can hold your music, too. iPod/iPad or music player speaker/amplifier/stand/recharger. “Jailbroken” phones or phones that can accept an international SIM chip. You can get phones here, but they are 2-3x more expensive than similar models in the US. Hand held game units for the kids, with lots of games. Hobby supplies. If you knit, stitch, paint, or do any sort of craft as an outlet, bring your supplies. Stuff can be had here, but availability and selection are extremely limited, and there is a lot of down time and isolation, especially for an accompanying spouse. Allow yourself a generous bit of space for such things, if that’s what’s needed to keep you happy.
Recommended to buy – an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). We bought one locally (they’re prohibitively heavy to ship) and have our router attached to it. When the power goes down and up as it does up to six or seven times a day, the UPS bridges the minute or two between the municipal power disappearing and the building’s generator power kicking in, which otherwise is long enough to reset the house router and lose connectivity. The router or switch itself (usually obtained through your ISP as part of their package). Omni-plug accepting power strips, which are widely available here. These provide a modicum of surge protection, plus they accept US-format wall plugs. Provided the item connected is dual voltage (like a computer or phone charger), they eliminate the need for individual adapter plugs. Note that replacement earphones and other accessories for the leading makes of phones, iPods, and MP3 players are widely available.
Recommended to leave at home – Bicycles, Razor scooters, and the like. Indian traffic has its own internal chaotic rule set. I wouldn’t suggest any but the most intrepid adults to ride in the streets. And that goes quadruple for kids. There are no places for them to ride at all, even in this gated community tooling around the parking lot will get old, very quickly. Sports equipment – again the “place to play” problem, plus most stuff – swim goggles, soccer balls, and the like are available here.
Recommended to bring – Personal care and cosmetic brands you can’t live without. That being said, Olay, Gilette, Garnier and Colgate brands have significant presence here, although most Americans would not be thrilled by cumin-flavored toothpaste instead of mint. If you like unscented products, bring them from home, because unscented isn’t popular here either. Q-tips, hair gel. If you need acne ointment with salicylic acid in it, bring that too. Definitely bring mosquito repellent containing DEET, preferably pump spray for economy, even if you are usually opposed to better living through chemistry. Mosquito-borne illnesses are a huge problem, and dengue is far worse than temporary exposure to the repellent. Bring high SPF sun block. They have sunblock here but it’s often mixed with harsh “whitening agents” because the local aesthetic values fairness to an extent that will make most North Americans of any race cringe at the personal care product commercials. I can’t speak to hair dye yet, although in another couple of months I may. Razors, again if electric – dual voltage. If manual, you may want to stock up rather than buy local. Bring any prescription medicines, in original containers, plus any non-prescription stuff you need, including non-Aspirin pain relievers, plus maintenance medicines like enteric Aspirin or vitamins. I’d strongly suggest going to a travel medicine clinic to get needed vaccinations and prescriptions for “just in case” medications, then filling them before you leave home. Bring a fever thermometer, band-aids, anti-itch crème, and antibacterial ointment. All can be found here, but only after much searching, which you may not have time for if need for them presents itself.
Recommended to buy – Hair dryer, the ones bought here tend to be more forgiving of the iffy voltage than even the US-purchased “international” dual voltage models. Mosquito killer wall sprays – in the US you can buy little plug in units that dispense air fresheners or fragrances. Here the same technology is used for insecticides. Again, remember that the illnesses are worse than short term chemical exposure, and use them.
Recommended to Leave at Home – Think of streamlining your daily routine and kit. Personal care items are bulky. Although brand availability is limited, adequate shampoo and conditioner can be found. Moisturizers are available. Soaps, especially hand-made soaps are excellent. Bring the absolute minimum.
Recommended to bring – Towels and sheets. Make sure you know the size of the beds before hand. Most in high-end buildings are king size, but don’t make any assumptions. For kids, those bed-sitting pillows with arms on them. They will be spending lots of time in their rooms, and a dorm-style sitting pillow makes their bed a comfy place to read, listen to music, or study.
Recommended to buy – Bed Pillows. They’re bulky. Unless you have specific sleeping needs, you’ll find what’s here adequate. Furnished apartment furniture is very generic – you’ll probably want to liven the place up a bit with purchased rugs and pillows. Textile choices here for decorative items are better than choices for standard domestics. Small supplemental floor or table lamps. Wastebaskets and garbage cans, laundry baskets and hampers.
Recommended to Leave at Home – Heavy bedding, including quilts and comforters. A lightweight cotton blanket (or maybe even just a top sheet) is all that’s needed, even with air conditioning.
Pune’s climate (for India) is mild, with only a month or two of intense heat. Daytime for the rest of the year is in the 80s-90s, and nightimes are in the 60s-70s. During monsoon (June-September) it can be very humid, and rains at least a little bit four days out of five, some of those days quite intensively. During the other months, it’s extremely sunny and parchingly dry. Even here, you are not going to need jackets, sweaters, or warm pants.
Clothing here is sized small by US standards. My daughter is about 5’6 1/2” and depending on length wears a US 11, somewhere between a size medium and large. Here if she’s lucky to fit into anything off the rack it’s a women’s extra large, or a men’s large. Shoe stores seem to stock up to US women’s size 9 (Euro 40). I’ve been told you can get things larger, but it’s all special order.
Remember, male or female, you are going to be stared at. If you’re female and of any age you are going to be stared at twice as much. And if you are young and attractive, you are going to be openly leered at, catcalled, and if unescorted, even jostled. Be aware of this as you are planning clothing choices.
Recommended to Bring – underwear, sneakers (trainers), walking shoes, sandals. Jeans and light weight pants. Short sleeve cotton shirts or tunic style tops. Nothing sleeveless unless it’s intended for layering under stuff with sleeves (which is highly recommended). Shorts should not be shorter than your fingertips when you stand with arms at your sides, over the knee cropped pants are better. “Breathable” but modest exercise clothing if you plan on going to a gym (by modest for women I mean short sleeve rather baggy t-shirts, Capri length or over the knee exercise pants, nothing midriff bearing and no exercise bras worn as shirts). Bring one outfit that’s appropriate for attending an afternoon church wedding (modest dress or skirt/suit set). If you’ll be here for monsoon, bring a folding Totes type umbrella – a rain jacket is too hot during the day. If you’re going to be out in the sun, bring a sun hat.
Recommended to Buy – Accessories, scarves, bags, etc. Both costume and real jewelry especially if you like ornamentation. No one does bling quite as well as here in India. I am not brave enough to try wearing a sari yet, but others have more grace than I do enjoy them immensely. I will be buying kameeze or kurti style tops in the near future.
Leave at Home – This is not the place to seek attention, flaunt or prance. Think “clothing suitable for visiting an elderly maiden aunt,” not clothing that shouts “I’m hot!” to the world. Think clean and neat, and a bit on the preppy side. Avoid Statement Clothing, unless you are prepared to endure the attention. Also, remember maintainability. Leave stuff that needs to be dry cleaned at home.
Office and School Supplies
Recommended to Bring – Schools differ in what they require, but I’d suggest a couple of large spiral bound notebooks. The only ones I’ve seen here are very small and saddle stapled, like exam books. Student calculator, if you’ve got a kid in middle school or higher. They have them here but they are quite expensive. Same thing for combination locks for school lockers. Sharpies and paper scissors come to mind. Spare power cords or USB cables for your devices. You can find USB thumb drives here quite cheaply though. Batteries if you have a lot of battery powered items, and if you’ve got a household shipment allowance because they are expensive here, too. A good student backpack (we each have one and use it for work/school or day trips). Scotch tape, school glue, and crazy glue for small repairs. A LED flashlight or two. Crayons or colored pencils for the kids (if any). Photo printing paper. Small stapler and staples. Envelopes. Stationary for writing thank you notes.
Recommended to Buy – Cheap printer/scanner. You’d be amazed how many documents need to be copied, and how many duplicates of passport type photos you will need. Being able to manufacture these at home is a lifesaver.
Recommended to Leave at Home – Printer paper. Everything here is A4, not US Letter or Legal size.
I’ve gone on long enough. Please feel free to leave additions or suggestions, or ask questions in the comments. Hope this helps someone.
So, I’ve been back in the US now for roughly four weeks, with several more to go before returning to India for a year. I’m seeing things differently, with the new perspective afforded by the five month stay just completed.
Take the humble onion. Onions are everywhere, and just about every really tasty recipe in just about every food tradition starts out with “take an onion…”
Onions in Pune are small and red-skinned, with white flesh. If you find one the size of a billiard ball, you’ve found a giant. They’re neither as sharp nor as sweet as selected varieties here. But they’re very tasty. And it doesn’t matter where you shop for onions. The same variety is available everywhere, from the most exclusive supermarkets catering to the well-heeled elite, to the smallest street vendor’s basket. I’ve also seen the same variety, picked when the bulbs are barely there (but larger than scallions here), and sold as spring onions. Now to be fair, there may be more available after monsoon season, and what I saw may be just the tail end of the agricultural year.
In contrast, I counted the variety of onions available in our local supermarket here in Arlington, Massachusetts. It’s a plain old supermarket in a standard suburban area, and not a fancy gourmet store. There are plain yellow keeper onions, big white Spanish onions, huge red sweet onions, Vidalias, tiny white boiling onions, the small, ovoid yellow Cipollinis, Bermuda onions, ordinary white onions, scallions/spring onions, shallots, and leeks. Plus several of these varieties are also available as “organically grown.” Counting the organics, that’s about 15 separate and distinct onion types, for sale side by side.
One or two of these might be considered local. The Pine Island area of New York near Hudson Valley is still considered a major onion growing area, but by and large – this embarrassment of onion riches is trucked here from all over the country, and some of it is even imported from Mexico, or even flown in from South America or Europe. That means there’s a huge perishable-goods transport and storage network, enabled by cheap shipping, and established distribution channels.
India is evolving very rapidly, but it still has a long way to go before it can match the infrastructure required to support this variety. Produce there is local. Intercity roads and trains exist, but what’s there isn’t sufficient for major distance transport of perishables. Even the sturdy onion.
For example, Mumbai and Pune are major cities, about 95 miles apart – about six miles closer together than Boston and Hartford, CT. Googlemaps shows the travel time between Boston and Hartford as being about 1 hour, 45 min. Having done this trek many times, I know it’s 4-6 lane interstate highways all the way, and (unless it’s rush hour) most folk exceed the mostly 65mph speed limit where they can.
The road from Pune to Mumbai is well traveled, and is considered a major toll highway. It’s 2-4 lanes throughout, with some interchange areas a bit wider, and for India is pretty uniformly paved. It twists and winds a good bit, ascending up steep hills, and goes through several rock-cut tunnels. However, traffic moves extremely slowly, even on this best-of-roads. Traffic moves slowly, winding around lumbering trucks, three-wheeled goods transporters (Tempos), and a sea of two-wheeled vehicles. On parts there are even local three wheeled taxis and animal carts, although other parts of the highway are restricted. Googlemaps says that it should take about 2 hours and 25 minutes. However cars even in uncrowded times would be lucky to 80kph (about 50mph), tops, and that only on the few straight sections with good visibility, if no slowly lumbering trucks are around. The trip rarely takes less than three hours, and often significantly longer, with mammoth multi-mile traffic jams of the type seen in the US mostly on holiday weekends being the daily norm.
Now, if travel on this best of highways is “twice as far” in terms of travel time compared to US roads, you can begin to see the logistics challenge. Add to that the high cost of fuel, the lack of refrigerated trucks, the average size of a farm’s plot being something smaller than a third of a football field, lack of distribution centers, and the challenges really pile up. For a supermarket just to obtain onions in a quantity sufficient for its sales, it would have to deal with a middleman who collected produce from several smallhold farmers. Then the goods would have to make their way over land to the city. Slowly. So it’s no wonder that eating in India is a localvore’s experience, that produce is only available in season, and that varieties are limited.
I’m sure that there are other cross-cultural lessons to be learned by peeling back the layers of this onion – land ownership and transfer, relationships between agricultural and urban areas, the economics of small vs. large scale farming, how limited transportation on the part of consumers shapes retail buying, and the like. But for now, I look at the wealth of onions and marvel at the profligacy and indulgence, and have a First-World Guilt moment as I mince my way through some while cooking dinner.