Tripper of the Week: Melanie Blake

Melanie Blake, a Tripper currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area after several years of living in France, England and India, shares with us some of her experiences during her two-and-a-half years as an expat in India.

1)  How long did you live in India, and where?

I lived in Gurgaon, which is a satellite city of the capital, New Delhi. I was there for two and a half years.

2)  If you had to pick a favorite Indian city or region, which would you choose?

It’s hard to choose, but I would say that my favorite city was Calcutta. It’s a big city but has a mellower vibe than Delhi, and many buildings with lots of interesting little architectural details. I love literature and film, and Calcutta has such a rich history in the arts. The novels Home and the World and Chowringhee and the film The Last Lear are a few of my favorites. And I love Bengali food, especially fish curry.

One of my favorite regions is Leh, in the Himalayas. It has an austere beauty and friendly people. My sister and I did a multiday trek in Leh, and this experience was one of the highlights of my life.

3)  What was the most memorable cultural exchange experience during your stay in India?

My job required me to stay late at the office. Like many Indian companies, my employer provided a cab service to and from work. I would have to cross the parking garage to get to the company’s cabs. Every night, I said hello (namaste) to the night security guard at one of the other company’s cabs, and he said hello back. I was working the night before Diwali, India’s biggest festival and a time when people give traditional sweets as gifts. As usual, I passed the guard, this time wishing him a happy Diwali. He wished me the same, and I continued walking. Suddenly, a voice called, “Madam!” I turned and saw the guard running toward me. He had a box of candy in his hand, and when he reached me he took one out and handed it to me. “For you,” he said. “Thank you,” I said. It was a brief moment and a simple exchange, but it had a warmth and uncomplicatedness to it that still makes me smile.

4)  Do you have any insights for anyone considering moving abroad?

Do your homework, but don’t worry too much. I have moved to France, England, and India by myself without knowing anyone. There are always tough moments, but most things work themselves out. If you can go, go! I hope that someday I will be able to fully recognize all of the ways living abroad has changed my life for the better.

5)  Describe the cuisine/your favorite dishes in your favorite local restaurant  in Gurgaon.

Gurgaon is a great place for North Indian food, which makes great use of the tandoor. One of my favorites was murgh malai, chicken marinated in cream, yogurt, and fenugreek, served with naan, at the restaurant Punjabi by Nature. I also have a weakness for pakora, vegetables coated in chickpea flour and deep-fried.

6) What did you find most fascinating about life in India?  

To watch how it was changing. When I think about what Gurgaon looked like when I arrived and when I left, in some places it was a totally different city. Since the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, it’s become an easier place in which to do business, and for many people this has resulted in better job opportunities and better living conditions. It’s also fuelled the growth of entrepreneurship in India, which has created its own incubators and venture capital organizations. Some entrepreneurs are building mobile-based businesses because while a lot of Indians don’t have access to a computer, most of them do have cell phones. These entrepreneurs are making it possible for farmers, shopkeepers, people who don’t have a bank account, and many other groups to do a lot with a simple handset. Some, like Harish Hande, are helping to bring solar energy to rural India in a low-cost way, and this has a huge impact.

Not all of the changes are good; malnutrition and poor education remain huge problems in India; and I wouldn’t agree with Thomas Friedman that the world is flat. But it was a unique experience to watch these changes and talk with Indians about them. To be in Delhi, where the culinary, media, fashion, and art scenes were growing so rapidly, was exciting.

Excited to exchange ideas about India?  Interested in more tips on living abroad, or in swapping stories about your personal experiences as an expat?  Log in and connect with Melanie on Tripping.

Photo Sources: Victoria Memorial (Mat Booth);Diwali Candy (boo licious); Indian cuisine (irrezolut)