Chennai Journal
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Real Estate Woes
Recently I've been talking with a number of other expats in Chennai about the housing situation here. The two subjects at the top of the list are finding rental housing, and then maintaining it and getting the landlord to do repairs.

There is no multilisting service here, so word of mouth, advertisements, who you know, and who you can get to negotiate for you counts for a lot. There is a big money to be had in Chennai helping expats find housing, and there are at least three or four firms here that are into this business and critics say they are driving the prices up for everyone else. All of them operate on pretty much the same conditions: up to one month's rent from the individual or company as a fee to assist the expat, and one month from the landlord. (Landlords pay this because, nine times out of ten, the expat real estate company offers them much more than a local national would--in fact, for a while last year, several beach houses sat vacant because landlords were waiting for BMW executives to arrive).

As a result, unless they make other arrangements in the local market, most expats or their companies wind up paying through the nose. Despite a lot of building going on in the city, and what appears to be a surfeit of properties on the market-- with newer amenities such as built in air conditioning--- you will hear that there is a shortage of decent housing, that prices "are going through the roof" and that an apartment "that was 60 or 70,000 rupees a few months ago is now fetching a lakh (100,000 rupees or about $2200)." But, if you talk to a local, you will find out that no Indian in that apartment building is paying more than 40,000, including the guy who moved in last month from Delhi. Bottom line: the rent is entirely negotiable.

Many of the consulates have purchased housing and many of the consular corps stay in these government owned and maintained homes--but this is not an option for everyone, and in fact, although persons of Indian origin can buy here, other foreigners cannot. So rental on the open market is the main choice. If you have or can get the connections and can do it, it's best to go direct or through a local contact, one with the ability --and incentive--to negotiate hard. In my own building going direct means a reduction of up to 25% over what the expat rental firms will tell you is the rent. It makes sense, of course---the rental firm has no financial incentive to negotiate, since their fee is a multiple of the rent, and the landlord wants to amortize the fees as well.

However, for some people, finding a place is only half the battle. Once you move in, unless you are in a professionally managed rental (I am lucky that way), any maintenance problem tends to be yours, and tenant's rights are virtually non-existent here. I would liken the attitude of many landlords to that of commercial property in the U.S., where generally you are renting four walls and the land, and anything that happens while you are there is your responsibility. For people coming from a western framework, where a residential tenant's rights are strong, this is hard to accept---particularly if you are already paying more than a local. This situation does vary with the individual---one local woman I know said she had one landlord who was very accommodating about allowing her to deduct repairs from the rent, and another who was equally the opposite--but in general the landlord may not even view structural problems as his or her responsibility. And, there is a curious willingness to just let properties sit on the market rather than accommodate a potential tenant on something like putting in a backup generator, which also doesn't help once they are rented and plumbing and electrical that has sat for a few years finally starts to get used again. But, if you can negotiate a good deal on the rent and like the place, then money spent on upgrades or repairs may not be such a bad deal, especially with labor rates being low.

Sunday, July 23, 2006
Censored but Om Well
For most of the past week I was unable to access the site. Blogger was fine, and while annoyed I didn't think too much of it for a couple of days. But as it persisted, I went on a blogger user group to see if anyone else was having the same problem. A number of people---only in India---reported the same thing, and sure enough, I also couldn't access any of the Indian blogs I normally check in with. The mystery was solved with news reports that the Indian Department of Telecommunications had sent out a list of banned websites following the bombings in Mumbai last week, and a number of ISPs had wholesale blocked Blogspot and other blogs. The reason? No one knows. Apparently, a few blogs (17 according to a report in the Hindu) were considered incendiary.....

In other news, I took the Art of Living course this week. Art of Living, headquartered in Bangalore, is non profit organization doing peace and meditation work throughout the planet. The first stage training, which takes place over four nights and two half days on the weekend, is a combination of yoga and breathing techniques, the centerpiece of which is called "Sudarshan Kriya" which is a patented by Art of Living's founder, Sri Sri Ravishankar.

There is some controversy over the patent, which Gurudev, as he is called, says was a defensive move to allow him to continue to teach the technique at low to no cost---the training is very reasonably priced and is free to prisons, relief organizations, etc. Considering the "yoga war" of a couple of years ago in the U.S. where a famous Indian yoga teacher tried to patent age old postures in order to make more money, this may have been a smart move on Sri Sri Ravishankar's part, though it is still opposed by some. The technique consists of a warm up of ujayyi ("victorious") breath , followed by another breathing technique called bhastrika and then the main event, which is a series of short and long breaths done over about 10 minutes in a particular order. Following this you rest for about 10 minutes. The process definitely works to reduce stress---when lying down after doing this only the second time, I literally felt myself vibrating and had no thoughts whatsoever going through my mind. The training is offered all over the world and courses can be found by consulting the main Art of Living website noted above.

Sunday, July 16, 2006
"Bombed but not Bowed"
This was the headline in the Times of India front page story about the deadly blasts in Mumbai, which were targeted at first class compartments in the main commuter train in the city, which are mostly occupied by businessmen, doctors, and lawyers. It was the 8th such attack in Mumbai in a dozen years, and followed only days after heavy monsoon rains that again taxed the city to its limits. (Despite last year's devastating monsoons, the government has continued to release vacant land to building, and has done literally nothing else to improve the situation--in fact, had this year's rainfall been as severe as last year's 90 cm in 24 hours, the results would have been even worse). Because of the lack of even basic emergency support services in Mumbai, volunteers leaped to assist and people near the train brought sheets and blankets to wrap the injured and dead, while others helped transport them to hospitals. In video clips right after the disaster which we watched in Agra, you could see ordinary people frantically working while the police wander around aimlessly.

Initially both cell and landlines were out, but these were quickly restored and in fact within hours all normal activity resumed. Despite a headline in a local magazine proclaiming "Mumbai 7/11", there is no overwhelming aftermath here such as 9/11 saw in the U.S.---it's more like the scene in Israel when there are attacks by suicide bombers. Still, the local papers and magazines are filled with vignettes of those who lost their lives, or nearly did---a man who had only started traveling first class the week before, another who evidently died on the way home to celebrate his birthday, etc. But, otherwise, it's business as usual in Mumbai. A few hundred suspects have been rounded up and the Indian government is narrowing in on the perpetrators, most likely Kashmiris with links to Al Queda. In Chennai, IT buildings were put on "red alert" at least over the weekend and there are delays at the airports, but these are the only visible signs we have seen of heightened concern.

I was in Agra and as noted below, we visited the Taj Mahal for a "moonlight viewing" ---but as you can tell from the picture at the right, the weather did not cooperate and the moon was heavily shrouded in rain clouds. Security was extremely tight---you are put through two metal detectors and can bring only a camera (not even a tripod) --and can only go just past the first gates for the viewing. A couple of the people with us decided not to go under these circumstances, since they had never seen the Taj before and wanted it to be in the best light, so to speak. That I understand completely. When you are past the security, your first sighting of this magnificent monument is the one that does take your breath away. Fortunately, several in our group were not leaving until later the following morning, so they were able to visit the Taj at dawn as I did a few months ago.

Sunday, July 09, 2006
Back in Chennai
It was good to be home after more than a year away, and less had changed than I would have thought. Things in Detroit are pretty grim with the troubles of the former Big Three, but the rest of the country seems in better shape (New Orleans excepted). Here you can see Marty at home in his favorite shopping site, Costco. Things were very cheap here; Marty had purchased a combination microwave/toaster oven for only $39.95.

It was also good to stop by our favorite restaurant, Beverly Hills Grill, where Benson (pictured left) still makes the best martini in the world!

After spending a week in Detroit, Marty and I went to our vacation home in Keene, New Hampshire. I had not been there yet in the summer, and it was just great. We spent time exploring the city and environs, doing a lot of walking, and even making an attempt to climb the local mountain, Mt. Monadnock. Next to Mt. Fuji in Japan, Monadnock is the most frequently climbed mountain in the world. Emerson and Thoreau both have spots named after them, in honor of their own climbs. I overheard a couple of fellow hikers discussing a Tuesday -Thursday club, where locals gather at 6:30 a.m. to climb to the summit, and our neighbor told us of one guy who climbed it every day for a year. Above, you can see me at the halfway point.

Now I am back in Chennai, where jet lag is setting in this morning with a vengeance. Tomorrow I'm on the road again, to Delhi and Agra for business. Weather cooperating, we are supposed to go to the Taj Mahal on Tuesday night for a moonlight viewing. The Taj has only recently been reopened in the evening, after being closed for more than 20 years, and then only on the days around the full moon. Stay tuned!

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