Kirsten Mhari Durward is a well-seasoned expat who has recently moved to Mumbai, India. Kirsten is a global nomad who has slowly been learning the ups and downs of an authentic Indian experience. Here she writes about some of the unique challenges she has faced as an expat living in India's biggest city. Follow Kirsten's adventures on Twitter at @learnerfocused.
Find out more about expat life in the Expat Arrivals Mumbai City Guide or check out more Expat Experiences in India.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Scotland, UK
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Mumbai, India
Q: When did you move to Mumbai?
A: July 2017
Q: Did you move alone or with a spouse/family?
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I’m an educator, I am working as a trainer for Indian Teachers.
Living in Mumbai
Q: What do you enjoy most about Mumbai? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I don’t really think of anywhere as my ‘home country'. But compared to Kuala Lumpur where I lived for 4 years the quality of life is not great, I would rate it the lowest quality of life of the 16 countries I have lived in. There are definitely still things to do here, I like the Performing Arts Centre but getting there is a mission. Many things here are unnecessarily complicated, and a lot of things don’t make sense. The one thing I really enjoy is being able to go sailing on a Saturday with a very generous and kind person I know.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: I’ve been living internationally for so long that I don’t consider any one place ‘home’. However, what I miss here is easy access to good quality food, which I had in Asia, clean air, which I have had most places and a friendly and welcoming community. The festivals are overwhelming and noisy and just take over (10 days of no sleep and 3-hour traffic jams during Ganpathi). And sadly, because I love Indian food, I’ve had better in other countries and can make better myself.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Mumbai? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Yes, for the first time in my life, having now lived in 16 countries, it was a shock to me to be in culture shock. I find the noise, particularly the honking traffic, to be nerve-wracking. I find the people generally difficult to interact with compared to most places I have lived. There are a lot of very illogical rules you have to get used to, and you have to be used to being stared at and asked for your photograph too. It is extremely dirty and polluted, both with litter and air pollution. The caste system has a huge impact here, as does skin colour. There appears to be little empathy and understanding of other people’s situations, which can be heart-wrenching. Also, there is a lot of shouting. Taxis can just refuse to take you, and it can be quite frustrating trying to get around in particular areas.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Rents are very expensive compared to anywhere else I have lived. For the price of a room in Mumbai, I could have a 3 bedroom house in Uganda or a 2 bedroomed flat in Kuala Lumpur. The apartments are not in good condition, and the landlords tend to be reluctant to help you. Good food is expensive and the wine is horrific. Indian wine is not good quality and still more expensive than a decent European wine would be in Europe (about 15 – 25 EUR a bottle). Imported wine starts at about 35 EUR a bottle for what would be a bad quality 4 EUR wine elsewhere. Health care is very cheap. Organic food is expensive. Street food is cheap but it is very high carb and oily. Spa services and salons are way more expensive than Asia and charge almost European prices for their very poor quality services. Hotels are also expensive and low quality.
Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Very few expats own cars, and if they do they are either long-term expats or working for a high salary and have a driver. Most people use Ola or Uber which are very convenient and reasonable for an expat salary. I like the train out of busy hours, it is super cheap, fast and a good way to see some local colour, but the routes are limited. Currently, a Metro is being built but it will be another 2-3 years until it is completed. Outside of the city centres, you can use auto-rickshaws to get around. They are cheap and fast as they weave through the city. Buses are awful. Really, don’t take a bus.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Mumbai? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Seven Hills is a decent hospital with good services. Many of the doctors were trained in the UK. Otherwise, I have found decent osteopathy and physiotherapy here at very reasonable costs.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Mumbai? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I personally have had no issues but I have heard stories of women being harassed at railway stations and in a couple of areas. I think it does depend on how you dress. You have to be careful with your bags, and make sure that money and phones are not visible, a couple of people have had things taken out of their bags. That being said, I have not personally been affected by crime in Mumbai.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Mumbai? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing is not great unless you have a big budget. It is really hard if you can only afford a room, as subletting is frowned upon. It is also hard to get a rental contract for a term shorter than 11 months.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Further outside of the city there are a lot of societies with pools and gyms which are good for families but far from any amenities. A lot of expats live in Bandra, which has older housing in a pricey area but also has lots to do. Business people also live in Colaba or Malabar hill, which are pricey but lovely areas. BKC is an area growing in popularity because of new buildings and the local American Schoo
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Local's tolerance of foreigners depends on the area of the city. Some areas are Catholic and you can only live there if you are Catholic. Some buildings only allow Indians, sometimes only Indians from particular areas. It can be confusing. In the city centre, where many people come from all over the country, you will be harassed for photographs. I am certainly ignored often as a woman, as women are usually not well-respected in India.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: No, it is much harder than other places, particularly if you don’t live in an expat area like Bandra or Colaba. There are some expat organisations, like in other cities, but they are overrun by Indians who want to meet expats- and in a city of 22 million people the numbers are not in our favour. There are some educated and well travelled Indians who are easy to talk to, but in the main it is overwhelming. Due to the desire to meet expats you get way too much attention at events. I’ve met a few people through a wine tasting group, a hiking group and sailing, which I found either on Facebook or through an expat Whatsapp group.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: See if you can get added to the Bombay expats Whatsapp group, which is pretty helpful, and go to Internations expat events. I do have some local friends but you always have to be wary of what is wanted from you
About working in Mumbai
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I went to the Indian High Commission in London with the paperwork from my employer, it was quick and easy.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in Mumbai? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate is weak, many well-qualified Indians have been returning from overseas looking for jobs. I would say educators and finance people are still wanted here, but otherwise, it is hard to break in.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Mumbai?
A: Long hours are the norm.
Family and children
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The school quality varies widely. For expats, I would suggest ASB or the German School. There is a myriad of Indian International Schools authorised by IB, but none of them seems particularly good.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Buy an air purifier, be prepared to be very patient. You can break through here but it is more challenging than most countries.
~ Interviewed March 2018