India is a country where the ready availability of personnel, everywhere and at all times, often outweighs the need for process, workflow or even plain efficiency.
Take the humble address. In Sydney, or London, or indeed any part of the world, a street address might read something like the following:
Suburb or city
In India, however, a more lateral approach is taken. Some might even say counter-intuitive. My address here in Bombay is something along the lines of:
(Near Lilavati Hospital)
This leaves it up to the postie to decipher many things. Which side of the road? Which side of Lilavati (conveniently situated on a corner block)? Which, in a colony of roughly 20 apartment buildings, is the correct one? Then, which apartment is the mail intended for?
Landmarks are more important here than street names or addresses. Because, inevitably, when it comes to mail being delivered, there will be a multitude of people milling about the streets, loitering at paanwallahs or tea stalls or bhel shops, who will be able to give directions to or point out the relevant building. Once there, the postie can ask the doorman which apartment to leave the mail at. And he will remember these details for next time, and the time after that, until you move out or he moves on.
Problems occur when no one knows where it is you want to go. Because no one wants to admit they don't know.
Last night Jason and I decided to track down a newly-reopened restaurant. Cafe Goa is described as a "restobar" - apparently a restaurant slash bar, but something that to me sounds like a toilet pit stop on a long haul bus journey.
The address listed was:
Off St John the Baptiste Road
Near Mount Mary Steps
(look for the lights in the trees)
Apparently "lights in trees" is a suitable alternative for street name and number. But I was unfazed. Living within fairly close proximity to Mount Mary - a kind of suburb-within-a-suburb, I was fairly confident I could find the famous steps. And indeed, it took little time to get there. We hopped out of the rickshaw, and as it tootled away, we looked around for "the lights in the trees".
Nothing. Nothing but gated community-type apartment blocks with bored security guards standing listlessly by. But there was a lone cigarette stand, with one light and one customer.
We made our way over and in our best heavily accented, gesticulating efforts at communicating, we tried to explain what we were looking for.
Cigarette-wallah looked at us blankly.
We tried again, a few more times, each time our words getting slower and louder. By this time, a small crowd had gathered, the way they tend to do in India.
"Where... is... Cafe ...Gooooaaa?" I asked.
"Ah!" said one bystander, recognising one keyword. In Hindi, he gave loud and slow directions while waving his arms.
We gratefully followed, turning left around a corner and down a hill. Five minutes later we stood in front of a well-lit, gleaming destination.
It was a Cafe Coffee Day branch.
We returned to the cigarette stand and this time asked for St John the Baptiste Road. Everyone looked a little blank, but no one said those three magic words you'll never hear in India. I don't know. Those three words that have the power to save many missed turns, mis-navigations and frayed foreign nerves.
About an hour later, after walking the hilly streets of Bandra in my red patent heels chasing every light-on-high I could see, we decided to give up the Goa, and returned home for some toast.
But being troupers, we gave it another burl tonight. And thanks in part to a determined rickshaw driver who appeared to want to find Cafe Goa as much as we did, we finally found the place. Where was it? Turns out St John the Baptiste Road is the continuation of our local shopping strip, Chapel Road. If we'd taken a left last night instead of a right, we would have found it.
And yes, there were indeed lights in the trees.