three hospital visits that (surprisingly) never happened

Our first brush with danger came from plugging things in. Electrical plugs in India are two-pronged or three-pronged, and thin-pronged or thick-pronged. Some outlets can accommodate both thick prongs and thin prongs, and very special outlets can accept almost everything: thin three-pronged plugs, extra-thin two- pronged plugs, and American-style plugs to boot.

Such a marvel of engineering!

This variety of sockets was confusing to us, leading to a surprising amount of time wasted shoving large prongs into small holes. But even more confusing was the inner shield in these outlets. This spring-driven shield presumably protected empty sockets from prodding baby fingers; they lifted only when a three pronged-plug was stuck into it.

So what to do when trying to stick a two-pronged mobile charger into a three-pronged socket?

See the shield? See the problem?

For our first few weeks in India, we jammed toothpicks and pencils into the third hole to lift the shield. (And we were never electrocuted even once!) Eventually, though, we discovered the deft wrist motion that enabled our two-pronged chargers to slide in where they didn’t belong: an initial approach at an acute angle to reach under the shield, and then the rapid lift-and-shove to stick the prongs in before the shield slammed shut.

Which gives you a method for telling tourists from locals: ask them to plug in your charger.

* * *

Light bulbs were our second challenge. Bulbs in India didn’t screw in—instead, we had to push them into the socket against the pressure of a surprisingly resistant spring, and then maintain the force as we twisted the bulb to slip the prongs into the grooves.

Officially known as the bayonet mount (as opposed to the Edison screws Americans are used to), this supposedly-simple technique terrified us every time because the spring was always so strong. We’d have to push on the bulb itself with far more pressure than a glass dome should be capable of sustaining. Half our dead bulbs never got replaced for fear of squeezing too hard, shattering the bulb, shredding our hand, plunging our fingers into the socket, and electrocuting ourselves in tragedy made hilariously ironic by how flippantly we stuck toothpicks and pencils into electrical outlets without incident.

* * *

A less ironic death for us would be a cooking gas mishap. Gas for our counter-top burners came from two heavy iron canisters locked on our terrace. Each canister contained about two months’ worth of fuel, which meant that we’d invariably run out with our dinner half-cooked on the stove.

Ours was like this, except the canisters were outside. This photo by Flickr user überkenny.

There were just a couple valves and knobs that required turning when it was time to switch canisters, but the technique confounded me every time. I’d struggle, grunt, sweat, curse, smell leaking gas, panic, and finally ask our elderly neighbor for help.

Our elderly neighbor would have it switched within seconds.

Still, you can’t say I didn’t try. But I was frightened by the explosive potential just waiting to be unleashed by my clumsy American fingers. I treated the iron canisters as porcelain vases, terrified of their delicacy until the day Jenny saw how workers unload them from the truck: they threw the tanks to the ground, where they’d land on their sides with enough momentum to roll down to where they were being delivered.

Photo by Flickr user miselenaeous.

Canisters that rugged surely wouldn’t blow up just from changing the valve. So the next time I had to switch canisters, I put all my strength into it. But the problem persisted—I couldn’t get the valve to close. The valve must have been jammed, or perhaps it was rusted shut. So after a few more minutes of unrequited shoving, I finally called my elderly neighbor to get his opinion on the matter.

He took the valve in his hands and it was attached not ten seconds later. Nothing was harmed, except my ego.

6 responses to “three hospital visits that (surprisingly) never happened

  1. I have to say that in my three months in India, I had no problems understanding the sockets, but then I’m used to bayonet mounts too, being a Brit (we have three pins, the top one being the earth, as we have a higher voltage than most of the world). However, my scoffs ceased in the face of the cooking gas. I’d have trouble with those as well!

  2. Well, I was also fighting with the electricity. Be careful, that the fuse part of the outlet does not start to smolder. We used power stabilizers for sensitive equipment like air conditioners.

    The electricity is actually less dangerous than in Europe since the short-circuit power of the network is much lower. I realized that the first time I tried to fix a power outlet and recognized that the power was still on. The feeling of electric shock was even less strong than that one of an electric cow fence.

    Light bulbs: There are Edison screw bulbs, put only in the railroad. So it can be avoided that people steal the bulbs from the railway since they do not fit at home.

    Gas cylinders:
    I had always three. One in use, one as spare and one in the refilling line. My servant was changing the bottles, so I head never to deal with them, but I still remember the smell of the gas …

  3. I was equally befuddled my first time in US. To start with the plugs don’t have any switch on/off buttons associated with them which, coming from India, can be very scary. I was scared to get electrocuted every time I put in the plug.

    The second problem were the switches that flips the other way round. I used to be so confused whether I am switching something on or off.

    And then it took time for me to get used to those electric stoves. Again, I was (at times, still am: its a hard lesson to unlearn) scared to touch anything on the stove if the stove was still on, again for the fear of being electrocuted.

  4. Those safety catches are not safe at all: I’ve found myself sticking various things into the power points to try to dislodge them.

  5. Are the screw bulbs the reason why the jokes read “How many are needed to screw a light bulb?” ????
    Damn till date I thought someone was screwing it up (as in failing). Ha ha.. I can see a small light bulb on my head with this enlightenment.

    The gas cylinders (which you call canisters) are quite scary.
    Didn’t understand how the scokets are in US though.

  6. The Indian plugs are very much based on the old British standard with round pins similar to what is seen in South Africa (BS 546). They operate at the same voltage as British plugs too apparently at 250V, and so electricity supply in India is exactly the same as seen in most of Europe. You aren’t technically meant to use Type C (European) plugs in those plug sockets, but worry not, the child safety lock is triggered (in the same way as British standard 1363) by inserting the earth pin (top of the three holes) which is why the earth pin is longer than both the neutral and live pins. Therefore, by inserting something into the earth socket you don’t actually risk electrocution as no power flows through that part of the socket, it is only used to ground the appliance.

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