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Trip Report My First Passage to India

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Forecast: Smoke

A few days before I left on this trip, I checked weather forecasts. I plugged in Weather Mumbai India into Google, and the first thing that came up on or some such site was Today’s Weather: Smoke. Hmmmm. I’m trying hard to imagine what that means. Probably not forest fires. Some other kind of fires? Pollution? Really, really bad pollution? I really didn’t know, until I awoke at 6 am at the Bawa Hotel and looked out the window. Still dark, but as dawn spreads, so does a film of haze so brown and ominous it really does look like smoke, and for a moment I panic and check the room for a fire extinguisher (none). The building is constructed like a prison, and the windows don’t open, so I can’t check to see what the air actually smells and feels like, but it certainly looks unhealthy, if not dangerous. Then I notice the streets are slowly filling up with people and tuk-tuks and taxis, and no one seems alarmed in the slightest, so I figure I’m not in any immediate danger. I have been waiting for the moment when I can have a masala dosa with lime pickle for breakfast, along with a coconut lassi and some chai, and here it is. Oh yum!

I shower in a trickle of cold water, slurp a malaria pill, brush my teeth with Bisleri water, throw on a cotton skirt and loose linen blouse, slip on my purple Puma flats, run a comb through my hair, grab my valuables and toss them in a small leather backback, and run down to breakfast. Where I am the only female in a sea of Indian businessmen. No matter, apart from a few outright stares, they are engaged in their own talks and prandials. I am so excited to be here I really don’t take much care with the massive breakfast buffet, and when I finally sit down realize I have a most peculiar assortment of food on my plate: my masala dosa, some fresh pineapple and papaya, a tiny donut, some nan, a dollop of murg makhani, a stuffed parantha, some yogurt and honey, and a piece of wheat toast. And a glass of guava juice, a lassi, and a cup of coffee. I have to hold back from giggling, remembering when I worked in a dinner theater a few lifetimes ago and was just stunned by the stuff people loaded onto their plates because it was “as much as you can eat.” But I’m tickled to have this bizarre smorgasbord in front of me, and I make my way through it, except for the donut, which is bitter and strange. While I’m finishing, my SO, who’s spent a good deal of time in India, calls and says “So, are you in Loonyland yet?” I think so, I say!

My arranged guide shows up promptly and 9 am, and we get into an air-conditioned van for a full day’s worth of sightseeing. She’s Marik, and the first thing she says is “I hope you don’t mind, but I love to talk, in fact I love to shout, so if I am talking too much, or shouting too much, you must tell me. If you don’t say anything I will keep going.” Well……..ok, I guess I can handle that. Then she explains the derivation of Namaste and presses her hands together and says “So welcome from the god within me to the god within you.” Then she launches into an explanation of some of the microenterprises we will see evidence of as we traverse Mumbai on our way to the southern shore this morning, and notes that we have about 40 kms to go and it will take us a good hour and a half at the least, depending on traffic. She tells me about Indians who will approach you with offers to clean your ears for a small fee. And the vast system of healthy men who carry tins of hot lunches to working folks on bicycles every day – hundreds of thousands of hot lunches delivered by illiterate men to workers all over the city who pay between 50 and 350 rupees a month for this service. The error rate, meaning a delivery gets mixed up, is one in 800,000. Astonishing. Meanwhile we are maneuvering through the biggest thicket of traffic I have ever seen, ever imagined. We are almost always literally within an inch of another vehicle. People, individuals, groups, and sometimes mothers with a gaggle of babies, suddenly step off a curb and we miss them by a hair’s breadth, slamming on the brakes. Marik keeps up a steady stream of chatter as we inch along, talking about green efforts and recycling plastic into a kind of powder that can be used as cement and how lateral building has to be replaced with vertical building as she points out new buildings being erected but notes that they’re still using incredibly risky wooden scaffolding (it looks insanely fragile)…I can’t even begin to keep up with her…

France captures my imagination. Italy warms my heart. North Africa fascinates me. Kenya stole my soul. India, I think, is going to kick me hard in the gut. India is a rich, heavily scented, multidimensional, hyperstimulatory, contradictory, massive, and sometimes paralyzing data stream assault on all the senses. It is everything and nothing, it is great and it is horrible, it is sweet and it is sorrowful, it is expression and oppression, it is maddening and soothing. It is disgusting and filthy and loving. It is all the raw guts of us humans displayed for the world to see on every street corner - amazing, graceful beauty and unbearable pestilence wrapped in a mysterious packet handed out for you to wonder over in various guises by everyone you make contact with. It is stark and blank and devoid of everything you think of as the barest human essentials and then in an instant it turns on you and is effusive and warm and wanting to cuddle you into its very soul with its overt and colorful and embracing nature. It’s shy but in your face. It’s delicate, concealed, but has whole monuments, whole cultures, devoted to eroticism.

From my first day I most remember a pile of young, almost naked children, perhaps a half-dozen of them, dark buttery brown and dressed in rags, literally bits of clothing that just hung around their bodies the way a torn-up handkerchief would cover you. They traveled in a small pack, like puppies, always touching each other and rolling along the streets in a kind of communal ball. Happy, laughing, enjoying the touch of each other. With incredibly silky, gleaming brown curly hair, and big white teeth.When I got back into my car after visiting a site, they grouped themselves into one solid glazed brown mass and banged at the door methodically moving their hands in the direction of their mouths to indicate they were hungry. It was a feat. It was drama. It was heartrending, it was gorgeous, and it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

I remember the young, dark, turbaned, muscular men at that same site, workers in a communal laundry, which takes care of the laundry needs of most of Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals, carrying enormous piles of dirty linens on their heads down to a huge space by the RR tracks where there are large cement tubs full of murky water. There, they pour in soap and beat the fabric over and over, then move to another cement tub of slightly less murky water and beat it again and again and wring it and wring it and curl it tight into coils and balls, and then string it all up to dry in the sunlight. Hundreds of young men, thousands of sheets and towels, acres of murky-watered cement tubs. Drying in the wind, the white linens looks incredibly white and clean, the pastels a kaleidoscope against the stark Mumbai city background…but having seen the water I find it hard to believe those hospital sheets are clean.

And I remember Muhatma Ghandi’s house, in a rather plush neighborhood, a tall blue structure with ornate balconies and swathed in leafy flowering trees. His room on the second floor on display…his pallet, his sandals, his tiny wooden desk, his quill pen, and his loom, for he made his own clothes, the khadi, the essence of India’s self-preservation for him at a time when his culture was being subsumed. He made his own clothes. He wanted everyone in India to do the same. That was the beginning of his calling…making your own khadi, the most basic of needs. No outsourcing. The irony is almost staggering, since I spent the early morning making a call to my bank in the USA, only to be rerouted to a call center in India to get a human to talk to me. There’s a series of models depicting various events in his life as well, and a library with 20,000 volumes, and beautiful photos of him, including the picture of him smiling at his assassin and forgiving him.

Our car overheats here, and we have to wait, but only a few minutes, for a replacement. Then on through the rich, hilly suburbs of Mumbai past mansions hemmed in by iron gates and massive overhanging trees. Then, suddenly, to a place I think called the Garden of Silence, which is where the Parsis put, leave, discard….what is the right verb?...their dead. Their tradition holds that when a Parsi dies, he will be left out for nature to do what it will with him. They don’t believe in interment, because the body will go to the earth in that case, and they don’t like that. They don’t believe in cremation, because the body then goes to the air/heavens, and they don’t like that. So they build these cylindrical brick structures like wells that go upward, and when a Parsi person dies, they throw the body into it and let nature take its course….which means the vultures converge and pick the body clean within a couple of hours. And all this in a beautiful, peaceful garden nearby the richest suburb of Mumbai and the little park with its Old Woman in a Shoe statue and the walkway to the Highest Point in Mumbai where tourists and locals throng daily. It’s a wonder. There weren’t many birds today, so no one had died recently, but according to Marik, it was very easy to tell when a Parsi had been tossed in the “well.” Apparently the Indian government afforded them this sanctuary as a way to contain the practice, although they don’t condone it. I really have to sift through all this at some later date…just driving by it’s too much, as is so much in India, to absorb right now.

I remember the oldest Hindu temple in Mumbai, which we visited. Actually, there’s a conglomeration of old Hindu temples, centered around a rectangular pond that is supposedly fed by a spring that brings luck. It’s in a warren of residential alleyways, and it’s not even attractive, just a large rectangle of dark water, a few swans floating listlessly at the shore, a burble of a spring emptying clean water in to it on one side, where young men are bathing fully and partially clothed, an obelisk sticking out of the middle of the pond. Apparently a lot of the old temples have just been submerged and overbuilt by raggedy houses of corrugated iron and whatever the locals could scavenge to build a small dwelling. But there are a couple of obvious temples remaining, and we drift through a stream of local inhabitants to the first, with a giant brown cow outside, surrounded by a mother and several daughters bedecked in blindingly bright orange and blue and yellow saris. Of course, the cow is sacred, and the cow is tethered outside the temple, and the cow needs to eat, and if you feed the cow, you will receive blessings also, and if you pay the mother who owns the cow a few rupees to get some hay to feed the cow, you’ll blessed, and so you do, and so you begin to understand on one very primitive level how one minuscule segment of this society operates. And you feed the cow, and everyone bows and blesses you, and then you must remove your shoes to go inside the temple.

Now, I am no traveling prude, and I’ve been in grime and grit and bug-infested places and I’ve fainted from intestinal diseases and seen many a Turkish toilet, and I’ve bathed in brown water, and risked ridiculous, well, risks, eating and drinking things I shouldn’t have…but I’m middle-aged now, and though I wouldn’t ever dream of bringing Purell or a prescription for antibiotics to Europe, I’m armed and ready for India. AND, I’m actually thinking, pretty constantly, about what the stuff I touch and come into contact can do to me. I didn’t even think much about this when I went to work in Nairobi last year, but for some reason I’m kind of cautious, for me, about India. So when we arrive at the Hindu temple entrance and I’m told to take off my shoes, and I see a wet, dank, muddy floor in front of me, in the midst of this dirty neighborhood, I, well, I have my antennae up. But I take off my shoes (thinking, I must admit, how long will it take for my purple Pumas to be relieved of me while I am learning about Shiva?), and wade into the bilge that surrounds the marble bull at the entrance, where Mirak tells me I can kiss the horns if I have a particular wish. No thanks, my particular wish is not to get a cold sore on top of anything else I might contract.

It’s a tiny temple, with flower petals strewn everywhere, and a couple of ancient Indian women walking round and round citing mantras and periodically stopping to fill a cup full of water and douse the Shiva sculpture in the center (and OMG, that’s what that big cup with the handle was in the shower today – you’re supposed to fill it and pour it over yourself – I couldn’t figure out why there was a “measuring cup” in the shower!). Incense is burning. A man in a sarong and turban with a branch broom circles the temple sweeping away the water and grime and stray flower petals. There are flies everywhere, and big, big beetles that skitter out from the temple itself and onto the marble floor where my bare feet are. I am hopping a few times so they don’t scoot over my toes. Marik is devotional – she says Monday is the lucky day for Hindus and so an important temple day. Wonderful. I am loving this experience. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and I am full of respect for these gorgeous old women who are circling me chanting, and the incense is divine, but can we leave now so I don’t get beetles on my feet or something more dire? We do leave soon after, and I admit when I got back to the hotel that night I scrubbed my feet within an inch of walking-ness and doused them with Neosporin. Wussy, I know.

Marik wants to know what I’d like for lunch, and I say I want authentic Indian food. It’s Mumbai and so I want seafood. I like it hot, really hot. I want a place where YOU would go. She says Trishna, but it’s a place I would go if I had some money to spare. I happen to know of this place, having read of it in guidebooks and in the Austrian Air mag that I read a bit of on the way here. Strikes me from the reviews that it might be classified as a touristy place, but also a kind of local institution with a good rep. Marik warns me it won’t be cheap, and I say that’s ok, it’s my only real meal in Mumbai, so drop me there. And she does. I order a medium crab with hot chili coconut sauce and some raita and nan. A glass of Indian white wine. Mineral water. The crab comes, chunks of meaty claw and body doused in a dark brown chunky sauce heavily spiced with cumin, lime leaves, saffron, chili, coconut milk. I get a plate full of utensils to rip the crab apart with, but it's already doused in this thick sauce and slippery, and the utensils are HUGE, way bigger than my tiny hands can get around, so I have to ask for help to mash the crab into bite-size morsels. No problem. My waiter cracks all the crab pieces, puts my bib around my neck for me, and basically does everything but put the food in my mouth. And oh, is my mouth happy when that food hits it! Oh boy! Indian food in the US is good. Indian food in India is good squared, maybe God squared. OMG the tastes, the textures, the subtleties, the intermarriage of complex spices. I am here, with a bib, eating like a baby. I slurp, I suck, I gulp. It’s just sooooooooo good! My tongue is tingling, my brain is engaged, my jetlagged body feels energized again.

I meet Marik outside an hour later and I feel as though I’ve been re-engaged, been to a spa or something for a day or two. How is this possible? I was a tired, jet-lagged mess, and now I’m sporting an entirely new fresh self. It’s India. It’s magic.

We visit the Gateway to India, which is encased in scaffolding. It’s interesting to see how many Indian families come here, though, to take a soothing cruise in the harbor and muse upon the expulsion of the British. Marik explains that India has its own source of oil, but really only one drill, and they are totally dependent on Saudi oil. There are hawkers galore, selling pineapple and coconut and cucumber and papaya slices. There are myriad vendors with cheap bracelets and flower necklaces. We move on to the downtown financial district, so British in its foundations – the stock exchange, the university, the Polo Club, the Cricket Club, the Army Navy Club, all the right addresses. I ask Marik what did the locals think when they were colonized, and what do they think now? She said, Imagine someone just moves in with you and your family, someone strange with strange habits, and of course you hate it and resent it, but you realize soon that your standard of living has been raised and that a lot of the problems with warfare among the tribes around you have been solved or softened, and you decide you can deal with it because overall you life is better, but you wish you could hold onto your traditions and the invaders do let you do that to some extent, but it’s never the same, never the same. You do it. Why wouldn’t you?

We drop Marik off at the main train station and drive by way of the largest slum in SE Asia home. I don’t know why, but I think our driver has discerned that I don’t just want to see the pretty and the respectable parts of Mumbai. The slum is endless and horrific. I open my window to take pictures of it, as it straddles the main road back into Mumbai, but the stench is more than I can bear. I fear I will vomit out the car window. And what does that say? Four million people living in such squalor that the average person driving by a few hundred meters away will retch upon opening a window? While you can see women and children and men busy within these slums, going about their daily business, and what’s amazing is that they DO have daily business. The slums are BUSY! They are alive, they are moving, they are filled up with folks attempting to do whatever the hell they can to eke out a living. They aren’t dead and stagnant, they are alive, alive in a desperate but accepting manner, testament to the phenomenal fortitude and resilience and resourcefulness of every human who needs those attributes. And there are so many of them.

I go back to the hotel just after dark, when the traffic scene becomes positively hair-raising. I’m inside my safe little compound by the time it’s truly dark. I have no appetite for food, just for more of this mysterious India. The country is so massively sensorily overwhelming that I am literally exhausted after a day in Mumbai. I am wrung out, my mind is burnt to a crisp, my vocabulary is rendered pathetic, I just want to crawl into a ball and sleep. And I do, at just before 9 pm. But oh what dreams I’ll have. . . .

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