Sunday, August 3, 2008

the new york of india

sorry for the long wait between posts, but things have been busy around here. Not only has my project started to heat up at work, but unfortunately the goodbyes have started. Since the length of people's projects vary, the interns who arrived at the beginning of June with me have been dropping off one by one, so we've been going to the city a lot for goodbye dinners etc. I'm not looking forward to my own goodbye in less than a week, although I'm excited to go home to see my family for at least a few week before school starts again.

Anyway . . . ever since reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (a book I finished at the beginning of my internship-- I highly recommend it, it's one of the best books I've ever read), I've wanted to visit Bombay, or Mumbai। It's a city with a culture all its own . . . with a population of 13 million (21 million if you count the suburbs), it's the second largest city in the world after Shanghai.

One of my friends from Bombay, when I asked him what I should do when I was there, told me that Bombay wasn't about places or events or touristy sightseeing-- that it was about the feel of the city. I didn't understand until I got there and discovered the reality of Mumbai: a truly international city, and completely different than anything I've experienced in India thus far. It's a city that draws you in, that makes you want to be a part of its thriving, vibrant community. It's attractive to both natives and foreigners alike-- this is the first time this summer where I felt like I could blend in and that I belonged. There were tourists and travelers everywhere, from every country and every possible walk of life, all exploring and wondering and drinking it n: the crazy melting pot that is Bombay.

Bombay is-- I have no more refined way to say it-- cool. It really is the New York of India in many ways, and it's more than just the fact that they are both major tourist destinations. In India, Bombay is viewed as the must-see city. "You've got to go to Bombay," people say. People from Bombay have a sort of automatic popularity/respect, just like people from New York. They talk differently: the Hindi in Bombay has a sort of swagger to it. Even the little I could understand was noticeable.

We stayed just north of the famed Colaba district, in probably the shadiest hostel I've ever seen: The Hotel New Bengal, champion of sketchy. This hotel employed approximately 30-40 youngish Indian men who hung out on the stairwells with apparently nothing to do. The hallways were narrow, dark, and winding, and each room had an air-conditioning unit that drained into a water bottle just outside the door (really). Breakfast, the same food each day, was served in a tiny restaurant down the street-- chai, puri, sambar, a banana, toast, and a hardboiled egg. Each time we exited the hotel, we were surrounded by cab drivers vying for our fare, each time with a different excuse as to why we should pay about 5x as much as was necessary. They ranged from "it's dark" to "there are no other cabs around" (Shane's reaction to that was to say "What do you mean?? There are cabs everywhere! Cab! Cab! Cab! Cab!" and to walk out and promptly get another taxi).

However, my personal favorite taxi-driver ridiculousness: "it's raining."


Let me explain. It is currently monsoon season across most of India, which means it's raining a lot. Bangalore has it nice; it rains about an hour each afternoon, which keeps the weather nice and cool and the rest of the day beautiful. Bombay, however, was a constant downpour. It got to the point where it was mildly drizzling (U.S. style "rain") and we would say ah! It's stopped raining! I don't think I have ever been more thoroughly wet in my life than over that weekend. This is why all of my pictures are very gray and dreary.

Now on to the actual events of the trip. To be brief, I'll just list them:

Friday Morning: Elephanta Island. We took an hour-long ferry to the island to see some cool rock-cut temples and caves. And monkeys. We met a cool guy named Gary on the boat, from California.

Friday Afternoon: Tour of Dharavi. Dharavi is the largest slum in India and second-largest in Asia, home to over 1 million people. I was initially hesitant about touring a slum; as a strong advocate of preserving human dignity, I feel very strongly that people are not attractions; people's poverty even less so. My friends convinced me to do it for the sake of "awareness," although I thought to myself that I was already aware that slums existed, that there was poverty in the world. I didn't need this tour.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The lesson I needed was not about the poverty of the slum, but rather its thriving industry and the warmth of its people. Yes, the slum was filthy and crowded, haphazardly winding lanes with bits of wire sticking out everywhere, and alleys barely big enough for an average-sized man to pass through. The people were quite poor. However, this was not abject, streetside poverty. The people in the slum worked hard for their meager living in the various slum industries: plastic recycling, pottery, tanning, baking, textiles, and much more. The children go to school, and the women keep the families and the tiny homes. And despite the bare-faced poverty, I was never asked for a cent, for the first time in India. The people's smiling faces and overall warmth was more than enough to make up for my cold, wet discomfort. Although I was soaked to the bone and ankle-deep in sewage as the skies opened above me, I don't think I have ever felt safer or more contented in all my time here. I am extraordinarily glad I listened to my friends. If you're ever in Bombay, contact Reality Tours and Travels, the agency that guided us around Dharavi. The tours are very sensitive: no photos allowed, and the guides know all the people in the slum and know they don't mind tourists. They also donate 80% of profits to an NGO that works in the slum, and they themselves teach English, photography, and computer classes to the children of Dharavi.

Friday night was at a club called Red Light, courtesy of Kersi's friend Rishabh. It's all about connections in India, especially Bombay, so Rishabh was able to get us into this club. It was a pretty nice place, but very crowded by the end of the night. You could barely move, let alone dance. Also, we had to leave by the back door, through the kitchen of some restaurant, in order to avoid the cops that were waiting outside the front door. Intriguing.

Saturday was shopping. All day. Shopping. Wow. We went to Colaba Causeway, which is crowded with both sidewalk stalls and legit shops on the side. I actually almost bought a trumpet, which I had bargained down to 1300 rupees (about $30), since it was playable and in good condition, but couldn't figure out how to get it back home. Instead, we bargained hard for trinkets and scarves and DVDs and who knows what. For about 6 hours. We also ate lunch at Leopold's, the famed Colaba dive where every tourist MUST go (it's prominently featured in Shantaram, so I'm glad I went).

After shopping we hung out to "see the sunset" from Chowpatty beach (i.e., the sky goes from light gray to dark gray), where we had bhutta and decided what to do for the rest of the night. We settled for dinner and another club called Play, recommended to us by Bombay-dwelling intern friends. However, things took a turn for the worse as one of my friends, George, had to be rushed to the hospital. He'd been feeling sick all day and had a sudden attack of lots of problems-- I'll spare you the details. Anyway, George actually stayed in the hospital for two nights, so that put a bit of a damper over the rest of us as we continued our trip.

We still saw a few more things though; we ate at Swati Snacks, which serves street food that's safe for foreigners (hahaha), then went to visit Haji Ali Mosque. The mosque is at the end of a causeway leading out into the bay, where both the faithful and the curious trudge to and fro for the chance to see inside.

On our way to the airport we stopped at Bandra, where we ate dinner (my birthday!) and visited friends and caught up on the news of the weekend's bombings of Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Don't worry, I'm safe, all my friends are safe too. There were several bombings in Bangalore on July 25 but none were terribly serious; the Ahmedabad blasts were much worse.

The flight home was uneventful, especially compared to the bustling metropolis we had just left. I really liked the city, and I plan to return someday. But for now, I'll settle for writing about it.


Because I'm so late with this entry, I only have four days left in Bangalore! Time has gone by so quickly. I'll try to write another post before I leave, summarizing my internship and my experience in the great, exciting country that is India.

The Taj and the Gateway to India, from the Elephanta Ferry

Mama and baby monkey on Elephanta

Temple on Elephanta

The Dhobi Ghat, world's largest open-air laundry. I had some of my clothes washed there :)

Streets of Bombay

Getting juice outside of Haji Ali mosque

Haji Ali and the long causeway leading to it


Jamie Sinz said...

Great post. I'm traveling to India next month, and Mumbai and Bangalore are two of the cities we will visit on a 1-month journey. I'll be checking out more of your Bangalore info in the coming weeks.

I'm in Thailand now, so here's my travel blog

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