Watercolor on paper and marker drawing
Walking to the train station yesterday. Someone taps me on the shoulder. This is like a weird, shoulder double tap to quietly get my attention like tweety bird. Who does that?
“Hablas español?” he asked.
Why yes I speak a little, I thought. And started chatting with him in Spanish. He teaches spanish at a local middle school and wanted to get together to practice.
This was an old 50 year old guy, who was short, chubby and especially giddy and awkward. He wore lame sandals and had a terrible combover. He just emailed me:
Definitely not junk!
Indian Barber Shop:
This morning, I was writing and hanging out at a coffee shop. I starting chatting with an Indian guy my age who is currently in law school. Really bright, outgoing guy. After coffee, he gave me a tour of the neighborhood and took me to an Indian barber shop. I really loved seeing my Dad’s cringing reaction as he saw my face with a bigger and bigger beard. But I figured I couldn’t miss out on the unique barber shop experience here.
Barbers are everywhere in the city. There are all different sorts of classes of barber shop too. There are street barbers, stall barbers, real barbers, and Maserati-class barbers. Straight razor shaving is extremely popular. Indian men tend to groom (or get groomed) often. I first thought it was a sort of vanity. I now understand why. It’s incredible!
My new friend, Karan, took me to a guy who cut my hair for three bucks. Therefore, this was a pretty high end place. I got a cut and a beard trim (they rest your head on a flap that extends out of the barber shop chair and start getting all up in your neck hairs with knives and scissors while your neck is complete exposed to their blades. You just have to trust them.
After your cut, the barber offered me a massage. It’s traditional to get a head rub with eucalyptus oil, and a rub down massage throughout your head, neck and shoulders. After the massage, he straps a vibrating machine to his hand and goes to town on your scull. At one point, he stuck one of his fingers completely into my ears with his vibrator on. It sounds completely off-putting, I know. But it felt strangely great. It completely clears out your ear channels. The eucalyptus makes your whole head buzz hot and cold and the massage just rejuvenated my brain with blood flow.
All around it was a top notch experience. I might have to get my haircut every week.
There are lots of modeling agencies around Bandra. Bollywood is based here and there are a whole lot of modeling companies and international models around. I’m waiting for one of the companies, or the models, to pick me up.
Flying Air India
I got to the Kochi airport after an hour tuk-tuk ride. The airport was very far away from where I was staying so I’m glad that I was overly cautious and asked the tuk-tuk driver to come at 5:15 for an 8 o’clock flight. I’m glad the driver was even there at all. I just met a driver randomly the day before. He spoke decent english, better than any cabby in Mumbai, but about average for those in Kerala (the region has a strikingly high literacy rate 98%). During a ride the day before, I bargained him down for a price for the airport. We agreed on a reasonable sum and he said he’d show up the next morning. I had no back-up plan so it was just blind faith. I doubted he’d be there because it was so early, but he showed up as promised.
I got to the airport, weighed my bag. It was 3kg overweight. I had to exit the airport go to the Air India office outside and pay the overweight baggage fee. I wasn’t allowed to look at the scale so I had no idea whether or not I was getting hustled. I felt like I was getting hustled.
Proceeded through security. Which is very tight. They found a leatherman utility knife in my backpack. I completely forgot it was there. It was in a deep corner of my backpack. I think I would have gotten in a lot more trouble had I not packed all of my watercolors and art sketchbooks in my carry-on. The lady gave me a good stare-down. I got her best mean mug. I think it could have ended up much worse than it did. She confiscated the knife and then let me carry on, but I could see it in her eyes that she was thinking about giving me a tougher time. That’s the second knife I’ve had confiscated so far.
The flight was nice and peaceful. Modern plane. You can get the sense that everyone flying was an upperclass citizen. Otherwise there is no reason not to take the 24 hour express train back to Mumbai. The most amazing thing about the whole flying experience was what happened after we landed and the seatbelt sign was turned off. Immediately after, it was a vicious battle to retrieve personal belongings from the overhead and get in line to exit. I looked out the window and the people hadn’t even begun to put the exit plank in position yet, but everyone had lined up pushing and shoving in line. This country is all about the hustle.
This past weekend, I got to hang out with my Bowdoin friend, Kurt. I’ll get at that next!
Open this .pdf for my post with pictures. I think posting pictures through a .pdf document solves the problem of slow uploads. I’ll make some .pdf photo albums for you guys to look at. Here’s the original post so that you don’t need to download it:
Bombay is a city of 20 million people and it’s steadily growing.
“People migrate to Mumbai from all over India—and even other parts of the world—because of the opportunities here”, Dr. Pasnaris told me. “There are resources and potential jobs.” It’s the business center of the country, people flock here with dreams of economic prosperity.
Dr. Anjali Pasnaris is the Associate Director of The Energy and Resources Institute, a major Indian environmental research institute that investigates resources, climate trends, and population. TERI has started it’s own university and developed a rating system to accredit green buildings that the Indian government has adopted as the official rating system.
Dr. Pasnaris’ personal research interests focus on water: sanitation and filtration systems, flood mapping, and the monsoon. She invited me to visit her office in Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai).
Mumbai has a good supply of fresh water, she told me. It just comes all at once. It rains 33% of the time here, but it all comes in four months in a row. During the monsoon, enough water accumulates here to sustain the city for the other 8 months–the dry, and swelteringly hot, season. Migrants from all corners of India flock to the nation’s economic center in hopes of finding work on the countless construction projects, sell produce at the enormous bazaars, or seek other enterprises. Even though the prospect of work isn’t guaranteed, at least there will be water. That’s a major draw.
I’m watching this relentless growth from my apartment in Agripada, the muslim quarter of central Mumbai. In the past 10 days, a string of shelters has popped up on the street outside. New ones are added each day. Men haul plastic road barriers from the city’s construction sites into position to lay three walls. A few have flimsy roofs–assorted plastic sewn together, or a blue tarp if they’re lucky–that lap around like an inadequately rigged sailboat.They are empty inside, beside a couple of pots and pans and rags.
But as I walk down the street and around the corner they gain floors, sturdier walls, electricity. It’s like a walkable timelapse! Oil barrels are burned, and flattened to make sturdier walls. Bricks are laid; second stories are added. The end result is a patchwork, a collage of recycled goods and colors. The city’s future families builds their homes out of the used and decrepit material of the city’s past. Eventually, the roadside slums tap into electricity cables. Walking by, I peer into one of these hand crafted domestic residences, beyond the outer layer of repurposed trash and the waste cluttered doorstep into an immaculately clean interior with refrigerators, kettles steaming, and televisions glaring. A working home. The string of homes becomes a vibrant community, a bordered settlement of Mumbai’s migrants in front of the apartments behind.
Women chop vegetables and do laundry sitting on the road. Kids clamor on ladders and peer out from second story stoops. Cricket balls are slapped around within the air pockets of the city carrying on around them. Inches from the child’s cricketer’s bare feet, taxis rush by. Goats and chickens mull in the cracks and crevasses, scavenging for scraps. More often than not the animals mistake plastic for food. Groups gather around houses for three reasons: fights, weddings, or deaths.
I asked my hostess, Soraya, if anyone was upset about these families squatting here. “Where else would they go?” she responded. Nobody, at least in her neighborhood, is pushing to get them to go anywhere quickly. Imagine that response in the West.
Driving around the city, I see these roadside slums all over the place. But there are others even less fortunate. At night, after the roads declog from 9am-9pm bumper to bumper traffic, the city eerily descends from a loud bustling jungle into a quiet and sleepy city. The night reveals where masses take refuge: sleeping on the train station platforms, on the highway breakdown lanes, within oceanfront jetties and wave breakers. Individuals sleep on storefronts, doorsteps, up against trees. It’s staggering to drive through the city at night and see the hundreds of thousands, perhaps million homeless. With the morning light, the city returns to its usual bustle masking the refuge-camp-like nature of Mumbai at night.
It makes life in the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, look pleasant.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
In Bombay, no space is left unoccupied, no footprint of the city goes unused. There are farms in between railroad tracks; stores and markets that take over roads. If there is any space freed up, the next day it will be reinvented. Since the beginning of the city’s history, Mumbai has wrestled to open up space. Bombay began as seven islands. It became the peninsula it’s recognized as today when land was reclaimed from the ocean.
Every square inch is used up. There are three ways to develop: East, into Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), West, to Thane, or UP!
Dr. Parasnis is especially critical of all of the high-rise building projects that multiply the city’s surface area, though. By multiplying square-footage, these projects are multiplying the amount of people that are living here, and consequently multiplying the demand on resources and also the amount of waste that needs to deal with.
We need to be critical of calling this growth ‘development,’ Parasnis said. At the moment they are just building projects. Development suggests progress. Dr. Parasnis prefers a practical approach, she hopes that Mumbai will think about sustainable city-making, rather than blindly stacking floors higher and higher in pursuit of short term profits.
I know very little about the real estate and development market here. But what I have heard is that builders unions hold an disproportionate amount of power in the city. They have a heavy backing from construction workers and have power up top from corrupted government officials. A lot of black money is dispersed into construction projects and often times, buildings are put up without construction permits and ignore safety standards. But money is one of the most important things here in Mumbai. Smart long term planning can’t weigh up.
In Navi Mumbai, projects are being constructed on top of reclaimed mangrove land. Mangroves are natural buffers from high tides and waves, habitats for biodiversity, and naturally cleanse wastewater. The mangroves provide important ecosystem services, but the return on investment from building above that land seems MORE is more valuable to the short-sighted project managers.
This is nothing new, though. Since the start of the urbanization of Bombay, human settlement has changed the character of the landscape, changed the way the water normally flowed. The ecology of the terrain was paved over with concrete. And for that, Parasnis argued, we can’t consider damage from monsoons to be a climate change problem, it’s a problem that humans have created. We’ve manicured the landscape and the water pools up in certain areas, usually where the lowest rung of society have built their homes.
I got to get a feel for Navi Mumbai when I was visiting TERI’s office. The city is spacious, quiet, peaceful. Compared to Mumbai, it’s strikingly clean. Navi Mumbai has an eery feeling to it, though. It’s like it’s an empty house; ready and waiting to be filled up to the brim and splashing out the sides like the density of Bombay.
Navi Mumbai is particularly low-lying. The western edge of it lies below sea level and filling in the mangroves exacerbates the vulnerability of the area. The city has a series of holding pools that fill up with water during high tides to store temporarily then release during low tide. They’re urban flood plains. But that’s the limit of the city of Mumbai’s defense against the sea.
To Parasnis, though, climate change and the impacts of sea level rise is small beans.
She told me that in the research she has done, she doesn’t see any evidence of sea level rise being a problem here. Her conclusion disagrees with that of the UN, the WorldBank, and climate scientists from major universities, and my own personal opinion. But I kept that to myself.
The point she was trying to make was more subtle, I think. With all the challenges that Mumbai is facing up to, the slow, gradual rise of the sea isn’t a pressing issue.
Think about it like this. When a child is hungry, his main concern is finding food to eat. But a child that has food all the time finds other issues to be meddled by. What sports should he play, which girls should he like, etc. Sea level rise, in Dr. Parasnis’s eyes is a problem of plenty.
But it can’t be played that simply. It’s not that easy to cast sea level rise off as a problem for the privileged. It’s a problem. That will make every other problem Mumbai already faces much worse down the line.
The Netherlands is a rich country. Its entire population is half the size of this city and the nation has the resources, energy, and expertise in the field of climate change resilience. But they need to be. The Netherlands wouldn’t be a country if they didn’t. Sea level rise isn’t an issue only because they are rich. For them it’s a matter of defending their land and maintaining their identity.
“If a tsunami hits, there is nothing Mumbai could do about a 50 foot wave crashing into it. The city is on a fault-line, there could be an earthquake,” Dr. Parasnis said, “if something like that happens, the city is completely unpreppared.” Sea level rise, and storms, fall under that category of disasters in Parasnis’s opinion.
Yes, there is nothing Mumbai could do against an earthquake or 50 ft tsunami. And in this regard, a place like Mumbai is much more vulnerable geologic hotspot than Rotterdam. The Netherlands simply doesn’t have gigantic risks on their portfolio of potential disasters.
But sea level rise can’t be likened to a completely spontaneous disaster. It’s something predictable. It’s a slow onset disaster.
Even though Mumbai has so many social, political, and economic woes to address, it doesn’t mean that these issues of sea level rise can be ignored. In the same way that we need to build our future cities based on predictions of population growth, resource, and energy requirements, we also need to build incorporating predictions about the state of nature. Climate change, too, should be addressed within the framework of sustainable growth.
I moved on, and asked her about her research on wastewater treatment. I thought she’d be interested in the ideas Chicago’s UrbanLab has to treat wastewater using natural ecosystem functions to clean water. The main problem that U.S. markets have with the technology is that its making our waste visible. Americans tend to ignore our waste. Once it’s flushed down the toilet or tossed in the trash, it’s happily gone. But in India, waste is everywhere. There is a cultural tradition of re-use and many of the poorer neighborhoods living in close contact with human waste anyways, so I think a water-purifying living machine could really work here.
Our conservation turned towards the culture of trash. Garbage is littered everywhere. Plastics clog the streets, there are mountains of garbage in random corners, and the train tracks barely surface above a sea of waste. In India, it’s the tragedy of the commons, people take immaculate care of their own space, but shared area is thrown to the wayside.
Dr. Parasnis, explained that in the Indian cultural tradition, there is a huge importance of recycling. Cotton is used and re-purposed until it is grated into dust. Food waste is composted and burned as fuel. With globalization, though, there has been an introduction of new materials: plastics, polyesters, and more and nobody knows how to deal with it, so it’s tossed outside onto the sidewalk.
Indian traditions of sustainability extend beyond just household waste. Sustainability is part of cultural identity. Many families are vegetarian for all but 2 or 3 meals. They know that otherwise, there are too many demands and stresses on food supply. Fishing villages don’t fish during the monsoon when fish are breeding because they know they need to restock the populations to have food for the rest of the year.
Villages and communities figure out how to manage their habitat and use it’s resources that it sustains the generations over time. People from one area get to know their landscape well and become stewards of it. It’s necessary for their longterm survival.
This is all changing as people move rapidly into cities in India and all over the world, though. I think there is hope, though. Even in Mumbai, people of similar geographic and religious backgrounds live and group together. If any change is going to happen, it would need to percolate up through the roots. Decentralized. Nothing will happen top down.
Urbanization is a new thing and sustainable urbanism is a problem we should now address.
One final point that Dr. Parasnis mentioned is that Indians in general are happy and they stay happy. Perhaps that is their most important adaptation. That’s resiliency. They stay content and happy sharing food with family, walking the streets with friends, or just idling next to the company of peers.
At the end of my time at TERI, a biodiversity researcher named Yatish took me out to show me the holding pools along Navi Mumbai’s western coast. We talked more about the rapidly developing city, the building unions, the pursuit of power, money, and profit. We both agreed that many who are deep in this rat race to make it big have their time perspectives completely askew. Many will throw long-term sustainability completely by the wayside in order to make money on a housing development in the longterm.
“The best part of the pools”, Yatish said, “is that they stink. Nobody wants to build their home around here except the mangroves and the birds.”
I hoped on the hour train ride home. North through Navi Mumbai, west over the Vashi Creek, and South to Mumbai’s northern suburb of Bandra. The train ride is easily the best tour of Mumbai that you can get. It’s practically free. The doors are wide open, the warm breeze flows powerfully through the cars. You can hang out of the doors as the city zips by. You see trackside farms, cricket fields, neighborhoods, tents, people walking along the tracks like they are sidewalks. You see the city in the fullest of it’s complexities, layers, and beautiful disorganization.
I thought about what Parasnis said, about everyone staying happy. The sun was setting and a thick orange haze was lowering its way over the city. I saw kid leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone over a trash and waste filled creek, bubbling with toxicity. On the bridge above him, two old men, with their arms on each others shoulders sat laughing with huge teeth exposing grins. At their feet a family of goats milled about. The train slowed as we approached a station and I braced myself against the wall of the train to prepare for the surge of crowds shoving on and off, each man eyeing surprised to see such a foreign body riding public transportation. On the ride home, I felt especially content, just clattering through this city of 20 million people, just another one of the masses.
Works in progress after a day and a half working in a studio in Kochi.
The first is an aerial view of Fort Kochi done from memory after walking around. I’m feeling a little bit stuck so Id love to get some feedback.
The second is a man walking around the dockyards in Bombay.
The other two pictures are of my beard and me with two of the guys here at Springr.
Taking a break to read. Right now I’m on Unbroken, a story about a 23 year old Louie Zamperoni who was an Olympic runner until history threw him into World War Two. His plane crashed into the pacific, he survived 36 days on an inflatable raft in the shark infested waters, and now he’s being tortured at the third POW camp he’s to. Page turner. Recommend.
It all started with a bowel movement..too much street food in Mumbai or maybe a smoothie I had, forgetting that ice is an immediate red flag at shoddy establishments. Either way, I had to go, and I needed to find a place immediately. I already knew what would happen if I didn’t. I was aware that my body was rejecting what was inside. I came into India expecting to be sick; at least I made it 10 days before I got a bug.
I was walking along Bazaar Street in Kochi, a port city in Kerala five hours north of India’s southern tip by train. Bazaar street is a beautiful strain of rotting colonial warehouses taken over by modern, but outdated paper-billed family run businesses. There is one block of rice vendors with big colorful trucks parked outside. Men, usually middle aged to elderly, march 65lb bags of rice from truck to dock or dock to truck non-stop each day working with a striking similarity to ants. There’s a block of maritime hardware stores; another of onion vendors; then a block of a row of stores selling plywood. Each row is specialized. Different businesses sell the same thing.
The bottom floor of each building usually has a corrugated metal garage door that’s always open displaying a manager punching numbers on a calculator and recording details on copy paper. It’s antiquated business, but not as antiquated as the original structures they inhabit. The whole street of rotting warehouses is lined with beautiful old doors and four paneled shutter windows. Iron jail bars replace glass windows. The walls are lined with chipped paint, revealing the colors the structure wore over time. The place has an age-old beauty. The layers of history are engrained in the urban fabric, unchanged and unmaintained over time.
Knowing I needed to go, and needed to go quick, I rushed up to a second floor, hoping that whoever I found first would offer me a bathroom. As it turned out, I ran up to a cafe/art gallery/artist residency situated on the second floor of one of these buildings. I figured it would be worthwhile to introduce myself as an artist and share my drawings, but before I could get past introducing myself by first name, my stomach growled and I hit the 10 second countdown. “Hi, great to meet you! I’m David. I’m really sorry but do you have a bathroom I could use?”
I disappeared for 15 minutes, maybe longer. I returned to the founder of the residency gallery space with embarrassed and guilty eyes. But nevertheless, I explained who I was and what I was doing. It turned out that their artist ‘resident’ room was unbooked and I could move in until Friday.
I didn’t have a place to stay in Kochi past the one night I booked in a guesthouse, so I luckily, thanks to my food poisoning, found an amazing creative base with a large studio space. It’s in one of the colonial warehouses. My room is amazingly outfitted with tiled floors, a swing, jail-house style windows, you need to reach through the jail bars to close the wooden panel shutters. It’s all open air so the mosquitoes are a real problem, but the bed in the room has a tent-style mosquito net so I’m comfortably sleeping in what feels like an adult-friendly childhood fort. It’s great.
I’ve been having crazy, vivid dreams because of my malaria pills. They are so lucid and real that dreaming is not really like sleeping.
I started a large-scale painting of Kochi from an aerial point of view, all from memory. It’s pretty graphic. I like where it’s headed though.
The best way to get around Kochi is hitching a ride in a three wheeled motorized Tuk-Tuk. I’m staying in a part of the city called Fort Kochi that houses all the tourist attractions and therefore all the tourists. I’ve quickly learned that the Tuk-Tuk drivers get deals and discounts if they drop westerners off at certain galleries, restaurants, or spice shops. I figured that out quickly and it’s turned out to be huge bargaining weight. Here’s a sample conversation:
Driver: Want a Lamborghini ride?!—all they’re Tuk-Tuks are Lambos or Ferraris.
Me: I’m trying to go to Bazaar street in between the Chinese fishing nets and the Jewish Market.
Driver: 100 rupees.
Me: Thats outrageous, I’m not a tourist. This is only 3 minutes away. I’ll go for 20.
Driver: You want, I take you to St. Francis Cathedral, Chinese Nets, Synagogue, and Spice Port all in 1 hour. Full tour! Special price, just for you.
Me: I’m not a tourist. It’s okay, I’ll just walk.
Driver: Okay, okay, what’s your price.
Me: No more than 30.
At this point, they either drive away or are entertained and continue.
Me: The last guy I talked to said he’d go for 50 and that was too much.
Driver: 60 (classic Indian sideways head nod)
Me: What about swinging by a place where you get a free tshirt or a lunch coupon? (All I have to do is go into the place and chat around with the salesman. I just ask them questions like: whats the most expensive thing in here? How can you verify it’s authenticity? After they think they’re in for a big catch, I reveal I’m traveling around the world with a backpack and can’t carry an ancient Chinese waredrobe around Asia with me. Sometimes the drivers like hanging out and after stopping by one place where they get treats, just drop me off at my destination for free).
After a day and a half here, I’d say one out of every five tuk tuk drivers recognizes me.
All the fun in Kochi hasn’t come without downsides, however. First of all, I was pretty darn sick. With the stomach bug came feverish symptoms. I downed about 7 liters of water yesterday and slept it off in between waking up to urinate six or seven times. I’m feeling better today, but don’t have an appetite. Yesterday, walking home from a restaurant where I dined off some buttered rice, I was followed home by a man on bicycle. Every square inch of his body was covered with tumors. He has a skin disease and I felt terribly sympathetic for him, but it was also a nightmarish sight. He followed right next to me for about 10 minutes in the dimly lit street as I walked alone, slightly lost trying to find my hotel. He was begging for money and followed me right back to my guesthouse, so I walked past it, back to the main street and dipped into a grocery store. I was going to tell the shopowner I was being followed if he came in, but he turned and left. It was one of the more rattling, scary couple minutes of my life arriving in a brand new place with a deformed man stalking me through the dark.
The art gallery here seems like a great place. Tomorrow night, there is a live band coming to the space. It’s great being in the company of like minded creative people, especially being lucky enough to stumble into the place by chance.
Fort Kochi looks eerily like Venice. It’s a series of Islands on the Arabian sea, one or two were man-made, dredged to make more port space available. Over it’s history, Fort Kochi was were traders from Portugal, China, the Middle East, and India all met to do trade. It has influences of all those places in its architectural designs. There is a current, but rusted, system of water buses to get around via water. I rode one yesterday to go into the non-touristy center, Eranakalum and buy canvas. The water lies eerily close the land. If the water wasn’t calm, it would slop right over the edge onto the port, coast guard, navy base, hotels, resorts, and homes. There are no dikes, no embankments, the land dips only about 6 to 8 inches before it becomes water. It wouldn’t take much to kick the water over.
This past weekend I was in Goa, a mid-way point between here and there. it was useful to break up the train ride into two 13 hour segments. In Goa, I rented a motorcycle in one of the most basic rental agreements of my life. A woman who rented said she was all out. She called a friend and five minutes later it rumbled in front of the shop’s porch. We bargained a price, 600 for two days (5 dollars a day) and I paid him. They needed a passport copy as ransom. I didn’t want to give them one, but they agreed to hold on to my debit card. No signatures, no forms, nothing. I asked does it work? They said, yes. I asked is it safe? They said yes. That was good enough for me. I explored Goa on bike visiting temples, beaches, small towns. At one point, the most life-threatening, I found myself on a highway. There are no lanes in India. People pretty strictly only pass on the right, so I hugged the left side, only passing really really slow scooters. A cow was walking up the highway, into oncoming traffic. In the U.S., that thing would have been pelted and sent home for dinner, but here the cow is holy, so it parted the traffic the way moses parted the sea. Not really what a first timer on Indian roads wants to deal with though.
Over and out.
Tomorrow, I’m spending the night on a train as I head down India’s western coast. My destination is Kochi, a port city in Kerala, close to the southern tip of India. Kochi, also called Cochin, is another city especially vulnerable to climactic threats. On the way, I’m stopping in Goa, which lies at the mid-point between here and there. A straight shot would be 28 hours on the train so I figured why not break it up and see more India!
On monday, I stepped into the Jungle Book. I visited the Khaneri Caves which are in a National Park in the middle of Mumbai. They park is the biggest green space inside any city. The center of the park was like being in the jungle. Monkeys were hanging out in trees right next to me. They would climb around like gymnasts, totally trying to impress me. There were all sorts of species of monkey, some were about 5 feet when they stood up on their long limbs. I was a little bit spooked walking on paths alone because they could easily beat me up. I was tracking the forest floor the whole time for snakes. Leopards sleep in the caves at night.
Mumbai is built on a tropical rainforest. Crocs, leopards, and monkeys roamed the islands the city then smothered. In pockets of green space around Bombay, these creatures still have some habitat, but urbanization is spreading like the plague. You still see falcons, parrots, kites, and other tropical birds I can’t name throughout the city. Most of the falcons are concentrated near the Zoroastrian temple. Zoroastrains don’t believe in polluting the soil with human flesh, so they leave bodies above their ‘Temple of Silence’ where they are taken care of by the birds. I heard a rumor that in recent years supply has been too much for the winged beasts’ appetites so there has been a lot of excess piling up…
Back to visiting the caves. The national park bus, which serviced different sites wasn’t working so I had to pay a guy to drive me into the jungle to see the caves. Most people come visit in their own vehicle (other tourists have their driver). I took the local suburban train there. Most of India’s middle and upperclass don’t touch the train so I’m glad I’ve experienced what it feels like being a bean in a bean can. At the stations, 1 in every 3 signs is in English, and if you’re lucking enough to spot the sign through the hundreds of heads bobbing up and down in front of the window then you get off at the right station.
I was dropped off in the center of the park, close to one of the largest peaks around. The top of the hill was a giant granite slab and within that slab are buddhists caves which date back over 2000 years. Imagine the Monkey Kingdom from the Jungle Book.
From the very top of the hill you can look out past the forest and see the northwestern corner of the city wrapped along the fringe of the canopy. One amazing site is the Global Pagoda. An enormous gold pagoda that is one of the largest in West Asia. It’s magnificently sized in comparison to the skyscrapers and high-rises miles in front of it, so it must be gargantuan.
The view south is obstructed by a higher topography.
I took a couple hours to walk in the age old rock homes, temples, and markets of the buddhists that lived there a pair of millennium ago. There were amazing rock carvings, including two 35 foot Buddha figures.
That afternoon, I took the train down south to Colaba, the Southeastern-most ward of Mumbai. There, I painted a view of the Queen’s Necklace. The QN is land that was reclaimed from the bay at the turn of the 20th century. Upon the new land, Mumbai’s elite built homes, hotels and clubs in art deco style. It looks quite a bit like Miami.
I was attracting quite a crowd. A white, bearded American painting the city scape was probably for my spectators as a walrus juggling sea otters would be for me. At one point, there were 15 people around me watching. Pressures on. I turned around and asked one person for 10 rupees, a fee for watching. He didn’t get my humor.
I can’t remember what I did yesterday so I’ll do today next.
Woke up. Went to an art store. Reserved canvas to bring to Varanasi. Took the train to North Mumbai for delicious masala and the best coffee ever. Meal cost a dollar. Got 2 bananas. Yum. Got played by a taxi who was drove from point A to point B via point C. Called him out; too bad I have an impeccable sense of direction. Stuck my ground to pay him only 100 rupees. Held my ground. Won. Went back to the Worli fishing village. Painted.
Policeman with big machine gun approaches. I brainstorm things I could have done wrong. He takes out his phone and takes a photo of me. A bunch of teenagers come hang out. They invite me to their gym. I say I’ll come after I finish. Go to gym. Got swole. Returned home. Big festival in the neighborhood tonight. Going to go and check it out when I post this.
So yesterday I went to try to buy a train ticket and so many unbelievable things happened. Not unbelievable because they were awesome. Because they were literally. Un.bel.ievable.
I had all the information for the trains I wanted to buy tickets for on a sheet of paper, very clearly written out with train numbers, train names, departure city codes, times, everything. I waited in line for 20 minutes. Lines aren’t civilized here. You have to bump and grind with your peers so that someone doesn’t cut you. As you get closer to the window, you have to protect your turf the way a hermit crab protects his hole so that some sneakily little bugger doesn’t spin move you and dive right in. It’s unbelievable.
I got to the window. I gave then man, who as I expected neither spoke nor understood english, my neat form. He put the paper down, looked at me like I had just handed him dogshit on a plate, then signaled at a form. The form was in hindi. The letters have no resemblance to roman alphabet. I looked at him and said, absolutely perplexed. ‘I can’t read hindi. How could I do that?’ He reacted to my pleading tone and started punching things into his computer– a black and white screen that looked like it hasn’t been updated since 1996. On my paper, he scribbled w/12 next to my notes about train from Mumbai to Goa and w/3 next to form about Goa to Kochi. He handed it back through the window and shook his head in the traditional Indian way (side to side rather than up and down, the way preschoolers do it when they say ‘nah nah nah nah nah nah’). It’s used to nod yes. I’m perplexed and even bothered (not bothered as in annoyed, but rather bothered as in a slight irritation like the way you feel when you get a floppy fish handshake) by it whenever I get the nod as a silent reaction to a question I ask. It’s unbelievable. After that, the guy behind me popped in front of the window and I was tossed out like a bad rough draft. Unbelievable.
I asked a policeman if there was anyone who spoke english. He pointed to window 20, ‘enquiries.’ There, I got instructions to go to Victoria Terminus, the end of the line in Southern Mumbai. There, there would be a window specifically for tourists.
I went to the taxi stand to get a taxi. ‘300 rupees’ a driver replied. That was way too much. They are supposed to use the meter anyways. I walked down the end of the line. ‘250 rupees’ a bearded cabby said. I knew I’d be able to find a guy who would take me there on the meter. The fare decreased linearly as I went from taxi to taxi. 200, 180, 150. After I rejected their rate and walked on, they called after me, lowering the price, which helped because the next guy in line always heard that lower price. Outside the gate of the Station a guy said 100. I said ‘no thanks. I’d prefer to go on the meter.’ We banter back and forth and he keeps on insisting 100 as if he’s the only taxi in Mumbai.Taxis compose about 75% of the vehicles on the street. It’s as if the citizens of Mumbai all share cars with personal drivers. Interesting system. He finally agrees to the meter as I start crossing the street. I don’t like his attitude and find a taxi across the road to take me there on the meter, for 60. It took 8 different taxis and I only ended up saving a couple of bucks. But it’s a matter of principle.
Got my tickets squared away. The tourist window bypassed the massive line at Victoria. Went to the Mumbai Museum of Modern Art. Got lunch at a Parsi Restaurant–delicious fresh squeezed pineapple juice and a spicy rice dish.
In the afternoon, I toured Crawford Market, an amazing marketplace with fruits, vegetables, animals, and all sorts of other goods. It’s housed in a relic of the colonial era. The building is now rotting, but retains an amazing aged beauty to it. I took a picture of some guys sitting around and they invited me to hang with them for Chai. I hung with them, but didn’t drink their chai for personal health reasons. They were old and toothless and grunted and laughed simultaneously at my responses to their interview questions.
I went over to Babuneth Temple, a Hindu temple with amazing stone carvings all around the property. An old man called me over to sit on the steps next to him. He gave the a brief rundown. He was old and senile and repeated his sentences in loops. I sat and listened to his repetitions. Our bodies are temporary, souls are eternal, and our bodies are housing our souls now. When we die our souls move on elsewhere The world is a supercomputer and humans were like RAM in and RAM out. DOG is GOD backwards. I tried to escape as he kept on repeating his main arguments over and over again, like a miswired supercomputer. He got up with me and introduced me to all the gods, which was actually very nice. He put a orange dot on my forehead between my eyes. At the main alter, he grabbed a handful of leaves and orange flowers that others had just put down and poured milk over in a ritual, and put them into my hand. I felt awfully uncomfortable. I feel like I’m trespassing in religious places as it is, being so unaffiliated to any religion. I looked around with guilty eyes and my glances were met sympathetically. As if the others said, “you not the first to be trapped on the tour with this crazy man.” I returned the bouquet. While leaving, a woman asked where I was from. She was surprised I was wandering solo, but impressed that I was traveling through such a distant place alone. I get the sense this is an endeavor that garners respect among Indians I’ve met. They seem to understand that it’s not always straightforward for outsiders to make footprints through this country self-guided.
Last night, one of Soraya’s young friends, a 27 year old guy took me around the city at night on the back of his scooter. It was total madness weaving in and out of the honking gridlock past temples, mosques, and churches alike that were all lit up. We stopped at a place famous for kebabs, a place famous for chai, and a go-to Indian ice cream joint. We zipped through the red light district, a place I couldn’t go into on foot without being sure I’d make it out. (Because of gangsters and harassment, not because I’m into prostitutes). The ride has to hit the tops of my experiences from the whole year. This place is an absolute zoo and going face to face with it at night on scooter was sensational.
A motorcycle drove past us on the wrong side of the road. “That’s absolutely remarkable,” I say, “What’s he thinking?!”
Rehan, my guide responds,
“This is India. The land of possibility.”
I FaceTimed my parents yesterday. Behind them, an hour and a half closer than half-way around the world, was the backyard filled with snow and a lazy golden retriever who wouldn’t survive 20 minutes here. Technology brings you face to face with someone across the planet. It’s pretty amazing. But at the same time it accentuates the differences and the distance.
I shut the computer and returned to the world I’m now living in. Out of my 10th floor apartment window, I listened to the relentless honks, the muslim prayer songs projected out of the mosque next door. (The songs happen five times a day. The most eery verse is at 6am, just before the sun rises. I awake every morning to the unfamiliar. Then proceed to spend all day in it.) I looked through the fog-filled night at the distant high rise apartment buildings before lying down. I usually fall asleep really quickly. Spending the whole day out in the jungle is exhausting.
I’ve started to keep a list of all the things I have seen on the streets. Keep in mind, this is a major city. A metropolis of almost 20 million people. But, Bombay defines concrete jungle.
- ‘A mother cow with two calves tethered to a fence. What?!’ (That’s an exact quote from my book. I’ve seen 20 at this point so it’s not surprising anymore.)
- Grown men standing around, watching another grown man knocking coconuts out of a tree onto the tops of cars.
- A roadside construction site with four workers standing around watching one guy work really hard.
- Two kids defecating on a highway overpass.
- A taxi stand: One taxi, two taxi, three taxi, four taxi, two bulls, five taxi, six taxi, seven taxi. Stand over.
- Sitting in a cab, loud BANG! I jump, startled. See boys running after a rubber cricket ball that hit our roof. The kids run through the traffic as if they are indestructible.
- ‘A chicken foot in the middle of the city. No chicken in sight. How did it walk away?’
- A pile of trash along the seacoast. A giant boar lying in it. Fully in disguise.
Mumbai’s geography looks a lot like Manhattan. It’s an urban peninsula so naturally there is water encroaching on all sides. It reminds me of Gotham City (Batman for the ignorants) more than any other place I’ve ever known. There’s a huge disparity between rich and poor. Millions are homeless or live in slums, but a few blocks away, the richest man in India has a 42 story house equipped with a zoo, indoor football pitch, a showroom of antique typewriters, and so on. There’s a great deal of corruption in the police and government; and a mystifying underworld. They are even building an elevated highway to try to speed up the driving connection downtown so essentially building a top and bottom city, just like Gotham. Too real.
These are some sights I’ve visited in the past two days:
Hagi Ali is a mosque on the west coast of Bombay. As the story goes, a man left Pakistan to go on a Mecca. He left his family and home behind. There was a shipwreck and he washed ashore on a rock off of the west coast of Mumbai so they built the mosque there.
I went out to explore it, but never went inside because I was worried that someone was going to steal my shoes, especially because a few young boys ushered me to put my stuff in an exact spot. I sat out on the rocks and watched some young men bravely wade into the sea and flocks of others sitting out on the rocks enjoying the saturday ocean breeze. It seemed like a popular place for groups of friends and families come together to spend the day. There were mostly muslims there but also hindus and three other tourists, it was funny to see clearly how blatantly I myself stick out.
I passed through a security screening then proceeded out to a long 300 yard jetty that connected the mosque to the mainland. The place had the potent smell of a bay at low tide. The low tide also revealed heaps and heaps of trash lining the shores. There was an astonishing amount of plastic all over. There were scavengers mulling through the rocks, picking up profitable pieces of trash to sell to recyclers in the slums. Closer to the shore, goats were mowing the seascape, eating whatever suited their relentless appetites. There were rats, lots of rats were disguised within the sea of plastic.
Ironically, the whole left side of the jetty heading out towards the mosque was lined with booths vending all sorts of cheap goods. Phone cases, fake watches, sandals hats were sold booth after booth. Others had prayer rugs and cloths. The stuff in the booths was just the younger version of what was beside the jetty scattered all over the exposed seafloor.
On the right side of the jetty was a line of beggars, each positioned near a lamppost. On a rug were three children, the oldest was four or five years old. He was the head of the family and seemed to take care of his younger siblings lying next to him. He held a baby in his arms. The group reminded me of animal pups disregarded on a sidewalk. A group of six amputees lay around in a circle, beating their amputated limbs in unison as they chanted ‘Allah’ over and over. A man who was so burned and deformed that he hardly looked human sat cross-legged underneath an umbrella. He had no hair on his head or eyebrows and appeared to not be able to shut his eyes. Another man appeared to have lost the function of his right leg. It was completely atrophied and thin as bone. It lay bent behind his back and his foot hung next to his face as he was weaving stalks of grass together. This was so much more than just poverty.
After visiting the Hagi Ali, I walked a little bit inland to an area of the city called the Dhobi Gaht where there is a giant open air laundry service. My hosts arranged a Dhobiwalla to show me around his workspace for a small fee. My guide could speak a little bit of english, but it was never clear. I couldn’t understand what he was telling me, but the whole time I nodded enthusiastically in comprehension so that I didn’t appear to be rude. He said 12 facts that he repeated 30 times over throughout the tour. I’d ask him a question, and his answer would be one of his set phrases that he had said earlier on in the day. Nevertheless, it was amazing to be able to walk in through the Dhobi Gaht, something that the white man can’t do unsupervised.
There are a serious of concrete pools, each filled with a different mixture of soap, chlorine, water, or other chemicals. The fabrics, that mostly belong to restaurants, hotels, and hospitals in the city (and some personal laundry) begin a long process of hand washing, drying, and ironing at 4am. Some families even live in the Dhobi Gaht area. I walked through around lunchtime and noticed that a lot of men would perch up for lunch on their workspace. The ironers would sit cross-legged on their wooden tables as they scooped rice into their mouths with their right hands. You see that all over the place. Indians seem to get very comfortable in just about any space and any position. You see people squatted down right there on a spot on the street or taxi drivers lounging out and resting on the hoods of their cabs. Every single square inch of empty space in this city has a use and if it doesn’t, then it’s filled with waste. Personal space is generally very well cared for, but public space is not. The clichéd tragedy of the commons.
After the Dhobi Ghat, I ventured to the southwestern tip of Mumbai to a Hindu area. I visited ‘Pani’ which translates from Hindu to mean water. As the legend goes, a hindu god threw his spear into the ground here and water from the Ganges sprung up. There is a large pole sticking out from the middle of the pool. They say that this point is the center of the world.
I struggled to find the place, but eventually stumbled upon it after winding through city lanes. It’s in a square amphitheater surrounded by foot high stone steps that descend down to the holy water. Behind me were about 200 pigeons that got spooked at one point and rushed over me. I ducked, startled by the spontaneous flapping of 400 pigeon wings. The birds proceeded to fly over the water, their shadows descended down over the stone steps, then they all returned back behind me where they started. It was a surreal feeling, a unworldly welcome into this spiritual place.
I sat by the rocks for a while and wrote in my notebook. Six slum kids sat around me and watched me write. Fascinated either by the unfamiliar marks I was making on the page, or at the sight of me in general. There were some older boys playing cricket on a flat ground down the steps.
My last stop of the day was at a 600 year old fisherman’s village on a peninsula north of the city. I wandered through winding streets up a slight incline towards a fort that provided a 360 degree view of the city. (This was one of two unobstructed views in Mumbai. The other is apparently on the rooftop of the four seasons). I looked out over the colorful, ragtag fishing village with goats and chickens fumbling around. In the background, behind the sheds of the village, you look out over the west coast of Mumbai. Skyscrapers grew up into the clouds. There were an astonishing amount of construction cranes developing, or perhaps just expanding, the capacity of the city. It was a stark contrast between the ancient village and the modern skyline. Out in the bay on the left were the wooden boats of the fisherman, only one or two were still out, hand casting their nets off the side. The rest were docked towards the Sealink bridge, a multi-billion dollar project to connect the north suburbs with the city. The project has apparently reduced traffic by 16 percent and there are plans to connect it even further down the western coast to the far southern tip of Bombay. I drew a little and watched the sunset. It was an astonishing site. Old and new. Traditional and modern. All exposed and vulnerable to the surrounding Arabian Sea.
On Sunday, I went to Malabar Hill to the hanging gardens that looked out over the back bay area towards the Fort and Colaba neighborhoods of Mumbai. I sat and painted a water color. By noon, I went to Bombay Central to meet up with one of my good friend’s classmates from Brown.
Sitting by the station, I was joined on a stoop by two taxi drivers, one of which spoke very good english. They started chatting with me, asking me the usual questions. Where I was from, etc. One of them asked if I was a muslim because of my beard. I said I wasn’t religious. He told me he thought it was strange how nobody in the United States believed in God. I told him to go to the South. His friend was shocked when I told him I was 23. He thought I was closer to his age. (38, married, with four kids). Not yet, I told him. He asked me if I like Indian girls. I said I like them more than Indian boys. They said they enjoyed my company. It was a great little chat. And genuine.
Every day on the street I’m stared at, or heckled for money, or pushed towards shotty ‘tourist only’ deals. Today, a family of five stopped in front of me while the father told his infant daughter to take a good look at me, her first white man. Sitting at a table for dinner today, I got stares from all over the restaurant. I just tried to dodge the glances and look around the room. It’s an uncomfortable and extremely exposing feeling. I found a tv in the conner behind me playing cricket match so I sat sideways in my chair to watch since I forgot my usual solo-dinner company, (my notebook and book) at home. The restaurant was seat yourself, so two older men joined me at my table and drank continuous watered down rum and cokes. They didn’t stare or acknowledge me, which was nice.
Sidetracked… I met up with Brady’s friend, Lukas. He was a really nice guy who has lived all over the world in places like Mozambique, Rome, Copenhagen, India, the U.S., and a couple other countries that I can’t remember. It was great to get his impressions of Mumbai after living here for six months. He’s working for an Indian multi-national, Mahindra.
There is a large ground in the city center that is packed to the brim with cricket on Sundays. Cricket needs a large space, a big oval field. Since space is hard to come by in a densely populated 20 million person metropolis, the cricket caps overlap, like a serious of venn diagrams down the whole stretch. Quite a site.
We grabbed lunch in the city center then he took me up to Bandra, one of the suburbs. It was a low key, more tranquil area. But that’s more tranquil than the center so it was still nuts. In the suburbs, the auto rickshaws run the turf. They are not allowed in the city center but are everywhere in the burbs.
Some of the most noticeable features of the suburb were a Bollywood star’s house which was flocked with about 150 people outside just watching. They were looking up for any sign of him. I was told it’s like that every single day. There was a cool, windy road, with murals painted on the houses. Westernized brands have started their conquests in Bandra. I saw the first Starbucks, pink berry, costa coffee, and others I’ve seen in India. It’s the dark side of globalization.
At the end of the day, I returned south on the train. It took my 20 minutes in line to get a ticket. The trains are insane, they get so packed that people violently force their way in. You see the aggression in people’s eyes. I don’t have too much of a problem since I’m much bigger than everyone. Not sure Jimmy Rohman would make it… The Indian National rugby team should recruit on the trains.
I got back to Bombay Central and walked through crowded streets between the place I’m staying and the station. Here, Mumbai’s newest migrants have set up sheds with traffic dividers, construction fences, corrugated metal sheets, and scrap wood. The sheds are packed. There are little fires on the street to cook and keep warm, the runoff grates on the streets are urinals, others without shelter are posted up on the sidewalk underneath a burlap rug. The whole place is noisy at night, busier than any market I’d previously seen. But the streets here are not as busy as the marketplaces.
Here are some photos. Wish I could give you more, but I’m having a lot of trouble uploading them.
Today I’m off to the Kanheri Caves in a national park in North of Mumbai. It’s famous for being the largest green space within a city anywhere in the world. There, three lakes provide the city with a water supply and there are 109 caves, a 2000 year old buddhist site. There’s a chance I’ll spot some monkeys if I’m lucky. Also there are leopards living in the area! Hope I don’t become leopard lunch!!
I spent six hours yesterday afternoon guided through Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. It has the largest population of any slum area in all of the East.
My AirBnB hosts had never been, so they joined me on the tour.
The Slum is located in the northernmost part of the city in government owned property that used to be swamp and marshland. Before Mumbai was colonized and developed by the british, it was a chain of seven islands. Land was reclaimed from the sea and low-lying swamps were filled in. Dharavi is engulfed in at least 1-3 feet of water during the rainy season, and is obviously threatened by the steady onslaught of sea level rise. When the water comes, so do diseases like Dengue Fever, Malaria, or water-borne illnesses. These the victims, those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Yesterday afternoon was an especially moving experience. In no way will I be able to paint an accurate picture of it. At no point did I ever feel unsafe or endangered in the city’s largest underworld. Dharavi is nicknamed a ‘5-star slum.’ It has been around since 1840 and as standards go, its residents live a decent quality of life. The place was teeming with shoe-less, smiling kids who were happy to smile and greet a strange white-man but also had stern hard workers, buckling down to do routine tasks among dismal conditions.
In 2005, the monsoons caused billions of dollars of damage and killed hundreds of people. This area was hit hardest.
For the newest migrants to Mumbai, rent is way too expensive in Dharavi. Rent is too much for many here.
The government wants to remove the houses and develop it into malls, larger apartments, and other property with more expensive leases in order to make more money. Obviously problematic.
Side note: Soraya, my host, told me about the fascinating system of bag lunches that exists here in Bombay. Many workers live so far away from the city center that they need to leave home at 4am to reach work by 10. The wives are not up and have not made lunch for them so a lunch delivery guy picks it up in the late morning. He takes the lunches to centralized distribution posts where they are then delivered. This is a tradition that has been going on for longer than anyone reading this has been alive.
It was a crazy world, a city within a city. It’s a strange feeling taking part in ‘poverty tourism.’ But at the same time, there was no other way to get down there and see the deepest, unreachable corners of the place.
I wasn’t allowed to take pictures (though I did sneak some in). All over there were beautiful spaces that were carved out by outset second floors, jutting I-beams, colored corrugated metal, brick, old wheels, wires, pipes everywhere. The place was a maze, from the tiny dark 5ft corridors of the muslim district that I had to crouch through to the zig-zagging factories where they recycled paint canisters to turn into metal sheets to build their homes.
The economy was so internal. In the industrial section, one area would produce plastic crushers that were used in the next building over, the plastic would be crushed then sorted next door, then melted over from that. In another part, men would weave shirts that were sold on the main market street on the slum.
In the leather district of Dharavi, fake designer handbags are made then sent out to be sold on the ‘Canal Streets’ of the world.
In the plastic recycling area, men, who collect plastic off the streets from all over the city of Mumbai come and sell bags. It is sorted by weight and color, then crushed into tiny pieces. The bits are washed, then left on the roof to dry. After, the pieces are melted down and made into wire pellets that are resold to manufacturers.
We were allowed up on somebody’s roof to get a view of the entire place. The sights was amazing. I saw temples, mosques, and two sky-scraping apartment buildings that stick up out of a sea of tin roofs.
The smells in the industrial area were toxic. I was shocked to hear that the men who work there, most the equipment to the side of the room and sleep exactly where they work. In the more residential areas, many leave the slums during the day to work. The place is located between rail lines, so there is a relatively direct commute.
Mumbai’s river cuts through Dharavi, bubbling and teeming with trash. It reeks of waste as it flows out to the Arabian Sea, untreated.
One of the most incredible parts of the whole area was one of the oldest villages where they spin clay pots. There were massive clay pits, smokey kilns, stacks and stacks of one man’s daily work. I watched a guy sit on the wheel, with a giant cylinder. He carve small balls of the top, work them into a dish, and place them, almost uniformly down on a tray. He was looking right back at me as he was doing it. It was mechanical and easy. He told me it takes him 10 seconds to make one. I think he was being modest.
Turning a corner, I found myself in the middle of a cricket game.
There were half terry terrydactyl, half chickens walking around in one area. I learned that they were raised to be fighters.
The residential areas are divided by religion and each part has an open area space piled high with trash. Families take impeccable care of their personal spaces, which were immaculately clean and tidy, but not of common spaces. The kids played everywhere and anywhere though. They had no problem using the trash mountain as a playground. There were open sewers–besides feces, which are contained in communal toilets–and the quality of the streets were in general quite awful.
There’s a chance I might be able to get back there to a rooftop to paint one afternoon. My guide told me to get back in touch with him. Also, they run sports programs and an art class so I want to look into opportunities to volunteer.
Yesterday morning, I walked through a congested flea market. The stalls sold old technology, car parts, speakers, clothes, old masks, almost anything you could imagine. I made it through the market and visited a museum that had old maps of the city and diagrams of how they developed it into the landscape you see today. If the original colonizers of Mumbai could only see the place now. They wouldn’t believe it. I want to go back to that museum to spend some more time there. I lunched at a seafood place and got hot-garlic squid. It was nice-hot not too spicy. I think they toned it down to be white-man friendly.
Last, but certainly not least, last week in London my WONDERFUL mother visited me and we had a BLAST! I will write about our time together soon so that she can be FEATURED! (Sorry, Mom!) I also met a professor at the University of Southampton, who specializes in the effects of sea level rise.
There is a constant symphony of car horns in Mumbai. Long, angry blows. Short, punctual warning signs. Random honks just to fill in the gaps.
At first impression, I’d say the streets are organized chaos. There is a total disregard for traffic signals. There are no lanes. There is no rule of thumb for safe following distance. It’s a jungle; a flowing, weaving mess that seems to get from point A to point B in one piece. Although it takes a while.
I got to the AirBnB apartment in one piece. When I got in the car at the airport, I snickered to myself. It was a miniature mini-van–if you get what I’m pitching–almost golf cart sized. But it was a perfect vehicle for the driver, who seemed to do best driving in between the 3rd and 4th lanes of the highway. My seatbelt didn’t work, so I sat back and smiled thinking if I’m going to die, at least I’m going to die entertained.
The roads reminded me of a Mark Wethli pep talk. We were talking about the Fauvist painters (Matisse, Derain) and he related what they were doing to the emergency of rugby out of football. How the founder of rugby William Webb Ellis had a fine disregard for the rules and decided to pick up the ball. Drivers here seem to be the same way.
Things I jotted down in my notebook:
- Trend: shoeless auto-rickshaw drivers.
- Fear: wife with her head tucked behind her husband zooming down the highway.
- Puzzled: taxi driver looking at his engine in the middle of the highway, knocking bits and pieces with a metal pipe.
- Taxis: Havana, Cuba-like.
- Savvy: small truck towing another truck tied together with a ratty burlap rope.
I think it would be impossible to drive here unless you grew up doing it. I complimented my driver on his fine work and paid the man. It was a 10 dollar fare for an hour of his time each way. I gave him a tip.
The apartment I’m staying in is in a Muslim district. I heard the early afternoon prayers walking around on the street. Walking around is madness. It’s an amazing rush of senses. Its exhausting; a roller coaster of inputs. A beautiful mess.
I walked in a spiral around my apartment, nearby around the block families made their homes. The walls were construction fences and on the roof was a corrugated metal sheet. I saw a young kid, less than 3 lying motionless on a cardboard mat on the street. Later on this evening, a young girl followed me for ten minutes tugging at my hand for money, or food, or something. I thought that I could pick up a bag of small sweets to give out in situations like that. It’s wrenching.
It’s a very upfront and lucid being an outsider. You see it in the expressions of passers-by. Many people gave me a big smile, waved, and said hello. Some looked right through me; others looked confused. Once in a while, an old lady would hauk phlegm in their thoughts as if to spit. I couldn’t tell if it was directed at me or not.
In my first five minutes walking out on the street, a man leaning against a wall holding a bible warmly asked, “where are you coming from.” In an attempt to stay ambiguous, I said I lived near the US and Canadian border. He then asked what religion I was. I said I was a free thinker. He then began to ramble about the truth written in the bible (I switched off). He asked if I was here on a YMCA mission. I said I wasn’t.
Later, walking to Mumbai central train station to try to see if I could figure out how to get myself further south (I couldn’t). A friendly man came up and started chatting to me. He said something weird, touching himself around the arms and chest and I heard something that sounded like ‘machete.’ That made me nervous so I tried to bail out and walk the other way. He ran after me and made the same motion. I got worried. He said it again a third time, much more clearly. The man told me I had a nice chest.
I thought that was a good moment to get in a cab and go downtown.
The colonial architecture is magnificent, especially when it is interrupted by palm trees, and an absolute shitshow on the streets.
I took a half-hour harbor tour on a rickety double decker wooden boat and saw the sun set behind Mumbai. I have pictures that I’ll upload tomorrow morning.
I posted up along the coastal road that features fancy hotels, nice apartment buildings, clubs, and bars and drew the gateway to India, I figured that it was a good place to start. Every 30 seconds–probably less–men tried to sell me strawberries, chai, maps, fred-flinstone style inflatable bats (where were massive…6ft tall!), and so on. I put on a smile, but declined. Then an 18 year old kid, Raj, sat down next to me to watch me draw and we ended up chatting for about 15 minutes.
He was from a small agricultural town in Rajasthan in the northwest of India. When his father, who was an alcoholic, got into a car accident and got both of his legs amputated, Raj had to provide for his two sisters and mother. He moved down to Mumbai and started selling goods on the street. He’s been here for 6 months. He struck me as a particularly smart kid. Although he gave me a puzzled look when I told him that I was studying climate change, he knew all about the 2005 Mumbai monsoon floods and told me a lot about all the problems they were having in Northeast India near Bangladesh. He knew geography better than most people I know, probably because he sells maps. He was way too bright to be homeless. He told me that finding a place to live, even in the cities’ slums, is too expensive. He’s been on the street for six months since he moved down here and he thinks that he’s here for good.
He invited to give me a tour of the city slums tomorrow. In exchange for a meal and 200 rupees (2.5 dollars). I was tempted to take the offer, but remembered that my host Soraya who teaches French and English at a local International school and gives tourism advice on the side offered to set me up on a tour and even join me. The living situation is terrific and Soraya is beyond friendly. Once again AirBnB comes through. I told him I had to go, gave him some cash for dinner.
I went to a muslim restaurant that Soraya recommended and had tandori chicken, naan, and chai. It was phenomenally tasty, but I had some trouble eating–mostly cutting–with just my right hand. I think it’s really bad to use your left, so I sat on it so that I wasn’t temped.
I walked through an arts fair, and caught some traditional indian dances, then went out to the street to bargain with a cab drivers about a fare to get home. A passer-by yelled in Hindi at a driver who was suggesting exploitive rates, then told me to make them use the fare meter. He asked where I was going and after I told him I could use a lesson in the Mumbai train-system, he took me to the station, gave me a full tutorial and sent me on my way. The train doors don’t close, so many people hold on and lean out the train. I sat for three stations then got up, held on tight, and stretched out into the Bombay night.
Sorry this is edited and steam of conscious. Wanted to get thoughts down before its too late. Will sort out tomorrow and add pictures. Goodnight, or good day for those far away.
I had a fit of nerves in the very back of the British Airways 747 jet as it rumbled down the runway. The wings flex a lot, making the gigantic rolls-royce engines jangle about like cherries on a stalk–but that wasn’t what I was nervous about. I realized that I never went through any sort of passport control before leaving London. Was I supposed to have my passport stamped before I left? If so, how did I get through unchecked? What if I’m never allowed into England again. What if I get to Mumbai and they don’t let me in because I never ‘left’ England. Will they send me back to get the stamp? I wasn’t sure; but it was too late to do anything about it.
The 747 had 160 empty seats so I had a whole row to stretch out. Probably more room than the snobs up in the nose. There were amazing views of Iran’s snowy mountains. In the distance, I could see the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The sun hung low in the sky for a long time, turned crimson red, then set. For a long time, just the peaks of the mountains got sunlight and cast the whole range peach.
Landing in Mumbai was surreal, especially after recently reading Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which highlights the lives of four residents of the Annawadi Slum. The plane flew low over the slums, a disorganized, yet impressive construction toppling over a hill, which is either natural topography or trash, it was too dark to tell. The plane then taxied along the ridge of the airport. From the perch of my seat, I could see over the airport walls into the dark twisted alleys of the slum, I saw silhouettes of people cast in front of the dim lights in their huts.
I said ‘hello’ to the Indian immigration officer. He grunted. He reviewed my visa, checked my passport, gave me a quick, but firm look, then stamped my passport. I said thanks. He grunted.
I went to the ATM near the exit of the airport to take some cash out. It asked me how many rupees I wanted. I realized I had no idea what the exchange rate was. I cancelled the transaction and left the airport.
The arrivals greeting point at the International terminal is fit for public humiliation. You walk outside into a square, blocked off my a metal gate where people can hold signs. At 1am, the center was empty, but the outside was packed with men, and a few woman, who were shouting offering rides. I was forewarned by a large bolded sign inside that said ‘do not talk to non-official taxi agencies.’ One young man, probably in his early 30s jumped the fence, with me directly in his sights. He could tell I was nervous; I felt like my knees were about to buckle so I’m sure it showed. I also had a backpack. He came up next to me, following me as I peered around and through the crowd for my pre-arranged ride, and nagging me to take his offer for a life. The police, controlling the arena, started to whistle at him. But when I glanced at them, they were giggling at the whole situation. I respect the hustle, even though it was slightly hectic, upfront, and intimidating.
Auto-rickshaws are everywhere. Thats my style. I can’t wait to get a ride in one.
They are in the process of completing a new terminal. Driving around the airport access road felt like being inside a cave. Metal bars–the framework for concrete was hanging about like cobwebs. The atmosphere is wrapped in a fog as well, adding to the effect. It was dark; occasional orange lights popped through.
It’s 2:06am. I’m in my room at an airport hotel. I would have been absolutely blown away by the contrast between wealth and poverty if I hadn’t been forewarned by Boo’s book. I arrived here, but not until they magnetically scanned the car I was in and checked my baggage. I went through an airport-style security check then was escorted to my room. My bags were separated from me, which I didn’t feel good about at all, but they were delivered to my room. Nerves are alive within me, but I think nerves can be a good source of energy. Not sure it helps to be spending the first night in a hotel when I know it’s not anywhere close to the real city outside the walls. I’m excited.
All for now, I think it’s time to sleep. I need to try to get on the right time zone. It’s about an hour ride into the city tomorrow then I’ll take it from there.