The Gateway of India

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.

 

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