Days 3-4 Mumbai

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!!

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