Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I think travel is also fatal to judgement. For everything I saw and experienced in Mumbai, I have no judgement. I think the people of Mumbai are doing the very best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai scared me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.

***

Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) At first thought, touring a slum might seem sad and exploitive but seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Upon seeing Dharavi, I saw hope along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

***

Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.

***

Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. Sweet! But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.

***

Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I alsoย  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from, then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? Most of it is imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.

***

Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did everything in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the plastic twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem in Canada.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak.then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”

***

 

56 comments

  1. You are so right — no judgement. And Mumbai defies description. Love the pictures of people doing laundry. Sometimes the day-to-day living activities are what I like to see because we’re all on the planet trying our best to live. Thanks for a powerful post.

    Like

  2. I so badly want to see India, and Mumbai especially. I loved your thoughts and photos here , and I totally understand the feeling of not being able to put into words what you saw and felt in a place. Writing ultimately helps me sort things out, but at first it’s too raw; mere words and two-dimensional photos can’t capture it – even if I want to share it, which I often don’t for a while. A place like Mumbai has to be digested, chewed on a bit, before it’s ready to be synthesized. I’m glad you got to that point, though, and shared with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lex! Yes! You totally get what I’ve been struggling with. It’s been the strangest thing… usually I’m inspired or thinking about the best way to show a destination, but Mumbai is altogether different. It was like a window into the future — a dire future that will be a reality for many big cities. But I’m always an optimist so I focused on the beauty. But the whole story has to be told — not just the good parts. Anyway, it’s no place for an inexperienced traveler! I look forward to your thoughts when you go there someday. And I do very much look forward to returning to India and diving deep into places like Rajasthan. I expect that region will really get into my heart. Great to hear from you and all the best in 2017!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Two thoughts come to mind, Kelly. One is the movie, “Hundred Foot Journey,” which starts off in Mumbai. The second was a story that the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, told about a Jain who wandered around with a mattress urging people to give him a small sum of money so he could ‘feed the bedbugs.’ He’d lie down on the mattress when given the coin. Very interesting blog with accompanying photos. Thanks. โ€“Curt

    Like

    1. Sounds like two very interesting stories! I’ll look for both. We’ve received quite a few recommendations for movies centered around Mumbai. I look forward to a movie night that shows us more of this fascinating and challenged city. Thanks, Curt!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am overwhelmed with your overwhelming emotion about Mumbai….seldom have I read such a moving piece about a country from you, and of course I read all of your blogs. Your photographs are stunning and speak volumes. Thanks for such clarity of description as well. I wonder where Mumbai is heading, and of course the planet.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Mom! That is the question… what happens as Mumbai and other large cities around the planet continue to grow? What will these cities be like in 10 to 20 to 50 years? How do we deal with population growth? This is a real issue.

      Like

  5. I love posts like this, where the narration is as rich and vivid as the photos. I could image your cabbie, Rajesh the rickshaw driver or Sunny. Thanks for this.

    I have mixed feeling about going to India; on one side I’d like to, on the other I know that if I were to, I wouldn’t be going to Delhi or Mumbai, I’ve promised to too many of my colleagues not to go anywhere but to Tamil Nadu first, they’d be pissed off if they knew I’ve been elsewhere!

    Looking forward to read more about your India.

    Fabrizio

    Like

    1. Fabrizio, thank you so much for your comment — that first sentence especially. I love people who actually read rather than just skim through the photos. I’m very happy to connect with you and look forward to following your blog. Like you, I’m also that person on international flights with the window shade cracked open, marveling at the geography below. (Why isn’t everyone looking out the window?!? Alaska is amazing!) With regard to India, I don’t think it matters where you go first — there’s so much to see and explore. Tamil Nadu sounds like a wonderful place to start! Thanks again and Happy 2017!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Kelly, this post is exceptional. It is inspiring and heartbreaking all at the same time. Your words and your photos shine.

    I had the chance, a couple of times, to visit India. I have to admit, the thought frightened me so I declined each time. Now I’m hoping I get another chance. And bravo to you for being the courageous traveller that you are!

    I totally look forward to more of your India posts.

    Happy New Year, my friend. I wish you health, happiness, and adventure in 2017.
    Xx

    Like

    1. Tahira, thank you SO much! I hope you get another chance to go to India, too! As challenging as Mumbai was, I love that it taught me so much about spirit, humanity and doing the best we can wherever we find ourselves in the world. I can’t wait to post photos from the markets. So much beauty! Happy New Year to you, too! If I somehow get down to Yosemite (my fave place in the world) in 2017, I’ll let you know. I would love to connect and go hug some trees and hike some trails. xo, K.

      Like

  7. Inside myself I am smiling, weeping, laughing, celebrating. A visceral reaction – how I love India, and would love to go back there. Thanks for this little tour via your wonderful post. I too would have done a tour of Dharavi – it was that story that had me both weeping and celebrating. It’s those kind of circumstances that remind me how resilient and wonderful people are. I would love Mumbai, and would just throw myself into the madness, but alas I doubt I’ll ever get Don back to India. Gorgeous photos Kelly. I especially like the carefully-arranged-vegetables shot, and the laundry shots.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Thank you, Alison! Very happy to hear you so thoroughly enjoyed my stories about Mumbai. I have no doubt you would love the beauty and the madness if you ever go there. As crazy as it was, it did pique my curiosity quite a bit. I really want to go to Rajasthan. I would love to hear/read/talk about your experiences in India. I’ll search your blog and hope for another breakfast rendezvous at some point. Happy New Year to you and Don! It’s exciting to be thinking of new journeys in the New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Having spent three weeks in Mumbai I have to say this is a brilliant piece on that enormous sprawling overwhelming city. So overwhelming to us, that we spent most of our time in one small area around where we were staying, which was the Hari Krishna hotel!!! The only place we could find reasonable rooms at a reasonable price. What an experience. We ventured out to the beach, to the temples, and the little streets around but were not nearly as adventurous as you were. The description of the large laundry and the photos are absolutely spectacular.

    Loved the story about the $20 dollar cracked bill. Having lived in Nicaragua and travelled in Myanmar, this brings back great memories….. Ha ha. Best thing before some of these countries is to go to the bank and get brand new crisp notes.

    After three months in India, as much as I loved it, I had to get a break.. my nerves were shot from the noise level and the traffic. But we did have an incredible experience mostly basing ourselves in Pushkar.

    Great post!!! Terrific photographs!
    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peta! Thank you so much for your thoughts on my post, and on being in Mumbai yourself. I agree, it is a very overwhelming city. We were staying in Powai which is pretty far north so anytime I wanted to go into the city center it required an hour+ cab ride. I got to see a lot but wow, was it exhausting! I would love to know more about your time in Pushkar. I’m very curious about that region of India. When we go back, that’s where we’re going to start. It seems India requires either a long, immersive experience like yours or an ongoing series of trips to see and do as much as possible. Great to hear from you! Happy New Year to you and Ben! Hope all is well in that paradise called Sri Lanka. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

    1. Thank you so much! Coming from a resident of Mumbai, I’m touched by your compliment about my stories. I can’t imagine the changes and challenges you’ve seen there in the last 32 years — most recently the currency crisis. I’ve followed your blog and look forward to reading your posts. All the best to you and a very Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Being a Mumbai-ite, Reading this overwhelms me.
    I had to read it twice. You have described my city so well, seen beauty in chaos and humanity in the madness.

    I wish I met you during your visit. The places you have visited and all these stories are super inspiring and heart warming.

    Sharing this on twitter:)

    P.s: The note incident ๐Ÿ˜€ Haha all sorts of notes are accepted in India. Maybe he just wanted to strike a convo :p

    Like

    1. Quirkywanderer, thank you SO much for such a lovely comment. I would have loved to meet you during my visit! Happy to hear you enjoyed my short stories, especially since you know the city well. Ha ha, yes! Rajesh was maybe hoping for more business or friendship with his texts. He was such a nice guy, always smiling.๐Ÿ™‚ Wishing you a very Happy New Year and all the best in 2017!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m not going to call it Mum-freakin-bai…it’s Bombay dangit. I know the Brits got it wrong, but Bombay is just so much more exotic. I love the Gate photo! And the sheets. And you’re right…that is one finely arrayed bowl of vegies there. I can’t believe the taxi driver spoke no English…the Brits were there for 200 years, all the signs are in English, and Hindi. When I was there (1976!), I walked Mum…er…Bombay alone, got lost, found a map, got lost, got lost again. I was taken by how many taxis there were. And saris drying from windows three stories up, alongside buildings. Thanks for bringing back some mighty fine memories with this post (you know I love your sentences). My mouth is watering just remembering the food there. Did you get to Elephanta Caves?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Badfish! Happy New Year! Great to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughts on BOMBAY. ๐Ÿ™‚ Wow, 1976! I would love to have seen it then. Probably just as crazy cool as it is today. I agree — the food is amazing. A thousand curries to try with every variation. Wish I had tried more. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the Elephanta Caves but I did get to the Khaneri Caves which were huge and fun to explore. Post coming soon. What’s new with you? Did you go anywhere over the holiday? I need to pop over and check your site. I’m behind on my reading. Hope you’re well and looking forward to the year ahead.

      Like

      1. I know, it was a good time. I had an out-of-body experience…of course, I’d spent four months in an ashram meditating most of the day. Elephanta was OK, but it’s just carved rock. I didn’t hear of Khaneri, was it close to M…Bombay?

        Like

      2. An out of body experience? I’d love to read about that! Khaneri is north of Mumbai. We were staying in Powai (also north) so it was “only” about 30 minutes by Tuk Tuk. Quite a ride, partially on the highway but worth it. Very cool place. Need to do a post soon.

        Like

  11. Kelly, your posts always lighten up my heart. I’ve been away from blogging in the last two weeks and am very delighted to read this post to start the new year.

    Your description of Dharavi reminds me of what I read about the now-demolished Walled City in Hong Kong — lawless ultra-dense residential buildings humming with lively activities. As you said, humans, wherever we live, always look for a better life — exactly the reason why Rajesh asked you about getting a job in Canada.

    Happy New Year and wish you more memorable travels ahead!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Bama! Where are you headed this year??? Can’t wait to find out! Thanks so much for your sweet comment. I’m so happy you enjoyed this post as a start to the new year. Cheers to many fun and educational journeys ahead!

      Like

      1. I will be going to Jordan in March, which will be my first time in the Middle East. I’m also thinking of going to Australia later this year. We’ll see.

        Thanks Kelly! You remind me to write my posts not only to inform, but also to be enjoyed.

        Like

  12. Hi Kelly,

    Great post about a city that is my home for 11 years now! Yes, there is so much chaos in this beautiful city; but you know what? This chaos has a pattern too!

    I loved the way you captured the city with your lens. Can’t wait to read your next post on Kanheri and Crawford! And hope this beautiful city beckons you to visit again. There are so many more places to explore here: The Elephanta Islands & Caves nearby; the Ban Ganga Tank; the Bhau Daji Lad Museum if you are looking at revisiting history. Not to forget the delicious food on offer in so many of its iconic eateries.

    Happy New Year!

    Like

    1. Hey! Thank you so much for your comment! Great to hear from someone who lives in Mumbai. It’s interesting that you’ve found a pattern in the chaos of the city. I’d love to know more about that. Today I posted about Crawford Market and a few other areas nearby. Hope you enjoy reading. (Khaneri Caves is coming next.) Who knows… I may return someday and would love to see the sites you’ve recommended. And it seems like I barely got a taste of Mumbai’s endless curries and spices — so complex and unique. I’d love to return just to eat more! Happy New Year to you, too! Thanks for reading and getting in touch.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pretty good Anecdote! Nicely expressed, delight for readers to read! for someone new to Mumbai. A part about Jainism which you mentioned, felt proud, and sure must have inspired you in some way. New on this blogpress, but sure am loving every bit of it. Good to see a World from others point of View. And yes finally pretty good photographs captured from you. Loved it! Good Luck for more such expeditions.

    Like

    1. Thank you very much, spjain! Happy to hear you’re enjoying the blogging world. There are many places and perspectives represented and we can all learn a lot from each other. Thank you for your comment.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s