Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mumbai or Bombay? Mumbay

We flew from Israel to India and arrived around 4:30 in the morning, not knowing exactly how to proceed. It was too early to check into our hotel and we were too tired to go exploring Mumbai after an overnight flight, and there was no place in the airport to crash for a few hours. We also feared the searing heat that we knew awaited us outside of the confines of the airport’s A/C. We finally decided to venture into the city, towards the hotel, to try our luck at getting a room early (checkout time in India is 9 a.m.) If not, we would drop our bags and head out to the city for a few hours. We got a cab and ventured into the hot, steamy dawn. Mumbai is a city that, at last census in 2001, had over 16 million people and where over 50% of the population lives in a slum. We drove the southern tip of the peninsula, where the center of the city lies, passing on the way thousands of sleeping bodies everywhere: on sidewalks and streets, car hoods, carts, and benches. If there was room, someone (and often entire families) was sprawled out on it.

We arrived at our budget hotel, not far from the great Victoria Station, and they were kind enough to give us a room early. Lodging in Mumbai is more expensive than in the rest of the country, and we had searched to find a budget room. When we walked up to the room, we saw why the price was cheap. The room was hot and stuffy, literally a box with plywood walls with a filthy, shared bathroom and shit-stained toilet, and starting at 7 am, just as we were trying to fall asleep, loud blaring music and voices from the other plywood-box rooms surrounding ours. It felt more like a bad storage unit than a hotel room, and definitely not like the pictures in the brochure. Too tired to protest, we crashed, but after a few hours, we had enough. After Rusha yelled at the guy next door if he could turn down the cricket game he was watching on TV at concert hall levels and he responded that he couldn’t, we went to the lobby and, still half asleep complained till we were moved to a better room. The result, though still made of quarter inch plywood, had its own bathroom/shower and a door leading to a balcony. The Hotel New Bengal was our introduction to the budget hotels of India.
After sleeping off the all-nighter on the plane, we ventured out to take care of some logistics, like train tickets to Goa, our next destination. We walked into Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Station), one of the busiest stations in the world, servicing over 2 million people daily on more than a 1000 trains. There were people everywhere (a theme, you see) sprawled asleep, sitting in large family groups on the floor, with packages and bags piles everywhere. It gave us our first taste of how colorful India is, especially the women in their brightly colored, beautiful saris.

We booked our tickets to Goa, which takes a number of steps and is supposed to be a challenging process for Western logic, but it wasn’t all that bad. Then we went out into the wall of 95 degree heat at 80% humidity. The challenge to our trip to India in May and June is that it is the hottest time of year here, and while many of the locals seem to have adapted to the climate and seem to merely glisten, we have not and seem to be soaked and constantly producing more sweat all the time.

We got our first taste of Indian street food, getting tasty mysore masala dosas, then down through the city walking through the Azad and Oval Maidens, open grassy parks in the middle of the city where dozens of cricket games were taking place, passing the High Court and University of Mumbai, and we even checked out out the Kneset Eliyahoo synagogue, servicing the Jewish community of Mumbai. We ended at the Gateway of India, an archway built for the British king in 1911 that stands on the pier, and we watched families and tourists blend as the sun descended behind the massive archway. We also stopped in the famous 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the targets of the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. The hotel is now guarded like a military base.

We walked back to the hotel, in the now slightly more tolerable heat. The streets were littered with people, and we passed stalls selling sugar cane and mango juice, and other foods and drinks, and an occasional, but powerful stink of sewer, shit, death, or garbage. For many of the people, the city streets are their bathroom, and people seem to shit and piss anywhere, including corners of the inside of quieter buildings, which is hard on the nose and harder for these people who have no place to live.

We started our second day in Mumbai with a trip to Crawford market, a fruit and livestock market where we stocked up on mangos and watermelon, then continued through the Zaveri Bazaar, checking out the people standing in line to make offerings at the temples. We then walked along the waterfront to Chowpatty Beach, where we tasted kulfi (Indian pistachio ice cream, cut into a slice and weighed on a scale), ate pav bhaji (vegetable stew on a Portuguese style bun) and walked through the Hanging Gardens on a hill above the beach. We also visited the Mahatma Gandhi museum, a house that he used to occupy when he stayed in Mumbai. The place is simple and tells the story of Gandhi’s life. It still gives off an aura of peace and strength, and we both got goosebumps walking through the home, filled with memorabilia, of a man who so quietly changed the world and was a true mahatma (great soul). Towards the end of the day, we stopped in a Hari Krshna temple, and while wandering through, we were befriended by a Canadian kid who has been living in the temple’s ashram for 4 years, training to be a monk. He gave us a grand tour, explaining the krshna religion, rituals and history. It was fascinating to watch and learn, while dancing, music, devotion and prayer were going on all around us.

For our last day in Mumbai, we booked a “slum tour” in the Dharavi Slum, on which the book and movie Slumdog Millionaire is based. We were curious to compare our slum experience working in Uganda with that of one in India and this slum in particular is famous for being an interesting economic success story. In just 500 acres live over a million people, on average sharing 1 toilet between 15,000 people. However, inside the slum are also thousands of single room factories, employing 250,000 people and producing an annual tax free income of over 1.4 billion dollars. Most businesses are based on recycling of different plastics, metals and glass and garbage collected by slum residents or brought from Mumbai, or even exported from foreign countries. The raw material is processed, and then resold internationally. It is a unique economic model and world-renowned and has unfortunately not been replicated successfully in other slum areas. The slum has clinics, hospitals, churches, temples and mosques, Wi-Fi zones and even permanent apartment buildings. And yet, the whole place is an illegal tenement and has been for 200 years. We ended our day, walking back in 100 degree weather, stopping at the dhobi ghats, Mumbai’s laundry facility, made up of hundreds of concrete tubs of water and men beating the clothes on stones. Here the city’s dirty clothes are washed, dried, pressed, and somehow returned to the rightful owner in one day, an unbelievable logistical feat. By nightfall we had collected our backpacks and marched back to Victoria Station, through a train worker’s strike that was crippling the city (fortunately it was the local trains, not the long distance ones) and caught our night train south to Goa. For a link to more pics, click here.

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