It has been six weeks… India… things have changed. Something at first turned me away from this country, an extreme culture shock. I didn’t think I would be upset to leave, or really want to return. Still just under the surface of a country that would take a lifetime to fully understand, I felt different. Maybe I just relaxed a little more, leaning back into the life of travel, accepting the good with the bad. Opened my eyes, mind and heart to it, seeing more of what’s below the hardened resilient exterior of this extravagant subcontinent.
Fifteen hours, it was midafternoon, stifling hot with glutinous humidity, I pulled into Mumbai. The home of Bollywood, millions of people, the financial and commercial city of India and one the biggest slums in the world. Many of the paradoxes of this vast country can be seen here exploring this concrete jungle.
Stiff and anxious to stretch my legs, I left the station, over a ditch to the street and made my way to the inner city train lines. Hanging out the side of the carriage, trying to catch the breeze, I prepared for what I was expecting to be a chaotic experience. It was anything but, relaxing for me, I was drawn to this place. I’m sure reading Shantaram at the time didn’t help. The famous backpacker novel of India set in Mumbai. I must have taken a step back though as I began to embrace the culture and people as they grew on me during the previous weeks going along for the ride. It was a beautiful city, the coastline of the harbour, Chowpatti, watching the masses go about their busy lives and the slums of Dharavi.
I made it down to the south of the island city, Colaba, and checked into the India Guest House. Cheapest I could find with a room smaller than most jail cells, still more than I need. The weight of the heat bearing down on me, I went down to the waterfront. A place many come to sit and watch the day turn to night as the boats light up the black water.
As the sun went down I realized I’d been in transit all day and hadn’t eaten, and some of the best chaat (snacks) I’ve had awaited me. Aimlessly strolling into the streets, I found an evening market around the block. The curious browsing began, my kind of shopping. Bhajiya pav, onion bhaji on a bun with chili sauce. Aloo pav, fried potato done the same. I lean towards the Bhajiya pav with some fried potato and spinach crammed in. Raw sprout salads being tossed up served in a paper roll, dosas being spread on griddles. On a small metal dish two samosas crushed with a chickpea puree ladled over topped with diced onion, tomato, cilantro, chaat masala, and two sauces, one sweet and the other a chili sauce. Bhel puri, made of puffed rice. Plopping my ass down a curb to digest and watch the flow of life here, shopping, eating, haggling, drinking chai, bikes weaving, I needed some dessert. Fruit stands with their displays so fresh and vibrant, and mango season was just beginning. Mango and jackfruit it was.
If you walk around long enough in the Colaba area you’re bound to be asked to be an extra in a Bollywood movie. For five hundred rupees and a long day, they will dress you up and have a look behind the scenes. As I was wandering around looking for a tour office I was asked to help with a movie set in the forties. Unfortunately I had a ticket, beach bound for Goa and a tour of Dharavi.
Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in the world, home to around one million people, no way of really knowing, was an eye opening experience to happiness with so little. Even poverty stricken pride was shown in everything thing they owned and did. Determination in their faces overcoming what most could not bear. Smiles, handshakes, and head bobbles from everyone as they went about their lives, children following us through the alleys. Small businesses with what seemed like a community effort, drying chilies, or making pottery and running their homemade kilns. A scorching job in the already sweltering heat. Small markets set out on plastic on the ground selling produce, fish or shrimp constantly fanning to keep the flies away from their goods. I stopped for a chai and omelette creating I think a surprised crowd. I don’t think many stop for breakfast.
This was an experience I’m walking away from with a new outlook on what’s important. A souvenir that can never be lost. This city has left a lasting impression on me, a city with many layers like the country it’s in, and I now look forward to dig into them further.