Friday, July 6, 2012

Traveling into distant land - Mumbai

Hello everyone,

I just got back from India. Yup, Mark and I were in India for 2 1/2 weeks traveling from the South, along the West Coast all the way to the North. We started out in Mumbai, where we attended an Indian wedding. Then went to Kochi, Kerala where we got an Ayurvedic massage in the South, then went all the way North to Amritsar, where we spent two days with the owners of a software and programming company that Mark has been working with over distance for the past year. Then we traveled to Jaipur, drove to Agra, and ended up in Delhi. What an experience that was! I think I'm falling in love with India now that I'm back in the United States! In the moment, as I was there, I can't really say that I "loved" it. Yet it was so foreign, and different and loud, and dirty and beautiful and fascinating all at the same time, and, therefore completely absorbed my entire awareness and mind. In other words, if you ever feel like you just need to get away from it all, if you desire a change of scenery, go to India! There won't be any space left to think about whatever has been occupying your mind. You'll be utterly and completely absorbed by your experiences in this foreign land and its people.

So, for today, I'll focus on Mumbai. In contrast to the other cities, my initial exposure to Mumbai was experienced as real ugly and dirty. The buildings are run down and not maintained. That of course is a statement from someone who grew up in clean and structured Switzerland and now lives on the West Coast of the United States. The city is hot and dirty, there is trash piles everywhere. And the smells are assaulting your senses the moment you arrive, ranging from smells of urine, poop, car exhaustion and pollution and trash. The traffic is insane! And the Indians like to hunk at each other, non stop, all the time, sometimes following to the beat of the music they are listening to. Traffic is pure chaos, made up of cars, rickshaws, straying dogs, curious cows and the poor begging, while people in business suits are squeezing their way through all of this. There are no rules, just drive and get into any spot that guarantees your movement forward! Going from A to B takes hours! Also, they are driving British style, meaning on the left side, a legacy left from British Colonization. So is the language English, thank goodness. Mostly everyone we came in contact with spoke English, even though with a thick accent. And most products you buy also have information printed in English.

Unfortunately, we went to India during the hottest season, and Monsoon was just about to start. At the time we got there it was in the high 80's (Fahrenheit), with high humidity. Best time to go there is between October and March. So being there in June, we were sweating our b@#*'s off, well, at least Mark was! We did get our vaccinations, and took Malaria pills. I got bitten twice, one time in Kochi, and at the airport in Amritsar (I still remember this little bugger buzzing around me). Since the mosquitoes weren't much of an issue though, we stopped taking the malaria pills half way through our trip. However, if you go to the South, especially during full-blown Monsoon season, you're more likely to encounter mosquitoes.

On our first day, we decided to journey out and about on our own. Allow me to share with you that our experience of Mumbai completely changed after we met up with our lovely tourist guide Hemali on day 2 and 3. We realized that we completely misinterpreted the surrounding, the people, the culture and the city on our first day we set out foot on our own. First of all, it felt like two separate worlds co-existing side to side. There was a reality inside, and then there was a reality out there. We were going from the beauty, the comfort, the quietness, and the safety of a 5 Star hotel, into what felt like excruciating heat, poverty, slum, and "anticipated" crime. People starred at us non-stop while I was holding on to my backpack for dear life, fearing we will be attacked any moment, robbed, stabbed, and taking our last breath due to the poverty we were in the mists of. Okay okay, I'm exaggerating a bit here. But we really didn't feel safe as we journeyed through the streets locating the local train station in Goregaon. Later on we learned that people were simply fascinated to find white foreigners intermingling in their hood. I think the stern look and un-animated facial starring contributed a bit to that misleading interpretation of ours. The train station was an experience in itself. The building looked dark and grungy, just about to fall apart. As for trains, men and women are in separate cabins, yet I decided I would join Mark in the "Gents" section. So off we were on our first day of experiencing Mumbai. For pictures and details see my Facebook: Tatjana Luethi.

As mentioned, on our second day, we met up with Hemali, our tourist guide Mark booked via TripAdvisor in the United States. She was phenomenal, check out her services if you travel to Mumbai: Hemali really helped us making a sense of and getting an understand about the culture, the people, the traditions, the different religions and beliefs, and the city, which as mentioned, can easily be misinterpreted from a Western lense. We traveled to many different locations with a private driver (very common and affordable), so we got to see the good, the beautiful, the amazing and the ugly. Well, even the slum was actually an interesting surprise. It was not what we envision when we hear the word slum. I didn't see disease and poverty and suffering. But perhaps that's so because we only remained in the outskirts of the slum. But based on what we saw, that little slum of about 1 Million inhabitants (little - being sarcastic here) seemed to be thriving in its own economy. In fact, the Dharavi slum is considered a developed slum, it's a city inside a city. Yes, sure, some structures were mostly cladded and fixed with blue plastic tarps, but there were also concrete buildings in which people worked and lived with their families. We encountered a full blown employment system with people having jobs, working away, mindfully and purposefully going about their duties. We visited the recycling center, the open air laundry, and all the different manufacturing trades and craftsmanships ranging from block printing fabrics and textiles, to embroidering to sewing and tailoring to pottery making, bread-making (bakery) etc. There was also a tannery. Sometimes I could not enter some of those spaces, as the smells of toxic chemicals were gushing out like an unstoppable force piercing through my nostrils. For most part however, everyone, depending on the job, was well put together, had clean clothes...and cell phones, curiously looking at us strangers looking at them. The streets were dirty though. Even outside the slum. Anything and everything ends up on the street. I find that bizarre. On one hand the Indian have all these different beliefs and religion inside India that foster very mindful qualities, yet at the same time there is no respect or worship for Mother Nature. That seems kinda' contradictory.

We also learned that in Mumbai, and perhaps all of India, rich and poor live together. It seems a country full of diversity and polarity yet integrating its dichotomy all at the same time. There is definitely a huge gap in the standard of living and the quality of available resources, yet as for regional proximity, rich and poor are living closely together and seem comfortable intermingling and interacting. The crime "seemed" low. We did not experience anything negative in Mumbai on that level, yet had an experience all the way up in Amritsar, I'll talk about that later. We (after initial mistrust) followed our tourist guide Hemali in leaving our bags and purses inside the car with our driver. Hemali pointed out that stealing and crime is really not an she says. It has something to do with the belief in karma. People wanna' do good for each other, so as to generate a better life in their next re-incarnation. We could use a bit of that here in the United States.

Talking about people, once you get beyond the stern look and solicit a smile, people are super nice. And they love being photographed (at least in Mumbai). Up North they started asking for money though "after" they posed for you to take a picture. On the other hand, Mark and I started feeling like celebrities ourselves, as we were constantly asked if we could pose for a "click". Indians seem to have a fascination with "white" people. In fact, we noticed the bill boards and advertising promoting "bleaching creams" everywhere. Indians seem to identify beauty with being white. Funny, the grass is always greener on the other side, isn't it? I'd give anything to be tan and have thick, luscious and full hair!

On another note, before we left for Mumbai, I contacted another student from my current global online course I'm taking, as I saw she was from Mumbai. It was so lovely to meet up with Masarrat twice during our stay in Mumbai, as she allowed us to get a peek into another way of life inside this city. We learned that Mumbai is all about the "vibe" and the luxurious nightlife - so don't go there expecting beautiful nature and landscape. In fact, someone said to us that "India is a poor country of rich people". Interesting way of putting it. So having met Masarrat we got a different view contrasting the traditional way of life. Masarrat represented the modern independent Indian woman, strong, confident, smart, financially independent, and who knows what she wants (versus societal and traditional pressure we think of, especially for women).

Now, let's talk about hygiene.  Not just in Mumbai, but in general in India. I had a tough one with that one. Public restaurants are basically a hole in the ground. It is advised to repeatedly practice squatting at home to strengthen upper thigh muscles prior to using an Indian toilet! Also, we learned toilet paper is not very common. But instead, people seem to use a bucket of water (re-dipping?) and their left hand. Yeah, a bit different. So don't touch anyone with you left hand, and do not eat food with your left hand. I'm not sure how the women do it with their Saris? What about if the woman has her period? Sorry, I had to throw that one in here. Also, not every public restroom had soap next to the sink. So you kinda' wonder about all the things you have been eating with your meal! Not to mention that Indians eat their food with their fingers, without utensils. To top it off, Indians seem to constantly be picking their nose in public. Not sure which one grosses me out more, poop or buggers! And there is constant spitting onto the ground. Going back to toilets, some of the restaurants and private homes had a bidet-version like the French. Instead of it being a combination of toilet sink for your "privates", imagine it to be more of a smaller version of a shower hose and shower head attached hooked up to the wall next to the toilet, which you use to spray your "privates". But still, I don't get how you don't wet yourself all over (shoes, feet, clothes) with the water gushing out of the hose. The floors always seemed wet. This is still a mystery to me.

On day 4, we attended a one-day Indian wedding. Which is the reason why we travelled to India in June. It was a co-worker of Mark's who invited us to attend. Since we had all ton's of miles with United Airlines soon to expirre, and tons of hotel points from Mark's recent consulting gig, our entire trip (airline tickets and hotels) were free, or in other words, paid for in points. How amazing is that? Anyhow, in regards to the wedding, Hemali warned us about being careful eating the wedding food. Catered food is supposedly not of greatest quality to begin with, plus it being out in buffet-style all day long and us not being used to Indian food, it might be better to stay away from it all together. I listened. Mark didn't, and ended up being sick for the following two days...uh, let's just say "traveler's diarrhea"!

Okay, there is so much more, but I think that's it for today...I ought to post my experiences in baby steps. For pictures, locations and my comments feel free to visit my Facebook page. For now, I have only posted Mumbai. I'll post and write about the other cities later.