Decaying beauty & poop. Epiphany & learnings.

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 27, 2011

Flag of India  , Maharashtra,
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Looking at the display showing my flight route from Hong Kong to Mumbai, I notice how it crosses several of the countries I've traveled in since December. I am feeling an odd sense of sadness leaving this part of the continent. And especially, to be leaving HK where I had a blast and felt I had fully arrived back in civilization. Before I return back to known territories, I have one last stop planned on this side of the globe. And it could prove to be the biggest culture shock yet. I am on my way to Mumbai to spend a week dipping my toe in this country that I hadn’t really planned at all. India is of course on my must-see list. But it is so vast a travel destination that it justifies its own long-term trip.

What better way to see if I could handle it than a week in the most developed metropolis it has to offer, spent with someone local to help me find my bearings. Sachin is one of the couch surfers I met on my last Bangkok stop. He is a commercial/film director. My dad’s first response to seeing his half-naked CS profile picture was 'Looks like a Casanova’. He is far from it, but I do admit that I would have never met him had it not been for all the positive CS reviews. On paper, he just comes across ‘super-whack’. And he is. But not in a bad way.

Mumbai is a city of opposites. A few months ago, it would have been complete sensual overflow to arrive here. Now, I am merely fascinated by the colours, the noise, the vibrant life and decay at every corner. I pass by a fancy hotel with metal detectors in the door and a turbaned, costumed doorman. Across from it an Ermenegildo Zegna store. And a few steps down, skin-and-bone, dirty people sleeping (or passed out) on the side walk. One of the richest men on earth is from here. Poverty and wealth live side-by-side: I pass a slum and find myself in front of a Tony & Guy salon when I cross the street. The slum is right by the water. You could mistake it for an idyllic fishermen’s village. On closer look, the beach is made up of garbage, not sand. One man is taking a dump right in the middle of it. Another is washing his behind in the water. Someone else doing laundry just a few feet away. A little boy crapping right on the side walk. He isn’t wearing any pants, never mind bothering to wipe up. Just does the deed, gets up and runs away, getting on with his life. On a sidewalk behind the infamous Taj Mahal Hotel, I see a mother sitting on the floor, wiping her toddlers legs clean off the diarreah running down them. In Colaba, the tourist area I ended up in, there are majestic, gorgeous looking buildings everywhere. It’s a ramshackle, decaying kind of beauty though with brittle facades hinting at glorious past times.

It is monsoon time. Hot. Humid. Sticky. With occasional, unpredictable heavy rains. Did I mention hot and sticky – I’ve rarely felt this sweaty. Inside every modern place are meat-cooler temperatures to contrast it. I’ve never understood why extreme heat results in extreme air conditioning everywhere on this planet.  Like it is some sign of progress that we can overcome the heat. The cooler, the more advanced? The bigger the gap between rich and poor, the bigger the temperature shock walking into buildings, it seems to me. Someone should do some empirical research on this one day.

My tolerance for the touts and "Yes ma’m" every so often is a touch stretched. But it is not too bad compared to some other countries. I am not at my most graceful, but manage to keep the snapping at innocent people to a minimum, at least the first few days.

I stayed away from the lower budget accommodations on recommendation from Sachin. Mumbai is not cheap, especially for hotels. Sachin, I’m afraid, is a little embarrassed by my demanding service expectations. Not that I don’t appreciate his assistance in scouting out a decent hotel, but if the bed clearly does not have fresh sheets, when the hotel advertises itself with a fancy looking website, you bet I will insist on them meeting the sales promises!

Despite his being sick, Sachin drags himself out almost every evening to meet me for dinner or have me join his different sets of friends. There is the local crowd he communicates with in Hindi. And the other local crowd he knows from school that he speaks English with. The two never mix. I thought that was interesting. During the day time, I roam the city and get a fair bit of sightseeing under my belt. There is enough to do and see to easily fill a week without ever leaving town. And I am gorging in photo opps.

Mumbai, I find, is a little bit like my mother. I can’t help but love it. But it also gets to me. It does not approve of my life choices and values. And its people drive me crazy, with their constant touting, offering well meant things I don’t want, need or if I did would be perfectly capable of seeking out independently. All it takes for me to be getting along with them, is to ignore their talk. Maybe say ‘No thanks’, but move on without them letting annoy me. So simple, yet so difficult.
Why is it that I have this compulsive need to always respond or acknowledge everyone’s chatter; or even to just make conversation when there really isn’t anything to be said? It often gets me into trouble, awkwardness or embarrassment in the better cases. Unintentional insult in the worst. There are very few people I don’t have this urge with, where saying nothing at all is just as comfortable. Manu would be one of them. And then there are others, where there always seems to be something to say, insignificant as it might be. Shaista is in that category. Thanks to both of you for being such good friends to me :)

Through Sachin, I realize how different a world it is here. Not just based on what I can see with my own eyes, but through simple conversations. Even him, who appears not much different to friends back home, turns out to be steeped in many traditions and values I can hardly relate to. And so India, along with the more Islamic countries of the Middle East, lands on my list of fascinating must-see countries that I cannot imagine living in for a long time. I sure as hell would get myself into serious trouble if I did.

Over the course of the week, I find my patience for some local habits is wearing thinner by the day. I crave personal space, freedom to wear what I feel like without being inappropriate, not having to scan the ground for poop all the time. My tolerance cannot befriend customs like eating with hands. Watching it makes my stomach churn and nose crinkle involuntarily, no matter how much I remind myself that this is just the way it’s done here.

On my last day in town, I epiphanize that I should have left the underdeveloped world several weeks ago. How does that saying go: Best to leave when the party is hottest? My FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) got in the way of realizing when that was. The moment I got uncomfortable pushing my boundaries (somewhere in Indonesia), is when I should have left. Call it a day. Or at least go somewhere closer to my comfort zone. Now, I am left with a somewhat bad taste and unpleasant feelings casting a shadow over the great things I did and saw.
There is a Seth Godin book called ‘The Dip’. It’s about recognizing when you are in a dip, a valley, a trench in a project, a relationship, a career, in live or whatever. And then knowing if it is the kind of dip you need to pull through to get back up higher, to the top. Or the kind where you should just call it quits and refocus your energies on something that won’t unnecessarily drain you. I fear I might have found myself in the latter. The recognition came just a little too late. Oh well. Lesson learnt and not just one:

-         I didn’t need to rough it just for the sake of it. I already proofed to myself that I can take it down a few notches. There was no need to go rock-bottom (see some of my Indonesia entries, specifically from Lembata island).
-         I can be good with very little. But I do like my luxuries. And am willing to bust my back for them.
-         When adventures and exotic surroundings don’t feel exciting any longer, it is time to go.
-         When you can’t appreciate a country’s cultural differences, or at the very least respect them, leave.
-         I am very lucky to have been raised where I was and live where I do.

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Ashok on

Hi...Loved your blog...
The Mystery building in your photo caption is 'Saifee Hospital'

henniterness on

Many thanks Ashok. I updated the captions to note that :)

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