Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mappi Mumbai

I am here (under the A...zoom out for perspective)

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and you're not.

Happy Halloween from Mumbai.
It is an extraordinarily hot day, around 98F (33C ?).
I have been trying, obviously unsuccessfully, to nap.
I am still not over the jet lag, and my tummy is fussy.

We had lunch at a "street food" style (but higher quality, my host says) shop
called The Sweet People...items ate include panipuri,
samosa, bhelpuri (I didn't like the texture
of this one & let my host eat it), and bhajji.

After returning from lunch we both chose to nap out the rest of the afternoon!
Sunset begins around 15-30 minutes from now and I am pondering a walk in the
park beside the Arabian Sea, just around the other side of this apartment complex area.

Tomorrow the only plans I know of are lunch with host's grandmother and hopefully buy my
cell phone, which I was hoping to do today.
Monday I think we are going (by boat) to the family beach house at Awas, north of Mumbai.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thus far on My journey

I arrived safely in Mumbai on schedule at 8:50pm on 28 October 2009. The flight was long but made less irritable by Continental's interactive individual seatback entertainment consoles. You can choose from hundreds of movies of all kinds, various musical genres on a personal jukebox, tv shows...even games for those so inclined!
After dinner and watching part of "Gandhi", I took some sleepy meds and drifted in and out of sleep for about 7 hrs out of the 14 hr crossing. We flew from night in Newark into sunrise, through the day above Europe...
Upon waking we were flying over Turkmenistan, and it was nearing sunset again. The flight map showed us passing over Afghanistan...Pakistan. I saw the lights of Kandahar and Karachi and to me it seemed weird to be flying over a war zone.

Breakfast was served shortly before landing, even though it was now night.

The airport arrival procedure was oddly simple. There was an H1N1 screening center but they didn't screen anything other than to ask if you had been to an infected country or had any symptoms. Even people who were coughing and sneezing answered "no" to the symptoms and everyone was cleared without question!
Then there was "customs"...again, no questions if you said "nothing to declare".
On to baggage claim, which took seemingly forever!
It was about 10pm when I finally followed the crowd into the Mumbai night...the airport just opens into an outdoor waiting area jam packed with people holding signs.
It took several minutes to find my host...I was starting to get really worried when I finally stopped looking at the crowd and looked UP...and there he was, laughing.
We were delivered back to his place in Malabar Hill (India's wealthiest neighborhood) by a chaffeur (one of his friend's drivers, he said) but in a tiny car!
We talked for a few hours...but it was dark, I was mentally wiped out, and not much sank in.
He showed me to my room (very cozy)...his 2 BR/2BA apartment is all very cozy and tasteful...and I slept off and on from midnight til 5am

But you probably don't want these mundane details.

Admittedly, I'm not quite sure what to tell you...not where to begin or how to encompass everything I've already observed the past 2 days.

I decided to start with what India is not, no matter how trite or slanted the following might sound.

1: India is definitely NOT the United States or even England or Europe, for so many reasons. Of course, I never expected it WOULD be, but you cannot conceive of the difference until you are in the midst of it.
I walked yesterday (more on that later) and in places there were no other westerners, and indeed at times I was stared at like they'd never even SEEN a westerner.
Despite being told it's easy to get by in English, I did NOT find that to be the case, even when asking uniformed guards or street policemen for directions.

2: India is not "modern" in the sense we know it. Yes, they have technology. Internet and cell phones and all that are pervasive, at least in Mumbai. But infrastructure is oddly my (decidedly uneducated) eye, the city is more or less still in the 1950s or thereabouts.
Wires are hanging everywhere, not hidden or underground. Even in the upscale apartment building there is an antiquated lift run by a "bell hop" of sorts.

3: India, or rather Mumbai (massive as it is) is NOT quiet, slow-paced, or peaceful.
Traffic is INSANE! While there are red lights and crossing lights, they seem to be interpreted more as very general guidelines than as rules. There are marked traffic lanes, but no one heeds , them. People step into oncoming traffic to cross, and in most places walk on the street with traffic (cars, auto-rickshaws, pony drawn carts,scooters, etc) to get where they're going (sidewalks are few and far between in some areas). And the cacophony of sound! WOW overwhelming! Drivers are constantly honking at other vehicles. At times it's impossible to tell who is honking at who or why, it's more like everyone just wants to be heard!
Honestly, for about 5 hours after getting out of traffic last night, I still heard honking echoing inside my skull!

4: The caste/class system, despite having been legally abolished decades ago, is still very much alive and in effect. The rich live in high rise apartment blocks. Between these "estates" are street dwellers, some in shacks, some simply sleeping on the pavement. Dogs and cats walk and sleep on the streets and sidewalks, oblivious to the movements of people. I even saw one dog trotting alone in the middle of a busy city street, like he thought he was one of the cars, like he thought he had to get somewhere after his work day, too.
To my American sensibilities, the divide between the classes, and the way it is perceived/addressed by wealthier natives, is unfathomable. Of course, I have the same problem in the USA, so that is more a personal issue than a cultural one.
I am not here to pass judgement, merely report what I have seen.

Having said all of that...India IS real, and I AM here for another 5 months!

I have a lot concerns and anxieties which I tried to address yesterday by having my host drop me off at Gateway of India. Within minutes I was accosted by half a dozen hawkers trying to sell tickets to Elephanta Caves, other local tours, food/drinks, souvenirs...even a "holy man" who dabbed red paint on my forehead, offered me some kind of round white sweet (probably sugar cubes) and tied a string on my wrist (I'm not sure what these are called) and then proceeded to ask me for 500rupees ($10US). I gave him a 50R note and apologized as honestly I had no clue and my entire daily budget was 500R. (I was later told by someone else that even a 50 was more than that man normally probably made in a full day and that I should not even acknowledge hearing anyone from now on...difficult!)

I walked from Gateway up to Victoria Station and was constantly stunned by the local realities. FILTH is pervasive. Everyone simply tosses rubbish into the street or water. In places you can smell raw sewage. Some people are living on a blanket on the pavement.
At Prince of Wales Museum, which I thought would be modern and classy, it was hot, stifling, and the Indian visitors were unruly and disrespectful, TOUCHING the ancient exhibits, pushing in front of foreign visitors who were trying to read what few (and often inaccurate) informative signs there were. At times I felt like I was the most interesting exhibit in the place, both men and women stared at me so openly, even though I was dressed VERY conservatively (unlike several other westerners I saw).
On the street, some children actually grabbed my hand as I passed them, saying "Hello America! Hello American" With the children it was easy to laugh it off. I also had a woman, older than me, start walking beside me and speaking in an Indian language or dialect, of course I had no clue what she was saying, I kept smiling at her and saying "I'm sorry I don't understand" and trying to politely walk ahead of her, but she'd hurry up beside me again and say something more.
I felt strange...embarassed...uncomfortable (like my space was being invaded).
I didn't want to offend her by walking away and yet...what else could I do? If I had stopped, EVERYONE would have surrounded me expecting talk or money.
Another disconcerting experience was the cafeteria (in reality a snack stand w/a drink machine in an open (filthy) courtyard at the museum. The locals have a few water taps and everyone shares the same cups (there were maybe 4 cups). Some poured the water into their mouths from above without touching their lips...others did NOT and drank direct from the metal cup). Children washed in the same sink. Even in the museum, some people were barefoot and covered in dirt.

My host wants me to get out on my own. To take the taxi in the daytime whether they speak English or not. To walk in his neighborhood, even the slums part. He says it is perfectly safe and that I need to get used to it. Which may well be true. But those of you who know me know that I have social anxiety issues even in places where I speak the language and know the customs.
The thought of venturing out on my own at this stage is terrifying.
I know it's all my own mental/emotional block and hopefully I can overcome it, but I am not going to rush into anything that feels unsafe emotionally.

At this moment, it is 11:30am. I have been feeling a bit queasy (light headed, mild nausea) this morning, off and on, and have a mild case of "Delhi belly". Awhile ago I had a nosebleed.
Hoping it is merely fatigue, jet lag...stress...and not something serious. I've been very careful to drink only bottled water and juice or soda...except for a few ice cubes in my drink at the club last night which my host told me were pure).
Of course, pure to him and pure to me might not be at all the same thing.

I've had very little appetite since arriving. Yesterday I ate 2 plain roti for breakfast and had chai and plain black tea, then some garlic naan at lunch, and a nice dinner of traditional Indian foods (all of which I've tried before in either US or UK) for dinner.
This morning, again, no appetite, had about half an apple so far today.

Other things of "note": I tried my frist yoga class this morning! My host has 2 friends and a yoga teacher come twice a week and I was able to do the stretching if not the correct breathing or meditation.

A "weird" moment occurred when I stood by Gateway of India looking at The Taj Hotel. Obviously it came to international attention last November when the terrorist bombings and shootings occurred there. From that side, there was virtually no evidence it had ever happened. The 5 star resort is open again and thriving. But it felt very strange, to look at it in person and know it was the scene of such tragedy and terror last year (like going to Ground Zero a few years after 9/11, on a somewhat lesser scale)
I always find it surreal to be on the scene of an event that I watched on the news at some point in the past, especially one where people died.

Later in the day I actually went into the Taj lobby, where I met some visitors from Israel who suggested we go to The Leopold Cafe around the block. As we sipped soda they pointed out a blackened gap in the building across the street...damage from the terrorist attacks the previous year, and reminded me that several people had died in the cafe right where we were sitting.

The Leopold itself is fabulous, a real international place, where western faces were prevalent. There seem to be a lot of Israelis and former eastern bloc countries represented, along with the British. I really liked it there, although I admit my reasons feel a bit prejudiced even to myself.
It was clean, the staff understood English, and prices were quite reasonable.
After leaving, on my way back to meet my host at our prearranged spot, I gathered enough courage to venture into a few of the shops (truth: only after I saw other tourists there), and even to ask about prices at a few of the street vendors selling lanterns and clothing.

This is probably the longest blog entry I have ever done and I still don't feel like I've even begun to scratch the surface of what I've experienced in just my first 36 hrs in India.

It's now just past noon and I'm getting progressively dizzier and more nauseated, so I'm going to try to sleep awhile.
Hopefully this is nothing serious but to be honest I really feel like CRAP!

APPENDED to add:
2:40pm have been unable to nap but thankfully feeling less dizzy/nauseated

Unfortunately, I have just found out about the new warning issued by US govt to Americans traveling in India re: new threats/potential for terrorist attacks targeting Americans & other westerners. We are to keep "low profiles", stay away from places frequented by westerners and avoid major tourist attractions!
UMM...right. Great. Fabulous.
Now what?
On one hand, I am seriously contemplating going to the US Embassy (in my general "neighborhood") to learn more and let them advise as to whether I should change plans, or even cancel them.
On the other hand, just this morning after yoga I was telling my host's friends how we cannot allow the threat of terrorism to ruin our lives! Of course as I was saying it I did not realize there were real new threats!

Yet another position I have never been in before, never dreamed I could/would be in.
Also debating whether to pass this news along to my family as I don't want to worry my mother unnecessarily.

As of now, my plans remain unchanged, although I suppose I will take whatever more small precautions I can (and hopefully this won't mean having to avoid Leopolds...but...)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Last Night in the States til...

This is last night in the USA til late March 2010 is finally here, and it STILL doesn't seem real.
Twelve hrs from now I'll be en route to the airport. Seventeen hrs from now I'll board the first leg of my journey.
Forty-seven hrs from now I'll be arriving in Mumbai.

I finished packing days ago. I've printed out all my train tickets, rechecked luggage, and packed away everything which is going back into storage here.
I've researched everything I can think of for my stay in Mumbai.
I can only "pray" that I get along better than expected with my old college friend there, whose emails and calls started as fun and frequent and over the weeks til now dwindled to barely a sentence in reply to my repeated queries.
I can only hope I am able to boldy face the strangeness and foreignness of a faraway land whose culture, traditions, food, even native language is not my own.

I am numb. I am not sure if I have remembered everything. I have been strangely unable to think, to focus on this adventure.
I am clearly in some form of denial...perhaps as a defense mechanism against panic.

At some point tomorrow I will probably break out in tears. I have been known to cry a lot while in flight.
But honestly, I have done all I can do as far as preparations.
Perhaps my atypical non-drama, this go around, is merely my own emotional evolution?
Whereas in past days I may have been in hysterics by this stage, tonight I am only tired and resigned.

Wednesday night I will land in the heat of Mumbai, meet a stranger I haven't seen since 1987, and embark on a part of my life I never expected to be facing.

My hope is to chronicle my experiences here on a weekly basis, as I explore bazaars, temples, and Indian trains.
Pray for me as you watch my journey unfold.