Posts Tagged With: Mumbai

Here Comes the Bride!

My last post on my trip to Mumbai is actually about the main reason I flew to India in the first place: the wedding of my future sister in law.  I had always heard how grand and extravagant Indian weddings are, so when I found out that not only was I getting to go to India, but I was getting to go to an Indian wedding, I was just beside myself. 

I should also note that, because of the fact that, for most of its history, what we today know as “India” was actually a collection of hundreds of kingdoms, languages, and cultures, it’s a little misleading to speak of a traditionally “Indian” wedding.  If you told an Indian that you were going to see an Indian wedding, they’d probably ask, “Yeah, but what kind?” – Meaning: which of the myriad of traditions in India is the wedding going to follow?  The wedding that I went to was a Punjabi wedding, since the bride’s mother comes from the state of Punjab.  So, all of these traditions I’m going to describe below are characteristic of a Punjabi wedding.  Here are a few of the things that I enjoyed the most – or just found noteworthy:

1) It lasted FOUR days!  Now, that doesn’t mean that we were all out Bollywood dancing in the streets for 96 hours straight.  But there were big, important ceremonies for four days in a row.

Day One: That night was a religious ceremony to kick off the wedding.   Drapes were hung on the apartment courtyard walls and a shrine was set up front and center for an idol of the goddess Durga.  Catering, a band, and a priest were brought in for the evening.  Family started showing up the night before, and it was a festive occasion.

But of course, the real stars of the show were the bride-to-be and her mom.  They. Were. Decked. Out.  The sarees they wore looked like they had just stepped out of the tales of splendor from the ancient days.  There was also bling.  Lots of bling – jewelry everywhere!  On the wrists, fingers, neck, on the saree, in the hair!

So, that night, the priest led some type of worship/blessing ceremony.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on, except that this was meant to bless the coming wedding.  Beyond that, I had to only imagine – the family was too busy with the rituals to have time to translate everything – and I think that even if it was in English, I still wouldn’t really understand it.  But, there were songs, and prayers, and some chants.  And then folks danced for a while.  During a pause, folks paid their respects at the altar, and then there was a little more dancing.  And then, there was eating!  Like most of the time, I had no clue what I was putting on my plate and in my mouth.  I just took my platter and got a little of this, a little of that, and hoped for the best.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

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Day Two: This was the cocktail party – this was the one night we could indulge in our vices like alcohol and chicken.  The family had rented out a dance hall, which was nice since dancing was the focus of the night.  The bride, siblings, cousins, and even the little kiddies had prepared dances to perform.  So, one-by-one or in pairs, they got up on the stage and danced their little Bollywood asses off!

I think I had inadvertently offended some people – or at least disappointed them – when I didn’t dance with them the night before.  But, I really didn’t feel like breaking it down in front of people I’d only just met…to the tune of religious chanting.  So I promised them that I would dance with them at the cocktail party, even though I wasn’t doing anything for the ‘prepared dance’ portion of the evening.

So, when the last performance was done, and they opened up the dance floor, I finished my whiskey and Coke, and headed out there (I’d like to think that my royal purple and gold kurta was billowing in an unseen, slow-motion wind while dramatic music played, like in some Bollywood movie).  As I dared to glance back at the seats, I saw a look of excited surprise on everybody’s face, and that gave me the courage enough to break it down as far as my white rhythm and moves would let me.  But, it didn’t matter if I was a good dancer or simply having epileptic seizures, they were just happy that I got up there and danced with them.  The photographers loved it, too, and lots of people took turns taking pictures with me on the dance floor.  When they finally turned the music off and we decided to raid the buffet, no one would let me fix my own food.  They just asked what I wanted and then brought it to me.  I guess that’s the closest thing to feeling like a celebrity that I’ll ever experience!

Once I danced with them that night, I was inThat sealed my fate as one of the family.

Day Three was full of more religious ceremonies that I didn’t understand.  The bride got something that looked like turmeric painted on her face – and my fiancé was inducted as a Brahmin, which means that he’s supposed to renounce all worldly pleasures and devote his life to education.  We’ll see how that goes! Later that evening, one of the aunt & uncles placed some blingy, red bangles on the bride’s wrists.  I’m still not sure what that meant exactly, but I think those bangles were blessed, too.

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The bride getting her henna tattoos

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Henna tattoo for one of the cousins

Day Four:  This was the day of the actual wedding ceremony.  The families had rented out a resort – there was a stage set up outside, lights, palms, fountains, and even a red carpet.  The stage was set up in front of an amphitheater – and every seat was filled.  I’d estimate that anywhere from 400 to 500 people were there that night.

The bride’s family arrived at the resort early to get dressed and make sure everything was set up.  Around 6pm, I heard a commotion in the distance – – a band, cheering, and then I saw fireworks.  “I wonder what’s going on over there,” I said to my fiancé.  He suddenly looked a little panicked, “It’s the groom’s family; they’re here…We’ve got to hurry up and get finished.”

Wait – what?  That’s the groom’s family?  I remember thinking to myself (my fiancé had already run off to let everyone else know – as if they couldn’t hear the commotion, too!)  So, yeah, the groom showed up with his own parade – marching band, performers, fireworks, and all.  And he was riding a horse.  Once they arrived at the gates, the band played another song, everyone danced, and the groom finally dismounted.  The bride’s family (all except the bride) was there to greet everyone and give them gifts.

The groom made his entrance and then went for a costume change.  Only after he came back and took his place on the stage were we allowed to go get the bride.  I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful she was.  Six of us held a cloth over her head and escorted her onto the stage where her groom and the world saw her for the first time that day.

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The stage for the wedding couple

And then, for hours, everyone who was there filed onto the stage to congratulate them and get a picture with the couple.  The gigantic buffet was open during all of this, and I snuck off stage a couple of times to go graze.

Then, by 11pm or so, everyone left except family and close friends.  I was afraid I had missed the actual wedding ceremony and I wasn’t sure when they had become man and wife yet.  But that was because they hadn’t.  All of that was just the reception.  The actual ceremony wouldn’t take place until two o’clock in the morning, which was when their priests had told them was the best time for their union.

Eventually, the date changed, people came up and wished me Merry Christmas (it was the wee hours in the morning of December 25 after all!), and then the couple went to the alter and spent about an hour doing some more rituals and saying, what I guess were their vows.  Finally, everyone clapped, and they were married.  Then her brother had to escort her to her new husband’s house as a symbol of her making the transition from one family to the other.  By the time we finally got to bed that night/morning, it was 4:30am – the wedding had lasted almost 12 hours.

2) The bride and groom were kept separate until the actual wedding day. One thing that I noticed about this Indian wedding, was that it seemed like it was more about the joining of two families rather than being just about the bride and groom.  One thing that led me to that conclusion was that the bride and groom didn’t celebrate together – even spend any time together – until the wedding night.  Both families had their own four days’ worth of ceremonies.  The groom and his family did make a short appearance at day one’s religious ceremony, but apart from that, everything was separate.  The wedding night was the first time that both families mixed together in a large celebration.

3) There was enough gold to make Smaug jealous.  Seriously, I’ve never seen so much gold in one spot.  Let’s not even taken into account all of the jewelry that the bride was wearing – I’m talking about just the gold that both families gave to her on the wedding night.  But, I don’t think it’s really just about jewelry and bling.  It’s also about financial stability for the new couple.  Those gifts of gold are meant to be investments in their future.  The bride will keep those necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings – maybe even wearing them on special occasions – as her own wealth, which she can rely on to support her family if something should ever happen.

4) My god at the food! Lastly, I’ll just quickly mention the food again.  Can you imagine four days of wedding feasts?  Sometimes I still dream about those spreads of food – those platters of Indo-Chinese food, pani-puris, noodles, curries, sweets, and naans.  Since I’ve already posted about Indian food, I won’t waste any more time on it here, but I just thought I’d mention that these folks barred nothing when it came to providing excellent meals for all their wedding guests.  It was simply marvelous.

Damnit…I’ve made myself hungry.  But, now that I’m back in Germany, I guess I’ll have to settle for a bratwurst.

To see my general thoughts on my three weeks in Mumbai, see my post “Welcome to India!”  Or, to read about Mumbai traffic, see “Hey! Rickshaw!”  And if you want to drool over some descriptions of Indian food, check out “Bo-Hawt Atcha-Hey!”

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Hey! Rickshaw!

Where I’m from, drivers generally only honk their horns for two reasons: 1) to tell people (or, if you’re from the country, perhaps animals) to get out of the way; or 2) to let someone know that they’ve pissed you off.  A third reason for honking may be to say hi to someone you recognized as you drive by.

I stopped counting the number of reasons drivers in Mumbai honk – – partially because all of the honking was distracting me from my counting.  Folks in Mumbai honk to let others know they’re there, to scorn pedestrians that walked in the way, to greet a friend on the street, as a way to let others know that you’re about to pass them, or simply because there’s nothing else to do.  When we’d get in the car, the first thing the driver would do was give a few quick honks to let everyone know we were leaving.  But, there’s a practical reason for that – the driveway was only wide enough for one car at a time, and it was curved, so it was smart to signal your departure.  But, when we got to the street, he’d give another few honks to, I guess, hope the cars, bikes, and auto-rickshaws on the street would open up a small gap in the flow of traffic, just large enough for him to squeeze in.  Then he might give a honk of thanks.

The result of all this is a constant symphony of horns that goes on well into the night.  Every now and then, a train would barrel by, lending its deep air horn to the mix.  During my first few trips in the city, I could barely contain my giggles – not because it was actually funny, but I just found it so…..much.  Like I said before, Mumbai is a bombardment of the senses – and there was just so much honking that I couldn’t do anything else but laugh.  After a week though, I didn’t really notice, because the horns in Mumbai were akin to hearing birds chirping in a forest.  It was just something that belonged there. By the end, I was wondering why our driver – whoever it happened to be at the time, on the bus, the rickshaw, or in the family car – wasn’t honking even more.

The main mode of transportation in Mumbai is by auto rickshaw.  They’re little, three-wheeled carts that zoom down the streets, and you flag them down as you’d hail a cab:  “Hey!  Rickshaw!”  At least that’s how I thought it would go.  In reality though, my efforts were too much – all you had to do was barely raise your hand from your side, and you could flag one down.  They’ve got a backseat built to take, what I would have guessed to be, two adults.  But, during my three weeks there, I saw up to five folks piled in a rickshaw, with the fifth guy snuggled up close to the driver.  Rickshaws are good for just about anything – long or short distance.  While the family’s apartment was packed full of people during my future sister-in-law’s wedding, my fiancé and I stayed in a hotel down the road.  Each way, the trip between the apartment and hotel would take – depending on traffic – about 10 or 15 minutes.  And the bill for the trip?  15 rupees….about $0.25.  I couldn’t even hail a cab in Boston for a quarter!

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Some rickshaws, bikes, mopeds, and a train.

But, the rickshaws are good and cheap for longer distances, too.  We went to a big party at a beach resort for New Year’s Eve, and decided to take a rickshaw home instead of making someone come pick us up. We hopped crawled and folded ourselves in, and sped off, letting the first night air of 2014 rush in our faces.  I had had a few to drink that night, so I wasn’t so worried about the red lights we ran, or the people we pushed off the sidewalk to get around traffic – no, I was just enjoying Mumbai…and having occasional flashbacks of my childhood experience on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Walt Disney World.  An hour and a half later, we paid our tab – about 250 rupees, or $4.  Boston’s T ain’t got nothin’ on Mumbai’s rickshaws – dirt cheap transportation and a good dose of exhilaration at the same time.

toads wild ride

I suppose there are traffic laws in Mumbai, but I didn’t see any enforcement – or any way to enforce them, with tens of millions of vehicles on the roads.  The one main law of the road seemed to be:  get where you want to go as quickly as possible, and forget everybody else.  On the highway, there were actually lanes indicated on the road, but they were merely a waste of paint.  While those lines suggested we had four lanes across, it was nothing to see six vehicles side-by-side as they sought to get around each other.  Granted, rickshaws are pretty small – in fact, that’s one of their greatest advantages!  They could squeeze in where cars and trucks couldn’t.

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A woman with way more courage than I have – riding side-saddle on a moped, racing down a Mumbai highway

Traffic lights were mere suggestions.  Once, just after we drove on through a red light (the driver did take his foot off the gas for a moment so he could make sure the coast was clear), my fiancé told him, “You know, in America, a camera would take a picture of your license plate, and then you’d get a ticket in the mail, plus you’d get points on your license.  You have to always wear your seat belt, stay in your lane, and follow the speed limit.  And if you get enough tickets, they take your license away.”

The driver’s response:  “That sounds horrible.

But, I must admit, that what appeared at first glance to be one big clusterf*ck was actually somewhat of an organized chaos.  Not once did I see an accident, even if there were multiple times that I couldn’t even see any space between our rickshaw and the car next to us as we passed it.  Everything just always worked out; I quickly realized not to be nervous and to trust the drivers.  They really knew what they were doing (and they must have nerves of steel).  But, I think that’s because there are unwritten laws about driving in Mumbai that you have to learn through experience.  Even I could pick up on the three different sounds of the horns in all of the commotion.  Rickshaw horns are shrill and high pitched.  Cars’ horns sound like what we’re used to.  And bus horns were deep and sounded like a fog horn.  Judging by the sound of the horn coming up behind or next to you, you knew how far (if at all) you needed to get over to let them by.  The constant cacophony of horns was like an echo location system, allowing everyone to know where boundaries were. The Rickshaws gave way to cars, and everyone got over for the huge, old, flat-nose Blue Bird city busses.  It was the traffic food chain.

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A truck load of sugar cane – saw this on a day trip we took outside of the city

And it always seemed to me like the people driving must have three more sets of eyes than I do.  Even without a rearview mirror, they’d know what was around them.  But then again, maybe they just didn’t care what was around them, and they just changed “lanes” whenever they wanted to, expecting everyone else to adjust.  But that’s okay – because that was normal, and everyone expected it – that was calculated into their reflexes.

One of my favorite experiences that I can remember most vividly happened on our trip home from the New Year’s Eve party.  It was two in the morning, and we got caught by a red light.  We actually stopped, because the cross traffic was thick.

But, as the seconds turned to minutes, and our lanes (as well as the oncoming traffic’s lanes) got longer and longer with stopped cars, something funny happened: the first vehicle at the light  inched forward, and the rickshaw behind him moved up to fill in the gap.  Some rickshaws (including our own), crawled up on the sidewalk to become part of the widening front line.  Everyone else followed suit.  The shifting headlights across the way told me that the oncoming traffic was doing the same.  It was as if all of the vehicles had melded into one living thing, and this thing was impatient, ready to move.  It crept forward as a mass, like a dam slowly blocking off a river, until the cross traffic (which still had the green light) had no choice but to stop.  Their turn was over, no matter what the light said.

I couldn’t help but laugh (I did a lot of laughing and giggling in Mumbai), because here was yet another example of how organized chaos works.  By our – by my – standards, this was preposterous and actions such as these (disregard for order, disobeying the rules) should lead to the eventual breakdown of organized society as we know it…or at least that’s what one might think given the West’s devotion to law and order (especially in some countries, *cough, cough * Germany!).  But, it worked in Mumbai.  Just another example of how different cultures organize the world and reality in different ways…

A quick glimpse of Mumbai street life:

Just as the streets were crowded with people and vehicles, the trains were packed full, too.  I’m sure a lot of people have seen pictures or videos of Mumbai’s infamous trains, packed to the brim with people (all you’ve got to do is Google “Mumbai trains” and you can see what I’m talking about).  People stand in the open doorways, women with their colorful sarees billowing in the wind.  Sometimes men sit on top of the train, or hang on between the cars.  I was thankful that the day we took a train to the city center (where the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel are), the train wasn’t crowded.  We went on a Sunday, so no one was rushing to get to or from work.

Before heading to India, I read Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found by Suketu Mehta, an Indian born journalist who spent his early adult life in New York City, but who moved back to Mumbai to reacquaint himself with his hometown.  The title “Maximum City” says it all.  Mumbai is a city of extremes.  Mehta devotes several pages to the trains in Mumbai, and one thing he said in particular stuck with me:

No matter how many people are packed into a train – despite the fact that the number of human bodies packed into a finite space seems to defy the laws of physics – despite the fact that it’s probably hard for those on the inside of the crowd to breathe because little fresh air reaches them – Despite all of this – if you are about to miss your train, and it’s already pulling away from the station and you start to run, you will see a sea of hands reach out to grab you, miraculously making an inch of room for you to balance on.  Because as uncomfortable as everyone onboard is, they know that if you miss that train, it could mean you arriving at work late and getting fired, and your family may have to go hungry.  So, no matter how full a train is, you’ll always find room.

THAT’S AWESOME.

For my overall impressions of my three weeks in Mumbai, see my earlier post “Welcome to India” and my post on Indian food, “Bo-hawt Atcha-hey!” Check back soon for my post on my experiences at an Indian wedding! 

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Welcome to India!

I woke up early on the morning of Thursday, December 19th, having been too excited to sleep much at all.  I chugged a coffee, showered, and shaved, ready for the long trip.  I heaved my bags down the four flights of stairs and then reluctantly trudged out into the cold, German drizzle and made my way to the subway station.  My bullet train left Cologne Central Station at 5:55 that morning, and within fifty minutes, we covered the 120 miles to Frankfurt International Airport’s train terminal.  Naturally, my hand baggage weighed too much (I had been offered some free books from the Cologne archive, and there was no way I could turn them down!), so I was forced to check it, and carry on the bag I had planned to check in.  It wasn’t until the security checkpoint that I realized that, in all of the rush, I had forgotten to swap out all of my liquids, and I ended up having to throw away a lot – including my bottle of Slap Ya Mama Hot Sauce that had travelled with me for the past month and a half. 

Boarding was actually a smooth process, and luckily the seat next to me was left empty, so I had plenty of room to spread out on my 7 hour flight to Dubai.  By a quarter to ten, we were wheels up, on our way to the Middle East.  Emirates was by far the nicest airlines I’ve ever flown with.  The hours went by quickly, and before I knew it, we were landing in Dubai.  The tales of riches, splendor and excess that I had heard from people who have travelled to the United Arab Emirates were true – as I stepped off the plane and into the airport, I felt as if I had stepped into a palace.  Everything was newly renovated, immaculate, and on the verge of gaudy.  There was a three story waterfall, a full shopping mall, and even a small rainforest with walking paths and gently flowing streams.  And that was all in Terminal Three.  Instead of spending my 17 hour layover on a bench, I spent the night in a hotel in the city, and while I didn’t have any time to explore, I was able to lay eyes on Dubai’s impressive skyline.

The next morning, I was afraid I’d miss my flight.  My driver showed up 30 minutes late, there was horrible traffic, and the line for security in the airport was un-godly.  But, though the Dubai airport is huge and incredibly busy, I have to give it to them: they know what they’re doing.  Everything ran like a well-oiled machine.  Within 20 minutes, I was through passport control and security.  I met my partner fiancé (still not used to saying that – holla!) at the gate, and we hopped on the plane together.  I couldn’t stop smiling; we had talked about that moment for so long – we were finally on a plane together, heading to his home in Mumbai.

MUMBAI: A BOMBARDMENT OF THE SENSES

The first thing that struck me about Mumbai is that it’s a sensory overload.  After leaving cold, overcast Germany, it was a shock to step into the bright sunlight and warm “winter” of Mumbai.  The city’s smell was the first thing that I noticed.  I quickly learned that you never smell nothing – there’s always something in the air that piques your nose’s interest.  It may be the smoky scent of a fire burning, the pungent odor of the nearest open-air fish market, or perhaps the temptation of a home-cooked meal being prepared nearby…something that’s so good you wish it’d just lift you off the ground Yogi Bear style and pull you in through the window for dinner.  But if your nose isn’t busy sifting through any of those smells, you’ll notice some of the less-pleasant odors of the city.  Some of the rivers had that distinct rotten/stagnant water and mud smell, and every now and then a foul odor would rise up from an open manhole in the street.  Then, of course, there’s the ever-present smog.  The exhaust from the millions of cars and 3-wheeled auto rickshaws hangs in the air.  The city is in a constant haze due to the smog.  Even after three weeks in Mumbai, I never got completely used to the smell – it wasn’t that the smell was necessarily bad, but it was just that there was a smell all of the time (and most of the time, a mixture of smells).

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a Mumbai fish market

Mumbai is also a noisy city.  Very, very noisy.  The sound of horns honking is incessant.  My fiancé’s family’s apartment was near the train tracks, so every couple of minutes we were treated with an air horn and the rumbling clickty-clack of the train barreling down the tracks, overflowing with people. When you walked down the streets, shop vendors called you to try their goods.  People yelled at each other across the street – sometimes to say hey, and other times ‘cause they were angry.  When folks had conversations with each other, it was loud and animated.  I always kidded my fiancé about yelling at his family when they Skyped with each other, telling him, “You know, even though they’re on the other side of the planet, y’all don’t have to yell to hear each other!”  But, now I’ve learned that it’s just a part of Indian culture.  On the night that I left Mumbai, my fiancé’s 10-year-old nephew told me:  “You know, all of the family likes you – they think you’re very kind. I heard them talking; they were saying “He’s so calm – he never even yells!”” But, it’s not just the volume; it’s the animation, too.  I’m convinced that if you tied an Indian’s hands behind his back, he wouldn’t be able to speak.  By the end of my trip, I found myself doing the Indian head-wobble when I spoke, and showing my palms as a way of saying no.

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auto-rickshaws, bikes and trains

Beyond the assault on the senses of sound and smell, Indian food is always an explosion of taste.  But, I’ll dedicate a whole post to my love-affair with Indian cuisine, so I won’t spend any more words on it now.

I had always heard that India was a colorful place; when you see pictures in travel magazines, they’re always full of vibrant colors.  I personally found this notion to be a half-truth.  Nearly all of the buildings of Mumbai are the same brown or beige color.  Dust of the same color blankets the streets and everything on ground level.  But, the people!  THAT is where the color is!  The women wear saris and dresses of lime green, bright pink, fire-engine red, gold, royal blue, purple – every color of the rainbow and then some.  Even the men wear colorful outfits when they dress up for an occasion.  The family bought me two Indian outfits for my future sister-in-law’s wedding events.  The outfits consist of soft pants, which I just called pajama bottoms, and a long, solid-piece top.  The outfit I wore for the main religious ceremony was a pure white (with a bedazzled collar for some flair), while the one I wore for the cocktail party was a magnificent purple with golden pants.  I was lookin’ pretty fly for a white guy.

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Indian men’s outfits are called Kurtas (photos courtesy of http://www.craftsvilla.com/designer-heavy-neck-embroidered-rama-blue-kurta-9.html)

But Mumbai can also be an overload for your heart, too.  Billboards of luxury goods and consumption stand above areas of abject poverty.  Slums cover the least-desirable real estate throughout the city to accommodate the gargantuan number of people living there. Even for someone like me who has done a good bit of travelling, and even to several poorer countries, the amount of poverty I saw in Mumbai surprised me.  I just hadn’t prepared myself for it.  I once saw a group of men sleeping in the gutter in front of a Catholic church and I became enraged, wondering why the doors of the church weren’t opened to these people.  What else was a church good for?  We saw people begging for food as we traveled downtown to see some sights…including the Taj Hotel, which can cost up to $1,000 per night.  A division of wealth exists in the USA, too, but it’s just more extreme in Mumbai.

One of the first impressions that I got after arriving in the city was that it seemed that everyone was working hard all of the time.  There was someone selling anything you could imagine – whether it was a service or goods.  While there are large shopping malls in Mumbai (many of them, actually), I was impressed by how specialized everything was – there were shops for pipe fittings, while the shop next door sold only pipes.  One store sold cloth, another only drinks.  Hardware stores stood next to kitchen good stores, and they might be next to a cobbler, selling his homemade shoes.  People would come to your home, pick up your (clean) laundry, iron them for you, and deliver it the next day.  Most households paid someone to come in and help out with the housework.  Chai-tea stands were on every corner, and vendors selling all sorts of snacks weren’t far away.  Women would sell you flowers and crafts, and you could get a shave right there on the street.  It just seemed that everyone was busy and that’s what made the city feel so alive.  But then again, I guess everyone has to work and be so busy – because unlike in America, India has no welfare system to fall back on.  If you don’t work, you don’t earn money and you don’t eat.  It’s as simple as that.  And that’s why I think it’s really pretty cool that it’s the norm to pay several people to do a job that one person could easily do, even if they each receive less money.  People may have to work a couple of smaller jobs to make ends meet, but at least there is something for them to do.  At first I was shocked by the number of employees that would be working in any given shop, but I later came to appreciate it as a way of helping out as many people as possible.

My pampered, “first world” eyes were also not used to seeing the trash and pollution.  There was no discernible trash collection service that I could see, so every open space in the city (save the touristy section) had the potential to become a trash dump.  In fact, trash and litter were as much a part of the city-scape as the people, buildings, the laughing children, and the stray dogs.

THE WARMEST PEOPLE I KNOW

BUT, what I can say with absolute certainty, is that Indians (or at least Mumbains) are the friendliest, warmest, and open-hearted people that I’ve ever come across.  The immediate and extended family were all around for the wedding, and though I came as a “guest” and friend, I was immediately treated like I was simply a part of the family.  They included me in their [very loud and animated] conversations, even if I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. The cousins and uncles who spoke good English stuck by me and helped me talk to everyone.  They all asked about my life, and enjoyed sharing theirs.  They loved it that I not only tried, but whole-heartedly enjoyed their food.  They seemed almost blown away that an American would eat on the floor with them, eat with his hands, and try whatever was cooked that day…and ask for more!  One of the things I loved the most was playing with all of the kids.  My fiancé’s niece and nephew were around all the time, but 4 or 5 other cousins ten-years-old or younger lived not too far away, and they were my best-buds (not least because they could speak the best English!) They’d climb all over me, quiz me on the list of random Hindi words they’d taught me, teach me some games, and occasionally touch my skin and say, “You’re so white!” Their parents would yell at them to leave me alone, and it’d work for a few minutes.  But, then I’d call them back over and we’d pick up where we left off.

For me, coming from a small town of about 3,000 people, the sheer number of people living in Mumbai was, at first, overwhelming for me.  According to Wikipedia, the city of Mumbai has just over 20 million inhabitants.  Just for comparison, New York City “only” has 8.5 million.  Mumbai is also the most densely populated city on the planet, with 59,400 people per square mile!  (22,937 km2).  The result was that the city itself seemed to be alive and moving, constantly shifting.  My friends and family know that I’m not exactly a people person, and while I love individuals, I hate crowds.  So, there were a couple of times that I thought I was going to have a panic attack and die in that distant land.    But, naturally, I didn’t die, and I got over it…partially because, while there are kajillions of Indians crowded in the city, they’re all tiny.  I was, on average, at least a head taller than 9 out of 10 people I saw.  At 6’, I towered over them, and I used that to my advantage – to get “fresh” air when there was a crowd, and to give the family great bear hugs, even though hugging is not so big in India.

So many people at the vegetable market!

The culture is, of course, strikingly different.  Coming from the West, with our infatuation with individuality, one of the biggest culture shocks for me was the lack of personal boundaries.  There, it’s all about the family.  Your whole family knows all your business – they tell you you’ve gained weight, ask when you’re going to get married, how much money you earn – all while sitting in front of 15 family members.  When you want to make a phone call, or write an email, someone may just listen in or look over your shoulder as you write.  If you get ready to leave, someone will certainly ask where you’re going, why you’re going, when you’ll return – and then they’re likely to get up and go with you – whether you asked them or not.  After I used the bathroom for the first time (#2), I thought it was strange that my fiancé asked me how it went, but I was struck dumb when he turned around and explained in Gujrati to his family how it went! 

There was a real sense of community there.  Everyone’s doors in the apartment building were always open, and people stopped by all the time to chat.  Random kids would come running in to play.  This actually made me think of a porch back home, where people stopped by to catch up on each other’s lives.

Hanging out in the courtyard downstairs

But, this tight-knit focus on the family is ultimately a good thing, I think, and it’s not too terribly different from my big, loud, Southern family. And, despite all of the yelling at each other that the family did (always knowing everybody’s business doesn’t always lead to harmony!), they are each other’s fiercest defendersThe capacity of their hearts was simply humbling, and knowing his family made me love my fiancé even more.  Now I know his roots and his family isn’t just a picture in a frame anymore.  I’m glad that they’ll be my family, too, one day soon.

Stay tuned for my posts on Indian food, Mumbai traffic, and my experience at an Indian wedding! 

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