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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 defenders. The 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!