On Monday June 18th, my mom and I drove from St. Louis to Chicago. From there I flew to Paris, caught a close connecting flight to Bah Rain (my checked baggage wasn’t so lucky), and finally flew in to India, arriving in Mumbai at exactly 4:20 in the morning on June 20th. During the 48-hour travel odyssey that marked the official beginning of my Walker fellowship, I happened to flip open a biography on Einstein in an airport bookstore. It was introduced with this quotation by Albert:
“Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
It struck me as appropriate timing to see this, as I set forth on a solo, six-month trip in an entirely new place. I made a mental note to remember it.
In Mumbai, Albert’s witty quip takes on a much more literal meaning. In, Mumbai, you MUST keep moving. You are not keeping pace with the city if you pause in the metro station to look at a map, wait for a break in the traffic in order to cross the street, or look at fruit too long without buying anything. I can’t help but echo the words I’ve read in travel books and websites about this megacity of over 20.5 million people: it is unbelievably dense, it assaults all of your senses in both wonderful and horrible ways, it is raw, gritty, and constantly constantly moving. Giant, sleek financial buildings, billboards advertising Bollywood films, and luxury hotels tower over miles of sprawling slums. The streets are jammed with three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that come within an inch of each other, motorcycles that regularly use the sidewalks if traffic is stuck, top-of-the line new model cars, street kids selling peppers, and the occasional stray goat.
Because the city acts as a beacon of economic opportunity for the rural poor all over the country, Mumbai is filled with migrant workers trying to make money to support their families. These workers find work within the city’s vast informal economy, which makes up 68% of the jobs. They sell chai or umbrellas on the street, harvest coconuts, set up makeshift restaurants, collect and recycle the city’s plastic and aluminum, shine shoes, drive rickshaws, deliver newspapers, wash clothes, and scrub the floors of homes and businesses. Approximately 60% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. It’s important to understand why so many millions of people have chosen to live in what most would consider squalid conditions: for slum residents, there is real possibility to make significantly more money here—the financial capital of India—than there is in rural villages and towns. They are incredibly enterprising people.When describing his experience in the city, my friend from the UK noted that Mumbai is a city of survivors.
In the four days that I have been here, I have had to adjust to Mumbai’s pace and attitude. Living here requires a sort of aggressiveness that Hendrix College and small-town Arkansas did not prepare me for. Bartering is expected when buying practically anything, but it’s hard for me to put up a great fight for 25 cents off of my mango purchase. If you need to get off the metro during rush hour, you better be ready to push and shove your way out. I wasn’t, and consequently missed my stop, hopelessly smashed among a bunch of Indian women (all of whom seem to be at least a head shorter than me). When standing in line or getting a ticket stamped, you’re expected to use your shoulders and body to keep your place. I have lost my place in line multiple times, and literally had my hand smacked out of the way by an elderly woman because she wanted to have her ticket stamped first.
I don’t want to give a false impression of Mumbaikers, though. I have received many kind words and encountered countless people who have gone out of their way to help me. I’ve had other people intervene in my bartering negotiations and tell the vendor off for an unfair price. The boy who picked me up from the airport waited outside for six hours for me, and absolutely refused to be given any extra money. After trying and failing to make a phone call at a store, the store employee ran down the crowded street to catch up with me so that I could borrow his cell phone. Before my trip, many people told me that Indians are extremely hospitable—As a guest in this country, I’m grateful to have discovered this to be true.
There’s much more to tell in regards to Mumbai (Which also goes by Bombay; half the people I talk with still refer to it as Bombay), but I’ll be saving those stories for different posts. Stay tuned for girls’ football practice in Dharavi and beach frisbee, Indian-style.
A note about the lack of photos: It is monsoon season in Mumbai, which means spontaneous deluges are common. It has made me hesitant to bring my camera out much. But I promise, photos will come.