HORN OK PLEASE: Bombay Street Smarts

I realize that while I’ve been in India for well over a month, I haven’t given much detail about my everyday life in Mumbai. While I often feel like a hapless foreigner (especially without knowing Hindi), I have wizened up over the past month and can now navigate the city fairly well. So, for those who are curious about the ordinary happenings in an Indian megacity, I’ve compiled a list of lessons I’ve learned that help to illustrate my experience here.


  1. Finger Food
    Eating with your hand (always the right hand) is more nuanced than it may sound, and I’m slowly learning to wield my fingers as utensils. There’s a way to do it gracefully, and it takes practice. Rice dishes can be especially challenging.  However, once you get past the initial awkwardness, there’s something deeply satisfying about eating with your hand. There’s this quote that I kept reading in almost every Indian guidebook I found: “Eating with utensils is like making love through an interpreter.” Now, one month into India, I understand the appeal. I find myself eating slower[1], appreciating the texture of food more, and yes—feeling more “connected” to what I’m eating.
  2.  Identifying Chilis
    That vegetable in my curry that looks like a green bean is not a green bean. It’s a chili. Don’t eat it.
  3. Buying Fruit
    It’s tough to get a fair price on produce if you obviously aren’t local. I am obviously not local. If I don’t know the going rate of say, a pomegranate, it’s very easy for the vendor to dramatically inflate the price and capitalize on my ignorance. I can’t say I blame him. One trick that sometimes works is to ask about the price, then laugh like you’ve heard a good joke when you hear the answer and give the vendor one of those “I know all your tricks” looks. My best option, though, is to hover nearby while a woman is also making purchase, and then quickly ask the vendor about the price while she’s still standing there. Instead of looking at the vendor, I’ll give the woman a questioning, concerned look. Usually she’ll make a face, shake her head, and then help me argue the vendor down to the going rate (sometimes sparking a heated bargaining session in Hindi).
  4. Blending In
    Let’s just be honest: I’m not going to blend in in India unless I go with the burqa-and-sunglasses look (which actually could be an option here, albeit very hot). While women’s dress in Mumbai is much more conservative than you would see walking around a US city in the summertime, much of the clothing young people wear here is just as modern and Western as you would see in any US mall. That said, there are certain ways to dress that evoke less attention. It’s normal to keep your legs covered, pants are much more common than skirts, and shawls do well in making an outfit instantly modest. Also, in terms of walking-on-the-street ettiquete, it’s best not to make eye contact with men, as this can be taken as provocative. This has been a challenge for me, given my time in the Midwest and the South has taught me to be overtly friendly to passing strangers.
  5. Preserving Decency
    Do not wear a white shirt during monsoon season. Yes, it helps to carry an umbrella or rain jacket. But the white shirt just isn’t a good idea.
  6. Waterworld
    To follow up Number 4, never leave the house without an umbrella. Monsoon means sudden, intense onslaughts of rain. Sometimes you can see the rain creeping towards you from across the city like a strange mass of gray fog. I’ve been caught in these showers more than a couple times and will not make the no-umbrella mistake again (probably).
  7. Crossing the Street
    This is a tricky one. A good friend of mine provided a very accurate analogy for the task of crossing the streets here: the old computer game Frogger. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest checking it out here (http://www.happyhopper.org/). Instead of “shooting the gap” as we say in the US, crossing the street requires shooting many gaps, one by one. Because pedestrians do not have the right of way, you must always be on your toes. You must also be assertive; when a gap in traffic just isn’t coming, confidently raise one hand to alert the oncoming rickshaw or taxi that you are not going to stop walking. They will (most likely) slow down enough to avoid impact. If, however, you do not raise your hand, the driver will assume you are weak and submissive and that you are going to scramble out of his way.
  8. Self Preservation
    Avoid rush hour on the train at all costs. If unavoidable, proceed with a sense of humor. If carrying a backpack, always wear it in the front.
  9. Sidewalk Savvy
    Do not assume that motor traffic will stay on the street. While walking on the sidewalk, be prepared to dodge motorcycles, bicycles, and the occasional daring rickshaw that have decided to take a shortcut around a traffic jam.
  10. Indian English
    Most people in Mumbai know at least a little English. However, asking for directions of instructing rickshaw drivers can be full of miscommunications. My pronunciation is probably the biggest hurdle, and I’m slowly learning to speak Indian English, accenting words the way they are said here. I realized the other day that I’ve gotten in the habit of quickly saying “Yeah-yeah-yeah” instead of a simple, affirmative  “yes” or “yeah”.  Once I noticed that I was doing it, I couldn’t stop doing it, and I didn’t understand why I was doing it. Then I started noticing that “yeah-yeah-yeah” was an Indian English thing—everyone was saying it that way. I had unconsciously picked it up and added it to my own vocabulary.
  11. Hello?
    I dread making calls on my Indian cell phone. Combine poor reception with my mediocre ability to understand Hindi-accented English, and you get disaster. Conversations that should be simple become drawn-out ordeals, especially if giving directions is involved. Instead of saying “What?” if something is unclear over the phone, Indians almost always say “Hello?” Thus, my phone calls are punctuated with a ridiculous number of questioning “Hello’s” from both parties. I have come to realize that my two best options are to A) Send text messages instead, or B) Hand the phone to a random Indian and ask for help.
  12.  The Bobble
    Use the head bobble to indicate that you understand, to agree with something, to convey that you are okay, or to greet someone casually. While initially awkward for someone unfamiliar with the head bobble, after a couple weeks of use it feels just as natural as the nod. The bobble is performed exactly as it sounds: by lightly wobbling your head back and forth the way a dashboard bobble-head doll might on a relatively flat road.
  13. Beggars
    The extent of the poverty here is shocking and difficult to comprehend. It goes way beyond the poverty I witnessed in Honduras and Nicaragua. While walking in any part of the city, you will encounter beggars: brash kids, elderly men and women, mothers cradling handicapped or sick children, the blind, and people with any range of missing limbs or disfigured features. It’s been estimated that 1% of the city’s population are professional beggars—which is a significant number in a city of over 20 million. Many beggars choose to beg, and even deny work opportunities, because people continue to support them. So how do you react? This is not something I can neatly claim to have “figured out”. Several Mumbaikers I deeply respect have advised giving nothing to beggars, because it only perpetuates the existence of professional beggars—if you make begging a potential livelihood, you help create the next generation of beggars. That said, giving nothing shouldn’t be an absolute rule. Some people truly have no other option. When confronted with beggars, you’ve got to quickly discern whether this is their case or not. It is utterly heart-wrenching. I’m including this on this list, but I am not by any means street smart in regards to responding to beggars.

[1] In general, this cannot be said of Indians. From my experience, I tend to be the last one eating while everyone else has cleared their plates. Of course, this might also be due to the fact that I’m a novice hand-eater and can only handle small bites of spicy food without getting the hiccups.


2 thoughts on “HORN OK PLEASE: Bombay Street Smarts

  1. Dear Rose,
    We absolutely loved reading and learning about your experiences. Alot of things must be cullture shock, like the poor, destitute people or eating with your hands. What a rich experience~ to be able to live with & in a different culture! Just remember, no white shirts in the rain, please be careful crossing the streets and avoid eye contact with men! We send you love from Wisconsin and look forward to your next blog and of course, your return. Hugs to you! Kathy and Al

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