December 6, 2015

A Long Overdue Update from India

A bout of writer's block and why I can't seem to escape Mumbai

By Scott In India, Personal, Travel

It’s been nearly two months since my last post, and I have at least half a dozen drafts on both my phone and my computer that just never materialize. Not so much because I don’t have the time—granted I am busy—but mostly because I can’t seem to decide what it is I really want to say mixed with a shred of procrastination. Sure I could write about how I spent three amazing weeks in Spain eating the most amazing food, drinking cheap wine and meeting the greatest people—barring my trip to the hospital. Or how Kraków astounded me by its beauty, its culture, its inherent coolness that made me want to just stay forever. Or why Prague is magical and ended up being one of the best weeks of my entire trip. Or about the whirlwind London jaunt with my friend Ashley before seeing Thom Yorke and RATATAT at the Paris Pitchfork Music Festival. I could talk about all those things, and in time, I probably will. But what would I actually be saying? It all felt a little self-serving at the time, like I was posturing; the written equivalent of posting a ton of Instagram pictures with a million hashtags like #travellife #blessed #scottontheroad. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just didn’t feel like me. And so I decided to skip writing about my last weeks in Europe for now and instead dive into my arrival in India.

Gateway

I’ve been in Bombay/Mumbai for three weeks now, and it has scarcely been the experience I expected. I mean, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect other than what I’d heard from people who’d been: it’s chaotic, overwhelming, nothing can prepare you for it, and you will either love it, hate it, or a combination of both. I can attest that all of this is true, but that everybody lives it differently. You basically have two choices:

  1. Constantly compare life here to that of a Western developed nation and hate it;
  2. Let got of everything you know, just go with the flow, and love it.

I have obviously chosen the latter. But that’s not what I mean by the experience not being what I expected. When I booked my ticket from Reykjavik to Mumbai, all I had planned was a 5-day stay in an Airbnb before making my way down South. I wanted to go for treks in little villages, visit temples, disconnect from the world, find my true inner-self, and all that other spiritual bullshit white people come up with when they visit a country like India clutching their battered copy of Eat Pray Love. But seeing as I have yet to leave Mumbai, you can probably surmise that this is not exactly how things turned out.

A little background

When I was in France my friend Aurelie in Montreal put me in touch with her friend Blanche in Paris saying we would get along famously. We do, and I go over to her place for a typically French evening involving a delicious improvised dinner, some wine drinking, listening to jazz, while talking about life, love, sex, and the world. Throughout our discussion I mention that I’ll be going to India in a few weeks, and turns out she’d lived there for 2 years and absolutely loved it. I leave with a promise to keep in touch—we do—and that she’ll forward my info to one of her friends in Mumbai, which she also does.

Mumbai_Aerial

Knowing I’ll be reaching Mumbai knowing at least one person reassures me a bit. I obviously have no trouble being and travelling alone, I’ve been doing it for months, but reaching a city as daunting as Mumbai with absolutely no points of reference was a tad intimidating. And while we’re flying over the city during out descent, I can see that my fears were not completely unfounded. Mumbai is massive. While Montreal’s and Mumbai’s metropolitan area is roughly the same size (4,258 km2 in Montreal vs. 4,355 km2 in Mumbai,) you generally don’t travel to the outer reaches of Montreal’s metro area unless you live there. Here, you have to travel close to an hour to reach pretty much anywhere. And the population density is not even in the same league, with Montreal’s metropolitan area consisting of roughly 3.8M inhabitants compared to Mumbai’s 21M. In the urban centre, Montreal’s population density reaches a peak of 4,517 people per km2 whereas Mumbai’s reaches more than 5x that with 21,000 inhabitants per km2. Can you imagine that amount of people crammed onto the island of Montreal and its shores? Not likely.

Diwali

So what have I been up to?

My first night in Mumbai involves drinking whisky with my host family and their extended family who were in town for Diwali, the festival of lights. But I quickly retired as I was severely jet lagged and had spent the previous 24 hours either on planes and in airports. I reach out to Hitesh, Blanche’s friend, to let him know I’ve arrived safely, and he promptly invites me out the following night. The next morning I venture our to explore my area a bit, including Powai Lake, which turns out is extremely far from the city centre. Powai is a newly developed start-up and residential hub, but there’s not much on the street I leave on and I quickly glean it is definitely not a tourist area. I get stopped by cars, followed by kids, and am generally gawked at, which is all pretty entertaining. I’m quickly exhausted though, and return home for a nap before heading out for the night.

I meet Hitesh at Social‘s new location in Khar West for their opening weekend: it’s packed and I barely get in as I’m not accompanied by a girl (a rare occurrence, I know.) We drink L.L.I.I.Ts (Longest Long Island Ice Teas, they’re appropriately massive) and I meet a bunch of his friends. The bar is completely packed, but we dance for a while before heading off to a gay Bollywood party. Once it shuts down (everything shuts down at 1am here,) we make our way to the famed Marine Drive—called the Queen’s Necklace as it resembles a pearl necklace when lit up at night—and chill by the beach with thousands of others doing the same, even at 3am. We finish off with a delicious late night buffet on the top floor of a hotel nearby, where I eat far too much food but impress my newfound indian friends with my love of their food. Not bad for a first night out.

The next day I’m invited to a “Maggi Party” and I am as perplexed as to what it entails as you probably are. Turns out it is literally a party to welcome back Maggi noodles, which are basically ramen noodles but with a distinctive indian flavour. Why are they welcoming them back? Because they had been been banned over their alleged high lead content, but after 6 months the ban was lifted and they were back on the market. Let me tell you this, people fucking love Maggi noodles. So everyone at the party had to dress up in Maggi colours—yellow and red—and they performed a mock ceremony (whose video may or may not have gone viral…)  after which we cook massive batches of Maggi noodles (and yes, they’re disgustingly delicious in a way only ramen noodles can be.) I meet an entirely new group of friends and they’re as lovely as the previous day’s group.

My 5 days quickly pass by, and it’s time for me to move. I’m instructed that I should stay in Bandra, the “Queen of the suburbs,” as it’s more central and happening, with many Bollywood stars living there. I book another 5 nights, thinking that 10 days in Mumbai will be more than enough, and I’ll be on my merry way. But where? While I was planning on hitting up Goa first, as it’s nearby, literally everyone I meet tells me to avoid it like the plague in December. Go in January they say, it’ll be much better. And everyone convinces me that it’d be a crying shame to miss out on the North: it’s beautiful, the weather’s perfect this time of year, and now I know a bunch of people there. OK so I’ll head North for a bit and make my way back south in January. But Hitesh is a fantastic guide, and takes me out to all his favourite places. I feel like I understand the city now and how to navigate it. I’ve already taken countless rickshaws, ridden the metro and the trains alone like a big boy, and I’m not quite ready to leave.

RidingTrainMumbai

The extra 5 days are over, and Hitesh finally convinces me to just come stay with him and his lovely mother. I visit the Prince of Wales museum, (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya,) the caves on Elephanta Island, the Gateway to India, the Taj Hotel, and Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia—yes, the one from Slumdog Millionaire. But I’m also invited to birthday parties, house parties, club nights, bar anniversaries, afterwork drinks, and I’ve fallen into a comfortable routine. Hitesh’s mom cooks me amazing Indian food daily and won’t stand to see me not eat. We converse as best we can, me with my limited Hindi and Google Translate, her with her hands and limited English. We mostly just look at each other a lot while smiling and laughing. I’ve now been here for 23 days. Funnily enough, a few friends I’ve met here that are from other cities/countries were also only supposed to be in Mumbai a few days and are all still here, unable to leave.

But leave I must, because at this rate my visa will run out and I’ll have yet to see the rest of this vast country. I’m leaving for Delhi on the 10th with my friend Ashu to visit his farm house, but afterwards? Who knows. And so while I may have done more partying than soul searching since I’ve arrived in India, I’ve had the luxury of experiencing Mumbai like a local, and that definitely makes me feel #blessed.

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