As I arrived in Mumbai, my face and eyes started to sting from the polluted breeze blowing into the windows-down un-air conditioned environment of the hatchback group taxi I was in. There was quite a bit of traffic, including many old cars and buses with dark black smoke clouds issuing out of their exhaust pipes. The air smelled acrid like acidic old puke, stale human piss and exhaust. But the swirling mixture of high and low emotions one feels in visceral India was ever present as we wove our way to the auto rickshaw stand.
There were open air businesses for things I would never have imagined. A row of shops dedicated only to the sale of moving boxes, a store with varying sizes of scissors for I don’t know what, a row of shops packed with carved marble fireplace mantle looking structures. The rickshaw maneuvered even more so than the car but being that we were in the thick of Mumbai traffic now, it took an hour to get to my hotel which turned out to be very comfortable with the necessary amenities.
One day in Mumbai…the only thing I really wanted to do in Mumbai was see the Elephanta Caves which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After seeing it, I would not go back. There was a lot of cool iconography but the trouble of getting there weakened its power for me. I met a group of Canadians of Indian descent on the ferry over to the island of the caves. One of the guys just decided the Thursday before to head to India with some of his family members. We talked for a bit about spiritual practice and he told me he would like to spend time on meditation but felt like he did not have the time. I sent him several 9 minute meditations to try. I have been so wrapped up in practicing other meditations I have learned that I haven’t tried the 9 minute ones. Now that I have sent this document along, I will have to try them.
Getting off the boat, I stumbled upon some awesome street food stands. Really awesome Dahi puri and a spicy vegetable toasted sandwich. I was really looking forward to the food I would eat later. As I walked toward the train a man selling maps (Raj) started following me and telling me about how he was headed home which was in my direction, he had a great place for chocolate pan on the way (which I was told to try) and it would be a chance for new friendship. I hesitantly agreed to this and initially, I was happy I did. We tore off through the traffic easily winding our way to the chocolate pan booth. Each time we came to a stop, Raj hocked a bright red paan splotch into the street. Occasionally he would turn around to say something with a red rim of paan around his mouth and I kind of chuckled at the whole experience. The sun was setting so the light quality was the best it could have been, the red sunlight bouncing off the polluted haze thick in the city streets.
We headed to do some shopping and I bought my first item of Indian clothing, a mustard and wine red dress. Back on the bike, I was ready to head toward street food when Raj invited me to his house for dinner. A knot began in my stomach. I told him I had a plan to eat street food and that was what I wanted to do. I appreciated the invite but definitely did not want to go to this man’s house. He kept telling me and telling me so that finally I agreed but said that the main reason I didn’t want to go was that I had to get to bed early and I know that these family dinners can take a long time. He said we could go whenever I wanted.
Arrived at Raj’s, a poor family home in the middle of Mumbai. We parked the bike in a tiny alley and Raj asked if I needed the bathroom which was one public restroom designated for likely over a hundred people. I said, “no” and we entered a tiny pitch black hallway into the honeycomb structure of the homes here. We had to shift to be side first in order to pass other people either standing in the hallway or trying to get where they were going. Streams of fluorescent light came out of the sides of the hall as we passed people’s homes. I looked up to flourescent light from above where there were breaks in the “ceiling” of the hall and there were more floors of apartments. I occasionally met eyes with people in their living space as we walked through the maze to where Raj’s family lived.
We got into a room with a twin sized bed and colorful walls with pictures of family and Guru Babaji on the wall. A young woman was making Paratha and Roti for that night’s dinner. We sat down on the bed and talked and watched each bread ball become a flat griddled wonder. We wandered into another room where there were several kids, Raj’s dad and some women cooking. A family of 12 and a family of 5 shared 3 rooms. Preparing food for this many people in this small of a space must be a chore and it definitely looked harrowing with a cluttered floor as the work space.
Entertainment while waiting for dinner to be ready was very loud top 100 Hindi hits blaring from two giant speakers that took up about 1/10 of the 7’x12’ room. Two of the kids came in and showed off their dancing talents which was pretty cute. Finally dinner, much of which was non-veg so I ate Paratha and aloo palak (potatoes with spinach) not nearly as good as the one I had in Hampi and I swear I detected Maggi (msg spice) or some equivalent. I was starting to feel really sad about the awesome street food I was missing but also was interested in what the daily life experience of an average Mumbai resident must be like. No privacy, no space, no escape. The extreme luxury of alone time set in and I felt anxiety about saying it was time to go as I suspected I might. It was no problem, Raj and I set off for a street food adventure. Unfortunately something got lost in translation and we wound up at the beach where the food looked generic and uninteresting to me. After clarifying what I wanted we wound up at a worse beach with poor representations of the same things that were at the first beach. I got a bit fed up and said I was just going to go back to the hotel. Raj dropped me off and I was happy not to have his oppressively clingy nature around any longer. The flight to Jaisalmer couldn’t come soon enough.