Thursday, October 7, 2010

Week 7: The Balancing Act

I had just sat in traffic for an hour after accepting a ride home, rather than dealing with the superdensecrushload on the train. The ride was from one of the directors at work, who sat in the back with us as her driver guided us through the traffic jam that is Bombay at rush hour. So I sat in the air conditioning, leaving the slum, well more like inching out of the slum, momentarily forgetting about how frustrating my day was as I got out of the heat for a while. Then I got dropped off in Khar and had to watch multiple rickshaw drivers shake their heads no and drive off, because they didn’t feel like driving the 7 minutes to my flat. It was about 94 degrees. I ran up to the flat, grabbed my book, and ran over to Gloria Jean’s, yes, the coffee shop, to get lost in serious air conditioning, a blended beverage, and the awe-inspiring creativity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s woven masterpieces. A few days before, I left my days in Dharavi behind and spent my Saturday in Bandra, ending up getting a chauffeured ride to the Hyatt where I sipped my (terrible) dirty martini next to Mumbai’s elite and the tourists and businessmen who would understand India only through their lenses. When I was in Ahmedabad, a sitar player expressed his dislike for Bombay as a city of disparities. He had trouble with the concept of a city that relies on the poor but only serves the rich (although really, isn’t that most of India?). Such disparities are impossible to miss in Mumbai, where high-rise apartment complexes, with gated entrances, security guards, and garages for imported luxury cars are flanked by slums; where the poor sip chai for 4 rupees from street stands, while the rich, I guess myself included, drink our imported beverages that cost a week’s worth of lunch. I understand his reasoning, but I feel that my experience, the daily disparities that arise from being entirely unfamiliar with my surroundings, from naturally, though regrettably, comparing everything here to the way things are back home, and the daily struggles of trying to live modestly while being fully aware that I can afford almost anything I want here, except for a night at the Taj or diamond and ruby encrusted earrings, is perfectly reflected in Mumbai. Or is it that Mumbai is perfectly reflected in my experience?
The dualities that I’m facing on this adventure are countless, but I will try to explicate some here, maybe more for my own well being than for your entertainment. The first is trying to deal with my actual presence here, reflected in how stimulated I feel when I walk through Dharavi, the slum that is home to my NGO. I travel because, well let’s be honest, I like eating food all around the world, but mostly because I like to experience things that are different. I haven’t yet figured out why I enjoy such a sense of otherness, but I have two theories: the first is that in defining that which is different, or “the other,” I feel a greater sense of that which is me, and at a certain level I travel to other places to find myself. In another, I travel expecting to find differences, but realize that wherever I go, that sense of otherness is, like so many things, a social, cultural, and historical construct that had done nothing but subjugate, and so in traveling and recognizing, and then deconstructing otherness, I am a small, individual force of anticolonialism. Regardless of whichever asinine theory I may or may not choose to agree with, I cannot help but recognize that for a brief period of time, I am happy because Dharavi is different, and Dharavi is different because it is poor. So while my professional self is here to advocate for gender equality and sexual health and to make people understand that abuse, though culturally sanctioned, is morally wrong, my wanderlusting self is benefiting from the poor economic conditions that engender the social problems my professional self is alleviating.
I have obviously made this more complicated than it really is, but I figured I’d give that a go. Secondly, I’m having a bit of a hard time being present here and maintaining ties home. I have a feeling that I’m a lot more connected to home than a lot of people here, but I’m also sure that the Ritter girls only function fully as a unit, and I can’t really let that rust up for a whole year. But in another sense, as well, my method for dealing with India has been to a certain extent to escape home. When I got way too hot in my un-air conditioned office, I spent the next few hours as a Western coffee chain. The day before, when I had an incredibly frustrating day at work that involved my inability to get anything done because I was dependent on other people who didn’t seem to weigh my desires as strongly (I am referring to still not having an Indian phone, for one thing), and I had spent my day listening to men screaming at their wives in counseling sessions behind my desk, I came home, spent about 5 minutes crying in the shower, and then went online and watched Glee (Britney episode was awesome, by the way). I know that everyone has his or her own attachment to home and that mine isn’t extraordinary or anything, but what does it say about me that I’m in the most cosmopolitan city in India and still need to keep traveling West? Maybe I’ll try to get really into yoga and next time instead of watching Glee, I’ll just get in downward dog. At the same time, I think it’s okay that I use things from home to comfort me since I’m clearly totally fine living here, seeing as how there is a giant beetle crawling across my floor, a moth flapping around every light in the apartment, it’s about 87 degrees outside and it’s after midnight, my bathroom at work doesn’t have toilet paper, and I’m still happy as a clam.

Anyways, enough of my philosophizing. I know you all really just want some pictures.

This is Ava drinking coconut water from the dude down our street. I attempted a sip, not my thing.

Me in front of Crawford Market. It was basically closed, but it's filled with stalls selling all sorts of things, from pets to pasta sauce.

We were looking for the way to Crawford Market and stumbled upon this 200 year old Hindu cremation ground. The wonderful manager gave us a tour, who said that they get around 15 bodies a day. There was a group coming in to cremate an older woman, but it wasn't the somber ceremony we expected. Not so much grief at all, actually. I obviously can't just from this one instance, but perhaps the end of the life cycle is a greater part of life, here.

This mural was painted after the 26/11 terrorist attack.

CRICKET!!! Along Marine Drive, there are "gymkhanas," organized, of course, by religion, so right next to each other are the Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Catholic athletic clubs.

The only time the train is empty like this might be on Sundays. We appreciated the space.

Me on Chowpatty Beach, where instead of bathing suits and tanning there are snack stands and kites. And thousands of people.

Cute men going on a sunset walk.

Ava, perfecting the Indian style of drinking.

The lovely Marine Drive along the Arabian Sea.


  1. Well, where to begin. These issues might have a common thread or it may be inappropriately connecting dots between separate points. Your thrill in seeking new things is not corrupted by the trials and tribulations of the people that are indigenous to your vacation spot. You are not taking advantage of them. Your observation of their lives is creating a path to doing good things in your life. Your origins and advantages are not being used to ridicule or subjugate others but appreciate and offer assistance. Your destiny is tied to the fact that you were not born in Dharavi but in Englewood NJ and yet you have chosen to breathe the stifling Dharavi air.
    You've negotiated permission to live beyond the approved radius for now, but you are one of the Ritter girls Just keep that rust-free. "Home is where the heart is" You are thought of every day. We will have no difficulty reminding you. Namaste Samosa. Love D

  2. I should have been warned about Dad's comment before reading this post as I sit crying at my desk. Ahhh Ritters and tears...Just wanted to say I love you and miss you and continue to anticipate your postings each week, and marvel at how amazing you are as I read them.
    Love, hugs and kisses - Erie

  3. Great post, Sami... "The unexamined life is not worth living," so keep at it!