Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Love Mumbai

Namaste readers! Here it is, my last blog post. I will be leaving India in less than 24 hours. This is a sad event, because I have really enjoyed writing these. I could continue blogging during my return to the US, but let’s be honest -- reading about spending my days in my old bedroom back in New Jersey is far less interesting. Luckily for me, and the parentals, I don’t anticipate a long-term stay. Anywho, as I am writing this, there is a man walking around the Spanish chocolateria where I sit using an electric tennis racket to kill mosquitoes. Summer has begun. It’s about 96 degrees but feels closer to 105, thanks to the humidity that just sucks all of the life out of me every time I leave the apartment. Today I had to take a semi-long walk to find a dumpster, since I can’t throw my underwear out in my neighborhood. The ragpickers would find it and know that it belongs to the neighborhood white girls, and I just couldn’t put Ava through it. So I was walking, carrying bags of garbage and underwear, and just sweating profusely. Beyond profusely. My forehead was like the mouth of a waterfall. I’m not going to lie, I think I’m leaving at the right time.

I haven’t experienced anything really new in the last two weeks, but I have been able to think a lot about what it is that keeps me wanting to come back. I mean, I live in a sauna and there is literally something living inside my body, but I’m already thinking of when I might be able to return. Perhaps I’d just try a vacation first, but still, the question of what makes India so magnetic still begs to be asked. On my walk over here, I passed five temples/shrines in the span of 6 minutes. Today, like almost every fourth day here, is a holiday. I don’t know what it is, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference if I knew, because it’s either some god’s birthday, or some obscure new year. Regardless, the streets are glowing with lights and the smell of incense permeates everything. I much prefer it to rotting garbage and feces. It’s really nice living in a place where Christmas is celebrated every other week. I also like the not-knowing what holiday it is part, because it makes figuring it all out so rewarding. As Ava so brilliantly pointed out the other day, part of what makes India so fun is that you never have any idea what’s going on, and no matter how long we’re here, we can never really know. When we get on the train, we just see a lot of women in saris, but the women in the saris can tell where everyone else is from based on how their sari is wrapped, whether or not she’s married based on her jewelry, and if you can catch a last name, to what caste she belongs. I certainly know more than the average foreigner, but I basically walk around here every day knowing nothing. For someone who sometimes thinks she knows everything, it’s very healthy, and refreshing. It's also especially stimulating being in a place like Mumbai. It's like living in New York, with all the diversity and pockets of ethnicity, but add on ten million people. Despite whatever repercussions I might now face thanks to Qaddafi and his friends who are holding out in my stomach, making the insane decision to come here was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I don’t know if it’s the independence, the utter confusion, being able to get involved in meaningful work, the rewards of getting to know people who live here, or having been a part of the best damn cohort WPF has ever seen, but this has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. Part of me is still very disappointed that I have to leave this early, but I think I’ve gotten everything I can out of this experience. I mean sure, summer and monsoon in India will bring its own challenges, but really, I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve. Now the challenge will be carrying through these learnings, to use my newly acquired Hinglish, to my new American life. As excited as I am to have a big bed,
Not this:

breakfasts on the porch, an afternoon dip in the pool and Dad’s pizza for dinner, I appreciate what it has meant to live here, and never again will I use more than two squares of toilet paper. I urge you all to try it.

I guess this post isn’t as reflective as I had anticipated, but honestly, I have a very quick shift to make. I will be home tomorrow at midnight, and the next day the entire family will be here for Passover. Then Wednesday I get to make my first hospital visit. Yay. So now I will stop thinking about leaving India and more about just getting excited to be in America, because I think a lot of the India reflection will arise organically, like when I go to get on the subway and don’t understand why nobody is pushing me on, or when I say, “I was in Mumbai only” and nobody understands/laughs with me. I will end with some more pictures of my checking off the bucket list over the past two weeks. More reminders of marvelous Mumbai.

This is the chai stand on my street.

Our vegetable lady! Decent prices. Onions don't always look so good.

Stringing lights up for Ambedkar Jayanti

Two of my neighbors and the alley where my apartment is.

Sea Link in a hazy sunset.

Slums on Mahim creek. I wish I could attach an odor.

Pipe over the creek. People live here.

Begging woman in Khar.

Never touch the rickshaw meter.

Cricket on the maidan.

Kate and me in front of the clock tower on the maidan.

Ayurvedic truck.

Shrine in a taxi.

Victoria Terminus, the second most photographed building in India, after the Taj. Also the site of the 2008 terror attack.

Carrying water from Banganga tank.

Napping outside the house.

Super religious Hindus shaving heads.

Bathing in the tank.


Apparently this is the god Rama.

The sun will come outtttttt

Monday, April 4, 2011

That Time I Saw Shahrukh Khan

Namaste!! So I left you all at my last post probably thinking I was depressed being here and wanted to go home. Well, surprise, surprise, turns out I'm coming home. The doctors figured out what's wrong with me, which is great, but I have to take really strong antibiotics for a couple of weeks, which would destroy everything good in my immune system. Unfortunately, it's really hard to live here without an immune system, particularly as monsoon season is approaching, and the flooding and dampness provides the perfect opportunity for bacterial growth. After much deliberation, and an incredible amount of tears (not surprising to those who know me), I finally decided that I will be returning to America in a few weeks. As upsetting as this is, it made me realize how happy I am to be here, and how sad I am to leave. But this post isn't about that. I will have a final, reflective post when I'm in a reflective mood, but I'm currently too damn excited about the Cricket World Cup to be all sentimental or discuss the finer points of development practice.

This Saturday, India played Sri Lanka in the final world cup match. Most of you (actually I know a lot of my brown friends read this. I exclude you) probably know nothing about cricket, so here's a really quick lesson that might not be entirely factual, but it helps me follow what's going on. So there are two teams. They don't switch on and off like in baseball, but one team keeps batting until there are 50 overs (6 balls to an over) or 10 wickets, or outs. A wicket, other than being an out, is also a set of three sticks with some little pieces of wood balanced on them. The batsman is protecting the wicket by hitting the ball away from it. If the bowler hits the wicket, that's a wicket (out). If the batsman hits a fly ball and someone in the outfield catches it, also a wicket. There are two batsmen on the pitch, and they run back and forth in between wickets. One exchange is a run. So if, while they're running, one of the opposing team members throws the ball at the wicket and hits it, that's a wicket (out). It's not that confusing. It's not always that exciting, because it's more of a gentlemanly sport. There's only so much diving and fast running, and you can pretty much predict who will win, because the team up second just has to be a certain number of runs. Also, sometimes they wear silly hats. So anyway, India hasn't won since 1983, which doesn't make sense, because we have the best cricketer in the world, Sachin Tendulkar. India's been sad about this for awhile, and now Mr. Tendulkar can retire in peace (cricket fans- how am I doing?). I love sporting events, so I prepared for Saturday by getting a jersey and face paint. At one point there were boas, but the feathers were flying. The final match was actually in Mumbai, and the city basically shut down. The match started in the afternoon and lasted for over 8 hours, with tea and lunch breaks, of course. I didn't watch for the whole time because I had other things to do, but while walking down the street, we could see crowds of men watching the game at various stalls, or standing outside stores that have TVs. I watched the match at a friend's who hosts fantastic barbecues, and I counted wickets and overs while eating a steak. Fabulous.
Rachel and I in our gear. Face paint was gone at this point.

Watching partay

Sri Lanka had a great round, and we were all very nervous because one of India's best players got out without even scoring a run. But then things got going and it was evident that we were doing damn well. Then it was clear we were going to win, and the screaming was out of control. It's easy to tell when there's been a wicket or a six or four point hit (six points if the batsman hits the ball past the pitch boundary without it touching the ground, and four if it hits the boundary on the ground), because the entire city erupts in screams. For the final match, important hits were accompanied by fireworks. When the captain hit the sixer that ended the game, the sky was just filled with lights. We danced around the deck for a bit, and then decided to go celebrate. As we were walking to Carter Road, the road that goes down the coastline, people were driving on their motorcycles screaming and waving Indian flags and yelling "INDIAAAAAA" at us, and we yelled it right back. When we got to Carter Rd, it was out of control. There were easily 10-15,000 people lined up and down the streets, and the traffic procession was epic. People were on the roofs of their cars, hanging out of rickshaws, standing on motorcycles- all of it entirely dangerous, but it was worth it. To die for India's win- a most honorable death.

At one point, even though the screaming was at a momentous high, it reached even higher decibels. We looked into the road, and there he was. Shahrukh Khan, one of the kings of Bollywood, was driving down the road, standing out of the moonroof of his BMW, waving an Indian flag.

This is like Brad Pitt driving down the street in your hometown to celebrate with you. And in India it means more, because Bollywood stars are at a whole different level. They don't go places normal Indians go, because the divide is just too great. They also wouldn't go anywhere without air conditioning, which is almost everywhere, because it's just too hot. Especially now. The temperature is consistently hovering around 100 degrees, and it's at the point where my sweat from walking to work can't dry. Terrible feeling, really. So anyway, I was across the street from Shahrukh Khan on one of the greatest days in modern Indian history. That basically sums up everything here.

And that night was my best Indian moment. Nothing will ever match that, and I can't entirely explain why. People in the US can't understand why cricket is so important, and why Sachin Tendulkar is sometimes referred to simply as "God." When the Yankees won the last world series in 2009, I was ecstatic and proud of my city, but it was a different feeling, because I was able to separate myself from the team. In India, that separation really doesn't exist. People here can't choose where they live, what they do, who they marry, or even what they eat for lunch. We're in Asia- it's not individualism, it's the collective. It's karma, fate, destiny - free will doesn't play a role in daily, cultural, or spiritual life. So when India wins the cricket world cup, when when they are the best in the world in something, it represents that for everyone, because the divide between individuals doesn't exist (outside the caste system, of course). And terrible things have happened when cricket teams lose- fans kill themselves, and players and coaches can be murdered. So when India won, literally all of India won. They don't represent the best of India. They represent all of India, particularly the downtrodden who can only experience such pride in these vicarious manners.

I have never been a part of something like that before, and in India it just seemed so right. It was the first time here where I legitimately felt that nothing could go wrong. A man asked to take a picture with me and his daughter, and when he put his arm around his shoulder I didn't even flinch, because I knew he just wanted to experience the moment with me, and not to experience me. I was also heartened by people's reactions to our being there and celebrating with them. A few of my friends and I wore Indian jerseys, and people went out of their way to include us in their moments of celebration. There was only one man who, as we were finally walking through the fishing village back to our house, looked at me in my jersey and said, "but you're not Indian!" And it felt so natural to respond, "Today we all are."

In last week's posting, I said that I just needed something to remind me of why I love it here. Saturday more than sufficed. It reminded me that the pride I feel for India is real, and that when India wants to, it can be the greatest place in the world.

This weekend in general has also been wonderful. It's a 3 day weekend, because today is the Mahrashtrian New Year. Friday was my birthday, which was celebrated with some wonderful friends, Mexican food, dancing, and dirty martinis (obviously). Saturday was Saturday, and Sunday Ava and I went to have a buffet lunch at the Hyatt. Over the course of 3 hours, we feasted on cheese and crackers, sushi, pad thai, hummus, lox, grilled octopus, and pastries. And a dirty martini. That might sound like a weird combination, but those things are all impossible to find here, on our budgets. Then we snuck into the pool. Perfect third to last full weekend in India!