My four nights in Bombay (Mumbai) introduced me to the developing world is a most real way. I did not stay in a five star hotel, or even any hotel at all. I stayed with a reader of my blog and lived with his family. They showed enormous kindness and hospitality in an inspiring kind of way. For example, they gave me one whole bedroom, leaving three others to make do in the living room. I felt guilty for assuming such a presence but I knew they genuinely wanted to show me the warmest environment they could.
Almost every single one of my hosts overseas apologizes for something not being as big as it is in America. "I know this car isn’t as big as the cars you drive in America" or "I’m sure this house isn’t as big as your houses in America." Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter.
I feel proud that in Mumbai I think I got an authentic Indian experience. My bathroom didn’t have toilet paper. The power in the house went out once or twice a day as part of rotating brownouts. I gained some experience eating with my hands. I saw a mini-altar for Ganesh in the kitchen. I watched the kids outside play cricket in the dusty heat. I saw glimpses of the technology wealth and had some meetings in an incredible five star hotel, but more often saw depressing poverty. (The rich getting richer / poor getting poorer trend seems ubiquitous around the world.)
On my first full day in Bombay I walked the streets a bit with my host, and then via a combination of auto-rickshaw, taxi, and train, made ourselves to Bombay city limits (I lived in the suburbs). Riding an Indian train is an experience in itself. Like all public transit in Bombay, it’s always packed. Packed to the brink. No room to move. The trains are old and rickety. I rode the line that blew up three months in the Mumbai train bombings. After we arrived in Bombay we wandered around the beautiful victorian buildings built when the British occupied India. Then we took a 1.5 hr boat to Elephanta Island, the only getaway destination from Bombay. Some amazing caves and carvings into rock which are thousands of years old. The tranquil island is home to hundreds of monkeys. They don’t harm humans — unless you’re holding a water bottle in whic case they’ll snatch it out of your hands, open the top, and start drinking.
After Elephanta Island I snuck into a super nice hotel to use their johnson and requisite toilet paper, but constipation from initial repulsion at using my hands to wipe the ass prevented me from a complete bowel movement.
Then I had my first of many excellent dinners. My host’s wife returned home early from work each night to cook something special and low in spices (since I’m really sensitive to spicy food). They asked me, repeatedly, if I liked the food and each time I answered a genuine yes. Most Indians are vegetarian but it’s much more creative than American vegetarianism.
My second full day was devoted to business. I met two interesting young entrepreneurs at the JW Mariott Hotel (incredible luxury amidst utter poverty), bought a power adapter, and snuck into the Mariott’s hotel gym and spa to workout and take a shower (I also stole their toilet paper from the bathroom to keep in my stash). I hired a driver to take me around — a change of pace from the rickshaw the day before. I’m glad I had a driver. It took 2 hours to get home after my workout. The traffic here is atrocious at all hours of the day. Car lanes don’t seem to exist, the roads have tons of potholes, and the mix of motorcycles, cars, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional bike, produce havoc. My air conditioned car proved a nice reprise from the madness, though I must admit some guilt as I looked out my window up to the bus next to us and all the people squished so tightly looking so miserable.
Bombay is a cosmopolitan city that supposedly generates the most pride from its residents. It’s not free of poverty, even though it’s one of the most urban settings. It has its share of basic tourist places and mega hotels, so if you want to visit India in luxury you can do it in Bombay. I didn’t. I stayed with a family and had multi hour conversations with my hosts on topics ranging from politics to America’s role in the world to religion to culture to parenting styles to software outsourcing. Keeping such close quarters provided a rich glimpse into Indian life.
Thanks KM and family for such wonderful hospitality in Bombay!