Wow, what a tough country. I am humbled. Although the above video shows great food and a seemingly nice slice of India there is much more to the story than that. I think of myself as a good traveller and a great eater, but India knocked me back. I went into this trip with the idea that I was going to eat and explore the deepest corners of Mumbai. My friends at home, who have been to India, warned me about the shocking contrast I would find. They had explained that the food, particularly street food, was dangerous and WILL get me sick. I heard their plea but pushed it as far back in my mind as I could. Through out this post I will show pictures that are appropriate for the words you are reading but not so appropriate for a food blog. Some are quite disturbing so please, if you choose to read on understand that this post is very different from the usual.
The day I arrived I was picked up in a brand new Mercedes by my driver Salim. He was an off duty police office arranged by Yahoo! to be our transportation as well as our security detail. After all, we were staying in the recently terrorized Taj Hotel and Towers. The airport was not as crazy as I had expected but as soon as we exited the perimeter of Sahar International a swarm of tuk-tuks, cabs, people and animals swallowed our car. Shacks and trash lined the the streets as vendors, children and livestock popped in and out of them.
It took over an hour and a half for Salim to navigate Mumbai traffic and deliver us safely to our hotel. As we approached the roundabout, at the entrance of the hotel, a small army of guards approached with bomb sniffing dogs, guns and that crazy mirror on a stick device for looking at the undercarriage of vehicles. Not the first time my car was checked for bombs with me in it, but disheartening none the less. We were cleared and allowed to approach the front doors. Another army of people rushed out. This time the army was made up of servants ready to whisk us, and our luggage, from the car into the hotel, and up to our rooms. This journey from the airport and into the hotel was my first experience with the huge gap between rich and poor in Mumbai. The next four days was a series of experiences that compounded this reality and threw me into a complete tailspin.
4 days later I was sitting in North Mumbai in a conference room at the Yahoo! offices. Across from me were 4 locals all helping pull together the October project. The conversation turned to food and I explained how I wanted to visit Khao-Galli (the food lane) before I left. All four of them replied the exact same way every other local has in the past 3 days. “You can’t do that” they warned,”You’ll get sick”. Despite that warning they always caveat their statement with a note that street food in India is delicious. This left me torn between the best street food I will ever eat and dysentery on a 9 hour flight to London.
My conscious and the nightmare of a bad flight kept me in the hotel for the fourth straight night. The next morning I woke early. I was antsy. I felt I had missed India. I couldn’t let this town get the better of me. I decided I must take a “walk” before I had to leave. Even this was a tough decision.
A few days earlier, upon arrival, I had taken a walk around the neighborhood. This walk was the second chapter in my Realization-of-India tour. As I stepped from the hotel driveway to the sidewalk the world changed 180 degrees. A new army swarmed us, this time made up of beggars, children and hawkers. The only difference between my earlier car ride and my current walk was the lack of steel and glass separating me from the locals. I was thrown straight into the center of this Bombay life and it was not pretty. Not by any means. A 7 year old boy carrying a 5 month old infant tugged at my shirt. A man with a giant blow up balloon followed me for 10 minutes. A hawker carrying an old wooden box first offered me maps and postcards. When I refused he flipped the maps to reveal bags of hash flattened under the weight of his stock hoping he would make a sale. Because I was not ready for what I was exposed to, the walk did not last very long and I quickly found refuge back at the hotel to regroup.
I was determined to make my second walk different. I had to beat India in some way. I had about an hour before I heading to the airport and I decided to head out one last time. It was only 6am and the streets were still quiet. I pecked around the side streets waiting to be poked, grabbed and accosted by the locales but I found none of that. What I did see was perhaps even more disturbing.
Apparently, the seemingly 24/7 Mumbai does sleep. The unfortunate thing is that they sleep where they work. As I walked the quiet streets I found families sleeping in empty fruit carts, on sidewalks and in shop corners. These same carts and corners would be brimming with fruit, trinkets and clothing only an hour later.
My walk took me to a corner where a shop owner was preparing 100 coconuts for the days sales. The large green fruits were spread all over the street impeding the passage of anyone else on the block. I visited the bus depot where drivers and dispatchers were prepping buses for the inevitable hustle and bustle that was just a few hours away.
My final stop before returning back to the hotel was the water. On the same street as the hotel runs a large boulevard that hugs the shore. There is no beach at this part of town just a thick retaining wall that separates the solid from the liquid. Again, no hassles, although as the sun rose eye contact with newly awakened locals increased. After one last stop at the Gateway of India I returned back to the hotel and reflected over a cup of coffee before it was time to leave.
I didn’t win. India definitely scared me and held me down. Yes, I only had four days. And, yes, I had a lot of work to do. But, these are only excuses that I could use to validate my failure. I am not going to do that. Instead I am going back. The October project will have me back in Mumbai and I plan on evening the score.
One thing I have failed to mention that you should know is that I have a bit of a love affair with India. It has been at the top of my travel list for 2 years. The culture, spirituality, food, history, beauty of the people, colors and climates all are points of intrigue. Like a beautiful, independent woman India can not be controlled. I just hope to be allowed to enjoy her company.
So my approach will be different next time. Time is the key. Or at least I think and hope it is. After the October project is complete I hope to spend a few days in Mumbai exploring. Then, I will travel for a couple weeks to the south. Hopefully India will fuel my love affair and not break my heart as it almost did on my first trip.