Sunday, August 23, 2009

Street Cuture (1) and Other Thoughts

Like I mentioned before, the most obvious difference between Mumbai and other cities is the streets, so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Tonight marked the beginning of the Ganpati Festival (honoring the god Ganesh), and starting from midnight, people where walking in crowds, chanting and lighting incense, usually with a truck or a wheelbarrow bearing a statute of Ganesh ahead of them. Even though this Festival is a special occasion, it is indicative of the kind of street life that exists here. I always think of Spain as having a rich street culture because of the way people go out at night. The botellon and the tapas aspects of partying involve people walking around the streets, drinking in the street, sauntering slowly from place to place, or sitting in outdoor cafes. Of course, Madrid, and all of Spain really, for this purpose, has a lot of infrastructure that lends itself to this kind of activity. There are pedestrian areas, gardens, parks, benches, and tons and tons of outdoor restaurants and bars. Also, most of the street life occurs at night, on weekends (if weekends where from Wednesday to Saturday nights).

Mumbai, obviously, is not like that, and while this comparison leaves a lot of important factors out (like the fact that Spain is in Europe and India is India), I’m trying to think of street culture as a way to get to know this city and this culture a bit better, and it helps to compare. So - firstly, there are people who actually live in the street, or work in the street and live in slums. Then there are the slums themselves. We haven’t actually been to one, but we’ve seen edges of slums and on the ride from the airport to the city, you have to pass through them. In other words, because of the heat, the living conditions and the sheer number of people, there are people out in the street all the time. So it’s really less of a “street culture” and more of a “street life”. At the same time, though, there are so many people that everyone is doing something different. Sometimes people do seem to just stand outside and chat, or walk to and from transportation. There are also a lot of food vendors and outdoor markets, which do bring different kinds of people out to the street.

Another interesting aspect of the streets here is how there really are no street names. The big, main roads have street names, but other than that, people go by landmarks (the Shitladevi Temple is a big one for us), or just by memory. It’s a different way of naming the world and of learning it. Yesterday we got lost going to a synagogue for services downtown with a taxi driver who really had no idea where he was taking us. The problem with landmarks, as we soon found out, is that if you don’t really know where you’re going, you need a very, very specific landmark, and then not everyone might know it. At one point, when we pulled over to ask for directions, there was a group of four or five men trying to figure out where we were trying to go. That’s one good thing about the fact that there are always people in the street: there’s always someone to ask and there are even enough people to have a conference about it. In the end, though, the best method seems to be to call someone and ask them to talk to the driver in Hindi (a lot of the drivers don’t seem to speak English that well, even though I think they do understand it), which is what we ended up doing last night. It’s a very different mindset that leads to a different way of getting around. I’m still trying to figure out how much people take cabs, ride the train, walk and/or take busses in this city. I’m very excited to get to know the city a little better, even though it seems that there’s no way to avoid not finding a place sometimes (ie getting lost), because this doesn’t seem like the kind of city that you can just read like an open book, or walk around and learn it, like Manhattan or Paris. I feel like there is more to say about the hidden places in Mumbai, or even one’s ability to know things without naming them (based on sheer memorization, that is), but it’s still too soon to tell. This is the beginning of my relationship with this city, so I need to get to know it better first.

Some other interesting things from the past couple of days: a rickshaw full of like twelve children in white-and-grey school uniforms (they sit five people uncomfortably, including the driver), a McDonald’s spicy chicken patty while listening to the Backstreet Boys, getting a haircut at a really nice place by a young guy from Manpur (my hair’s really short now, I love it), going out to the chic-est club I’ve ever been to outside of Paris (though it was retro night, so the music was from the 70s-ish) and ordering in home-made food, which was amazing. A good weekend, overall.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Mumbai, from the vantage point of less than 72 hours here, definitely falls under the category of a crowded city. It is not crowded like Manhattan is crowded or like a stadium is crowded, though in all of these a lot of things are happening simultaneously and in a very small space. These places, however, have very obvious rules and its inhabitants and participants all work together, whether consciously or not, to create a functioning order so that they can all live (for the most part at least) happily together.

It would be unfair, I think, to say that Mumbai is a rule-less city, or that it doesn’t have an order to it. It’s just that it’s a very specific kind of order, or perhaps not specific enough, I haven’t been here long enough to know. In any case, it manifests itself primarily in the way people drive here, and because of that, driving and the streets in general are what, to me, make Mumbai so different from any other city I’ve ever been in. To be specific, however, we haven’t really seen much of Mumbai yet, we’ve mostly been in the residential neighborhoods where we’ll live. We’re going downtown today, so we’ll see how this all changes.

Really, it is hard to separate motor vehicles from everything else that occupies the roads, and hard to separate the act of driving from the other activities that go on at the same time, because they all occupy the same space. Like I mentioned in a previous post, cars here are very small. It seems that in order to make so many of them fit in roads that are way to small, they decided to make cars themselves smaller. This is probably the saving grace in driving here, as there don’t seem to be any traffic laws to speak of. Except for one. Honk to announce the fact that you’re on the road. Even now, at 7:30 in the morning, on a fourth-floor apartment that is not on a main road, the sound of honking is interrupted only by the crows outside the window (another inhabitant of the streets that makes them the pleasant place that they are). They honk because cars don’t have side mirrors (some of them do, but the masses of tiny black-and-yellow-taxis, the rickshaw-like tiny trucks, and other such vehicles do not). They also don’t have blinkers or seat belts (and if they do, no one wears them), though I’m not sure these would qualify as reasons to honk. There are very few traffic lights to speak of, and they seem to be mostly for decorative purposes, as they are totally ignored. There are also no lanes.

Another reason why it may appear that there is no order here is because of how people walk in the street. Though there are sidewalks, you can freely choose between walking in the sidewalk or the street. On big streets you would stay on the sidewalk, but j-walking is the only option for crossing. It’s hard enough that people drive on the opposite side of the road here (so it’s hard to get used to looking the other way to see if a car is coming), but more than that, it just seems like it’s just one big free-for-all situation.

And yet, it all seems to work fine. You expect cars to crash into each other constantly, since they all crowd together, going in different directions, about two inches apart from each other. But this doesn’t happen, and people don’t get hurt either. You just sort of move out of the way a bit, and just keep walking. They don’t drive fast at all (there’s no room for that, obviously), but even at the speed they are going, it could be pretty fatal. Somehow, though, it’s not. And therein lies the magic of this city: there is method in the madness, there is order in the chaos. It’s just that it’s a very particular brand of chaos, and a very specific kind of order. It relies more on last-minute prevention than anything else. That, and a lot of noise.

One thing is for certain. I never, ever, want to drive here. I can barely handle anything outside Middlebury and Rt 7 (including Burlington), so driving in Mumbai seems like the sort of thing best left to locals, professionals or crazy people. Walking here is so great and different anyway, and the mini-taxis cost like two dollars for a half-hour ride. So there’s definitely other ways to get around.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Day 2 in Mumbai

As usual, it's great to be in a new place, especially one that is so different from anything I've ever experienced before. I love these first moments of perpetual wonder, of childlike surprise and terror of the unknown, and a healthy bit of homesickness. As adults we rarely experience these moments, we like to make everything our own and be in control, knowing and thinking through every situation. Michael and I are being led around by Sarah, the current volunteer, who is incredibly wonderful, patient and motherly with a great sense of humor. Not knowing anything is so refreshing and, somehow, freeing. All we can do is let things wash over us and feel them as they happen. And there's a lot going on.

Initial impressions from Mumbai, in a few words: it's very, very hot and humid. Cars are shrunken in size, making them look kind of fake, but in an adorable way. Lots of sounds, people, smells, colors, people and animals in the street. Also lots of trees, surprisingly enough. I think these words have a new meaning now, even though they could be used to describe any other city, but it's hard to convey with just initial impressions.

The food is incredible, although we haven't had spicy food yet. I really never thought I'd enjoy all-veg food as much as this. It's so textured and everything has a distinct taste. Also a lot of cilantro and lemony spices, which is always wonderful. Mostly though, it's incredibly cheap. We thought we'd cook a lot but it's way too hot and ordering from restaurants is not only cheap, but also good and healthy. I have to experiment with some of the peppers in the markets, though, and make salsa. This country has all the ingredients, and then some. We'll see.

The JCC is located in a College somewhere more north than Downtown (that's as far as I go in terms of directions right now). We've met people around, and it's great to see how the world of Judaism extends all the way to here. Some things, in spite of distance, borders, culture, and language still remain the same. The people who work in the office are genuinely nice and helpful, offering to take us around and slowly easing us into life here.

All in all, a great start in Mumbai, though jet-lag seems to last longer going this way (and this far) and there's a lot to get used to (including the fact that there's construction going on in the office for the next couple of weeks, so there's noise is both inside and out).