Friday, March 21, 2008

Loved by the Sun (too much)

Tangalle is a salve to the wounds of Bombay, too much so, perhaps. Four friends and I went down to the beach to swim, and then to stroll, and before we knew it we were all pulling in the nets for some fisherfolk.

The nets are 2 kilometers long, and it took two hours to reel it in. Two hours.

Let me spell that out for you: we were on the beach between 11am and 1pm, pulling up nets. And we are all so sunburned that we are a little bit incapacitated. I'd been hoping to get a touch of color on my fish-white legs. Done. Fuscia. Thanks, sun.

I'm trying to be calm about the pain, the tenderness, the fact that I have not been burned like this since childhood. It's excruciating, and shameful. And yeah. Enough complaints.


Meanwhile, I am sifting through the sands of this journey, mining it for truths small and large. The conflicts arising in my heart and mind are constant, and seemingly irreversible.

Nothing stays the same, not the shoreline, not our bodies, not the position of the heavenly bodies, not the employment of our friends at our guesthouse, nothing.

Every time I think I find a foothold in this world, a small shred of security, the foundation crumbles beneath me, and I am left flailing once more.

Sometimes the flailing is a joy, windswept like a kite on a thermal lift, other times the flailing leaves me bereft, without direction, without trust, without hope.

I'm somewhere in purgatory at the moment, suspended between meanings, straining my lean hope against all odds.


It has been eye opening, traveling with spoiled adult children dependent on Daddy's dime, shallowly making their way through the world as though traipsing through a large shopping mall...

I find myself faltering, questioning too deeply, letting the gravity of places and people sink into my psyche, while wondering why these other students are immune to it, responding to the darkness with either strident dismissal or ironic humor.

I'm afraid, my friends, that I enjoy the abyss too much, peering into it, shouting into its canyon and receiving the answer of my own voice filtered through its lightless horror, cleaving its cracks for meaning, extracting my own definitions from its crags and edges.

Sorry, I'm saying too much without saying anything.

Maybe I should leave you with a video:

Nevermind, that was taking forever and a day. Here is the totem animal of this entire trip: the ubiquitous question mark:

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bombastic Craptastic

I know I should be gentle, roll with the punches while exuding a gentle sort of generosity of spirit. But I cannot. I'm not a Buddhist, and I have reached the end of my rope:

Bombay, I bloody HATE YOU.

Don't get me wrong, there have been magical moments all around, and really- as a matter of fact it has been chock full of truly revelatory experiences.

Meeting Akshay, an amazing photojournalist who has exposed us to the high-end world of swank Bombay, of international correspondents and Bollywood industry elites shipped in from overseas for their skill and work ethic. A world of intrigue and morbidity (and with it, morbid curiosity, of course) was opened by this channel. Sadly, the slice of this life comes complete with 12 dollar cocktails and 20 dollar cover fees for discos. But what are you going to do? Live it up, while ye olde ventricles are pumping, methinks.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Dharavi, the magnificently large, shockingly well-developed "slum" where I met the Shaik family who took wonderful care of us in many ways, feeding us night after night, assisting us in the markets so that we would not be ripped off, and treating 4 of us to a family day at Elephanta Island, a wonder of the old Hindu world.

Then there is the outright absurdity of being extras in a Bollywood movie, as a few of us were one night. The absolute crush followed by cat-fight of the lady-only cars on the train, the filth that streams off in the shower each night.

Alas, the endless stream of beggars, each more destitute and insistent than the last, the rivers of shit, the air so choked with pollution it has left me with some sort of respiratory illness, the pavement dwellers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who live and die on the sidewalks and streets, entire families of do you reconcile these things?

Bombay will break your heart, in ways that you did not know it could be broken. I am a natural wanderer, who often imagines herself living in these far-flung places, eking out an existence amongst the monkeys and the flowers. But here, no. I say NO. My heart is simply not that resilient. I am not a machine, and all of the people who live here must make their compassion a mechanized thing in order to deal with the day to day.

I want to cry at least 30 times a day here, and yet I do not.

Bombay is a lyrical, rhapsodic place that is sustained on a thin gruel of hope; that very thing that keeps people here alive.

I may be hard, but I am also soft, and I find myself secretly everyone who claims to love this city, because I imagine that they either have no compassion or simply love suffering. That is not me.

Our (much, much) anticipated flight to Sri Lanka was cancelled after dramatic engine problems with the airplane. I am desperately happy that we are not on a defective craft, but Dios mio, I was looking forward to escaping back to my beloved Sri Lanka.

It will all be okay, I know this to be true. But even from the clutches of a 5-star hotel, I must tell you that I would rather be in our shoddy guest house in Sri Lanka.

Bombay, for all her reputed splendor (and in spite of her wonderful people) ranks very low on the list of places I believe people should visit.

India is not for the faint of heart, and Bombay is probably the worst of all.

And so tonight, half-drink on crappy beer, I cannot help but muse that Western influence is destroying the East.

I love you all, and wish that the world was a better place.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A city of sighs.

Everything Becomes Us

The stink of the West may hang heavy in the air, but there is no denying the distinctly Eastern flavor of this place. Walking around Bombay, I am taken by the notion that perhaps the British Empire constructed an armature, a skeletal frame for this city, and the Indians built the sculptural form around it that has come to be known as “Bombay,” and in more recent years “Mumbai,”

It is ugliness incarnate, if that is what you choose to see. There is filth, and poverty, and a swarming mass of human population that is dizzying and disorienting all at once. But there is beauty as order wrought of chaos that is evident in the motions of this massive city and her inhabitants at every turn.

There are crumbling remnants of the British reign in every corner of the city. These remnants are clearly such, as their stained and ruined facades are the indicators of their age and wear. They seem tired, and quaint, like the desperate pleas of a doddering old woman who really just wants those pesky kids playing outside her window to pipe down. And Bombay will not pipe down. No, pesky Bombay will keep spewing filth into the hazy sky, and pouring shit into its rivers, and drawing rural dwellers from outlaying areas into its seductive, economically promising fold. And those rigid old British structures must simply stand there and take it, because their enfant terrible has outgrown them, and is free now to do what it wants.

The city is a recycling bin, everyone tossing their wrappers and cast-off bits and bobs out windows and out of train cars, into the streets and canals at will. If you observe closely, you may notice that there are men and women, bedecked with magnificently enormous burlap sacks and such, who comb every inch of the city, each culling their particular brand of waste from the bounty of the streets. Each kilo of waste paper, of plastic, of cloth and whatever else is absorbed by one industry or another, eventually. One man’s trash has perhaps never been so completely another man’s treasure as it is here in Bombay.

By day, the sidewalks are awash in a multitude of hawkers selling fresh fruit, vegetables, stationary, incense, jasmine garlands, saris, and any other number of needful things. The other day while walking through Bandra, the strap of my sandal snapped. I limped along for a few blocks until I came to one of the shoe repairmen who are ubiquitous on the streets here. For 10 cents, he fixed my sandal on the spot! A few blocks later, smitten with a pair of Rajastani shoes, I purchased a pair for no more than 8 dollars.

Not that it is all ease and convenience. No. The train is an exercise in tolerance, as rush hour means that an ocean of human bodies surge towards and away from the cars, flowing up and down the station stairs at a rate that is both unstoppable and unfathomable. You could pass out cold during these high-volume moments and likely be carried back to the entrance by the pressure exerted via the walls of flesh enclosing you on all sides. You couldn’t stop your trajectory if you wanted to.

The train cars themselves are unreal, packed to the gills with human bodies. If you are fortunate enough to find a seat on the train, you may find yourself relaxing a bit. At this point, the train’s gently undulating rhythm will make your head wobble from side to side, performing the Indian equivalent of a head nod. “Yes,” your head says as the train moves you towards your cause. “Yes, Okay.” The train makes you somehow more Indian with this one small mechanism. You need not even try. You need not fight it, because you cannot, so don’t waste your time. It is, like so many things here--effortless.

What is an effort is breathing. The air quality is nonexistent. Your nose is subjected to every olfactory injustice imaginable, and when you blow your nose at night, a sooty black mess is the evidence of a day spent in the city. The mark, I imagine, of a proper Mumbaiker.

I will never be a proper Mumbaiker, as I have no desire to. Yes, there is much more to tell, but I fear I’ve rambled on too much already.

For now, simply know that I miss my cat, and my bed, and my marvelous boyfriend. The adventure is perfect, and I am not unhappy, but there is, you know, no place like home.

And home is wherever in the world my cat and my man happen to be at the time.

Good night, and all my love,


Monday, March 10, 2008

Clearing up Misconceptions

Oh, dear family.

I am glad that you are so concerned about my health. I had begun to think that I couldn't do anything that would concern you!

Let me tell it to you straight~ as you know, I have suffered a few really nasty tropical illnesses in my many travels (including, but not limited to: Ghiardia, Salmonella, Typhoid, and a dozen different types of dysentery).

Thus, trust me when I say that I do not wish to ever get than sick again. Ever.

So, when I say "tap water" in India I mean the water from the public "Drinking Water" taps. And in Sri Lanka, I drink tap water in the village I work in. I happen to believe it is safe to drink. I have been assured by several.

When I say "street food," I mean food that is being prepared on the street. Of course I don't eat street meat, and I generally indulge in things that look clean.

But hey~ I'm feeling very comfortable here, and I have had about a million inoculations. And NO, I will never take anything like the malaria prophylactic drugs.

I don't believe in taking antibiotics for a disease I don't have. That seems as insane as going to war over a threat that might exist. Ahem.

In conclusion, I take risks, yes. Measured and calculated risks. I love my life quite deeply, and plan on doing it for at least another 90 years.

Finally, medical science has a cure for almost everything! Let us rejoice.

Loving you all from stinking, sweltering, honk-a-thon Bombay.

Hope you are all well.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Bombay Days & Nights

Oh, if I was a better blogger, perhaps I would regale you with images and words that would make you swoon, paint a picture of the chaotic smorgasborg of saris, incense and auto rickshaws that is Bombay...but I'm tired.

Bombay is in many ways less overwhelming than I expected it to be. We've spent some time exploring Dharavi, the "biggest slum in Bombay" in order to gain a deeper understanding of informal settlements.

It does not look anything like what the word "slum" implies. There are no tar-paper shacks, it is no slumping shantytown precariously perched on a mountainside littered with filth. No. It is nothing like that. It is, in fact, a really ingenius town, complete with running water, paved roads, and every sort of service and good you could imagine anyone wanting or needing.

Sure, there are goats and chickens wandering around, but that is normal for S.E. Asia. If anything, (as one of my colleagues noted) it is a perfect example of urban people living a rural lifestyle.

Unlike the rest of Bombay, Dharavi is not dusty, and it is cool and quiet compared to the craziness of the streets in the city proper. Yes, there is a creek running through it that is choked with shit and trash. But there is an incredible plastic recycling industry, a tanning and leather manufacturing industry, a food industry and a ceramic industry all INSIDE the "slum."

Their biggest problem is that their land is very valuable, and developers are planning a "slum rehabilitation" program that will destroy their way of life while moving them into high-rise apartments. This is supposed to magically make them middle class. Apparently these people have never seen "the projects" in America that have miserably failed to accomplish these goals.

A couple of my colleagues and I have made friends with a family in Dharavi, and are going to have dinner with them tonight (not for the first time).

My ideas about poverty have been deeply challenged by my experiences here.

In other news--you would all be horrified to know that between Sri Lanka and India I have broken all of the travel rules (drinking tap water, eating fresh vegetables, eating street food, drinking street drinks with ice) and yet I seem to be healthier than ever.

Life is beautiful, and exhausting.

And I love you all very much.

If you want to see some amazing images of Bombay, you should visit my new friend's blog here:

Akshay says it beter in pictures than I possibly could in words...