Mumbai Madness: Part I

It was Christmas day, Sunday, and we got an early start. The streets were quiet with only a few shops open for business. The rest sat sleepily with their metal doors closed to the world. Our first stop was at a small stall that sold snacks and fresh fruit juice. We got a watermelon juice, and it was an even better way to start the day than coffee. We watched as the men behind the counter discussed something heatedly while one guy chopped up our watermelon. Into the juicer it went and out came our breakfast.
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Then we started out for the Gateway of India. I didn’t know much about it, just that it was a place listed in the guidebooks. After walking for a while, we realized we were going the wrong way. We had passed people sleeping on the sidewalks, bright silver carriages, and children bathing outside of their metal shelters. A black and yellow taxi took us to the Gateway for 100 Rupees, it should have cost less than 50. The area of the Gateway was much different than the area we were staying in, near our motel, Traveller’s Inn (more on that crazy place later). They say India is a land of stark contrast, and although it sounds cliche, it couldn’t be more true. On the same street that you see a Hermes shop, you will see women and children with no shoes begging for money. There are malls filled with diamonds and rubies in the midst of slums filled with rubbish and goats. It was shocking to see, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the city formerly known as Bombay.

However, as the sun began to warm the city streets, Mumbai started to grow on me. We arrived to the gateway of India and realized it was a sea port, hence the name. It was packed with families, one of which paid a photographer to take a photo with B and I in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel. We strolled along the boardwalk and were asked to buy everything from peanuts to giant balloons. We were approached by many taxi drivers who offered to take us on a tour of the city, all of whom we refused. We were going to find something to eat when again we were approached by a taxi driver. His name was Munna, he was tall, young, and had a very kind smile. There was something about him we liked, so we changed our plans and went with Munna.
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Our first stop was Nairiman Point, the commercial area where all of the money was made, then it was to the famed Chowpatty Beach with banyan trees and yellow sand. A nice place to have a picnic, but I wouldn’t swim there. Then it was off to Jain Temple. There we met a boy who loved chocolate, and was so adorable that B just had to buy him some, and a Santa hat too. It was Christmas after all. The boy beamed a missing tooth smile and waved goodbye, clutching his gold wrapped chocolates.
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Inside the temple, worshippers lit incense, rang bells, made patterns out of rice and flower petals, and prayed to their Gods. One of the things that is clearly evident here is religion, a stark contrast to predominately atheist China. Throughout the day we drove past many temples, churches, and mosques with people lined up for what seemed like miles, all for the chance to pay their respects to their various Gods. When we asked Munna if he was Hindu, he said yes, then added, “We are all red. Hindu, blood red. Muslim, blood red. Christian, blood red. There is only one great God in the sky.” We agreed.
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After that we drove to the Hanging Garden, so named because under it lies a huge body of water that keeps the gardens green and lush. Huge families sat and had picnics of naan and rice, couples walked hand in hand, and groups of young men roved about. Everyone smiled at us, and sometimes said, "Hello!" often nodding in the truly unique Indian way, not shaking, not nodding, but somewhere in between. At one point, a group of children stood in front of us with their cellphones poised for action. "Can I take a photo?" they asked, one after another, grinning huge grins and talking to their friends excitedly. Of course, we could not refuse, and one after another the children took their best shots. "What is your name?" "Oh, that is a very nice name!" "where are you from?" "Oh America!" We felt like Bollywood celebrities, if only for a moment.
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Next, we went to Malabar Hill, another nice park filled with nice people. There you could find the best viewpoint in the city. We perched for a photo and then followed Munna back to the taxi. We drove for a couple of moments, then he pointed to the crows circling overhead. “See those? They are over the Tower of Silence. No one can go there except Persians. Their bones go in the tower, and the rest is for the birds.” As we drove past, I could not ignore the stench of death.

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Our last stop was the biggest laundry washing area in all of Asia. We looked over the wall at hundreds of concrete tubs filled with brown water. Men and women, old and young, painstakingly scrubbed shirt collars, bed sheets, jeans, saris, and tablecloths. Heaps of fabric hung in the heat of the day like colored flags.

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There is a definite sense of urgency in this city. As you walk along the alleyways and crowded streets, you can feel the fear and desperation clinging to your skin. With the political unrest, poverty, and violent outbursts, it is no wonder it feels this way. The city doesn’t pause, not even for a moment, as if doing so would bring it closer to the great God in the sky. The ominous black and cawing crows sense it, and day after day they circle the city, waiting for it to stop breathing.

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