It really is a small world. On my first morning in Mumbai, I met up with a friend from Seattle, Gayatri, who is here on a Clinton Fellowship with the American Indian Foundation. She and some of her colleagues generously took it upon themselves to make sure my first day here was a memorable one.
We set out for the Bandra train station where we purchased one way tickets to the southern most station in Mumbai for 9 rupees each (about 15 cents). Since it was Sunday, the trains were relatively uncrowded and the ride was my first insight into the pure enormity of this city. We got to Churchgate station and grabbed a cab through the streets of South Mumbai and down to the Gateway of India, the southern most tip of the city. I blindly followed the group through large crowds and down onto a boat that was to take us to Elephanta Island – about 6 miles off the coast.
The boat ride (was incredibly slow and sometimes we weren’t sure we were actually moving forward) opened my eyes to the pollution and waste produced by masses of people and nearby oil refineries. The Arabian Sea was covered in trash. When we reached the island about 90 minutes later, we hopped across 4 other boats to step foot on the island. It was hot. The trek up towards the caves left us all drenched in sweat, but it was certainly worth it. The Elephanta Caves are series of rock cut stone sculptures, representing both Hindu and Buddhist figures, that date back to as early as the 5th century.
Back down the side of the mountain, we stopped for a “cold” Kingfisher beer and a snack of some vegetable dishes, rice and roti bread. The combination of a snack, beer and the fact that it was the middle of the night in Seattle, left me in and out of sleep on the boat ride back. I didn’t miss the outline of the Mumbai skyline as the sun was setting – barely visible through the smog – reminding me how big this city really is.
Back at the Gateway of India, we stopped in to see the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower – a high end hotel and one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. This extravagant hotel seems to demonstrate the incredible contrast between rich and poor here in Mumbai, as right outside of it’s doors the reality of poverty are staring you right in the face.
We made the trek back to Bandra, stopping at a popular shopping street before I hopped on an “auto” with Katie, one of the AIF Fellows, to head back to my hotel. Katie and I thought about how to describe an auto and came up with something like, “a three-wheeled scooter the size of a small golf cart with a metal top.” They are everywhere and create absolute chaos on the street. At one point, our driver ran a red light and nearly collided with a motorbike, causing Katie and I to lunge forward into the metal bar in front of us. “Typical,” Katie says to me as she bickers with the driver in her impressive ability to speak Hindi. It took nearly an hour in traffic to travel the 2 miles back to my hotel.
I’m not sure taking a shower and getting into bed ever felt SO good. Yet I couldn’t help think about the thousands of people I had seen that might never in their life get a hot shower and a soft bed to climb into at the end of the day.
I look forward to getting to work Monday with my Mumbai-based colleague, Natasha, and learning more about the NGO sector here in India and what is being done to combat the volume of poverty in this city and others around the country.