I’m happy to report that I arrived safely in Mumbai, India early Wednesday, around 12:30 AM India time. It was a 30-hour trip, starting from when my husband dropped me off at Logan Airport in Boston to when the flight touched down in India. I’ve had little sleep the past two days and I caught my daughter’s cold the day before I left, so I am not feeling like my best self. Regardless, I am thrilled to be here.
The trip was, despite its distance, surprisingly easy. I flew on British Airways from Boston to London, changing for a second flight to Mumbai. The flights were on time—early even in the case of the Boston to London flight. My luggage arrived with me. The driver arranged by the conference organizers was waiting for me outside the arrivals door at the airport, and he brought me to my hotel safely. While I’m not sure what time I got to my room, I fell asleep around 2:30 AM.
I woke up to a hazy day; the sky is overcast in Mumbai, a phenomenon that can be attributed to the pollution here. More than 20 million people live in Mumbai, which is nearly the same amount as live in all of Australia. Mumbai is the financial capital of India and home to Bollywood, India’s very own version of Hollywood.
I’m reading a great book about India while on this trip: “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta, an Indian expat living in the US. It’s all about modern-day Mumbai, from politics and crime to sanitation and poverty. Heartbreaking and disturbing, it’s giving me a better understanding of this metropolis than I would have gleaned from my guidebook and the quick forays I’ll be taking around the city. I highly recommend reading a book or books about the place you’re visiting while there.
This morning, I grabbed a quick breakfast at my hotel and then set off in a taxi through the city and down Marine Drive (passing by a cricket game in progress!) to check out the Gateway of India, a monument in South Mumbai built by the British to commemorate a 1911 visit to India by King George V and Queen Mary. The Gateway, an arch that overlooks the Arabian Sea, is a busy spot for tourists. It was very crowded when I arrived, and I was approached many times by people selling ferry rides, postcards, tours, and blessings. I didn’t stay very long but managed to grab some quick pictures before heading into the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel across the street for tea.
My guidebook advised not missing out on tea at the Taj, and I’ll agree it was well worth it. I sat in the quiet and serene Sea Lounge, overlooking the Arabian Sea, drinking a truly delicious pot of the hotel’s special blend of tea. I might have stayed all day if given the chance. But the urge to explore beckoned so off I went!
My destination was Kala Ghoda, the arts district of the city. The map indicated (or so I thought) it was about four or five blocks away. Well, I got turned around and ended up someplace else, a residential area. Thanks to my trusty Google maps app (yes, my iPhone works here!), I found my way to Kala Ghoda. I didn’t mind getting lost – it seemed like a right of passage for this traveler – and I did not feel unsafe. When I finally arrived at Kala Ghoda, however, I was in for a surprise: I hadn’t realized that, since it was Election Day, all of the museums were closed. By this time, I was fairly worn out, so I grabbed a taxi to return to my hotel. There I took a swim in the pool, and did some work in my hotel room before turning in for the night, jet lag having set in something fierce.
It was a fairly low-key day for me; normally, I like to explore and see many things when I am in a new place. But Mumbai is intense – and I needed to take care of me. Today, the conference I am here to attend begins, and I need to have to be able to engage and participate.
Other observations from my first day in India:
- It is hot here. Hot. Hot like Florida in August when the humidity is 250%. When I returned to my hotel after being outside for several hours, I looked like I had been in a rainstorm I was so flushed and sweaty from the weather. The residents of Mumbai, however, didn’t look like they were sweating at all, despite being in long pants and shirts or saris (people don’t wear shorts here unless they are in the gym).
- The extremes of Mumbai are unsettling. My hotel is attached to a swanky shopping mall where you can pick up a Chanel suit or a $1,000 handbag. Yet, around the corner and along my taxi rides, I saw the decrepit places people live. When my taxi stopped at a red light, a pretty little girl in a pink dress ran up to the window, begging for money and chocolate. I gave her 10 rupees, which is about 16 cents in the US. And then I felt bad all the way back that I hadn’t given her more. The discrepancy between wealth and poverty here is, in some ways, unbelievable.
- The women are dressed in the most beautiful saris! It really is such a pleasure to see their brightly colored textiles. And they looked much cooler than me in my cotton t-shirts and jeans!
- People have been friendly, welcoming, and helpful. I haven’t felt unsafe, though I wouldn’t walk around by myself at night, especially since I so easily got turned about today.
Mumbai, so far, feels familiar and yet completely unknown. Familiar in that it reminds me of other developing countries I’ve visited, with their unnerving juxtaposition of explosive growth and desperate inequity. And, yet, the language, customs, and geography are unfamiliar and I am so clearly not of this place.
I am always awed in new places – especially this one – by how vast the world is beyond me, how I can fly 7600 miles away and be someplace so different from where I am from. There’s a responsibility in that, too. A responsibility to honor that which is unique about this place and take that knowledge with me, so I might be a better global citizen, a better steward of the resources I so abundantly have, and a better parent to the children I hope to raise to be kind and open to others.
Ah, I’m philosophical in the midst of my jet lag! More soon, I hope, about the rest of my trip.