The Madness of Arriving in India

Women in Line for Food outside a Hindi Temple

Everywhere I looked, it was pure madness. Cars driving an inch away from each other, men with orange hair, huge bazaars filled with everything you could dream of—junk and treasure, well heeled ladies strolling in explosions of colored cloth past naked children defecating in the streets.

Then there were the masses. Dear god, the number of people. They seemed to materialize out of the woodwork. On a square kilometer basis, it seems like are as many people walking around in downtown New York as in Mumbai. But in Mumbai, all those people exist in a state of chaos, directionless. The sidewalks are overflowing with small illegal stands, the traffic signals seemed nominal, and every alleyway contained some new line of tiny stores that were as packed as the next. I couldn’t bring myself to take the city’s pulse, to get a sense for where everyone was going and why. I could not, in fact, bring myself to understand how a population could operate this way in perpetuity. None of what they did made sense to me; I gave up wondering and focused on just keeping my head above the water.

Perhaps the greatest cultural trauma came from the trains. The cars are so packed that on more than one occasion, I could feel the heartbeats of those in front of me on my chest. As the train rolled out the station, the outside of the group was pushing against the bulkhead and yelling; the doors remain open, and they were too close to the open edge. Everbody squirms and flexed their chest, as if the pectoral muscles would be enough to give room for a full lung of air. When that failed, many simply closed their eyes to espace the train into their head. It didn’t last very long. By the next station, the violent crowds would rush the train again, and the sumo match would begin where everyone battled for their right to breathe and commute.

Indian men lean out of the second class car near Mumbai Central.

But when the crowds did subside enough for calm thought, among the greatest joys I have taken in this trip is hanging out those doors. With my toes on the edge of the car and my fingers dug deeply into the rain channel above the door, I could watch the posts flash by and feel the warm tropical air pass over me. When the train passed on the opposing track, it passed to close I could feel its vibrations, could have hi fived the guys leaning out on the other side, and it gave me this huge sense of excitement and exhileration. It was like whooooppeeee!

I had this huge little kid grin on my face as I leaned out the door. It was real sense of adventure. Like Damn! India! I’m here! And I could smell the spice and the woodsmoke from the slums and the sewage all mixed together, and see the bright colors and gold on the women walking next to the train track, and hear the train from the outside because I was allowed to ride on whatever damn part of it I wanted, and it was this great big cocktail of exotic that I couldn’t drink down fast enough. That train made me feel like an explorer.

We certainly are outsiders here. This is the first time I’ve been anywhere that my skin is looked upon as a curiosity and as a status symbol. I haven’t been in India long enough to know what kind of status that is. But when Chris and I are biking, sometimes a rickshaw or motorcycle will pull up next to us and stay there, driving slow and staring at us for a full minute. They don’t say anything, they just stare. When Chris and I bought breakfast this morning, we were mobbed by a group of 30 school children, who crowded in a group around us. We didn’t quite know how to handle it.

We stayed in Mumbai 9 days, and we needed every minute of it just to adjust to India. The culture shock exhausted me. There was simply too much to take in. The excitement and the food and the endless close contact got me pretty sick, sick enough that I spent two days fasting and recovering in the lovely home our second Couchsurfing host, Anu Sharma.

Now were headed down to Bangalore, armed with a little bit more knowledge, though probably no where near enough for what we will encounter when we find shelter in the villages. Just keeping our heads above water, keeping things moving forward, is a massive task. We’ll get there in 10 days, hopefully with a little more wisdom on how to navigate this colorful, beautiful, difficult country.

A gathering around a pot of veggie masala on the street

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